What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

You know about jet lag. Do you know about heart lag?

Jet lag, sweet terrible jet lag. It leads to entire chocolate bars consumed at three in the morning or entire novels devoured in the first three days after an international flight. Might lead to sickness, crabbiness, headaches, complaints, arguments. Every expatriate knows about jet lag.

But do you know about heart lag?

Every time I come back to Djibouti or go back to Minnesota, I feel shock. And then I feel shock that I feel shock. It has been twelve years; I should be used to the coming and going by now. I thought after a decade the transition would get easier, but I find my heart lagging more and more behind my body.

In some ways it does get easier. I know our routine and our stores and our friends and the languages. But in some ways I find the return more jarring than ever, increasingly so. Why?

Expectations. expect not to be jarred, not to be shocked. I expect both sides of the ocean to feel normal, and they do. But when those two normals are so far from each other, when one is green and leafy and one is brown and dusty, when one sounds like robins and one sounds like the call to prayer, the normality of such variance is shocking.

Deeper Cultural Knowledge. Now I am aware of the deeper differences. I see beyond the tourist-culture-shock things like garbage and the driving and the heat and the clothes. I see the values, the fundamental differences in worldview, the different political structures and family functions and religious practices. And these differences both rub against the deeper things of my soul and resonate with those deeper things. This means that a much more profound part of my identity is experiencing the shock.

Personal Change. I have been changed now precisely because of interacting for so many years with this deeper cultural knowledge. Those changes affect the way I act on both sides of the ocean, so the transition requires digging deeper to uproot and replant. It involves more struggle.

Home. Coming home instead of going on a trip or returning to a relatively new place changes the way I see it, changes the way I respond to the inundation of the changes. Small developments happen while I’m gone, and as a long-term expat, I notice them. A corner store turns into a restaurant, the newspaper is under new management, the mosque has a new voice. Home changed in my absence, and I have to catch up.

These things could all easily be considered culture shock. But I recently started thinking of them in terms of jet lag. I decided that they are the result of heart lag. The shock factor is there, but I know I will move beyond it quickly, and I know what resides on the other side – settling, ease, comfortable familiarity. My heart just needs some time to catch up.

We give our bodies time to adjust, and people tend to be sympathetic to the traveler who falls asleep in the middle of a sentence at 7 p.m. after flying for thirty-eight hours. Let’s give our hearts time to adjust too. Be sympathetic to the traveler (even when it is yourself) who needs a few days for their heart to catch up to their body.

 

Originally published on February 2, 2015.

When Culture Shock Makes You Cuss

It was summer 2008, and I was the only female in my language class. It was my turn to say a simple past-tense sentence, and I had once again managed to maintain my streak of zero percent accuracy. I was on my sixth try that day, and I was failing on all fronts. But that sixth sentence was the last straw, as they say. I abruptly stood up and announced, “I’m going to the bathroom, and I’m going be there for a while.” 

In a country where nearly everyone had giardia or some other parasite prowling around in their stomachs, my classmates understood my announcement to mean that I needed the toilet in a prolonged and urgent fashion. On that particular day, however, my gut was fine. I marched myself to the upstairs bathroom and locked the door. With my face to the window, I let the sobs come rolling out. I cried for a solid twenty minutes. 

“Why am I such a miserable failure at this?” I asked out loud. “Why can’t I just speak correctly and show my teacher that I’m not a dummy?” 

After a serious ugly cry, I exited the bathroom and sat back down in my classroom. The cry had actually helped a little, but I decided not to let any of my classmates know that I had gone to the bathroom to unleash my tears rather than my gastrointestinal distress. 

When we changed fields and moved to the Middle East, I figured I was long past the days of culture shock. “After all,” I reasoned, “this is where I used to come for vacations!” 

On one particularly hot day, I was collecting my daughter and some neighbor kids from school. In classic Middle Eastern fashion, the school traffic was insane, and tempers were running high. The kids were piling into my SUV, and I was about to put our stroller in the trunk. I eyed the passageway between my car and the one parked next to me, trying to calculate if my stroller would fit between my perfectly parked car and the minivan parked by some idiot next to mine.  “Doable,” I thought. 

It was not. 

Two steps forward, and my stroller was firmly lodged between the two cars. It was hot, I was sweaty, and car horns were being honked at deafening volumes. I shook the stroller, then tried to pull it backward to dislodge it, but to no avail. 

The word that came flying out of my mouth at that point cannot be repeated here. Suffice it to say, it was a combination of four letters that would merit censorship on network television. 

Suddenly, the darkly tinted window of the obscenely parked minivan buzzed downward. I had failed to notice anyone sitting inside that van during my expletive-laden outburst. The open window revealed a face that I instantly recognized from church.

“Need help?” he cheerfully asked.

“Oh, no thanks! I’m fine!” I lied.

“Maybe try to fold it up,” he suggested. I did not respond, but I did heed his advice and collapsed the stroller there between our two cars.  Mercifully, it worked, and I was quickly able to pack the enormous stroller into my trunk. 

It was not just the awkwardly stuck stroller, or the heat, or the car horns. It was all of it plus many other small grievances. Traffic, miscommunication, language barriers, and simply not being known were all other factors in my mini-meltdown. I chalked it up to being a crappy mother and feeling overwhelmed. What I could not wrap my head around at that moment was that all of the anger and frustration I felt was actually culture shock.

