A Chat About TCKs, Faith, and Missions with Marilyn Gardner and Elizabeth Trotter

It was a joy to record this conversation with my dear friend and fellow expat writer, Marilyn Gardner. We talked about so many things that we had to split it into two parts!

In the first video, I introduce Marilyn, who wrote regularly at A Life Overseas for many years and has published two books on the TCK experience — Between Worlds and Worlds Apart. (She also raised her five children overseas.) We talk about writing, about her TCK childhood, and then begin talking about pitfalls in missions.

In the second video, we go deeper into some current and historical trends Marilyn has observed over the years, before pivoting to MKs and faith struggles. Marilyn knows what it is to struggle with faith, and her heart is so compassionate to those who are struggling.

I hope you will watch both videos when you have time!

Return to Life

The 2000 film Return to Me is a family favorite. The movie features Bob and Elizabeth, who have been together since high school and who are still very much in love. One tragic night Elizabeth, who was an organ donor, is killed in a car accident. We watch as doctors transfer her heart to Grace, a woman who’s needed a new heart for a long time.

Grace goes nervously into surgery, hopeful for a new life. Bob, blood still on his clothes, goes home to an empty house. It’s an agonizing scene.

Months later, Grace has recovered from surgery. Bob, meanwhile, is having trouble living without Elizabeth and has buried himself in his work. Friends continually try to set him up with other girls, but Bob wants nothing to do with anyone new. He can’t get over the loss of Elizabeth. Then one night during one of these blind dates, Bob meets Grace at the family restaurant where she works. Sparks immediately start flying.

In the following weeks and months, Bob’s heart opens up to new love. But Grace is guarding a secret. Although she doesn’t know that Bob’s wife’s heart beats inside her chest, for some reason she can’t bring herself to tell Bob she’s had a heart transplant. Eventually the two of them figure this fact out, and the revelation is traumatic for both of them. Bob disappears; Grace flies to Italy to paint.

While Grace is gone, Bob realizes he loves her and can’t live without her. He looks for her at the restaurant only to find that she’s gone. He acknowledges, “I miss Elizabeth. I’ll always miss her.” Still, he’s ready to embrace a new life with Grace. He goes in search of her, and their reunion is sweet. The audience can see them building a future together.

One year after having traumatically evacuated Cambodia, I think I understand a little of what Bob meant in his restaurant confession. We left Cambodia in March, just as the pandemic began closing borders. We were relieved to have made it to U.S. soil, and for several weeks we assumed we’d be able to easily re-enter Cambodia in the fall as planned. But by May our visa and passport plans began unraveling, and by June, life as we knew it in Cambodia was over.

I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

2020 became one long grieving session. This might sound strange if you knew me in the early 2000’s when Jonathan felt called to missions and I didn’t. You might remember how I fought the call for so long. But now I felt like Mr. Holland from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which aspiring composer Mr. Holland longed for fame and renown, but instead ended up teaching music to high school students. At the end of his career, when budget cuts forced him to retire early, he observed, “It’s almost funny. I got dragged into this gig kicking and screaming, and now it’s the only thing I want to do.”

Like Mr. Holland, I didn’t initially want to move to Cambodia, but once I got there, I found a life I loved. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye — but covid said differently. For weeks, I woke up crying. Opening my eyes each morning was a painful reminder of where in the world I wasn’t. In Cambodia I had a strong support system. I lived every day with a sense of meaning and purpose. I had a place in the community and rituals and routines that brought structure to our chaotic cross-cultural life. We had raised our children there, and Cambodia was all they knew.

It was a difficult life, sure, but it was also an exceedingly good one. And I wasn’t sure I would ever stop crying over this loss. I lived in the “if onlys.” If only we didn’t have passport problems. If only we didn’t have visa problems. If only covid hadn’t happened. If only, if only, if only. I thought if I could just get back to Cambodia, I could recapture all my former happiness. In reality, even if I could have returned, I couldn’t have recaptured my old life. Covid made that impossible for seven billion of us.

Then one day my near-constant crying stopped. I thought I had accepted my new circumstances. And I do believe I had accepted that I couldn’t get my old life back. But reflecting now, I realize that I struggled deeply throughout the fall and winter. I had said goodbye to my old life — though not in person and not on purpose. But I still didn’t know exactly what my new life would look like, so it was hard to root myself here. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t think I could ever be happy again.

We were looking for a home at the time. We knew we had to be out of our temporary housing by the end of December. After several housing disappointments (a story for another time), I began to fear becoming homeless (emotions may exaggerate facts, but the intensity of the feelings are real). We didn’t have a church home yet because of covid, so I didn’t have local community to help me through this transition. I knew I couldn’t get my old life back, but I still desperately missed it.

