How to Transition to the Foreign Field and not Croak (Part 2)

In Part 1, we looked at three issues that can cause heartache for missionaries. Today I’ll explain three more issues that affect daily life overseas.

4)      Pornography/sexual sin

5)      Team stress

6)      Not getting enough pre-field training

 

4) PORNOGRAPHY/ SEXUAL SIN

Our neighborhood brothel.

Unaddressed sin problems are going to show up on the mission field. There are a lot of unique stressors to living cross-culturally, and that stress can be a trigger for issues like pornography, which absolutely destroys intimacy, trust, and happiness (yes, even among missionaries).

And I hate to be the one to tell you the ugly truth, but in Southeast Asia, porn problems can easily slip into prostitution problems.

So please, if you have a pornography problem or some other serious struggle, either address it before you go to the field, or just don’t go. Seek counseling and find freedom first, because that deep, dark, buried secret will bubble to the surface a lot when you live within the stress of a new culture. (Although my husband did not have a pornography problem either before or after coming to Cambodia, I do know Team Expansion’s policy is to address porn problems through addiction counseling, before they will clear you to leave.)

 

5) TEAM STRESS

I love the vision that is born when people collaborate on a team. As wonderful as working on a team can be, teams also provide an opportunity for conflict and interpersonal stress.  Conversely, sometimes missionaries have no team, either because they arrived without a team, or their team broke apart at some point. Neither a stressful team nor lack of a team is ideal.

In addition to taking conflict-resolution training (which is part of the training I discuss in the next point), you need to accept that your team situation may change over the years. Teams lose members, and they gain members. For varying reasons, you might need to choose teammates again after you get to the field, and you need to know that is ok. Your commitment to serving God needs to be deeper than your commitment to your team.

 

6) NOT GETTING ENOUGH PRE-FIELD TRAINING

You really need specific missions training before you move overseas. Our agency’s required training is very thorough, and each step along the way we learned something more about cross-cultural work or about ourselves. The two most life-changing trainings we took were Mission Training International’s pre-field course and the Kairos worldview course. I consider Mission Training International (MTI) to be essential preparation for cross-cultural service, and it should be attended in addition to any Bible school or seminary training you may already have.

Before becoming missionaries-in-training, we had been involved in paid or volunteer ministry for several years. That ministry experience has been very helpful to us in setting boundaries between family time and ministry time (something that especially affects a wife’s happiness). It’s also easy for missionaries to become frustrated with nationals who change slowly or not at all, but I remember times in the States when we worked with people stuck in harmful behavior patterns who weren’t showing evidence of positive change. So we’ve concluded that some of the stresses of missionary life are just ministry stresses, located in another country. It would be useful to get some ministry experience before leaving.

Here’s a review of the second set of issues and some practical steps you can take to prepare for missionary life:

4)      Pornography/sexual sin

                     — Tackle big problems like pornography before leaving.

5)      Team stress

                     — Be prepared for the possibility of team issues.

6)      Not getting enough pre-field training

                     — Get ministry experience in addition to specific pre-field missions training.

 

May you never lose sight of the dream God has given you. May you walk with God in every land and on every sea. May He steady you in your every uprooting and in your every re-planting, and may you ever only “not croak” as you transition between the two.

 

After a military childhood, a teenaged Elizabeth Trotter crash landed into American civilian life. When she married her high school sweetheart, her life plan was to be a chemical engineer while he practiced law. Instead, they both fell headlong into youth ministry and spent the next ten years serving the local church. When her husband later decided he wanted to move overseas, Elizabeth didn’t want to join him. But now, after two years of life in Cambodia with him and their four children, she can’t imagine doing anything else. She blogs at trotters41.com.

On Twitter (@trotters41) and Facebook (trotters41)

How to Transition to the Foreign Field and not Croak (Part 1)

I believe if a missionary family is happy and healthy, they will be more sustainable in the long-term. I also believe that the key to happy and healthy missionaries is preparation. One of the things I’ve learned while living overseas is that there is a lot of heartache among cross-cultural workers. I’ve also noticed that often, people’s heartache had common characteristics, and could have been addressed before arriving on the field.

I’m sharing practical steps you can take before you leave your home country. These steps will make your on-field life more smooth, more stable, and more productive. I’m incredibly grateful to our sending church and sending agency, who helped us take these steps prior to arriving in Cambodia. We simply followed their instructions. At the time, we didn’t realize the immense wisdom of their requirements, or how much our years of preparation would help us in settling happily in Cambodia. We could not have transitioned well without their guidance.

You should be aware that none of this preparation will prevent difficult things from happening to you on the field. Dealing with the following issues simply eases the strain of regular life, as the pain they cause is largely preventable. In no particular order, those issues are:

1)      Not having enough financial support

2)      One spouse doesn’t feel called into missions

3)      Not having marital intimacy

4)      Pornography/sexual sin

5)      Team stress

6)      Not getting enough pre-field training

Part 1 in this series will look at the first three issues, with Part 2 covering the remainder.

