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

Ahh, busyness . . . sneaks up on you doesn’t it? Especially this time of year.

Caught me off guard and I’m a bit overrun by cookies, carols and Christmas cheer to pause and post something fresh.

So . . . please accept my apologies and this repost from The Culture Blend.

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year to boot.

Oops, I went home for Christmas

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

You know who you are.

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.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

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.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

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.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

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 went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

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.

Ok.

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.

 

What’s your experience?  Have you left and come back?  Flying out this week?    Share your story below.  

The Challenge of Thankfulness

Blah. Blah. Blah. That was my gut reaction when I got this challenge recently.

Identify three things that you are thankful for and start every day focused on them.  See what happens.

In fairness to me — I come from a place where “thankfulness” has been sugar-coated, watered down, sucked dry and beaten to death.  A place where “count your blessings” is an overused, last-ditch, trump card response when we find ourselves paralyzed by another person’s pain.  Where once every November we go around the table and belch out slight variations on the same three platitudes.

“I’m thankful for family.”

“I’m thankful for friends.”

“I’m thankful for money.”

sidenote: we don’t come right out and say “money” but . . . 

So I’m a little jaded on the whole thankfulness exercise and quite frankly “challenges” seem to be spinning a bit out of control too . . .

Ice bucket challenges.

Extreme duct tape challenges.

Bathing in hot Cheetohs challenges.

For real.

People are bathing in hot Cheetos.

I don’t really need a challenge . . . but then two things happened.

One, I got even more jaded about the fact that I was jaded about something like thankfulness. Who gets jaded about thankfulness? What’s next?

Jaded about happiness?

Clean air?

Puppies?

Two, We had a really annoying financial month.

I’ll spare you the whiny, first world problem details but it is one of those “too much month at the end of the money” situations.  You’ve been there, right?

Irritating.

Frustrating.

Stressful.

It was a slippery slope.  One thought spawned another and it didn’t take me long to move from, “we need to be super careful this month” to “do I even make enough money?” to “is this all I’m worth?” to “I’m not getting younger” to “my kids will never go to college and they’re going to end up broke and living in cardboard boxes.”

My stress levels were through the roof and I was feeling strained thin.

Overwhelmed

Undervalued.

Discontent.

So I took the challenge but I was resolved not to make it fluffy. It took multiple days of hard digging to even get close. I waded through the masses of “things to be thankful for” and honestly, I felt stuck in a cliche . . . “I have SO much to be thankful for.”

Blah Blah Blah.

But really . . .  I do have SO much to be thankful for.

Picking three, however, is hard. Here’s where I landed:

 

ONE: I am thankful for the flavor of my family

I LOVE what makes my family absolutely unique. I love the adoption bit. The globe-trekking bit. The China bit. The curly hair. The introversion. The extroversion. The airports. The summers home. The family traditions. The quirks. The journey. The pitstops along the way . . .

This list doesn’t stop . . . ever . . . and it all blends to make something so rich and so good that I can’t hardly stand it.

I love the flavor of my family.

 

TWO: I love the width and depth of my friends.

Easy there . . . I’m not fat shaming.

I have good friends. All over the world. It’s ridiculous.

Friends that I can not see for years and instantly jump in where we left off. Friends that make me laugh until my ears hurt. Friends that I can philosophize and theologize with in such a way that we’ll both feel like we’ve figured out the worlds problems (if only we could get anyone else to listen). Friends that would walk with me through anything but would be the very first to smack me in the back of the head if I stepped out of line.

I love the width and depth of my friends.

And then I got stuck.

Couldn’t find my third one.

Maybe there are just two.

Until one day (in the middle of the hard money month) I was walking to work. My work walk is not typical.

9 kilometers.

Along the ocean.

Stunning.

Seriously. Who gets to do this?

Turns out that question was another slippery slope but it was a much, much better ride. My thoughts jumped from “I’m walking by the ocean” to “I’m going to a job that I love” to “I have EVERYTHING I could ever need” to “I have so much more than I could ever even want.”

I was embarassed of my whininess.

I was waylayed by flavor and width and depth.

And I found my third thankful.

 

THREE: I am thankful for the value of my finances.

It hit me (like a ton of bricks) that I am not in poverty. In my absolute worst financial month I can’t even see the poverty line.  My kids are going to eat and go to school and play with their friends and fight over what to watch on Netflix. Another payday was coming and we were going to make it but even if we couldn’t, we have layer after layer after layer of people who would instantly help us waiting just on the other side of my pride.

This is a hard month.

This is not poverty.

