Tales of the Awkward

 

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If you have ever left your birth-culture and spent any length of time in a host or second culture, you have likely come to realize that cultural norms and differences in customs can take some getting used to; a learning curve is to be expected. For some of us, the curve is less like a curve and more like… oh, I don’t know … a cliff.

Things as simple as how we greet one another can cause us to break into a cold sweat, even in a tropical environment.

Non-touchy people such as myself need to adjust accordingly to the traditions and rituals of the culture in which they hope to live, work, and build friendships.  

Because it does not appear I will be leaving anytime soon, and because of my desire to be culturally sensitive,  I have been forced to become more comfortable with the Haitian way of kissing (or bumping) cheeks upon greeting. I’d never go so far as to say that it feels natural to me, but I roll with it as best I can.

Every so often I might run into a person that does a two cheek greeting. I’m not going to lie, all that back and forth really throws me for a loop.  I’ve never quite understood the rules of engagement because sometimes people full on kiss your cheek and other times they simply touch cheek to cheek. It is sort of like a cheek high-five. I don’t know when you are supposed to do one and when you are supposed to do the other.  It is quite vexing, I know that much.

Just when I thought I had made the appropriate adjustments, I met a new group. Maybe you have met them? The three kisses crowd.

I give the side-eye to this group, because – THREE kisses? 

That just seems excessive.

Gives me vertigo.

I’ve been doing some charting and graphing and I can confirm that greetings and goodbyes take one billion times longer … but to heck with that observation, what is time anyway?  

One afternoon my teenage daughter’s boyfriend was over visiting her.  He comes from the kiss-the-cheek-crowd so I always attempt to get with the program and follow the rules.  

He was sitting down on the floor with my daughter when I leaned down to greet him.  I fully expected him to remain stationary. I didn’t know he was going to move and I completely misjudged and overshot the distance between us as I approached for my culturally appropriate greeting.  

In one terribly awkward slow-motion moment I missed his cheek, instead kissing below his cheek in the region commonly referred to as, the neck 

Horrid.  

I wanted the earth to swallow me whole.

Embarrassed, I quickly exited the room.  For the next several hours I hoped he didn’t think I meant to kiss his neck.

Creepy mom much?

According to Wikipedia:

A kiss is a common gesture of greeting, and at times a kiss is expected. Throughout all cultures people greet one another as a sign of recognition, affection, friendship and reverence. While hand shakes, hugs, bows, nods and nose rubbing are all acceptable greetings, the most common greeting is a kiss, or kisses, on the cheek. Cheek kissing is “a ritual or social gesture to indicate friendship, perform a greeting, to confer congratulations, to comfort someone, or to show respect.”[1] Cheek kissing is most common in Europe and Latin America and has become a standard greeting in Southern Europe.

While cheek kissing is a common greeting in many cultures, each country has a unique way of kissing. In Russia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro the Netherlands and Egypt it is customary to “kiss three times, on alternate cheeks.”[2] Italians usually kiss twice in a greeting and in Mexico and Belgium only one kiss is necessary. In the Galapagos women kiss on the right cheek only[3] and in Oman it is not unusual for men to kiss one another on the nose after a handshake.[4] French culture accepts a number of ways to greet depending on the region. Two kisses are most common throughout all of France but in Provence three kisses are given and in Nantes four are exchanged.[5]

 

More than a year has passed now, and I fear that teenage boys are still walking around guarding their necks from me .

~                ~               ~

Have you had your own awkward cultural mess-up moment?   Let’s hear it. 

 

Tara Livesay works as a midwife apprentice in Port-au-Prince, Haiti 

blog:  livesayhaiti.com  |  twitter (sharing with her better half): @troylivesay

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My Kid Can Cuss in Two Languages

When the new normal cuts against your soul like a cheese grater on your knuckles, what do you do? Do you lift those bloody knuckles and fight back? Or do you woefully bandage them, let them heal, and wait for the next time the scraping starts again?

We live in Bolivia. We are a bi-lingual family: Spanish and English. Eleven years in a place gives you cool skills like that. Did you know that part of language acquisition means learning naughty words? Bi-lingual means double the fun in this area.

My child comes to me with tears brimming. A foul name from a sibling caused the tears. We do the parent thing. We discuss it. We know our child, the one with the silver tongue, has struggled, been bullied, been picked on. We know the defenses have gone up and one survival technique has been to learn rough speech.

It’s only fair to blame Bolivia for this child’s special knack, right? The romantic tongue of this Latin people makes allowances for explicit descriptions and colorful expletives. I should expect complete cultural assimilation from my children, right? Oh that blessed blame game… like those songs that never end, they just go on and on my friend…

My kid can cuss in two languages. Not an ideal bumper sticker. Although, it could be plastered right next to the one about honor roll. My kid is on the honor roll, too. Somehow that balance doesn’t soothe me, though.

Can I be grateful that our children face real issues under our care? Grateful for the cheese grater? It shall not be said they lived a sheltered life. No indeed.

I was about 11 years old when I had to get stitches because I sliced my finger cutting a head of cabbage. I remember my mom had to drag my younger brothers and sisters with us to Doctor Brown’s office. I sat on the tall bench and screamed as the little ones looked on with wide eyes. Plastered stiff against the wall in that tiny room the whole lot of them maintained perfect silence as the needle went in and out of my tiny index finger. Still have the scar. Still one of my favorite childhood memories. No joke.

