All the Things I Still Don’t Know

by Janine

Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana [the simplest of the phonetic lettering scripts of Japanese].

Some words I just type into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem arises when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.

Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.

Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.

You go through applications and interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling,” you hear them say.

And you need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.

But here’s the paradox: you land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.

I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.

No longer are you the person who knows “all the things.”

You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.

Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems that you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations; you’ll be combatting first grade homework!

It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one- or two-month course and then you’ve checked that off your list. For many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.

You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.

You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.

You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here ever after.

You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.

You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.

Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.

You’ll be serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.

It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.

But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.

A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.

And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and in God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated, and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.

This entire journey is a walk of faith and trust in God that He’s got the map right even if the one we’re holding is upside down.  He’ll enlighten us like a loving parent, if we’ll allow Him to.  He’ll even transform us through this journey and work through us in ways we might never have seen coming.  In the end, it’s Christ who supplies our competency as ministers of the Gospel.

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Janine, her husband Vicente, and their three daughters live and serve in the Tokyo metro area.  They established an evangelistic media ministry to share the Gospel.  Janine served for 3 years in Mexico before moving to Tokyo to work in church-planting, where she eventually met her Honduran husband who happened to visit on a short-term trip. Janine enjoys audiobooks, quilting, cooking and obviously, writing. You can find out whether they survive elementary school by following her personal blog.

If “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” will they know we are missionaries by our listening?

by Alyson Rockhold

The brooms in Tanzania start early each day. A familiar “swish, swish, swish” emanates from every house. When I moved here, I was shocked that most women sweep their houses daily and mop the floors three times a week. At first, that routine seemed kind of ridiculous to me. So, I made the most basic mistake warned about in Missionary 101: Judging instead of Listening. I didn’t ask anyone why they swept every day. I didn’t stop to remember that Tanzanians are experts at living in Tanzania. I just stubbornly clung to what I knew to be true of housekeeping in America and tried to apply it here.

Then for weeks I complained that there was always grit in the bed. I bemoaned the fact that my husband’s allergies were getting worse. And I was dismayed to find that spiders were literally living in every corner of the house! When I grabbed a broom to knock down all the spiderwebs, I finally realized my folly. I could’ve saved myself a lot of aggravation and annoyance if I had started by listening to the people who live in this place.

As I was mulling over this lesson, I started re-reading The Poisonwood Bible, a fictional account of one family’s failed mission to the Congo. The first time I read this book, I was dreaming of the mission field. From that distance and without any experience, it was easy to stand in judgement on all the decisions that led to their downfall. Yet today, with plenty of my own cultural missteps fresh in my mind, I found this book to be a compelling reminder of the importance of being a missionary who opens my ears far more often than I do my mouth.

The book has a poignant example of the value of listening that begins when the father decides to dig a garden. His Congolese housekeeper tries to help him, but he ignores her every suggestion. He is convinced that he knows best, and he lets her broken English and lack of education be an excuse to cast aside her insights. The result is crop failure and a nasty rash from the poisonwood tree. Throughout the story, every time the father refuses to listen to his neighbors, his heart grows more hardened and his mistakes become more disastrous. Ultimately, his mission is ruined by his closed ears and hardened heart.

It makes me wonder if our ears and heart are somehow linked: Is our willingness to listen connected to our ability to love? The story of Isaiah’s call to missions has a lot to teach us about this. When God calls Isaiah to missionary service, he famously replies, “Here am I. Send me!” Years ago, as a new missionary, I used to love the thrill that came with claiming Isaiah’s words as my own. Now I wish I had paid more attention to what God says next. In Isaiah 6:10, God instructs the prophet to tell the Israelites that He will punish them by hardening their hearts and making their ears dull. This chapter has an important message for young missionaries: After your eager “Yes!” to God, continue in His service by keeping your hearts and ears open.

