The Introverted Expat

Introverts seem to be getting more attention these days, which might make most of us uncomfortable. 35 Quotes for Introverts. 27 Problems Only Introverts Understand. Susan Cain’s book Quiet. Donald Miller wrote about How to Get Along With an Introvert. How about the expatriate introvert?

Hi. I’m Rachel and I’m an introvert.

introvert1I don’t like change. I don’t thrive in new situations. I don’t get excited about meeting new people. I am oversensitive to noise and smell and touch. Places like airports and airplanes and developing world markets make me feel lightheaded and induce extra trips to bathrooms, if there are any. I am not good at surface conversation and at parties I prefer to find one or two people, settle onto a furesh (a long, low Somali cushion), and talk about the things that make us cry, or make us laugh, or make us furious, in other words the deep waters of our souls.

I just spent almost a month alone in Djibouti for the first time in my life. Is a wife and mother allowed to say this: For the most part, I enjoyed it.

I love people but sometimes I don’t like them. I love being with people and sometimes I want them to leave.me.alone.

I notice things my extroverted husband doesn’t. I pick up on subtle cultural cues and learn hand gestures as quickly as spoken vocabulary. I am comfortable being an outsider at a party because it is okay with me to sit back and observe. I am the first to know where burning tires block the road because my extra-sensitive sensors smell them first.

The expatriate world is peopled by extroverts, or at least people masquerading as extroverts. There are lists of ‘successful’ expats and often one of the primary underlying characteristics is extroversion.

People person. Talkative. Adventurer. Bold. Risk-taker.

Added to this is the pressure on Christians to ‘love Jesus out loud’ and many CEIs (Christian Expat Introverts) start to suffocate or shrivel. This quote from Susan Cain, author of Quiet (link below) captures it:

“Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme…If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.”

There are good reasons extroverts do well overseas. How do you learn a language? Typically by talking. How do you dig below the surface of a new culture? Typically by asking a lot of questions and getting involved. Expats have to communicate and build community and go to the market.

But expats also have to listen well to learn that language. To go deep, they have to be alert to nuances that locals might not even be consciously aware of. In that crowded market, expats don’t have to befriend every stall keeper. They can zoom in on one or two.

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While extroverts seem to be the type of expats who thrive, I beg to differ. Introverts bring unique skills to the overseas experience, family, workplace. We need each other.

If you’re an introvert:

  • Know it. There are strengths and weaknesses. Recognize your limits and when you need to back off. Knowing yourself well and planning accordingly releases pressure, decreases the chance of burnout, and will help you not yell at your children/spouse/dog/taxi driver.
  • Own it. Don’t be ashamed. So you are more sensitive to smells and are the first one to notice the sewage or the roses. Let your nose guide you to a new restaurant or to finding the bag of rotten hermit crabs stinking up the house (true story). Being an introvert is not the same as being timid and it is not weakness. It is courage and vulnerability, just like being an extrovert. Live it well.
  • Use it. Language learning will be exhausting because it requires copious amounts of time with people and you might be more hesitant to open your mouth and practice. Do it anyway, do it afraid, as Tara Livesay wrote. But remember that introverts thrive on deep, intimate conversations. This is fabulous for language learning and will enable you to develop vocabulary and to probe deeper into cultural aspects of language. Introverts are top-notch observers and are often excellent resources for cultural cues and subtleties.

If you are an introvert, married to an introvert, or find yourself working with an introvert, (so pretty much if you are alive and relate with humans) read Quiet by Susan Cain or watch her TED talk.

Are you an expat introvert or extrovert? How do you thrive?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, introverted development worker, Djibouti

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

When Envy Rots the Soul

Cairo, Mosque

We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.

We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.

“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”

The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.

“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.

She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.

But it didn’t. Not really.

Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity.