Even though blood was everywhere, I was in pain, and the numbing shots did not help, I felt a goodness about me. With all those kids around me I knew I was not alone. I knew I would make it through. And it did.

So my kids fight the habits, and sometimes scrape their knuckles. Oh sure, the guilt still drives me to grind my teeth and bite my nails. Questions buzz around like a mosquitoes in my ear when I am trying to sleep. The prayers turn accusatory with a hint of pitiful begging.

Then the scars on the knuckles of my own soul remind me that our humanity is one of our most becoming features. I dare to hope that amidst the pain, goodness can be felt surrounding us.

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You can share your cheese grater story below.  Please know, you are not alone.

What compromises do you feel you have had to make for the sake of “the call”?

When faced with a moral conflict how do you decide your response?

Who surrounds you, reminding you of the good in life, when things get rough?

– Angie Washington, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: angiewashington.com twitter: @atangie  facebook: atangie

The F Word

The end of the school year brings loads of changes, some nearly universal and some unique to people with international identities. Julie Martinez, working and writing in Cambodia shares a personal story and the hopes of a family and a son in transition.

Freaked out.  Frustrated.  Fear.  Failure.  These are some of the F words that we have been slinging around the house lately.  We have also been slinging around the F word Frittata, but that is a different story.  We are in the process of transition and it is creating moments of drama and tension.  My son who was born in Honduras and has lived in five different countries is now returning to America to attend university and emotions are running high.

This is a boy who has grown up in airports.  He can navigate any airport anywhere.  From the time that he was 3 months old he has been a flying across the world. I am afraid that when he remembers his childhood he will tell stories of terrible airplane food and rushing through airport gates laden with carry-ons.  Or will he talk about a lifetime of good-byes?  Of constantly downsizing our lives to fit into two suitcases?

This is a boy who has lived an unconventional life.

Tanzania 01-2005 057He knows how to barter in local markets like an Arab trader.  He can hop on a motorcycle fearlessly and navigate unknown roads in third world countries.  He is unique.  He has been chased by elephants; climbed volcanoes; and has stood where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic.  He has seen the world and much of it on the road less traveled and all before he was 18.

 

So, how does he transition to the USA?  How does he navigate the world of fraternities, finals, football, fast food, and other Americanisms?  My son is a third culture kid which means he is not fully American nor has he taken on the culture of his host country.  He has created a third culture—a culture unique to him.  He travels to America as a hidden immigrant.  One who speaks the language – looks the part – but is missing social cues and cultural meanings.

He knows this and he is fearful—fearful of failure and is freaked out.  His F word is Fear.  Fear is paralyzing, sends people into tailspins.  Fear is seemingly depriving him of oxygen and causing him to make questionable decisions.  My F word, on the other hand, is frustration.  I am frustrated because I can’t help him and truthfully, he won’t let me which also frustrates me.  He will be 18 soon and naturally wants to navigate life on his own.  And the reality is I can’t fully help him—he sees the world through a different lens than I do and he is going to have to figure it out. IMG_1799

Living overseas is wonderful, but there are prices to be paid and they are paid by all.  God calls us and He equips us . . . but there are aspects of this cross-cultural life that aren’t easy nor are there easy answers.  I wish I could wrap up this post with a three-fold solution.  There isn’t one.  The only thing that I can offer is that maybe it is time for a different word.  Not an F word, but a G word and that is grace.  That God will cover my son in His grace and that God in His grace and mercy will lead him and that His grace will carry him in the hard places and through the mistakes and the hard-times that are inevitable.

What kinds of G words carry you through your F seasons? In other words, we would love to hear how grace meets you in weakness and uncertainty.

Julie T. Martinez, Development Director N. Cambodia

People For Care & Learning, follow her blog at People for Care

Fourteen Things Expat Dads Want To Tell Expat Dads

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Last week my husband changed the oil on our car. Then he helped our seven-year old daughter sew a dress because I am worthless with anything remotely craft related. Then the two of them went outside and shot water bottles with a BB gun. This is one seriously rockin’ dad.

Over the years I have met other seriously rockin’ dads and for Father’s Day, I wanted to write about being a father overseas. Alas…I’m not one. So I enlisted the words and wisdom of wise, fun, creative, deep, spiritual dads, men I admire for even more than their dad-ing. These are men committed to serving God and their local communities but I am convinced that one of the greatest gifts they are giving the world is their children, because of how they have lived and loved and parented.

They have over 50 years cumulative experience in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In honor and celebration of these dads and with the aim of encouraging and inspiring other dads, here are fourteen things expatriate dads do well, in their own words (condensed and combined by me).

