Investing in Traditions That Travel Well


Life abroad is a trade off isn’t it?  You give some things up.  You get some things back.

Some would call it a sacrifice which is perfectly accurate for so many.  I prefer the term investment for myself.  Both start with letting go of something but a sacrifice let’s go with no expectation or hope for return.

Truly and entirely selfless.  Those people are my heros.


I’m getting way too much out of this to think that I have genuinely sacrificed anything (especially in comparison to those people).  I’ve given things up but I’m an investor and frankly the returns are phenomenal.

To be clear — I’m not talking money here.

My investment has been comfort, connection and confidence.

I’ve given up things like a room full of power tools, a bathroom that doesn’t smell like raw sewage and literacy.  Those are trivial compared to the relational investments — sure would be nice to drop the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the day.

I’m whining a bit but I’m not complaining.  The returns are not lost on me — I’m getting a bottomless adventure, a network of close friends from every continent (except Antarctica), kids who will never be held back by words like, “that’s too far to travel”, free language lessons with every taxi ride, fabulous family selfies, street food that would make your head spin and a chance to live out my calling every single day.

Seriously — not complaining — but I do miss my family.  Especially this time of year.  

The holiday season has me thinking about traditions.  Are they an investment or a sacrifice?

I feel like many expats buy into the idea that when you live abroad you have to check your traditions at the airport.  Just put them on pause until you get back “home”.  A total sacrifice on the altar of “that’s not an option here”.

I don’t buy it.

Traditions, for the expat (and the repat), are one of the great opportunities for something solid in a life which is otherwise incessantly marked by change.  Adaptation is required to be sure.  Adjustment is essential.  You can’t do this without some tweaks and twerks and modifications but rock solid traditions are worth the investment.

My family needs that.  I need that.

So I’m investing in a solid set of traditions (holiday and otherwise) that can remain constant here, there or anywhwere.

sidenote: Twerks are probably less essential to this process than tweaks and modifications.  Please consult a doctor before you include twerking in your family traditions.  Please also consult your family.  

When you squeeze the old, stable customs through the filter of expat realities you end up with a set of TRAVELING TRADITIONS that can go with you wherever you land.

I’m working on mine and here are some things that I’m considering:

Traveling Traditions should focus on people not places. 

We don’t have the luxury of going to Grandmother’s house every year let alone going over the same river or through the same woods.  Our stability will likely never be a place.  It is people (namely us).

Traveling Traditions should be focused on what “can always” instead of what “can here”.

Every true tradition must be held to the test . . . could we still do this if we lived in Dubai or Moscow or Bangkok or Atlantis?  If not then it always runs the risk of extinction with the next move . . . or the one after that.

Traveling Traditions should be focused on small and not large.

Ornaments travel.  Trees, not so much.  We are mobile people.  Our traditions should not be tethered to “things” that cannot move with us.

Traveling Traditions are more likely to need “translating” than simply “transplanting”.

Traditions probably won’t ever move seamlessly between spots on the planet but discovering how to convert the heart of the old into a new location or culture is worth some thought.  sidenote: something is always lost in translation which does not render it unworth translating.

Traveling Traditions should be firmly flexible. 

I am 100% dead set, unflinchingly convinced and resolved that our traditions will move forward according to our plan, absolutely . . . until they don’t.  Then I’ll be flexible.  We’re expats so we’ve already learned something about flexibility.  It keeps us from breaking.

Traveling Traditions should break the time-space continuum.

20 years from now I want my kids to finish the sentence, “When I was a child my parents always made us ______________”.   Then I want them to wrack their brains figuring out how they’re going to get their families to love it as much as they did.

We have a wonderfully challenging, beautifully transient life.  Things change regularly and rapidly even when we don’t go anywhere.  We make more friends than we ever dreamed we would, engage more cultures than we even knew existed and say more goodbyes than we ever signed on for.

Considering the fact that pretty much everything changes on a regular basis for the average expat  . . . something needs to stay the same.

Traditions are worth the investment but they are certainly not without return.

What have you learned about maintaining your traditions in a constantly changing life?  

What are your favorite Traveling Traditions?

Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and are thinking that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they need to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You’ll see them around just after Christmas.

Fetal position.

More homesick than ever.

Pricing airfare again.

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.


Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.


So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads it looks like this.


It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.


Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).


Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.


Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:


ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.


TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.


THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.


FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.


FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.


SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.


SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you go home for Christmas (or otherwise detach) it COULD do something like this to your transition.


So what?

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.


But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.


There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.


originally posted on The Culture Blend

Why Expats Love Community and Struggle to Find it Again

I love me some community. Who doesn’t? Am I right?

It’s one of those super-slick buzz words that makes every experience sound better.

“Yeah, we live in a mud hut, have no internet, eat tree moss and get malaria twice a year . . . but the sense of community is amazing. “

“Heck yeah. Sign me up.”

It is by far what expats love most about their life abroad and what they (oh so naively) think they can reproduce when they go home — so they try . . . diligently . . . but they fail . . . miserably.

What’s up with that?

Why is it so hard to recreate that magical sense of camaraderie and connection that seems effortless over there?


I have a theory. Here it is.


Expat community rises and falls on two key ingredients.


Let me put it a different way.


Community happens when incompetent people get mashed together.


It’s how we know we’ve arrived — we need each other in ways that we could never imagine on our home turf.

Simple stuff.

Stupid stuff.

Incredibly uncomplicated, previously no-brainer stuff that we mastered at the age of five is suddenly and painfully beyond our grasp.

Stuff like buying toothpaste.

And using toilets.

And saying words.

We instantly feel like bumbling idiots so we lean on anyone who can empathize. They point us in the right direction and the seeds of community are planted.