And then it hit me even harder. I am not a billionaire. In my best financial month, I can’t even imagine the billionaire line.

But show me a billionaire as rich as me.

My financial stress doesn’t even compare.  My family gets my attention. I GET to do my job and I love every minute of it. I GET to live cross-culturally and travel and meet people who look at the same thing I am looking at and see something completely different.

“Not fair” took on a whole new meaning and suddenly I felt empathy for everyone who wasn’t me. I’m not saying my money is worth more than a billionaire’s . . . but it kinda’ is.

Nothing had changed.

Different perspective.

So content.

I see the irony and the hypocrisy here.

Family

Friends

Money

Blah Blah Blah.

But it was worth it — to pause — and wrestle with a challenge without involving ice buckets . . . or duct tape . . . or Cheetohs.

Just the challenge of genuine, unfluffy thankfulness.

Tag. You’re it.

Should Debt Disqualify a Missionary?

I don’t usually start a blog post with an “I’m sorry” . . . but I’m not above it.

I offer my sincere and heartfelt apologies to anyone who clicked on this link looking for a solid, definitive answer. I don’t have one . . . but maybe you do so I would love to engage in the conversation.

Here’s the scenario:

Young couple. Just had a baby. Know that they know that they know (or at least think that they know) that God has called them to live and work overseas. They’re willing to do the due diligence. Hit the road. Raise support. “Develop partners”.

Everything lines up with the org they’re applying to. Good fit theologically. Passed the psych evaluation. References check out.

But.

They have debt.

And so . . . rejected.

Here’s the question:  

Should debt be an automatic disqualifier (or postponer) for missionary deployment?

I want to be careful here.

If you’re like me you probably have a visceral reaction. “Absolutely it should” or “No. Absolutely not” but I dare you to try to argue for the other side (whichever side you land on) if for no other reason than to see from a different perspective.

It’s a two handed issue.

On the one hand, you have qualified, clearly called, willing and able candidates who have been duped into a system that says, “we won’t send you unless you have a degree” and “we won’t give you a degree unless you pay us ridiculous amounts of money” and “the only way you can realistically get that money is to borrow it” and “now that you have borrowed it . . . we won’t send you.”

On the other hand, you have supporters giving hard earned money for the sake of the Kingdom. They want return on investment and frankly paying off someone else’s bad decisions doesn’t qualify.

On the one hand, saying, “get a job and pay down your debt first” may make it harder for people to quit that job five or ten years down the line once they have settled into a certain lifestyle. We might lose them.

On the other hand if they are really called . . .

On the one hand, debt is a heavy weight to carry when you’re adjusting to an already stressful, cross-cultural life.

On the other hand, so is a newborn baby or a new marriage, or a new language, or EVERYTHING ELSE IN YOUR WORLD.

On the one hand the Bible and Dave Ramsey say certain things about debt.

On the other hand do past choices make you ineligible for future service?

On the one hand I support you because I believe in you.

On the other hand I support you so I’ve earned an opinion in your finances.

On the one hand God is patient and His mission is timeless. We can wait.

On the other hand . . . last days and urgency. Hurry up.

On the one hand stewardship.

On the other hand respect.

On the one hand school debt. Like Bible college. Jesus degrees.

On the other hand credit cards. Car payments. Couldn’t afford pizza one night so . . .

 

It’s not an easy topic. There are multiple angles to consider.

So consider away.

What has been your experience?

Where do you land on the issue?

Can you see the other side?

Comment below . . . I look forward to learning something.

The Five People Who Shape You the Most

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” (Jim Rohn)

Soak in that for a minute. Think it through. Is it true?

For you personally?

For everyone?

For me it is one of those brilliantly profound and profoundly frustrating statements.

It makes sense. A lot of sense. So much sense that a piece of me instinctively wants it to be wrong — a feeling which increases in intensity the more I hear it. I have a visceral reaction to anything so quotable it shows up everywhere but that’s the world we live in isn’t it?

A world of instant cliches.

I’ve pondered this quote though and I wonder if it applies in the same way for people like you and me. You know . . . the cross-cultural types. Help me out because I’m curious to know if this is just me or if it goes with the territory.

Here is my dilemma. I don’t know who I spend the most time with. I literally do not have an answer for who those five people would be. I’m like a TCK trying to tell you where he is from.

Even if I could identify the top five right now (simply based on time spent together) they would be completely different from my five three years ago . . . and three years before that . . . and three before that.

My life moves in rhythms that naturally divide my closest friendships into sections of time and geography. I have a BFF at every port but I have never seen any of them in the same room (which makes me think that maybe they are all actually the same person . . . or Batman).