Finally, finally, we found a home that fit our family that was also in our price range. We signed the papers mid-December, which was a bit closer to the deadline than we would have preferred. Still, we were thrilled to have a place of our own. I had no idea it would be such an important milestone in our repatriation process.

We’ve been in our new home for three months now. It fits all six of us so perfectly. I live in the daily disbelief that we could have found such a fantastic place for our family to live. We are making it our own, slowly writing our name in the land. Jonathan is tending the lawn. Pictures are hanging on the walls. We have rituals and routines, and I’m slowly re-building a support system. Living in our home has helped get me “unstuck” from the grief and helped me to move forward. It has given me a glimpse of what the next season of life might look like.

Cambodia is still a natural part of our conversations, and we frequently talk about our old life. The six of us have so many shared memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Occasionally I even long for life in Southeast Asia. But I no longer think I can’t live without Cambodia, that life simply cannot go on without Cambodia. I’m beginning to understand what life can look like here on the other side of the ocean. I feel like Bob, who knew that he would always miss his old life, but who now knew that he could also live a new life with Grace.

My old life and my new life, side by side

New Podcast Episodes: Marriage, Conflict, and Sex

Elizabeth and I recently carved out some time to go sit in a van in a park and talk about marriage. As a result, we’d like to share with you three new episodes of our Trotters41 Podcast!

This series on marriage is not specific to cross-cultural folks, although some of it is.

It’s also not specific to COVID-19, although some of it is.

We wrapped up the first part with A Marriage Blessing, and that is still our deepest prayer for marriages everywhere, whether you’re abroad or not, whether you’re quarantined or not. We had a lot of fun recording these for you all and we hope they’re an encouragement!

You can listen to the episodes at the links below, or find our podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. The links below will also lead you to each episode’s show notes, with tons of outgoing links to recommended books, articles, and resources.

In the first installment, we talked about marriage in general, discussing a theology of marriage and what the “5 magic hours” means. Listen to Episode 4 here.

In the second installment, we talked about how we conceptualize conflict, as well as some evidence-based tools for approaching conflict, including what to do if one or both people get “flooded.” Listen to Episode 5 here.

Lastly, we talked about sex, and well, you’ll just have to take a listen to that one here.

A Book is Born: Serving Well is now available!

Jonathan and I are thrilled to introduce you to our new book, Serving Well. It is our deepest hope that this 400+ page book will encourage and equip cross-cultural folks through the various seasons of life and ministry.

It’s available on Amazon here. If you’re in the States, our publisher is also selling the book with a 20% discount here.

You can read the Serving Well press release (with book excerpt) here.

From the Back Cover
Are you dreaming of working abroad? Imagining serving God in another land? Or are you already on the field, unsure about what to do next or how to manage the stresses of cross-cultural life? Or perhaps you’ve been on the field a while now, and you’re weary, maybe so weary that you wonder how much longer you can keep going.

If any of these situations describes you, there is hope inside this book. You’ll find steps you can take to prepare for the field, as well as ways to find strength and renewal if you’re already there. From the beginning to the end of the cross-cultural journey, Serving Well has something for you.

 

Early Reviews for Serving Well
Serving Well is an important voice in the search for honest, experienced conversation on living and working cross-culturally in a healthy and sustainable way. Dig in!”
– Michael Pollock, Executive Director, Interaction International and co-author of Third Culture Kids

Serving Well is more than a book to sit down and read once. It is a tool box to return to over and over, a companion for dark and confusing days, and a guide for effective and long-lasting service. Elizabeth and Jonathan are the real deal and Serving Well, like the Trotters, is wise, compassionate, vulnerable, and honest. This needs to be on the shelves of everyone involved in international, faith-based ministry.”
– Rachel Pieh Jones, author of Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World, and Stronger Than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Serving Well is a must-read book for missionaries and for those who love them. This is a book you really need if you are ‘called to go, or called to let go.’ In Serving Well we read both the spiritual and practical, simple and profound, funny and compelling in chapters written by Elizabeth and then Jonathan Trotter; hearing from each their voices and their hearts, the struggles and the victories, ‘the bad days and the good days’ of preparing to go and serving well overseas. Their down-to-earth yet godly insights were born from living overseas and from authentically wrestling with the ‘yays and yucks’ of missionary life. They draw wisdom from both Scripture and sci-fi authors, Psalms and funny YouTube videos, encounters with Jesus and encounters with cops looking for a bribe. Take two books with you to the mission field: the Bible, and Serving Well.”
– Mark R. Avers, Barnabas International