In our circles we talk a lot about culture shock prior to moving overseas, but it seems we undersell just how pervasive and long-lasting it can be. Without a name for what we are feeling, we can sometimes mislabel ourselves or become so self-critical that we begin believing that we just were not cut out for this life after all. 

Culture shock can take on many forms, but it is rarely one singular event that causes the dam to break. Usually, there are many struggles or tension points that, on their own, feel inconsequential. But after enough of those stressors have compounded, it may only take something as tame as an ill-timed language mishap to bring calamity. 

Culture shock can take the form of feeling overwhelmed by your incompetence, or even by the feeling that you are the only one who actually is competent. 

It can be the deep longing for rhythms and seasons that once sustained you. A longing that may sting even more with the realization that finding new ways to sustain yourself will involve trial, error, and awkwardness.  

Culture shock can take the form of feeling unknown and unseen, with no immediate avenue towards a relationship where you might finally be known and seen. 

Wherever the culture shock train may be taking you, it’s vital to ask how you got there. Get curious and ask yourself the hard questions.

What makes your current feelings so heavy or debilitating? 

Why are you are feeling the way you are, and what you were feeling before you got to this place? 

Were there other things that had you unsettled? When and where did they happen? 

How did the events prime you for feeling even worse when the next disappointment came?

If you have a story that might help someone in the thick of their own culture shock, we would love to read it in the comments.

Hope for Those in a New Place: The Power of Muscle Memory

I recently moved to a new country. New house, new city, new grocery store, new car, new neighborhood. Just about every single thing in my life was new.

Entering a grocery store almost brought about a panic attack. I started at the jars of mayonnaise, paralyzed by indecision. Which one tastes best? Which one is healthiest or cheapest? What if I make the wrong choice? And then repeat that by 25 as I walked down the aisles, my head spinning, my list clutched in my sweaty hand. I didn’t know where the olives were. I didn’t recognize much of what was on the shelves. I stressed over how much chicken was supposed to cost. Once I was ready to check-out, another wave of tension flooded me as I had to remind myself of the procedure for buying my groceries. 

Then there was driving. My new country drives on the opposite side of the road as my previous country. That meant that every time I got to the car, I had to focus on which side of the car I needed to enter. If I happened to be absent-minded, I would get in, close the door, and attempt to put my key into the glove compartment. Once I did manage to successfully turn on the car, it took all my concentration to make sure I was driving on the correct side of the road. I repeatedly reminded myself of the traffic laws of my new country, knowing that my instincts would be to follow the rules of the former.

And of course, there’s not only the newness of living in a new house, but all new furnishings too. Are the light switches on the outside of the door or the inside? Where is that can opener? How do I get that new fry pan on the new stove to cook bacon without burning it? How do I get rid of these confounded ants? 

That much newness, all at once, was incredibly disorienting. It made me feel out of place and out of sorts. And I found myself having thoughts suspiciously similar to what I remember about middle school: I feel so stupid. Everyone knows what they are doing except me. They really must be wondering what is wrong with me. 

It was exhausting. All that concentration, all day long, from remembering the route to the store to picking up mail to cleaning the floors, had my brain on overdrive. A big part of me wanted to run back to my previous country, where everything felt familiar and routine and comfortable.

So it was during those first few months that I needed to remind myself, over and over, of the power of muscle memory. 

Muscle memory is defined as: “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” Muscle memory, is, perhaps, one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It means that we can talk to our kids while driving the car, or get brilliant ideas while taking a shower. Our brain can relax in our day-to-day routines, giving us the mental space we need for learning new skills or concentrating on solving a difficult problem. 

This explains why when we move to a new country, our lack of muscle memory makes it easy to be overwhelmed and exhausted. It makes sense why we might even hate our new life, and deeply crave running back to what feels comfortable and familiar. 

It’s at this point that we must remember why muscle memory is important. Life will not always be this hard, this tiring, this formidable. It will not always feel so strange. Muscle memory assures us that if we do the same thing enough times, it will eventually feel normal and easy. It will. Trust that it will. 

A year after our move, I can walk through my house in the dark and not bump into things. I don’t have to use Google maps for every place I go. The grocery store is boring, and I automatically pick up the same type of mayonnaise. When I drive the kids to school, I know the spot where the lane ends and I have to move over, and I do it without thinking. I’m not used to every part of my new life yet, but on the whole, it’s become a whole lot easier. 

Here’s the surprise twist: My new county is the United States of America. We relocated back after 16 years in East Africa. I found that re-adapting to life here was just as challenging as moving overseas. 

So for those of you in a new place, let me encourage you: Your brain will not always feel this tired. You won’t always have this maniacal part of you that wants to run away and jump on the closest airplane to take you home. 

What is the secret? Just keep going. Keep moving. Keep doing the same things, over and over again, and wait patiently for muscle memory to kick in. Push through this weary season, because it will get better. It will. I promise. 

Missionaries 2.0: How to Thrive in a Second Mission Post

by Abigail Follows

“Here we go again, God,” I prayed. “Please guide us!”

I took a deep breath and pulled my children towards the security check. After seven years in India and a one-year break stateside, God had successfully changed my desires—again. We would be in North Africa in just a few hours. I only prayed our kids would love our new home.

Are you considering re-launching as a missionary? Here are a few of the things that helped us adjust to our second place of service.

