Cultural Tug-Of-War

“This is not America” my colleague says under her breath as she rolls her eyes and walks past my conversation with another teacher, both of us caught up in a discussion as to how things “ought to be.”

“This is Liberia” is what another teacher says as he shrugs his shoulders and teases me in my frustration as we start yet another staff meeting 30 minutes late.

I grit my teeth and try to smile back; I don’t need either reminder.

When I left the US and came to Liberia, I traded my skinny jeans for flowy skirts and my cute workout shorts for baggy cargo pants. My sandwiches and salads for soup and rice. I traded my quick smile and wave greeting for a handshake and a lengthy conversation.

I’ve slowed down my speech, adjusted my grammar, learned new words, and adapted a new accent all for the sake of more effective communication. I’ve had to let go of my uncontrollable need for deadlines and structure and learn to wade in the waves of ambiguity. I’ve traded my watch for a bench and gotten used to passing the time rather than watching the time. I’ve learned to tame my desire to be independent and unique in an effort to belong and be unified with the larger group in harmony.

In the beginning when I moved to Liberia, I knew there would be things I would have to adjust to, but I didn’t mind. I’d been on mission trips and managed in a new setting for a few months at a time plenty of times before. Besides, there were so many things about the country that I admired. I was happy to adjust a few of my preferences and get rid of a few of my old habits. But then it all became too much.

Every single part of me, my clothes, food, dance, language, and rights, has been relinquished from my grip in some way or another. And still, it feels like this country keeps pulling and pulling and pulling on me, asking me to give up more and more.

Some days it feels like all I’m doing here is playing a constant game of tug-of-war. They pull me to become more Liberian, to talk this way, dress this way, and think this way. At times, I go along willingly, trying my best to please them or gain their adoration and approval, but other times I dig my feet into the ground and hold on tight, clinging to the American mantra of being “unapologetically myself” no matter what. I try to pull them towards me to see the worth of my American culture’s values like timeliness, efficiency, and independence. They look at me and shake their heads and laugh, leaving me to pull on the rope and falling back as they just simply let go, done with the game all together.

I never did like tug-of-war growing up, and I don’t like it now. And yet, I foolishly keep standing up, grabbing on to the rope, and tugging as hard as I can.

When will they will start bending toward me? When will they start loosening their grip as well? Haven’t I given up enough? Haven’t I let go of the rope and allowed them to tug me towards their side long enough? At what point do my needs and wants matter too? At what point will I stop being the American missionary and just be a friend, a friend worth changing just a little bit for? Doesn’t it go both ways?

Deep down, though, I know this is not what it’s all about.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I became all things for all people.” Why did he do this? Why did he give up his own rights and freedoms? Why did he give up his way of life? Why did he not dig his heels in and fight for what he believed to be right? Did he give up on the fight so that others would praise him about how well he was fitting in or how much he had sacrificed? Did he do it so he could make friends, expecting that others might do the same for him in return?

No, he did it for one reason and one reason only. He did it “so that by all means, I might save some (vs 22).” “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 13).” “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (vs 23).”

This cross-cultural ministry life is hard, and it is draining. It is life-altering and identity-shaping. There is a constant tension between who I was and who I am, and who I am and who I want to be. There is a constant tugging, stretching, and pulling.

My immediate tendency is to blame the ones I see in front of me for the pain and loss that this process entails, but I know that they are merely the pull of my Creator’s hands.  I feel the tension, and I attribute it to the horizontal tugging that I see between them and me, but in doing so I inadvertently ignore the upwards prying that is also at play as I wrestle with my own identity and rights.

Rather than pulling back and forth on this rope, sweat running down our faces and grunting and gritting at the other, what would happen if we instead directed our eyes to the center of the rope? It is there where I see God reaching His arm down and grabbing hold and pulling upwards. The further up He pulls, the closer we get to Him and therefore each other, and the further behind we leave our earthly identities and woes. I wonder, then, is this merely the pain of a tug-of-war between two cultures that we feel, or is it the deeper sanctification of our humanity?

The goal in our life and our ministry is not just a mere adaption or transformation from one culture or the other. Nor is it a total abandonment of culture altogether. But it’s also not a lifelong game of cultural tug-of-war where we pull each other from side to side endlessly.

It is neither my identity as an American or as a Liberian transplant that I should be grasping for the tightest; it is my identity in Christ. It is not the culture in which I was born into that I should be holding onto for dear life; it is my born-again identity in Christ which actually gives me life.

The goal for Christians is that we might pull each other more towards Christ, spurring one another upwards, not just tugging each other endlessly from side to side (Hebrews 10:24).

Rather than looking at our cultural differences as something that allows us to be pulled back and forth and side to side, what if we allowed them to instead be a rope that tugs us upwards, closer toward our Creator?

Rather than looking at all these cultural differences as things that God is doing to us, what if we looked at them as something that He was doing for us? What if those tugs on the rope were not from the host country nationals, but from God Himself? What if this tension was meant to show us where our priorities truly lie? Where we have been placing our trust and our hopes? Where we need to let go of some ground? What if instead of blaming one another and always trying to change one another, we thanked God for the gift of our differences and allowed them to instead be used as opportunities that can pull us closer towards Him?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of playing the same old game of cultural tug-of-war and falling face first in the dirt after fighting yet another losing battle against my host country. I don’t want to dig my feet in anymore and fight for my own rights when I could be using that energy to instead fight for the gospel. I can see the places where I’ve been digging in and wearing myself down for the sake of my own “freedom,” and I think it’s finally time to let go.

Boundary Lines and Haikus

by Roberta Adair

I spent many years wondering in the back of my head if being called to Japan was divine punishment for a flaw. To improperly use fancy Christian lingo, I wondered if God was sending me to Japan rather than other places I was willing and eager to go in order to sanctify me. I believed something like, “God loves me but needs to sandpaper and scrape a lot of Roberta away…and Japan is the sandpaper.”

In grad school I even wrote in my journal, “Lord, I’m willing to go anywhere — just not Japan,” yet now I view this country I said I’d never move to as one of the Psalmist’s “pleasant places.” I get teary as I consider God bringing me here for my good, not in a gross kale kind of way but in a warm, corner brownie kind of way.

In 2019 I attended a day of training with a more experienced missionary. She discussed some of the metaphors that people use to describe adjusting to Japan: feeling like a child, being in a dark tunnel, climbing a mountain. She talked with us about the importance and power of metaphors and led us in a few exercises to help us discover insights for ourselves. For years I had used phrases like “square peg, round hole” (not fitting well) and “like a little kid in a new school” (incompetent and unknown) to try to articulate what living here feels like.