Serving Well is deep and rich, covering all aspects of an international life of service from multiple angles. It is full of comfort, challenge, and good advice for anyone who serves abroad, or has ever thought about it, no matter where they find themselves in their journeys. It is also really helpful reading for anyone who has loved ones, friends or family, serving abroad–or returning, to visit or repatriate. Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter are both insightful and empathetic writers, full of humility and quick to extend grace–both to themselves and to others. Their writing covers sorrow and joy, hope and crisis, weariness and determination. Best of all, from my perspective as someone who has worked with TCKs for over 13 years, it contains an excellent collection of important advice on the topic of raising missionary kids. Choose particular topics, or slowly meander through the entire volume piece by piece, but whatever you do–read this book!”
– Tanya Crossman, cross cultural consultant and author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century

“Overseas workers face a barrage of junk when they arrive on their field location: identity issues, fear/anxiety issues, and faith issues. I have worked with missionaries for well over a decade now and see how these common themes cry out for a grace-filled approach to truth and authenticity. The Trotters live this out loud, intentionally seeking a way to minister out of their own pain, striving, humor, and failure. Keep this reference close at hand!”
– Jeannie Hartsfield, Clinical Counselor, Global Member Care Coordinator, World Team

“This book is the definitive guide to thriving in cross-cultural ministry. The Trotters have distilled years of experience into pithy chapters filled with helpful tips and wise insights. Put it on your must-read list.”
– Craig Greenfield, Founder, Alongsiders International, author of Subversive Jesus

“In this must-read missions book, Jonathan and Elizabeth unearth the underlying motivations of the cross-cultural call. Penned with copious compassion and startling transparency, Serving Well is sure to make you laugh, cry, and, in the end, rejoice as you partner with God in His global missions mandate.”
– David Joannes, author of The Mind of a Missionary

Why Cross-Cultural Workers Need Tent Pegs

Home is a complicated word. A complicated idea. What is it? Where is it? As global nomads, we’re not entirely sure how we feel about home. We’re not sure we have it, and we’re not sure how to get it. We know the correct spiritual answer – that Christ is our home. That He is busy preparing an eternal home for us. And that even now, He makes His home in our hearts, wherever we go. Still, we search for a more earthly home. A physical place to set up camp for a while.

As an adult Third Culture Kid, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out roots. But lately I’ve been wondering if I should stop my search. I’m far too easily disappointed; permanence of people or place is not something we’re promised in this life. Even so, we need a support system for lives as portable as ours. This summer I started describing those supports as tent pegs.

A tent is a temporary shelter, and the tent pegs that fasten it to the ground also provide only temporary security. Tents and tent pegs are mobile, going with us wherever we go. They allow us to make a home right here, right now. And when the time comes, they allow us to make a home somewhere else too. Every time we pull our tent pegs up out of the ground, pack them in our bags, and move on, we can take the time to hold each tent peg in our hand and remember.

We can remember the things we did in special places with special people, and in ordinary places with ordinary people. We take those memories with us. We can take physical reminders too, small objects that represent the people and places that are dear to us; a typical expat’s house is full of knick-knacks from previous places. We can hang photos of our tent pegs on the walls of our new homes and keep them saved on our smart phones for anytime the saudade hits.

This summer on home assignment, my husband and I tried to be purposeful in giving our family tent pegs and in recognizing them as such. In addition to all the normal ministry commitments, we visited our family’s places. The settlement of Czech immigrants among the rolling hills of Iowa and the cemetery where most of them were buried. The university campus where my husband and I spent four good years and discovered a heart for ministry.

The Christian college most of my husband’s family attended — and where his great-grandfather was university president for 29 years. Our agency’s home office and its sprawling rural Kentucky campus. Dear friends and family spread across the Midwest, and the little country churches that welcome us with open arms. In between travels, we live at my parents’ house, which is a tent of its own. At each place and with each set of people, we laugh, and we talk about hard stuff. We take photos and we sear the times in our memories. We’re collecting tent pegs.

We look at the old pictures and we tell the old stories. Over and over again. Each place we visit, we tell the story of what happened there. Each person we speak with, we tell the story of what we did together. We listen to the music we heard when we were in each place and with each person. We tell our children the same stories over and over again, until they know them by heart like we do. We tell stories from two, three, and even four generations back. We’re sharing our tent pegs.

Of course, at each of these places, things are not exactly the same. My grandparents have both died, and someone else owns their house, the tent peg house I returned to over and over again as a child. The aunt who lived across the street moved to a different house. All my cousins have moved away. Our agency’s home office building is still the same, but most of the people who served there ten years ago (when we joined) have moved on by now, many to overseas location. We stopped visiting some churches and started visiting others. Sometimes the same people are there. But others have moved on or died, while new families have arrived.