I have met the most gifted people in the world who are involved in life overseas. Men and women who have left much of the familiar and entered into countries where they are guests, forging their way in territory that is unfamiliar from language to food choices. The list of characteristics of what it takes is long and impressive. Adaptability, perseverance, compassion, adventurous spirit, capable of ambiguity, linguistic ability, great sense of humor, empathy — the list goes on and on. But take a group of people, all with the same goal and similar characteristics, insert jealousy and envy and unity is no more.

Because envy is insidious in its ability to destroy relationships. It loves to disguise itself in well-meaning jargon and light humor. It snakes its way into conversation and behavior. It is called the green-eyed monster for a reason.

I’m a definer – that means I like to start with definitions. Definitions have a way of clarifying things for me. And so in the case of jealousy and envy it has helped me to note the similarities and differences; Jealousy at its simplest is fear of losing something I value; envy is wanting something that someone else has. They have no redemptive value – they are vices. I realize I am envious of those most similar to me. In the case above it was someone who was living in Cairo, same stage of life, a mom with kids, who communicated in Arabic far better than I did.

There is nothing quite like envy that renders me ineffective. I am paralyzed on the outside while my insides have a monologue with God. A monologue that boils down to two questions:

Why her?

Why not me?

There are no simple answers but I’ve found a few things help:

1. Honesty and admission of sin. This is my first step in fighting this ongoing battle of envy. Honesty. For if I cannot be honest, this vice will rot my soul and slowly but steadily infect my body.

2. Confessing the sin. It is not enough to just admit my envy. I have to take this next step – confess this to the God who knows me and sees me raw, loving me anyway.

3. Recognize the ‘why’. In the case of language learning the ‘why’ was easy. I love talking and I wanted to talk with ease and fluency. I didn’t want to stumble over my words.  The ‘why’ was reasonable and commendable. The ‘why’ is not the sin, the envy resulting from the ‘why’ is the sin. Recognizing the ‘why’ is crucial in my journey from envy to peace.

4. Thank God for the person. I hate this one, but it works. Because in the course of giving thanks I am reminded that the person is loved by God, gifted by God for His purposes. As I thank God, I am ever so slowly able to accept and even rejoice at the ability or gifts of another. Rejoice that we are part of God’s redemptive plan, a plan far greater than any of us know.

5. Pray for acceptance of who I am and how I am gifted, or not. So much of my envy comes from insecurity and inability to accept who I am, how I’m wired, my strengths and my weaknesses.  As I work through accepting how God made me, the circumstances where he has placed me, envy is squashed. I learn more about trust and faith.

Would that envy could be erased once and for all, the answer an easy formula. At times I believe I will never be free of this vice, that it is so much a part of my journey in this broken world that I will struggle until I am face to face with the God who made me.

So I raise my prayer to the Master Designer who knit me together, who knows my comings and my goings, knows where I sit and where I stand. A God who knows my thoughts before they are voiced, knows when I am prone to envy, to insecurity. I raise my prayer and ask for a heart free of envy and full of peace, giving life to the body and health to the soul.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones~ Proverbs 14:30

Have you dealt with potential competition or envy with fellow workers who are overseas?  It’s a hard but important question!

*name has been changed!

Marilyn Gardner – grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard

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Brave or Dependent?

depend2Some people tell me it is brave to raise my kids in Africa. They could get malaria or be bitten by a poisonous snake. They don’t have a Sunday School class. They can’t eat gluten-free foods. Their friends are Muslims. They live far away from cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents.

My initial reaction is to to say, “Well, I think it is brave to raise kids in America.” I know my heart, my soul-shriveling tendency to love the world. I know my kids, how quickly they could be sucked into the idolatry of a nation whose church is the shopping mall and whose God is the latest iPhone.

But this kneejerk reaction is wrong because it assumes brave is the right word to use to describe parenting, on any continent.

Brave is the wrong word.

Life As Fasting

Living overseas is a form of fasting. Fasting from the comforts of a would-be heaven on earth where there are hot showers, dishwashers and clothes dryers, fully-stocked grocery stores and someone else to teach piano lessons. Living overseas is fasting that says, “this much, O God, this much, I want to know you.” And, “this much, O God, this much, I want you to be known” (Michael Oh).