I love that part of my life. I really do.

I love that I can travel almost anywhere in the world and catch up with an old friend. I love the “hello agains”. I love the picking up where we left off as if we never left off at all. I love that the only indicator of time passed is our growing kids. I love the reminiscing about the seasons when we did spend most of our time together and I even love the falsely hopeful farewells.

“Come visit us.”

“Oh we will . . . one of these days.”

I also love that I’m building more of those connections right where we are . . . in this season.

I love talking work stuff and figuring out life problems. I love wrestling through the challenges of the transition that never ends with newbies, stayers and goers. I love bumbling through cross-cultural things with other bumblers and I love deep, heartfelt, sincere conversations that lean heavily on sign-language and Google Translate.

But five?

Just five?

In one place?

Can’t do it.

I could narrow it down though, to the five that I HAVE spent the most time with. The five who have impacted me the most. The five who would go anywhere and do anything for me and know that I would do the same.

They are the five people that I WOULD spend the most time with . . . if we all lived in the same country . . . at the same time . . . and they weren’t too busy fighting the Joker.

This cross-cultural life is anything but average but if I can be the average of my global list of five guys, I’ll be in good shape.

How about you?

Do you know your five? Are they all in one place or spread out?

 

When Hard Things Happen Back Home

There is something surreal about being on the other side of the world while major events unfold in your home country.  It leaves you feeling both connected and disconnected at the exact same time.

 

It is 7158 miles (11,520 kilometers) from where I am sitting right now to Charlottesville, Virginia (USA) but there is a part of me that is right there.  Thanks to the marvels of modern technology I can tune in anytime I want.  I can get lost in the news feeds, and sucked into the endless vacuum of clickable links.  If I’m feeling brave I can peek into the opinion pieces which are on the same page as the comedians which are just one careless click away from the babblers which are right next to the loud mouths which hang out with the trolls.

It’s a slippery slope.

The difference though, between my two sides of the planet, is that on this side I have to chase that information.  There is no avalanche of “this just in” unless I go looking for it.  The intensity, the tension, the boiling blood and the inescapable super-charged atmosphere is all taking place on that side. I can see it on my 13 inch screen anytime I want — and I can feel it because it is my home and those are my people . . . but it’s not the same as being there.

Connected and disconnected at the same time.

And as much as this life abroad has taught me to zoom in it has also conditioned me to zoom out.  Like a lot of expats I wrestle with global guilt.  I find myself instantly consumed by the overwhelming events from back home and just as quickly reminded that back home is not the only place on earth where overwhelming events are consuming people.

In the exact same week that a man in Virginia drove a car into a crowd killing a woman and injuring 19 others another man drove a van into a crowd killing at least 13 and injuring 100 others in Spain.

And a mudslide killed almost 500 in Sierra Leone.

And 24 people were killed after an election in Kenya.

And 32 drug dealers were killed in the Philippines.

And dozens were killed in a train wreck in Egypt.

And there were floods in Bangladesh.

And a food crisis in Yemen.

And fires in Greece.

Come on fellow expats . . . tell me I’m not the only one who does this.  In one moment I am caught up in the whirlwind of news from my passport country and in the very next moment (if I’m being totally honest) I’m judging them because no matter how big it is, there are bigger things going on in the world.

Connected and disconnected at the same time.  

And then I realize that I would strongly defend the rights of anyone in Sierra Leone or Kenya or Yemen to be consumed by their own news and less concerned about Charlottesville .

And then I realize that I haven’t extended that same grace to my own people.

And then it hits me that I have also withheld it from myself.

And then my heart aches for my homeland.  Tension.  Intensity.  Frustration.  Empathy.

Connection and disconnection at the same time.

There is something surreal about being on the other side of the world while major events unfold in your home country. 

You who once were far off (disconnected) have been brought near (connected) by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one (connected) and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility (disconnection) by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God (connected) in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (disconnection). And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access (connection) in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers (disconnected) and aliens (disconnected), but you are fellow citizens (connected) with the saints and members of the household of God (connected), built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together (connected), grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.  

Ephesians 2:13-22

The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

People living a life overseas are a special breed.  We don’t so much make sense to the normal people do we?

My family is on the tail end of a whirlwind, six week “home” (finger quotes) visit and we’ve been reminded every moment of it what a ridiculous life we have chosen.

Seriously.  Who does this?

By the time this trip is over we will have changed our entire existence eleven times, each one strung to the next by a 4 to 12 hour road trip on the hottest days of the summer in a car with two children and lukewarm air conditioning.  We will have done countless heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we missed you so much” hellos only to turn right around for equally heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we’ll miss you so much” goodbyes.