They explain the difference between green tea and mint toothpaste — we have a laugh and share a story. They explain the hazards and strategies of local toilets and we find ourselves talking about things that we haven’t even shared with our best friends.

Relationships go deeper quicker because our conversations are fueled by vulnerability.

No one says it out loud — “Hey I’m a bumbling idiot and you seem like a slightly less bumbling idiot, think you could help me out here?” — but that’s the field where community grows.

We huddle up — and we help each other — because we would fall apart if we didn’t.

We move forward together and learn to function at varying degrees of competence but all of us (even the long time vets) are operating at a fraction of the functionality of the average local person.

And THAT my friends, is where the magic happens. Somewhere along that path we actually start loving it to the point that we CHOOSE neediness over self-sufficiency — and it makes perfect sense to everyone around. Why in the world would you go to the store for eggs when your neighbor has nine in their fridge?

It’s a solid system.

And we love it.

So much so that we long for it wherever we go, especially back “home” — but “home” is a different reality.

You’re not a bumbler there.

Scratch that. You’re not supposed to be a bumbler there. You speak the language, you know the culture, you’re HOME for crying out loud . . . which makes the incompetence upon returning all that much more painful.

It’s a shared ache for so many global “returnees” . . . “I miss my community.”

So then, we (oh so naively) come blazing back into our old world armed with our new discoveries, fully prepared to fix the less enlightened . . .  if they would just listen . . . and do everything we tell them . . . and buy houses on the same block . . . and share eggs.

We tend to skip straight to the glorious comradery because we have long since forgotten the mashup of incompetence. It’s not hard to sell but it is nearly impossible to deliver. It’s a slow, painful realization that the whole world doesn’t want to reorganize their lives around our epiphanies about community. People don’t choose incompetence if there are other options and now you have jumped back into the land of the Non-Needies.

It’s awkward for competent, fully functioning, proudly autonomous people to ask for help. Why would you do that?

Go get your own eggs.

The natural consequence of competence is independence which is the flip side of community.

Write this down.

In any transition, it is unfair to compare the end of the last thing to the beginning of the new thing.

It just is.

But we do anyway.


Three simple thoughts and I’ll shut up:


This is your story — but it’s not ONLY your story. Consider the other angles and the perspectives of the people around you.

Go easy on the unenlightened — transition tends to inflate our sense of “rightness” and make it easy to judge the one’s who “don’t get it.”

Be patiently persistent —  Great community CAN happen again. It will look different (it has to). It may take longer — but it’s worth the intentionality to never give up.

originally posted on The Culture Blend

8 Things I Forget to Love About A Life Overseas


I’d like to say that it’s not lost on me but sometimes it is . . . the whole life overseas thing. 

I’ve been at it long enough that most of the cross-cultural bloggy stuff (mine included) seems like it’s for someone else. I went through the stages of grief and the culture shock continuum. I came through the dip and here I am.

I’m on the other side and it’s normal . . . this is my life . . . I’m still a foreigner but it’s not weird anymore.

My everyday existence plays out in a place that most people (where I come from) would never dream of going. If they did it would be the trip of a lifetime.

Honestly, for me, some days, the most exciting part of my day is taking the trash out.

Chinese food is just food here (in China). Life abroad is just life.


Here are the things I forget to love

ONE: I forget to love the high culture

I’ve seen the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Soldiers. I’ve walked through the Forbidden City and I have blown things up on Chinese New Year. That all feels a bit worn out and touristy at this point . . . but I forget how rich the heritage of this place is. Every high culture relic and overdone tourist trap has a deep history and a million stories — and there is so much more to learn.


TWO: I forget to love the bumbling language mistakes

My first day in China I rode the bus halfway across the city to tell the girl at Pizza Hut that I wanted to pray. I was trying to say I wanted my pizza to go. We had a good laugh about that. We laughed a lot back then. I even wrote about it.

Confessions of a Language Faker


You Want Birds With That?

How Not to Get 28 Enormous Hickeys on Your Back

It was funny — but it’s been a while since I added any new bumbling language stories to my journal. I’d love to say that’s because my Chinese is so outstanding that I don’t make mistakes anymore but there are 1.4 Billion witnesses around who know that’s not true.

They still laugh at me why can’t I?


THREE: I forget to love the people that I came to love

Back in the day EVERYONE was fascinating. The old men playing cards in the park. The little kids who grabbed their mother by the skirt and shouted “foreigner!” when I walked by.

I’m thrilled to be out of the wide-eyed tourist mode where every face is facebook fodder  . . . “Waaah look! a real live Chinese person. Take a picture.”

I’m happy that to me they have become real people — people with back stories and challenges and aspirations and issues — but sometimes in real life, I just ignore real people.

I miss the wonder. The intrigue. The curiosity about what they see and think when they look back at me.



FOUR: I forget to love the crazy stuff that would have never ever happened in a million years

My son recently performed at a political summit for the President of China . . . and Vladmir Putin . . . and Prime Minister Modi of India and the heads of State for THIRTEEN other nations.

That’s him in the yellow.

He got his picture taken with Zhang Yimou, the Stephen Spielberg of China and the director of the famous 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.


How does that even?

Stuff like that never happened in Decatur, Illinois.

This life overseas has given us a world of surreal experiences  . . . and sometimes I forget to pause and say, “wow.”


FIVE: I forget to love the people who will be gone soon

It’s the big nasty part of this overseas life. People leave. A lot.

Sometimes that becomes such a normal part of this whole thing that I get numb to it. I forget (or more likely neglect) to make the most of the moments that are about to fly away.


