In my 15 years on the field, the number of dear friends I have made and then said goodbye to is beyond my ability to recount. Some were genuine heart-level relationships, the kind where I could bare the depths of my soul and still feel entirely loved and unjudged. Others were such a barrel of fun that the laughs started rolling the minute we began chatting, and some friends had such depth of love for Christ that it felt highly contagious in the best way.
But the one thing all of these friends had in common is that they left. Whether they moved to another field or returned to their home countries, my friendships with them are no longer the same because of the geographical distance between us.
Of course, I also have left. I left my home country and the friendships I had there so I could move to Afghanistan. I transitioned to a different field in 2014, and with that transition came many goodbyes. It does not feel so drastic when I am the one leaving because there is so much newness and excitement to look forward to on the other side. But when I was the one left behind, the void felt as though I could trace its crater with my fingers. “It’s fine,” I would tell myself. “That is where God wants her, and I love that for her!”
After saying so many goodbyes, it felt safer to hang back and observe. I would watch carefully and check in with different expat ladies in the community to see how they were doing, only to calculate whether or not they would “make it.” While they were sharing their triumphs and struggles, I was cautiously measuring them up to see if they were worth my time and energy. It’s a sad and ugly confession, but it’s true. (It’s also worth noting that my predictions have rarely been accurate.)
My watch-and-wait strategy backfired, and I simply wound up not having close friends outside of my husband and a teammate. This lasted a couple of years because I was pretty slow to figure out that my plan had failed. In my attempt to shield myself from the pain of more goodbyes, I had effectively cut myself off from friendships. It was a lonely time. The fear of pending heartache was gnawing at the present reality of loneliness, but I felt too stuck to know which was the better existence.
When I was finally able to articulate my dilemma, it became clear that God had made me, and indeed all of us, to live in relationship with one another while knowing that loss is inevitable. Our souls yearn for infinite comfort and familiarity, and Jesus is the only one who can meet this longing with his constant presence and unchanging nature. This change in perspective brought me into a new depth of communion with Christ, and his unchangingness became a new point of meditation and gratitude in my prayer life.
I have since made several meaningful friendships. And, of course, some of them have moved on to other places or back to their passport countries. However, I am grateful for each one because we needed each other in those specific seasons of life. We sharpened each other, we cried together, we shared laughter and joy, sorrow and pain. My life and relationship with Jesus is far deeper and more vibrant as a result of relationship with these friends, even if we were together for only a season.
God made us relational creatures with an intense need for human connection. In our communion with one another, we commune with Christ as well. Knowing and being known by others allows us glimpses of the Maker who put others together just as he did you and me. This is the kind of goodness that you go out of your way to behold, the sort that makes you stand in awe and gratitude.
Making friends in adulthood is not easy, and the transience of life overseas tends to add another layer of complexity to the mix. Overseas life can bring burdens too heavy to shoulder alone, and God has given us the gift of each other for the journey. The short-lived nature of our togetherness can be a reminder that God’s provision may look different from season to season. But the beauty of the vast family of God is that we are tied together by a love so powerful that it transcends time and distance.
If I were to say that I was “fancy like Applebee’s” you might make some assumptions about me. For instance, I might be an American, not the richest guy in the world, and someone who listens to country music in his pickup truck.
And if you don’t fit into all those categories, you might wonder what “fancy like Applebee’s” even means. If that’s the case, two step over to YouTube to hear Walker Hayes’ top-ten country-western song from last year. In “Fancy Like,” Hayes sings that his “low maintenance” lady is usually content with eating at Wendy’s,
But every now and then when I get paid I gotta spoil my baby with an upgrade
Yeah, we fancy like Applebee’s on a date night Got that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shake Get some whipped cream on the top too Two straws, one check, girl, I got you
Similes (those “like” and “as” phrases) show what we know. They reveal what we identify with and how we use that to describe the things around us, things that are new, or old things that we want to help others see in a new way. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don’t. That’s the way it is for country-music stars, and for cross-cultural workers, too.