We live out of suitcases which seem to be gaining weight as fast as we are.

Every few days we switch to another guest bed, couch,  futon, air mattress or (on very special occasions) hotel.

We’ve learned how to use other people’s washing machines and we leave at least one sock or one pair of underwear at every stop (you’re welcome).

We’ve sat perched like a dog at a dinner table waiting for someone to ask for a China story and we’ve fine-tuned our skills of pretending we’re not disappointed when they don’t.

We’ve successfully dodged knock-down, drag-out political battles over issues we probably don’t care about, full on relational melodramas with people we barely know and annoyingly offensive jokes about Chinese food and cats.

Hygiene still matters but I’m not even sure what day yesterday was . . . let alone whether I showered or not.

For weeks we have been “ON”.  Big smiles.  Happy faces.  Intentional eye contact from the moment we landed — and we had jet lag that day.

It’s exhausting being “home” — and to be honest the whole life overseas thing can feel equally chaotic at its most settled points.

BUT . . .

I’m learning that there is such a fine line between chaos and rhythm.

Trips “home” would feel like total mayhem to any normal person . . . but we covered that right?  We are so not normal.

I love that the longer we do this the more pages there are in our story are filled with 3 am, jetlag induced Daddy-Daughter milkshakes at any place open.

It has been rich beyond words to pick up right where we left off with dozens of “hello again” friends and we’ve got this whole switching from cousins in one place to old friends in another thing to an art form.

We are expert packers, flexible sleepers, versatile launderers and accomplished lip biters.

We know how to deflect awkwardness and my kids intuitively sense when family at one stop would be horribly offended by things that were fun at the last.

Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.

We are good at this.  We have found our rhythm and in some confusing way a part of our stability IS the movement.

If that makes no sense at all . . . congratulations . . . you might be normal.

If it does . . . you’re probably living a life overseas.

 

Why Expats Hate June

Summer “home” time is in full swing and while I would love to take a break from binging on family road trips, quality Gramma/Grampa time and high-fructose American corn syrup to write a new post I have finally surrendered to the reality that it’s not happening.

Here’s an oldie from The Culture Blend that has been played out thousands of times around the world and too many times for us personally in the past couple of weeks.  Missing this years Goers already.

Why Expats Hate June

Life as an expatriate is tainted by a single word.

“Goodbye.”

By nature, the move TO a foreign country is launched with a massive, painful farewell that is partially numbed by anticipation, excitement, adrenaline and sheer exhaustion.  It’s an all out frenzy, as the days are counted down, to spend an appropriate amount of quality time validating every significant relationship (and some that aren’t so significant) wrapped in the chaos of arranging visas, making travel arrangements, finding a home for the hamster, cramming suitcases to just over the allowed weight limit, selling your old Tupperware, your bowling ball, your car and your house.

Honestly . . . and I mean this in the best possible way . . . the initial goodbyes aren’t so bad.  Not because we won’t miss those people horribly.  We will.  But four things make it easier.

  1. In the chaos there is no time to breathe, let alone process reality.
  2. We knew this was a part of the deal when we decided to move.
  3. It’s always easier to leave than to be left.
  4. We’ll probably see those people again.

Come on fellow expats – don’t leave me hanging . . . “Did you see what Jerry wrote?! He said leaving his family and friends was easy . . . and wonderful.”  Not what I said.  But if you’ve been through it you know I’m right.  Horrible as it is, the worst of the pain gets overshadowed by the madness.

But that’s only one set of goodbyes.

What you don’t expect when you move to a foreign country is that every June will feel like you’re taking a metaphorical golf club to the metaphorical teeth.  Metaphorically speaking of course.

What is really cool about our particular expat experience is the people we meet.  The other expats around here are amazing and we’re all in the same expat boat. Actually maybe it’s a submarine because we tend to go a little deeper really quickly.  We come from all over the world but we are all sharing the joy and pain of China together.  All of our kids are getting stared at and photographed every time we go out.  We’re all faking Chinese every time we get in a taxi. None of us comes in knowing where to buy good bacon or milk or DVD’s* or get our hair cut, or permed or straightened, or dyed (at least without dire consequences).  We all know nothing together, but when one of us discovers something there is excessive jubilation.  Like warriors returning from a great victory we come together in the expat village square to celebrate and divide the plunder.  The children laugh and play games while the men and women riverdance and parade around with hand sewn banners reading, “WE . . . HAVE FOUND BACON!!”

