When Christmas Loses Its Magic

Christmas was magical until my grandpa died when I was 14. Up until that point Christmas had been the highlight of every year. But something seemed to die when he died. Several years later, another tragic death hit us. After that, Christmases were never the same. It was more a season of ache than joy.

Throughout my twenties, the Christmas season sometimes seemed to mock me with all its giddiness when I felt so broken. Unfulfilled desires, chronic illness, separation from loved ones, and homesickness were unwanted guests that exposed brokenness, especially at Christmas.

Enter Advent – the four-week period in the church calendar right before Christmas that both remembers Christ’s birth and anticipates His second coming. I grew up as an evangelical in a Roman Catholic country. We didn’t practice anything that hinted at Roman Catholicism. Observing the church calendar or its liturgies was not a thing I was aware of.

But since I started observing Advent in the last seven years or so, it has been a game changer for me. It has taught me to live in paradox. It has freed me up to treasure the joy of Christ’s first coming while also mourning that He hasn’t come back yet.

Advent enables me not to resent that the Christmas season is polluted with grief. It heightens the reality that I am a woman in waiting – waiting for consummation and for the return of my bridegroom. The small story of my life is simply joining the history of the world. I am doing what history has always been doing: groaning as it waits for one of the two comings of Jesus.

Paradox at Christmastime is just as it should be. Christ’s first coming was filled with paradox. When Simeon saw Christ in the temple, he both rejoiced and prophesied sorrow. Even as he praised God when he saw the long awaited salvation of God’s people, he also told Mary that this baby whom she had just delivered, and who would deliver her, would do so at a great cost to her. “A sword will pierce through your own soul.” The same baby would bring judgment to some and exaltation to others (Luke 2:34-35).

His second coming will also be filled with paradox. What will mean glory for all those who have longed for his appearing will mean wailing for those who pierced him. While His children sing, His enemies will bow in terror (Revelation 1:7).

For me, the difference between simply celebrating Christmas and practicing Advent has a lot to do with how I face December. I am not only looking forward to Christmas Day (or Noche Buena in Hispanic countries). I am not only just going to (or hosting) parties. I no longer expect myself to just be happy.

Instead, I allow time every day to both remember Christ’s birth and anticipate his second coming. I give space to sit in my grief, in my current unfulfilled longings and fears. I bring them honestly to my Father. I don’t try to mask them or stuff them down “because Christmas!” I am ok with the tension. Yes, Praise God, Christ was born! And life is not what it should be.

The point is not exactly how you observe Advent. I don’t always do the same thing every year. Some years I read through a devotional during Advent. Several years ago, I read through Isaiah using Tony Reinke’s #isaiahchristmas plan. We light candles at dinner with the kids, keeping it very dark at the beginning of December and then making it brighter the closer it gets to Christmas Day.

We have used Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, adding ornaments to a Jesse Tree every day. Other years we have focused on a name of Christ a day as a way of counting down to Christmas. Another year I went on a journey through the Scriptures in Handel’s Messiah every day.

I think the point has far more to do with the paradigm you have for this season, rather than how exactly you practice it. Are you ok with living in paradox? Are you aware that you are a person in waiting? Do you believe your unfulfilled longings, brokenness, and grief fit perfectly with this time?

Living into Advent has helped me to fix my gaze – and my hope – past Christmas to the Resurrection and the return of my King and Brother.

Christmas is a joy not because it is filled with undiluted joy. It is a joy because it testifies that just as the Incarnation truly happened, He is certainly coming back again. Because of Christmas, I am hastening the coming of Resurrection in clouds of great glory. Then, at last, everything sad will be untrue.

O Lord Jesus, come! We miss you so.

Christmas in a Foreign Land

by Esther Greenfield

There’s something special about Christmas in a foreign land.

It’s not that I don’t wish for snow… or for a day cool enough to snuggle under a blanket… or at least for a moment to stop sweating. Of course I miss the nostalgic scents and sentiments from holidays past. And I even struggle with sadness, longing to be “home for Christmas” (wherever home is).

But there’s still something special.

After all, the first Christmas was also an un-cozy, far-from-home, not-so-white Christmas.

There was no holiday atmosphere to welcome Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem after their long dusty journey — no cards or candles or cookies, not even tidings of comfort and joy. If by chance there was snowfall, it was another hardship, not a wish come true.