 

  1. Raising kids well and spending time with them is more important than ministry and work. One dad phrased it like this, “We were committed to never sacrifice our kids on some ‘altar’ of the ‘great work’ or ‘high calling’ that we were pursuing.”
  2. If possible, don’t work too much. And when the work is done, it is done, time to play.
  3. Commit to taking time off. One dad took his family on a day trip every two weeks to get out of the crushing cement city life.
  4. Enjoy and explore the country together. For one dad this means the beach and hiking in volcanoes and trying new restaurants, crawling around caves.
  5. If something is lacking, create what you can. Be the football coach, or start the team. Pay a little extra for access to a swimming pool. Build a bunny cage. One dad spoke of the lack of outdoor spaces for bikes and play in the city. He makes sure to get his family to grass and trees on a regular basis.
  6. Build habits and memories that transport well. Pancake Fridays. A prayer box filled with photos of family and friends from across the world, prayed through at every lunch. Family scripture memory. One dad is a ‘Tree.’ He forms a shape with his body and the kids scramble up like moneys. He claims this is possible in any country on the planet, even in airports.dad3
  7. Be honest about struggles. One dad shared how valuable it is to share burdens vulnerably with his kids so they can learn and grow as well. Let them know about dad’s work and calling and as possible, help them enter it.
  8. Know each child individually. Their friends, their experiences, their reactions. And respond accordingly.
  9. Celebrate and encourage the unique gifts of your kids and the place you live. One dad takes his son big game hunting and encourages his archery skills (2nd place at the Africa Regional Field Archery Championships!)
  10. Help kids process being a Third Culture Kid. Talk about where they come from and where they are, both the positives and negatives (with emphasis on the positives).
  11. Be wise about immersing them in the local culture and wise about when it is time for distance. One dad spoke of his children’s fluency in the local language. Another spoke of realizing, when his daughter was about to hurl a rock at kids who were teasing her, how much emotional pain she was experiencing and that he needed to step in.
  12. Be flexible about education options. Within one family, four children utilized four different educational opportunities.
  13. Encourage courage. One dad taught his children to use local buses by 10-12 years old. But also draw appropriate boundaries for your context. This same dad said no taxi rides without at least one male teenager or an adult.
  14. Be willing to make hard choices, and to stand by them with faith and joy. One dad said, “We gave up much and our kids gave up much to serve as we did in Central Asia. But we gave up Central Asia rather than leave our kids resentful when that became necessary.”
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sometimes dad scares us

Dads, what have you learned over your years? Moms and kids, how are you going to celebrate the dads among you this Father’s Day?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

You Owe Me Grace

Friends,

I am 30 weeks and a gazillion eons pregnant. My belly is the size of Canada and my brain is the size of a mustard seed (and, trust me, this mustard seed isn’t up to moving any mountains). Pregnancy and childbirth – it’s a Serious Design Flaw, if you ask me. And it’s not like there aren’t better systems out there on the market. Kangaroos, for example, have a perfectly reasonable reproductive system in place.

(Please note, if you’re tempted to mention Eve, original sin, or anything to do with apples in the comments, don’t. I’m in no mood.)

So I’m currently hanging out with our toddler in the land of ice cream and honey (also known as Australia) awaiting the birth of our second child. Meanwhile my husband, Mike, is starting a new job in Laos, overseeing an in-country move, finding a house, buying a car, etc. He won’t be here for another two months.

I was going to write something about pregnancy and cross-cultural living but, well, mustard seed. Instead, I’m going to share an unpublished piece I wrote shortly after we moved to Laos called You Owe Me Grace. This piece still makes me laugh and think. I hope you enjoy it.

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You Owe Me Grace

Ever since my husband, Mike, and I moved to Laos three months ago, perhaps the single word that has best described life is, “eventful”. Few weekends, however, have been as eventful as this last one. This weekend was the first time we bought a puppy home, the first time we cooked dinner in our new place, the first day we took possession of a golf cart as our household vehicle, and the first time we crashed it.

The town where we live, Luang Prabang, is small enough to navigate without a car. We’re still debating whether we’ll get a motorcycle or make do with our feet and bicycles, but while we figure it out we’ve decided to take our landlord up on her offer to use the golf cart that was parked on the property when we first arrived.

I’d like to be able to explain how this afternoon’s accident happened, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ve seen Mike safely navigate four wheel drive trucks backwards down dirt tracks barely wide enough to fit a bicycle (though, come to think of it, how we got stuck down that track in the first place could be the subject of a whole other article, and I’ll tell you right now it certainly wasn’t my fault). I’ve been Mike’s passenger on the back of motorcycles and in cars that he has capably piloted on three continents. I’d say without hesitating that he is a better driver than I am.

Except, apparently, when it comes to golf carts.

The golf cart’s not hard. I mean, sure, it doesn’t have lights, or turn signals, or power steering, or brakes that work well. You can’t see out the plastic windshield at the front very well because it’s all scratched up. And you do have to come in the house on an angle or you’ll bottom out. But, still, the thing is significantly smaller than the width of our driveway, which is why I remain puzzled as to how exactly Mike managed to ramp the curb while turning into the house and then drive full speed into our gate.

As “full speed” here was approximately the velocity of a decrepit ride-on lawnmower, no one was hurt – unless you count the abdominal strain undoubtedly experienced by the three neighborhood men standing nearby during their subsequent laughing fit. These men didn’t even try to pretend that it wasn’t the funniest thing they’d seen all month, and I can’t say I blame them. How often do you get to see two foreigners, carrying three kilos of tomatoes and drinking iced coffee out of a plastic bag, pilot a golf cart into a stationary object?

“I think it’s OK,” I said to Mike after we came to a standstill, laughing a little myself and having no clue whether what I’d just said was in any way true.

I hopped out and stared at the front of the golf cart. It was leaking a black, oily-looking, fluid.

Mike was considerably less amused than the rest of us.