 

BEFORE LAUNCHING

1. Evaluate your first call.
What did you do well, in ministry and in your family and personal life? What didn’t work? What do you want to change this time? Now you are the seasoned missionaries giving the new missionaries (also you) advice. Lean on your experience for insight into how to approach your new call.

We knew we wanted to have better boundaries and take more breaks as a family. We also knew we wanted to get set up in a home right away, rather than hop around from place to place.

 

2. Prepare Yourself.
“I thought the birth of my second baby would be easy,” a friend of mine once told me. “Been there, done that, right? But every labor is different, and I ended up not ready. Make sure you prepare for your second one!” I was glad I took her advice when my son was born just two hours after the first contraction! Later, I remembered my friend’s advice again as my family prepared to re-launch. 

Read, attend training, pray, talk to other missionaries… take the time to equip yourself and your family for a new adventure.

 

3. Nurture Important Connections.
You’ve probably heard of the concept of building a RAFT written about by Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in the book Third Culture Kids. RAFT stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination. Take the time to heal, nurture, and appreciate relationships, both in your first host country and your home country. 

Beyond building a RAFT, I printed a sign that said, “Home is Wherever I’m With You.” Then I printed a stack of photos of friends and families from India and the USA. I wanted our children to celebrate all the places they’d lived and the people they’d loved. I wanted them to have a sense of our family history. 

 

AFTER LAUNCHING

1. Embrace the Newness
You may feel less nervous or wonder-eyed than you did during your first launch. That’s a good thing! It can help make adjusting easier. But don’t let it temper your curiosity and excitement. Taste exotic foods, get outside your comfort zone, laugh at your language blunders.

This was especially important for us since we launched with school-aged kids. They needed us to be excited with them, to discover our new host country alongside them. And their excitement (and sometimes confusion) helped us get into the new experience, too.

 

2. Don’t Avoid Comparisons.
This might sound counterintuitive. Shouldn’t missionaries suspend judgement? Shouldn’t we avoid telling people that our ways are superior? But this suggestion isn’t about which culture is better. It’s about the similarities and differences between cultures. It’s about harnessing previous cultural experience to give you context for understanding another worldview.

Although Indian and North African cultures have major differences, our knowledge about Indian culture actually helped us navigate North African culture. We found we had a larger general cultural knowledge bank to consult when things confused us. This made us more patient and flexible.

For example, we already had experience in a place where time is a much more flexible commodity than in our home culture. So, when it turned out to be flexible in our second host culture, we understood. It wasn’t a stressful adjustment.

So, compare the new culture with your wider knowledge bank. Let your prior knowledge help you ask more informed questions. Stay curious and enjoy the learning journey!

 

3. Pray. Adjust. Repeat.
As I mentioned, you’ll probably want to do some things differently this time around. Maybe you had no personal boundaries during your first term of service. Or maybe you stayed in your comfort zone too much. Whatever it is, make changes, but be wary of the tendency to overreact.

During our first few months in Africa, we reacted to our previous “almost no boundaries the entire time” attitude by living a comparatively solitary existence. Then we woke up and realized that people are still the point of missions.

Balance is not a destination. It’s a way of journeying. It’s a willingness to constantly evaluate and adjust the way you live. And for the missionary, it’s centered on prayer, because God has a much better perspective on us and our ministries than we do.

 

4. Don’t Forget Your First Love.
Whether you loved your first host country or experienced trauma there (or like us, both), you may find yourself resistant to replacing your first experience with a new one. That’s okay! 

For me, this manifested itself in language learning. My husband Joshua, who is super friendly and driven, is always up for a new language. 

I tend to be more introverted. So my ability to speak Hindi represented sweat, blood, tears, and a whole lot of time spent outside my comfort zone. It was also the only avenue for me to maintain important relationships in India. When my new language started trying to kick the old one out of my brain, I stopped trying to learn.

If you find yourself resistant to the new language, be reassured that it’s normal. And don’t panic.

When I eventually embraced learning my third language, I found that speaking and hearing Hindi a couple of times a month was enough to keep me from completely forgetting it—even if my Indian friends did tease me when I mixed up vocab.

 

Final Thoughts
After nearly three years in our second host country, I have no regrets about taking a second call. While we still made plenty of mistakes, our prior experience helped us to do things a little better this time around. And the faith God built in us during our first call helped us to trust Him more this time, too. 

And God answered our prayer–He helped our children to bond with our new country of service. It took time and some problem-solving, but we eventually found a sustainable balance.

Have you taken a second call? Are you thinking of taking a second call? Do you have any tips, or questions? Leave a comment below!

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

You Are Going to Hate It

You know that country you’ve been dreaming about? The one that you have been praying over and researching? You’ve been talking about it endlessly these days, building a team who will support you when you move there. You are ready to uproot your family, your job, your entire life to pour your soul into the place you love so much.

Call me a party pooper, but today I’m here to tell you something important: Shortly after you finally arrive in that country, you are going to hate it.

It might take a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but at some point it’s going to happen: You will wonder why on earth you thought you would love this country. You will question why you enthusiastically raised support for so many months to go live in a place that you actually despise.

It might happen when you come to the realization that this doesn’t feel like a fun adventure anymore. The public transportation is claustrophobic and smelly. You are tired of eating baked potatoes and scrambled eggs and yet the idea of facing the grocery store again makes you want to cry. You feel like a frizzy, unattractive mess. The pollution is triggering your little girl’s asthma or your four-year-old has gotten malaria twice in two months.