SIX: I forget to love the food

Here we just call it food but we could also call it authentic — legit — and downright amazing compared to the overcooked, over gravied, flourescent orange “International Buffet” style “Chinese Food” (those are finger quotes) slopped into a stainless steel trough and served under hot lights with a fortune cookie . . . WHICH IS NOT CHINESE!!

Those places serve only to remind me how good I’ve got it.

SEVEN: I forget to love my kids TCKness

I wrestled through the rootlessness and the restlessness early on. Came to grips with it. Found my peace as a parent.

When I was Your Age — An Expat Dad’s Note to His Kids

I fell in love with the whole concept of Third Culture Kids and the beauty that comes from a life overseas — but like most things I love I go through phases of taking them for granted. In the context of homework and messy rooms, I forget to remember that good things — solid things — incredible, deep, global things are being built into their framework because we live how we live.


EIGHT: I forget to love the adventure

I should clarify. This would be an adventure no matter where we lived. There is nothing superior about a life overseas — but this is OUR story. It’s filled with highs and lows. Mystery and intrigue. Heroes and villains in far off places and tons of selfies.

Sometimes I forget that because . . . life.

This story is amazing — even in the most mundane, normal, painfully uneventful moments.



They are funny things . . . love and forgetfulness. The good news is that memory can be jogged and all it takes is one special reminder.

This life is SO rich. So full. So worth loving.

Try not to forget that but if you do . . . try to remember.


Rethinking Transition Time (it doesn’t have to be time lost)

Times of transition are hard. That’s not new information.


We have training for this. Brochures. Books. Blogs.

It’s all good information that helps you push through the hard times but even for the shrewdest, sharpest most well trained serial expats, time spent figuring out a new normal can feel like time lost . . . or stolen.

The Newby fog is only mitigated by one thing.


It gets better.


They tell you that at the training. You believe it six to twelve months later.


Two quick disclaimers


ONE: There is no universal timeframe for “transition”. You’re not magically through it at six months nor are you required to feel it in any specific way. Every experience is different and each one is filled with variables and nuance.

TWO: Transition is NOT something that ONLY happens when you move from one place to another. Global lives are filled with transition whether you move or not.

But just for the sake of the point lets do some math.


If you spend six months at the beginning and end of every major life change in some kind of limbo it looks something like this.

You ramp up to the airplane and then you ramp down. The chaos gets more intense around the big move and it takes a while for it to level out.

Now let’s say you do that once every five years for 30 years.

Sidenote — If you’re not (or have never been) an expat those numbers may sound ridiculous. “Who would do that?! That sounds horrible.” If you are an expat you may have trouble remembering the last time you stayed in one place for five years. You are both normal. 

Just for the sake of the math . . . let’s say that’s you — that means you would have spent SIX YEARS in the fog of transition. That’s a LOT of time lost.


Here are five ways to shift that paradigm and salvage time that would otherwise be lost. 



Life is frustrating when you have no furniture and only one fork — but those are the magic moments. That’s the stuff that you’ll talk about 20 years from now. It takes time to get settled. It won’t stay that way forever. But while it lasts enjoy the picnics on the living room floor.



You already know how important it is to maintain your existing traditions. That’s what they tell you at the seminar. However, if consistent change is going to be a staple in your life then it makes sense to build your list of traditions specifically for times of change. Hang your family photo on the wall on the first night. Have jet lag parties. Make a big deal out of buying forks.

Get creative but do it every time.



Transition feels like the time between times. The adjustment phase between the real stuff. Try reframing your thinking to allow it to be a time of it’s own. Have conversations early about what Limbo will look like. Don’t reduce this sacred time to, “we’re gonna’ make it through this” or “it will be better when . . .” Let Limbo be a destination and enjoy it while you’re there.



They have seminars for this too. People pay a ton of money to learn how to reduce the clutter in their lives. Empty your closets. Trim the fat. Turn down the noise. Simplification is a counterintuitive discipline that most people find hard to embrace but love when they do. Good news — Times of transition are natural simplifiers. Don’t get too eager to restock everything you let go of to move. Take your time replacing all of the busyness of your former, more settled life.



I know it sounds cooky and cliche but it is SO packed with truth.

Words are powerful.

It’s not magic, it’s just the reality that you will be a character in the narrative that you speak out loud. If “Transition” is an excuse for you, you will constantly find a reason to place that blame. If you “can’t wait to be settled”, you’ve already prescribed yourself to be miserable until you are. If you say you “hate being the newby” . . . you will.

Don’t lie about it but don’t forget to tell the other side of the truth as well.

“We have gotten good at transition.”

“We make the best of the hard stuff.”

“We own jet lag!”


If transitions are (or you anticipate that they will be) an ongoing, significant part of your life, don’t settle for the lie that those months are a lost cause.


Reclaim your transition time.


An Expat Husband’s Manifesto


You know that thing that happens where expats bop all over their home country in the summertime and find themselves stuck in airports getting ready to board a plane on the same day they’re supposed to write for


That’s me . . . right now.

So here’s a repost and a promise for something fresher next time.

Originally posted on The Culture Blend

Spoiler alert for the young and in love . . . marriage is hard.

One more for anyone considering a life abroad. That’s hard too.

You read it here first.

My wife and I have been living both of those realities for a good, long time and to be honest we thought we were pretty solid on both.  Oh we knew they were hard (we crossed those bridges ages ago) but we’ve pushed through that part.  We’ve survived BOTH honeymoon phases and the crashes that followed.  We’ve learned (through repeated trial and even more repeated error) how to be on different pages and stay in the same book.  We’ve set up systems for everything from fighting better fights to dealing with my crazy travel schedule.

We’re good at this.  That’s what we thought.

Until we found out that we’re not.

Here’s the thing — we recently discovered that our brilliant systems have been skillfully (if not consciously) crafted for the sole purpose of protecting us from the hard stuff.