 

1) NOT HAVING ENOUGH FINANCIAL SUPPORT

Financial troubles are stressful in America, but they become even more stressful in a cross-cultural setting. When all of life is consumed in getting the best price at the market or saving just a little more money, you have no time margin. Your mind never rests.

Please don’t try to move overseas without sufficient funding, assuming you will be able to pinch pennies once you get there. Missionaries are known to lose financial support over the years — which means it’s difficult to prevent underfunding completely. However, it also means that starting underfunded will only lead to more underfunding. Many missions organizations won’t even clear you to move overseas until you’ve raised 100% of your proposed budget.

We modeled our budget off the budget of a missionary who was already in this field, but we also added some financial margin (about 10%). Although our overall projected budget was accurate, we had to seriously shift items once we got here. Some bills were much lower than expected, while others were much higher. And we are so thankful we planned some financial margin so that when we got ripped off in the beginning (which will inevitably happen before you know the language well and intuitively know what a fair price is), we weren’t worried.

 

2) ONE SPOUSE DOESN’T FEEL CALLED INTO MISSIONS (A “TRAILING SPOUSE”)

I was a trailing spouse. Being a missionary has been my husband’s dream since he was 10 years old. I think I knew this on a sub-conscious level when we got married, but I was so blissfully in love that any missionary living seemed very far away. When he “suddenly” wanted to apply with Team Expansion about five years ago, I was shocked. Most of my concerns were about safety and health, as I’m a recovering germaphobe/hypochondriac.

We pursued the application process in spite of my reservations. At times I was less supportive, and at times I was more supportive. I thought I could survive missionary life by imitating the way Sarah followed God’s leading through her husband Abraham. In the end, though, when it came to setting a departure date, I just couldn’t leave home. I needed to hear directly from God myself.

I was able to hear my own “call” only after we set aside special time to hear from God individually. During this time we didn’t talk about the subject as a couple, but I did listen to a veteran missionary’s story about fear and faith on the mission field. Then my husband and I went to our church leaders for advice. It was after this time of individual thinking and praying that I was able to drop the “trailing spouse” label.

I have my own call now, so I don’t have doubts about why I’m here, nor do I want to move back to America. I’ve made Cambodia my home, and I’ve made peace with missionary life. But I’ve seen other women who are still trailing spouses. Their husbands’ desires to be here and do mission work are stronger than theirs, and they are unhappy. They constantly want to go home. Please, trailing spouses, take time to verify your call to missions BEFORE leaving home. Taking the time to do that now will be worth it later on.

To read a more complete version of this story, click here.

 

3) NOT HAVING MARITAL INTIMACY

My husband has always been my best friend, and he remained my best friend even as I started forming close girl friendships in my new country.  Because of my relationship with my husband, I am not emotionally dependent on anyone back home (although I still keep in very close contact with my best girl friend in America). My husband and I communicate easily and well, but if you have difficulty communicating, be aware that your difficulties will be magnified on the field.

Our church leadership required that we attend a week-long intensive counseling session.  I initially resisted this, as I did not think we had any glaring problems. We’d been happy for 10 years! Why did we need counseling?? Once we were in the counselor’s office, though, we quickly realized we needed to deal with some areas in our life that we had not yet dealt with. (These issues were separate from the trailing spouse issue, which had been resolved by that time.) The experience was a major breakthrough for us and has helped us to be more understanding and supportive of each other.

If you are planning on long-term overseas missions, make your relationship with your spouse your strongest earthly relationship. A happy marriage makes those unavoidable annoyances of daily life much less noticeable. To that end, I highly recommend counseling.

As a side note, you really do need a good friend on the field, whether you are married or not. Pray for one before you get there, and trust God to provide one. He will!

We’ll look at the next three points in Part 2.  In the meantime, here’s a review of the issues, with some practical steps to take:

1)      Not having enough financial support            

                   — Build margin into your budget, and raise it fully.  

2)      One spouse doesn’t feel called into missions            

                   — Ensure both partners have a strong missionary call.

3)      Not having marital intimacy            

                   — Make your marriage your strongest relationship; possibly seek counseling.

Read Part 2 here.

——————————————————————————————-

After a military childhood, a teenaged Elizabeth Trotter crash landed into American civilian life. When she married her high school sweetheart, her life plan was to be a chemical engineer while he practiced law. Instead, they both fell headlong into youth ministry and spent the next ten years serving the local church. When her husband later decided he wanted to move overseas, Elizabeth didn’t want to join him. But now, after two years of life in Cambodia with him and their four children, she can’t imagine doing anything else. She blogs at trotters41.com. 