Things change in our host countries too. Favorite restaurants shut down. Coffee shops close. Schools change locations. Open space gets developed. Beachfront vacations become too expensive to continue. Visa laws change. People come and go. We can’t always go back to the same places, and we can’t always see the same people. But we can take out our tent pegs and look at them. We can look at the old photos and listen to the old music and tell the old stories, and we can feel just a little more loved. We can feel just a little more settled and secure.

Our trip to our passport country is coming to an end soon. We’ve been packing up our tent pegs this week (along with enough clothes, medicine, and school books to last the next two years). In a few hours I will get on a plane to return to another one of my earthly homes — for as a friend once noted, we are always heading home, on our way from home. But wherever we go and wherever we stay, we can keep collecting tent pegs. We can take our memories of love and friendship with us to each new place. And we can anchor ourselves anew anywhere we venture off to.

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Here are two songs that my family and I discovered this summer during our travels. They speak to our third culture kid hearts, and we like to listen to them on cross-country (and cross-city) drives. Perhaps they will speak to you too.

No Roots by Alice Merton

Fly Away Home by Pinkzebra

Two Challenges That Homeschooling Families Face on the Field

In 2016 my friend Tanya Crossman published her book Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. Tanya worked with Third Culture Kids in Beijing for over a decade before writing her book, and I greatly value her insight into the hearts of TCKs today.

I’m passionate about homeschooling my four TCKs, so as soon as I received my copy of her book, I skipped straight to the home school section. Here is what I found:

“The majority of homeschool families I know do an excellent job. Unfortunately, I have also mentored and interviewed TCKs who had less effective, and less pleasant homeschool experiences. Those who shared negative experiences always referred to at least one of two key issues: working alone, and lack of social interaction.”

As a parent I want to be aware of these two important issues. I spoke about them at a conference earlier this year, and though not everyone in our online community home schools (or even has children), I think these issues are pertinent enough to warrant discussion here. Youth workers, sending agencies, and others who care about the well-being of TCKs may also be interested in how to help parents approach these concerns.

1. Working Alone
When we talk about working alone, we mean that neither parent is teaching the child, and also that no outside tutor or teacher has been engaged either. This could include single parent homes or situations where both parents work full time outside the home. On a practical level, the child has no teacher.

It’s unrealistic to expect a child to teach himself or herself completely, even in high school. (In my opinion, it’s especially important for high school students to have educational and emotional guidance from adults.) Every child needs a teacher, a tutor, a mentor, a guide. And while it’s valuable to learn how to teach oneself through books and videos, and while we do want our children to become life-long learners, students generally need someone of whom they can ask questions.

This is something to be aware of even with curricula designed for homeschooled students, curricula that are marketed to “teach the student.” Our students still need someone to ask questions of when they get stuck. Even university students have this type of help: professors have “office hours” or other times set aside to answer questions and dialogue with their students.

If a parent cannot be available to help with school work, remember that there are still many other options:

  • Classes can be taken online, with online teachers who can teach and answer their questions. Some homeschool curricula are designed completely for online work. Others provide email support for textbook work.
  • Tutors can be hired, either from the local or international community.
  • Teaching times can be swapped with other home school parents in the area.
  • Some families hire a tutor or teacher from their passport country to come live with them.
  • Even when a parent is the main teacher, we must be diligent about setting boundaries around school time and not letting ministry obligations crowd out our kids’ study time on a regular basis. This guideline goes especially for older students, who need larger amounts of uninterrupted study time to complete their high school course requirements. At times there will of course be exceptions to this. It’s simply something to be aware of.

In any case, the message is the same: children should not be expected to teach themselves entirely. Neither we nor our children need to be world class scholars; that’s not the point of education. And we don’t have to teach everything ourselves. We do, however, owe our children some care and attention to their school work. Otherwise they may become discouraged with their lack of understanding or progress. They may also become lonely, which leads us to the second issue.

2. Isolation
When we talk about isolation, we mean not having enough friends or sufficient social interaction. Homeschooling is by nature less social than local, international, and boarding school options. At the same time, we remember that social needs vary from child to child. Some children need more social time than others. Other children are overwhelmed by too much social interaction.

But all children need friends, and teenagers, especially, need friends. The number of teenage TCKs in a community can tend to shrink as families with older children make the decision to move away (for many varied and valid reasons), while families with teenagers don’t typically move to the field.

In addition, we as parents have social needs. The work of home education can be grueling. We need others to help us, to give us encouragement, to suggest fresh ideas, and simply to be friends. For parents and children both, community can be difficult to find on the field. This is especially true when families are geographically isolated.