I want to know God deeply and I want him to be known so much that I will risk scary diseases, fast from my beloved family and worldly comforts, and teach my children to engage with neighbors of differing faiths. But to live and fast like that, to raise my children like that, isn’t brave. And I know people who don’t live overseas who want to know God deeply and want him to be known so much that they live in inner city neighborhoods and they live in the suburbs and they choose to love like Jesus. They don’t feel brave.

When I think about mothering my three children who love this steamy, desert nation, I don’t feel brave. I feel dependent. Helplessly, desperately, breathlessly, clingingly dependent.

Last week the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began. Fasting from food and water is hard. Fasting from food and water in the hottest country on earth is dang hard. Fasting from food and water in the hottest country on earth in the hottest month of the year is dang stinking hard.

djibouti market

And the strain will begin to show because fasting (Muslim, Christian, or otherwise) emphasizes our weaknesses, reveals the longings of our taste buds and stomachs and exposes the very real, carnal needs of our bodies. Fasting reminds us that we are helpless and desperate, utterly dependent on food and water, and when undertaken as a spiritual discipline, fasting reminds us that we are helpless and desperate, utterly dependent on God.

He is the sustainer and the giver of comfort. He forgives and provides. He has prepared a place for us. He sends hope and perfects joy. He encourages the weary and heals the broken.

Some people tell me I’m brave for raising my kids here. Some people tell Muslims they are brave for committing to a challenging fast. Sometimes I think my friends in the US are brave. But I also think the point of any fast is to reveal how truly unbrave we are. And one of the things I’ve learned through raising kids (both in Minnesota and in Djibouti) is how truly unbrave I am.

Because brave is not the right word for people seeking God.

Dependent is.

How has living overseas revealed your dependency? I have learned many things while surrounded by the Ramadan fast, has God used the spiritual discipline of another religious system to encourage you?

*Part of this post is taken from Desperate, Breathless, Dependent Parenting by Rachel Pieh Jones on the Desiring God blog. Click the link to read the original and complete post.

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

Holiday Grace

Tomorrow is the 4th of July – Independence Day in the United States and a national holiday. It’s a day that causes laughter and cross national joking in expatriate communities where those from Britain and the United States work and play side by side; where nation building dissolves and friendships build strong.

I grew up knowing Holiday Grace. Grace that seemed shaken together, running over, doled out in extra measure during holidays celebrated far away from family and passport country.

Because holidays were times when my parents, native to Massachusetts where picture-book houses and white picket fences abound, would feel the tug of  home and family. Home and family would grab the heart and squeeze with a vice-like grip of unbelonging and a loud ‘What am I doing here, six thousand miles from all that is familiar?”

Holidays were the times when it was too easy to use the words “God forsaken” knowing that God does not forsake. Holidays were the times when it was easy to feel ‘foreign’. 

There was the time when my mom felt desperately lonely in a small city with no other English speakers, no other expatriates. The large house we lived in was surrounded on four sides by mosques, the Call to Prayer loud in the morning hours and lonely in the evening. It was Christmas time and her heart throbbed with a longing for Christmas at home in New England. Her mind was far away with real Christmas trees, snowy evenings, and family – but her body was in a small town in Pakistan. Holiday Grace came when missionaries from a town two hours away made the long trek on a dusty, partially unpaved road to surprise our family on Christmas eve.  She had gone up to the flat roof and was looking over the city, tears of longing and pity welling in her eyes, when she heard the ever familiar sounds of “Joy to the World.” She thought it was angels heard from the rooftops. And in many ways she was correct. These friends brought Holiday Grace to a young woman’s aching heart as they sat and drank hot cocoa and laughed together until late in the evening.

There was the time when we had no sugar, no flour, and little butter at Christmas. But somehow Holiday Grace abounded and our kitchen was full of spicy goodness. There were Thanksgiving meals at an international boarding school, where those who were not from the United States celebrated hard and graciously. And there were the Eid celebrations when we were invited to join the feasts of our Muslim friends, experiencing the Holiday Grace of acceptance from our adopted country.

