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

When Your Extended Family is Made Up of 101 Million People

human-567563_960_720a

We sat down in church. The pastor found a seat next to us, looked pointedly at us, and started rubbing my son Daniel’s bare feet. I could read it in his eyes: Why does this child not have socks? (Answer: Because when said child has socks, they are somehow pulled off and thrown into unknown locations within approximately 2 minutes.).

Without a word spoken, I began to feel guilty, a failure as a mom in Ethiopian culture. That’s it. I’m going to do the thing that is right in the eyes of society, I thought. I want to fit in, so I will obey “the rules.”

The rules, it seemed to me, were mostly about the fact that children need to be bundled up at all times. We must act as if we live in the Arctic, though we actually live in a place that never gets below 60 degrees and usually hovers around 75. When in Rome…right?

The next week, a sunny day dawned, warm and bright. Nevertheless, I bundled Daniel up in a sweatshirt and socks and put him on my back, feeling righteous and politically correct. We set out for the fruit stand to buy some bananas, and I congratulated myself on living up to this society’s standards.

As we walked down the uneven cobblestone path, a large, imposing lady passed us. Then she whirled around in shock, almost hitting us with her umbrella. She began a dramatic tirade, shaking her umbrella at me and pointing at Daniel, asking me what in the world I was thinking letting my baby be out in the sun.

Eshi…eshi…eshi…(ok…ok…ok…) I said meekly for a while, then turned and continued on my way, her words ringing in my ears. Ethiopian mom fail. Again.

My cultural sensitivity was in conflict with my nerdy health research habits, which told me that it was essential for Daniel to get vitamin D from sunlight at least a few times a week, even if I have to brave the umbrella preachers and flout their advice.

On another day I was similarly walking in the sun, a sleeping baby on my back, through one of the most crowded areas of town. A woman saw me from afar and started yelling as she came towards me, berating me for not putting a hat on my child, etc. This time I didn’t even stop as I said a single, curt Eshi, and kept walking, head high, emboldened by my anger.

Everyone has opinions. Everyone has advice. Everyone judges everyone else. Americans judge people all the time. But the difference between Americans and Ethiopians is that Americans will judge you and talk bad about you behind your back, in private, but Ethiopians will judge you and talk bad about you to your face, in public (and loudly). This is a little hard to get used to.

This tendency to give advice freely to strangers is a corollary to the fact that here, everyone is all up in everyone else’s business, all of the time. There are not many boundaries, not a lot of personal space, not an abundance of privacy. What we do, we do together. What we think, we share.

I was having a grouchy day after being given one too many pieces of advice (on other topics, in addition to the baby lectures), and I stewed on how much I disliked “busybodies” as I lugged my cranky baby to the minibus stop near my house. I gave a stink-eye at anyone who looked as if they might lecture me, punishing them for their countrymen and countrywomen’s actions.

When I arrived at the hotel restaurant to meet a fellow cross-cultural worker who was leaving town that week, Daniel lost it. Not enough nap plus (in hindsight) starting to get sick meant screaming. In the restaurant. And arching his back and flailing his arms and doing all those things I used to judge other parents about before I had children.

It was the first time I had met this fellow worker (and my only opportunity to meet up), so I had no option to ask for a rain-check. I tried to swallow my mortification and my tea while being cool and listening attentively to her story of how she ended up here, etc., while wrestling a child who resembled a (cute) rabid monkey. I’ve gotten better at multitasking since becoming a mom, but not that much better.

Suddenly, our waitress appeared at my elbow. I wondered if she was going to ask me to calm my child down because the other patrons were disturbed or something. But she held out her arms and said sweetly in Amharic, “Let me take him.”

Speechless, I handed him to her, and watched him relax and enjoy himself as she carried him around the whole restaurant, introducing him to all her coworkers, showing him his reflection in a mirror, looking out the window with him, etc. He changed hands several times for 20 or 30 minutes and eventually the host brought him back to me, happy and smiling.

As I took him back, it hit me. The waitress was sent to remind me that living in a very tight-knit community is a coin with two sides. Yes, living in this kind of community means putting up with daily well-meaning lectures and having to deal with a lot of flack if I decide to go against the norm.

But it also means being noticed, empathized with, and helped even when I don’t say a word. I live in a community that views all kids as their own. The idea of a village being needed to raise a child was lived out here before it was trendy.

I live in a community who sees me, for better or for worse. A community that cares. I’m learning to love it. Learning to experience lectures as love. Learning to love living in an extended family of 101 million, a gigantic network of “relatives” in all their bossy, compassionate, quirky, dysfunctional, wise and beautiful glory. It’s a gift, and I choose to receive it today.

