Why Expats Hate June

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

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

Why Expats Hate June

Life as an expatriate is tainted by a single word.


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

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

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

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

But that’s only one set of goodbyes.

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

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

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

And in June . . . we say goodbye.

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

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

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

We are reluctantly excited the incoming round of Newbies.

But the Goers are just hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE:  Put it on the timeline.

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

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

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

TWO:  Adjust for the undesirables.

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

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

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

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

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

Turn the frustrations into golden moments.

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

Make a gameplan for insanely long road trips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discuss:  Let them ask questions about your perspective.

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

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

That makes me pretty excited about Summer 2017.

If you’re traveling.  Travel well.

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

Three Things I Love About An International Church

The Church has issues.

Can I get an amen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three things I love about it:

ONE: It Exists

How’s that for starting simple?

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

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

Having fewer options adds tremendous value to all of them.


TWO: We disagree

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

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

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

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

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


THREE: We blend

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

It’s like a little taste of heaven.

Only the sound system messes up.

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

And attendance goes way down in the summer.

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

And we primarily speak English.

And locals are not legally allowed.

And we haven’t figured out predestination just yet.

And people don’t stay forever.


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

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

Leaving Happy or Leaving Well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Michael W. Smith.  Thanks for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

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

•  Are you running away from any relationships?

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

•  Do you have a leaving well plan?

•  Are you helping your kids process in paradox?

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

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


Questioning Your Calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of growing up I suppose.

Click here to read The Cult of Calling by Leslie Verner

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

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

“Calling” gets tossed around flippantly — sometimes carelessly.

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

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

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

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

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

How do you feel about sovereignty and free will?

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

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

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

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

          “You don’t speak French.”

“I bought Rosetta Stone.”

         “You’re not a doctor.”

“I can learn.”

          “You hate children.”

“Yeah but I really feel called to this.”

          “Oh . . . well . . . ok.”

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

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

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

You may be called to the inner city.

You may be called to the Middle East.

You may be called to widows and orphans.

You may be called to plant churches.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Loss of identity.”

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

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

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

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

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

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

I get it.  I really do.

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

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

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

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).


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


Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.



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

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

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

Everything changes us.

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

All of it becomes a part of who we are.



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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be a loss of identity for sure.



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Anyone else?



Ten Things I Love About Christmas Far Away

christmas-in-china-2Cue the music.  Sing it with me.

“Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams”


What a sad, sad song.  “If only in my dreams?”  This guy spends the whole song building up the joy and jubilation, which is the magical connection between two foundationally emotional concepts — Christmas and Home — only to finish with, “yeah, probably not gonna’ make it . . . but I’ll be thinkin’ of ya'”

He is obviously one of two things:  An absolute jerk . . . or an expat.

It makes sense for those of us living a life overseas doesn’t it?  Christmas can be hard when you are oceans away dreaming of everything that you connected with in your formative years.

I’d be lying though . . . if I said there weren’t some things that I love about Christmas abroad.  Don’t get me wrong . . .

I miss my family.

I’d love to be home.

But . . .

Here are Ten things I love about Christmas far away:

ONE:  It’s a one stop Christmas

I’m sticking my neck out here so I’m gonna’ need an “amen” from an expat who gets me.

Bouncing between my side of the family and her side, trying to hit everyone who matters and several who don’t, scheduling around the mayhem of other people’s busyness and stressing for weeks in the hopes to connect with every inlaw, outlaw, cousin, nephew, niece and new boyfriend MAY be worth it in the end.

BUT — I for one enjoy noticeably less chaos on this side of the world.

TWO:  Stores are open

This is significant for a chronic procrastinator like myself.  There is nothing as sobering as the realization that your gift options have been reduced to the VERY BEST from the beef jerky section of the 24-7-365 truck stop because it is the ONLY place open at 11pm on December 24th.

That will never be an issue where I live.

THREE:  Reduced Christmas politics

I can’t even keep it straight anymore.  If I say “Merry Christmas” it means I hate Muslims but if I say “Happy Holidays” it means I quit loving Jesus?