On Twitter (@trotters41) and Facebook (trotters41)

Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised

Living abroad is an amazing adventure, but it comes with some baggage. And sometimes, the baggage fees are hidden, catching you by surprise, costing more than you planned.  You thought you had it all weighed out, you could handle this, squeeze right under the limit.

But then it got heavy.  Your new friends moved away, or your child’s new friend moved away.  Far away.  Like other continents away.   And your kid’s broken heart breaks yours.

Someone died and you didn’t get to say that last, fully present, goodbye.  Family members celebrate a birthday, or the whole family celebrates a holiday, and you’re not there because the Pacific’s really big, and you’re on the wrong side of it.

Or your child can’t remember her cousin’s name, and she doesn’t even know that’s sad. 

And you realize there are just some things Skype cannot fix.http://saca.deviantart.com/art/Despair-37824515

And you grieve, and your kids grieve.  Maybe.  But what if all these things happen again? And again.  You have another round of airport goodbyes, another holiday season with sand. Another Christmas with crying.

What if grieving gets old and annoying and time-consuming and exhausting?  What if it becomes easier to just not grieve?  To not let others grieve?

I’ll tell you what happens: Grief itself gets outlawed and a curse descends.  And everyone learns that some emotions are spiritual and some are forbidden.

Has your grief ever been outlawed?  Have you ever felt that your sadness or grief was “wrong and not very spiritual” and you should “be over this by now”?  If so, I am very sorry.  The prohibition of grief is a terrible, terrible curse.

Sometimes it’s outright, “Don’t cry, it’ll all be ok.”  But oftentimes, it’s more subtle (and spiritual) than that.  It’s the good-hearted person who says, “It’s not really goodbye, it’s see you later” or  “You know, all things work together for good.”

What if your kids miss grandma and McDonald’s and green grass, and someone tells them, “It’s for God,” or “It’ll be ok someday; you’ll look back on this as one of the best things that ever happened to you.” What if you tell them that?

Grief gets banned, and what was meant as a balm becomes a bomb, ticking.  The intended salve starts searing.

When loss happens, why must we minimize it?  Why are we so uncomfortable with letting the sadness sit?  Are we afraid of grief?

We sometimes act as if you can’t have grief and faith at the same time.  Sometimes, shutting down grief seems spiritual.  We tell ourselves and others, “Forget the past and press on.  God’s got a plan.  God is sovereign.”  We use Bible verses.

But banning grief is not biblical, and it’s not spiritual. 

Maybe we feel that grieving a loss of something or someone shows that we don’t have all our treasures in heaven.  Perhaps we delude ourselves with the twisted notion that if we had all of our treasures in heaven, our treasures would be safe, and we’d never experience loss.  And although this is crazy talk, we speak it to ourselves and others.

Does grieving really signal a lack of faith?  Would the truly faithful person simply know the goodness of God and cast themselves on that goodness?  No one would say it, but we sometimes treat the sovereignty of God as an excuse to outlaw grief.  I mean, how could we question the plan of God by crying? 

We may feel that grieving a loss that was caused by someone else (through neglect or abuse) shows a lack of forgiveness.  And although we know it’s not true, we act as if once a person’s truly forgiven an offender, the painful effects and memories disappear forever.

What if the loss was caused by parents or a spouse who decided to become an overseas missionary?  Does the goodness and holiness of their decision negate the grief?  Of course not, but sometimes we feel that the truly spiritual would recognize the godly sacrifice and be grateful.  As if gratefulness and grief are mutually exclusive.  As if a decision has to have 100% positive or 100% negative results.  Gray exists, after all.

Maybe you made the decision to move overseas, and it was a God-thing and your call was sure, but now it’s just really, really hard.  How will you deal with your own grief?  Will it threaten you, or will you courageously allow yourself to feel it?

Remember, grieving isn’t equal to sinning.

Sometimes, outlawed grief goes underground.  It becomes a tectonic plate, storing energy, swaying, resisting movement, and then exploding in unanticipated and unpredictable ways.  A tectonic plate can store a heck of a lot of energy.  Sort of like grief, once outlawed.  It descends below the surface. And sometimes heaving tectonic plates cause destruction far, far away.  Really smart people with even smarter machines have to do smart things to pinpoint the actual location of the destructive shift.

Have you ever experienced an earthquake like this, caused by buried grief?  It might not be obvious at first, but after a little bit of digging, you realize that the pressure and tension had been building for a long, long time.

So please, allow grief in your own heart and in the hearts of your family members.  If you’re uncomfortable with other peoples’ grief (or your own), you might want to look deep, deep down in your own soul and see if there’s some long-outlawed, long-buried grief.  If you find some, begin gently to see it, vent it, feel it.  Begin talking about it, slowly, with a good listener.

And if you come across someone who’s grieving a loss, please remember that they probably don’t need a lecture, or a Bible verse, or a pithy saying.  But they could maybe use a hug.