Ok . . . still speaking metaphorically but the points are genuine.  We like these people.  We connect on a level that is deeper than the surface.  We help each other.  We laugh with each other.  When something horrible happens to one of us we all understand the pain of going through it away from home so we all try to fill in the gaps.  Our celebration may take place through email or text messages** but when we find something new, we pass it on . . . and we all feel a little bit better.

And in June . . . we say goodbye.

Expats aren’t lifers.  There are very few deep roots here.  Our kids don’t graduate with the same kids they went to Kindergarten with.  Most people stick around two to five years and just a handful stay longer.  There are constantly newcomers and constantly outgoers but June is the worst month of all.

Literally, in the course of two weeks we have said goodbye to more than 25 of our friends and that’s a typical June.  Ranging from acquaintance to neighbors to close friends it’s a bit surreal to walk through our community and realize, “Oh, the Blabla’s are gone . . . and they’re not coming back”

We find comfort and stability in our local friends and other Stayers.

We are reluctantly excited the incoming round of Newbies.

But the Goers are just hard.

We’ve become expert farewellers but with every goodbye there is an ignored reality that we don’t dare mention out loud.  We cover it up with overly optimistic and misguided statements like, “We’ll come visit you” and “We’ll skype every week.”  Those well wishes help us feel a little better but they don’t come true.  The sad truth is that when we say goodbye (with a few beautiful exceptions) we will never see these people again.

So to all of you dirty jokers who have moved on in the past few weeks . . . Thanks for ruining June for the rest of us.

Seriously . . . the kids are out of school, the weather is gorgeous and the smell of barbecue is in the air.  It’s supposed to be a happy time.  But no.  You had to leave and you took your kids with you.

You’ll be missed.  Thanks for being expats with us.


*This post was originally written when a primitive technology known as DVD’s were used to watch movies, television shows etc.  No one actually knows what the letters DVD stand for.

**text messages are so last year — since the original writing of this post our lives have been digitally consumed by wechat.  

Surviving Summer: Making the most of a trip “home”

Cross-cultural life can be a perpetual string of chaotic disruptions or beautiful rhythms — perspective and expectation make all the difference.

 

We’re about to do summer.  For us, as is true for many expats, June and July are two of the most discombobulated months of the year.  Going “home” (those are finger quotes) for example, is often an overload of illogical anticipation and misguided excitement that is rudely tempered by the realities of jetlag, relentless road trips, awkward reunions and far too many goodbyes.

In a span of about 48 hours (sometime on June 13) our entire existence gets turned upside down.  Virtually everything is instantly and dramatically different.  Sound familiar?

Here we don’t drive.  There we will literally spend days (cumulative) in a car.

Here we fight to understand 20% of what’s being said.  There we understand too much and wish we could turn it off.

Here we have settled in.  There we never stop moving.

Here we miss family.  There we get to see them all.

Here it is hard to find a good steak.  There . . . well . . . someone should call Texas Roadhouse and let them know we are coming.

Here we are foreigners . . . ok not everything is different.

Going “home” for the summer (especially with kids in tow) can be overwhelming and is guaranteed to be exhausting.

Here are three thoughts on setting the right perspective and expectations to not just make it through but to get the most out of it.

ONE:  Put it on the timeline.

Zooming out changes things.  Sure June 13th is going to be a stressful day.  We’ll get up at the crack of dawn and set out for the first of three airports.  Our kids are going to fight.  We might too.  We are going to spend way too much money on mediocre food.  Something is going to go wrong with the inflight entertainment system . . . it always does . . . and when we finally arrive our internal clocks are going to be 12 hours off of every person around us.  I can feel the hives forming just thinking about it.

BUT — On a timeline this is the kickoff for summer 2017.  Trips to the place I call home are these all too limited stretches on the storyline of our lives.  These are the moments that connect our kids to their passport country.  These are the only non-digital memories that they will have of their grandparents, their cousins and our “forever friends.”

These short little bursts of time are the defining moments for our kids lifelong “big picture.”  Putting it on the timeline now makes me want to do something memorable, something crazy, something hilarious that we will laugh hysterically about when we get together in Morocco for Christmas 2047.  It also makes the stress a worthwhile investment.

TWO:  Adjust for the undesirables.

There are parts of what is coming that are not going to be good.  Let’s just wrap our heads around that right now.

However, I am discovering, that pre-deciding how to handle the less desirables gives me a lot more space to enjoy the good stuff.  For example — nothing is more stressful than trying to force kids out of jetlag.

“Get back in bed! It’s 2am! . . . Don’t you ‘but Dad me.'”