“I don’t think it’s OK,” he said, grim, as he got out to survey the damage. “If that’s oil, then it’s definitely not OK.”

The neighborhood men had wandered over to take a closer look.

Bo di,” I said to them, shrugging.

No, they agreed with my rudimentary Lao, “cannot do”. The men went on to say many other things, too, but goodness knows what they were. The options are endless, really. They could have been offering to help us push the cart into the driveway, or they could have been inquiring as to whether we had the brains God gave a water buffalo. Even if I could speak Lao fluently, however, I’m still not sure I would have been able to understand them given that they were still laughing hysterically during the entire one-way exchange.

As Mike and the neighborhood men maneuvered the cart into the driveway I totted the tomatoes, destined for that night’s adventure in “make your own pasta sauce”, into the house. I was chopping away by the time Mike came in.

“I can’t believe I did that,” he said.

“Honey, it’s really OK,” I said. “No one was hurt. It can be fixed. It’s not a big deal.”

“I know,” Mike said, sighing. “But I feel stupid.”

“Yeah,” I said supportively. “I can see why.”

This didn’t quite make him laugh, but it came close.

“You’re taking this much better than I am,” he said. “That’s really good.”

I thought this last statement over while I did the rest of the chopping, and 36 tomatoes later I’d realized something that I’m not at all proud of.

By far the largest part of me genuinely isn’t that fussed about the golf cart. Accidents happen. The money and hassle that will be involved in getting it fixed are annoying, sure, but they are completely overshadowed by the much more important fact that no one was hurt.

But I also realized that there is a small and grubby part of me that can be secretly glad when things like this happen to Mike – a part of me that claps its hands and makes a notation on a mental list of, “silly things that Mike has done in the year and a half since we’ve gotten married”. This list has things on it like: parking ticket in LA (two), leaving a bank card in an ATM, and… driving the golf cart into the gate.

I’m not sure whether it makes it better or worse that I’m not cataloging these incidents because I’m secretly more frustrated than I act when they happen. No, what is happening is much more self-centered than mere repression. The small part of me that rubs its hands in glee at moments like these is happy because I know, I just know, that one of these days I’m going to do something dumb on a scale so epic that Mike cannot yet fathom it. I’m going to book non-refundable international airtickets for the wrong day, or write off a vehicle considerably more expensive than the golf cart, or give the wrong bank account number when I’m trying to transfer money internationally.

Oh, wait, I’ve already done that last one.

The point is, part of me is glad to tell Mike that a dented golf cart is no big deal because I’m hoping – no, expecting – that when I do this next silly thing Mike will smile serenely and tell me everything is fine. Because he will, after all, owe me grace.

Somehow I don’t think that’s exactly the spirit of what Jesus had in mind in Mark 12:31 when he instructed us that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, even if my actions in being unruffled by golf cart mishaps seem to check the box.

Oh well, I’m sure Mike will give me more opportunities in the months and years to come to get my attitude and my actions in a decent place at the same time. And who knows, I may even give him some. After all, there’s a first time for everything.

How do you handle these sorts of mishaps (which can happen a lot when you’re living overseas)?

Have you ever caught yourself feeling “owed” grace? How do you combat that?

Lisa and Mike overlooking Luang Prabang Laos

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Fundraising

The summer heat of Oklahoma turned our dingy, grey duplex into an oven. I shuffled papers around, crouched over my bulging belly on the crusty, rust colored shag carpet. Expectancy within, the birth of our third child. Expectancy all around, our impending move to Bolivia. The two events would occur in the fall, just weeks from each other, respectively. The papers contained names and addresses.

We finished our mission school classes and counted down to our launch. Consumed with the tasks of unhooking from our natal culture, we took a step of faith. Our most recent correspondence announced to the world we had quit our jobs. We would derive our sustenance from the generous financial gifts people sent to us. Per our instruction in missions school, we took strategic steps to divide our contacts in lists for effective communication.

crusty rust colored shag carlet and paper piles

‘List A’ : people who had given money in the past or who were sure to give in the near future.

‘List B’ : folks who needed to stay informed whether they gave or not, and the praying people.

‘List C’ : all the rest.

My two chubby toddlers took sweaty naps while I sorted the print-outs into three piles.

With my brain fully engaged in the act of classifications, a simple voice whispered at the corner of my soul, “I am your only list.” My fingers flew, filing on the floor, as I knelt before the homage to our own proficiency. I breathed out a distracted, “Yes, Lord, you are on the top of ‘List A’”.  In penitence to effectiveness, my sorting sped up.

Then the grace, oh the amazing grace of my God, came in thicker than the squelching humidity sticking to my skin. This time the voice flooded every corner of my heart, “I AM your only list.”

A a parent, I change my tone if I have to repeat myself. I recognized the tone. I let the papers slip from my hands. Palms turned upwards, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. I repented.

That pertinent conversation, rubbing at my impertinence, happened in 2001. Have I really lived by those words over a decade? When panic attacks, I go back to those words. As I scramble to reduce, cut back, and suck it all in so we can make it, these words bring comfort.  In seasons of abundance and in times of drought I rely, by faith, on my Only Source. My God. Through tears of joy, fear, or sorrow, I can say with Paul,

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

We trade independence and live in dependency. I cringe when I have to answer, “No, we are not with an organization, we are ‘independent’ missionaries.” For I am NOT independent! I am completely and utterly dependent upon my God. I take faltering steps, trusting Him to show us the path.