It might be because the people you meet are cold and suspicious of you. Or in your face and critical. Or just in your face, all the time, peeking through your windows. You feel like a curiosity on display, or you feel like an ignored, cast aside monstrosity. You wonder why you ever thought you could love these people who apparently abhor you. 

Or maybe you find yourself spending all day every day learning the difference between a past perfect continuous verb and an intransitive verb. Your body hurts from sitting all day and your brain hurts from thinking all day, yet you know you still have 16 months of this same horrible task ahead of you. And you wonder why you uprooted your happy, productive, meaningful life so that you could spend all of your time looking at meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper. 

Maybe you’ll hate it because your team leader seems distant or your co-workers are too busy for you, and you feel very alone. Maybe it will be because you are a woman in a country that demeans women, and you’ve never felt so insignificant. Maybe it will be because you didn’t anticipate how this new country would change your family dynamics, and it’s so hard and so painful to try to figure out new ways of helping your children find joy.

There are a million reasons why you could hate it. But one thing is for certain: At some point, it will happen.

Yeah, I know, just call me a dream smasher. I can hear you imploring, Do you have a point? Do you even want me to move overseas? 

Absolutely. Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this.

Here’s my point: I want you to know what you are getting yourself into. When you get to the point of hating your country and your life and your calling, you need to know that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Or with your country. Or with your calling.

There are three things you need to know:

Make your calling sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. Your calling to this country needs to be more than just a really strong feeling. It needs to come from hours of prayer, consultation with your pastor, soul-searching with godly friends. You need to know the reasons for why God is sending you to this country: What is the need? How are you uniquely qualified to fill that need? Write it down. Plaster it to your refrigerator. You will want to remind yourself of these reasons when you find yourself hating life. 

Make your faith sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. You must fully understand your worldview. Read a book on how to study the Bible on your own. Read a book on the theology of suffering. Read a book on the theology of poverty. Wrestle with the big questions before you go, so that when they hit you in the face and seek to destroy you, you will already be prepared. 

Perseverance is the whole battle. Not half the battle, not 90% of the battle. The entire battle. Do not give up. Do not give up. Let me tell you something: There will always be a reason to leave. Always. If you want to leave, you will find a reason, and it will be a good reason that will sound honorable to your supporters. 

I know, this is tricky. You are not going to live in this country forever; the right time to leave will come at some point, sooner or later. But make sure your call to leave has just as many prayer-filled, logical reasons as your call was to go. Because if not, then maybe you just need to persevere. Learn one more verb. Meet one more person. Go out your front door, one more time.

And here’s the part where I give you hope. You will not hate this country forever. I promise. Cross my heart; hope to die. If you stick this out and keep your heart open, a lasting love for your host country will sneak up on you. It might take 6 months, or a year, or even five years, but you will not hate it forever. There may be some things about it that you always dislike, of course, but your capacity to love this country will stretch and expand and deepen the longer you are there. One day, it will dawn on you that you don’t hate it, quite so much. And one morning, you will wake up and realize that you love this country. And you will never want to leave. 

Covid and culture shock feel the same to your brain — and here’s why

by Peter Olson

We suspect you’ve been feeling it too. A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you search to journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.

As we have both watched and experienced the events of 2020, something has seemed oddly familiar. Every part of life seems to have changed, nearly overnight. Stores are different. Work is different. Interactions with friends and with strangers – it’s all different. Yet in a way this scene seems to be a re-run. Because, in a way, it is. This scene is familiar because it mirrors culture shock.

 

The One-Minute Version:
When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

 

The Ten-Minute Version:
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

    1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
    2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
    3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
    4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

Now, this two-system method is generally very effective for how we live. Your “fast” system is very good at monitoring circumstances for situations similar to things you have encountered in the past. When encountering a routine decision in life, your “fast” system runs through your memories and quickly offers a solution from the past it thinks will work for the present. Usually, it’s right. 

Think of fast thinking like being your autopilot while your slow system is the pilot. Autopilot can normally fly the plane as long as conditions are predictable. But the pilot needs to keep watching in case they need to jump in and take control.

 

Autopilot:
Imagine entering a familiar store or driving in a familiar city. Driving in a familiar place is easy because you don’t seem to have a pressing need to think about where you are going. You just go there. Walking through your favorite grocery store and grabbing staples doesn’t seem all that difficult. This is because your brain is not actually generating many “new” decisions in these scenarios. They are examples of times your “fast” system has autopilot solutions ready.

 

System Failure
Yet what happens when your fast system fails to find easy answers? What happens when the circumstances all around you are different enough from normal that your autopilots stop working? You know what to do for a red traffic light. But would your decision take longer if the same light turned blue? It is the effects of that kind of scenario – repeatedly, hundreds of times a day, for months – that is the structural cause for culture shock. And – I would argue – the structural cause for much of the mental fatigue we are all facing right now.

 

Here’s why: “Thinking” is hard
Really hard. We could get into the biology, but in summary: Thinking requires a lot of energy. You could say that thinking is “expensive”. But not all thinking is the same. “Fast thinking” is relatively efficient, while “slow thinking” is expensive. Your brain – like your muscles – requires a sugar called glucose to function, and slow thinking requires far more of it than fast thinking does. Glucose is delivered by your blood, and the challenge is that there’s a limit to how quickly it can be delivered. Use slow thinking too much, and you risk running out of enough glucose floating around your head to pay the energy bills … so to speak.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.