———————————————————————–

Jonathan Trotter is a missionary in Southeast Asia, serving with the church planting mission Team Expansion.  Before moving to the field with his wife of thirteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years.  In preparing for the field, Jonathan worked as an ER nurse in an urban hospital, where he regularly witnessed trauma, suffering, and death.  His little sister died when he was six, his mother died of breast cancer when he was seventeen, and his father died of brain cancer when he was twenty-five.

For more thoughts on grief (although not specific to missions or third culture kids), check out Don’t Be Afraid of Me, Please (and other lessons from the Valley)

Edited and adapted from Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised, August 2013.

Black and white photo by Saca, at http://saca.deviantart.com/art/Despair-37824515

 

A Philosophical (Running) Life Overseas

running wealthOther posts in the series:

A Practical (Running) Life Overseas (tips for starting to run as an expat)

A Communal (Running) Life Overseas (building community while doing what you love)

A Philosophical (Running) Life Overseas 

I run with my iPhone. In an armband. With earphones. In Djibouti this makes me feel excessively wealthy, especially when I consider that runners I knew, interviewed, ran with, have died in search of a better life than the Horn of Africa can offer.

The armband Velcro melted off months ago so I twist it all around itself to keep it on. The earphones are missing the cushiony part on one side and only one earplug actually works. In places were suffering means you still use the iPhone 4 or can only go out to eat twice per week, this constitutes severe deprivation.

I wear a waist belt packed full with four bottles of water I freeze overnight and Gu and Chapstick and enough change for a taxi or a phone call or another bottle of water. The zippers rusted out on the pack so none of the pockets close. The Velcro salted over and I have to continually retighten it to keep from losing the belt. This means I drink more water while running than some people drink in a day. I have more money in my running belt than some earn in a day.

I alternate between Asics and Saucony shoes. I wear running pants and shirts and sports bras and socks that, even though I bought them on clearance and keep them until they literally fall apart, mean I spend more on my running clothes than most of the people I run by in the early mornings will spend on clothing for the year.

I struggle with this. Here I come, burning calories because I have more than enough to eat. Here I come, with the leisure time to spend running. Here I come, wearing my rich clothes. Here I come, with my fancy gadgets.running and wealth

Am I not supopsed to run until everyone, everywhere, has the time, money, and energy to run? I could stay inside and use exercise DVDs to stay in shape, I could join a club (if there was an affordable one with functioning machines) where I would exercise indoors and street kids wouldn’t see me. I could quit exercising altogether.

But. I am very aware of my privilege, running is an example of that privilege. Not running, or running in secret does nothing to address this issue. It would simply mask my abundance. There is a subtle lie here, easily believed, that hiding behind walls or being ashamed of quality running shoes would somehow make the economic difference between myself and many Djiboutians less true.

So I’m not going to stop and I’m not going to hide and I’m not going to run in terrible shoes that will cause an injury.

What should I do? I can make wise choices about my clothes and shoes and gadgets. I can make them last as long as possible and can not be pressured to buy the latest model or fashion when there is nothing (drastically) wrong with the one I have. I can give my water bottle, still half-full, to the boy begging, when I realize I won’t need it all today.

I don’t plan on quitting running. I don’t plan on running barefoot (tried) or without water (tried) or naked (never tried). But I do think about the people I run by and pray for them. I smile at the kids and slap their hands, high-five style. I greet the older women, macooyo, grandmother. I cheer on the few other runners.

When I run in Djibouti, I’m entering the dust and heat and sunrises of this nation. I’m passing the donkey carts with loads of grass and sticks, jumping over cat carcasses. Smelling rotisserie chickens and fresh baguettes. I’m waving at women weaving baskets and humming along with the call to prayer. I pound my fist on taxis when they drive too close and explore side streets that lead to the ocean. I’m greeting shopkeepers and promising fruit stand guys that I’ll come by later for their delish-looking mangoes. I know when construction starts a few blocks over and when a new family set up a shack in the empty lot on the corner.

Instead of hiding my abundance from Djiboutians, when I run, I am learning to engage with them.

running and wealth

And I don’t feel the disparity in those moments. I don’t know, maybe they do, but I have had men selling bananas tell me the only reason they went out to watch the half marathon was because they thought I would be running in it, felt they knew me, and wanted to cheer.

This idea of ‘relationship’ doesn’t solve issues of economic divides. But at least running in the streets makes me aware and forces me to think, relate, respond. I’m still working on how to live with my plenty with integrity, how to be generous without feeling pressured, how to live with gratitude without guilt, how to live with my eyes wide open and my heart tenderly malleable.

This issue is a marathon issue, probably even an ultra. I have a long ways to go.

Do you run (or engage in other similar activites) in a developing country? In what ways do you feel compelled to mask your abundance?