He overrides my lists. He requires I draw close to Him all the time. He points out His unique provision. Through other people, by creative ideas, and with undeniable miracles, He proves to me He is my only list.

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listThis piece comes as a response to the many messages, emails, and comments from newbie missionaries who read A Life Overseas.

There are millions of ways to get money as a missionary.

Let’s take up a collection right now. What?! Not a collection of money, silly. A collection of resources in the comment section below. Don’t be shy! What methods have you employed to finance your passion? My kooky list is included…

– Angie Washington, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: angiewashington.com twitter: @atangie work blog: House of Dreams Orphanage

Why “Did You Have Fun?” is the Wrong Question

Sweaty heads and dirty feet tumbled into the car after an evening last week at BHJ Girl’s Home in SE Asia.  And we waved goodbye out the window as the gate was closed behind us, and I asked my three kids in the backseat, “Well, did you have fun?”

And, immediately, my son started in– “I didn’t like the food.  And they wouldn’t play with me much.  And I didn’t get to play soccer. And those dogs were there.”  {I assumed that was a “no.”}

Deflate Mother-Dreams-of-Kids-Serving-the-World Balloon.

But, then, I asked {well, fired-back} a different question, “Well, did you love well?”

Pause.

“Wellllll, not really,” admitted one.

“I think I did. I helped with the dishes and played with Yada a lot,” said another.

“I totally did,” claimed the 4-year-old who just figured that “yes” was a better answer.

Drop Parenting-Revelation-Bomb.

Because every time my kids have gotten in the car after soccer practice or a school day, a playdate with friends or even a night spent with impoverished girls in SE Asia, my default question has always been about their own personal fun.  I’m typically asking, first, about their good time, the friends they hung out with, the general awesomeness of the event itself.

And, ultimately, though subtly, I fear I’m communicating that their pleasure should be the focus of hours spent with others.  And is that, really, what I want to be teaching my kids–

That if their _____{insert activity here}_____  wasn’t “fun,” then it was a waste, a thing to complain about on the car ride home?

Cue Mom’s New Brilliant-Master-Plan.

My kids will be getting a different question from now on when they plop their taekwondo belts or their book bags or their soccer cleats into the backseat.  I’ll be asking first, “How’d you love?” {or some non-cheezy-version of the same type of ask}.

Because shouldn’t our default be more about what we gave, than what we got?

And if we really believe that, shouldn’t the questions we ask our kids reflect it?

*originally posted September 8, 2011, Laura Parker Blog

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What’s the default question you ask after an event?  How do you shift your kids from being self-focused to others-focused?  Uh, how do you shift yourself?

And do your kids jump into ministry as easily as you thought? 

– Laura Parker, Co-Editor/Founder, Former aid worker in SE Asia

 

Tombstones

She sits in my office, crying.  “Why am I so depressed?  Nothing terrible happened to me.  I love my parents.  I loved living overseas.  I can’t wait to go back.  But why do I get so depressed?”

I get out a stack of paper, and draw a tombstone on each sheet.  On each tombstone, I write one of the losses she’s mentioned in passing.  As I write, she remembers others.

And on the floor of my office, we memorialize a life of subterranean loss.  We realize that every time there’s a major life transition—graduation, marriage, moves, births—there’s been an episode of major depression, as this mass of grief wells toward the surface.

So we sit with it.  We weep, we mourn.  We write, we talk, we pray.  And God heals.  He really does.

Some thoughts about TCK wounds:

  1.  To be human is to be wounded.  It’s part of the deal.  We didn’t choose this gig, but here we are.  And we’re not getting out of here without getting hurt–TCK, civilian, whatever.
  2.  TCK wounds of loss and grief are a particular subset of the human condition of woundedness.  There’s good research on this.  (See Third Culture Kids, by David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken.)  We might not like it, but there it is:  our deal to deal with.
  3.  Our TCK’s are losing their whole lives, every time we put our families on a plane.  And sometimes none of us recognize it until years later, right about the time parents are thinking, “My work here is done.”

Some things that can help:

  1. Fix our own junk.  Our kids have enough stuff.  They don’t need to be worrying about mom and dad’s issues, too. Go first.  Make it OK to be sad.  To be mad.  To be scared. To trust that God meets us in all those places, too.
  2. Let them have their own voice about their own story.  It is way too easy for the Adult Standard Version to be the only version.  Let the kids tell their side, even if it’s not how you remember it.
  3. Do it right.  Take all the vacations.  Have the family fun nights.  Break “the rules” if it means your kids will be happier and healthier.
  4. If you think something is wrong, you’re right.  Get help.

 

On our first furlough, we asked our kids to write something for our newsletter, and this is what we got.  Our 5-year-old drew a picture of a boat.  (Read, constant transition?)  And our extroverted 7-year-old couldn’t figure out why people in America were inside their houses all the time.

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What emotions are you feeling right now, as you read this blog?

Sad, glad, mad or scared?

What emotions or behaviors are you seeing in your children that might indicate pain and grief?

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This guest post offered by Kay Bruner– MA, LPC-intern, former missionary to the South Pacific.