 

A related phenomenon: “Hangry”
For the uninitiated, “hanger” is a state of being both hungry and, consequently, irritable. When we have not eaten for long enough, our body’s overall blood sugar level begins to drop, and this affects the supply of sugar to the brain. When you are “hangry,” you have a supply issue – there is not enough sugar available to give your brain. The scenario we have been talking about ends at the same destination – irritability, loss of decision-making capacity and decreased emotional control. But the reason is on the other side – your brain is using sugar faster than your body can supply it … and you run low.

Slow thinking is great. It is what allows us to contemplate the significant things of life. To have meaningful conversations. And yet, slow thinking has its limits. You simply cannot keep using it and using it and using it and expect it to continue operating at a high level indefinitely. It’s not designed to do that. Slow thinking is designed to step-in when needed. Run it constantly and – quite simply – the sugar runs out. (In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport cites research that suggests an average adult can handle 4 to 6 hours before exhausting their capacity and requiring sleep for a full recovery.)

 

Back to the moment at hand:
Parts of life seem to be changing monthly, if not weekly, if not daily this year. All this change has upturned enough of the normalcy that some amount of our mental “autopilots” are currently not working. Example: Imagine walking down the street, sun shining, water bottle in hand and thinking to yourself what a wonderful day it is when you suddenly run into an old friend! Instantly, you move from recognizing your friend to greeting them. Handshake. Hug. Wave. Whatever. You don’t notice deciding what to do … because that’s how fast thinking works. Automatic. Effortless.

“But wait!” You say. “This is not how it works anymore!” COVID. Yes, I know. And that is the point. Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.

 

You are a toddler now:
You could say our experience is now similar in some ways to that of a 2-year-old. Hang with me. A 2-year-old has not yet had sufficient time with their environment to develop a good litany of autopilots. They more commonly are stuck in slow thinking. But have you ever noticed how many naps a 2-year-old takes? Ever notice how cranky they get before nap time? Well, that’s us. Like 2-year-olds, we are living in an environment where we are forced to lean on slow thinking to the limits of its capacity. Further, the prolonged mental work of learning to live in a new environment often leads us to experience chronically depleted levels of brain glucose.

This is part of the reason toddlers commonly nap, and it is responsible for the experience expats call “culture shock”. Moving to a new country and into a new culture and language is perhaps the most recognized environment in which we find humans encountering this situation. I would argue that the first year a couple lives together is perhaps the most common one. Well, I would have argued that before this year. Not anymore. Welcome to culture shock, everyone.

 

A Second Point (and a warning):
If the ache of our brains facing a world where all of our ‘autopilots’ have stopped wasn’t enough, there is a second issue that arises from all of this. Here it is, the warning that we always coach people arriving overseas to expect: Prepare for self-control and emotional control to become harder. Let me explain why with an imaginary scenario: You are watching a five-year-old for the day and desperately want them to sit still and quiet for just a few minutes. (I can’t imagine where this example came from…) So, you reach for some candy, and you offer a bribe. They can have one piece of candy for 5 minutes of silence, 3 pieces for 10 minutes … and it continues.

You are asking them to delay gratification. If they are to continue sitting in silence, what kind of thinking is the child using? Is this an ‘automatic’ and impulsive response for them to sit quietly? Or will they need to use some level of focus and concentration to stay still and to stay silent? I think we can agree on the second. “Self-control” is a function of “slow” system thinking. Moderating and controlling our emotions follows the same process – ‘slow’ thinking is required. 

In a world where simply purchasing groceries is now at least somewhat different than the routine action you became used to, groceries are sucking at least some ‘thinking power’ away from the kinds of things we usually used our limited supplies of ‘thinking power’ for. In classic ‘culture shock,’ people experience moments where they feel some loss of emotional control. There is a flash of anger or sadness or frustration or … and you don’t understand why. What we are discussing here may be exactly why. Your brain just ran out of sugar. You’re not ‘crazy’. You are ‘limited’. Your autopilot doesn’t know where to go, but your pilot ran out of steam and is taking a nap right now … So blame yourself a little less when autopilot’s unsupervised guesses leave you smoldering on the side of a mountain (so to speak). Rather, admit you’ve never had reason to learn this environment. This is new, and sometimes this is just how new goes.

 

Here is the take-away:
Anything we are relying on ‘self-control’ to accomplish will become increasingly a challenge in any situation where we are forced to use more ‘slow’ (conscious) thinking than normal. The reason is simple. The amount of ‘slow’ thinking that we are capable of is limited. The more we must consume discovering how to navigate the new reality of our neighborhood grocery store, the less capacity we have left ‘in-the-tank’ later for deciding not to eat half of the ice cream we just purchased. It is simply reality that our brains are not accustomed to actually thinking all day long. When our environment changes suddenly and completely enough, we can easily overwhelm our capacity for conscious, deliberate thought.

 

Let me say it bluntly:
Self-control is a function of ‘slow thinking.’ Emotional control is a function of ‘slow thinking.’ Yet you and I now live in a world where we are all being bled of our ‘slow thinking’ capacity. Bled by the need to consciously make decisions in scenarios we used to have ‘autopilots’ for. Decisions that last year we could have made without really thinking. In this reality we have been left with less available capacity for engaging our minds in rational, logical, deliberate consideration of meaningful things. Less capacity for self-control. Less capacity for emotional control. . . . interesting. And considering the moment, very unfortunate.