To the Parents of Third Culture Kids

 

To the Parents of Third Culture Kids

If you are raising your children in a country other than their passport country, you are raising third culture kids. The definition used most often is this one from the late Dave Pollock: A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background”

I was raised as a third culture kid and went on to raise third culture kids for 10 years. There is much I don’t know, much I can’t articulate. But some things I do know and in these next few minutes I offer them. They are not comprehensive and they are not formulaic; there are far better and wiser voices that have documented research on the topic. But these words are offered with humility and a prayer that they will resonate with grace and hope.

Guilt will get you nowhere. If you feel guilty for raising your children overseas, I encourage you to seek counsel. Guilt is an unproductive emotional pitfall that will warp your parenting. Guilt is defined as “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.” Living overseas is not an offense, nor is it a crime. For many it is a high calling, for others it is a career move. No matter, guilt cuts deeply and helps no one, instead causing stress, undue anxiety, and ultimately destroyed relationships. The guilt felt over raising children overseas is false guilt. No child has a say in what their parents become. My husband’s father is a mechanic. He did not consult my husband and ask him if that would be okay, and rightly so. This overseas life is not about kids agreeing or disagreeing with your life calling. It is about living well and faithfully within that calling. Lose the guilt – take a helium balloon, write the word GUILT in big letters, then release it and watch it go until you see it no more. That’s where guilt belongs – out of sight, leaving your body and your heart free to live faithfully right where you are.  Okay – so you live in Somalia or Mumbai and helium balloons are nowhere to be found. A piece of paper will do just as well. Write the words, then light a match and burn them. Watch them burn away through the light of the holy fire of faith.

Your ‘back home’ is not your children’s ‘back home’. You may have grown up in a small town, surrounded by generations of family and friends who are still in the town. That is home and that is what you miss when overseas. You miss the smell of newly mowed grass, the sounds of downtown, the feel of putting on a heavy sweater in the fall as you walk through vibrant colors of red, gold, and orange. Your children don’t miss those things. They never knew them. Their reality is not your reality. Their ‘back home’ is not your ‘back home’. When they go to their passport countries for periodic visits, that’s exactly what those trips are: they are visits. They are not going ‘home’.

Faith can get complicated. Missions work comes with a high calling and a whole lot of baggage. It is hard to discern what’s real and what’s false. Your home churches may be both safe and disturbing for you. In the west we have created an idolatry of ministry and those who live overseas are high on the pedestal. Being able to speak honestly with church leadership about your struggles, your fears, your worries that you will fall from the false pedestal helps everybody. Your kids? They don’t want the pedestal. When they find marijuana behind the churchyard, they don’t want to be the ‘missionary kids that are struggling’. They want to be able to work out their faith in safe spaces, spaces where questions are welcome and struggles are honored. Try and communicate this to those you trust, work toward creating a safe spot for faith questions.

You have the power to create a ‘place’. While holding the mantra ‘this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through’ may be helpful for you, it probably won’t be for your children. Paul Tournier, a well-known Swiss Psychologist, has some profound insights on place in his book A Place for You. He says that to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. We are “incarnate beings” and so when those places are taken away, we suffer from a “disruption” of place. If the disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology – Tournier calls this a “deprivation of place”. As parents, you can create ‘place’, you can create ‘home’. Through traditions that are not confined to geographic location, through family memories and jokes, through special items that will always be there, whether they be framed pictures, candle holders, or books, you can create ‘place’. My parents have lived in more homes than I can count, but when I walk into their space, whether it be a 4-bedroom home in the woods of New England, or a house with stained glass windows and a 30 foot high ceiling in Pakistan, there are certain things that speak to me of ‘home’, of ‘place’. A small painting of a New England winter, Daily Bread on the side of their table with all their mail, my dad’s desk, filled with books and papers with his characteristic hand-writing — all of this embodies ‘place’, creates a feeling of ‘home’.

Learn how to grieve well, help your children know how to grieve well. Dave Pollock, a pioneer in bringing attention to the third culture kid journey, said this: “Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.” You’ve already experienced the frequent goodbyes, the unknowns, the sometimes inconsistent journey. Know that grief is good, grief is individual, grief is rarely nicely organized, grief is physical and emotional. Because grief is a part of the journey, learning how to grieve well is critical.

Put fun into the journey. The memories of sitting in airports or at sidewalk cafes, riding in rickshaws or horse-drawn carriages, laughing at family jokes, yearly trips to the ocean where everyone was on vacation and phones and computers were left far behind – you will regret none of those. This world is a mansion and you have had the privilege of exploring many rooms with your children, and many airports connecting those rooms — so never doubt the fun of the journey, the privilege of the call.

In closing, this journey is a journey laced with grace. To communicate that grace to your kids is the biggest gift you will ever give them. Much of our past has been put into photo albums, blog posts, and memories of the heart. There is no doubt this life of pilgrimage comes with unique challenges, peculiar pains, unspoken losses –  but for all those there is always and ever Grace.

Readers — what would you add to this post? What else would help on this journey of raising third culture kids? 