One image that I hadn’t been able to verbalize but had felt over and over was the idea of feeling trapped and tied down – like having a rope wound around and around my arms and not being able to breathe freely, much less move. For a long time, I looked at “Japan” (written in quotation marks as I’m referring to it more as an idea than as a place or a people) as restricting, trapping, binding, and controlling.

There are so many rules: when to bow, when to use honorifics, how long to admire a business card that you received respectfully with two hands (“Always receive with two hands!”). If someone gives a gift, it is appropriate to give another gift at 30% of the estimated value of the original gift.

I found all of these rules exhausting, along with all of the formality, ceremony, and appropriateness (I generally like informal, spontaneous, and mildly-to-wildly inappropriate). There were rules about eye contact, precise expectations about what to wear to different ceremonies, and even how to laugh (many women cover their teeth when they laugh and maintain control, while I love to belly laugh with both friends and strangers). I found all of this overwhelming and exhausting and grating and tedious and irritating.

I know people who are drawn to Japan specifically for the same reasons I had prayed “anywhere but.” They like that it’s predictable, orderly, safe. They are the “learn the rules, and you’ll do well” type of people. I think perhaps this is one reason why my engineer husband adjusted to Japan years before I did.

At the training, as an exercise to start and end our sessions, we were asked to write haikus. I hadn’t written one since middle school, yet I was able to spit two out really quickly. 5-7-5…boom.

They weren’t amazing, but they were written quickly and lightly. I didn’t get bogged down with a gazillion possibilities from a more open-ended prompt like, “Write an essay. Draw a picture. Describe a situation.” The haiku was so simple. I think this exercise marked the beginning of my understanding that too many possibilities isn’t freedom; it’s exhausting.

Ever since that post-retreat time, I’ve tried to notice more of this limitation-as-freedom thing. Rather than feeling restrained, confined, and trapped in Japan, I’m trying to reframe that limitations can contribute to my freedom.

For example, the train. Although we have a car, I like to ride the train to the library. I prefer the boundaries of time with trains. There are consequences to trying to finish “just one more thing” (needing to wait for the next one), and knowing the train pulls away at a certain time helps me focus and get stuff done. It also gives me 10 minutes to check out on the ride home.

Then there’s our newsletter. I wrote freeform email updates during my three years living in another country. They were usually quite long. I didn’t like my husband’s suggestion a decade ago to pick a newsletter format and stick to it. I still occasionally struggle with the constraints of space. If anyone ever thinks, “Um, this paragraph is missing a sentence,” yes it is, but I simply deleted it to make it fit. Using this formula means we can make them faster than we could if they were more freestyle. Two articles with three to five pictures (2-3-5…boom).

Or consider our small house. I’ve seen these literal boundaries and limitations lead to freedom. I have a lot of new-to-me opinions about the lightness connected to having a small house and next-to-no yard. Perhaps this not-chosen-by-me minimalist lifestyle isn’t forever or for everyone. That said, I’ve experienced a lot of joy connected to exploring and playing that I simply wouldn’t have had time for if I had more space and stuff to manage and maintain.

Boundaries are helpful with anything related to reducing decision fatigue. I know this is a trendy topic, but it’s why I like restaurants with small menus, prefer the neighborhood veggie man over a larger grocery store, and have jumped from team self-expression to being a big fan of uniforms (very common for students and workers in Japan). It’s also why we’ve happily adjusted our wardrobes to our small closets. Our four boys share two chests of drawers with seven drawers between them. It works, and it’s (mostly) really good. I have the smallest wardrobe of my life, and (most of the time) I love it.

I think about limitations when I think about having kids. Oh, the laundry, dishes, cooking, time constraints, and adjusting so much of my life and schedule around them. Yet these little balls of Big Energy and Big Feelings also bring so many possibilities. They’ve opened the door to many deep friendships, and they’ve expanded my understanding of the world, people, and God.

These are just a few examples of the ways I experience the expansiveness of limitation. I’m finding that the boundary lines aren’t confining or trapping but instead have allowed me to more fully experience “pleasant places.” And for that, I’m grateful.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

Cross-Cultural Skiing

My family arrived in the States for a six-month furlough in December. We eagerly awaited the “winter” weather, as my two boys barely have any memories of snow. But the winter weather seemed unpredictable and disappointing. 

One day, I was talking with my dad about cross-country skiing. He loves skiing and has a whole collection of skis in our basement that he can use whenever the weather in Virginia allows. My nine-year-old son piped up, “Are you going to go cross-cultural skiing?” 

I laughed. Apparently, my son really is a TCK. He is more familiar with the term “cross-cultural” than he is with the term “cross-country.” So I explained to him what his grandpa was actually talking about.

But the term my son used has stayed with me. We are, indeed, cross-cultural skiing.

Before furlough, we talked as a family about what we were looking forward to: Christmas presents, snow, grandparents (in that order). We talked about what was scary: a new school, different foods, leaving friends behind (“Will my friends forget me?” my son asked). Months of thought, preparation, and planning went into getting on the airplane to leave Indonesia.

But each time we furlough, I am surprised at what I forgot to anticipate— for myself and for my children.

This time around, before even landing in America, I realized my sons were not used to dry weather. Airplanes have dry air, as do winter months. My children, however, are accustomed to the humid air of tropical Indonesia. Licking his lips, over and over again, my eldest son’s face became red and painful. 

Don’t lick your lips! I explained. But he is from the tropics. This air is an unfamiliar dry. My youngest son’s skin also became dry and itchy. “I don’t want that slimy stuff,” he screams as I run after him with lotion.

How do we help our children when the air itself is different from what we are used to? How do we help our families navigate switching between cultures on this journey of cross-cultural skiing?

Some parts of this life are beautiful. My children are bilingual and can switch between languages with ease. “Hi, my name is Luke. I’m bilingual,” my seven-year-old son says when he introduces himself. But on furlough, we must work hard to make sure Indonesian is not forgotten. We scroll through Netflix movies and shows to find only what is available in Indonesian. We switch our bedtime story routine to reading in Bahasa Indonesian (we use the free app Let’s Read Asia to access hundreds of books).  

Sometimes this feels like a sacrifice, as the public library has an abundance of books in English that I would love to read. But I remember returning to the field after the last furlough; it took over a year for our son to start speaking smoothly in Indonesian again. We are working harder this time to help him remember, to keep him from forgetting.

I love how my children view life in America with excitement and wonder. They see things with new eyes, helping me also to enjoy the small things: squirrels, cardinals, blue jays, and blossoming daffodils provide backyard entertainment. 