We call a “time out” when things get heated to protect ourselves from saying stupid things that we don’t really mean (man, I wish we had known how to do that in our first year).  We “switch modes” when Daddy travels so she can focus on home and I can focus on work (because both of those are really important).

They’re not BAD plans . . . but they’re not enough either.

Our systems protect us.  They have us playing good, solid defense but the best case scenario in any ALL defensive endeavors is that you break even . . . and breaking even only happens when your defense is perfect.  Ours is not.

We want more than a break even marriage AND we want more than a so-so life abroad.

So here is my Expat Husband’s Manifesto 


My wife will be my first choice.

I am blessed.  Super blessed.  Hyper blessed.  Hashtag blessed with good friends.  I genuinely feel guilty sometimes when I think about the number of BFF’s that I have all over the world and I absolutely love spending time with them.  They are worth every long trip and every late night.

But my wife will ALWAYS be the one that I pursue the hardest, invest the most in and sacrifice more for.


I will connect when we are disconnected.

I won’t turn our relationship off when we are apart.  I won’t “check in” periodically but I will work so she knows that I have never checked out.  I’ll tell her when something funny happens.  I’ll let her in when I’m stressed out.  I’ll text her pictures of things that remind me of her and I’ll do my dead level best with those emoji things.

If she is out of sight I will be intentional about keeping her in my mind.



I will make it real.

There are so many things in my head that rarely make it through my mouth.  I will work to change that.  She is so incredible.  So beautiful.  So smart.  So creative.  So fun.  So many things that go unsaid and consequently never become real.  I will choke the assumption that she already knows what my brain is thinking.

I will turn my best thoughts and my heartfelt intentions into tangible, touchable realities.



I will close the gap.

I travel for work.  She stays home.  I’m the extrovert.  She’s the inny.  I go places and I meet people and they become a part of my world.  She has never seen those places or met those people.  There is a whole part of my life that is a blurry fog to her.

We’re going to close that gap together.  Not all at once and not in huge overwhelming doses but over time and as we are able I am going to take her to the far off places and connect the faces to the names.


I will get the order right.

Our marriage does not exist inside of our life abroad — or my job — or even our family.  On the contrary, our lives together are the setting for all of the rest of it.  The traveling, the adventures, the bumbling foreigner stories, the good things and the hard things are all side plots in a bigger story.  Our story.

We could lose our visas tomorrow.  “THIS THING” that we are doing could change a hundred times but we will still be doing this thing together.



I will stay on course.

We have set our trajectory towards “old and gray.”  We have unanimously decided that, as we grow old, we want to do MORE of our lives together instead of less.  We want to be THAT old couple who always go together.

We’re not there yet.  We’re still in the crazy pace, divide and conquer, you pick up the kids and I’ll stop at the veggie shop phase of life . . . but we’re pointed in that direction.  As we are able and on a consistently growing scale we are going to move towards doing more and more life together.


I will fall forward.

This would be so much better if I was already good at it.  I would love it if I could just write words in a blog post and make it all true, unshakable and resolute — but we’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s not how it works.


Until I don’t.

And then I’ll do them better the next day.


I love my wife and I love our life abroad.



I Am Not A Racist — and other things I wish I knew were true

This post originally appeared on The Culture



The Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan

Donald Trump

Bill Clinton

Malcolm X 

(and practically everyone who has ever been accused of racism)

This post is hard for me. Here’s why. 

I’m not that kind of blogger. I’m not an activist. I write about culture and raising kids abroad and what happens when you accidentally tell someone that their hindquarters are fragrant and delectable. I’m THAT guy. I have purposely and skillfully avoided the hard issues NOT because I don’t think they are important.

I steer clear because I have never considered my contribution valuable. I have opinions like EVERYONE ELSE in the world but bringing them into this conversation would be like bringing a squirt gun to a firestorm.



My labels don’t exactly lend credibility either. “Hey everybody! Pipe down, we’ve got a white, American, straight, Christian, male who has something to say about racism!”

“Gee. Great. We haven’t heard from one of those guys yet.”


But there is something rich that happens when you step away from your “home” culture and see yourself (and the world that you grew up in) through a different set of lenses. Am I right?


It’s challenging but it is good.

It hurts but it helps.

It’s alarming . . . but sometimes . . . it’s transformational.


With all of that said I think I have something to say about racists.



I might be one — but I can’t tell. Here’s why.


The word “racist” ONLY seems to show up in two forms. As an ACCUSATION — or a DENIAL. It’s never a discovery. Never a realization. Never a confession. There is zero room for nuance. Zero range. Zero spectrum.

You either are or you’re not.

It’s used exclusively in the second and third person (positively) — “YOU ARE A RACIST AND THEY ARE TOO!!”


in the first person (negatively).

“I AM NOT!!”


(take 2 minutes and 52 seconds to watch this video)


The two-sided approach produces radically different definitions.

The ACCUSER says, “Have you EVER used a term, said a word, thought a thought or acted in a way that could be considered racist? Then you must be one.”

Justin Bieber said the n-word when he was 14.

Paula Deen said it before Justin Bieber was even born.

The DENIER says, “Is any part of my life NOT racist? Then boom! I am NOT one.”

“I have Asian friends.”

“I voted for a black man.”

“I’m not as bad as that guy.”

So by the ACCUSER’S definition —  are YOU a racist?


I am (and I cried a little bit when I wrote that).


BUT as the ACCUSED I am SO quick to DENY, DENY, DENY.

My daughter is Asian.

My son is black.

Look at this picture.



How could I possibly be racist?

See how that works?


I’d love to have a different conversation. Here’s why.


“Racism” is a powerful and important word. The conversations that surround it are also important . . . in ALL of their different forms.