Marilyn Gardner loves God, her family, and her passport and can be found blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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A Practical (Running) Life Overseas

I used to hate running and at the end of the first run I completed in Djibouti I put my hands on my knees, nearly tumbled to the ground, and said (through heaving breaths), “People do this, like, for fun?”

Apparently they do. And then I started to do it, like, for fun too.

A (Running) Life Overseas will include three posts. First: practicalities. Second: building community. Third: digging deeper (issues like running in expensive shoes in developing countries, etc).

running3

Some of the first practical issues when running overseas are:

  1. Getting started
  2. Clothing and Gear
  3. Nutrition and hydration
  4. Safety

Getting Started

 The best thing to do is to ask a local, a longer-term expatriate, or to observe. How, where, when do people run? What do men wear? Women? Even if you are an avid runner already, it might be good to start with leisurely walks to learn the neighborhoods. Invite a friend, spouse, or neighbor. When you drive around town, keep on the lookout for where people are running. Find the local sports stadium and introduce yourself, ask if there are any races or clubs.

Try to be sensitive to cultural norms but don’t be locked into them. People might think you are bizarre but guess what, expat? You are bizarre. Own it. Sensitively. This is something that takes years to settle into, so I say that lightly. In the beginning it is a good idea to learn and follow most cultural norms. But as you become more knowledgeable, you will discover which boundaries you are comfortable bending or crossing and which you aren’t.

Clothing

I run in clothes that are more modest than French runners and less modest than Djiboutian runners. I wear t-shirts and capris that cover my knees. Djibouti is so incredibly hot that loose clothes gather sweat, flap around, and chafe so I tend toward more fitted clothing. My number one favorite piece of running clothes is a pair of spandex pants with a skort attached. I also look for shirts or pants with pockets for keys, coins, Gu. Trail shoes are great for less developed locations. Because quality running shoes might not be available in many parts of the world, find a pair you like and stick with it so you can order online and have visitors bring them in a suitcase.

running clothes

Listening to an iPod can be motivational and inspirational and can provide a good distraction from onlookers’ comments but they can also be a magnet for getting robbed or a distraction from looking out for wild drivers so use them with caution. I find music grating after a while and prefer sermons and audiobooks, or I plug in the headphones without anything playing. Then people are less likely to try and talk to me. I cherish that quiet, alone time.

Nutrition and Hydration

In steamy countries, this is so important. In August in Djibouti we are breathing fire and I can feel the air sucking life moisture from my body. It is too dry to sweat, making hydration that much more important. In the spring and fall, it is so humid we can slice the air with a knife. At those times, salt intake is of extreme importance, not just water. These are important things to know about your location and the seasons and your body. In the dry season, I freeze water bottles to carry. In the humid season I bring Gu packets, bananas, or salted snacks. It can be hard to rehydrate adequately if you run every day so either take days off when your pee isn’t clear or chug-a-lug the water during the day. A side note about eating on the run – in many developing nations, litter is everywhere. This doesn’t make it okay for you to drop the Gu packet or water bottle. Try to care for God’s creation, even when exhausted.

Safety

Don’t be stupid. Don’t go on a long run in the hot season without water and without telling someone where you are going. Bring a phone if possible. Run in a group if that is safest. If mugging is common, take appropriate precautions or don’t go to certain areas. If you feel doubtful about a specific street or something just doesn’t feel right, trust your gut, cut the run short or make it long by going around. In some places, running simply might not be possible. Invest in good exercise DVDs like P90X or Insanity for running-quality workouts and learn to be okay with that.

running

So many things about living overseas are never finished. Language learning, cultural adaptation, development projects, fund-raising. But I can start and finish a run, it is one of the only things I can actually cross off my to-do list. Running helps me appreciate unique aspects of Djibouti, builds community, and makes me stronger. It is an hour or more a day not spent parenting or team-mating or studying, running has become a sort of refuge. A space for me, my breathing, my feet, and God.

Your turn. What are some beginning or practical tips you have?

*The first and last photos are of the Girls Run 2 team in Djibouti, the only all-girl running team that I helped to start a few years ago. On November 2 a Runner’s World/Saucony film featuring these girls will premiere in New York City. Thanks for letting me indulge in a little film-promotion. I am so proud of these girls!

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, introverted development worker, Djibouti

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

Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Children in a Cross-cultural Context

sheep

Beginning Monday evening through all day Tuesday, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al Adha – the feast of sacrifice. 

Eid al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered the ‘Greater Eid’.

Significant to Eid al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

Thinking about Eid al Adha takes me back to both my childhood in Pakistan and to raising children in the Middle East. My mind returns to a walk-up apartment, a dark stair-well, and a bleating sheep.

Every year as Eid al Adha came around our neighbors purchased a sheep and, in the absence of green space, the sheep made its home in our stairwell. At the time we had no household pet and our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the plaintive brown eyes and the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment.  This was ‘their’ pet. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep had a preordained purpose – to be fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter.