Other parts of this life are brutal. All the goodbyes in Indonesia, not knowing what things will be like when we return six months from now. Will our children’s friends remember them? Will our boys remember their friends? Will the ministry we started run smoothly without us, or will some crisis arise, plunging them into turmoil? Will there be floods, fires, deaths, or even eviction for our teammates and friends living in the slum community where we normally make our home? 

How do we embrace the comfort of life in America, while at the same time guard our hearts to return once again to the field? And how do we help our children do the same? How can we hold both the good and the hard together? How can we enjoy our time here and also prepare our children to return to where life seems a lot more difficult?

One morning in February, my boys looked out the window at six in the morning and started screaming: “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” And, indeed, the ground was covered in about two inches of snow. They jumped up and down, shouting their excitement for everyone in the house to hear.

And as soon as it was light, we finally got to build a snowman and go sledding. My dad pulled out his cross-country skis and enjoyed skiing down the same small hill that we were sledding on. 

On perhaps his fourth trip down the hill, my dad noticed there was a log hidden under some snow. He tried to avoid hitting the log but lost his balance and took a dramatic fall. A trip to the ER revealed that he had not broken anything, though he was in pain for a few days.

This life of traveling between cultures can feel like that too. The joy and fun of reconnecting with relatives and old friends, eating food we’ve been missing, or simply wearing clothing that we don’t get to wear on the field can suddenly be replaced by feelings of grief and fear. We can feel like we have lost our bearings and might fall flat on our face. Our lips get chapped and our skin gets dry. We suddenly feel like foreigners in our own passport country.

As we struggle along on our journeys of navigating cultures, may we have grace for ourselves and for those on the journey with us – our teammates, our spouses, our children. May we have the grace to get back up when we fall down. The grace to keep trying. The grace to take risks and continue to choose to invest in relationships, to choose to love, even though goodbyes are just around the corner. May we embrace the good and the hard of this life as we go cross-cultural skiing together.

Something New is Being Built

by Kate

“Where is that sound coming from?” I asked my roommates as we all woke, jet-lagged, on day two in our new country. The construction had started early. We stared out our kitchen window trying to locate the sound, but all we caught glimpse of was a dry, brown field.

The next day, we awoke to the same noise and gathered in my roommate’s room to see if her window gave a better view. All we got was a different glimpse of the same field. The loud noise persisted for weeks, as did our search for the source.

There were no answers, only our silly grumblings about a noise that caused annoyance and loss of sleep. Our grumbling soon dissipated, and we accepted the new life we would be living.

It wasn’t long before I began walking my Middle Eastern neighborhood. I’ve always loved walking. Give me a path around a lake or just a sidewalk, and I’ll put on a podcast and put my feet to the pavement for as long as I can. These walks soon became daily and felt almost holy.

One day, maybe a month in, I decided to go for a stroll around my new neighborhood. As I turned the corner, I saw some old wood scattered on the sidewalk and street. Next to it was a big pile of concrete waiting to be mixed. I looked up at the house and saw men tearing down part of the side of it. It was clear they were preparing the way for something new to be built.

“Huh, that’s how I feel,” I said to myself, my eyes puffy from the tears I had just cried about missing my family and feeling unknown in this foreign land. “So this is where the noise is coming from,” I thought. It turns out that the call to prayer isn’t the only thing that can be heard at a distance in a concrete jungle; you can also hear construction.

On that day in July of 2019 when I first found the source of the noise and felt God whispering, “This is what I’m doing in you,” all I knew was what I was losing, what was being torn down.

Later as I stood on the big balcony of my rooftop apartment, despite hearing the loud noise, I thought, “This is the house I have chosen, and I love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world.” And it’s the same with this strange life I have chosen to live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I hate the loss . . . and the tearing down? It’s painful.

The truth is, while trainings and courses are beneficial, they can only prepare you so much for living abroad. It’s not until you have a one-way ticket that things get real. And I guess in some ways I’ve numbed the pain of loss. It’s easier to just pass by and say, “That’s annoying,” and run off to a friend’s quiet apartment. But the reality is that noise still is there, and I know it.

I never could have imagined the pain of five friends and family dying while I was overseas, crying on my couch alone as I watch their zoom funerals. Or the loneliness that comes from someone asking how I am doing and putting on a brave face because I wonder how they’ll judge me if I answer honestly. It’s like suddenly in this new life I don’t belong anywhere. I hate watching my best friends’ kids grow up over FaceTime. I hate seeing my mom bawl and not want to let go of me as I walk through security at the airport.

I feel loss as I walk the streets of my desert city, staring at the ground so as to not stare in the eyes of men, making sure I’m wearing loose clothing and cardigans that are long enough. I miss the fun, short-sleeved Kate I can be in America, and I feel as though I am somehow more silenced than I have ever been in my life. I could never have been prepared for my body being overtaken with sickness, lying in the hospital relying on an IV and medicine to bring my body back to health. They told me before moving overseas that all of me — the good, bad, and ugly — would be exposed living abroad and guess what? They were right.

It’s almost as if, when I asked where the loud noise in my neighborhood was coming from, so too I asked God as I cried myself to sleep, “Where is this coming from? Why is this so painful? Is this even worth it?”

But maybe most impactful was the loss of comfort in how I knew and engaged with God. Small groups and worship nights? Forget it. Being completely immersed in a different culture and religion forced the loss of knowing and believing all the right answers. I even sometimes lost the belief that God was good and had my best in mind. That He was out for my joy and that His power could change my neighbors’ and friends’ hearts. As I sat with friends who are refugees, and as they told me stories through tears about the bombings and rapes they have experienced, I lost any ability to ignore evil in this world.

Just as my roommates and I complained about the noise, all I could do was fall on my face before God and cry and question — until that too, exhausted me, and it seemed easier to ignore it all.

But remember that concrete waiting to be mixed next to the wood that was torn down?

About a year after passing by that house, God answered a prayer for my friend and me to be invited into that exact home. As we sat eating dates and drinking chai, our neighbor told us that they were building an elevator onto their house for their elderly parents.

And in that moment all I could think of was, “Something new is being built.”

The loss, the grief, the pain, and the tears may always persist.

And something new is being built. The invitation to grieve the losses has also been an invitation to experience God adding new parts to me, to my friendship with Him. I would have never known what was being added unless I got up close and went into the home of our neighbor. I would never have known this story if I hadn’t asked what was happening or seen the wood on the ground.

So too it has been with my loss. The easy route is to skip the street with the construction. To hear about it, complain about it, and become numb to it.