Each holiday seemed to be met with this extra grace, Holiday Grace.

I went on to raise a family overseas and began experiencing Holiday Grace as an adult. But it was in our fourth year living in Cairo, Egypt that Holiday Grace came in a way I could never have imagined, much less orchestrated.

It was text-book unmerited favor surrounding me.

It was the 4th of July, Independence Day for the United States, and six months prior I had given birth to our fourth child. The summer was well upon us, the heat broken by trips to the swimming pool at the International School. My husband was in full-time Arabic language study and many of our friends had left for either their passport countries or holiday spots in Egypt. With four kids I was quickly running out of ideas for fun. I was in survival mode.

Added to this, my maternal grandmother had died a couple of weeks before. I felt the absence of family acutely. I  heard about the funeral through letters, but missed family so much that it throbbed.

Then came the holiday – the 4th of July.

4th of july 2Many of us who have lived overseas know that embassies celebrate their holidays well, no matter what country. The parties put on by U.S. Embassies were legendary. Free food, entertainment, swimming, games, face-painting, and raffles from large companies that donated prizes like nights in hotels, and free airline tickets to the lucky ticket holders were all there in abundance.

For a time my sadness was in a welcome reprieve.

Accompanying our family were some students  my husband had befriended from the U.S. They were facing inevitable culture shock and when he told them about the “Free party on the 4th!” several of them jumped at the chance to come. They were ready to head back to “real Cairo” where fuul beans, busy streets and the charm of the Middle East flourished,  when they asked my husband if he wanted their raffle tickets. Realizing that he would lose nothing, he said yes and so we had in our possession six tickets to holiday prizes instead of two.

And the raffle started. In what could only be Holiday Grace – I won. Not one prize, but two. The first was a breakfast for two at a large 5-star hotel in the city.

The second? A round trip ticket to anywhere in the United States that I cared to go. Anywhere. That meant a trip to see Family!

I can still remember walking up to the staged area to get my ticket, the feeling of  God’s arms enveloping me like the warmth of the Cairo summer. The missed funeral, the absence of close relatives to celebrate our growing family unit, the lonely ache for people who shared our family history – all that had crushed me during the weeks before faded into Grace.

This was my Holiday Grace. And I would never forget it.

What is your experience with holidays? What extra measure of Grace have you felt during holidays overseas?

Marilyn Gardner – grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard

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Fourteen Things Expat Dads Want To Tell Expat Dads

dads1

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

Bruising Seasons

reed3
there they go

I stand at the entrance to the airport with my arm around her. Four of our children slide backpacks and trunks through scanners, turn for a last wave goodbye. One, for the last time. He’s graduating from their boarding school this year. Mine won’t get that old, will they? I counted, on the drive to the airport. We do this three times a year. We have five more years of school. That makes fifteen times.

Fifteen times I will drive to the airport with my forehead pressed against the glass. Fifteen times I will try not to lose my temper all morning because that’s how I feel about people I love leaving. Fifteen times we will make double batches of peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies and cram extra toothbrushes into carry-on bags and remind them to call home on Sunday.

Her shoulders shake and she lists off the things in his trunk. The old medals and the school projects. Special toys and gifts from friends. Photographs and volcanic rock and broken pieces of coral. It’s a list of a life lived well and stretched out and moving beyond. The next time she sees him, he will wear a graduation robe and an Honor’s medallion. One more miracle. Like the time one child survived licking bleach on a challenge from his brothers. Like the time another child fell from the roof and walked away with a bruise. Like the time another whispered he was ready for Jesus.

Knowing the miracles, listing them and putting them in the trunks of our mother-memories, strengthens us to turn from the airport and go back home to only three plates around the kitchen table, only three pairs of shoes to trip over in the doorway. Back home to candy wrappers stuffed beneath mattresses and Legos, forgotten in dusty corners.