I’ve had to learn the hard way, through dust and spiders (and examples too embarrassing to enumerate here!), that my ears are two of the most important tools I have for cultural adaptation. I need them to learn a new language, to hear the stories of the people, to honor customs and experiences. I’m starting to see that there is a mysterious connection between my ears and heart, a powerful link between my ability to listen and my capacity to love. If the old hymn is true that They will know we are Christians by our love, perhaps also They will know we are missionaries by our listening.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church of his generation that “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener.” I wonder if the same can be said of our generation. When I open social media, I see so much shouting, so many multiplications of messages, so many voices desperate to be heard. Is anyone truly listening?

In these divisive times, the ministry of listening can sometimes be misconstrued as a weakness. Yet, I believe that God is calling His people to have the courage to listen well and the grace to keep our hearts malleable to the wisdom of others. Sometimes listening involves sacrifice. I must lay down my privilege and pride to enter into dialogues willing to truly hear voices that may challenge and chafe me. Listening is a confession that “I don’t know it all,” and I need your words to guide and teach me.

I am begging God for the grace to cultivate the skill of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality that by “paying full attention to others and welcoming them into (my) very being…(I can) invite strangers to become friends” (Henri Nouwen).

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Alyson has lived half of the last seven years overseas including time in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Her resume includes such diverse experiences as teaching English, assisting with C-sections and making weekly cookie deliveries to the elderly. She’s so thankful to have a grounded, wise, hilarious husband to share the adventures with.

Should we send “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? What I’ve learned from the Ugandan church.

By Anthony Sytsma

Should churches send out “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? That is the question that came to my mind when I read an intriguing tweet from Chuck Swindoll:

Missions aren’t just for superstars. A missionary is just like you. Ordinary folks through whom God does the extraordinary.”

On the one hand, I agree with this statement. I, as a missionary, know my own sins and weaknesses.  I am regularly astounded at how God has used me. It is his grace at work in me, an ordinary person. A major biblical theme is that God likes to use weak people, sinful people, and people who we would not expect for his Kingdom work.

But on the other hand, Swindoll’s comment brought to mind what Ugandan church leaders have told me about missionaries during my discussions with them in When Helping Hurts trainings. I think Ugandans are frustrated with “ordinary missionaries.” Ugandan leaders told me to tell the North American church that we should stop sending missionaries who aren’t prepared. And above all, they want missionaries who are theologically trained and strong in faith and character.

One Ugandan asked, “Are the donors back home actually strong in faith but they are just sending us middle-men?” Another said, “If they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?” They are confused when North American churches and mission organizations emphasize the importance of Bible college and seminary education, and yet some of the missionaries they send, who are trying to teach pastors, have not had these types of education themselves.

How do we synthesize both Swindoll’s comment and the quotes from the Ugandan leaders? Both perspectives seem to be true and important. Should we send ordinary Christians as missionaries? My answer is a qualified “yes.” Missionaries are indeed ordinary Christians in one sense, but they should be trained and well-prepared ordinary Christians. God can use anybody for his work, even if they are not prepared or even sinful. But we should never use this as an excuse to be unprepared or irresponsible in our mission work.

I think a historical shift has taken place in the North American Church. In the recent past, I’m sure that emphasizing this theme of Swindoll’s was helpful. It was a corrective to churches that idealized missionaries too much, making them out to be abnormal super Christians, the examples of whom we could not possibly hope to live up to. But it seems the pendulum has shifted to the other extreme side. Now we view missionaries as a little bit too ordinary. In the rest of this post, I’d like to analyze this historical shift.

The consequences of this historical shift

Some very good things have resulted from this historical shift. People like me were encouraged that despite our weaknesses God could use even us. Our fears were largely taken away. This shift has also helped church members in sending churches to better relate to, understand, befriend, and be more patient with missionaries because they realize that we are actually not extraordinary people, but just regular ordinary folks.