That is one way to live.

But I’ve come to learn that I should always say yes to God’s invitation. My “no” always leads to missing out — on knowing God in deeper, life changing ways. So I have a choice.

Will I come face to face with my loss and also come face to face with God — who is deeply acquainted with all my ways and is out for my good and joy more than I can imagine? Or will I refuse to answer that invitation?

Spring came around and one day my roommates looked out our kitchen window. We saw a green field and flowers blooming.

There is loss and there is new life.

May I be faithful to accept God’s invitation into both.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Until she moved to the Middle East three years ago, Kate had always lived near Washington, D.C. Kate takes her faith and fun seriously and is eager to invite others into both. She can often be found sitting on a cushion on the floor drinking chai with friends, fumbling her way around town in Arabic, or learning what it means to rest well while living abroad. With a big sports history in her past, she will always say yes to shooting hoops or doing anything active outside with friends. She loves connecting with friends new and old — you can find her on Instagram at @myfriend.kate.

Do Local People Have Anything to Teach Us?

by Stacie Ellinger

We moved house ten days ago. We are in a beautiful, leafy part of Adelaide, Australia. The summer sun enters through the many windows, creating an open, airy, bright feel. There are local playgrounds. The street cleaners have cleaned the street twice since we moved in. The footpaths are flat and wide enough to walk on. 

It is such a contrast to the Cambodian open-to-the-street house that we lived in for five years. I’ve been reflecting on the difference between the two neighbourhoods a lot over the last few days. Superficially the environment here is “nicer,” it’s definitely cleaner and quieter, and there is less chance of things being stolen here. 

Yet I find myself missing our community in Cambodia. I miss my kids playing on the street with the neighbours. I miss chatting to the recycling collectors as they collect our cereal boxes. I miss the ladies doing cross-stitch together in the late afternoon. I miss the fact that when we moved in, the neighbours introduced themselves and brought over food. 

It’s been ten days since we moved in here, and I am assuming the houses surrounding us have people in them. I haven’t seen any of them. 

It seems like a total cliché to say that I miss the community in Cambodia. It’s the one thing that all short-term and long-term missionaries who return from Southeast Asia say. “I learnt so much about community, about eating meals together, about living intergenerationally.” And even though there is an element of truth in that, I wonder if it comes up so much because it’s the one thing that we westerners are “allowed” to say that we have learnt from Southeast Asians. 

Ok, that’s a big statement, so hear me out. 

The act of going overseas for missions comes with an unspoken list of assumptions. Assumptions from the people going about their ability to live cross-culturally, assumptions about their giftings, skills, and knowledge about the Bible. Assumptions from the people who are staying about the sort of activities the people who are going will do. Assumptions built upon stereotypes and pedestals and upon our historical knowledge of “missions” and “missionaries.”

Even if I acknowledge that God is already in the country where I am going, I still carry the assumption that I have some theological insight or understanding that they don’t. An assumption that I have something to give and that they need that something. When unchallenged, assumptions like these bring attitudes of superiority, and when added to the historical complexities of colonialism and the current global wealth inequalities, they become fertile ground for “white saviourism.” We carry the idea that our education, our knowledge, our wealth, and our theological perspectives are crossing cultures to be given away, generously and freely, to those who don’t have or who don’t know. 

So back to my big statement. 

Criticising the western understanding of community is a bit in vogue. We know that isolation is increasing among western nations. We hark back to the good ol’ days of the 1950s (the sitcom version, not the realistic 1950s of post-war PTSD and racial segregation). We talk of missing nuclear families, of the rise of individualism and self-promotion on social media, of the financial struggles of working 2+ jobs, of the over-scheduling of wealthy kids’ schedules. Coming back from a Southeast Asian country and saying that they taught us about community fits into that narrative, but it doesn’t ask us to actually critique our culture in new ways. It doesn’t challenge our understanding of the world. 

Opening myself up to be discipled by Cambodian Christians, allowing their leaders to challenge the significance I placed on my own personal life experience and education, and learning to read the Bible through a cultural lens different to my own took time and a level of humility I often struggled with. And it’s a journey that people “back home” seem less willing to hear about. It’s not a story about what I did or what I brought. It’s a story about learning where I was wrong, misguided, or blinded in my understanding.

Living in a society where allegiance to a patron — whether that be a political, social, or religious leader — influenced how you lived your life, whom you called on when you were sick, or whether you had financial security completely changed how I viewed Jesus’ interactions with his disciples, their confoundment at his death, and their empowerment at Pentecost. As a non-American who has never had to pledge allegiance to anything (and who would in fact be mocked as an Australian for pledging allegiance to anything but a favourite football team), words like Lord and Kingdom began to take on a different meaning. In Australia, comfort and financial security are the biggest values that drive our society (as evidenced by our intense focus on keeping the covid pandemic out of our country and continuing life as “normal”).  

But what does allegiance to a Kingdom of identifying with the poor, of radical welcome, and of healing others mean for my financial resources? What do I do when my allegiance to another kingdom cuts me off from the way that society operates? How does our understanding of the Bible change when we understand honour and shame from the perspective of a culture that is more similar to the honour-shame culture of the ancient Middle East than the guilt and innocence focus of my homeland? 

One of my greatest challenges was building friendships. For example, in the church community I was a part of, it was not ok to invite just one or two people over for dinner to get to know them. That was seen as favouritism. Instead, I was asked to invite the whole church community. (Now, I’m not sure about you, but I am much better at hosting 4 people for dinner than 25. Or at least I was!) What do we do when our local community’s understanding of friendship requires us to completely change our previous understanding of friendship? Is one of them wrong? Is the other one right? Or are they just different? 

When we enter a new country as foreigners, whether intentionally or not, we are asking locals to understand us, to understand a bit of our culture and to understand how we think in order to get to know us. Is it too much to expect that the reverse will not also happen? That the locals might ask us to change? For those of us who come representing Jesus, we deliberately and vocally ask them to change their perspectives and understanding of the physical and spiritual world. As iron sharpens iron, surely, the locals’ understanding of the world can challenge our understanding. Their knowledge of God can reveal new things to us. And God can use that to shape our understanding of ourselves as our own cultural sins and blind spots are revealed to us. Surely our western practice of community is not the only thing that can be challenged by believers in the Global South.   

Cross-cultural service is not an invitation to go and do. It’s an invitation to go and be. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds as we learn from other members of the body. Our cultures and our experiences of God are as diverse as the climates and landscapes around us. When God calls us to not conform to the patterns of the world, He is inviting us to notice these patterns. To see which patterns block or harm others. To see which patterns stop the light from getting through. And like any pattern, we must acknowledge that the patterns of the world look different from a different vantage point.

