Strangers in Covidland

by Katie Hoffmann

Blurry-eyed after 36 hours of flying with kids, we handed over our passports. The customs official returned a hearty, “Welcome Home.” 

Those words felt almost digestible as we entered the Seattle International Airport after years overseas working for a Christian non-profit. Although we were grieving all the goodbyes, I felt ready to embrace my country of origin once again. 

Despite my best intentions, reverse culture shock struck in a big way. We had little to no training in re-entry. This left me feeling paralyzed by stuff that should be easy like trying to keep kids quiet in the library or driving on the right side of the road. 

After three years stateside, I’ve gladly regained those skills, but occasionally, I fall flat and feel overwhelmed by culture shock again. 

Recently, we moved again to a new country, except this time our passport wasn’t stamped. It was a sudden departure without glamour and thankfully no cobras. Here’s the funny part: We haven’t even left our house except for one of us who is deemed an “essential worker.” 

Covidland is my new country and once again I must reorient. 

Actions I once thought were normal like talking to a person nearby now have both different implications and results. The way people greet each other is foreign. Elbows? A curtsy? This feels awkward. Can I just use a southeast Asian greeting? 

Classes are now on new platforms of technology. My kids are expected to learn technical culture, as we parents wade through murky waters of Internet security with youngsters. But, unlike with Zoom we can’t mute all the static, conspiracy theories, rude language and stuff that hits us on all ends during this unique time. Divisive warfare is erupting all around me. To relate in this new country is requiring deflecting skills, because the arrows of mindless attack are piercing our community. 

I’m dumbfounded as I find myself jerked between a polarized nation offering two heated sides of opinion and the irony of 40 different cereal choices. Sides have been drawn without healthy nuance, and I’d like to bury my head in my cereal but I can’t. 

I’m exhausted. 

I’m regretting not getting more pre-field training, but some moves happen too fast and necessitate learning on the job. 

As I pull my face out of my Coco Puffs, I remind myself that I must not become complacent no matter which country I reside in. We as the church can never stop being a student of the culture around us. We don’t get a free pass on cultural understanding just because we have a right to act a certain way. 

In a society that for too long has defined churches by buildings and programs, we can easily forget that God’s main directives have not changed and despite a lot of changes around us, we are not banned from loving our neighbor or even sharing the gospel. 

How I interact in my new country and culture will ultimately open or close doors to people’s receptiveness to the Gospel message. 

So I ask the hard questions… 

In a nation that is so often an either/or nation can we choose to be a both/and person? Can we bridge to people in many different groups? 

Can we care about American liberties and still choose to wear a face mask to a store no matter where we stand on the issue? Yes. Can we support small business and physically distance to show care for the more at-risk folks? Yes. Can we request our state government reassess our phases of local reopening and do it in a way that respects others? Yes. Can we both disagree with someone’s opinion and support their family? Yes. Can we do this all in a loving way? Yes! 

As believers we need to be keeping the main thing the main thing. Yes, I know, loving the multitude of neighbors can and will feel stretching and uncomfortable, because culture bridging is real. I’ve experienced that in my home state and overseas. Overseas, dressing in long pants and sleeves in 90-degree tropical weather felt horrid at times, but I knew my neighbors would disrespect me and it would not be loving to disrespect the people around me in conservative Muslim regions by wearing shorts and a tank top. I gladly sweated for the opportunity to connect with those in my community. 

Will we gladly wear a mask into a store and not tear apart the store clerks who are simply enforcing what they’ve been told to do? Just like in my experience overseas, clothes are contextual. In situations where others are uncomfortable it behooves me to be sensitive to that. In other cases where people don’t care, it then becomes my own choice based on research. 

Culture stretching and culture shock happen even when people look the same and own the same passport. It can be more difficult and blindsiding because when we look alike we expect to have the same internal wiring, but we often don’t. Might I be so bold as to say many of us are sliding into culture shock? 

If we aren’t careful culture shock will cause us to attack the neighbor instead of bridging the gap. Because let’s be frank, we’ve all moved to a new land and you are well past phase one of culture shock. The homemade bread- making and binge-watching Netflix is over. You have moved on and if you aren’t careful you won’t pull past it without a lot of destruction. 

Store workers and government officials will not forget your face if you, in a fit of rage, mock or tear them apart. If you reach out later to them to share the message of Christ’s redeeming love, good luck. 

I’ll never forget the day in Southeast Asia when another mother chastised me for letting my daughter play out in the rain. “Illness doesn’t come from dirt or germs! It comes from the rain and wind.” She scolded me. 

I was struggling with culture shock that week and I wanted to do things MY way. I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you for caring about my kids. I’m new here and still learning.” I knew at that moment I had a right to let my daughter play in the rain. I had a right to my own free speech. I hated to be chastised by another woman, but I swallowed my pride. My words needed to reflect our human connection and not a state of winning. 

Let us not forget our humanity. Let us be mindful of how we approach the ever-shifting cultures around us. No matter where you stand on how things are operating in Covidland, let your actions and words build bridges and not walls. 

