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!

~~~~~~~~

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]

Cultural Low Bridges

When you go to a new culture and miss the signs . . . or don’t realize how you don’t exactly fit in.

At first I thought I’d just let the above stand on its own . . . but I have more to say.

I’m fascinated by these clips of trucks getting stopped in their tracks, of them having their tops peeled back in shiny silver ribbons, of drivers second guessing themselves and hitting the overpass anyway. Yes, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cringe, too. I have empathy for these drivers, especially the ones in moving trucks, heading to a new place with all their worldly possessions packed up behind, having left the rental company after confidently telling the agent at the counter that they’d waive the insurance. “I won’t be needing that, thank you very much.”

When we moved overseas, we had our share of cultural miscues and language faux pas and just mistakes in general. Then after that, we had some more. And while we laughed at many, some were cringeworthy and some were painful to us or even hurtful to others. That’s what happens when you don’t see the signs or can’t understand what they say. That’s what happens when you think somebody needs to lower the road or raise the bridge, because “It’s not me. My truck is the right size!”

And then when we travelled back to our passport country, somehow the bridges were lower there than when we left. Or had our truck gotten taller? Either way, something didn’t fit anymore.

During one of our furloughs we borrowed a van from some friends for our visits to see supporters. It was a conversion van with a raised roof that the owners had just had repainted. (Spoiler: Yes, this is going where you think it’s going.) During an overly stressful trip to what we thought was a familiar city, we were looking for a place to park and found a parking garage with a seven-foot-something clearance, which sounded close to being OK for our vehicle, which was probably not quite that tall. Sure enough, it was quite that tall and we heard a sickening scraping noise as the ceiling narrowed down above us. I was sure that we were wedged in so tight that we couldn’t go forward or backward, with a line of smug little minivans and their scowling drivers packed in behind us. We weren’t, but it took several seconds of panic before I figured that out.

We backed up, and continued on. And then for the rest of our trip, I dreaded telling our friends what I’d done.

When we returned the van, I took the rip-the-Band-Aid-off approach and told the husband and apologized as quickly as I could. He had his own several seconds of panic as he hurried over to see the damage. The scratches on the roof weren’t as bad as he’d probably feared, and our friends were generously gracious and forgiving. But I feel pangs of anxiety even now as I relive this 13-year-old memory.

I’ve got a lot more embarrassing stories from our time on the other side of the ocean. (None involve driving, since I didn’t do that over there. . . and “over there” is better off for it.) Some of the stories are funny. Some not so much. For both, I’m glad that we were surrounded by so many kind people who recognized our efforts and looked past the mistakes.

I’m thankful for people, regardless of where they live, who express grace and forgiveness. I’m thankful for people who translate the signs. I’m thankful for people who let us borrow their vans. I’m thankful for people who tell us which roads not to take. I’m thankful for people who laugh with us instead of at us. I’m thankful for people who are good at putting trucks back together. And I’m thankful for people who don’t set up cameras at the low bridges.

[photo: “Low Bridge #1,” by David Brodbeck, used under a Creative Commons license]

Moving Abroad Can Sure Mess with Your Autocomplete

We can tell a lot about each other by looking at our autocompletes. For instance, start typing “I can’t find my” into a text message and see what it thinks will come next. For me, it’s “keys,” “wallet,” and “phone.” That’s pretty insightful: I have a car, I’m a guy, and I’m absent-minded enough to have my phone in my hand and wonder where it is. But I’m not all that unique. You’re autocomplete may very well say the same thing (even if you’re not a guy). We, and our autocompletes, are products of the cultures that produced us.

So what happens when you relocate to someplace new and different? Your old autocomplete is now out of whack and needs to be retrained to match your new surroundings. Sure, some of it is dealing with single-word typing discrepancies like theatre vs theater or fighting spell-check battles over your friends’ names (Yes, I really do mean Mrak!). But it also goes deeper than that. It’s a change in how you live and act and think. It’s transitioning from normal to strange to new normal.