By taking the time to immerse ourselves in another viewpoint, we open ourselves to see the bigger picture more clearly. We cannot do this on our own. We need others to be with us on this journey. The beauty of faith is that it is not a static place; it is an invitation to grow closer to God and each other as we press deeper into relationship. When locals and foreigners can join hands to seek the Kingdom of God together, we truly become the family of God on earth. 

~~~~~~~~~~

Stacie and her family served in Cambodia for six years before returning to Australia in 2020. She enjoys good books, good movies, and good chocolates and misses the heat of Cambodia terribly. Stacie now uses her aid, development, and missions background to run educational workshops for schools and churches about the complexities of poverty alleviation and ‘doing good.’ She blogs at www.walkhumblyinitative.com.

Journey from the Center of the Earth, and Back Again

When I was born, it was quite the event and a lot of really great people wanted to meet me, or so I’m told. Just a few years later, my kindergarten teacher praised me for being especially polite. And then, in grade school, I was awarded the red, white, and blue Good Citizen badge to wear on my day of honor. I guess I was a pretty big deal, but I’m not surprised, seeing how I was living at the very center of the earth.

Growing up, I remember that news from next door, no matter how trivial, was profoundly more important than what was going on anywhere else on the globe. Therefore, a friend who missed school because of the flu got more attention than a famine in Africa. Weather patterns focused on my home town, as well, as we prayed more for sunshine for a birthday party than we did for people in Asia facing a typhoon.

So it’s no wonder I grew up having to fight against selfish tendencies. Who can blame me, knowing how much God was fixated on me and those in my vicinity?

Somewhere along the way, though, I found out that there was a whole world out there, a world filled with people who were just as big a deal as me—people who missed school and had birthday parties and sometimes suffered calamities beyond my comprehension. Jesus loves all the little children of the world, adults, too, I learned, and he wants them to know about his love.

So as I built my life, getting an education, finding a job, and starting a family, I had an eye on the horizon, not content to stay within my tight borders. In time, I booked tickets from America to an uttermost part, and with my wife and children, stepped onto the plane. It was then that I traded my selfishness for selflessness and self-sacrifice and never looked back as I devoted myself to cross-cultural service.

Oh, that it were that easy.

In Genesis, God tells Cain to be wary, as “sin is crouching at the door,” ready to pounce like a wild animal. For me, self-centeredness is at my door, and it doesn’t hide and wait, it steps up and knocks, like an intrusive neighbor or a persistent salesman.

Knock, knock, knock.

No matter how far I’ve traveled, self-centeredness always knows my address and is able to relocate with me. Resisting that knocking is a daily challenge. And while I like to think that I usually ignore it, there are also times when I pull the door wide open and invite it in to sit with me on the couch. And there I am, at the center of the earth again.

When we first arrived at our new home in Asia, it was a temptation to think we’d arrived at the pinnacle of Christian service. Look at us! I got used to writing newsletters about exotic day-to-day happenings, sharing about our ministry, and eagerly anticipating answers to the prayer requests we emailed to supporters—supporters, those people who gave sacrificially to our work, to us, trusting we were worth the investment.

Before our move, we sold most of our possessions, and that was a good thing. Surely not having to keep up with the Joneses would help me focus less on myself. In a recent discussion of Eula Biss’s book Having and Being Had at Mockingbird, CJ Green quotes a missionary as saying “Americans spend their entire lives ministering to things.” “Her point,” Green explains, “was that material goods tend to distract from matters of the heart and soul, whether it’s the home you’re constantly renovating, or the phone you keep updating, or the car always in need of fixing.”

Yes, that’s true. But ministering to people rather than things still gave me enticements to elevate myself. I was American but not like those Americans. I may have left materialism behind (OK, not really), but it was easily replaced by more spiritual forms of self-focus. How does my ministry compare to that of other cross-cultural workers around me, and around the globe? How much does God value me and what I’m able to do? How much effort is Satan concentrating on me to stop my threats to his kingdom? How much more strategic is my work in this country, in this city, in this neighborhood?

And then, from time to time, when we travelled back Stateside, we got to speak on stages, attend carry-in dinners hosted in our honor, and accept thank yous and donations. And we were treated like royalty at the homes where we stayed. One time, someone even gifted us a trip to Silver Dollar City.

Knock, knock, knock.

OK, now here is where I need to interject something. Some of you are already feeling guilty about receiving funds, taking vacations, and the like, and it may sound as if I’m saying those things are the problem. They are not. The problem is the temptation to respond to them in the wrong way. It’s not as if removing all those things automatically makes that temptation disappear. The knocking can just move to a different door.

And to those of you who are underfunded or under-appreciated or worn out, to those who are praying for a hand up, not out of entitlement but out of need, please hear this clearly: Self-advocacy is not the same thing as self-centeredness. Self-care is not the same thing as selfishness. Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-importance. Being self-aware is not the same thing as being self-focused.

Ok, I needed to say that, but now back to me, because, you know. . . .

When we returned to the States for good, we got rid of most of our belongings again, but among the things we kept were a suitcase filled with been-there-done-that t-shirts and a desire to hit the ground running again. Reverse culture shock and a recession meant that we hit the ground at more of a slow crawl, but in time we made progress—and we now own an old house with plenty of repairs to be made, two cars that need upkeep, and several phones to update, upgrade, and replace. It’s hard not to be devoted to that ministry of things.

We like the community where our house is located. It has its own personality and the people here know each other and take pride in the neighborhood. We can see that in the Facebook page our neighbors use for sharing news and concerns. Their posts show us that there are lots of lost pets needing to be found. There are also lots of suspicious people walking around who look as if they don’t belong and are up to no good. We know that there are growing instances of crime in our area (rifling through unlocked parked cars and even a couple home intrusions and robberies), but there’s another kind if disturbance that’s got me concerned. It’s that pesky knocking at my door that’s started up again. I wish our neighborhood group would let me know when self-centeredness—and nationalism and ethnocentrism and egocentrism and other forms of meisms—are making the rounds, jiggling doorknobs and peaking in windows.

