Missionary Job Description: Feel Awkward

An Introvert Moves to India

Shortly before we launched as missionaries to India, I was gifted a book. The title was something like Home at Last.

This book disturbed me.

In it, the (obviously extroverted) author writes we will be with people all the time in Heaven/The Earth Made New, and won’t that be wonderful?! After this statement, the author moves on to other beautiful theological musings and descriptions of Home. I skipped these and read again the people-all-the-time thing.

Oh no, I quietly panicked. I don’t want to be with people all the time. What if I’m not cut out for Heaven?! 

Then we moved to India, where your arms seem to touch the arms of others nearly all the time, at least on the bus and sometimes even at your house. My neighbors, worried I would feel lonely or homesick, made sure never to leave me alone. 

The good part of this is that I was also never hungry. And Indian food is some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The difficult part is that sometimes I wanted everyone to take their curries and chapattis and palak panir and go visit someone else.

I actually like being around people. And I want lots of people to be in Heaven. But I need time to think about the meaning of life, you know? Otherwise, I feel like I stop understanding the world and my place in it. I lose track, becoming internally displaced. Sometimes I need a minute to think about Everything. 

I’ve heard that’s called being an introvert.

Several times that first year, I locked my main door from the outside and sneaked back into my house from a side door, so people would think I was not at home.

Ahhh. Alone at Last.

Then my extroverted husband would bounce home like Tigger and wonder why I was locking out all the unreached people we had come to minister to. And I would wonder why I wasn’t more like him. And I would think to myself, “I can do this. I can be more like Joshua. I just need time to think about how to do that…”

Thinking, by myself, was my safe place. Language learning, making cultural mistakes, and being observed made me want to run and hide.

But when I went home and had my quiet moments, I found something in myself I hadn’t expected. The reason I was hiding was not always to analyze. Sometimes I hid for the sake of hiding.

Sometimes I hid because I was afraid.

That’s Awkward.

A friend of mine once said that the main job description of a missionary is to feel awkward. 

You feel awkward in your host country. Then you go home and feel awkward, too.

I like knowing all the rules, especially social ones, and I like to go to sleep at night knowing that I didn’t offend anyone, and that I said what I meant to say, and was understood and didn’t talk too much or too little, and that nobody around me was ignored or suffered hurt feelings because of things I said or other people said. If I can’t sleep, I make a list of people I might have offended and pray over it and give it to God and sometimes follow up the next day.

Enter India. Instead of my neatly organized, slightly neurotic list-making, that first year I went to bed at night thinking about how to leave someone’s house.

I often visited a friend, and after a couple of hours would try to leave. She would ask me to stay longer. I would sit. A while later, I would try to leave again. She would ask me to stay longer. I would sit. After playing this up-down game for some time, I could tell my friend actually wanted me to leave. I wanted to leave, too. But she kept telling me to sit and stay, and I kept sitting and staying. 

So, instead of analyzing the minute nuances of human interaction, I wondered how in the world people go home in India.

One awkward moment was tolerable. The problem was, I knew the awkwardness was going to be repeated multiple times daily. I was going to feel awkward. Often. And make other people feel awkward. And not be able to say anything to make it better, because all I could say was, “Nice to meet you, I have a brother who is older than me and a sister who is younger than me, do you want to drink chai?”

Honestly, it’s only because of my extroverted and goal-oriented husband that I kept going out the door. He would laugh with me over my faux pas, and they would become funny instead of tragic. Then he would remind me that making mistakes doesn’t kill you and that I have something to give the world. Something beyond just avoiding mistakes.

He would remind me that it’s worth the risk because maybe someone I felt awkward around might love Jesus someday. My shame might bring God glory.

Joshua and I argued a lot that first year, as he learned to be more introverted and I learned to be more extroverted. But I still thank him for his constant encouragement to exit our house. Because some of my favorite memories of my life are of my first year in India. They’re much more interesting than the memories I made just sitting and thinking. Funnier, too.

A Special Gift

But my introversion wasn’t all a stumbling block. It turned out to be a gift, too. I realized it was a gift after the 37th time that my friend Sai told me not to say danyavad

I had lost sleep over this. Why in the world couldn’t I say thank you? What was wrong with being polite? What was I supposed to say instead?

It took multiple discussions (with people) and late-night analysis sessions (by myself) to finally understand why North Indians don’t say thank you to family members and close friends. The answer revealed something hidden deep within the culture, something that would help me understand why it’s so difficult for a Hindu to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. (I tell that entire story in my book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.)

Using Your Gift

Introverts, don’t let your gift hold you back. I know some days it seems more prudent to wait until you speak the language or understand the culture before you really invest in others. But the only way to get to that place is through the forest of awkward not knowing. It’s like when you’re learning to drive, and you really want to slow down because everything is happening so fast, but sometimes it’s safer just to keep going. 

Introverts, appreciate how God made you. Use your gift to do the uncomfortable work of cultural analysis that will make you a true insider. Let it be difficult. Let it hurt. Let it be awkward. It’s worth the cost.

At the same time, it’s okay to take a break. Just know that when you come away with Jesus on a mountain because you’re overwhelmed by the crowds, if they follow you there, He will provide. He will provide with what little you have, even if it’s just a few loaves of bread and a handful of tiny fish. Because He has compassion for you, and for the crowds, too.

While the awkward moments never completely subsided, I learned to decipher certain subtle linguistic and social cues in India. I learned to understand my friends, their language, and their unique perspectives. After seven years in India, I could finally picture myself in the Earth Made New, surrounded by people, arms touching as we stood together under the tree whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.”

Ahhh. Home at Last!

Getting my friends home is God’s story to write. My part is to pick up my cross and walk out my door.

Will you join me?

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. Abigail is the author of Hidden Song of the Himalayas: Memoir of a Gospel Seed Sower in the Mountains of India.