So if you’re fancy like Applebee’s, it might be because that’s where you go for a a Bourbon Street Steak during your once-a-year trip to the city to get your documents approved or to make a supply run. Or you could be fancy like Swedish meatballs in the IKEA cafeteria. Or fancy like a hotdog combo, with extra sauerkraut, at the Costco snack bar. Or fancy like a Caffè Mocha at the window table in Starburks, (yes, I do mean Starburks).
That’s how we do, how we do, fancy like . . .
In that spirit, here are a few similes I’ve come up with. Some are based on my own experiences overseas, and some I just imagine might be true for others. I hope they make sense to you, but more than that, I hope they inspire you to come up with your own. Give it a try:
As cute as the senior citizens ballroom dancing in the park every Saturday morning
Pristine like the sky the day before a typhoon
As silent as an empty night-market alley after the exterminators have passed through
As welcome as an English-speaking taxi driver without strong political views
As improbable as a mom and a dad and three kids on one scooter
Smooth like bubble milk tea on a muggy afternoon
As awkward as an angry foreigner yelling, “This would never happen where I’m from!”
Terrified like the young workers at McDonald’s seeing a foreigner approach the counter
Bittersweet like hearing church members say, “We’ll miss you, but we’ll take it from here”
Nervous like power lines during an aftershock
As unexpected as a free cup of Häagen-Dazs on a 13-hour flight
Hopeful like not hitting water all week but drilling one more time
Rotund like the koi fish in the pond next to the national art museum
Noisy like upstairs neighbors pouring their marble collection on the tile floor at 2:00 every morning
As gorgeous as a new visa stamp in a passport
Glorious like a family showing up to a worship service for the first time because they’ve heard that they could learn about the creator there
and . . .
As incredible as finding a frozen turkey and a can of cranberry sauce seven days before Thanksgiving
How are your language skills as a cross-cultural worker? No, I’m not talking about the language(s) you’ve learned for living and working in your new home. I’m referring to your fluency in CCW-ese, or the jargon that cross-cultural workers often find themselves swimming in. Immersion is the best way to learn, right?
I’ve put together a collection of vocabulary below to help you see just how fluent you are. Does it all make sense to you?
The next time you’re on home service and someone asks you to say something in your new language, call this up and start reading. (By the way, some of this may not apply to you, as it’s slanted toward the experience of someone with a US passport. In other words, your dialect may vary.)
Hello, I’m a CCW living overseas. I’m part of a larger group of expats that includes such people as EAWs working with NGOs to help IDPs in low GDP countries and FSOs serving with the DoS. My journey abroad started with PFO, where the MBTI and the RHETI showed me I’m an ENTP and an Enneagram Type 2, respectively. Then my spouse and I, along with several others, were briefed on CPM, DMM, M2M/M2DMM, T4T, BAM, and DBS strategies and were shown how to write an MOU. After that, it wasn’t long before all of us were following directions from the TSA and walking through the AIT scanner at places like ORD, LAX, and ATL, headed for other places such as BKK, NBO, and PTY and parts beyond. It was hard for my MKs to leave our POMs behind, but they were looking forward to their new lives as TCKs, growing up with other GNs and CCKs, on their way to becoming ATCKs.
One of our first steps upon arriving at our new home—which is among a UUPG in the Two-Thirds World, just outside the 10/40 window—was language learning. We started out using LAMP and GPA with some TPR mixed in, as well. Someday, I think I might try my hand (so to speak) at ISL.
We’ve also had to make cultural adjustments, for instance switching from letter-sized paper to A4, switching from the NFL to FIFA, and learning how to switch out RO filters for our water. And when we take trips to other locales, we’re sure to bring along a voltage converter and adapters to knock the power down from 220/240 to 110/120 and to use C, D, E/F, G, H, I, J, L, M, and N plugins when necessary.