The venomous political debates need to happen.

The marches have changed things.

The ACCUSATIONS and the DENIALS make total sense.

AND THERE IS MORE . . . There is another side to the conversation that typically gets reduced to ashes in the firestorm.

It’s a conversation where I look at ME and not YOU.

I ask MYSELF hard questions instead of responding poorly to yours.

I come face to face with my own mess and I own it, even if I hate it.

I move forward to something better instead of being chained to my broken past.

It doesn’t start with “I AM A RACIST.” We don’t even agree on what that means. But . . .


It might go something like this.


I grew up around people who shared my labels. In my home, I was taught to love people both by instruction and example. Growing up though (although never in my family) I heard racial slurs and hateful, horrible stereotypes that formed my own prejudice. I heard banter that celebrated the misfortune of other races.

I heard “Polack jokes” before I knew that Poland was a country. I heard the term “Jewing them down” from the same people who taught me about the Jewish people in Sunday School. I heard terms like “Spick” and “Gook” and “Raghead” and “Chink” and had to ask each time which ethnicity we were talking about because I had never met any of them in real life. I listened to joke after joke that mocked the physical features, the language, the eating habits, the poverty and the crime rate of the African descended people who lived on the other side of town.

And I laughed.

I laughed because I valued the approval of people who were like me more than I valued the actual people who weren’t.

I’m sorry.

I regret all of that and it breaks me to think about it. I wish that it were not a part of my story but there is no way to untell it. Ignoring it has never made it go away.

I have grown since then. I have changed dramatically — but even now I continue to discover pieces that are packed tightly and deeply in my core that I never knew were there. Layer after layer of entitlement continue to be peeled away.

I still struggle to recognize and acknowledge the humanity of the humans around me.

But I am ready to have that conversation.

What about you?

25 Things They Don’t Put in the Life Abroad Brochure

This post is especially for those of you on the cusp of the BIG MOVE. What an exciting time, right? Packing the bags. Selling the stuff. Applying for visas. Family farewells.

There is a wealth of expectation-setting information out there and a ton of draw-you-hither messages promising the adventure of a lifetime.

“Make a difference!”

“Impact people!”

“Change the world!”

Pay attention. Soak it up. Take it in.

But just in case no one else thinks to mention them.


Here are 25 things that often get passed over on the front end.


1. Some days the most adventurous thing you’ll do is wash dishes.

It’s true. Life happens and when it does, someone still needs to clean up. Sorry.

2. You’re not the smartest person in the whole country.

Take a breath. Sit down if you need to. You will definitely FEEL like you know more than anyone around you simply because they are obviously doing EVERYTHING all wrong. Give it some time and it will become clear. Everyone is not dumb.


3. You can’t do little stuff

Like simple stuff. Easy stuff. Stuff you’ve been doing since forever. Stuff like buying cucumbers and saying words. Things you’ve taken for granted may very well seem out of reach. (Secret sauce? — give it some time)


4. You can’t do big stuff either

All the visions of grandeur that you come in packed and loaded with take time too. Here’s a tip — Learn to buy cucumbers first, then change the world.


5. You should embrace ignorance

Only (and I mean this sincerely) because you are . . . ignorant that is. Horribly. Painfully. You just don’t know — and that’s ok. In fact, it’s beautiful. You’re not supposed to know yet. You will know later . . . but NOT if you THINK you know now. Why would you even try to learn what you think you already know? Does that make sense?

Read it again.

And then embrace ignorance.


6. You were right about everything

You’ll probably notice this one right off the bat. Every stereotype. Every presupposition. Every assumption you have ever made about this place and these people is absolutely true.

Pat yourself on the back.


7. You were wrong about everything

There had to be a catch didn’t there? Keep looking. Keep watching. There is always more to it and even though your stereotypes were spot on they were also SO incomplete.

Don’t stop learning.


8. This is going to pound the snot out of everything you hold dear

Faith? Stretched. Politics? Pounded. Values? Challenged. Lenses? Changed.

Living abroad messes things up. Maybe you should have stayed home.


9. Your worst You is coming

Like really. The You that you’ve been hiding from everyone is likely to show up at some point in this endeavor. Exhaustion. Isolation. Grief. Frustration. Language barriers. Confusion. Total incompetence. They all have a way of pulling out our worst traits. If this is your main concern — skip to number 25.


10. Issues travel

Think you’re escaping your worst habits? Moving abroad to fix your marriage? Turning over a new leaf in a new country? Maybe think again.

click here to read about how moving abroad fixes all your issues . . . and other lies


11. Issues inflate

Life abroad is the great inflator. Issues not only travel with you they expand under the stress of your new normal.


12. Foreign people can be irritating

They really are. They stare. They ask ridiculous questions. They invade your space and say stupid things.


13. You’re the foreigner now

See number 12.


14. Community is addictive

There is something super-uber-rich about life in community. Needy people smashed together produce amazing relationships.

click here to find out why Expats  love community and struggle to find it again


15. Community is annoying

Needy people smashed together is also a recipe for ZERO personal space. Everybody in your business. Hard to keep a secret. “He said that she said that you said.” Brace yourself.


16. Community is really hard to reproduce

Just in case you get any fancy ideas about trying to make a carbon copy of the beautiful community that you experience when you move on to the next place . . .  you should know  . . .  every community experience is unique.

Let it be.


17. The Exodus is coming

Expats leave. A lot. Sometimes in herds. Goodbyes are a hard reality of life abroad.

click here to find out why expats hate June


18. There is nothing in the world better than a cardboard box

Goodies from home light up the whole week. Plant those seeds now in the people who are most likely to send them.