Here are a few ideas for combating social isolation:

  • Sometimes there are local coops or support groups we can join.
  • Sometimes it’s as simple as planning more times for our kids to hang out with their friends, or for families to spend time with other families.
  • If you live far from other homeschooling families, this may even entail traveling an hour or more once a month.
  • Online community can be helpful. Moms could join a Velvet Ashes community group. Your children could Skype friends in your home country or other international kids your family has met through the years.
  • Depending on their age, kids can text and message friends who live both far and near. This avenue of communication has become important to our family in the last year or so. It involves more technology than our kids may have used when they were younger, but we remember that it’s for the vital purpose of human connection.
  • Some families even move from rural areas to urban areas when their children reach the middle school or high school years.

Homeschooling families in general need a lot of support, but these workarounds are especially important if parents are homeschooling not by choice but out of financial, geographical, or other necessity.

I’ve found personally that when our family started seeking out more consistent community (through a coop in our case), my teaching, my confidence, and my peace of mind all improved, and my children’s social lives improved. It turns out that they needed friends as badly as I did.

And we were in a “good” situation, where I had sufficient time to home school, I felt equipped to home school, and I wanted to home school. We still needed more support than we had been receiving. It’s been about two years since we joined our home school community, and it’s been key in helping our entire family thrive and be able to stay on the field happily.

It’s probably going to take some sacrifices to meet these two needs. But we must remember that sacrifices are ALWAYS made; we just have to decide what things we are going to sacrifice. Are we going to sacrifice our children’s needs in favor of the ministry’s needs, or are we going to try to find a healthier balance for the whole family?

Most families I know care about these issues and work hard to ensure their children are thriving both academically and socially. So this discussion is not a judgment but rather a reminder to all of us to continue to be aware of the issues our children face and to keep finding ways for them to thrive in cross-cultural life.

How have you handled the issues of isolation and studying alone? Any advice to give homeschooling families?

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My new book Hats: Reflections on Life as a Wife, Mother, Homeschool Teacher, Missionary, and More has a section on homeschooling, so if you want to dig more deeply into these topics, you can grab an electronic or paperback version at Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Announcing the retreat that comes to you

Hello to the ladies of the A Life Overseas community! This post is a special announcement for Sustain, this year’s Velvet Ashes retreat. It’s being held April 19-22.

In case you haven’t heard of the Velvet Ashes personal retreats before, let me just give you a quick explanation of how they work:

  • The retreat materials are online. Everything is downloadable, and you don’t have to travel anywhere. (Though of course if you can get away from your house, that’s a great option too.)
  • If poor internet is an issue for you, the retreat resources can be downloaded ahead of time, in either video or audio format.
  • You can do the retreat alone, with another person, or with a whole group of people.
  • The retreat is extremely affordable. It costs only $10 until March 7! After that the price will increases to $15, so register early.
  • The retreat timing is flexible. You can choose from half-day, full-day, and two-day options. You also have access to the retreat materials from April 13 to May 22, in case you can’t get away during April 19-22.
  • Click here to watch this year’s video promo.
  • And most importantly, register here.

Now a little personal testimonial: I’ve participated in all three retreats offered so far, and I’m looking forward to this year’s retreat as well. They’ve always been good, although I have to say that my best experience was the time I got away with a friend to a hotel for the night (something I’m planning to repeat this year).

When I did the retreat alone, the testimonies were my favorite part. I loved listening to other people’s stories of God working in their lives. When I did the retreat with a friend, however, I was able to dig more deeply into the teaching material because of the conversations we had together.

The retreat themes usually correspond to that spring’s book club discussions and weekly blog post themes, which means you have ample opportunity to process the ideas and let them impact your everyday life, even if you can’t attend the retreat (but of course it’s better if you can!).

Interested in the retreat? Register here. Don’t forget to check out the options for hosting a group.

And whether or not you participate in this year’s Velvet Ashes retreat, my prayer for you is that you would experience the God of the universe in personal and unforgettable ways. For He is good, and His love endures forever.

To the Returning Missionary

You have walked with God in this place a long time, and He has walked with you. He has been beside you and inside you this whole time. The same Spirit remains in you and with you in your new place.

This place has changed you, and you have changed this place. Do not be distressed if you don’t understand everything that has happened and that is happening. Remember that the stories God writes are always long. They unfold over generations, not days or weeks or even months.

You have been here long enough to understand some of what God is writing, for both yourself and the people you’ve served, but some things may not make sense yet. Do not fret, and do not fear. The Father will show it all to you One Day. Until That Day, remember that you leave with our love, even as you live within God’s love.

Many years ago you came to this place as a foreigner, and the place you’re going now may also seem foreign to you. Everyone and everything has changed, including you.