Then, before long, we were hosting STMs and engaging with the locals by using our TEFL certifications to teach ESOL. A few of our students are hoping to take the TOEFL or IELTS and get I-20s and F-1 visas.
At some point, we expect to fly back for good, filling out a CBP Form 6059B for the last time, again hoping that nothing in our bags will bother DHS’s CBP agents. That will mean no more yearly IRS Form 2555 to claim the FEIE, no more scheduled chats with fellow workers around the globe using P2Pe apps (every Saturday at 13:30 GMT), and no more jumping on the HSR for a quick getaway.
It’ll be another big change—RCS can be hard. But we’ll be prepared, because we’ll have built a RAFT, which should keep us afloat through the transition.
And, of course, we’ll be sure to keep connected through ALO.
I’m not a very sophisticated musicophile. I like what I like without a lot of reasoning, don’t follow specific genres, can’t decipher a lot of lyrics (or don’t remember those I can), and don’t have targeted-enough tastes to pay for any online subscriptions. So I was recently listening to my free Beatles-ish Pandora station and the song “Nobody Told Me (There’d Be Days like These)” cued up. I thought to myself, “Now that would be a good descriptor for some of my time overseas.” And that got me thinking about what other titles could make up a top-40 “playlist” for when I was a cross-cultural worker (CCW).
After a little more thinking, here’s what I came up with. I can’t vouch for the lyrics to these songs (see “can’t decipher” and “don’t remember” above), so please show me some grace on that. Speaking of grace, my list doesn’t include any hymns or worship songs. If so, “Amazing Grace” would be on repeat throughout. Instead, I decided to go with church music’s secular cousins—twice removed—this time around.
Any titles you’d add? Maybe something a little more contemporary? As you can see, I’m kind of lacking in that area. Anyway, if you know these tunes, hum along with me.
I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane
We’ve Only Just Begun
Now I Know My ABCs
All Shook Up
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
It’s Going to Take Some Time
I Beg Your Pardon (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden)
I wrote this poem on January 15 as a way to process my impeding move from China to the U.S. in June. On January 19, I left China for what I thought was going to be 11 days in the US. However, due to the coronavirus, I’m still in the U.S., 50 days later, unsure of my return date. This poem has become even more meaningful to me as I am stuck in this limbo and creating a new normal for myself, all the while waiting to return home so that I can say goodbye to it again. –Kathryn Vasquez
And double takes.
Culture, Community, and
Beautifully broken belonging.
Me in this place.
Is it assimilation or appropriation?
Stress or regrets?
Shock or roadblocks?
Hurting or healing?
Brokenly beautiful belonging.
How do I tell of the heartaches and headaches?
That suffocating darkness that
Sat on my chest
And almost consumed me?
How do I tell of that light?
It lifted me out
And washed over me in a waterfall of acceptance.
How do I tell of triumph and joy?
Of restoration and worthiness?
Of the cycle of happiness and pain?
Of sleepless nights?
Of peace that passes all understanding?
Of quiet waters?
How do I tell of
Beautifully belonging to the broken?
How do I take:
What I have learned?
Who I was?
Who I’ve become?
And go to a place where
I can never be who I was
Nor can I be who I am.
What will I become in
Broken, without beautiful belonging?
But I have a consolation,
A star to follow through this night.
What I’ve become.
Who I’ve become.
Whose I’ve become.
The very things to give me strength for the journey ahead.
As I go to that place of beautifully broken belonging.
Kathryn Vasquez has taught English in China since 2011. She enjoys reading, writing, photography, and traveling. She will be moving back to the US in June, but China has forever changed her.
This is the time when thousands of individuals and families who have spent time living in a foreign country, will pack it up and call it a day. If you’ve never been that person you may be surprised that there is a specific high season for leaving but if you call yourself a foreigner I probably just struck a chord. Even if you’re staying right where you are the annual Expat Exodus is a tough time.