This is what it feels like to say goodbye to kids going back to boarding school.

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there they go again

Is this what it feels like to say goodbye to children and grandchildren moving to the Horn of Africa? Is this what I’ve been doing to my parents and in-laws all these years? Leaving them to count the airport runs, the passing years, the forgotten toys? Leaving them to count the miracles and to lean in hard, trusting for more?

It’s a bruising feeling. Deflating and depleting. And I want to say, to the men who tell us the kids have passed the visa checks and are out of sight, to our guard when we return from the airport, to the woman who taps on our window and asks for water, to my husband, can you let me be bruised for a little while?

There’s a bruised reed in Isaiah 42:3 and God does not order it to stand upright. He does not force it into a strong pose. He does not cut it down. He does not stomp on it or grind it into the dirt. He doesn’t laugh at it and he doesn’t demand it try really hard to be unbruised, or to turn away and mask the bruise.

He makes a promise. His Servant will not break it. A bruised reed he will not break. A bruised reed bends and hangs limp, folds in on itself and braces against even the slightest wind. It shrinks down heavy among other, stronger reeds.

And here comes a gentle hand, cupping the swaying reed. Fingers circle the bruised part and share the weighty burden of trying to stand while bruised. A voice whispers promises.

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I will never leave or forsake.

When you walk through the fire, I will be there.

Nothing can separate you from my love.

I heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.

Darkness is as light to me.

Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.

I am El Roi, the God who sees.

I am your refuge and strength.

You are mine.

I will hold and strengthen.

Even on the far side of the sea…

 

Have you experienced a recent bruising season? In your bruising seasons, what promises sustain?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…

When you start to pick your nose in public, you might be too cheap for Kleenex. Or you might live in a really dry, dusty place and need to dig that one out before it makes you bleed. Or you might be overdue for a break.

When you (if a native English speaker) start to say things like, “There is no being upsetness in playing video games,” and think that is perfectly good English, you might be a really bad English teacher. Or you might be dizzy and dehydrated from the rising summer temperatures. Or you might be overdue for a break.

when this starts to look like a darn good beach shade…

How do you know when your time to step out of the host culture has come? I knew it when I would catch a side glimpse of myself in a mirror and only then, notice that my shoulders hunched forward, only then, realize I was too exhausted to even walk upright.

Living overseas is expanding and exhilarating and inspiring. And draining. At least for some. Our daughter asked why we were going to Minnesota for a year in 2011 and I said, “Daddy is working on his PhD and mommy needs a break from Djibouti.” She said, “Why? What do you need a break from?” To her this sounded like, “Mommy needs a break from life.”

And that’s what furlough, R ‘n R, can feel like, which is probably why a lot of expats shun the notion until they are walking like one hundred-year old women, shuffling around like the hunchback Jesus healed, eyes on the dirt and the dirty feet and not looking up into the face of our Healer. But that’s not true. Time away from the host country is not a break from life. It’s a break from specific things about expat life that strain.

Everyone encounters stress, another excuse for expats to forgo the rest time. Why should we remove ourselves from our work and friends and expat home life when others aren’t allowed that option? Because expat stress isn’t just the stress of a job or of a difficult relationship. Expat stress affects every single aspect of our lives from seemingly minor things like clothes and food to deep things like how we practice our faith and how often we relocate. The stresses strike at our sense of identity and are often far beyond our ability to control, let alone comprehend.

*holidays away from family

*speaking multiple foreign languages all day, every day

*excessive heat or cold or dust

*loneliness

*the stress of never fully comprehending the surroundings

*inability to make quick, confident choices

*lack of spiritual fellowship, input, and accountability

*lack of vocational training or development

The list could go on as long as there are expats

Furloughs are not a break from life because life continues, we take living with us. On either side of the ocean there will still be meetings and proposal-writing, diapers and school lunches, laundry and car repairs, relationships and labor. But for a brief time, there will also be green grass to roll in and Grandma’s caramel rolls for Christmas breakfast. There will be the intrinsic knowledge of how to dress, how much things should cost, how to respond when your kid is bullied at school. You will know exactly, without a second thought, how to stand in a line at the store, how to speak English, and how you like your coffee.

sometimes you need to step away

I’m not saying that assimilation is wrong, it’s good. It’s important to learn how to elbow your way to the counter at the corner store, if that’s how your host country does it. Important to learn how to farmer blow inside restaurants, if that’s how your host country does it. It is important to appreciate and use idioms and grammar in the local language.