I just texted “I can’t find my llama” to my wife. On my third try my phone gave in and swapped out “wallet” for “llama” as one of my choices. It may take a while, but as you transition, your autocomplete will catch up—maybe just in time for a trip back home, far away, that place where the foreigners come from.

So what are your autocomplete settings right now? Where do you fit in with the sentences below?

It all depends on where you are, and where you are in your getting there.

From normal to strange to new normal.

Wow, you can speak two languages? You
. . . must be a genius!
. . . must be average.
. . . must be ready to move to another assignment where you’ll need to learn two more.

I had a panic attack when someone swiped
. . . my passwords.
. . . my passport.
. . . my passion-fruit green tea.

I’m freezing. It’s
. . . gotta be 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
. . . gotta be 15 degrees Celsius inside.
. . . gotta be . . . HEY, CAN SOMEBODY PUT A NEW BATTERY IN THE WATER HEATER? I’M IN THE SHOWER! HELLO! ANYBODY?!!!

School is canceled today
. . . because of snow.
. . . because of pollution.
. . . because rebels are occupying the building.

Yikes! I
. . . found a black banana in the back of the fridge!
. . . found a black olive and banana pepper on my pizza! (I specifically ordered extra peas and mayonnaise.)
. . . found a black mamba and banana spider—as big as a pie plate—in my closet!

Everybody knows that
. . . driving on the right side of the road is the right way.
. . . driving on the right side of the road is the wrong way.
. . . driving down the middle of the road—and sometimes on the curb—is the only way to get where you’re going on time.

I hope you can worship with us next week. We’ll meet up
. . . under the banner outside Auditorium B.
. . . under the big tree next to the river,
. . . under the watchful eye of our neighbor, who may or may not be a government official.

You kids can have some brownies
. . . after you finish your vegetables.
. . . after the care package comes from Grandma.
. . . after we can figure out where all of Grandma’s care packages are going to.

Oops! How embarrassing! I just told the bank teller
. . . I wanted to deposit $1,000 instead of $100.
. . . I wanted to deposit 1,000 envelopes.
. . . I wanted to be the father of her 1,000 children.

I cut my finger. Can you run by the corner store and
. . . pick me up some Band-Aids?
. . . pick me up some gauze and antiseptic cream?
. . . pick me up a hypodermic needle, some lidocaine, a needle and suture . . . and some gauze and antiseptic cream?

I feel so lonely
. . . after we moved to a town of 2,000.
. . . after we moved to city of 10 million.
. . . after our third set of teammates moved away.

Have fun at the retreat, and just in case, you’d better
. . . take an extra towel.
. . . take a machete.
. . . take a water purifier, a GPS beacon, and four forms of identification.

My stomach isn’t feeling so good. I think it
. . . might be the flu.
. . . might be that fermented goat cheese I got from the street vendor last night.
. . . might be parasites . . . again.

We’ll go to McDonald’s
. . . as soon as you get ready.
. . . as soon as our next trip to the capital.
. . . as soon as the opposition wins the election and foreign trade is allowed again.

I can’t sleep
. . . with the TV so loud.
. . . with that rooster crowing.
. . . without fireworks going off outside my window.

It’s Monday morning, and I
. . . plan to change the world.
. . . plan to change my neighborhood.
. . . plan to change my socks, as soon as the electricity comes on so I can do a load of laundry.

[photo: “Qwerty,” by Xosé Castro Roig, used under a Creative Commons license]

Missions Means Choosing the Desert

Earlier this year, I went through a season of insomnia.  A chaotic furlough, a new job, and lots of life change brought on anxiety, which bred sleeplessness, which bred more anxiety, until I was a mess.

I lay awake many nights and begged God, “You know I need to sleep.  You know I can’t function without it.  I believe you want me to be productive.  So why won’t you help me sleep?”

And the Word of God spoke to me through Deuteronomy 6:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

There I was, wandering in the desert, feeling desperate, crushed, and abandoned by God.  Until I remembered that the desert is the very best place for God to meet me.   

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna….to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

God caused you to hunger.  Just like sleep, bread is necessary for life itself, yet God wanted his people to remember that their very existence depended on God and his Word.