Seriously. The last days of your expat experience are inevitably going to be chaotic. Your schedule will get crammed with unexpected details and all of the things you really want to do run the risk of being pushed out. The day you wanted to spend with your closest friends will get squeezed by your well meaning 15th closest friends who “need” to take you out to dinner. You get stuck regretting that you missed a lost opportunity with your #1’s or feeling like an absolute jerk to your #15’s.
It all works better with a plan. Start as early as you can. Include appropriate time for your 15’s but reserve your best time for your 1’s.
Take an hour. A day. A weekend. Write it out. Make a spreadsheet. Draw a picture. Whatever works for you but make a plan.
Tip #2: Build a RAFT
One of the simplest and most brilliant plans for transitioning well was developed by the late Dr. David Pollock. It’s called building a RAFT (genius). Paying attention to these four areas can mean the difference between success or failure, flopping or thriving, great memories or horrible regrets. Way too much for one blog post but you should Google it (Try “Pollock RAFT”).
Here’s the short version of what goes into a RAFT:
Reconciliation: Strained or broken relationships don’t go away when you do. Make it right.
Affirmation: People are dense. Don’t assume they know how much impact they have had on your life. Say it well.
Farewell: Different people need different goodbyes. Think beyond people (places, pets and possessions too).
Think Destination: Even if you’re going “home”, much has changed. Brace yourself. Think forward.
Tip #3: Leave Right Now
When are you leaving? June 6th? 15th? 21st?
Chances are you answer that question with the date on your plane ticket. Fair enough and technically correct but if you think you are leaving when you get on the plane you’re missing something really important.
Leaving is a PROCESS — not an event.
You started leaving when you made the decision to go and you will be leaving even as you settle in to your next home. Everything you do as you prepare for the airplane is a part of the process. Each meal with friends, each walk around the city, each trip to the market, each bumbling foreigner mistake are all pieces of the process which is closing out your full expat experience.
You are leaving now.
Tip #4: Give Your Best Stuff Away
What to do with the things you can’t take with you is always an issue. Don’t be surprised when the non-leaving expats come crawling out of the woodworks to lay claim on your toaster oven or your bicycle. Opening your home for a “rummage” sale may be a good way to sneak in some good goodbyes. Posting pictures online or sending an email may get you a better price with less work.
Consider this though — Giving your stuff away might just be a great way to add some gusto to your goodbyes. Giving your BFF something that you could sell for a lot of money can be a powerful expression of how much you value their friendship. It’s not about price. It’s about value. Maybe it’s a cheap trinket with a special memory attached. Even better but give something more than your leftover ketchup and mop bucket.
Tip #5: Photo Bomb Everything
Go crazy with the pictures. Pictures are what you’re going to be looking at twenty years from now when you can barely remember what life was like way back then. There is no better way to capture great events. More than that though, pictures can become the event themselves. Grab your friends, your camera and hit the town like supermodels. Go to your favorite spots. Eat your favorite foods. Take a thousand pictures (that’s a conservative number) and laugh until it hurts.
You’ll love yourself for doing it in 20 years.
Too crazy for your blood? Tone it down and hire a photographer to do a photo shoot for you and your friends. Then go to dinner.
Picture events can be a great way to say goodbye to your friends and the memories will last for decades.
Tip #6: Rank Your Friends
You read me right. Don’t be afraid to rate your friends from best to worst. Write down everyone you know and tag a number on them. Your highest ranking friends need a special level of your attention as you leave. In contrast you don’t need to do dinner with people if you don’t know their name.
Here’s an example but make it your own
Closest Friends — Quality time alone – Go away for the weekend
Close friends — Go to dinner individually
Good Friends — Go out as a small group
Friends — Invite to a going away party
Acquaintances — Send an email about your departure
Stupid People — Walk the other way when you see them
Important sidenote – Once you have your plan you should destroy all evidence that you ever ranked your friends. Seriously. What kind of person are you? Jerk.