Please check out her insightful blog, where she talks often about Third Culture Kids and their unique struggles: Kay Bruner

The Upside of Missions and How We Just Need to Have More Fun

Missionaries can be a negative, cynical bunch sometimes. And I’m not pointing fingers because I get it. I’ve drunk the kool-aid and have come up woefully short of expectations (of myself, the work and others), and I’ve done this same fall-on-my-face-move on four different continents. Hacking out a life overseas can make a pessimist out of the best of us.

But it doesn’t have to. And maybe it shouldn’t.

Because yes, international living can be brutal. Yes, kids get hurt and marriages suffer. Yes, culture shock can lay us low and goodlord sometimes other missionaries can do that, too.

And this space at A Life Overseas is most definitely a safe place to air those realities. And it’s a place to be reminded that you are not alone in them.

Yet, yet.

I do fear that missionaries can become all work and no play. All sacrifice and no joy. All sprint and no marathon.

I mean, there are some pretty amazing things that take place overseas that would never happen were we to all have stayed home . . .

*****

Okay, so bring it. What do you LOVE about living overseas? Let’s fire up this comment section with the post ivies . . . it’ll make us all feel a little better.

Laura Parker, Co-editor/founder, former humanitarian aid worker in SE Asia

Saying Goodbye: Does Practice Really Make Perfect?

Change is in the air. After three years here in Luang Prabang, we’re leaving. My husband, Mike, is taking up a new job in Vientiane (the capital of Laos), so we’re packing up our life here and moving. We’re also having another baby in just over four months.

Because of the lack of quality medical care in Laos, it would be less than wise for me to give birth in this country. Because I have a chronic health condition called lymphedema that makes enduring hot weather heat difficult and damaging, it would also be less than wise to stay here, heavily pregnant, through the worst of the hot season and then make a late-date dash to Thailand to deliver. So the plan for months had been for me to leave Laos with our toddler in mid-May when I hit the third trimester, and go home to live with my parents for five months around the delivery of baby number two.

Given that I am now 37, I am sure that my poor parents thought they were at least a dozen years past any chance that I would turn up pregnant and alone on their doorstep needing sanctuary, much less do this twice within three years. Just goes to show you never know in life. It also goes to show that when you raise third culture kids who choose to continue on as global nomads, you run a serious risk of being permanently pegged as their home base. Parents, take heed.

So Mike and I had it all planned, you see. But in the past two weeks all our carefully stitched-together plans have come unraveled. Mike has re-herniated a disc in his back that was operated on only six months ago. An MRI indicates that the injury requires another surgery, after which he won’t be able to lift anything heavier than ten pounds (including our toddler) for at least ten weeks.

I won’t bore you by relaying all the reasons we settled on our new plan of action, I’ll just jump straight to the details. We’ve scheduled Mike’s surgery for April 12th, and Dominic and I will leave for Australia on about the 18th, right after Mike comes out of hospital.

This new plan moves my planned departure from Luang Prabang up by a month, to just one week from today. It also means that Mike and I will be apart for a full 14 weeks before he arrives in Australia just before (hopefully) the birth of our second child. Mike will have to oversee the pack up of our house, move to a new city, and start a new job by himself while he’s still recovering from surgery. In short, it all sort of sucks.

In the wake of this latest medical drama, I haven’t thought a great deal about leaving here as a move. The fact that I won’t be coming back to this beautiful little town that’s been home for three years hasn’t really sunk in.

They say that practice makes perfect, but when it comes to leaving places and people I think it might be the opposite – on one level, anyway.

You do get better at coping with the logistical demands with practice. I can now tackle a multi-stage pack up of our lives, logically parse a dozen complicated flight itineraries, and shift from place to place without breaking too much of a sweat. Over time, however, the emotional demands of serial itinerancy are becoming more difficult for me to acknowledge and address, not less.

Given the sudden rush and how the pressure has accelerated all the deadlines on an already daunting to-do list, it’s perhaps understandable that this departure still feels unreal to me. I’m not exactly flush with time to sit around and think about things I’ve loved here, things I’ll miss, and all the joys and grief that this town has born witness to. There won’t be a farewell party, or many leisurely dinners with friends that would provide opportunities to tell them how we love and appreciate them, and thank them for how they’ve enriched our lives. I’m thinking more about how to survive this change than how it feels or what it means.

To be honest, though, I don’t know how much deep processing of this departure I’d be doing even if our plans hadn’t been up-ended. So far I’ve moved countries about a dozen times and houses at least twenty. I’m continually getting better at the logistics of relocation, but I’m starting to worry that I’m getting worse at saying and feeling meaningful goodbyes. The last time I deeply grieved a move I was sixteen. Now I tend to disconnect easily, perhaps too easily. And I wonder if this is linked in important ways to another trend I’ve noticed – my growing tendency to settle somewhere new lightly, perhaps too lightly.

Right now, I don’t know. All I know right now is that a week from now we’ll be on a plane, heading for a hospital in Bangkok that I’m way too familiar with. A week after that I’ll be preparing to board another plane. Then the kaleidoscope of life will be given another sudden twist and I’ll be “home” in Australia with winter coming on, minus one husband and plus two parents. I’ll be looking for a new normal for our toddler and for me for the following six months.

And then, we’ll be leaving.

And arriving.

Again.

What have your experiences been with moving?
How do you mark departures and say goodbye?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Website: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

The Help

We stood in the driveway staring at the house we had rented in Port au Prince, “This looks like New York,” she declared. “My family will call me bourgeois living in a huge house like this.” She was correct in her observation, it was a very nice house; similar in size to every house we’ve ever owned or rented.