Something like that.

I love being in a place that doesn’t get quite so offended by my attempts to spread good cheer.

FOUR:  Extended Holiday

This one is region specific to be sure but I think I’ve landed the perfect gig.  We get two days off for American Thanksgiving which kicks off the Christmas season.  Then we get two weeks off for Christmas, go back to work for a couple of weeks and get TWO MORE WEEKS off for Chinese New Year.

Anyone looking for a job in education and want to move to China?  Call me.

FIVE:  More cookies for me

I happened to marry the best cookie maker on the planet (no offense to all other earth residing cookie makers).  Living abroad has significantly reduced the number of Christmas parties, open houses, bake sales and “cookie exchanges” that she needs to engage in.  There is still no small demand for her baked works of art but in an average December my hand gets slapped 86% less overseas.

I’ll take it.

SIX:  New traditions

New traditions?  Is that an oxymoron?

I love the new customs that have become a part of our family simply because we have been forced to figure it out.  No life-long routine.  No pre-set expectations.  No safety net.  That’s where creative parenting comes alive.

Don’t tell my kids we’re figuring it out as we go.

SEVEN: New traditions part 2

It’s not just MY traditions.  I love that because of this beautiful life overseas I now have friends from every corner of the globe.  One of the great conversations among nations is “what do you do on special days?”  It brings a rich understanding of the birth of Christ to learn how the rest of the world celebrates it.

EIGHT:  Satisfaction

Anyone can pull off a flashing lights, tinsel strewn, jingle bell Super Holiday when you’ve got access to to the mega-Christmas wholesale mart and the 10,000 acre tree farm . . . BUT . . . try decorating for the birth of Christ inside of a Communist superpower.  Then you’ll know you’ve nailed it.

Again.  My wife.  Amazing.

NINE:  A fresh perspective on the old, old storychinese-nativity

I thoroughly enjoy seeing the narrative of the birth of Christ outside of the narrative of my passport country.  There is something rich about God becoming man accompanied by the realization that not all men think and act like I do.

I love seeing God through the lenses of people who are not like me.

TEN:  Jesus is Jesus, wherever you live

That’s all.

Merry Christmas.


Cumin Lamb and Cigarettes: A College Bound TCK Looks Back as He Looks Forward


Just three weeks before we moved to China we celebrated with some of our very best friends.  Their son was turning 7 (that’s him totally owning the noodles).  We partied like we were shipping out tomorrow (even though we still had several days left and we were taking a plane).

The ironic twist to that story is just four weeks before we moved to China we had never met any of them.  That’s how instant our connection was.  They were Lifers from the get-go and while I could write volumes about the adventures our two families have had since then I’m actually going to let the 7 year old write this one.

He’s headed to college next year.

In response to an essay question on The Common Application he beautifully exposed the heart of a TCK, with the poignancy of his mother (who is an artist with words) and the clarity of his father (whose passion, expertise and life’s work it is to help ministries and missionaries tell their stories).

Here’s a glimpse into a brilliant young mind, shaped significantly (in his formative years) by life abroad.

The Question:  Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.  If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Zach’s Response:

My childhood was three years long and a few city blocks wide.

The first seven years of my life remain in my memory as a misty blur of brick townhouses and on-brand cereal, highlighted by space themed 4th birthday donuts, and hours of self-driven multiplication tables with my dad.   

k fam 6My clearest memories began when my parents announced that we were moving. Twelve assorted suitcases and plastic bins later, we arrived in Tianjin, China with a week of jet lag and no language skills whatsoever. It was here, among 15 million other souls, that I found my childhood home.

Our 1000 square foot flat perched at the top of a six-story apartment building, where we lived alongside a jumble of first year expats like ourselves and 100th generation natives. Behind our building, a patch of green peeked out of the ubiquitous smog-gray, a miniature Central Park nestled in an oversized New York.  This haven, affectionately called “The Garden” was a motley collection of tree-like shrubs that had gotten lost on the way to Mongolia, and hesitantly blossomed each year for a month or so before succumbing to some combination of acid rain, dust, and icy slush.