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

2016-06-06 09.56.55Jessica A. Udall is a culture-crosser who makes sense of her experience by writing it down. She lives with her husband in his native Ethiopia, and is raising one rambunctious toddler. She blogs at www.jessicaudall.wordpress.com and is the author of Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus. Her favorites include having conversations with interesting people and drinking strong Ethiopian coffee, preferably at the same time.

Cultural Immersion Checklist

How many can you check? Congratulate yourself for where you are at!

To Do List Compilation
(just a few funny lists for laughs)

1. Attempt to learn the local language
2. Take public transportation
3. Buy food where the majority buys their food
4. Attend a typical wedding
5. Attend a typical funeral
6. Attend a typical birthday party
7. Visit a government office
8. Acquire the services of someone to repair something
9. Eat at the house of a local
10. Host a meal for a local in your own residence
11. Participate in the festivities of a local holiday
12. Dress like a local
13. Learn the local greeting
14. Prepare a local dish
15. Understand a local joke
16. Able to understand directions to some place
17. Able to give directions to a place
18. Experience shock… and work through it
19. Understand all the lyrics to a song in the local language
20. Able to verify you have been given correct change

10 BONUS POINTS!!!

21. Eat something you’ve never eaten before in ANY form (a chicken’s foot or ants, for example) –  LynnAnn Murphy

22. Read the local newspaper in its entirety –  LynnAnn Murphy

23. Participate in recreation with the natives (soccer leagues, pickup basketball, chess club, etc) –  Jeff Wright

24. Know and use national products instead of relying on imports from home country –  Jeff Wright

25. Adapt to the local climate or participate in local seasonal activities (the spring clean, learn to walk on ice, or plant your garden) –  Stuart Mattinson

26. Able to acquire emergency services –  Kimberly Wilcox Myers

27. Have a discussion about something abstract –  Kimberly Wilcox Myers

28. Acquire a drivers license and DRIVE like the locals! –  Shari Tvrdik

29. Sit with nationals and hear, in the local language, their stories of language mistakes that overseas workers have made –  Marilyn Gardner

30. For the sake of being a good guest, eat something you are certain will make you rather ill  – Breanna Randall

This fun list was originally posted to the facebook community page. If you haven’t yet liked the page you can do so at this link:  https://www.facebook.com/ALifeOverseas   Thank you so much to all the people who added their “bonus points”.

Do you have anything to add to our cultural assimilation collection? Also, if you have an amusing cultural assimilation anecdote you would like to share in the comments please feel free to do so.

On behalf of the editorial and writing team of A Life Overseas please allow me to extend to you a virtual pat on the back and a sincere applause for stepping out and immersing yourself in a foreign culture.  Adaptation has its ups and downs. You are amazing! Be glad for how far you have come and know you are not alone in this journey.

Peace.

10 Reasons You Should Be a Missionary

Sometimes, we’re a pretty serious bunch, and sometimes, that’s ok. But when I was a teenager and our house had five kids in diapers (long story), my dad used to say, “If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.” He was right, and we chose to laugh. A lot. (The five in diapers hadn’t learned this maxim yet, though, so there was still plenty of crying.)

If you’ve read my post, Outlawed Grief, you know I’m not opposed to crying. I’m also not opposed to laughing. So, if you will, journey with me through a Top Ten list of why the job of a missionary is just plain awesome.

10. You’ll get to try new things, like typhoid fever and amoebas.
On the bright side, most of the time your illnesses will sound cool. And cool illnesses make people pray more. Note: ulcers aren’t cool. If you get an ulcer, don’t tell anyone.

Oh, and make sure your kids know how great all these new things are too. I was hanging out at an international high school once and overheard a kid say something about a student who was absent. He nonchalantly said, “Oh, he’s not here; he has an amoeba.” I wanted to grab the kid by the collar and say, “You know that’s not a normal sentence, right?”

leop1

9. You will have friends from countries you didn’t know existed.
Faroe Islands? East Timor? Canada? Living abroad tends to add countries to the map. But consider yourself warned, living abroad also confuses things. For example, I’m no longer sure if a boot is a type of shoe or a part of a car. Is paste something with which you build a house or a sandwich? Is a biscuit breakfast food or dessert? And what about this thing called “a barbie”?

Your kids might be confused too. Our little girl loves the story of the “Ten Leopards.” You know, the one where Jesus healed ten leopards, but only one came back to say “thank you”? Thank you, you wonderful world of missions, for giving our whole family such a linguistic advantage and wide worldview. A worldview in which Jesus cares so much about jungle animals, he sometimes heals ten at a time.