But there have been some negative consequences from this historical shift as well:

  • While before some people felt too inadequate to become a missionary, now it seems that people do not have enough feelings of humble inadequacy.
  • Some missionaries are not being adequately prepared and trained before going to other countries. They are told God can use them just as they are, in their weaknesses. So they rush off to try to change the world with scant theological and mission education, very little reading of theology and mission books, and little practical ministry experience in their home country.
  • Perhaps some people are becoming missionaries because they are told repeatedly, “anyone can be a missionary” but they are not truly called by God to do it. Sending churches may not be testing the personal callings of missionaries enough today.
  • Many missionaries have had to go home because of falling into sin, having mental breakdowns, or having unfruitful ministries. These tragic missionary stories are common. We need to show compassion and mercy to such missionaries, but some of these tragedies could have been avoided had the missionaries been adequately prepared and received counseling before going overseas.
  • Many missionaries in developing countries are doing as much harm as good as they try to reach out to the poor (see the book When Helping Hurts). Many missionaries jump in the airplane and go without ever having read any books on poverty alleviation. If all you have is a compassionate heart and you haven’t been taught about how to effectively help the poor, or how to counsel alcoholics, or how to work with the homeless, or how to work against corruption, (you name the issue), then you can’t really expect to make much of a positive impact.
  • Since the message is that “any ordinary person can be a missionary overseas,” churches have severely downplayed some biblical passages:
    • Passages about each person having different gifts and abilities, and therefore different roles. Not everyone is supposed to be a missionary in another country just like not everyone is supposed to be a pastor or elder.
    • Passages about the importance of teaching, being taught, and training up new leaders. We need to be prepared.  1 Peter 3:15 – But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
    • Passages about special qualifications and ordination to positions such as Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3, and the powerful James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.” Logically and biblically, those we ordain as leaders, such as elders, deacons, or pastors, should be people of excellent character, knowledge, and leadership skills. They should be more spiritually mature than other Christians.  In other words, though this is a bit crass, they should be “the best of the best.” Why do we think it should be any different for those we ordain as missionaries? If we are to choose “the best” as elders and overseers of the church, why wouldn’t we also choose “the best” to be sent out to new cultures to start new churches, as representatives of the churches that send them? I don’t understand why American Christians still look up to pastors as being more spiritually mature leaders of God’s people, but then they say we should not look up to missionaries as spiritually mature Christian leaders because they are just ordinary Christians?

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

I admit that these are not easy issues, and I don’t want to be legalistic about the following items. I can apply these tough questions as easily to myself as to other missionaries and not fully get a passing grade. But we should try to make sure our missionaries are as spiritually mature and prepared as they can be.

  • Why do some denominations have vigorous standards for ordination to pastoral ministry, but not for missionaries? In my denomination, for a person to become ordained as a pastor, it takes years of education, training, psychological evaluations, internships, difficult exams, and a local church affirming your calling. I think this is good and fitting for the difficult calling that being a pastor is. Why don’t mission agencies and denominations have as vigorous standards for people to become missionaries? Especially consider that they are also doing difficult ministry, but with the added challenge of doing it in a foreign culture.
  • Why is it that we send people to start new churches, who have not pastored a church in their passport country first?
  • Why is it that we send missionaries to preach who have never preached in their passport country?
  • Why do we send people overseas to help the poor if they have not done any poverty alleviation work in their passport country first?
  • Why do we send people to evangelize who have never led someone to Christ in their passport country?
  • Why is it that we send people to teach others theology who have not had theological education themselves first?
  • If you would not be comfortable with your missionary as an elder or pastor of your church in your own country, then should you really be comfortable with them representing your church to a new culture in another country?

Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go.  Let’s embrace humility, remembering that missionaries are ordinary people, and it is God who works in and through us.  But remember, we are dealing with the Great Commission, the Good News, the Gospel.  It is important.  Let us take the missionary calling seriously.

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Rev. Anthony Sytsma works in Kenya and Uganda with World Renew, a Christian development organization affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA).  He is passionate about equipping local churches, and his main work is to teach and encourage church leaders. He is married to Sara who works with farmers in agricultural development and other livelihood projects. They blog jointly at Word and Seed in Kenya.

White Privilege in Western Missions

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“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

– Arundhati Roy

*          *          *

I am an Asian American, born and raised in the States, a child of immigrants. Growing up, my faith was deeply influenced by Western Christian thought, but always experienced in the context of immigrant churches. Ethnic identity, far from being ignored and irrelevant to my faith, was recognized and celebrated.