It is true that children being awake in the middle of the night makes no sense.  It is not normal (with a few exceptions).  It is definitely not healthy.

Ironically these are all words that describe perfectly, the whole homegoing experience.  So just embrace it.  Watch a family movie before the sun comes up.  Go for donuts.  Take a trip to the 24 hour Supermegastore and let your kids play in the toy section.

Turn the frustrations into golden moments.

Decide ahead of time to let people off the hook for not wanting to hear your stories.

Make a gameplan for insanely long road trips.

And please, please, please, don’t get caught off guard by political conversations.

Adjust accordingly and save that emotional space for the best bits.

THREE:  Expand the misconceptions (don’t fix them).

Maybe your kids have an unrealistic view of their passport country.  Maybe for them going to the place you call home is Disneyland, camping, amazing food and non-stop, deep-fried, sugar coated fun.  Maybe it’s a place where they get treated like a celebrity.  Maybe it’s a place where mom and dad are always stressed out.

Regardless, it is important to remember that your kids are normal.

They have a frame of reference built on limited exposure.  There is no way for that frame to match yours.

If you’re like me you want to fix that.  You want them to understand that their stereotypes are not the full picture.  Fair enough but that’s a tall order.  Take the pressure off of yourself to give your kids a completely accurate perspective.

They’ll get there and trips home are a great opportunity to expand the frame . . . not fix it.

Try  the three D’s instead.
Discover: Ask them questions and really learn what’s going on inside.  If you’re not surprised you’re not there yet.

Discuss:  Let them ask questions about your perspective.

Disney:  Seriously don’t cancel your trip to Disneyland just because you want them to have a more accurate view.  You can’t live that down.

Raising kids, abroad or at home is a process.  It’s a journey.  It’s a perpetual string of beautiful rhythms sprinkled with inevitable moments of chaotic disruption.

That makes me pretty excited about Summer 2017.

If you’re traveling.  Travel well.

PS — I’m giving myself 10 ALOS points for using the word “discombobulated” in a post.   

Three Things I Love About An International Church

The Church has issues.

Can I get an amen?

In all of its forms — in every place — regardless of name, denomination, age, size, musical preference, preaching style, tradition, creed, constitution, by-laws, baggage, building size, history, quality of leadership or any other feature, factor or flavor, you will not find a local church without some mess.

Some of you disagree . . . you’re saying, “you haven’t been to MY church.  We’ve got it right.”

I’ll let the irony of that thinking catch up to you later.

Something rich happens though, when you get to see the messiness of one church experience through the smudged lenses of another.  I have been blessed to worship in a wide variety of churches through the years.  From the one room (not counting the outdoor toilet) 20 member, country chapel that my grandfather pastored to the 20,000 member mega-church.  From the mountain, village church on a tiny little island to an “under the radar” less than legal fellowship in one of the world’s largest cities.

They’ve all had issues . . . and they’ve all offered a new layer of perspective on the others.

One of my favorite expressions of the local church has been the international fellowship in our current city.

Here are three things I love about it:

ONE: It Exists

How’s that for starting simple?

I am reminded though, every week when my ID is checked at the door that the simple existence of this gathering is not something I should be taking for granted.  Where I come from there was a virtual buffet of churches to choose from.  Don’t like one? Pick another.  Keep hopping until it fits your taste (but still complain when it doesn’t).

Where I live there is one organized international fellowship and a number of home fellowships.

Having fewer options adds tremendous value to all of them.

 

TWO: We disagree

On any given week our fellowship will have between 200 and 300 attendees.  In that group is the full range of Christian denominations.  From high church liturgical to aisle dancing charismatic, we all come together as foreigners and believers.  Like any church, ours has taken on its own personality (somewhere in between those two) but the full spectrum of potential theological debate is always present.

I get to be on the teaching team and TWICE I have gotten the predestination passage as my assigned text.

SERIOSULY?!!  Predestination? To this group?  We can’t even agree on that in churches where we force everyone to agree about everything.

BUT — it’s good.  It’s good to not have the luxury of preaching to the “amen.”  It’s good for the preacher to know that no matter what they say, someone is going to see it from a different angle.

Disagreeing actually forces our focus towards what matters instead of an unchecked sense of rightness.

 

THREE: We blend

Our worship team routinely consists of some mix of a couple of a couple Brits, a German, a Canadian, two Filipinos, an Indian and an American or two.  Once a month a team of African students come from the other side of the city to lead.  It’s not uncommon for 30-40 nationalities to be present and yet we join in a common voice.

It’s like a little taste of heaven.

Only the sound system messes up.

And it’s hard to get volunteers for the kids program.