So in the days and months and years to come, when you feel misunderstood, remember that no one understands your foreignness like Jesus, the One who came to the most foreign land to show his beloved creatures Truth and Light. He will understand your sorrows like no other.

You have seen so much change in your years here. Change in the people around you, change in yourself, change in the people you’re returning to. And you are tired. So tired. No one can work and live as long as you have and not be tired. Remember that Christ is your rest. (And on your journey, also remember to sleep.)

Circumstances change, and communities change, and in the end, He is all we have to hold onto. So don’t lose hope: He IS our hope. Hold onto Him, and remember that His love never fails. It will never fail you.

Though organizations may fail you, though supporters may fail you, though cultural acquisition may fail you, though years of experience may fail you, though people you love and invested in may fail you, though you may even feel you’ve failed yourself, still one thing will not fail you: the love of the Great Three in One will never fail.

And One Day, this squeezing in your heart and this aching in your bones from all these years and all these travels and all the years and travels to come, it will all be undone. Everything will be made new. Remember this.

When your “exotic overseas life” feels ordinary

For months now I’ve had writer’s block at A Life Overseas. I’ve been busy, yes, but mostly I’ve had writer’s block. So you haven’t seen me around here much. I have so many things to say in general (and I do so, on my personal blog), but when I sit at the computer and ask myself, how can I help Christian expats and missionaries through my writing? I come up with nothing. Every time.

I feel useless for this community right now. My life just feels so ordinary. I’m in the thick of raising children and educating them. At this point I don’t have a lot of cross cultural advice to give, because I’m not doing a whole lot of cross cultural living or cross cultural ministering. What I am doing a whole lot of is homeschooling and homemaking.

Some friends left in May (some permanently, and some for home assignment), and I felt quite desolate. This summer I realized I have no desire to make new friends. Every relationship is so temporary, and I’m not in the mood to connect deeply with new people. They might just leave in a few years. But then I thought to myself, that’s not the kind of helpful, encouraging attitude I should be offering the readers at A Life Overseas.

On top of that, I’m not sure I’ve gained enough wisdom or experience from which to speak. I’ve only lived here five years, and that doesn’t seem like very much in comparison to friends who’ve lived here 10 or 15 years (or more). I’m not sure I have enough perspective yet. After all, I wouldn’t listen to marriage advice from someone with a five-year-old marriage.

So I figured I might as well just be honest with you: I don’t feel like I have anything to offer the expat community during this time in my life. But I thought I might resurrect the following post from my own website. Four and a half years later, it still captures how I feel about my life: Ordinary.

(If you are also an ordinary wife and mother like myself, you might be interested in this recent compilation of my motherhood and homeschooling essays.)

Ordinary

Learning a new language, interacting with an unfamiliar culture and its customs, living near an orphanage, living near a house of girls rescued from human trafficking, all these things can make my life seem overly exotic to someone living in America.

And while it’s true that living cross-culturally has been known to eat away at my mental and emotional margin, most of my life is extraordinarily . . . ordinary. I wash dishes. I fold laundry. I brush my teeth. I often combine those last two.

I cook. I grocery shop. I get to the end of some days and ask myself just what am I going to feed these people tonight??

I fetch the Band-Aids. I scrub the bathroom. I take care of sick people.

I make sure that my children study and that they play. I make sure that they put away their own laundry and that they brush their own teeth (though not necessarily at the same time).

I get irritable for all the ordinary reasons: being tired, being hungry, being hot. And during certain times of the month, I freak out. Even if I’m not tired, hungry, or hot.

I like to spend time with my husband. I like to spend time with my friends. I like to spend time by myself. (Translation: I like to check Facebook.)

These are not extraordinary things. These are the very ordinary things of my life, and I feel very ordinary doing them. In fact, I did all these things back in America, including the one-handed-laundry-sort.

And maybe, just maybe, you do all these ordinary things too.

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Does your supposedly exotic overseas life ever feel ordinary? Does that feeling ever bother you?

Why I Can’t Care About Every Crisis (on the challenges of living in two worlds)

“What are people there saying about Syria?”

This question was posed to me during a Skype conversation with a friend back in the States. My answer? “I’m not talking to anyone about Syria. I’ve got things to deal with in my own personal ministry, and I’ve got things to deal with in my team ministry. I’ve got the daily work of homeschooling – a career unto itself – and your basic ‘how do I get food on the table?’ questions. I’m also living in a culture that has its own political and safety issues. So finding out what other people in my life think about Syria is pretty much not going to happen.”

I ended my rather lengthy explanation by saying, “I just can’t care about everything.”