 

8. Your driving skills will “improve.”

Who knew you could survive so well without rearview mirrors, turn signals or lanes? Who knew driving 20mph (or 32kph for those of you who don’t know how to measure stuff correctly) could be so exhilarating. And sometimes, cars on the mission field actually get younger, with fewer miles on them than when they were imported. How cool is that?

7. You’ll learn to be grateful for the little things, like cheese.
Older missionaries in my part of the world remember when cheese came to town. Cheese and stop lights apparently arrived at the same time. So if you’re in a part of the world without cheese, extra points for you. And may I recommend you start praying for a stop light?

(I was going to include bacon in this section, but then I remembered we were talking about “the little things.”)

6. Your bargaining skills will improve…with the police.
The police don’t want to write you a ticket, and you don’t really want to pay a ticket. And everyone knows you didn’t really violate a law anyway. One time, a pot-bellied officer demanded Happy New Year 2018 in advance beer money, so naturally I offered Twizzlers. He pondered for a second, then held up four fingers. I complied and drove off, chuckling as I watched him and three buddies chow down. Apparently, Twizzlers make mouths (and cops) happy.

5. You will learn how to complain in multiple languages.
The ability to complain, out loud, in front of other people, without them knowing, is the gift of a lifetime. Just be sure to do a quick perimeter check for possible same-language listeners within earshot.

A hotel worker didn’t do a proper perimeter check once, and I clearly heard him complaining about some rude tourists, “Sure, why don’t they just go sunbathe by the pool. I hope a massive rock falls off the building and smashes their heads.” I made a mental note to self: speak extra nice to that employee. And get a cabana with a roof.

4. You’ll always be able to use the excuse, “I’m not from around here.”
When you need to explain why you wear clothes, or why you don’t really care much for fried spiders or bony duck embryos, simply state “I’m not from around here.”

Really though, and I think we all know it already, this one’s most useful during furlough. Can’t figure out the ATM? or the drive through? or Wal-Mart? Just smile, mumble something in another language about massive rocks smashing things, and say “I’m not from around here.” But don’t forget your perimeter check.

3. Fashion rules will no longer apply.
You ever seen a missionary? Yeah.

2. You’ll get to report to hundreds of people, every month, details about your work, your family, and how you spend your money.
Who needs Dave Ramsey when you have the entire deacon board of multiple churches analyzing your finances? It’s accountability on huge quantities of steroids.

They may ask why you need so much, or why you have to pay for your kids’ education, or why you save for retirement, but at the end of the day, they are paying you to do this thing we call missions. It’s an honor to serve, even when the reports are due, the power’s out, it’s hot season, the spreadsheet’s rebelling, and you can’t figure out how to get that docx into a pdf into an html into a mobile-friendly, print-friendly, e-mail-friendly format. But hey, at least you don’t have to use envelopes.

1. You’ll get to experience the raw joy of crossing language barriers, cultural barriers, time zones and comfort zones, simply to invite someone to follow Jesus.
Maybe you preach the gospel straight up, street-corner style. Maybe you serve the sickest and the poorest, touching the folks no one else wants to touch. Maybe you teach English or a vocation, aiming to empower. Maybe you do a thousand things for economies or community health or justice. Whatever you do, there is one Love that draws us all together and pushes us out the door. Every day.

His name is Jesus, and at the end of the day, He is worth.it.all.

So, why do you think this job is awesome?

If a “Top 10 List” could have 15, what would you add?

Adapted from trotters41.com. Photo credit.

 

 10 Reasons You Should Be a Missionary

Adventures in Awkward

 A little humor for your weekend…

Disclaimer:
If you struggle with prim and properness to the point of easily offended you should not read this post.  There are words that are used to describe human bodies.
One day my husband, Troy, declared that his “life had become far too weird for description.”
I beg to differ and am going to try to describe.  It might very well be far too weird…. But not too weird for description.
Late morning on a Saturday I arrived at a house we were overseeing for teen-moms in Haiti. The young ladies had been invited to swim and spend some time over at our house.  They’d been informed of my arrival time in advance but in true Haitian style they did not begin to shower, change, pack, or get ready until they saw my face standing in their kitchen.  Like many warm climate cultures, time is not a thing.Eventually we made it to the car. At least one of us was annoyed. Five young women, three babies, and I packed into the truck.  We arrived at our house quickly, it was just a few blocks from where they lived.