Beyond the rusting gates of our complex, which were emblazoned with the fading characters “Fù Kāng huāyuán (Fu Kang Gardens)”, were streets crowded with vendors, pedestrians, grocery laden bicycles, and lawless taxi cabs.  Cigarettes sprouted like tiny smokestacks from the mouths of men playing chess at street corners, and plastic bags rolled by like urban tumbleweeds.  When Chinese New Year rolled around, the newly comforting sights and smells transformed into a thunderstorm of fire crackers, which rang out from every alley and market for two weeks, driving us (along with a host of evil spirits) back into the familiar shelter of our home.  We were strangers in a strange land, an ocean away from the suburban cul de sac that we had left behind.

Needless to say, Noah (my younger brother and best friend) and I spent countless hours inside our shared room, on a floor strewn with two generations of Legos, free from the bounds of reason. Our stuffed animals waged war: with weapons ranging from clusters of magnets dropped from Noah’s top bunk to legitimately dangerous Lego cannons.  While our CEO-destined, Korean classmates left our international school for an evening of tutoring to learn the ways of the real world, we got lost in our own worlds.

k-fam-3Most of what I remember from my three years in Tianjin is composed of oddly specific memories supported by a terabyte of photos. My family holds onto these memories like relics, because of how defining they were for each of us individually and as a family.  The term for people like me and my siblings is TCK (third culture kid).  Our home culture is neither American nor Chinese, but a hypostasis of the two.  I am not Chinese-American (my sister is), but Chinese and American.  Even as the last remnants of my meager Chinese vocabulary fade, leaving behind only the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”, my childhood in Fu Kang Gardens will continue to define who I am.

I am Zach Kennedy (Zhā kǎ lǐ), and my most heart wrenching nostalgia comes from the the taste of cumin seasoned lamb and the smell of cigarette smoke.


That’s Zach (second from the left) without noodles looking all collegiate.  Noah the Magnet Bomber on the left, Hannah (the Chinese-American) out front and Mia on the right.  Dan and Sara now live, with these four amazing TCK’s, in Richmond, Virginia (USA) where they practice getting more photogenic every day.

If this post strikes a chord send Zach a note in the comments below and wish him well on what comes next.

I Love Travel Days


There are SO many bits of expat life that make zero sense to the normal people.

So many.

Here’s one, though, that makes no sense whatsoever, even to me:  I absolutely love traveling with my family.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Who doesn’t?!”

But I’m not talking about being there, I’m talking about getting there.

Actual travel days.

Packing apples and crackers in a plastic bag and pulling grumpy, groggy kids out of bed so we can catch a taxi at 4am.  24 to 36 hours of trekking through train stations, subway tunnels and airport terminals.  14 hour plane rides with screaming babies, old men who snore and a choice between bad chicken with rice or beef with bad noodles.  Hour long customs lines, overpriced airport food, lost baggage, late arrivals and jet lag.

Seriously . . . I love jet lag.

I told you – it makes no sense at all – but I would bet that someone reading this just said “amen”.


It took me a while to figure it out but some of the best memories that I get to build with my family are every bit as much on the journey as they are at the destination.  Shifting our perspective from angst to anticipation changes everything.  We don’t muscle through the travel to get to the good part anymore.  We own travel days.  They ARE the good part.


Here’s what I’m learning to do with travel days.


img_0212Broaden the hype

Adding getting there and getting back to the pre-trip conversation has multiple effects.  For starters, it gives us two extra days to enjoy and two less days to dread.  It’s pretty normal to see travel as a worthless necessity that eats away from time doing the good stuff.

Again – we are not normal.

We talk for weeks about what movies we’re going to watch on the plane.  We chart the course with our kids and get especially excited when we get to fly through a new city.  We do goofy little Jones family “hoo-rah” huddles to start the trip.

By GO time – we are primed and ready.


Abandon good parenting

There are zero other moments in our child rearing experience that we would even consider allowing — no wait — encouraging our kids to watch movies for fourteen hours straight and stay awake as long as they want.