Thousands of years later, our Savior voluntarily went into the desert, and learned for himself that man does not live by bread alone.  And not long after that, he stood tall and declared himself to be our Bread of Life, sent down from Heaven.

Unlike many in the world, I’ve had the incredible privilege of never needing to worry about my daily bread.  Perhaps that’s why God allowed me to be deprived of my daily sleep.  And there are a myriad of other ways we can be sent into the desert involuntarily—cancer, hurricane, betrayal.

As insomnia helped me to understand the value of the desert, I realized that choosing missions is one of the ways we voluntarily choose the desert. 

In choosing missions, we leave behind our support structures:  family, church, friends.

Choosing missions means learning new ways of survival:  how to communicate, how to care for our children, how to provide for our basic needs.  Most of the time, we give up many of the comforts of home, whether it be as simple as McDonald’s Playland or as complex as feeling understood by the people around us.

Missions sometimes means we find ourselves in a spiritual wasteland:  a city where we are one of only handful of believers.  Where the oppression, whether seen or unseen, lies heavy on our shoulders.

Choosing missions means choosing the life of a stranger, an outsider.  We are often misunderstood.  We often feel alone, and as time goes by, we often feel disconnected in our “home” countries as well.  Like it did for our Savior, the desert brings on temptation strong and thick.  But unlike our Savior, we often cave to it.

So why, why, why do we choose this life?  Why on earth would we choose this desert? 

Because man does not live by bread alone, or cream cheese, or even Starbucks.  Man does not live by running water, or air conditioning, or indoor heating.  He is not sustained by paved roads, or fast internet, or stylish clothes.  He even does not live by English education for his kids, by real turkey on Thanksgiving or by cold Christmases and the smell of pine trees.

No.

We live by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. 

This desert will humble us, and test us, and we will see within our hearts whether we are truly keeping his commands.  But the hunger and the thirst we experience in our chosen wilderness will enable us to have a greater, fuller understanding of our true Bread of Life.  Our manna from Heaven.  The gift of his presence, the knowledge of his suffering, the tremendous depth of grace—all of these things are worth more than anything the world has to offer.  More than home.  More than sleep.  More than bread.

Just as he promised, God fed me with himself during that season of insomnia.  And I was reminded:  The knowledge of God’s presence is more important to him than my productivity, than my comfort, than my health.  How often has he taught me that in this chosen life overseas.  In the great mystery of the universe, I lose my life to find it.  I choose the desert and find the Bread of Life.

6.5 Myths About Expat Life

(this is a repost from Djibouti Jones)

Myth 1: Adventure

I’m an expatriate! Cue the Indiana Jones soundtrack, give me a whip and a cool hat, and let’s have an adventure! Okay my husband does have an Indiana Jones hat and I have used an Ethiopian whip, but life as an expatriate is not all about adventure. In fact, it rarely is. Adventures in the grocery store aisles! Adventures in biology homework! Adventures in filling the car up with gas! Laundry! Dishes! Disciplining children! Resolving marital conflict! Wow. All those exclamation points are making me tired. About as tired as the thought of living a constant adventure makes me. Expatriate life is just that. Life. Sometimes we do super awesome things like swim with whale sharks and hike down into live volcanoes but most of the time we are working, loving people, not-so-loving people, and doing the mundane things of life.

Myth 2: Living is the same as traveling

You might not believe what I said about Adventure. You might be a seasoned traveler who has seen the world and had a wonderfully adventurous time doing it. But traveling is not the same as living. Travelers don’t plan for where their next pair of running shoes is going to come from in a country with no running shoes. Travelers don’t need to open bank accounts or rent a post office box or figure out what school to send their children to. They don’t need to hire and fire language tutors or deal with grumpy bosses while seeing the world. Travelers get to see the world they want to see and they get to leave it when they’ve seen enough.