I like the community of cross-cultural workers we’re part of, too, those who are getting ready to go, those who are there, and those who have been. How about we share with each other the unwelcome guests doggedly trying to gain entrance into our homes? If your problem isn’t self-centeredness, I’m sure you have your own unwelcome visitors who keep dropping by. How about we keep an eye out for each other?

Knock, knock, knock.

Now If you’ll excuse me, I need to go and not answer my door.

[photo: “Target,” by Martin Deutsch, used under a Creative Commons license]

7 Ways to Enjoy Your Host Country

by Abigail Follows

We launched to India as newlyweds. After an 18-hour bus ride into the Himalayan mountains, we strapped ourselves into two giant backpacking backpacks and walked into a village. Several years, two kids, and many life lessons later, we found ourselves wondering how to help our kids love the country where they were born.

Our kids had been through more than their share of stress and trauma. Could we stay in India anyway? One thing was clear: we needed to make some changes. Whether you’re a new missionary or looking for ways to help your family re-bond with your host country, here are seven things we’ve found that help.

 

1. Be a Tourist.
I know, I know. You probably spend a lot of time trying not to look like a tourist. You want people to see that you live here. That you’re permanent. I get it. We lived in India for seven years, and we didn’t see the Taj Mahal until year six! 

But the thing is, celebrating the unique things in your host country is unlikely to ruin your witness. On the contrary, it stimulates the economy and gives you things to talk about. So go see that interesting monument. Take that camel safari. Buy the keychain made in China that says “Thailand” on it. Make memories in your host country, and your love for the place will grow.

 

2. Plan Regular Breaks.
This is especially important if your ministry assignment is in an intense or underdeveloped area. And it can be an easy thing to neglect. When we lived in India, it was 14 hours away by bus to Anywhere Else, so we pretty much stayed home.

However, once we realized our kids needed more, we had to get creative. We found local places to take breaks—a hot spring, a hotel with a pool, a restaurant that served pizza without garam masala on it. As it turned out, my husband and I needed more, too.

Taking breaks calms the brain and nervous system and gives you a bird’s-eye view on problems. It’s like a giant reset button, giving you the mental fortitude to tackle your tasks with fresh energy.

 

3. Spend A Little Money.
This might sound materialistic at first glance. But here’s where I’m coming from: when my husband and I first launched to India, we were afraid to buy knives and a cooking pot, lest we look rich. Another friend of mine was advised by coworkers not to buy any furniture for the same reason.

It’s important to consider the economic situation of your friends and neighbors, and of the host country as a whole. But if a small luxury would save you time and frustration, and if it won’t specifically hinder your witness, go for it! Once Joshua and I finally got set up in a home, we were complimented by all the neighborhood dadijis (grandmas) for providing for ourselves. We had graduated from wandering trekkers to normal people.

 

4. Forgive.
I try hard to be neutral and chill when it comes to cultural misunderstandings. But certain things break through and offend me to my core. In India, our neighbors had the habit of blaming mothers for everything that went wrong with children—from mosquito bites to major injuries—whether or not the mother was within a 20-mile radius of her kid at the time.

This violated my hidden cultural assumptions: Mothers instinctually know how to parent; good mothers don’t get told what to do, because they already know; good mothers don’t want their children to be injured, so communities should always reassure rather than blame. The message I got when I was blamed for everything was this: “You are a terrible mother. Also, we don’t like you.”

It was hard to forgive and let go of my offendedness, because it just made so much sense! But once I did forgive, I came to understand the Indian mindset: Mothers do not instinctually know how to parent, and we should pressure and give advice, lest they mess things up. If we don’t say anything, it’s because we don’t care. In other words, my Parvata friends were actively caring about me and trying to help me do my job well. 

Forgiving gives you permission to keep seeing the good in people. Apply grace liberally!

 

5. Temporarily suspend some boundaries.
Before launching to India, we read a wonderful article called, “Bonding and the Missionary Task,” by Brewster and Brewster. That article was second only to the Bible in our initial mission strategy. As the Brewsters suggested, we packed very light—hence the two backpacks. We used only public transportation. And we lived with a local family.

We lived with less privacy than we wanted. A lot less. And you know what? That transparency and dependence on the local community endeared us to each other! Even now, we consider each other family.

However…

 

6. Make sure you put important boundaries back!
We should have gotten our own house, bought a kitchen table, and driven our own car just a smidge earlier than we did. About four years earlier.

Temporarily living with lowered boundaries can help you bond with people. Obliterating your boundaries permanently will lead to burnout. You will have a lot of trouble being “lights of the world” if the unique “flavor” of your family is watered down because you’re trying to be like everybody else. Take it from a family who knows!

 

7. Find a Friend.
This is tip numero uno, my very best advice. I had many friends and adoptive family members. But it was finding two ladies to be my real, genuine friends that cemented my love for India forever.

Darshika and Naina came from completely different backgrounds. One was relatively poor; the other ran a popular guest house. One was highly educated and driven; the other couldn’t read. One chose to follow Jesus; the other didn’t make that choice. But we connected. We got each other.

My husband, Joshua, has a handful of really good friends in our current location in North Africa. I can see how much it makes him love this place. Because the most important thing about a place, the thing that really helps you understand and love a place… is the people.

This is especially true for children. My kids want nothing more in life than to have real friends. So, whatever you need to do to find them, make sure each member of your family has one or two true, genuine friends. And do what you can to nurture those relationships.

 

Bonus Tip!
In the end, circumstances beyond our control caused us to leave India earlier than we’d planned. But our efforts were not in vain. Even now, we and our kids have many happy memories from those colorful, spicy, intense seven years. And I can say with honesty that I still love, admire, and appreciate the people we lived and worked among.

And implementing these tips in our second host country has helped us thrive and adjust to normalcy more quickly.

My final piece of advice is this: Adjust your focus every day. Look for the good in your host country and its people, and apply grace to the rest. When Jesus gets ahold of people, that’s what He’s going to do anyway. And hopefully, by that same grace, we imperfect missionaries will get to play a part in His plan to bless the world.