Seriously — who does that?

I’ll tell you who.  We do . . . but only on travel day.


Enjoy airports

My kids are good at airports.  They feel comfortable there.  They know how to navigate any airport in the world and if it has been a while since they traveled, they get itchy to fly.

I can’t tell you how much I love that.  Watching them tow their carry-ons to the gate or jump up and down when our bags come around the baggage claim carousel are some of the great joys of my parenting career.

Don’t judge me.

img_1094Chart the journey

Skipping ahead twenty years I’ve realized that we are going to have some pretty amazing pictures to show our grandkids.  The Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty, the Bone Church, the Burj Khalifa and we’re just getting started.

These are some of the experiences that my kids will remember forever but every bit as much as the selfie worthy moments, their childhoods are being marked by travel days.

It’s a part of who they are.

I’ve got pictures of myself at the St. Louis Arch and Disneyland . . . but I sure wish I had one of me sleeping in the back window ledge of a ’78 Buick LeSabre.

*note – children sleeping in Buick window ledges has since been deemed both dangerous and illegal . . . but someone reading this just said “amen”.


Always, Always, Always go Video on demand

Disclaimer – This is a first world problem if there ever was one.  I know there are much deeper and more painful issues that the people of the world deal with every single day.


It is a sick, gut wrenching feeling to walk on to a 14 hour flight with your family and see that there are no little TV’s in the back of the seats.



Make the most of Jet lag

Having kids that are WIDE awake at 2 am is generally not a good thing.  The frustration and the battles that can be born out of that are not pretty.  Considering the facts that jet lag is a direct result of MY life choices and is an ongoing, consistent reality for my kids, I do not want it to be a topic for their future therapy sessions.

So why not embrace the fact that no one is tired, pop some popcorn and watch a movie?  Or find an all night donut shop?  Or go for a walk?


Live the memory

My buddy Dan shared some simple brilliance with me years ago that completely changes my perspective on every single travel day.

“Live the memory.”

Memories are awesome but they are always in the past —  so STOP and be conscious of the fact that the memory is being built RIGHT NOW.

I’ve only got these kids for a little while, and I am loving this wild and wonderful adventure that we are on.  We get to do things that I didn’t even know how to dream about when I was their age.

I don’t want to miss a moment.

Especially travel days.

Does that make me weird?  I’m ok with that.

Anyone else?


The Beauty of Unrequired Sacrifice

Long winding country road leading through rural countryside in the English Peak District with beautiful evening sunlight.This post gets awkward really quick.  Sorry about that.

I’ve been pondering something that I think has huge implications for people living cross-culturally.  For some it changes everything.  For others it’s business as usual.

I was recently asked to teach from Acts 16.  It’s a chapter that teachers and preachers have been getting excited about for centuries.  Paul and Silas in prison . . . you know the one.

It’s the singing hymns in shackles at midnight — big earthquake — doors fly open — chains fall off — trembling guard and his whole house find Jesus chapter.

That’ll preach all day long.

But that’s not what jumped out at me this time.

The part that jumped was odd because it’s a section that I’ve trained my brain to skip over.  You know what I mean, right? There are certain bits of Scripture that our minds naturally gravitate towards (namely Divine prison breaks) but there are others that we shoot through and hope that no one notices.

Like circumcision.

I warned you.  Awkward.

Timothy shows up for the first time in this chapter (before the jail scene).  He’s young and green but he gets it.  He’s a rising superstar in this brand new Jesus following movement and Paul wants to take him on the road.

One problem.

His mother was Jewish.  His father was Greek.

Do I have to spell this out for you?

Concerning circumcision . . . Timothy was un.

Here’s the big ironic kicker.  The message that Paul was headed out to share was that the Church big whigs had convened and made some really important decisions . . . specifically?

Circumcision would NOT be required for new believers.

Phew! Big sigh of relief right?

You would think.  But verse 3 says this:

“Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”

I’m sorry what?!!

Paul circumcised Timothy so they could go share the message that circumcision was NOT required.