While my statement might sound a bit cruel, I think it also sums up the struggle of overseas missionaries and expatriate Christians in general. How can we stay connected to our world back home while also embedding ourselves in our lives here? How can we tend to relationships in our host culture and relationships in our sending culture? How can we care about global politics and local politics and politics in our passport country? (And just to be clear here, that actually makes three worlds we’re expected to live in, not two.)

Here’s how I deal with these challenges, but I also hope to hear how you balance the many relational and cultural needs you face.

 

1. I don’t try to keep up on everything.

Something I learned a few years back was that I couldn’t care about every single crisis in American evangelical Christianity. It was too much to keep up with. These days I don’t keep close tabs on that scene. I’ve also found it’s not helpful for me to know every single detail about the political scene back “home.” It distracts me from the person right in front of me (that’s my own personal limitation and may not be the case for other people!).

Politics in my host culture can be confusing, and keeping current can be discouraging at times. So I depend on my husband, who enjoys staying updated on global current events, to update me on news items relevant to Cambodia, America, and the rest of the world.

This is how I personally cope with the overabundance of information in our technological age. If you keep up on global politics more than I do, I’d love to hear how you do it.

 

2. I do try to stay connected to my life here.

I’m an introvert, but relationships are still important to me. I try to stay connected to my friends here, whether that’s having them to dinner at our house or going out for coffee with a particular friend. I’ve never been a huge telephone conversationalist, but I’ve Skype-called friends in country who live too far away to get together easily. (I have relatively good internet access.)

I plan separate times for my kids to hang out with their friends here. (They’re getting old enough that we don’t call them “play dates” anymore.) I’ve found that friends have become more and more important to my kids as they’ve gotten older. It takes work on my part to arrange these times, but it pays dividends in their happiness. (Tanya Crossman’s new book Misunderstood discusses Third Culture Kids’ need for friends.)

Of course when we talk about relationships on the field, the revolving door of friends immediately comes up. While that’s not the focus of this post, I hope to delve more deeply into expatriate friendship next month.

 

3. I do try to stay connected to friends and family “back home.”

This part is tricky because I know missionaries and other expats tend to disconnect more and more from “home” the longer they are gone. That is still a temptation for me, but in the past year I’ve tried to be really proactive in planning Skype and Facetime sessions with close friends and family. We did a lot of Skyping our first couple of years overseas, but then we let the habit slip.

In some ways that’s good; we really settled in this place. But we still need those relationships; those people were rocks for us and our kids before we left. And although our lives have all changed in the last 5+ years, those relationships are still supportive and life-giving. We don’t want to throw away that gift.

Parents and grandparents won’t always be around, either, and we want to take advantage of the time we do have. We also keep in mind that most people don’t stay on the field forever; we need to stay in touch with our “home team” because they are the ones who will be welcoming us back one day. We just have to be flexible when planning across time zones (this action point also presumes adequate internet access).

Of course we don’t want to be so connected to our old homes that we aren’t rooted in our current place, but neither do we want to neglect the people and places of our past, which is why I encourage this point.

 

Now I’d love to hear how YOU live in two worlds? (Or is it three?) What things do you do or not do while living in a culture not originally your own?

The Temporary Intimacy of Expat Life (and my search for rootedness)

It’s not hard for me to put down roots in a new place. Roots are all I want. That may sound unconventional coming from a Third Culture Kid, but Army life was unsettling, and even small tastes of stability were tantalizing to me. I’m always searching for roots.

Specific places can be very healing to me, but I almost wonder if the place itself doesn’t matter as long as the place seems permanent. I could settle anywhere as long as it’s forever. I know this need for stability points somewhere. It points to a longing for a forever home. A hunger for the new city. A desire that can’t be completely fulfilled in this sin-tarnished world.

So whenever I move to a new place, I pretend it’s a permanent home. I decide I never want to move away. I give myself, heart and soul, to this new place and to this new people. I make plans for future years, future decades even. I tell myself that I will settle here and live here forever. I imagine everything in the future taking place in this place.

While some TCKs want to move places frequently, that hasn’t been my experience. I don’t want to leave a new place after a few years of living there. I don’t become unsettled at the thought of settling somewhere. Sometimes I tell myself that this desire I have for roots is good. I tell myself that it means I’m stable and secure. But then I have to ask, if I’m so stable and secure, why would I become so unmoored by goodbyes?

A desire to move frequently can be unhealthy, it’s true. But it is equally true that this insatiable desire I have never to move homes or see life change can be unhealthy too. For see, God is the God who is doing a new thing. And growth in Christ never happens without change — sometimes painful change. So I sometimes live in denial, for this overseas life is not, and can never be, permanent. I will have to move eventually. My friends, the dear people with whom I live my life and to whom I’ve pledged my undying love, must also move at some point.