Then I became a missionary.

And my ethnicity that was once recognized and celebrated within the minority church now frequently left me feeling ignored and irrelevant within the predominantly white missions community.

Something is rotten in the state of Western missions when the very communities that are meant to proclaim God’s inclusiveness seem to make people of color feel other and less than.

I’m not talking about outright prejudice. God willing, we have moved beyond mistreatment that is conscious, deliberate, or blatant. But I am talking about subtle ways that people of color are disenfranchised.

There was that time I heard about an all-expense paid retreat for women on the field. Excited about the possibility of a fun and relaxing trip away, I found the promotional video online and eagerly watched it. But my heart sank as the video only featured frame after frame of white women. I knew immediately that this retreat was not designed with me in mind. I was not even on their radar, much less on their screen.

Then there was the time that our missions agency was considering mobilization of internationals. Leaders from around the region gathered together to discuss the pros and cons of such an endeavor. I and other minority members expressed our apprehension of recruiting locals into a primarily white organization, citing concerns about expansionism and assimilation.  I was thankful that we were given a voice in this decision. But I was mistaken. Instead of hearing our reservations and taking time to reflect on the alternatives that we suggested, a task force was immediately formed at the end of that meeting to move ahead with the plan.

And just earlier this year, I discovered that a missions blogger writing under an Asian pseudonym was actually white. Honestly, I felt betrayed. I had been encouraged by the recognition of this Asian blogger, seeing it as a sign of the strides taken within Western missions to listen to the perspectives of people of color; only to have the rug pulled out from underneath me when I learned that the blogger was not a person of color at all.

I think of my father, who has written countless books about missions, is a sought-after speaker for conferences, and has five decades of ministry experience as a missionary, pastor, professor, and mobilizer. Go anywhere in the world and ask any believer with my ethnic background, and they probably know of him. Yet very few white missionaries have ever heard of his name.

It’s experiences like these that have taught me …

We are invisible.

Our perspectives are ignored.

Our voices are unheard.

Instead, we are replaced by those with power and privilege.

Even (and perhaps especially) in missions work, the resources that are used, the ideas that are disseminated, and the methods that are implemented are most likely created, introduced, or advanced by white men.

While their intentions are undoubtedly benevolent, this comes at a cost. When those with white privilege are the only people with influence, people of color inevitability feel stripped of power. When theirs are the only voices we hear, people of color feel unheard.  When there is a lack of representation and diversity within the missions community, people of color feel dismissed.

These seemingly benign acts of commission and omission seem trivial taken on their own, but when experienced day after day, what we hear is “I don’t need you.”  The message we receive is that we are weaker, less honorable, and unpresentable.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).

As a member of this body, my responsibility is not only to honor others, but to call out dishonor when I see it. I am not only to care for others, but to bring awareness when there is division. I’m not simply to rejoice, but to invite others in when I suffer.

So I write this to bring awareness to the marginalization that many people of color experience within the sphere of Western missions. I write this as an unveiling of tender wounds. I write this, not to point fingers, but to ask you to suffer with us.

Resist the desire to defend. Reject any shame you may feel. Refrain from problem-solving prematurely.

These will only prevent you from truly suffering together with us.

Instead, listen to our stories and our pain. Step into our shoes. Grieve with us.

By acknowledging the disparity, empathizing with our feelings, and understanding the injustices we have to endure, you begin to replace the damaging messages we’ve received.

Instead of invisible, we begin to feel seen.

Instead of ignored, we begin to feel known.

Instead of being silenced, we begin to feel heard.

Perhaps this simple act of com-passion — “suffering with” — will be the very thing that sets us on the path toward greater unity and healing.

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Grace Lee (a pseudonym) is a California native who is church planting in Asia with her husband and two kids.

My Liberation is Bound Up With Yours

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A lot of people move to Africa on a mission. Some of them classic religious missionaries and others compassionate humanists who feel called to serve, to care, to give.