 

So, are we helpless?
Of course not. Dealing with massive amounts of sustained change over a long period of time is certainly not the easiest thing in the world to do. But plenty of people have done it. Some of us have even done it willingly. And repeatedly. One thing that most people have found reassuring, if not helpful, is the knowledge that this is normal. This is how it goes. This is how the brain works. This is how and why your whole mental world has some ‘catching up’ to do. But you are normal, and you will get through this.

 

Finally, if you are looking for some advice:

1) Eliminate Options

When faced with the limits of your mental capacity, it can be helpful to realize you cannot deliberately make a choice about everything – you will run out of capacity. So it can be very powerful to use some of your limited capacity deciding what you will not decide about. We coach people moving overseas to limit the choices they make and the options that they will consider – for a time. Have you ever heard those stories of Silicon Valley execs who have perhaps twenty of the same shirt – and nothing else – in their closet? This is what they are doing. If you only have so much ‘slow thinking’ to use today, what is not worth spending it on? Those execs decided shirt choices are simply not worth spending thought on.

2) Routine is your friend

All of us have just lost a massive amount of the familiar in our lives. Routines which effectively accomplished parts of our lives (and at minimal thinking cost) have vanished. Those ‘autopilot’ decisions are gone, so do what you can to get some of it back. Create routines – even imperfect ones – to win back some thinking capacity. Decide how you will do x, y or z and then refuse to continue rethinking it. For now.

3) Reduce Input

Look, I want to be as informed as the next person. But at some point we need to recognize our brain may need a break. Refer back to #1 – this is the opposing side. Your mental capacity is not unlimited, and it’s probably a wise investment to use some of that capacity deciding what you are willing (and able) to spend it on. More may not be better if you cannot process it – don’t overextend.

4) Talk

Externalizing what you are experiencing is key. If you don’t have someone to talk it through with, journal. As Brené Brown has shown in her work, getting our emotions out of our head is one way to gain invaluable perspective. You are not alone, strange, crazy or losing it. Either that, or we all are.


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

Following a career in engineering, Peter Olson began life as an expat in 2013. He and his family now serve with Assemblies of God World Missions in the nation of Ethiopia. There they partner with the Ethiopian Assemblies of God and help lead Eastridge Church Addis international church in Addis Ababa. You can reach Peter at peter.olson@eastridgetoday.com.

A Trip to the Embassy

by Seth Lewis

I was excited. We’d only lived in Ireland a few months—long enough to begin to feel the reality of deep differences, but not nearly long enough to adjust to them. Our second son had just been born, a different experience in a different medical system, and we needed to register his birth at the United States embassy. American soil, in Ireland. It would be nice to get a little taste of all we’d left behind. A few hours on the motorway got us to Dublin, where we found the US embassy—a big round thing looking out of place on its street-corner, like a landed UFO. Like us. 

To get through the outer wall, we had to go through security. I hadn’t anticipated that, but it made sense, and I knew what to do. On the other side of the metal detector, the ground was American. Even the flowers were red, white, and blue. This was going to be fun.

I opened the door to the UFO, and was immediately struck by the lack of country music. Not even rock. Nothing. Just another security guard, another metal detector, and a sign that said “Please take a number”. A number? I’m not a number, I’m an American! This is my embassy! 

I took a number. White walls and tiles. Uncomfortable chairs. Drop ceiling. I knew there was a ballroom in the building, but no one offered to show it to me. Come to think of it, the room did look familiar. I’d seen this set up before, in America, at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Office. 

An embassy is a US government office. I should have known it would look like one. That I would hear several people being refused before I got a turn to hand my number through the thick (bullet proof?) glass and hope I had every form and supporting document exactly right. Somehow I had thought they would be as happy as I was to see another American. I had wanted a taste of things we left behind. I got one.

We walked out past the red, white, and blue flowers and through the security gate. On the other side, the Irish ground felt a little more like home. In the car, I played country music.

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

Seth Lewis has lived on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland for the last ten years with his wife Jessica; two of their three children were born there. He works with a network of local churches who are committed to church planting and also assists with a local Bible college and youth camp ministry. Before moving overseas, Seth worked with a church in Virginia. His accent doesn’t really fit anywhere anymore, and he’s okay with that. You can find him online at sethlewis.ie.

What Are You Even Doing Here?

by Corella Roberts

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I was a fresh, excited, bi-vocational missionary-teacher in Alaska. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to partner with God. I wanted to use my gifts and my training and my time to spread the gospel. I wanted to shine His glory to the uttermost parts of the earth.

And then … it was really, really, REALLY hard. I barely made it two months into village life before finding myself gasping for air.

“During this overwhelming, unpredictable season, we were invited to go to a church service in a nearby village; and we welcomed the opportunity to see a new place and worship with other believers. A travelling, Native pastor picked us up in his four-seater airplane, and we hopped down the river to an even smaller village for church.  Before the service began, this well-intentioned pastor asked us if we’d met the only other Christian couple in our village. They were in their forties, had been following Christ for about four years, and had been praying for Christian teachers to fellowship with. 

They didn’t have any kids in the school, where our lives had been consumed with the task of adjusting to teaching; so no, we hadn’t met them yet.

‘Then what are you even doing here?’ this short, fiery man retorted. 

Somehow, I held it together in the moment, but I was absolutely pierced, soul deep.  . . .