And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs. “Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep?” 

As parents we were in a predicament. Not only did we know that the “pet” sheep had been sacrificed, we knew that we would be offered tasty meat from our neighbor’s kitchen later in the day. What do you tell your kids?

You tell them the truth.

You tell them it was never their pet and that our family would be invited to share a feast with people who graciously invited us to witness and celebrate something that meant a great deal to them, and that included eating meat from the sheep. We needn’t have worried about communicating the truth; children make things far less complicated than adults – they accept, they learn early that the world is bigger than them, that people are more important than pets and dogma.

When you are raising children in a country where you are graciously received as guests, you learn valuable lessons of what is important. My own parents had modeled well respect and love for their adopted country of Pakistan so it was not difficult to remember what the bottom line was — and that is relationships and loving your neighbor as yourself. Growing up in Pakistan I don’t remember big religious debates, but I do remember a lot of tea being served, a lot of laughter, many holiday celebrations with neighbors and friends, and in all that some wonderful talks. It was this that was important as we celebrated Eid al Adha with our neighbors and friends.

As guests in the country of Egypt, we were treated kindly despite our frequent mistakes and gaffes in both language and culture. While we didn’t hold to the same truth claims, bridges were built and relationships strengthened as we shared in the celebrations of our Muslim friends and neighbors. And in doing so we prayed that some of the nails in the coffin of misunderstanding between east and west, between Muslim and Christian would be removed.

Sheep were going to come and go but our neighbors and friends? They would be staying. And so our children learned early and reminded us later (when we, their parents were prone to forget) that people and our relationships with people were key to living out a life of authentic faith in a cross-cultural context. 

What have you learned from your children about understanding and acceptance in the context of living an authentic life of faith overseas?

Marilyn blogs about communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture at Communicating Across Boundaries and can be found on Twitter@marilyngard

Image credit: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo

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Terrorists and the Unshakable Kingdom

I have felt quite shattered by the terrorist attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Dear friends have been shattered by the bombing of a church in Peshawar, Pakistan. There are shattering events every week around the world but it is always these human-on-human horrors that shake to the core.

Terror is nothing new to the world but it is new to me to obsessively check Facebook and Twitter and email until I know the people I love are safe. It is new to me to have the terror strike a place I have been, a place of which I have photos. It is new to me to receive a letter from the director of my children’s school describing how their community has been affected.

As a friend from Minneapolis who also lives in east Africa, said, “It is coming from both sides.” Because it is likely that at least one of the terrorists is from Minneapolis. My beautiful, beautiful city.

I am so sorry, with tears sorry, that I don’t feel this kind of sorrow or shock when terrible things happen to people you love. I feel compassion and grief and I pray with and for you, but when it pierces personal, there is a different kind of sting. And honestly, I think I would explode if I felt like this after every story of the horrible things people inflict on each other.

Earlier this year Lana Hope (hope!) wrote Triggered by Tragedy at Sandy Hook. She wrote about all the painful, grief-filled things she had seen in Asia. And then she wrote,

I remember thinking, “If my friends are angry that 20 kids died, no wonder I’m such a wreck after three years of this kind of evil.

No wonder I’m such a wreck. No wonder that last night, after Kenyan officials finally announced the standoff was over, I turned off all the lights, lit a candle, lay on the floor, and wept. For all of it.

Candle Wallpaper

There are few words in times like this, only whispers in the dark, candles barely flickering. No one I personally know was injured or killed. I am still spared another whole level of grief. God be with me when I am not spared because I don’t know how a person continues to breathe.

That is what I am praying for those who taste these tragedies unique and devastatingly close. That you will continue to breathe. In and out. That there will be breath for you when you wake and must face another day. In and out. And that you have someone to hold onto, tight. Someone to hold onto you, gentle.

I am reminded of two sustaining truths, one through Lana’s post.

Jesus wept. Jesus knew grief and pain and loss. But his grief was not without hope.

Because he was bringing in, still is bringing in, an unshakable kingdom. I feel shaken. The kingdom is not shaken. I feel shaken but my trembling legs and wavering heart kneel on a firm foundation.

Though the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm. Psalm 75:3

Maybe today we could share our hope. What are some of your most precious promises? What do you cling to when you feel shaken?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, slightly weepy development worker, Djibouti

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

*image credit Stefano Brivio via Flickr

Back to School, Internationally

Growing up in suburban Minneapolis, every first day of school was essentially the same. I knew the school, the teachers, the students. The school supplies in my backpack, all from Target, were familiar and reliable. I knew the date of the first day and it never changed at the last minute. I knew I would vomit, or at least feel sick, the day before, that combination of dread and excitement too much to handle with poise for a timid introvert.

back to school2
learning how to ride the bus to school in Minnesota

Now, sending my children off to their first day of school in the fall, I battle that same dread and excitement (no more vomiting though). One of my kids goes to her first day with a backpack and plastic bag overflowing with supplies, a water bottle cradled like a baby doll in her arms. She goes to the French school in Djibouti. The other two go to their first day of school with carry-on luggage and airplane tickets. They go to boarding school in Kenya.