I came here under that banner, thinking I was going to help to pull people out of the mire of poverty. I came here with dreams of Africa on its feet, of people with dignity and strength. I thought I was here to give something, something that wasn’t here already.

I fell in love early in my journey on this continent. I was drawn in, and I didn’t really know why. I just knew I wanted to be here, wanted to be part of this.

I have lived here in Tanzania for over 3 years now and for close to a decade traveled the countries of East and Southern Africa. Until very recently, I still thought I was here to help.

That was before I read this quote from Lilla Watson. Watson is an indigenous Australian, and when I read her words, something in my soul stirred, like a light switching on.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

There are times when you read things and it feels as if they punch you in the gut. You breathe in a sharp breath and utter some kind of profanity in your mind. This was one of those moments. I had missed it, missed the point entirely. Missed the connection between my liberation and that of the people I am here to work with. I came to help them. I came with awareness that I was broken myself but not seeing anything that they had to offer me. I was a fool.

I realise now that my liberation is tied up deeply with theirs. I use words like dignity, freedom, and self-reliance to define what I see as the goal of development work and more specifically of the work I do. It is, at its base, about reducing poverty, but I don’t really see that as the bottom line. I want to see people able to stand on their own two feet, to take care of their own, to have the freedom to explore opportunity, creativity, leisure, family, and community.

Ask me what I need most in the world? Ask me what I most crave? To stand on my own two feet, to have the strength to take care of my own, to have the freedom to explore opportunity, creativity, leisure, family and community.

I have been looking in the mirror and failing to see my own reflection. I thought that it was them I saw when I looked, that it was them I needed to help, that it was they who needed saving.

It’s been me all along.

It is so painfully cliché to admit this; the words are coming out of me with a deeply uncomfortable cringe. “I went there to help, but it was me who was helped” is a phrase used so often it has become tired and more than mildly annoying.

But it is common because there is truth in it.

Living here in Tanzania and travelling to different parts of this great continent has offered me olive branches all along the way. It has tried to teach me what I most needed to learn. Looking back I see the same lessons over and over again, and I see myself missing them each time.

Until now, that is. I now realize that my liberation is entirely tied up in theirs. As I see more and more people, especially women, standing on their own two feet and forging a new path for themselves, I am given the courage to do the same. I am equipped by their bravery to step into my own story, to find my own capacity and power to stand in my own truth. I am given the opportunity to find my own dignity again as I let go of the pressure to please others.

I came here to help, to try to serve. But I have been called to shut up and listen, to pay attention, to recognize the incredible privilege of being allowed into the stories that I hear and for God’s sake, to start learning from some of those stories.

We all walk among those we perceive as weak, as in need of help. Sometimes people genuinely do need help and sometimes we are asked to be that support. Other times, we have just focused on the wrong things. We have missed the strength, the courage, the ways in which they have overcome, and we have failed to notice how much we have to learn.

People think Africa is full of poor people who are helpless and broken. The truth is the world is full of broken people, each in our own way. Some of our cultures and countries portray an illusion of progress; some portray an illusion of helplessness. Neither of these portrayals are really true. The truth is somewhere in the middle, in the space in between victory and defeat, where most of us walk, where we encounter each other’s stories.

May we all find the freedom to live in our own dignity, to explore our creativity, to enjoy our leisure and to love our families, our communities, our own and may we all listen to those who are teaching, even if they are not who we expected to learn from.

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photo-shannon-thomsonShannon Thomson is Canadian-born, of Scottish heritage and currently lives in Mwanza, Tanzania. She works for an international development organization focusing on community development. Shannon is married to Amani and they are expecting their first child in November. She is a keeper of chickens and stray puppies, loves yoga and good coffee. She blogs at Musings in Mwanza where she seeks to tell her truth about relationships, family, living overseas and personal wellness.

Parallel Lives: TCKs, Parents, and the Culture Gap

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By Tanya Crossman

Something I’ve heard a lot of expat parents say is that their whole family is “in it together” or that they are “called” together. The basic assumption is that all members of the family go abroad and live overseas together – they are bonded by the same experience. When I hear this, however, I think two things:

First, I am so glad you and your kids are on the same team!