I tried to sit through the worship, but the pain inside was too strong. I got up, closed myself in the small bathroom, and tried to stifle my sobs.  Is THIS your plan, God? This mess of a job I’m calling teaching? . . . This crushing expectation to support the other Christian couple? Seriously, God. I don’t like it. I can’t do it. Why am I even here? I knew I needed to pull it together, but I had no answer. No peace. Only pain. Some missionary I was.” (I recounted that story in my new book, Colliding with the Call.)

I didn’t stay in that place of despair or those feelings of failure forever. In fact, I didn’t even give up on our bush teaching assignment. My husband and I hacked out another seven years in rural Alaska before moving to teach in Thailand, but I can tell you, I still hear that question buzzing in my ear now and then. What are you even doing here? It’s like a dengue-carrying mosquito, and I know if I let it land and bite, my faith will be in critical condition for a while. (If you don’t know what Dengue Fever is, feel free to substitute the imagery for the cough of a COVID-19 carrier who forgot to wear a mask.)

I think that question is so particularly hurtful because if there’s one thing a missionary wants to be, it’s useful. So when we start doubting our purpose, our calling, it’s often a direct attack on ourselves and our identity. But that right there–the feeling of a loss of identity when we feel like we’re failing at our tasks–is the real danger.

It’s easy to say, “My identity is in Christ,” but a whole other thing to live it. I won’t expand on that because Amy Young already wrote about it here. And you can find a huge list of scriptures about it here. But what I do want to touch on is that right now, during this global pandemic and the frustration of social distancing, what we can do is most likely being affected. Which means we’re all swatting at that question, What are you even doing here?

So, let’s answer it once and for all.

 

WHAT are you even doing here?
Are you sheltering your family by practicing social distancing? Do it in love. Are you preparing online lessons or teaching your stir-crazy kiddos from home? Do it in love. Did you make the painful decision to go? To stay? To be near those who need you most at this time? Be there in love. Are you distributing food? Sharing words of encouragement? Worshiping and praying? Learning to be still and listen? Do it in love.

There is no small task in the kingdom of God. What you see as menial, He sees as faithful service. I am convinced that nothing poured out in worship is ever wasted. Keep doing what you’re doing in love, as worship, and know that it is enough, because He is enough.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed . . .” Matthew 13:31-32

 

What are YOU even doing here?
You are you on purpose–created and designed to fill that very special niche in God’s plan. He has not put anyone else in your particular position, he has put you there. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing (or feel like you’re not doing), you’re there, doing it, on divine purpose. No one else can speak to that one hurting heart in your home, next door, or through the screen, the way you can. And no one else can represent that very special facet of His heart to the world the way you can. Just keep being you–He’s never asked you to be anyone else.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works . . .” Ephesians 2:10

 

What are you even doing HERE?
I have a friend right now who has been stuck in Australia, trying to return to her family and her graduating senior in Thailand, since this whole global shut-down began. Others have been able to repatriate but now are unsure how they’ll get visas again when it’s time to return to their host countries. And many of us (myself included) are separated from vulnerable family members and questioning if we made the right choice not to be with them when this all started going down. It’s incredibly frustrating to feel trapped or blocked from being where we want to be, but I’m holding onto this:

“. . . your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:2-4

God has my feet on this chunk of the planet, in this moment in time, for a reason. But more than that, I belong to Him. He is my true home, and my heart is safely cupped in His hands. 

No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or how you’re feeling productive and useful or not, you are sheltered and dearly loved in Christ for all eternity. 

I think if someone were to furrow their brows at me today and pointedly ask, “What are you even doing here?” I’d be miffed, certainly, but then I hope I’d say, “You know, I’m not always sure. But I am sure that God is pursuing my heart. And I hope I can love some other people into His kingdom along the way.”

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

Corella Roberts makes her home in Northern Thailand where she and her husband partner with an international school to “Serve the Servants.” Their first missionary teaching assignment landed them in the remote bush of Alaska, which you can read about in her newly released book, Colliding with the Call. From tundra to tropics, she seeks to follow Jesus, and she encourages others to connect deeply with God at corellaroberts.com. You can also find her cleaning up legos or meandering their local market in search of mangosteen and lychee fruit.

15 Strange Habits I Picked Up Overseas

Living abroad changes a person. Here are some examples.

No shoes in the house. People in Minnesota tell me to make myself at home and leave my shoes on. I struggle. I want to take them off. In Djibouti there could be goat/camel/sheep/human poop on those shoes, or road kill juice, or simply a lot of dirt. Plus, a house without a pile of shoes at the front door is a lonely house.

Kissy-face or tilted chin or tongue sticking out. Instead of using a ‘pointer’ finger to indicate a direction or to point something out, I use ‘pointer’ lips and ‘pointer’ tongue and ‘pointer’ chin.

Cupping my hand to call someone. Waggling one finger is how you call a dog. I hold my hand out, palm down, and bring all four fingers toward the fleshy part of my palm.

Farmer-blowing in the street (only while running though!) and spitting. Gross. Sorry. But yeah, I do it.

Kissing cheeks and no hugs. I used to view the French-style cheek kisses as inherently sexual. Now I much prefer them to full-frontal hugs. Which is more invasive: Brushing cheeks together while making juicy smooching noises or full body contact and squeezing? I still haven’t figured out how many kisses, who to kiss and when, but I still prefer it.

Inhaling. I inhale often, and sharply. It means something like, uh-uh, or I’m listening.