And attendance goes way down in the summer.

And we meet in a hotel basement which used to be a bowling alley.

And we primarily speak English.

And locals are not legally allowed.

And we haven’t figured out predestination just yet.

And people don’t stay forever.

 

So in a nutshell . . . apart from its issues . . . I go to the perfect church.  I would bet that’s true of yours too —  wherever it is and whatever it looks like.

Why not take a minute and pick three things you love about your church?

Leaving Happy or Leaving Well?

We’re bracing around here, for the annual Expat Exodus.

If you’ve lived abroad for more than a year you get the reference.  It may look different where you are but it’s always a part of the gig . . . people leave and often they leave in herds.  So, in the context of finishing another year of school, making preparations for summer travels and continuing to build relationships with this years Newbies and next years Stayers — we’re saying goodbye . . . again.

We’ve been on both sides of the Exodus now and there are two things I’ve noticed

ONE: When you’re a Stayer it doesn’t get easier.

In fact, if you do this right, it probably gets harder every year (although some are harder than others).  As long as you continue letting people in, it’s hard when they go out.

TWO:  When you’re a Goer there is a huge difference between LEAVING HAPPY and LEAVING WELL.

Everyone wants to leave happy but not everyone wants to leave well.  In fact, some people are so committed to leaving happy that they absolutely refuse to leave well.

Leaving happy puts on a big smile and sticks like glue to anything that doesn’t threaten the vibe. It thinks happy thoughts and says happy words in the happy places.  It hangs out with happy people who take them to the airport and cry happy tears because the sad tears get crushed by happy lies . . . like, “we’ll Skype every day!” or “it won’t even seem you’ve gone”.

Thanks Michael W. Smith.  Thanks for that.

Leaving well is tougher.  It goes deeper.  It hurts more . . . but it is SO much better.

Leaving well stands toe to toe with the paradox and doesn’t back down.  It recognizes that leaving is hard but it’s hard because the stay has been good.  It also acknowledges when the leaving is good because the stay has been so hard.  It addresses the broken and strained relationships because it realizes that distance doesn’t heal.

It digs in deep with the solid relationships and offers more than a slap on the back and a “love ya’ man.”  It lets people know . . . like, really know . . . with specific examples, when they’ve had an impact, and what that impact is, and how it has changed the people around them and what exactly is different because they exist.  It makes eye contact and gets intentional and creative and awkward.

It considers the pain of the Stayers who are getting left and it does everything it can to leave a solid landing spot for the incoming Newbies.  It’s not afraid to fall apart at the airport and it can still be excited about what comes next.

Leaving well sets you up to land well and happiness is only one piece of the picture — a significant piece, but not the only one by far.

So if you are leaving — are you leaving happy or are you leaving well?

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

•  Is there anything that you think is going to be made better simply by flying away?

•  Are you running away from any relationships?

•  Are you carving out your best time for your best relationships?

•  Do you have a leaving well plan?

•  Are you helping your kids process in paradox?

•  Are there issues or stressors that you think you’ll be leaving behind . . . but will probably come with you?

Trust me.  I’ve seen it both ways.  I’ve done it both ways.  It is so worth it to LEAVE WELL.

 

Questioning Your Calling

This is not a post with 5 steps that help you find your calling.  There are lots of those out there.  You should Google it.

This is also not a post exposing the pitfalls of posts with 5 steps that help you find your calling.  There is some good advice out there (some flaky advice too but all of that is beside the point).

I would consider this post a prequel . . . a back to the beginning, after the fact.

If you’re like me you’ve wrestled with this for a while and you’ve probably run the gamut.  Any of this sound familiar?

  • You responded to a powerful, convicting message to abandon it all (say it with me) for the sake of the call.
  •  You had a “crisis of calling” marked by begging God for a black and white copy of what to do and where to go next.
  • You Googled  “How to find your calling”.
  • You had long conversations with older and wiser people.
  • You had a moment of “Aha . . . I got it . . . THIS is what I’m called to do.”
  • You shared with friends and family who didn’t get it but would never question a calling.
  • (Months or years later) You questioned whether this was ever actually your calling.  Maybe you “missed God” on this one.
  • You started the whole process all over again.

I’ve been there.  Done that.  Rinsed and repeated.

In fact my ongoing relationship with this word and this concept (“calling” that is) continues to be refined and reformed with practically every conversation on the topic.  The more I understand about calling, the more I understand how much more there is to understand.

Part of growing up I suppose.

Click here to read The Cult of Calling by Leslie Verner

So instead of proposing a step by step worksheet or offering some kind of hope for a black and white “My Calling” printout, I’d like to propose three questions that seem relevant to the ongoing, life-long process.