We are all new here and we are all still learning.

~~~~~~~~~~~

In second grade, a bubble gum container full of international coins sparked Katie’s heart to discover God’s world. That spark would be kindled through years of interaction and work with refugees and international students. In her early twenties, she married a flyboy and they landed with their first baby in Indonesia. Between killing spiders and drinking tea with local women she continued to grow in her faith and desire to serve. Although transition has brought their now larger family stateside, the fire in her heart still burns. Today you can find Katie mingling with neighbors, advocating for and connecting with refugees, teaching her kids, flying with her husband, gardening, and always learning. 

 

So Much N O I S E! (and a Book Giveaway)

I grew up in rural America. We had neighbors, but you couldn’t see them. In fact, get this, you couldn’t even hear them. And I know this stretches the bounds of believability, but you couldn’t even smell the neighbors’ food. They were acres away.

We were closer to cows than people.

Now I live in a place where you can most definitely see your neighbors (because the kitchen and bedroom windows are less than 10 feet from their kitchen and bedroom windows.) Now I can hear the neighbors coughing (or fighting or playing marbles with bowling balls).

I can feel the neighbor’s music, and I can certainly smell the neighbors’ food.

Is this stressful for anyone else?

In the whole scheme of cross-cultural work, in the whole Story we’re excited to live out, noise and hyper-proximity is not a very big deal. You could even spiritualize it and call it incarnational. But you know, I’m a human, and the constant LOUDNESS is actually a thing. It’s actually a pretty stressful thing. So I thought I’d use the first part of this article to see if it’s stressful for anyone else?

You too? Really?

How do you deal with it?

I believe in a multi-disciplinary approach, ergo, I’ve tried pharmaceuticals (Benadryl), technology (apps), multiple physical barriers (mattresses and headphones), and of course, prayer (“please make hearing ears deaf”).

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with our living arrangements in Cambodia (or our neighbors, for that matter), and I’m in no way claiming any sort of moral superiority because I like quiet. It’s just that this is part of the cross-cultural thing that’s hard: it’s a lot louder here than where I came from, and eight years hasn’t changed that.

So here’s how I manage…

Diphenhydramine sort of helps with getting to sleep and staying that way. Consult with your doctor first, and word to the wise: don’t try parenting while on this stuff, ’cause that’s not good for no one.

Noise cancelling headphones = magic. My over usage, combined with the tropical climate, destroyed multiple sets of the earpieces on these things. But still, one of the best purchases of my cross-cultural life.

Nope. It’s not gum. You’re looking at my earplugs container. I’ve got one of these in my office, one in my backpack, and one on the nightstand. You NEVER want to be without earplugs. Just remember it’s not gum.

The Sleep Pillow app. (see below)

I heart white noise. So if you take the white noise that’s possible from Sleep Pillow, add in earplugs, then cover the whole thing with noise cancelling headphones, _______________________ is all you can hear.

Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. When our neighbors decided that karaoke was the best way to spend evenings, we called in the Queens — two queen-size foam mattresses propped up outside of our bedroom windows. This might be confusing if you’re not sure how Cambodian row houses work, but if you get it, you totally get it. Basically, our bedroom windows open up into this room, which is the first level. I was standing in our front door when I took this photo.

 

If none of these measures are effective, then you should probably just go ahead and buy our book.

A Book Giveaway!
Elizabeth and I would love to gift a couple of folks with a free Kindle version of our new book, Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker.* If you live in the US, the UK, or Australia, we could send you a hard copy instead, if you’d like.

Ruth Van Reken (co-author of Third Culture Kids) had this to say about Serving Well:

“Recently I read a lovely book called Serving Well by Jonathan Trotter and Elizabeth Trotter. While it contains many great practical tips and strategies for success in cross-cultural living and working, it is not simply one more ‘how-to’ manual. Particularly for those in the faith-based communities, the authors continually emphasize the why of service, not simply the how. This is a soul-encouraging book. I highly recommend it.

Serving Well has over 100 chapters that cover everything from how to prepare for the field all the way to how to return well. It includes reflections and discussions on transitioning overseas, taking care of your heart, marriage, and children once you’re there, communicating with senders, common pitfalls, grief and loss, and what to do when things don’t go as planned.

To be entered into the drawing, think of someone who might like a copy of Serving Well and then tag them in the comments section of A Life Overseas’ Facebook share of this post. If you tag someone, we’ll enter your name and their name into a drawing that will happen on September 10th. You can tag up to three people and they will all be entered into the drawing.

If you are reading this via e-mail and you have limited access to Facebook, just reply to the message and put “book giveaway” in the subject line. That’ll get you entered.

Thanks so much for understanding that this cross-cultural gig is amazing, and LOUD, and rewarding, and hard, and wonderful, and so much more.

And may the Father’s grace and peace be with you and yours today.

 

All for ONE,
Jonathan

 

*affiliate link

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