I long for the kind of lifelong friendships I read about in books. I long for the kind of small town community my grandparents experienced in rural Iowa. I want roots, and not sky. And I will put in the time and energy, dog-gone-it. I will pour into friendships as though they were going to last forever. I want to be able to trust these relationships. I want them to become the structure of my life and of my heart. Always niggling at the back of my mind, however, is the fact that they can’t be. That this marvelous intimacy we create with fellow expats is at best a generation’s length: no one stays on the field forever.

We often lament that people in our passport countries don’t fully understand us. Neither do the people in our host countries. But with our fellow expats, the friendship goes deep, fast. These friendships are deep and strong, yes, but alas, they remain short. They are not forever. The very thing that draws us together – our mobile lifestyle – is what pulls us apart. We move. Someone else moves. And the friendship is stretched taut. It was good, it was deep, it was real. And it was temporary.

Because one day all that precious intimacy goes poof. It evaporates. It dissipates. Not that we won’t keep in touch – in this internet age we probably will – but that our daily and weekly fellowship will be severed. Love may not wane, but shared life must and will. This small, tight-knit community is practically perfect, except that the closeness isn’t here to stay. It’s not long-term in real life the way it is in my imagination. And for now, this is a tension I carry with me in all my non-familial relationships.

I live with the unwanted understanding that this place cannot be my forever home. I can’t settle here for all time. I know I must leave someday. I must say goodbye to the people and the place and I don’t like it. Not one bit. In these times I tell myself it’s ok. That all I really need is my relationship with God.

But that attitude tends to isolate me from others. I retreat into my protective shell and cut off life-giving relationships. But doesn’t God set us in physical places, all the way from the Garden to Canaan to southeast Asia to the new heaven and earth? Christ is central to our rootedness, yes, but physical places and physical people are important too. Fellowship and space-time were His idea, after all.

So where does this leave me, unable to settle permanently in a space, unable to live continually with the same people, unable to depend solely on Jesus for companionship? It leaves me in a place of temporary intimacy with people and temporary settledness on the map. It leaves me in a place of desiring more permanency than I can currently claim. And it leaves me waiting for a better day and a better country, for a time and place when temporary fades away and I’ll be given eternal roots.

This Is Who We Are

Who are we over here at A Life Overseas?

As editor-in-chief of this blog collective, I’d like to give you my answer to that question. A Life Overseas is an online space where writers and readers show up to tell their stories. We share stories of wounds and stories of healing. We share stories of loss and stories of hope. And sometimes, we share stories that don’t yet have a label.

Our writers meet here from all across the denominational spectrum. Each of us is a different permutation of cultural and intercultural and cross-cultural experience. Yet we all show up here once a month, or once every few months, to connect across feeble lines of prose and shaky lines of code — and sometimes even shakier lines of internet cable. But we keep showing up anyway.

Why would we do such a thing? Well, we do it because we love you, and we don’t ever want you to feel alone in the life you’re living and the joys and challenges you’re facing. More than that, though, we do it because we love Jesus. We show up because there is something so compelling about this Christ-Man that we cannot help but speak about Him.

So we show up to worship this God-King of ours. When I say worship, I don’t just mean the songs we sing when we gather together as the Body of Christ on Sunday morning or Sunday evening or whenever it is we gather together. Rather, I mean that we are here to collectively proclaim His goodness and remember His power and hope for His return.

That doesn’t mean we’re all the same. Our readers and writers have lots of denominational, cultural, and personality differences, just like the global Church we represent. But we can experience an incredible amount of unity among diversity when our sole focus is Jesus and His healing, saving, forgiving power. When everything else is stripped away – our abilities and our doctrinal differences and our shadow comforts and even our heart languages – Jesus still remains.

Christians from all over the world and from every faith stream gathered together this past Sunday to worship this Jesus, the Risen King. Jesus brought us together this week and truly, He is what brings us together every second of every day, regardless of our other differences.

Jesus the One and Only is the only one who can define us as a people. We are the people who belong to Him, and we are the people who believe in Him. We are the people who are cherished by Him, and we are the people who are redeemed by Him. We are the people who daily lift up His name, and we are the people who are waiting for Him to make everything right again. That is who we are.

 

The following four songs express our relationship to Christ and recall the deepest foundations of our faith. May they remind us, the people of God, who we really are.

 

“We Believe” from Newsboys.

“This I Believe” from Hillsong.

“Even So Come” from the Passion conferences.

“Even Unto Death” by Audrey Assad, written in response to the execution of 21 Coptic Christians in 2015.