Question #1:  Does what I believe about God match what I say about calling?

“Calling” gets tossed around flippantly — sometimes carelessly.

Remember the story of William Carey?  In the 1700’s he put out the idea that it was the duty of all Christians to spread the gospel to the whole world to which the stodgy old Baptist next to him said, “Young man sit down — when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”

Say what you want about that guy but he knew where he stood.  Here’s the kicker.  Because he pushed back so did William Carey.  Strong theological opposition forced him to defend and therefore be rock solid in what he believed to be true both about God and His call.

He was forced to face the question — “Is that really how God works?”

Have you ever squeezed your own calling through the same filter?

Does God call people like He called Paul?  Moses? Isaiah? Jonah? Does He give black and white outlines? Does He speak to our heart? Tug on our heart? Break our heart? Give us a heart for a specific place? A specific people? A specific profession? Does He call all of us to do the same thing or each of us to do something different? Are some callings greater? Bigger? Better? More important? Does He call the qualified or qualify the called and if He qualifies the called does He do it before or after He calls them and if He does it before He calls then doesn’t He just call the qualified?

How do you feel about sovereignty and free will?

Maybe you are pretty rock solid in your theology but does it line up with the way you speak of your calling?

Question #2:  Am I am using the word “calling” as a spiritual trump card?

Calling is the final word in many a heated conversation.  It is one of the great Christian trump cards along with “that’s not Biblical” and “the Greek word actually means . . . ”

“I’m moving to France to start a medical clinic for children with Leukemia.”

          “You don’t speak French.”

“I bought Rosetta Stone.”

         “You’re not a doctor.”

“I can learn.”

          “You hate children.”

“Yeah but I really feel called to this.”

          “Oh . . . well . . . ok.”

It’s easy to question a person’s rationale but something feels wrong about questioning their calling.  We pick up on that pretty quick when we are feeling insecure about our direction.  That’s not to say that your calling is not valid but being willing to get brutally honest with ourselves opens us up to a deeper scrutiny and in turn, wiser counsel.

Question #3:  Am I allowing my pursuit of what I THINK God wants me to do eclipse what I KNOW He wants me to do.

Regardless of your Christian flavor or your denominational affiliation, it is a dangerous view of God to consider that He might give you specific directions to do the opposite of what you already knew to be true.

You may be called to the inner city.

You may be called to the Middle East.

You may be called to widows and orphans.

You may be called to plant churches.

You may be called to provide education and job training for teenage girls rescued from human trafficking on the upper East side of Janakpur, Nepal.

But if you are married you KNOW that you are called to devote your life to your spouse.  If you are a parent, you have clear directions on nurturing your kids.

If the thing that you think or feel that you are called to causes you to neglect what you have already covenanted to — you’re missing something.

You’ve got neighbors and enemies that need to be loved.  Brothers and sisters that need to be encouraged. None of that takes an ounce of significance away from any grand and global work but specific callings have a sizzle that gets worn out on the every day stuff.

The consequences are generally broken every day stuff and a fizzled sizzle.

Don’t miss what is already there in black and white.

 

Dear Life Abroad — I’ll keep my identity, thanks.

“Loss of identity.”

It makes every list doesn’t it?  Right near the top.  Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.

When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column.  In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.

“Adventure that will change your life forever.  Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods.  Community like you’ve never experienced.  Frequent flier miles galore.”

“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through.  New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.

I get it.  I really do.

I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.

I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.

I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).

MY LIFE ABROAD HAS NOT TAKEN MY IDENTITY FROM ME.

On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity.  Stretched it.  Molded it.  Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.

 

Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.

 

ONE:  EVERYTHING WE DO CHANGES OUR IDENTITY

It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does.  The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.”  We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.

Everything changes us.

College.  Job.  Marriage.  Kids.  Accomplishment.  Tragedy.

All of it becomes a part of who we are.

 

TWO: YOU ALWAYS GO FORWARD — YOU NEVER GO BACK

Here’s where I think the rub is.  I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.

Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum.  It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds.  We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.

Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.

So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not.  In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.

Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.

College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.

That would be a loss of identity for sure.

 

THREE:  YOUR “LIFE ABROAD IDENTITY” IS WORTH HOLDING ONTO

Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad.  I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.

Here’s a clue:  It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.”  That comes later.

It’s NOT,  “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.”  That’s a big one but it’s not number one.

Ready?

It generally goes something like this:  “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be.  I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”

That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me.  It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.

Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.

They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.

 

For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.

Anyone else?