Instead, there was an overcrowded town with no decent place to deliver a baby. There was a smelly spare room filled with animals and the stuff they tend to leave behind. There was exhaustion and discomfort and sweat.

And there was God.

Doesn’t it feel incongruent? The Holy One, master of the universe, endless in power and glory — reduced to a blood-covered baby placed in a feed trough? It just doesn’t make sense.

But maybe that’s because the real story of Christmas so often gets baked into cookies or covered in lights or stuffed in stockings. It gets hidden among holiday to-do lists and under piles of Hallmark cards.

And as beautiful as our holiday traditions can be, they have a dangerous tendency to speak too loudly, to distract us from the message God is whispering.

But these not-so-white, un-cozy, far-from-home Christmases force us to look deeper, to sweep away the paper and ribbons, and gaze at the story in its most basic form:

Christ. In the dark. With us.

After all, if the peace of God required snowflakes and candlelight, we’d all be in big trouble. If his presence demanded an uncluttered environment, which of us could invite him in? If God didn’t fit into our crazy world, what hope would we have?

But God chose to enter here, into the dark, into the dirt, into the depressing reality of real human existence.

And this is really, really good news. Because if God was willing to step into the mess of the manger, there’s good reason to believe he can step into the messiness of my life.

If God’s presence could turn that smelly spare room into something beautiful, he can probably transform me into his beautiful dwelling place too. And maybe, just maybe, he can use me — in the midst of the exhaustion, discomfort, and sweat of my current existence — to share the light of his presence with those around me.

Indeed, there is something special about Christmas in a foreign land:

Christ. In the dark. With us. 

 

~~~~~~

Esther Greenfield was born in the American Midwest, but it was in East Africa that she learned to walk and pray and write poetry. She fell in love with her husband one summer in West Africa, and together they made their home in a North African city, with a passion to disciple the lost through Bible translation and Scripture engagement. Esther’s writings are inspired by her life in Africa and her love for Jesus. She blogs at Pilgrim Poetry.

Into the Neighborhood

by Rebecca

Emmanuel. God with us. He became flesh and dwelt among us. “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood,” is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase. I resonate so deeply with the words, ‘and moved into the neighbourhood.’ Isn’t that what each of us has done?

We’ve picked up our lives and settled into a neighborhood on another side of the world. For us, the streets of our adopted home look much more reminiscent of the streets that Jesus walked than the streets of our passport country. Mudbrick buildings, horse carriages, and donkey carts accompany the traffic. The roads are peppered with streetside vendors. By earthly standards, the city we call home is humble.

We have embraced this little-known corner of the world. There’s a frenetic energy in the hustle and bustle of our streets – so many interesting things to see, new sights and sounds to absorb, smiling faces and welcoming people as we go about our daily lives. Friendly curiosity follows us in a place where there are only a handful of foreign faces. There’s much to love about the warmth and generosity of the people we live among.

In this current season, though, I’ve struggled with how to navigate living here well. How do I embrace all that is different while honoring the unique way God designed me? Our neighborhood can feel small, robbing us of any semblance of privacy. With the curiosity comes scrutiny. Anonymity while running errands isn’t an option. Introversion doesn’t seem to exist in our host culture – so how do I explain my need for solitude?

When we first arrived, I was anxious to make local friends and integrate into society. Now that I’m knee deep, I struggle to feel confident in our boundaries. Needs are everywhere. Social expectations abound.  “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in a while.”

More often than not, I feel completely inadequate. Linguistically tongue-tied. My cross-cultural savvy still developing. Am I doing enough? Am I balancing home life and ministry well? Am I enough? Can I truly be myself?

As I settle into the Advent season, my heart returns time and again to this phrase, “He moved into the neighbourhood.” We moved into the neighbourhood to emulate Him. To shine His light. To reflect His love. We transplanted our lives to be tangible expressions of Emmanuel, God with us. I reflect on His life here on earth – He too was faced with insurmountable needs. He too was overwhelmed with social demands on His time. He too stole away for times of solitude.

As I sit under the weight of my self-criticism and self-doubt, He invites me to behold Him, one who is more than familiar with the humblest of surroundings, and remember that He is present here with me. He became flesh for those who surround me in this dark place, yes, but He also became flesh for me, to meet me where I am. His love shines on me too – it’s how I reflect His love to others.

As I sit in the glow of our festive tree, He invites my soul to bask in the glow of His unfathomable love.

Emmanuel, He is with me.  He sustains me.  He dwells in me.

Oh come, let us adore Him!