Simply put, the people they were sharing with didn’t get it yet — and fair enough — they were rooted deeply in over 2000 years of tradition which was built on some pretty strong words right from the mouth of God.  Words like, “Any uncircumcised male shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17).

Not a lot of leeway there.

On a timeline of theology Acts 16 falls between that and words that would come later like, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing,”  (1 Corinthians 7).

If the argument (as is usually the case) is reduced to theological rights or wrongs, dos or don’ts, shoulds or shouldn’ts, then Timothy would have a pretty strong case for protest (and frankly who would blame him?).

Theologically speaking, this is not a required sacrifice.

But he makes it . . . not out of religious obligation but out of willingness to see through the lenses of people whose paradigm has not been shifted just yet.


Implications galore.

There is something really good about unrequired sacrifice.

Entitlement gets traded for a bigger picture.  Selfishness is surrendered.  Complaining doesn’t even make sense.  Being right ceases to be the highest value.  Good things happen.

Jesus knew something about the brains and the hearts of His people when He said stuff like, “go an extra mile and give them your coat when they ask for your shirt.  Forgive more than anyone would expect, stay married longer and do good things to people who do bad things to you.” (personal paraphrase)

The final note of this part of the story says “the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (vs 5).  I think it would be a jump to say that the growth of the church was a direct result of Timothy’s . . . um . . . surgery.  However, it seems clear that those meetings could have gone much differently had he been unwilling to lay down his rightful claim to a “Back off dude!  I didn’t sign on for this!”

Just something awkward and beautiful to ponder when you catch yourself (like I do) feeling shortchanged, cheated, left out and frustrated because this life overseas sometimes feels like it has taken so much.

What does a missionary look like?

photo credit: wikimedia commons


“The white guy with a van.”

That’s how my Kenyan friend answered my question, “what does a missionary look like?”  To this day it may be my favorite definition.

A teenage girl sitting in the same room had a different answer.

“My dad.” She said.  It was a very sweet moment . . .

“My dad with a tie on, standing in the foyer of a church in America showing pictures and handing out chopsticks.”

I knew her dad.  He was THAT guy.  Literally always pleasant.  Absolutely impossible not to like.  He just oozed all ten fruits of the Spirit and got more accomplished every day before breakfast than most people do in a decade.  He was a doctor who could have been  living the high life but gave it all up to move his family across the planet and help the hurting unreached.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Pfft – there are only 9 fruits of the Spirit . . . idiot.”

Yeah, maybe for you – but this guy was a level above in every way.  If ever I have met someone who epitomized and embodied the best possible definitions of the word “missionary”, it was him.

And yet . . . his own daughter only saw him in that light once every two years, when he was OFF the “field”, on home turf, speaking his native language, to other believers.

It’s interesting isn’t it?  How loaded this word is.

I’ve got my definition too but I’m too embarrassed to share it in front of the whole internet and everyone.  It’s not my good theologically polished, globally aware, ethnically inclusive, 21st century definition that I would pull out in a small group conversation just to stir the pot and challenge someone’s dusty old Western stereotype.

Nope – I’ve got my own dusty stereotype . . . planted deep down in there . . . and as much as I like to fancy myself a little more  . . . what are those words?. . . “in touch with reality” . . . I have to confess — when you say the word “missionary” — there is a picture that pops into my head.

I’m not going to tell you exactly what the person in that picture looks like but I will say this . . .  he’s got a van.

My picture is rooted in my formative years.

I loved it when the missionaries came.  It tweaked something inside of me and made me dream of far off places like the ones in National Geographic. They always showed their slides and told stories about rats and snakes and people who didn’t seem to know very much about Jesus or silverware.  Then they shared how we could support them (financially AND through prayer).  The ushers came and we passed the plate (for a second time that service) and gave whatever God laid on our hearts.  There was a formula to the whole thing and it always ended with the same tagline.

“You don’t have to move to another country to be a missionary.  We’re all missionaries.”

So I left confused.