The disparities between our socio-economic realities are pointed out in similar ways on a weekly basis.

For five years Geronne has lived and worked with our family.

The tired statement “Most Haitians live on $1 a day” only serves to annoy me. I once worked for a mission that loved to remind its donors of that. I always wanted to scream, “BUT ONLY BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT YOU PAY!

Our family has taken that impossible-to-live-on amount and multiplied it by approximately ten. Even the math morons in the crowd know that only amounts to $300 per month. A low wage in our economy is a high wage in hers.

Our friend Geronne, a person we love, a person we do daily life with, is working a job with our family for a salary that is significantly more than all of her eight siblings are making out in the village. That should feel good, right?

She enjoys running water and electricity and meals and shelter in addition to her small salary. She jokes that she hates visiting her village home because she likes sleeping with the comfort of a fan. That should feel good, right?

Troubled by the fact that Geronne’s sister was raising Geronne’s daughter for her, we asked Geronne if her daughter Jenny might want to move into Port au Prince, too. Our culture imposed on hers, we wanted to see mother and daughter under the same roof. I want the same opportunities available for her daughter as I want for my own. Geronne’s salary increased when we agreed to pay for most of Jenny’s schooling. That should feel good, right?

With the money she is earning Geronne is building a house out in the village. Slowly but surely she adds the next piece and continues to plan for her future; for her daughter’s future.

Without Geronne’s help in our home we could not both work our “jobs”. The amount of laundry and cleaning necessary to run a household of our size is close to a 40 hour a week job. She helps with cleaning. She helps with kids. Occasionally she cooks the evening meal. She is the reason everything runs as well as it does. When something comes up that keeps us from coming home on time, Geronne steps in and handles caring for the kids. It is not an exaggeration to say that without her we would be rendered ineffective. We trust her. We love her.

She tells us she loves her job and is so glad to have met us in the village seven years ago. She tells us we are family. She is happy. We are happy. It all sounds so warm and fuzzy and fair and equitable. Right? Everybody wins, right?

For some reason, that is not exactly how it feels. Something about having ‘help’ in our house leaves me feeling off balance.

When Geronne started asking Jenny to help with things we put our foot down. “Geronne, we don’t want a fourteen year old working in our house” we said. Her reply disquieted our perceptions, “You want your children to know how to work. That is why you don’t want me to pick up their toys. I want my daughter to know too. She needs to learn how to run a household just like your children. I need her to learn by doing.”

When Geronne decided after three years of living together to start making coffee in the morning, we bristled a bit and said, “Please. Stop. We can make our own coffee!” Her reply, “I am awake earlier than you and I like to it. Please don’t tell me not to do something kind.”

My husband Troy is no Lord Grantham, and I’m certainly nothing like the Countess. So, why do we feel uneasy? Have we watched enough Downton Abbey to be troubled by the disparity between “upstairs” and “downstairs”? Is it because we are white and Geronne is brown and something in the history of our lineage bothers us? Is it because I can leave this island any day I choose – and she cannot? Is it because I cannot fully imagine being willing to do the work she does for room and board and $300 a month? What is it that makes it so uncomfortable?

I don’t have any desire to be filthy rich. I don’t yearn for flashy cars or fancy vacations. I don’t want or need everyone to have the same income level. That is not it at all. It has occurred to me that even if I could pay Geronne a U.S. salary, I’d still find the whole arrangement a bit unsettling.

As I’ve come to love Geronne I’ve realized that she doesn’t necessarily want what I have either. She is not silently seething about anything I have while she switches the fourth laundry load of the day. She would like her daughter to be educated, her simple country home to be built. When she gets ill she would like to have the cash flow to go visit a competent doctor. In her culture, gainful employment means a lot of pressure to share the money she makes with many others. Given the choice, she would probably prefer a lot less of that pressure.

I’ve recently decided that this dilemma, this uneasy feeling, is not one that can be solved. It will always feel odd to me to have someone doing my housework. It will always feel uneasy knowing how vastly different our economies are. I was born in Omaha, NE. She was born in La Digue, Haiti. I went to school and learned to read. She went to school then dropped out in fourth grade and did not learn to read until she was in her mid-thirties. I went to college. She doesn’t have anyone in her family that went to college. I don’t think $300 is very much money. She does.

I have decided that maybe it should make me uncomfortable. Maybe my discomfort keeps me in check. Maybe I am better suited to face each day here because I want to find ways to close the gaping distance between us.

What about you? Do you have household help? Is it easy or uncomfortable for you, and why?

~          ~          ~          ~

Tara Livesay  works in Port au Prince, Haiti with Heartline Ministries.

blog:  livesayhaiti.com  |  twitter (sharing with with her better half): @troylivesay

Searching for home after a global upbringing

It’s book month on A Life Overseas!! I love books and I’m especially excited to be able to share a little about my latest book, Love At The Speed Of Email, with you today. I’ve got three electronic copies to give away (PDF, MOBI, or EPUB versions available). Find out how to enter below.