~~~~~~~

A wife. A mother. Word nerd. Coffee enthusiast. Simultaneously a world traveller and a homebody. Both an Adult TCK and International Worker. Rebecca has a heart for the nations and to see the global community thrive wherever God has planted them.

When Hoping Hurts

My favourite thing about Christmas has always been the name Immanuel, and what it really means. To have an omnipotent creator God who saw that the most important thing for him to be and do is to be present: to be God-with-us. Even as a child, without understanding the theological beauty of this, I loved Immanuel.

In the tumult of ongoing personal and professional storms, with no spiritual community to uphold me, I find myself ruminating on the connection between Immanuel and hope. Both feel far away from me in my current circumstances. When someone talks about hope, I want to walk away. There’s no place for hope in this pit. Things will happen as they happen, and there is no point in hoping for them to fall a certain way.

People wishing for the best for me, saying they hope and pray things will work out even better than expected – this makes me feel alone, not hopeful or supported. More comforting are those who simply acknowledge that my situation is awful and then include me in life, maintaining presence without expecting me to perform either grief or joy for them.

Right now, hoping hurts. It hurts to remember how I previously built a business from nothing to a liveable income. I look at empty bank accounts, and the life I lived two years ago feels like another lifetime. It hurts to imagine living with my husband in our own home, because they are on the other side of the world, out of reach.

Which brings me to Immanuel: God with us.

The Almighty God of love looked at a dark and broken world, and he knew that what we needed wasn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What we needed was presence.

The hope of Christmas isn’t that things are wonderful now that Christ is here.

The hope of Christmas isn’t that Jesus will fix everything.

The hope of Christmas isn’t even that Easter is on the horizon and THAT will fix everything.

The hope of Christmas is Immanuel.

The hope of Christmas is that we are not alone.

The hope of Christmas is that we have a God who has lived in the darkness with us.

The hope of Christmas is that Immanuel is in it for the long haul.

Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.

Sometimes, remembering the good that was – hurts.

Sometimes, believing in the good that will be – hurts.

But it is here in the darkness, the brokenness, the mess and destruction, that we find Immanuel. God with us. This is the real hope of Christmas.

I don’t have to change, I don’t have to fix anything, I don’t have to paste on a smile or make myself peppy. These things aren’t hope. I don’t have to believe that immigration paperwork will happen quickly or smoothly. I don’t have to believe my business will recover. I don’t have to believe my health will ever be okay.

Hope is knowing that what I see now is not all there is.

Hope is knowing that no matter what befalls me – Immanuel.

Hope is knowing that journeying through darkness is part of the journey of faith, and not a diversion from it. It is an opportunity to experience Immanuel.

Jesus looks at my dark and broken life and knows that what I need isn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What I need is presence with me on the journey. What I need is Immanuel.

Between Christmases

by Katherine Seat

Streams of uniformed children walked into school, trampling on the scattered grey snow. As I watched from my window, I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was all wrong and weird.

I knew well ahead of time that Christmas is not a public holiday in China, but I still felt surprised. School and cold weather should not be present on December 25th.

Christmas to me meant the end of the school year and the beginning of summer holidays. That was all I’d known, my entire Australian childhood. It was for family, church, and water fights.

“We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between.” –Marilyn Gardner, Between Worlds

The author was writing about her experience as a child growing up overseas.  She spent her formative years outside her passport county. I can also relate to it as an adult living overseas. I spent my formative years in my passport country, but most of my adult life I’ve lived outside it.

Before I visited China and then moved to Cambodia in my 20s, I was comfortable in Australia at Christmas. That was all I knew growing up. It surprised me that banks were open on December 25th, even though I had known that would be so.

But I would not be comfortable in Australia now, as most of my adult life I have been in Asia. I don’t think I know how to be an adult in Australia or what one would be expected to do at Christmas. But I know there are expectations as people plan weeks or even months ahead.

I was uncomfortable in Asia, but now I’m a lot more comfortable. The feeling of school and cool weather being wrong is long gone. In fact, I appreciate the cooler weather.

At first it didn’t feel like Christmas without Christmas trees and gift exchanges. But now I don’t feel that way. Some years if I have energy, I do trees and gifts — but if not that’s fine.