But there are times when the stresses of the stripping, of behaving chameleon-like, become too heavy and we start to lose ourselves, lose focus, lose energy, lose any joy in the work or the friendships, even lose faith. And then it is time for that break, probably past time for that break. Then, it is time to remember how, in your passport culture, to appropriately deal with those pesky nose boogers.

 

Do you pick your nose in public? Just kidding.

Real questions: How do you know it is time for a break? Have you ever over-stayed?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

Ice Cream and Poverty

My 7-year old went to her Somali/Arab/Afar dance class one Saturday afternoon. The guard outside informed us that there was no longer dance on Saturday afternoon, no matter that we had signed up, no matter that we had paid just last week.

Discouraged, we ran errands instead and ended up at a store which sells Magnum Bars. Be thankful drool doesn’t come through the internet. Mmmm….Magnum Bars….mmmm…My husband was a country away, my twins were at boarding school two countries away, dance class was canceled…We decided to buy two ice cream bars and eat them while taking a stroll through the neighborhood together.

I left the store with three little white plastic bags of items like canned corn and tomato paste and toilet paper. As I reached the car I heard my Somali name.

“Luula! Luula!”

I knew immediately which woman it was, or rather, which type of woman it was, as awful as that sounds. And my heart sank.

Homes of hard-working, creative, intelligent people

Her type is beggar. Her name is Arwo. Her need is a black hole of desperation. I despise everything about how I think of her and confess my sin as quickly as it rises.

I put the groceries in the car, take my daughter’s hand, and walk to Arwo. We grasp fingers and ask after one another’s children. Mine are in a fabulous private school. Hers can’t afford the notebooks required to attend free local schools. People are staring. One man tries to shoo her away from me but we ignore him.

She asks for money, for 1,000 franc, about $5.50.

I say no.

She presses. I say no again.

We say goodbye and I leave her there on the corner. Lucy and I return to the car, take the ice creams out of the box where they have already started to melt. It may be the cool season, but this is still Djibouti, still the hottest country in the world.

We eat our ice cream and walk, hand in hand, and I feel sick.

I really struggled to find a photo. Wanted to be careful to not objectify or bow to stereotypes. So here is me and my lovely, holding hands.

I have a history with this woman and of wrestling with these issues of poverty, of wealth. It would be impossible to scratch the surface in a single post. Especially because the wrestling continues. I have no answer.

Should I have given her money? My reasons for saying no are complicated, guided by prayer, study, local counsel, experience. But they aren’t hard and fast, and I still waver.

Should I have offered her an ice cream bar? I know she wouldn’t have eaten it. She would have nibbled the top and left it to melt. Ice cream isn’t what she needs or wants or likes.

Should I have offered her the canned corn from my groceries? Maybe.

Should I have stopped struggling and wrestling and feeling guilty so I could enjoy the walk with my daughter? Probably.

If I ask, “What do you think/do/feel about poverty?” or “How do you handle or react to poverty?” I think the dialogue would be vague, massive, impersonal. Instead, I have presented you with one situation, one example, one narrow glimpse at an overwhelming issue many face on a daily basis.

I told you what I did. I’m not at all sure it was the right thing.

What would you have done? And, I’ll just go ahead and ask it: How do you deal with poverty?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

To read more about how I approach issues of poverty, here are two recent pieces that come at things from slightly different angles.

Contributing to Relational Poverty

Who is Poor? Who Decides?

The Aim of Language Learning

I posted a note on Facebook about a language lesson and received this comment, “Are you still studying language? I thought you’d be fluent by now.”