What a great thought – but the only ones who ever said it were the ones who had, in fact, moved to another country — unless it was just missions Sunday – then the preacher said it on behalf of the ones who had moved to another country.

The message was clear like mud – YOU TOO are a missionary wherever you are but we won’t call you one out loud until you go somewhere else — except when the people who have gone somewhere else come back to visit.  Then we’re all missionaries . . . just like them . . . only different.

The parameters were never clearly laid out so I built my understanding based on the compilation of people that other people called missionaries.

And so did you.

So what does your picture look like?

Be honest.  Where are they from?  What do they look like?  What are they wearing?  How old are they? What do they do?  What color is their skin?  (can I ask that on the internet?)

Don’t worry – this is not a shaming post.

(“Shame on you for thinking missionaries look like the ones you have seen before.”)

On the contrary – I’ve grown to love my stereotype.  It gives me a place to start – and when I work up the nerve to throw it out there (as a confession) I discover something shocking.  My assumption is that EVERYONE shares my stereotype (and should also be ashamed of themselves) . . . they really don’t.

They’ve got their own picture.

You . . . have your own picture.

And when we lay them all out on the table next to each other the bigger picture gets clearer.  Paradigms start shifting.  Assumptions get challenged.  Stereotypes get broken.  Minds get blown.

Far more than any uber polished, perfectly worded Bible scholar’s definition of a word which (ironically) makes zero appearances in the Bible, it’s the conversation that changes the missionary picture.

The conversation is where you start to see God doing things that only God does.

  • Things like sending Filipino housekeepers to raise Middle Eastern royal children
  • and Chinese educators to love on North Korean orphans
  • and Panamanian teachers to teach at a Christian international school in Jordan
  • and Dutch teachers to teach at a Christian school in Suriname
  • and Korean pastors to plant churches in Brazil
  • and Brazilian business people to run Christian companies in Vietnam
  • and Ugandan students to start university Bible studies in Thailand
  • and ten-fruit doctors to pass out chopsticks in America

and of course white guys in Kenya . . . with vans.

It’s a pretty cool mosaic of a billion stereotypes and the conversation brings it to life.

It’s also there that we find out the hard stuff — like we disagree — about pretty much everything.  Things like missionary theology and philosophy and strategy and semantics and definitions.

Does a missionary raise support? Plant churches? Make tents? Run a business? Go the the 2/3 world? The Global South? The 10/40 Window? Back to Jerusalem? To the less reached? The least reached? The unreached? Do short termers count? What about teachers?  Or professionals? Or servants?  Or refugees? Or slaves?

And what about people who never leave their hometown?

Are they missionaries?

Careful.  It’s a loaded question.

But the anwers are where we see God doing things that only God does.

So what does a missionary look like to you?

Don’t think just answer.  When you see the word “MISSIONARY” what is the picture that pops into your head and where does it come from?

No judgement here.  Wait — that’s probably not true but go ahead and take a chance.

It’s a rich mosaic when we do.


Jerry lives in China and blogs at The Culture Blend.

Going Home


I sometimes catch myself using finger quotes when I say the word “home.”  You too?

I’m writing this on an airplane and am currently 3 hours and 8 minutes away from “home”.  Simultaneously and ironically I am also 9 hours and 4 minutes away from “home.”  I’m in that weird spot that expats love and hate . . .  between “homes.”

My family and I have spent the last five weeks hugging old friends and fighting over road trip radio stations.  We’ve slept in a total of 26 beds and driven through 11 states (not even counting Canada).  We have re-stomped our old stomping grounds and picked up six new airport refrigerator magnets.  It has been both wonderful and exhausting.

You know the feeling.

Going “home” is one of those pieces of expat life that stretches the limits of every available emotion.  So many happy reunions followed immediately by an equal number of painful goodbyes.  Unexpected culture shock (especially in election years), non-stop bopping from the last place to the next place, feeling like a tourist where you once felt most comfortable.

It’s weird.  But good.  But hard.  But incredible.