Christmas trees and Santa Clauses are now visible and available where I live. This wasn’t the case in northern China 20 years ago when I had my first overseas Christmas. Both Asia and I have changed.

Now I’m most comfortable between worlds. Not in Australia where Christmas is such a big deal, and yet also not going about my usual work day in Asia either.

So what are my Christmases like in this season of life? I still think of December 25th as a holiday. I feel like it is the right day to celebrate Christmas, even though I don’t believe there is anything spiritual about that date.

We join the local church to celebrate Christmas. It never feels like a proper Christmas to me because they have it on a Sunday. Local churches choose any Sunday in December or January to celebrate Christmas. It’s usually a big, noisy affair and includes a nativity play and meal. It’s an amazing display of God’s gift to us, the biggest time of the year for the young church in a Buddhist nation.

In Australia we have a church service on December 25th no matter what day of the week Christmas falls on.

So far I have been able to take December 25th off every year; I know this is not the case for many. There was one close call when I was helping at a school, but luckily I had dengue fever so I stayed home anyway.

My husband and I didn’t have a tradition of doing presents. Since our children have been old enough to know what’s going on, they have decided they need presents!

Our favourite way to spend December 25th is having a quiet day at home. I usually buy special food. Something delicious that is easy to prepare, often something foreign that we don’t eat on a normal day.

Some years we get together with other expats for a meal, sometimes not. I love that we can make a big deal of it if we want to, but if we are feeling like a low-key day, we have freedom to do that too.

What about you, O fellow expat or repat? What are your Christmases like? And how are you feeling about this Christmas?

Are you excited to be able to choose your favourite Christmas traditions and adapt? It could be an opportunity to create your own Jesus-focused fusion of cultures.

Or maybe you are dreading being in a place where you’re away from family and there are no signs of Christmas? It might not even feel like Christmas at all.

Or are you missing that expat friend whom you used to do Christmas with? Life hasn’t been the same since they moved back to their passport country.

And if you are back in your passport country, you might also have mixed emotions.

Maybe you are looking forward to finally having a proper Christmas? You’ll have it with the right people and the right weather.

Or are you dreading the first in-person family Christmas since the death of a loved one?

Or perhaps feeling overwhelmed at the commercialism and obligations?

Maybe the church in your passport country seems so different to how you remember it? Perhaps it feels Christmas time would be more meaningful with people from around the world?

I don’t know if you will be in a world that is comfortable to you or not this Christmas. Whichever it is, I hope you can still celebrate that the maker of the universe entered our world.

The light of life among us dwells
Oh, hear the darkness quake
as angels all proclaim
The glory of Immanuel!

 

(Lyrics from “Maker, Made A Child,” by Abi Marthinet-Glover, Alanna Glover, and Jake Marthinet-Glover. Emu Music, copyright 2020.)

~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

Join in the ALOS Christmas Party

Hello A Life Overseas Friends,

A friend and I were talking a few hours ago about a part of the world we hold dear and ended up by saying, “It’s complicated.” The same could be said about Christmas.

Why did Jesus come? On one level it is so simple, and yet it is also complicated.

From now until heaven, having loved both sides of the world, I am with my people and never with my people.

Sometimes celebrating is easy and fun, other years, it is an act of discipline.

Often the season is filled with normal life (whatever that is!) and an added layer of ministry. Which is, a blessing and exhausting.

One of the best parts of Christmas overseas is learning how the teammates and local culture celebrate (or strip away some of the trappings of) Christmas. As I thought about this post and what I want/need from this space, I realized that in addition to the words we share, I wanted to know a little bit about you and what Christmas is like around the world.

So today, let’s have a party!

I would bring “Nuts and Bolts” — a snack mix my mom only makes at Christmas time. It has dry cereal, pretzel sticks, and nuts . . . covered in some magical yummy sauce and baked with love. Sometimes she would freeze me some and I could enjoy it when I visited.

Normally, I do not go above and beyond when it comes to food. I tend to aim for beneath and in front of me, but because it is Christmas and this is a virtual party, I’m also going to bring fig pudding. My father “always had fig pudding” because his mom made it; so when my mom married into the family and the traditions of cooking passed to her, she learned to make it. We have it every year.

For me, Nuts and Bolts and fig pudding are the flavors of Christmas. Cookies are a given, am I right?!

I would have us listen to Silent Night in Chinese.