Myth 3: Feels like home

If you stay long enough, you’re right at home. Right? How many times have I heard, “You’re local now”? I’m not. I never will be. Yes, I understand things much better than the adventurous traveler passing through and I have some depth of cultural insight and some history and shared experiences. In some ways, the host country does start to feel like home. We have made it a home. But it is a divided home that comes, every year or two, with a ripping feeling as we shift between homes. We use phrases now like childhood home, passport nation, global nomad, and Third Culture Kid, and home is being constantly redefined.

Myth 4: Expat life is always fulfilling and purposeful

Oh, but you do such meaningful work! Yes, yes we do. And sometimes, I feel that. Sometimes it is a humbling, awesome thing to see people thriving in a business start-up we launched or a girl earning a personal best in a race for a club that we sponsor. Other days? I see the beggar on the street and I wince. I don’t want to deal with their need. Some days, I give to someone because I am compelled by faith and compassion. Other days? I give because I just want the person to go away. And most days? Most days I don’t give. Most days are groceries, homework, friendships, and culture confusion. Most days are regular days. I believe we carry ourselves with us when we move abroad and that my husband and I would live the same way if we lived in the US – pursuing purpose and doing fulfilling work there, too. Simply slapping on an expat label doesn’t automatically make my writing or my husband’s teaching more purposeful. In many ways, it simply makes it lonelier.

Myth 5: Expat life is one of luxury, comfort, and ease

I have a house helper. At one point, after I had our third child, I had a house helper and a nanny, as anyone with reasonable amounts of income is expected to provide jobs. We also have a guard who washes the car, waters the rocks, opens the gate, and runs errands. This sounds luxurious. And I will never, ever complain about not scrubbing our toilet or about not doing the dishes. We need this help to keep the house from literally falling apart (doors fall off hinges with frightening regularity) or friends from literally falling into our crap (the cement covering our septic tank cracks far too often). Grocery store trips require 3 stores, the market, vegetable stalls, a corner shop, and a delivery man. We have no dryer, no dishwasher, no microwave, no box mixes or fast food restaurants. I could dust twice a day and still go to bed with feet covered in dust. Things break at ridiculous speeds. Things like water pipes inside the walls, electricity, internet, appliances. We speak one or two foreign languages every day, navigating complicated cross-cultural relationships, and don’t have access to most convenience foods or products. There are no museums or concerts or plays or movie theaters so even our entertainment is DIY.

Myth 5.5: Expat life is one of suffering and deprivation

Well, if it isn’t all gold and diamonds, it must be suffering. It must be lonely and frustrating and discouraging and really, really hard. Yes, sometimes it is. I hate missing funerals and weddings. I hate that I haven’t even met my nephew yet and he is almost one. I hate that I’m not there for my friends’ pregnancies and divorces and to help people move or celebrate. But I wouldn’t classify this as a life of suffering or of deprivation, not any more than life anywhere could be. A stay-at-home mom wondering if she will ever talk to an adult again? A too-young mom with breast cancer? A parent working so many hours they can never make their kid’s t-ball games? Expat life is not more or less. It is just one kind of life.

Myth 6: Expats are heroic

We are brave, we have been through coups and murders and robberies. We are creative, have learned how to make bread by hand, brown sugar by hand, clothes by hand. We are strong, don’t complain about cold showers or our hair falling out or about the boys who shout ‘sex’ at us when we walk past (or even if we do complain about these things, we don’t leave, so we have perseverance). We hear the phrase, all too often, “I could never do it.” Baloney. One – yes you could, if you had to. Two – I can’t do it either. I cry and fight and want to quit. Three – I could turn the phrase around and say I couldn’t do what you are doing – the long hours, the isolation of American independence, the cultural intensity. But that’s not true, I could. Just like you could.

This is refusing empathy, drawing dividing lines, creating unhelpful comparisons. I don’t like hearing, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about my bad day because you have been to a refugee camp.” Don’t compare our challenges. Just open up your life to me and be open to mine and let’s listen to each other. I’m not a hero. You aren’t a hero. Or maybe we both are. We’re just trying to make it through our days, trying to make a little difference in the lives of others, trying to keep little kids fed and happy and spouses content and in love and eking out some joy and thankfulness.

I do it here, you do it there. Press on.

What are other myths you hear about expat life?

Save

Save