On-and-off showers. I turn off the water while shampooing, shaving, sudsing and then turn it back on to rinse. Off again. On again. This isn’t because of temperature issues exclusively (we onlyhave too cold, except when we onlyhave too hot). Showers are not designed to keep water inside a contained space. A shower means the entire bathroom gets doused so to minimalize the pool-effect, I turn the water on and off. Also, we have limited amounts of water, so doing this ensures we can also wash dishes, do laundry, and that others will get showers.

Insha Allah. When talking about the future I feel incomplete if I don’t add something like insha Allah. God willing. Hopefully. As far as I can tell. Maybe, maybe not.

Using the optative. May you be healthy! May God heal you! May you not hit that donkey cart! May you lower the price! Strangely, in Somali, this is sufficient. But when I use it in English, hand motions accompany the words, salute-like, and I feel like I’m sending the person I’m speaking to off into battle. I didn’t even know what an optative was until I started studying Somali but now I find it wonderfully useful.

Layers. The hotter it gets, the more clothes I wear. This is because sweat is ugly and makes me feel uncomfortably exposed. So I wear one or two or three layers that soak up the sweat while the outer layer still looks fresh.

No public displays of affection. My husband and I rarely hold hands and when we do, it is awkward and limp. We only recently started kissing in the airport upon arrival or departure and then a chaste peck on the cheek with a shoulder pat.

Irregular toilet flushing. If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown, flush it down. Sometimes flush toilet paper, sometimes put toilet paper in the garbage, sometimes hide toilet paper under the nearest rock. I promise not to do that while visiting your home. Unless you live in certain locations, then you just never know.

Sleeping in the middle of the day. Lovely.

Bizarre exclamations and hand gestures. Ish! Hoh. Waryaa. Sow ma aha? Donc. Quoi? Pour quoi pas? Wiggling my earlobe or poking the side of my nose, all tacked onto the end of otherwise normal English sentences.

Twirling conversations. Americans don’t tend to face each other while talking, but stand shoulder to shoulder. This feels strange and cold so I turn to face them, possibly step closer, may even make physical contact. They then rotate slightly, back away, and flinch. I respond again. All this is subconscious, but it inevitably means we turn in full circles while talking.

I could go on…we’ve been abroad a long time now and I think I’m starting to lose touch of what is American and what isn’t.

Have you noticed any of your own strange habits? 

Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to be able to experience cross-cultural confusion without having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. During a coup, his team’s vehicles were commandeered by the military, so Thiagarajan and his colleagues stayed in their compound, passing the time playing Euchre. Born in Chennai, India, Thiagarajan had learned how to play Euchre after moving to Bloomington, Indiana, and as his Liberian coworkers hadn’t played it before, he gave them a copy of Hoyles Games to read up on the rules. The trouble was, after their crash course, they all came away with different interpretations of how to play. Rather than clear up the arguments, though, Thiagarajan let the players work it out, and after three hours, the group had settled on their own unique version of the game.

“This interesting episode presented me with a blinding flash of the obvious,” writes Thiagarajan in Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes. “Serious conflicts arise not from major, obvious cultural differences, but from unrecognized, minor ones.”

From this, Thiagarajan developed Barnga, one of 120 simulations and games that he has created during his career.

The concept of Barnga is simple. Each player is handed directions for a card game called “Five Tricks.” The participants have a few minutes to familiarize themselves with how the game is played and then they give the rule sheets back. During play, they are told, they won’t be able to talk or write out words but must communicate only by using gestures and drawing pictures.

While learning new rules and facing difficulties in communication seem like the point of the game, there’s another twist (don’ read the rest of this sentence if you don’t want to find out what it is)—unknown by the players, there are slight differences in the rule sheets they’ve studied, so they’re not all the same.

After the cards are dealt, the results are many and varied. There’s confusion and frustration. Some think that others are cheating or just can’t understand the rules. Some assert authority or claim superiority, while others give up or give in. Some love the game. Some don’t want to play any more.

Yup, sounds like culture stress to me.

The instructions for Barnga include not only how-tos for the simulation and printouts of the rules but also guidelines for directing the follow-up discussion—wherein lies the real meat of the experience. It’s when people are allowed to talk and share how they feel about the game, and about each other, that the shift is made to the realm of cross-cultural interaction. Though it’s possible with as few as four players, the simulation works best with about 20 to 40, allowing for numerous interactions through tournament-style play, and more voices for the follow-up conversation.

Possible uses for the simulation are numerous: as part of a class on cross-cultural issues, for pre-field orientation, for teams visiting overseas workers, as a preparation for receiving international students or other foreign visitors, or for supporters of missionaries or those involved in member care.

The 25th-anniversary edition of Barnga comes with rules and discussion guides in English, French, German, and Spanish and includes updates to the original publication. Copies are available from several sources, including Thiagarajan’s website, The Thiagi Group, and Amazon.

I’ve participated in Barnga and I’ve facilitated it, as well. It’s always interesting (and entertaining) to see how players’ attitudes change as the simulation progresses. And even if some figure out what’s going on, they have to make decisions about to how to deal with that knowledge. When it comes to culture stress, it’s not just the differences you face, but how you and those around you react to them. And dealing with that, regardless of the setting, can show and tell us a lot about ourselves.

This post is adapted from “Barnga—When Cultures Play by Different Rules.”

(Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, with Raja Thiagarajan, Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes, Intercultural Press, 2006)

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]