But, are you aware that you aren’t sharing the same experience?

To explain what I mean, I need to define some confusingly similar acronyms: TCK, ATCK, and TCA.

TCK stands for Third Culture Kid – a young person who has spent a significant part of childhood outside her passport country.

ATCK is Adult Third Culture Kid – an adult who had a TCK childhood.

TCA is Third Culture Adult – an adult who has lived outside his passport country, but only as an adult.

An important thing to grasp is that TCKs (who become ATCKs) begin their expat journey as children, while TCAs do not live abroad until adulthood.

It might sound subtle, but the difference is actually very significant. The children of expat families are TCKs – but the parents are usually TCAs. They are living in the same country, but while parents experience and process the challenge of cross-cultural living as adults, TCKs grow up and form identity in the middle of it.

Expat parents have parallel experiences to their children – in the same places, but qualitatively different.

You live in the same countries.

But it affects you differently.

Overseas life is different for TCAs/TCKs in a few ways. These differences do not mean the TCK has a better (or worse) experience. If these differences go unnoticed, however, they lead to misunderstandings between parents and children. This leaves many parents feeling frustrated and many children feeling unheard.

I’ve worked with TCKs for 11 years (I lived in China for most of that time). And I’ve spent the last three and a half years working on a book that explains the TCK experience of life to those who care about them. I interviewed nearly 300 TCKs about their experiences (and surveyed 750 TCKs). Most were aware that they experienced their host countries and passport countries differently to their parents; many felt their parents were far less aware of the differences. In fact, one third of the 750 TCKs I surveyed said they felt misunderstood by their parents.

I am going to outline three of the differences between what a TCA and a TCK experience overseas: connection, identity, and choice.

 

Connection

A TCA moves abroad having experienced comprehensive connection to one country as a child. A TCA has deep emotional connections to her passport country because a large percentage of her life was spent there. These emotional connections are experiential – memories of lived life there.

A TCK, however, experiences multiple countries/cultures during childhood. Two-thirds of the TCKs I surveyed first moved abroad before age five, 58% spent more than half their childhoods abroad, and a 30% spent less than three years in their passport countries. Most TCKs have more time in their host countries than in their passport countries, so that is where most of their emotional connections are made.

Why does this matter?

Your TCK children will not have the same emotional connection to the people, places and activities of your country (and your childhood) that you do. Things that mean the world to you may not mean much to them. They may dislike your comfort foods, find your favourite sport boring, or be unmoved by things which bring you to tears. They may intellectually understand that these things are supposed to matter, but not feel a connection to them. If they fear disapproval, they may learn to “fake it”. Giving your TCKs space to feel differently, even if it is sad or disappointing to you, is vital to maintaining open communication and strong understanding between you.

 

Identity

A TCA comes abroad with a fully formed sense of self, connected to a particular country – the place that is “home”. A TCK grows up caught between two places that are both “home”. Most TCKs develop personal identity against a backdrop of frequent change. TCKs are not just experiencing life overseas, they are trying to make sense of the world (and themselves) while doing so.

The events of international life certainly affect TCAs, but they affect TCKs much more deeply – becoming part of the bedrock of their emotional worlds. For example, many TCKs I interviewed spoke of learning that “everyone leaves”. Watching friends leave, or moving on themselves, affected how they saw the world. Woven into their sense of self was the knowledge that nothing is permanent.

Why does this matter?

TCKs are individuals, and they deal with international life differently. But regardless of how they process the experience, living overseas will impact how they see the world, and the people in it – leading to what may be very different worldview to your own. When your child’s view clashes with your own, take time to understand why they think what they do, rather than trying to “correct” their perspective.

 

Choice

Being an adult, a TCA has far more control over the decision to live abroad. No one becomes a TCK by choice. Not that it’s a bad thing (quite the opposite – 92% of MKs surveyed were thankful for their experience) but it happens because a decision has been made on the child’s behalf. Even when a child (especially an older child) is consulted about moving abroad, it is still the parent who has the power to actually make the decision.