What are you bringing to the party? We need more food, beverages, music, decorations, and activities. How is Christmas celebrated where you live? Or in one of the countries you have lived? Since most of the party will happen in the comments, I’ll see you there.

Merry Happy Blessed Christmas everyone!

Amy

P.S. Thanks last month for taking the survey about your first year on the field! Your input has already elevated the book that is being born and I am grateful for the ways you are helping to pay your experience forward.

Photo by Izabella Bedő from Pexels

‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. God is a God of mystery and paradox and he gently draws my longing and fickle heart into his own, asking only that I trust. So in this season of incongruity, this season where I just can’t with the images, I offer a fickle and contrary heart to a Savior who is my only hope. I can’t make sense of this world, but he can.

I hear the call to prayer in the mosque next door. It is followed by the many other mosques in the city, creating a cacophony of sound. I pause and pray to the One who makes sense of all this. The words of a Christmas carol come to mind and for now, I rest in those words.

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.


Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and are thinking that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they need to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You’ll see them around just after Christmas.

Fetal position.

More homesick than ever.

Pricing airfare again.

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you go home for Christmas (or otherwise detach) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

So what?

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

originally posted on The Culture Blend

Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

Ahh, busyness . . . sneaks up on you doesn’t it? Especially this time of year.

Caught me off guard and I’m a bit overrun by cookies, carols and Christmas cheer to pause and post something fresh.

So . . . please accept my apologies and this repost from The Culture Blend.

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year to boot.

Oops, I went home for Christmas

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and thought that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they needed to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You know who you are.

Fetal position?

More homesick than ever?

Pricing airfare again?

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

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So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads, it looks like this.

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It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

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Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

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Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

What’s your experience?  Have you left and come back?  Flying out this week?    Share your story below.  

9 Ways to Make the Most of Christmas Abroad

Christmas abroad can be lonely. It can also be delightful. Here are some things my family has learned over the years that help to make our holiday season special.

Stuff shmuff. The cheaply made but expensive toys break. The box sent from the US arrives late, like next October late (which, in truth, can be super fun. Christmas in October? Why not!). Stuff is easily forgotten over the years. But the gift of a camping trip to the coast? A safari? SCUBA lessons? They are the ‘stuff’ of memories. (I will say, I am super thankful for the actual stuff I have received over the years, too. As anyone knows who asks about my running watch, I still rave about last year’s Christmas present.)

The privilege of making our own traditions. The first few Christmases abroad are blank slates. Do you love the breakfast tradition your family had in your home country and can you replicate it? Then do it. But do you want to have something else for breakfast? Awesome, your choice. We Joneses wrestle, bake cookies, go camping, and laugh at our ridiculous homemade ornaments. Those are yearly traditions. Others come and go depending on people, supplies, schedules. It can feel intimidating, or maybe even sad, to look at advent and Christmas and to feel pressure to make something meaningful. Think of it as an opportunity to creatively design your personalized traditions. (also, know that anything you do one and a half times will be considered a ‘tradition’ by your children.)

Family far away? Make a family. Local friends who don’t celebrate Christmas and local friends who do. New coworkers. Friends from school or sports. Singles and young families, empty nesters and college students. It can be easy to assume others aren’t lonely, like you. Or others have already been invited to dinner or a game night. But maybe they are also sitting at home feeling lonely and uninvited. Love the people far away, yes. Skype and send gifts or messages, visit. But love the people nearby, too. Love them well.

It doesn’t take much to make it special. A two-foot Christmas tree. Paper cutout snowflakes dangling from twine and taped to the ceiling. A scented candle. A special tablecloth. Music.

Portable traditions are really valuable. You can bake in Minnesota and you can bake in Djibouti. You can wrestle in Minnesota, in Djibouti, even in the airport or at Disney World. Develop at least a few traditions you can bring anywhere.

Food blesses everyone. People without kids want to frost sugar cookies, too. Muslims enjoy a good spritz cookie, too. Moms with babies might not have time to bake but they sure appreciate a box of Christmas chocolates. Asking someone new which food they miss most and then surprising them with it on Christmas can make people cry and form lifelong friendships. Recipes are portable, mostly, so you can take that lovely, homey, Christmas kitchen smell with you when you move. You can even box it up and send it to kids in college. Food itself is also portable and communicates someone is remembered.