19. You can love two places

You don’t have to stop loving your passport country to love your host. Vice versa . . . multiplied by as many countries as you live in.


20. Time does not always equal wisdom

Expat veterans know stuff. But 20 years of pompous ethnocentrism is not the well you want to be drawing from. Choose your mentors wisely.


21. You’re not going to be that excited about learning a language three months from now

Learning a new language is most exciting before you begin. Push through the dip. Stick with it even when it’s the most frustrating part of your existence.


22. You’re probably going to act like an idiot

Just wrap your head around that. Tuck it away until it happens. Then come back and read the next line . . .



23. This is going to change you

You ready for that? It is. You will never be the same.


24. Time doesn’t stand still

Guess what. All those people at home . . . the ones you’re saying goodbye to. They don’t stay the same either.


25. Grace changes everything

Some days it will be all you have. If you can’t give people grace when they frustrate, irritate, annoy or otherwise bug you, you might just go crazy. If you can’t give yourself grace . . . you definitely will.

You got this.

Now . . . go change the world.



I Might Be Amish

I felt strangely Amish today . . . in a bizarre, science fiction, alternate universe, I live in China where there are no Amish people kind of way.  From now on I will be blogging by candlelight.

I grew up in a part of America that we call the Midwest.  Actually, if you look at a map, most of the “midwest” is geographically closer to the East coast but no one in that particular part of the country prefers to say they live in the Middle East . . . so we call it the Midwest.

Midwestern values are simple.  Sit up straight, don’t cuss in front of your mother, buy American and don’t stare at people.  Like all values though, there are exceptions.  For example as important as it is to buy American products (we start riots over this) it is acceptable to buy imports if and only if said imports are 1. cheaper . . .  2. better quality . . . or 3. closer to where you live.  Hence Wal-Mart . . . and Toyota  . . . and everything else.

The two exceptions to the “no staring” rule are as simple as the value itself.  

1. Staring is allowed if the person or persons being stared at are obviously unaware that the staring is taking place.  It’s a little-known fact that Midwesterners have distinctively overdeveloped neck muscles and a keen sense of peripheral vision.  The neck muscles are developed by repeated “glance aways” which is the proper response when one is caught staring.  The peripheral vision allows them to intuitively sense when it is all clear to turn back and commence staring.

2.  It is acceptable to stare if the person or persons being stared at are the exact combination of really “unique” AND not a threat to your physical well being.  Ironically “unique” can encompass a broad range of traditionally non-midwestern characteristics but non-threatening is pretty cut and dried.  For example, large tattoos on a pasty white teenager with orange hair leaning against the wall outside of the Wal-Mart smoking a Virginia Slim cigarette.  Ok to stare.  Large tattoos on a huge, bearded man with a ponytail and black leather jacket that is embroidered with a human skull and the words “Kill em’ all, let God sort em’ out” straddling a Harley Davidson, smoking a Marlboro Red . . . Look away. Determining who fits the exception and who doesn’t is complex and confusing to the outsider but for the midwesterner, it is second nature.

The Amish fit perfectly into exception number 2. 

They are a fascinating group of people who migrated to the States from Europe in the 18th century and have been led by their religious convictions to live the simple life, free of modern technology such as electricity, automobiles, telephones and iPads.  They also embrace very simplistic, non-commercial fashion guidelines similar to that of Ma, Pa and Laura from Little House on the Prairie (all of which makes them really “unique” . . . at least in the spying eyes of the common mid-westerner).  They are famous for outstanding craftsmanship, building barns in one day, long beards with no accompanying moustache and non-violent, pacifist living (which makes them non-threatening and even a little bit cuddly).

Prime for staring at.

When I was a kid we would occasionally drive through “Amish country”.  There was a giddiness that came with the trip.  My mother, who was generally the prime enforcer of the “no staring” rule, would transform into some kind of Amish marketing rep.  “We’re in Amish country Jerry . . . better look out the window we might see one . . . I wonder how many we’ll see today”.  Now that I have kids I realize that this was just a sneaky parent trick to buy a few minutes of peace and quiet but it worked like a charm, every time.  I would sit with my face pressed against the window waiting for the adrenaline rush of a big black horse and buggy.  Just being in proximity where I knew we MIGHT see a real, live Amish person was electric.  In my mind I drifted to a strange place, dreaming of how awesome it would be to live the Amish life and knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it one bit.

“There’s one!  There’s one!” It’s like we were whale watching.

Dad would slow down and as we passed I would wave as excitedly as if they had been Mickey and Minnie themselves.  They waved back with less enthusiasm than I would have expected from the Disney’s but still . . . they waved.

Several times on our recent trip to the States we had an occasion to drive through the Amish communities and the magic lives on.  The moment I would see the big yellow horse and buggy sign I would have the kids perched on their lookout.  “There’s one! There’s one!”  One day we counted eight.  Good times.

I live in a Chinese community that is also home to a lot of foreigners (like me).  While we come from all over the world most of the foreigners around here share two characteristics.  We are really “unique” and generally non-threatening.  Walking home today I saw a mother grab her daughter and playfully whisper something into her ear.  The little girl laughed and looked at me.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what the mother was saying . . . “There’s one! There’s one!”  

Nothing new.  That happens everywhere we go.  It’s the price of being “unique” and non-threatening but I wonder if it’s different around our apartment where so many the foreigners live.  Do Chinese parents elbow their kids and say, “hey we’re in foreigner country, pay attention you might see one”? Do kids keep track of how many they see?  Do they dream about what it would be like to live the life of a foreigner and know that they would never like it?

As they passed the little girl smiled and gave me the all too familiar, “HALLO!” I smiled back and with the enthusiasm of an Amish Mickey Mouse said, “HALLO!”