While a few MKs I interviewed said they felt they as children were missionaries alongside their parents, that living abroad was their own “calling” as well as their parents, most did not share this feeling. A few expressed strong resentment that these choices were made on their behalf (12% of MKs surveyed felt resentment about their childhoods).

Why does this matter?

All parents make decisions on behalf of their children, but the decision to take a child overseas means giving them a very different childhood. It is important for parents to understand their choices have created a culture gap. That gap is not evidence of a bad decision – it is a natural consequence of a different cultural upbringing. Denying it or trying to “fix” it does not change the situation. What does make a difference is recognising the gap and taking steps to listen to the child’s point of view.

You live abroad together.

But the impact of that life is different.

 

My book is called Misunderstood because that is how many young TCKs feel. Having spent years helping expat parents understand their children, I wrote a book to do what I do – give insights into the perspective of TCKs.

When parents (and other adults) recognise the difference between an adult’s experience of life overseas and a child’s experience, it is a huge step toward the sort of understanding that encourages and comforts TCKs.

You are on the same team.

You do experience life abroad differently.

But with awareness and care, you can still understand each other deeply.

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TC_headshot-sqTanya Crossman went to China to study for a year and ended up there 11 years, working for international churches and mentoring Third Culture Kids (her book about TCKs releases this week). She currently lives in Australia studying toward a Master of Divinity degree at SMBC. She enjoys stories, sunshine, Chinese food and Australian chocolate. |www.misunderstood-book.com | facebook: misunderstoodTCK | twitter: tanyaTCK

That time I accidentally told someone to go to a witch doctor

By Tamie Davis

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“Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

What does this statement sound like to you? A statement used to guilt a person who is sick? The beginning of an attempt to manipulate God? A formula for something we humans can’t guarantee?

Once I was teaching a seminar to Christian university students in Tanzania. We were talking about how to help someone who is suffering, and I said that you should never say “Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

To me, that statement is destructive in a myriad of ways. It’s theologically unsound for a start: it sounds like God is holding out on you, a tease who refuses to heal you until you are good enough. Perhaps he is just like the animist powers, able to be manipulated, but just as capricious. On a human level, it’s also just cruel: it suggests to sick and vulnerable people that their suffering is their own fault. After all, if they had more faith they would be well.

So in this seminar, I said you should never tell someone who was suffering, “Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

Every single person in the room objected vehemently. None of them viewed it as a manipulative or insensitive statement. They all said they would be happy for someone to say it to them.  I was astounded.

Later on, a Tanzanian friend and cultural mentor illuminated the situation for me.  She said, “If they don’t go to God for healing, they will go to the witchdoctor.” She helped me to see that in the Tanzanian worldview, healing is available. The question is: where will you go for it? To God or to the witchdoctor?

The reason the students objected so strongly to my statement that you shouldn’t say “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” was because it sounded like I was taking getting your healing from God off the table. It sounded like I was saying the only option was to go to the witchdoctor.

To these students, the statement “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” wasn’t a formula, and it wasn’t a quick fix: it was a statement of Christian perseverance! Filling in the blanks, I think the meaning of that statement for them was something more like, “Even when it seems like it would be better to go to the witchdoctor, stick with God and trust Him for your healing.”

I found this whole experience deeply humbling. In some contexts, even African contexts, “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” is a manipulative and cruel statement. Such false teaching must be combatted. But for these particular students in this particular culture, the statement “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” was a call to discipleship. I needed to hear that statement as they heard it. What I read as a sign of Christian immaturity was in fact a sophisticated weapon for combatting the desire to seek out evil forces. How thankful I am for my cultural mentor who helped me to make sense of all this!

The life overseas is one of choosing to leave many things behind: family, friends, familiarity, competence, a particular lifestyle. But this experience brought home for me that it must also be one of choosing to leave behind our superiority, of not assuming that my way of seeing things is right, or even that my theology will be the right fit for this context. It’s choosing to believe that the people I’m among may have a better sense of where God is at work in their world than I do, and that I have a lot to learn from that.