Love At The Speed Of Email is a memoir – the story of how I met my husband while he was in Papua New Guinea working for a humanitarian organization and I was in Los Angeles working as a stress management trainer. It’s more than a love story, though, it’s a recounting of my struggle to find an answer to the question “where’s home” after being raised five different countries and then embracing a career that kept me perpetually on the move. I suspect that this struggle to define home is one that those of you who were raised as third culture kids (or who are raising global nomads yourselves) will be all too familiar with.

The section that I’ve chosen to share with you comes from a chapter called Airports and Bookstores. I was twenty-six years old, in Hawaii, and having the time of my life at the first creative writing workshop I’d ever attended when I realized for the first time that I might have a real problem when it came to this concept of home …

***

Borrowing inspiration from the tale of the prodigal son in the Bible, our instructors had told us to write a “coming home” story. We should, we were told, write the prodigal who was us as an adult, coming home to ourselves as a child.

“Pick the clearest recollection you have of home and use that,” they said.

Everyone else reached for a pen or a laptop. I just sat there.

I was still sitting there ten minutes later.

Eventually I went up to the front of the room, to the giant leather-bound book of synonyms that was sitting on a podium, looked up home and wrote down these words: Birthplace. Stability. Dwelling. Hearth. Hearthstone. Refuge. Shelter. Haven. Sanctum.

I went back to my seat and stared past the book of synonyms, past the palm trees standing still under a blanket of midday heat, and out into the hazy blue of an ocean that promised a horizon it never quite delivered.

The list didn’t seem to help much.

Birthplace conjured Vancouver, a city I’d visited only twice, briefly, since we’d left when I was one.

Stability then. Unlike my parents’, not a word that could be applied to my childhood. In stark contrast with their agrarian upbringing, I’d spent an awful lot of my time in airports.

Maybe that was it, I thought, wondering whether the sudden spark I felt at the word airport was a glimmer of inspiration or merely desperation.

There was no denying that as a child I’d thought there was a lot of fun to be had in and around airports. More than one home movie shows me and my sister, Michelle, arranging our stuffed animals and secondhand Barbies in symmetrical rows and lecturing them severely about seat belts and tray tables before offering to serve them drinks. When we were actually in airports, we spent many happy hours collecting luggage carts and returning them to the distribution stands in order to pocket the deposit. We were always very disappointed to find ourselves in those boring socialist airports with free trolleys.

In Hawaii, I was tempted to start writing my story about home but didn’t.

“Your clearest memories of home as a child cannot possibly be in an airport,” I scolded myself, still staring past my laptop and out to the white-laced toss and chop of cerulean. “Home is not a topic that deserves flippancy. Work harder. … What about dwellings and hearths?”

That year my parents were living in the Philippines. My brother was in Sydney. My sister was in Washington, D.C. The bed I could legitimately call mine resided in Indiana. I had lived none of these places except D.C. as a child, and they were such awkward, lonely years that the thought of going back, even in a story, made me squirm. We lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years before moving to Zimbabwe, and what I remember most clearly about that time is that I spent much of it reading.

I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe.

I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they often did – sweet tales about poky puppies and confused baby birds looking for their mothers.

“You were insatiable,” Mum said when I asked her about this once. “No matter how many times I read you a book, you always wanted more.”

“Awwww,” I said, envisioning long rainy afternoons curled up with my mother while she read to me. “You must have spent hours reading to me.”

“I did,” my mother said in a tone that let me know she fully expects me to return the favor one day. “But it was never enough. So I taped myself.”

“What?” I asked.

“I got a tape recorder,” she said. “I recorded myself reading a story – I even put these cute little chimes in there so you’d know when to turn the page. Then, sometimes, I sat you down with the tapes.”

“Nice,” I said in a way that let her know that I didn’t think this practice would get her nominated for the motherly hall of fame.

“You loved it,” she said, completely uncowed. “Plus, I needed a break every now and then. You were exhausting. You never stopped asking questions. You asked thirty-seven questions once during a half-hour episode of Lassie. I counted.”

I can’t remember any of this. My earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Bangladesh, book in hand, an overhead fan gently stirring the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container. But it’s when we moved from Bangladesh to the states when I was nine that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.

Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Washington D.C. had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.

I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world, a world where your grasp on preteen fashion, pop culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that, too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.

So I read instead. I read desperately.

I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the states was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used-book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.

Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were gold mines for stories about everything from religious persecution to murder, rape, civil war, child brides, and honor killing.

In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme-reading – pushing boundaries – looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try to figure out how to make sense of pain.

It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood, I would still have spent the majority of these preteen years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other, but this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect that I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, someone who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.

It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey. They were stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.

Many people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the real and fictional worlds was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced myself. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.

In those lonely childhood years, books also provided refuge. They were havens and sanctums.

Did that make them home?

When the writing exercise ended after half an hour and we were invited to share, I’d come up with only two ideas.

Set the scene in a bookstore. Or set it in an airport.

I hadn’t written a single word.

***

Thanks for reading! You can enter to win a copy of Love At The Speed Of Email by leaving a comment below and addressing at least one of the following questions.

  • Where’s home for you?
  • What comes to mind when you hear the word home?
  • If you’re raising third culture kids, how are you addressing this issue with them?
  • Any favorite Bible verses, quotes, or stories to share on this topic?

I’ll pick three winners randomly from the comment list on Saturday the 9th of March and send out an email to the winners. If you don’t win an e-copy and you’d like to read more, or you prefer a paperback copyLove At The Speed Of Email is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red