 ~~~~~~~~~

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayas, a memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at www.abigailfollows.com.

 

I am a Foreign Weirdo

by Julie Jean Francis

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.

Clueless

by Jacqueline Scott

When we head into another culture to live among the local people, our hope is to understand them at least enough to become someone they will listen to. But the reality is that we are clueless, especially when their culture is very different from ours. It’s good to recognize that. It’s where we have to start. After all, we’re the guests in their country. When they look at us like we’re from Mars because they can’t understand a word we’re attempting to say in their language, we need to laugh at ourselves with them. That means getting over any feelings of self-importance. This was time consuming and exhausting for me. I thought I was pretty important.

In his book Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer offers perspective on what it means to serve someone in another culture, then outlines the process of serving others cross-culturally. He suggests six steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving. But it’s easier to rush into someone’s world, do what we think they need most, feel good about ourselves and our sacrifice, then rush home — often having done more damage than good.  So, our first years in Central Asia were largely about being close enough to people to learn about them and build trust so that our serving could be mutual and meaningful.

We shared a courtyard with a young local family. The house was small with two stories and two bedrooms.  Our four kids were in bunkbeds in one bedroom. The small yard was a God-send for our young energetic family, especially when the alternative was a playground strewn with broken glass and questionable characters. Though this yard was a combination driveway, garden, dog pen, storage, and place to dry clothes, it offered ample opportunities for our kids to play.  

One day Zoya, the young wife across the yard, was over and we talked about our kids. Happy that I was finally getting along in Russian, I asked if she thought she would have another child since they only had a little boy the same age as our youngest. She flippantly answered, “Oh, I’ve already thrown so many away.” I looked at her, hoping I misunderstood. But I knew that word. The one that was used when you throw away garbage.

It pierced me. There was no sign of conscience or concern that this practice might be wrong. In the Soviet times it was their method of birth control; they knew nothing else. In that moment I knew I was much farther away from understanding them than I even thought. I had so much to learn about the core of their beliefs.  

We would always be anomalies to them. Somehow though, it didn’t keep us from loving them or them from loving us, or from them wanting to hear why we came and what kept us there. They were so hungry for meaning, yet they were trapped in a convoluted belief system that denied God. Our neighbors had grown up in that belief system. It takes time to unravel long-entrenched falsehoods in order to see Truth. 

Too often we are clueless as to what assumptions we bring to life. We aren’t really aware of the bottom lines that we hold as self-evident, the axioms. And sometimes the people we serve aren’t aware of their assumptions, either. As one of our Soviet friends considered faith, she came to realize that she readily accepted axioms or “givens” in math.  An axiom is a basic proposition of a system that, although unproven, is used to prove the other propositions in the system. Every belief system has to start with a basic proposition. Once she accepted God as the “given,” she was free to really believe Him. And her life was lifted.

Becoming part of a different country takes you far from your old world. You are challenged and changed beyond anything you expected.  Your view of yourself and God morphs. Then, when you head back into your home culture, you feel clueless all over again. At times you even feel like a social martyr; you are always a stranger, an anomaly. You’re left out of the plans because you won’t be there, or you’re held at a distance since you’re not in on what they’re talking about. Some cross-cultural workers face this more than others. Though I love our times in our home culture, there’s an underlying feeling of “it’s not mine anymore.” So, we’re an anomaly here and an anomaly there. Where’s our home? That is a struggle for us and even more so for our kids when they navigate their passport countries. 

But I find comfort in Hebrews 11 where it actually says “God was not ashamed to be called their God” because they were looking for a heavenly city. Their hope was in a heavenly home. I find myself wrestling with this regularly. I’m working on putting my hope in a heavenly home while using my earthly home for heavenly purposes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jacqueline Scott is author of Your Life is Re-markable! She was captivated by God at age 12, became an RN, got a BS in Bible, and then a Masters in Leadership Studies. While in university she met Dan, and in 1986 they both headed to Bolivia, South America to save the world. She had four kids instead. They moved to Central Asia in 1994 in leadership with a non-profit agency. Currently credentialed as a personal and leader development coach, she works with individuals and groups in person and on-line. You can find her online at SoulFit.

To the New Expat…

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
  6. By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
  7. Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
  8. Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
  9. News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
  10. You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
  11. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
  12. Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
  13. Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
  14. Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.

I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.

Much love to you,

Marilyn

What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!

Note: This was previously published in July 2015

Check out this collection of our most-read articles

Consider this the Table of Contents for a book on missions, cross-cultural living, grief, TCKs, MKs, missiology, common pitfalls, transition, short-term missions, relating to senders, and a whole lot more.

I figured it was time to compile our most-read posts and present them to you, organized by topic. So here they are, 85 of our most-read posts ever.

My hope is that this article, this Table of Contents, if you will, would serve as one massive resource for those of you who are new to our community, those of you who’ve been hanging out here all along, and even for you, our future reader, who just found our little corner of the internet. Welcome!

Many thanks to the authors who’ve poured into our community, aiming to build and help (and sometimes challenge) the missionary world and the churches that send. If this site has been helpful to you, would you consider sharing this post with your friends and colleagues and missions leaders?

A Life Overseas is loosely led, with a tiny overhead (that covers the costs of the website), and a bunch of volunteer writers and tech folk. Why do we do it? We’re doing this for you! We’re doing this because we like you and we want to see cross-cultural workers (and their families!) thriving and succeeding and belonging. We’re doing this because we believe the Lamb is worthy. We’re doing this because we believe that God’s love reaches beyond our country’s borders, extending to all the places, embracing all the peoples.

I hope you are encouraged. I hope you are challenged. I hope you are reminded that you are not alone. This can be a hard gig, for sure, but you are not alone.

If this is your first time here or your thousandth, stick around, browse around, let us know what you think, how you’ve been helped, and what you’d love to see in the future. We’d absolutely love to hear from you!

 

With much love from Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
Jonathan Trotter

 

Third Culture Kids / Missionary Kids
10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked
10 Questions Missionary Kids Dread
To the Parents of Third Culture Kids
Funny Things Third Culture Kids Say
8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas
6 Permissions Most Missionaries’ Kids Need
An Open Letter to Parents of Missionary Kids
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third Culture Kids
Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid
My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries

 

Rest / Burnout / Self-Care
margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please Stop Running
Ask A Counselor: How in the world can we do self-care when . . . ?
Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider
8 Ways for Expats Who Stay to Stay Well

Top 10 Digital Photography Tips

Family / Marriage
Missionary Mommy Wars
A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any
Nine Ways to Save a Marriage
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy
Why “Did You Have Fun?” is the Wrong Question
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
When the Mission Field Hurts Your Marriage
Dear Single Missionary
Homescapes MOD
I’m a missionary. Can I be a mom too?

 

Cross-cultural living & ministry
3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take
Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?
Introverts for Jesus: Surviving the Extrovert Mission Field
To My Expat Friends
What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo!
The Teary Expat Mom, Shopping
One-Uppers
A Cautionary Tale: Expats & Expets (What not to do)
The Introverted Expat
5 Tips for Newbies About Relationships with Oldies (From an Oldie)
The Aim of Language Learning

 

Missiology
Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.”
Let Me Make Your Kid a Buddhist
How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up
Rice Christians and Fake Conversions
Responding to Beggars
10 Reasons You Should Be a Missionary
There’s no such thing as the “deserving poor”

 

Theology in Missions
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
Rethinking the Christmas Story
But Are You Safe?
When Missionaries Starve
Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrifice”
The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 1}
Is Jesus a Liar?