The young women and their three sons all came in and sat down.  No one talked. We all sat staring at one another. There were moments of awkward before I asked why in the heck they were so quiet?  “We’re not used to it here” they replied.  I looked to Troy to do his comedy routine or lighten the mood.  He gave me a look that said, “This was your idea.”

We got warm bread from the little bakery across the street. We all made sandwiches with the bread and the conversation started flowing a little more freely.  After we ate I asked the ladies if they wanted to swim or watch a movie?  Everyone squealed at the idea of swimming.  I had taken my stupid pill that morning because it never occurred to me to qualify if they knew how to swim.  I figured if you are signing up to swim, and even squealing about swimming, that means you know how to swim.  First world (rookie) mistake.

The ladies did not own swim suits.  There had never been a reason for them to own suits. They were all size negative something on bottom and something not so easily defined or described on top…  ample we’ll call it.My teenage daughter handed out running shorts to all five of them but we were a little bit stumped on the tops.  They all thought wearing their bra as a swim suit top was sufficient and since it was the only thing we had, we went with it.We learned early in our time in Haiti that breasts are not really a thing here. No one cares if you see them, no one gets all worked up about them, they just don’t do in this culture what they do in most North American cultures. They are not necessarily something to be uncomfortable about seeing.  Modesty or concern about what is showing on top is not on the radar for the vast majority. Showing a boob is like showing a foot – of little consequence.

In our first years here Troy regularly encountered female employees lifting their shirt to wipe sweat off their face as he spoke with them, or showing him a boob rash or infection before he had a chance to run for cover.  More than once he found himself consulting on issues of the breasts. (A breast consultant as it were.)  Let’s just say he saw some things in the early years.

One time when he was very sick with Dengue Fever, a bra-less woman holding only a shirt around her front half showed up at our door asking to visit him.  Not gonna lie, my willingness to embrace the culture pretty much ended right there.  Sorry topless lady, you cannot visit my husband bedside.  All this to say, we’ve been totally desensitized to boobs.

ring_buoysFive young women headed across the drive way in their shorts and bras to swim.   After they got in through the gate, one by one they hopped in.  The fourth girl into the water was  five months pregnant.  She jumped into the deep end. She did not know how to swim. 

What felt like four lifetimes (but was really five seconds) passed while I set the child I was holding down on the driveway and jumped in to pull the drowning pregnant girl to the shallow end.  There was nothing very heroic about it. I envision all good rescues starting with the lifeguard , dressed in a red Speedo, swimming expertly across open choppy waters, muscles glistening in the sun, hair sun-dyed the perfect streaky blonde. This particular rescue was quite a bit less Baywatch.

I was instantly in contact with the drowning person. It took three seconds start to finish.  No time for the sun to glisten at all.

At that point we paused and called for a pretty crucial moment of clarity. We spent a little time determining who could swim.   That seemed wise what with five people already in the pool.  It turned out that only one girl  actually knew how to swim.

Those of us not swimming were helping with the three babies and our own small army of children and we were kind of chuckling about how dumb we are.  We were not surprised when two or three girls got out of the pool to check out our son’s bikes.  Next thing you know, they started riding the bikes around the driveway and what we very generously call our yard.

It occurred to me to ask my husband  when his friend Harold was coming over to work on his computer.  Troy shrugged and said “any time”.   Harold was new to Haiti.  I asked Troy if it might be wise to give Harold a heads up about the scene upon opening our front gate. Troy thought about it and said, “Yeah. Probably.”

Troy called Harold and this is what I heard him say – “Hi Harold. You’re still coming?  Okay. Well. Uh.  Here’s the thing. We’ve lived here a while so maybe some really odd things have become sort of normal to us.  Uh.  Ok.  I’m just calling to tell you that there are teenage girls riding bikes in their bras in my yard.  That might be sort of alarming to you. So I thought I’d tell you.”

I was laughing so hard by the time Troy finished his awkward explanation.  The absurdity of it all was hilarious.  Troy made is deceleration again: “My life is far too weird for description.”

(Now proven untrue by the way.)

The funnier part was that when Harold arrived he walked in and toward us at champion race-walker speed, across the driveway straight into the house without looking left or right.  He clearly wanted no part in the bizarre happenings at our house that day. We couldn’t blame the poor guy.

Modesty is defined differently from culture to culture.  Things that are considered provocative in one place, do not cause even so much as a raised eyebrow in another.
Do you have things that you have grown used to seeing that once made you squirm?  
I have laughed at this awkward moment many times over the years, but we all know that sometimes it is a bit more difficult to laugh and challenging to navigate.
Any moments, funny or awkward, you’d like to share?