Editor’s Note: Last year I had the privilege of reading Julie’s new book, Bowing Low: Rejecting the Idols Around Us to Worship the Living God. She consistently made me think about cultural issues through a biblical lens. I thought I had already begun that process, but Julie took my hand and led me even deeper into it. As she demonstrates in the book, the potential for idolatry is truly everywhere in modern society. The excerpt below discusses expatriate living more broadly, but in reality if we give up our idols to worship the one true God, we will be “foreign weirdos” anywhere we go. ~Elizabeth Trotter
Being an alien and stranger is no fun. Ask me about it. Everywhere we go, people stare at us. They grab at us to touch our skin and hair. They unashamedly point and stare at us in public. They sometimes treat us like royalty, bestowing on us white privilege exceptions, treats, and favors. Other times we are treated with disdain and suspicion, like scientific specimens or exotic animals at a zoo to be examined and prodded.
They ask to take pictures of us since seeing aliens is admittedly an unusual, noteworthy experience. I sometimes think the attention we get is because of our (many) cute kids. But the other day I was in the grocery store alone and it happened. Assuming I didn’t speak the local language (which I do), a young woman and man came up to me motioning awkwardly with their hands that they wanted a picture with me. I hardly go anywhere without at least one kid with me, so I was so surprised it took me a while to figure out what was happening.
Then, I realized what I should have already known– I am an alien and stranger here. People like to document and share their alien encounters. They wanted a picture with me. Who knows if they may ever see an extraterrestrial again?
I stood still, and they took my picture right there in the diaper aisle. Then, I shocked them again by speaking to them in the local language, politely answering their questions–- where did I come from? How long have I lived here? What work do I do? Do I have a family?
The only thing weirder than seeing an alien is seeing an alien who speaks your language and lives among you.
Some of our alien experiences are more pleasant than others. Sometimes, complete strangers somehow get pictures of our kids and then use those pictures as their profile photo on Facebook (that really happened). Sometimes, people are really rude and pushy and don’t take no for an answer when we tell them that we don’t want our picture taken, or that our kids don’t want to be poked, pinched, or held by complete strangers. Sometimes, people whom we have no memory of meeting know exactly where we live, how many kids we have, and where my husband works.
Being an alien stranger is difficult.
It’s impossible to have privacy as an alien and stranger or to keep anything a secret. Everything you do, everything you buy, every mannerism, every interaction is recorded in the memory of the community like the odd, unusual, noteworthy, rarity that it is. People remember their extraterrestrial experiences. It’s hard to constantly be the weirdo that people remember.
I’m in most ways the opposite of “normal” here.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to be. I understand contextualization. I’ve studied crossing borders and becoming all things to all men, that I might win some.
I have worked hard to learn the language. I can read the difficult script (even if my writing is admittedly terrible). I can carry on a conversation, and I get my meaning across despite my many mistakes.
I wear local clothes most of the time. I can wrap the skirt like the locals, wear the typical shoes, and take them off at the right times. I know what is modest here and what isn’t. I wear real gold earrings because any respectable woman does.
I buy my food from the market. I have even learned to cook the local way, and I eat rice (almost) as much as local people do.
I have come to understand, respect, and even uphold a lot of local ideals and beliefs. Things that upset me about the culture when I first entered it now make sense in ways that are hard for me to explain to fellow Americans.
I know about the seasonal calendar. About religious festivals and customs. I can sense the change of seasons and even feel the hope and excitement in the air when religious holidays are near.
Our house is typical. Our furnishings are modest and simple. Besides the ridiculous number of toys and books our kids have, we could almost pass for locals.
So why am I still so opposite? Why didn’t the “veil” between us lower quicker? Why aren’t my best efforts at practicing “incarnational ministry” paying off and producing fast fruit?
No matter what I do, how I live, how I speak or dress— will it ever be “enough?” Is all the effort even worth it? Will I always be a foreign weirdo?
I remind myself that God always intended His people to be called out and set apart. Noah, perhaps, is the very first example of a truly called out person, living in a wicked time, but remaining true to the God who was instructing him down a strange path. He was faithful despite his culture and despite the absurdity of God’s call on his life.
Abraham, the father of our faith, is called out and asked to move to a place he didn’t know, to trust God and do what God said despite the uncertainty. He was both called out from his culture and from his family, leaving his parents and most of his extended relatives behind. He was called to live in tents, traveling around, being a nomad for God.
Being called out means hearing the voice of God interrupting your life. God’s voice usually interrupts your life’s plans and gives you a new set of directives to follow. And the plans usually sound crazy to most of the people around you.
God calls Moses from a burning bush and changes his life’s course. Later God calls His people out of Egypt asking them to trust Him to lead them to a Promised Land. They are repeatedly told to be holy, be set apart, to not assimilate to the idol-worshipping nations around them. They are called to be holy because God is holy, and they are God’s people.
God always reminds them that He didn’t call them because they are better than everyone else, but because He had mercy on them. Because He is loving and merciful. Not because they did anything at all to earn His favor. They are called out to follow His voice, to move their tents when He moves and to stay when He stays. They worship God using a tent “Tabernacle” in the desert, with no permanent place to worship God. Through all this, God teaches them that He will go with them.
So I am content to be an alien and a stranger here. I am a foreign weirdo who may never fit in completely. But I am confident in my calling, and I trust that God is with me wherever I go. There are differences between me and the people I serve – so many differences – but I believe God will use those differences to build His Kingdom and show the world the great love of Christ, a love that has no bounds and no ethnic affiliation.
Julie Jean Francis is the author of Bowing Low: Rejecting the Idols Around Us to Worship the Living God. She has lived as an alien and stranger in Southeast Asia since 2012 among a large, unreached people group (less than 1% Christian) with her only teammate and husband of 14 years. Together they raise their many Third Culture Kids. She likes drinking tea, ministering to children, and talking about loneliness, the power of the Word, and the faithfulness of God in hard times. You can find her online here.