Enjoy your local friends’ attempts to celebrate with you (and return the favor on their holidays). Even, perhaps especially, when the attempts are funny. Like the mannequin at the grocery store that is more barefoot-martial-arts-stripper than Santa or the ground beef snowman with a carrot nose and olive buttons. Or their delight at seeing their first ‘real’ Christmas tree, ever. Or their building of awesome meat-based snowmen.

Stories matter. Build them, create them, and retell them. They ground mobile kids in their heritage, they give them the building blocks of lifelong laughter, belonging, and shared memory. Santa and the goats. The screaming baby in Santa’s lap (who happens to be her own father). The awkward nativity play. You have your own, tell them.

Read out loud together. Here’s another portable tradition, even one that you can do over Skype. Read the Nativity story in the Bible. Read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (we do, every year, and laugh more every year). Read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and then make up your own, local-style version.

I’m sure y’all have buckets (or should I say action packers) of Christmas lessons, earned through tears and loneliness, learned through laughter and creativity. What are some of your suggestions for making the most of a Christmas abroad?

Angels from the Rooftops – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

There are some stories that remain in a family and become a part of our DNA. These stories are told year after year, but they never get old. Here is one of our stories that reminds me each year of the wonder of Christmas.

My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse named Clyde created in 1912 stood under a pavilion in the center of town, a symbol of the town’s history.

My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Hers was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.

The long sea journey that took her, my father, and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 transferred her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.

Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and gold twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties, and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.

When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children. They were acutely aware of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.

The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. We were the only foreigners in town and our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood. Mosques surrounded the house, their tall minarets ever present; the call to prayer echoing into our home five times a day.

When I was almost three years old, my mom experienced deep sadness during the Christmas season and, despite the excitement of  my brothers and me, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:

“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)

It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky. As she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing just as on that night so long ago the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.

There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them. Out of love for our family they had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:

“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128

My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear. Instead it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Thank You, Dear Shepherds

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I have a soft spot in my heart for nativity sets. I think it’s because the cast is familiar and recognizable, so much so that it can be altered to fit any culture and we still know what it is. It’s kind of like hearing “Silent Night” sung in many languages. We may not understand it, but we understand it. Variations on a theme.

But, of course, not all cultures know the significance of the nativity figures. While we were living in Asia, a few blocks away from our house there was a knick-knack store that during Christmastime was filled with Western decorations. Here’s what I wrote about that in a newsletter, 13 years ago:

Amongst the jumble of holiday odds and ends are the scattered pieces of a few nativity sets. On one shelf is a shepherd standing next to a Christmas tree. On another is a stable with only a wise man and Joseph. Without the infant Jesus, there’s no nativity, and the figures become just people staring at the ground, elbowing for space in between the rows upon rows of Santa Clauses.

In a Christian home, even the children understand that the characters in the nativity need to be close to the baby, usually fanned into a semicircle—arranged with balance and order—so that we can see them all. But the smaller kids know that an even better way is to put everybody shoulder to shoulder in a tight huddle with Jesus at the center—with maybe a Ninja Turtle and a Barbie getting in on the act. Don’t they all want to get a good view?

Having the unity of the nativity exploded throughout a store, that’s just not the way it’s supposed to be. Seeing the sacred mixed up with the commercial, that’s not a bad metaphor for our messed up world.

Actually, it’s not a bad metaphor at all. In fact, one could say it’s the way it ought to be.

What if we were to rethink the way we arrange our nativity sets? Of course, the baby Jesus would be on the table top, front and center, with Mary close by. Joseph, he could be not quite so close (he’s greeting visitors and keeping all those pesky animals from trying to eat out of the manger). The wise men could be under the Christmas tree (gifts are kind of their thing), better yet if they’re around a corner somewhere (since it’s going to take them a while to make it to Bethlehem).

As for the shepherds, some are with Jesus, but let’s scatter the others on the bookshelves around the room. They’re the ones who’ve come and gone and are now mixed in with the painted teapots, mystery novels, and framed family photos. They’re the ones who’ve been introduced to the Christ child and have already returned to the fields. They’re the ones who are spreading the word far and wide about what they’ve seen and heard.

Know anybody else like that?

Thank you, dear shepherds for continuing to spread that word today.

Thank you for leaving the in-here for the out-there. I know it can be especially hard at this time of year.

Thank you for living outside the semicircle.

Thank you for carrying the Good News to the faraway shelves where they don’t even know that the baby is missing.


[photo: “Nativity,” by thrufireandthruwater, used under a Creative Commons license]