Ouch.

It has been more than a decade. What’s my problem?

I can make a list of excuses. I speak two, sometimes three languages. I had two-year old twins when we arrived and added another baby. My family endured an emergency evacuation, searing conflict, work crises…I could say this particular language is just plain too hard: there are few textbooks, the two that exist are error-filled and not my dialect. The written form is young and still working out spelling kinks. Or I could say I’m stupid or I’m not a language person. Or I haven’t worked hard.

In other words, I could blame language difficulty on situations, the language itself, or my failings.

But I have worked hard. I’ve put in forty-hour weeks. I’ve studied faithfully all these years. I have a degree in linguistics and love languages and language learning. I use all the languages every day. I’m highly conversational.

So the question lingers, why do I still have language lessons? What’s my problem?

This, fellow expats, is the wrong question.

Raise your hand or leave a comment or tweet it out if you moved overseas under the impression a good solid two years of immersion study would have you fluent.

Oh how many times I’ve heard this and then seen people leave, far from fluent, after 2-3-4 years.

Language learning is hard, so hard that the best advice I’ve heard is: “Anyone who wants to learn a language well must have a solid theology of suffering.” (pretty good advice for all of life, I’d add)

Will language learning never end?!

The reality is, you might not ever reach fluency. Or it might take you years longer than you thought. Your spouse or coworker might fly past you, you might fly past them. But this is not about you. It is not about your speed or adeptness. What is wrong with me when language comes slow is the absolute wrong question.

The right questions are: How does God want to change me and use me while I learn this language? How does God want to accomplish his purposes through me while I learn this language? How can I love people while I learn this language?

The point, the aim, is not fluency. The aim is to honor God, to be used by him, to become more like Jesus, to love well.

Work hard, study hard, don’t give up. There will always be fables you don’t know, proverbs you’ve never heard, jokes you miss the punch lines of, songs you can’t quite follow. This is why I still have a language tutor.

There will always be people who need jobs, people to love and relate with, people to visit in their homes and invite into yours, people who delight in helping you discover the beauty of their culture at ever-deepening levels. This is why I still have a language tutor

God will always have lessons in humility, patience, endurance, treasures of the exquisite in the unique turn of a phrase and in the relationship. This is why I still have a language tutor.

And as you labor and learn and laugh at yourself, remember. The aim is not your own fluency. The aim is God’s work in and through you, however and at whatever speed he plans to accomplish it.

What motivates you to keep studying language?

Advice for newbies or oldies?

Funny language faux pas?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping

Expatriates are told to prepare for Culture Shock and expect to experience it within their first year.

But what about after that year? What about after seven years? Nine? Fifteen? What about the frustrations and tears, hurt and stress, internal (or external) cries for ‘home’? What about those days when you will do anything to get.out.of.here?

After the first year, I thought I was free from culture shock. Now I would delve deep, adapt, feel more local than foreign. So when I continued to struggle with cultural issues and when that struggle increased and peaked around year seven, I thought I was crazy. Failing. The Only One.

This wasn’t culture shock, I had moved well beyond shock. So what was it? I discovered that two things happen, after culture shock, as we root in a land not our own, as we love hard and get involved and take risks.

  • Culture Pain

Culture pain comes when the difficult, or different, or confusing aspects of a new culture begin to affect you at a deep, personal level. Living overseas is really your life now. This is your past, your present, your future. This is where your children learned to walk and ride bikes, where you laugh and grieve and build a tapestry of memories.

Things like corruption and poor health care, attitudes toward HIV, education of girls, adoption, or poverty, religious rituals, children’s rites of passage, are not theoretical anymore. This is now you giving birth, your daughter in the classroom, your adoption papers misplaced, your coworker recently diagnosed. These issues are now yours to navigate. And sometimes, that hurts.

  • Culture Stripping

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“That very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when we began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt…he peeled the beastly stuff right off…and there it was lying on the grass…and there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been…I’d been turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’re no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.”