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1Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com

On Offending and Mending – The Challenges of Cross-Cultural Living

view of the city

 

Of all the difficult things we do in cross-cultural moves, finding places to live is near the top. We want to create space and place – we want to create home. And often our expectations are a planet away from our reality.

At one point while living in Cairo, we were hunting for a flat (apartment) on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching in the heat and walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

My husband and I were getting increasingly frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat to what we were being shown. Precisely at this point we walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest we were shown the ugliest flat we had seen. Ever. Anywhere. When the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it, my husband looked at him and said clearly “No. This flat is the ugliest flat we have ever seen.” With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards, a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, and mirrors all over the gaudy red bedroom, it was hideous.

In that moment, by the look on the man’s face, we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that we had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all. We would never live here. It’s ugly,” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other, and in the exhaustion of the day, burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host, but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times when we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

The city we love

The reality of living cross culturally is that there are times when, despite our best intentions, we offend.  Sometimes it’s pure ignorance, other times it’s because we are tired, and still other times we are in a cultural conflict and don’t even care that we are offending. If we have never offended, then I would suggest that we have not crossed over those important relationship boundaries and are spending too much time with those who are exactly like us, rather than boldly engaging those who are different.

These moments of offense can be great for a couple of reasons.  One is that we learn from them — they are teachable moments in cross-cultural living and communication.  The other is that once we heal from the discomfort and sometimes painful residual effects, they make for great stories and we can learn to laugh at our mistakes.

I think it’s about offending and mending. We will offend. But one of the things we learn in the process is the culturally appropriate way to mend the offense in order to move forward in relationship.

Mending is often as simple as being willing to admit I am wrong and taking extra care and effort with the relationship in the future.  Other times it’s as complicated and lengthy as paying a visit and sitting in discomfort until the atmosphere thaws and we suddenly feel like all is made right. Still other times mending seems to take forever, or not happen at all.

I believe cross cultural adjustment is analogous to language learning. There are supposedly two types of language learners: those who, despite making mistakes, immediately begin practicing with the little they know, and those who wait until they have the perfect sentence structure and then go and say that perfect sentence, even if it’s just “Look at the big, green carpet!” when there is no green carpet in sight. Supposedly the first group learns far quicker because in their willingness to make mistakes and try, their language skills are sharpened. I would say the same is true in cross-cultural living and communication. There are those who go out and build relationships without knowing everything, who make mistakes and learn in the process; and those who study until they think they have it all correct, determined to make no mistakes.

But here’s the thing – there is no way we will get it right all the time. In fact, culture is so complex that it can take a long time to reflect, let alone understand, the cultures of our adopted countries. But if we don’t engage from the beginning, we will miss out on a lot of relationship building. And engaging with those around us means offending and mending, putting ourselves into postures of cultural humility.

So what does cultural humility mean? 

It means being a student of the community — not an expert.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity.

“Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique, constant effort to understand the view of another before we react. It requires that we recognize our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up the role of expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture. It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning.” From Between Worlds

What do you think? What are your stories of offending and mending? This is a great topic to learn from each other, so please share your stories!

25 Kilo Turkeys and Cultural Humility

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We bought a turkey on Saturday – an almost 23 pounder, with no additives and gluten free (really — they had to tell us it was gluten free? Aren’t all turkeys gluten free?)  As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn. When we cross over that bridge it is important to have cultural humility. And cultural humility put into practice means a few things. 

It means being a student of the person, or the community — not an expert, sitting at the feet of those who can teach us.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity. 

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

This year we will share turkey with people from across the globe, who are making the Boston area their home for a short time. And our turkey will taste the better for the joy of sharing it with friends from across oceans, languages, and cultures. And we will probably tell the story of the 25 kilo turkeys and Hosni’s patience.

How about you? Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Do you have stories that highlight the importance of cultural humility? Share your story in the comment section! 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/turkey-wild-turkey-49673/