Tip #7: Don’t Fret the Tears or the Lack Thereof
Know what’s really common as you pack up to shift every piece of your life to a different part of the planet and say goodbye to people and places you have grown to love deeply?
Know what else is common?
Lack of emotion.
Strange I know but people are different. Crying makes sense. There is plenty to cry about. However, wanting to cry and not being able to is every bit as normal. Maybe it’s because you’ve already cried yourself out. Maybe it’s because the hard part for you was the process of deciding to leave and you spent all your emotion there. Maybe you just can’t wait to get out.
Whatever the reason — don’t feel guilty for weeping like a baby . . . or for not.
Tip #8: Get specific
When you are telling people how much they mean to you don’t settle for the generic version:
“Hey, (punch on the shoulder) you really mean a lot to me.”
Where I come from, that would pass for good, solid, heartfelt, transparent affirmation. Almost too mushy. But try setting that statement aside for a moment and lead with the specifics.
What have they done that means so much to you?
How has that impacted your life?
What qualities have they shared that you are taking with you?
What are some specific examples?
How are you a better person for knowing them?
THEN finish with . . . “and you really mean a lot to me.”
People are dense. Don’t assume they know how you feel.
Bonus Tip: You get extra points for being awkward. Make eye contact. Go for broke.
Tip #9: Do Your Homework
What’s the protocol for checking out of your apartment complex?
What’s the penalty for breaking your lease?
What immunizations and paperwork does your cat need to fly home with you?
Does he need to be quarantined? Before you leave? After you arrive?
How do you close out your bank account? Your cell phone?
What’s the weight limit for luggage on your airline? What’s the penalty for going over?
This list goes on and on and only bits and pieces of it are relevant to you. But in the masterful words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”
A little homework early can save you a huge headache and a boatload of cash during an already stressful time.
Tip #10: GRACE — Give it freely and keep some for yourself
When your good friend finds out you’re leaving and asks if he can have your TV . . . Give him some grace.
When your kids don’t know how to process so they just fight . . . Give them some grace.
When your husband shuts down and doesn’t talk for a day . . . Give him some grace.
When your wife explodes for “no reason” . . . Grace.
When your landlord tries to milk you for some extra money . . . Grace.
When the whole community doesn’t even seem to care that you’re leaving . . . Grace.
When your #15 asks if she can ride to the airport with you and your #1 . . . Grace.
When someone offers you half what your asking for your Christmas tree . . . Grace.
When you fall apart and snap on your friends, your kids, your spouse or the lady trying to steal your Christmas tree . . . it’s for you too . . . Grace.
Leaving is hard. There’s really no way around it. People whom you love dearly will inevitably and with the best of intentions, say and do very stupid things. So will you.
If you are packing up, I hope this helps.
If you know someone who is packing up, pass it on.
If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy. Add your tips. What worked for you?
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.
In recent years, authors have released a plethora of Christian books about home and place. From Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place to Tish Oxenreider’s At Home in the World, many have a lot to say about roots, feeling at home, and stability.
I read these books with both appreciation and cynicism. I’ve lived in 28 houses on three continents and can’t count the hours I’ve spent moving or in airports. So I appreciate that writers take time to explore home and place, but I also read with skepticism. Do they really know what it’s like to be uprooted? Do they really understand what it is to be separated from family and friends by oceans and continents for long periods of time? Do they honestly know what it is to try to create home when everything ‘home like’ is gone? I’m well aware that this is arrogant, that to long for home is human, but there are times when I still feel it.
The ALOS community knows all about pulling up roots, transplanting, and working to feel at home where we don’t belong.
In truth, I believe that one of the most important things we can do overseas is create place and home. Living as if this world is not our home may sound good in a hymn, but it neglects the important truth about who we are as humans. In the words of Paul Tournier, we are incarnate beings and to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. Spending years in borrowed housing, eating from borrowed dishes, and living on borrowed furniture is not healthy when our goal is to enter a community overseas. If everything around us shouts “temporary”, it’s hard for us to feel rooted.