Regardless, it’s a great opportunity to process.  Every time I go “home,” I pick up something new.  Some little cultural tidbit that I hadn’t recognized before or maybe a deeper reflection on an old reality.

Here’s what I’m thinking on my way home from home this time around.

First, “Home” is a culture too.

Sounds ridiculous to say it out loud and fair enough if you’re thinking, “well duh.”  However I’m realizing more and more that it’s not necessarily a natural thing to recognize your own culture as a culture.  Cultures are out there . . . away . . . somewhere else.  Cultures are what we study.  Cultures are fascinating.  They are exotic.  Exciting.  Confusing.  Different.

Every time I step out and back in again I am reminded that my most familiar home base is all of that, even though I never saw it that way growing up.  From the hairstyles to the body language to the propensity to bread and deep fry virtually anything,  it’s a ethnographic wonderland just waiting to be explored.

Who knew?

Two . . . International “home” going is layered.

Where I come from people move away.  We go to college.  We get married.  We find a job.  All of these carry the potential for long-term relocation.  So my childhood friends are spread out around the area.  Around the state.  Around the country.

Very few however, wander outside of the country (at least not for living).  It’s just not normal.

It’s always nice to come “home,” but I’m discovering that “home” is a contrast word.  The farther you roam, the bigger “home” gets.  “Home” has expanded for us beyond a town or a community and I start to feel like I’m home when I hit the first airport of my “home” country.  L.A., New York, Dallas, Atlanta all feel like home, at least compared to Beijing.

Ironically I feel more “at home” in the Beijing airport than I do in any other airport in the world.

It’s strange right?

Thirdly . . .  It’s OK for “home” to be a confusing concept

“Home” is a value that has been deeply embedded into my core.  So redefining it feels wrong.

It throws off my equilibrium to start wrapping my head around the layers and the nuances of “home” in a cross cultural life.  It was especially confusing the first time I went “home,” but the confusion marches on ten years later.

How do my kids understand “home” when they spend the bulk of their lives as foreigners? Am I going “home” or leaving “home” right now? Is “home” a place or people or an allegiance or a feeling?  Should I feel guilty for wanting to get back “home” even when I am “home”?  How is it that I can be at “home” and missing “home” no matter where I am?

Deep breath.

It’s alright.  “Home” is complex, for people don’t have the luxury of simple answers.  People have been wrestling with this concept long before we showed up.  That’s why we say things like “home is where you hang your hat” or “home is where your heart is.”

However, that rationale assumes that your heart can only be in one place at a time . . . and that you only have one hat.

It might not be that simple.  I’m ok with complex.

Fourth . . . Going “home” is a gap-filling time

I mourn “home” for my kids.

The experience, not the concept.  My experience, not theirs.

I know I know, they are having their own adventure and it is rich.  They are doing things that I only dreamed of when I was their age.  They are seasoned world travelers with a front row seat to the broader world and it is all preparing them to grasp the complexities of “home” in a way that I never will.

I love their definition of “home” BUT they don’t know how to play baseball.  They don’t know the joys of a small town ice cream shop or catching lightning bugs.  Fireworks to them mean Chinese New Year not Independence Day.

Going “home” for a few weeks doesn’t give them my childhood, but they don’t need that.  It does help fill in a few gaps though.  It’s a connection between their childhood and mine.  It’s a glimpse into things that I remember fondly and the missing link to the place that their passport says is their “home.”

I want that for them.

Fifth . . . Just passing through doesn’t mean I can’t love the trip

It’s inevitable in Christian circles.  Conversations about “home” end with a comment about “passing through.”

“This world is not my home.”

“My citizenship is in heaven.”

No argument from me but I do kind of cringe a little at the unspoken insinuation that love for our earthly home is grounds for a “shame on you.”   My only frame of reference for something that I can’t even begin to grasp is the closest possible thing that I can.  Even if this is just a reflection of the real thing, it’s a pretty awesome one.

Finally . . . Living abroad means I am double blessed.

It has been a great summer.  Thankful to have gone home — Thankful to be going home.


Jerry lives in China and blogs at The Culture Blend.