 

Cautions
10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling
Want to see what a porn-addicted missionary looks like?
Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
When Missionaries Think They Know Everything
Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed
Misogyny in Missions
The Proverbs 32 Man
Stop Waiting for It All to Make Sense

 

Grief & Loss
Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised
When Friends Do the Next Right Thing
Ask a counselor: how do we process loss and grief?

 

Transition
What If I Fall Apart on the Mission Field?
Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping
Dear New Missionary
5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Mission Field
Why I Quit My Job as a Missionary to Scrub Toilets
Jet Lag and Heart Lag
When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…
You Remember You’re a Repat When . . .
Going Home

 

Short Term Missions
What to Do About Short Term Missions
Stop calling it “Short Term Missions.” Here’s what you should call it instead.
Your Short-Term Trips Have Not Prepared You For Long-Term Mission
The Mess of Short Term Missions

 

Relationships with those who send
A Letter to Christians Living in America from a Christian Living Abroad
Dear Supporter, There’s So Much More I Wish I Could Tell You
Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas
How to Encourage Your Overseas Worker
When Your Missionary Stories Aren’t Sexy
Facebook lies and other truths
Please Ask Me the Non-Spiritual Questions

 

If your favorite article didn’t make the list, put the title and link in the comments section and let us know why you love it. Thanks again for joining us here. Peace to you.

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Shouldn’t I Have It All Figured Out By Now?

By Kris Gnuse

I went from zero to sixty in the time it took to realize that the internet was down. Again. From nurturing wife planning a trip to the grocery store, to snipping, snapping grumpiness.

The previous 10 days had been busy with blessings. A long brunch at a cozy café shared with other missionary ladies of the area. The end of home school year and our first official whack at standardized testing online. A mission team from our awesome home church serving alongside us at the children’s home. Five dinners for 31 prepared and shared. My heart-story laid out before new friends. Even a rare date night, courtesy of a kind team member’s willingness to watch our children.

In tandem with the high-octane push of hosting a group, we had been praying my husband through his installment of the coughing crud I spent two weeks kicking. The illness is legit if the man will actually drink hot honey lemon tea, y’all. The good Lord didn’t put him together with a natural appreciation for it. Our modem was fried by a lightning strike for the second time in 3 weeks, and the technicians couldn’t drop by to fix it until 5 long days later. Workmen were scheduled to come make repairs on various parts of the house we rent. Like a winter snowstorm — you never know exactly when it will hit, how long it will last, or how bad it will be.

So when the little spinny connection icon at the top of my phone screen went unglued for the third time in four weeks, so did I. These moments always catch me (and my beloved) off guard. I’m like the huge bucket at the water park that fills quietly over time and suddenly dumps unannounced with the force of a tidal wave. Okay, I didn’t break anything, say any bad words, or do anything more than be short and cross with my husband, then stomp off to regain my reason. Like the monumental splash, it passed quickly enough for me to ask forgiveness and “hug it right” before I grabbed my keys for the milk run.

What am I learning about myself in this life of serving in a different country and culture? I like things to work the way they are supposed to. Sometimes it’s fun to play pioneer and improvise by catching rainwater from the downspout to flush toilets when city water is out of service. But every once in a while the rolls really do need to be baked when the power goes out. I miss the control of owning my nest and of telling workmen the way things should be done rather than being told what they are going to do and when they may invade my space to do it. I like to be good at things. When my Spanish heads off the fairway into the rough, I feel it like buzz-of-speaker feedback during a worship song.

I love the role that we have been given to serve the Lord here. We see Him moving in ways great and small all the time. We feel him drawing us into closer surrender, showing us His infinite care, our infinite need. Child after child, team after team, the Lord changes lives at Hogar de Vida. My husband Matt in leadership, myself in our kitchen, we really do fit like puzzle pieces crafted to complete the picture for this time and place. It’s an honor to be here, the loving hands of so many in the States supporting this work.

So why the deluge? How can I make holes in the bucket to release the weight of life’s cross cultural, ministerial idiosyncrasies? We are three and three-quarters of a year here. Shouldn’t I have this down by now?

No.

I really mean it. No.

Listen one more time, self that expected to fling her whole being into new language and culture like a baby duckling following momma-duck off of a bridge into a sunset pond.  And then realized that being momma-duck in this beautiful family meant most of my hours are spent serving behind my own front door.

No. You aren’t supposed to have it all figured out yet. Life doesn’t work like that.

I have heard a repeated theme recently from anointed missionary friends, fully immersed in the culture, whose Spanish knocks my Gallo Pinto off:

After all the years, all the effort, I’m still different from the surrounding culture. I will always be different to them. Not unloved. Not without great impact. But yes, different. Still making mistakes and working through misunderstandings.

In this season, I, Kris, am not out in the culture much. Fail. My Spanish is passable but highly imperfect. Fail. My boys have little to no interest in learning another language. Fail.  After 2.5 years of honest effort to engage a great local Spanish church, we felt led to join an English-speaking congregation. Fail.

And yet, we have seen the Lord move endearingly in our children through this new church body. Win. We’ve made new friendships and laughed more than I can remember since we left language school. Win. I’ve conquered my fear of navigating my way around the country. Win. I surrendered my pride in doing home school completely myself and enrolled the two older ones in an online program. They were challenged and learned all sorts of new skills. Just as important, our relationship got a chance to blossom with someone else in charge of the class work. The entire family enjoyed their first year. Total win.

Understanding that I don’t have to have it all down perfect is perhaps the greatest release valve I can open. Giving myself grace to do my best and leave the rest in the Lord’s hands engages the sprinkler to make a fountain.  All those expectations don’t belong in my bucket anyway. I need to give myself time and space to recharge, freedom to not know it all.  I need to remember that sometimes life is messy and the Internet stops working when you have exactly one day left to finish the Stanford 10 Math tests. It’s okay to not be okay. Everyone has a unique journey. My job is not to achieve perfection. My calling is to live with those stresses trickling over open hands, through fingers extended to receive what the Lord has in each moment. To be the blessing that only I am capable of being to those around me.

To be a watering can, rather than a tipping bucket.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kris Gnuse is a living testament that the Lord gently leads those who have young. In 2013, she said “I will,” to the Lord’s call for their family of five to serve at a transitional children’s home in Costa Rica. In the crossroads of hosting short term mission teams and loving the little ones who were not safe at home, she has a stand offering cups of cold water.  You can follow her journey at www.thegoodnewsfamily.com