The first day of school in Djibouti is a moving target and we aren’t always certain until the week before. Students and teachers are constantly in flux, hello new and goodbye old, and in the first week of classes my daughter will likely come home with an entirely updated list of school supplies (speaking of school supplies…we want to buy local but let’s face it, Crayola crayons actually color, cost less than $0.50/crayon, and don’t melt, Scotch tape actually sticks, Elmer’s glue sticks don’t shrivel and dry up before being opened. Some school supplies are purchased in the US.)

back to school1
lunch at school in Kenya

School choices are intensely personal and complex and I expect we will host challenging and engaging conversations about school choices and options and successes and mistakes here in the future, keep your eyes open for that. But…

…for now, since many of us are in the busy, chaotic throes of putting kids on planes or on buses or in carpools or walking shoes, busy packing lunches or snack boxes, filling water bottles, shopping for last minute school supplies, re-arriving in our host countries after a summer vacation…how about one quick question:

What school option(s) have you chosen for your family? Here is my answer:

Three different local French schools in Djibouti. A preschool in Somalia. Boarding school in Kenya. One year of American public French immersion school. Intermittent homeschool of history and English. A few weeks of preschool in France. Not necessarily in that order.

back to school3
goodbye to the goat on the first day of school in Djibouti

I’m curious and would love to hear how expatriates around the world decide to educate their children.

A word, a couple words (for those with constant changes, a short paragraph): how have you chosen to educate your children?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, introverted development worker, Djibouti

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

Words Matter

image

In health care we have a story we call “The 71-Million Dollar Word Story”.

It involves a young man from Cuba, the absence of a skilled interpreter, and a misdiagnosis.

The man was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. He was riding around with his friend when he complained of a bad headache. He thought it was because of the strong smell of gas in his friend’s car but by the time he got home the pain was so severe that he was crying.  He went into a coma soon afterward and was transferred to a local hospital in a comatose state. The family was sick with worry as they waited in the emergency room for this man to be assessed. The word ‘intoxicado’ was used and, in the absence of a professional interpreter, it was assumed that the young man was ‘intoxicated’, had taken a drug overdose and was suffering the effects. The family had no idea this was the way the words were interpreted. Had they known they could have attested that the young man never used drugs or alcohol, that health was extremely important to this young athlete. Rather, ‘Intoxicado’ was a word used in Cuba to mean a general state of being unwell because of something you ate or drank. It was the only word they could think of to express the sudden onset of his symptoms.

The misinterpretation of this word caused a misdiagnosis resulting in an 18-year-old becoming a quadriplegic, for in reality he had suffered a brain bleed and lay for two days in a hospital bed without proper treatment. Had the hospital staff made the correct diagnosis the man would have left the hospital in a few days, on his way to college and a normal life.

This tragic event resulted in a lawsuit and if this man lives to be 74, he will receive a total payment of 71 million dollars.

Because words matter.

Words are our primary way of conveying everything from symptoms to silliness.

All misuse of words doesn’t result in tragedy. Sometimes the results are humorous. Like when Pepsi translated a “Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation!” ad into Chinese it was translated literally as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”. Or when the “Got Milk”  campaign was adapted for a Spanish market, the phrase was understood as “Are you lactating”.  And then there was the more personal time when my friend called a Pakistani man a laxative instead of by his name – just the slip of one sound resulted in a not easily forgotten faux pas.

Because words matter.

Those of us who work across cultural boundaries understand and experience this on a daily basis. From asking for juice at a local grocery store to communicating during emergency situations, we need our words. Words are something we miss most when we first arrive in a country. We know what it is to struggle to communicate, to struggle to find words.

Most of all, we long for words to communicate the gospel story, long to put words together to form sentences and thoughts that have meaning; life-giving, God-breathed meaning.

There’s a well-known story in the New Testament where Jesus used words, words to convey living truth to a thirsty heart. He used words that confound and challenge, attract and puzzle. He used words with a woman who was culturally from a completely different background than his own. He communicated across cultural barriers and boundaries to a woman at a well who was just getting water, a normal part of her every day life. Jesus used words to change a woman’s life.  He used words to change hearts and ultimately an entire community.

Every time I tell the story of the 71 million dollar word, I am challenged anew. For as big and as tragic as the 71 million dollar word is, there are many times when our words have eternal implications that go beyond lawsuits and tragic life events.

Words matter. And so I work to use words in a way that brings hope and life to thirsty hearts.

How have you used words in the past week to bring life to the community where you live? Have you longed to use words more effectively lately? Join the conversation through the comments.

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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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.

introvert2

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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