Sometimes its good to see myself through the eyes that I use to look at the rest of the world.  

I’m so Amish.  


this post was originally posted on The Culture Blend


How I Became the Poster Child for Swedish Families Living with HIV — And Why You Should Rethink Your Selfies

Someone recently pointed out that our picture pops up on a Google search for “blended family” (just a few spots behind the Brady Bunch).




That was a pretty cool moment.

I felt a little famous. Like the internet finally found out about the Joneses.


Then some more friends passed this little gem on to us.




Our picture had been consentlessly chosen to help people “reflect” on adoption and “how that decision might impact your life and the lives of those around you.”


I think “flattered” is probably the word that best described me at that point. Not only were we showing up on Google’s front page but someone, somewhere out there in Arkansas Cyberland went looking for photos to represent adoption and they chose us.

I love that.

I mean look at us. We scream adoption. Right?

It made up for at least half of the horrible, “picked last” moments from 5th grade gym class.


Then came this one.





Umm. Ok.

I suppose technically we’re not ACTUALLY “foreign-born step parents” and these are not ACTUALLY our “stepchildren” but hey . . . semantics, right?

That’s how it works in the modeling world . . . even though technically we weren’t ACTUALLY models and this is just our family photo that we received ZERO compensation for.



I was curious.

So I dragged our photo into the Google search bar (you can do that).

And this is what I found.


We were also the poster child for Marriage and Family Counseling.



AND “Cooperation during the holidays” (for “blended families” because it’s different for us than the “normal” families).


AND “Intensive In-Home Counseling”



And quotable quotes . . . about blended families.



And maybe my favorite . . . We represent the happiest, blended family in all of Sweden living with HIV.

I mean look at us.

We don’t even seem phased.



I sought the wise counsel of my friends and got a wide range of reactions.


“You can send them a take down notice.”

“You should get paid for that.”

“That is a violation of privacy.”

“That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”


I found myself swinging back and forth on the whole spectrum.


Flattered and violated.

Laughing and frustrated.

Ready to call a lawyer . . . or maybe just write a blog post.


And then TWO things happened.


ONE: I stumbled across this one.



Now we had become the “Not Safe for Work” representatives for in-vitro fertilization, sperm switching in which shocked, white mothers gave birth to the children of (and I quote) “random Negros.”


Before I vent I should mention — this webpage is a discussion forum. I’ve shown you the first bit and intentionally cut out the rest.


So you can see that they cropped my daughter out of the picture (because she didn’t fit the story).

But you can’t see the bit where they repeatedly use the “N-Word” about my son.

Or the part where they say “look how happy the whore is.”

Or the part where they say “Just f•••ing imagine having to resort to artificial insemination due to medical problems and your baby comes out as a f•••ing disgusting mongrel.”


Let me be clear — I don’t feel for a moment like this is about my family. These people don’t know us and the sickness in their hearts is not directed at us. They are idiots. Twisted, broken, sick, sick fools leaning on the misguided strength of perceived anonymity.


But DON’T EVER call my son a n**ger.

And DON’T EVER call my wife a whore.

And if you’re going to use my picture without my permission then DON’T crop it to fit your sick, selfish agenda.

That’s MY picture. NOT YOURS!!

I’m done venting now.


Curious about the second thing that happened? Here it is.


As I vented sarcastically via social media about our new found fame and violated personal space. Marilyn Gardener, the brilliantly, humble matriarch of dropped this bomb (which ironically, I use here without permission).





I have to admit . . . In my self-centric rant, it hadn’t crossed my mind . . . but challenge accepted.


For a brief moment, I got a tiny taste of what it is like to be dehumanized. It was genuinely non-threatening and non-fearful but it in a small way I felt exploited.




My entitlement swelled.

My “How Dare You” was ticked.

My Westerness roared.


Because somewhere, someone treated me as less than human.

Not real.

Just stock.


“Sobering” is the right word and so I’ll offer this challenge (but I’ll do it without shaming).


Please. See people as people. Even the people in your pictures. 


Don’t make them a poster child for something you don’t know they believe in.

Don’t wrap them around your agenda without their consent.

Don’t force them to represent something they don’t.

Don’t tell the story first and then find the picture.

Don’t degrade, demean, dismiss or devalue.

Look at pictures . . . and see people.

Look at people . . . and fall in love.


Here’s the “non-shaming” part.


If you’re like me you’re scanning your brain for the times that you have done EXACTLY this.


Overseas selfie.

“Look at me — I’m helping poverty.”

Grab a photo from Google.


What if instead of feeling guilty.

Or getting defensive.

Or making excuses.


You just said, “yeah, we’re all kind of figuring this out as we go?”


“But something needs to change.”


And then you stopped and pondered what you might do differently.


That’s a big step.


No pressure — but the world would be better if you took it.


Here are some resources for the pondering.


Woman’s Instagram Post About Kenyan Child Ignites Fury

How to Get More Likes on Social Media

How to Communicate to the World

White Savior Barbie is Here to Save Africa, One Selfie at a Time

The Problem With Africa Selfies

Serving Overseas? 3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take




News Pummeling: The Downside of Blissful Expat Ignorance

Am I alone here? I really don’t think I am.

Is there anyone else out there, living far away from the country listed on your passport, who has developed a strange but strong affinity for the cut-offedness of it all?

There is something legitimately tranquil about NOT being audibly and visually pummeled by every juicy tabloid scandal, every mindless political squabble, every horrible, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching headline and news flash.

It’s nice sometimes, isn’t it?

To live in the backwoods . . . or the jungle . . . or the desert . . . or a Communist Superpower.

Ignorance can truly be blissful (at least for a time) and operating at about 14% of the functionality of the average local person can have its advantages.