  • Glad for it

The arms, the new self, this new way of living and seeing the world look different than before you moved overseas. Not perfect, not like anyone else’s, and still sensitive. But different because the shock, the pain, the stripping, have changed you.

And you are glad to see it.

Have you experienced Culture Pain? Culture Stripping? Culture Shock? Did one surprise you more than the others? Linger longer? Cut deeper?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

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Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrifice”

Hudson Taylor said it, David Livingstone said it. “I never made a sacrifice.” A life spent as a foreigner, away from traditional comforts, away from family and home country, a life of talking about Jesus, in these men’s opinions was no sacrifice.

While I understand the sentiment and the faith-filled valor behind it, I respectfully disagree. What these men did with their lives in China and on the African continent is the very definition of sacrifice.

A sacrifice is a giving up of something loved, something precious in order to gain something better.

I heard a young woman working in Uganda say that her life doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. In the next sentence she talked about hardships and how some days she doesn’t know how she will get through the day. That is sacrifice. I’m not sure what people expect a sacrifice to feel like but I think it feels hard sometimes. I think it feels like not being sure you will get through the day.

Every step of obedience, every life choice, every risk taken, whether it is getting married or not, having children or not, living overseas or not…brings with it a gain and a loss. Negating the reality of the sacrifice cheapens the reward, the sense of joy, fulfillment, purpose, the God-honoring obedience.

One of the problems with saying ‘it is no sacrifice’ is that it leads people to put international workers on pedestals. Have you ever had someone say something like:

“You are so holy because you don’t care when your hair falls out from the brackish water and searing heat.”

“You are so much more spiritual because you don’t struggle when you aren’t able to attend your grandfather’s funeral.”

“I could never do what you are doing because I couldn’t send my kids to boarding school.”

No and NO! We are not all so different, we simply live in different time zones. I cry when I see handfuls of hair in the drain and when I watched my grandfather’s funeral three months later on a DVD and I weep with a physical pain in my chest over the miles between here and my kids at school. I am not more holy or spiritual or stronger than anyone, I feel the sacrifice.

And feeling the sacrifice makes the privilege, the reward, so deeply precious, so treasured, so urgently prayed for.

Livingstone said (emphasis mine),

It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.”

Not a sacrifice, but rather a privilege.

Can this life not be both? Are sacrifice and privilege juxtaposed against one another or could they perhaps go hand in hand? It is a privilege to sacrifice.

Living with hair in the drain instead of my head, away from loved ones during a crisis and on everyday days, international borders between me and my kids, living like this is a sacrifice. It hurts, it tears, it might leave you weeping on the couch some nights, snortling into your husband’s shoulder. But it is not in vain. It is not without joy. It is not without faith. Feel the pain and the joy of it and then render everything sacrificed as rubbish and count the privilege as gain.

I will not say that I have never made a sacrifice.

I will say that I have never made a sacrifice in vain. I have never made a sacrifice that didn’t bring with it a deep, residing joy. I have never made a sacrifice without faith that there is a reward coming which will, like Livingston said, far outweigh these present sufferings.

With my eyes steady on the prize, I sacrifice. Never in vain, (almost) never without joy. Always with faith.

In what ways do you feel the sacrifice? Experience the privilege?

                                                                                                                       -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

Coming Soon!

a Life Overseas will be officially launching November 15th. This collective blog-site will be a space to encourage, challenge, and help missionaries and humanitarian workers living overseas. Our articles will spark honest conversation, ask hard questions, and give glimpses into the realities of the missionary lifestyle. We have a line-up of writers from all over the globe, most of whom have logged years of experience in international living and many of whom have published books. Feel free to look around, but please know that surfing our site now will be a little like walking through a framed house without sheetrock or seeing the bride when she’s barely finished with her makeup —

we have a lot more building, and polishing, to do around here.

Please be sure to stop back by mid-November where we will officially be launching this new community. Until then, feel free to go ahead and join our facebook page.

Thanks for your patience,

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