And let’s be honest. We’re never REALLY disconencted. The internet is always in our pocket and generally, there is someone nearby who says, “did you hear about what happened back home?” or “did you see that thing about the thing?”

It’s different though — from being pummeled.

Am I the only one who sometimes feels absolutely OVERWHELMED because they thought they might “take a few minutes to catch up” and then got BLASTED (in all caps)?

Have you ever experienced that sense of bending down to take a sip from a water fountain and then getting pinned to the wall because someone hooked it up to a fire hydrant?

You just wanted a quick drink and four hours later you’re soaked . . . and bruised . . . and somehow covered in slime.

How does that even happen?

You just thought you might check the news . . . and now you can’t breathe.

That’s me this week.

Someone said, “Hey did you hear? Billy Graham died.”

So I thought I might take a sip. Maybe read the obituary. Click a link or two.


Pummeled by the full range of highest praise for leading millions to heaven all the way to “have fun in hell.”

Someone else said, “Hey did you see? Another school shooting?”

I know there is no way to sip that one.

I was right.

Four hours later I couldn’t breathe.

I know that expats don’t own the rights to being overwhelmed by the news. It’s just overwhelming.

And now more than ever, the contempt of the polarized masses in conjunction with the venomous screams of wannabe “champions” fueled by anonymity or even worse, popularity, absolutely guarantee the overwhelm.

But is it just me or is there something unique about News Pummeling for the expat?

Don’t get me wrong — I might not be complaining.  I sure do like my moments of ignorant tranquility but the instant, sporadic, wall pinning blasts in between can be hard to take.

How do you handle it?

Connect more often?

Lower doses?

Unplug regularly?

Crawl into a hole?

Help us out — because I really don’t think I’m alone here.


How a 40 Year Old Camel Changed My Life


In the interest of integrity — the title to this post is slightly misleading.

I’ve been reading up on clickbait and I’m just trying to stay current.

Click here to catch up: 33 Clickbait Headlines for Expats — Number 12 Will Make You Gasp

The full truth is the camel (actual picture above) was only a child when he changed my life AND he was not the sole life-changer. There were others. A black pleather book bag, some cheap wooden shoes, and a one peso coin from the Phillippines, just to name a few.


Here’s a question: If you’re a global person, how did you get that way?


You’ve had this experience, right? Home for the summer. Meet somebody new (feel free to change the proper nouns) . . .

“Hey, I’m Bob.”

“Hey Bob, I’m Jerry.”

“Nice to meet you Jerry, where ya’ from?”

“Uhhhh . . . well . . . I was born in Illinois but now I live in China.”

“CHINA!!! WAHHH. I could NEVER do that.”

I have “literally” had some variation of this conversation one billion times. So if there are so many people who could NEVER do this, what is it about YOU? What makes you so different than the normal people?

And maybe more importantly, can you put “literally” in quotes like that?

The reality is that we’ve all got a different story that led us here. For some, it was a blinding Damascus zap that dramatically reset your trajectory in one afternoon. For others, it was more of a decades-long yearning that finally came true.

Regardless, if you have never sat and processed the previous chapters in your book (that is still being written) . . . you should.





When did you first start showing an interest in global things?

This is where the camel comes in for me. He was a gift from my grandparents who had traveled to the other side of the planet and stopped off to see the pyramids along the way. They weren’t what I would call “travel savvy” but they knew better than to come home without some souvenirs for the grandkids.

Click here to read: The Day Grandma Got Us Kicked Out of Mexico

I know now from my own experience with airport gift-shop, guilt purchases how the trinkets made their way to my cousins, my siblings and me.

I also know roughly how much they cost.

None of that mattered when I was five. They might as well have been The Crown Jewels or the Holy Grail or a real camel. I was giddy.

I didn’t notice it then but I loved those things more than anyone else did. I thought we were all as excited as I was. They just thought I was weird.



What experiences stirred your global interest?

I vividly remember riding home on the bus and digging through my new bag (Mom’s yard sale find). It was cheap, used, fake leather with a tag that rocked my world.

“Made in Taiwan.”

Endorphins must have blasted my 2nd-grade brain because I could paint you a picture of that exact moment to this day. I leaped off the bus, ran inside and screamed, “MOM! MOM! LOOK AT THIS!!”

Her response was underwhelming.

“Uh, honey, everything is made in Taiwan.”


It was still a big day for me.

Other world-rocking experiences include but are not limited to:

  • Scrounging through my Grandfathers WW2 memories.
  • Meeting a real live foreign exchange student from a whole other country.
  • National Geographic Magazine.
  • Eating Taco Bell for the first time (don’t even try to steal my joy).



What people expanded your horizons?

A missionary to the Phillippines handed me a one peso coin at the Mt. Zion General Baptist Church which was located 30 miles into a cornfield in any direction. I was 6 and it was the first time I had touched non-U.S. currency. Another moment imprinted on my brain.

My Grandpa told me one story about meeting a Chinese boy in the war . . . 14 times.

My wife had spent 6 months in Taiwan before we ever met. She acted like it was no big deal. It so was.



How are you influencing the next generation of global people?

Not everyone gets excited about global things. That makes no sense to me but I’ve finally come to realize that I’m the weird one.

I’m good with that but every once in a while another weird, younger version of me pops up.

The kids that go bug-eyed when they find out where we live.

The ones that ask, “how do you spell my name in Chinese?”

The high-seas adventurers who feel like they’ve struck gold when they get their first set of chopsticks.


Consider this a challenge to simply keep an eye out for those golden moments and be willing to hang out there for a bit. That’s a solid investment in the future of global people.


Alright — I went first. What’s your story? Why are you the way you are?


Takes some time and think about it. Comment below.