But how do we do that? There are two areas that I want to discuss: The first is a theology of place while the second is a purely practical look at how we might physically create space.
Theology of Place:
First off, I think we need to recognize the importance of place and home. We can’t create a home if we don’t think doing so is important.
A year after I graduated from college, I decided to go overseas to work as a nurse. It was summer and I was living in the city of Chicago. Since I was leaving for Pakistan in September my roommate and I decided to get rid of most of the things in our apartment in June. We blithely rid ourselves of all the things that we owned. Down came curtains; out the door went furniture; into the hands of friends went dishes and precious items. It was a horrible summer and I ended up in tears in a counselor’s office. As we talked, the counselor began quizzing me on my living situation. When she discovered that I barely had a bed and a few dishes, she gently informed me that this was one of the problems. I had assumed that getting rid of all my earthly belongings three months before I left was the best way for me to prepare. I was wrong. I lived as a temporary, friendless person that summer. My disconnection from place was profound and I suffered because of it.
In coming to us through the Incarnation, Jesus attached himself to time and place. He was a human who lived during a specific historic time period. He was son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter. He was John’s cousin and he lived in Nazareth where he inhabited a physical home. I like to imagine that Mary delighted in creating earthly space for this son of hers; the one who was present at the creation of the world when God the Father created our physical home; the one who would dramatically bridge the gap between heaven and earth for the rest of us so that one day, we would have a permanent home.
In an interview with A Life Overseas, Jen Pollock Michel writes: “At the beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. ‘It is good’ is a way for God to say, ‘It is homelike. People can live here.’ And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.”
I think it’s easy for us as Christians to disavow the importance of home and place; to perhaps see ourselves as more spiritual because we live in rented homes, or serve in far off places and aren’t as tethered to place as the friend with a five bedroom house and full basement. But perhaps that tethered friend has something to teach us about creating space. In leaving homes and families to work in communities that are different from us, it is important to write our names in the land and learn how to live well in those places. One of the ways that we live well is by creating home and place.
While this earth may be temporary, in creating us God called us into a particular space and time – we honor that when we create place. Place will change, but the character of God will not. He will always be a God who values home, who invites us to his eternal home. This understanding is foundational to using the practical tools that follow.
It’s important that we combine a theological discussion with a sense of how to practically do this. An important caveat is that we are not talking about creating designer homes. We are talking about creating space and home as a vehicle by which to share our lives with our spouses, our children, our friends, and our neighbors. Mismatched furniture, books, and candles can do this beautifully. I know because that’s what I have.
Here are a few suggestions. As with anything I write – take what is useful and blow away the rest!
Go green with plants and flowers! It’s amazing how much plants can create a sense of home and place. A beautiful way to create place is by investing in a couple of plants and an occasional bouquet of flowers. This may be easy if you live in a tropical location, but a bit more difficult if you’re in a desert or in a frozen tundra. Even then, a couple of small fake plants take very little space in a suitcase.
When I first arrived in Egypt, I felt like my world couldn’t be more brown. The desert and dust felt overwhelming at times. A few weeks after I arrived, I discovered that you could buy roses at the local market for a dollar a dozen with an extra one thrown in just because. What a gift! I would go weekly to buy roses and feast my eyes on their beauty. They transformed our living space. In the middle of a dusty city, I found this small, weekly act a redemptive task. God is an artist creator, and in discovering beauty around us and inviting it into our homes we reflect our creator God.
Buy your own stuff. There are various cities around the world that rent fully furnished apartments, complete with the most ugly furniture and dishes you’ve ever seen. You’re a missionary right, so sacrifice a little! What are ugly dishes and furniture when it comes to sacrificial living? Here’s the thing – those things might be a tangible obstacle in you feeling like you can share your home. Is it a huge deal? No, but investing in some pieces of furniture that symbolize home, and buying a set of dishes that you like could go a long way in creating place.
Framed artwork and pictures. Framed pictures of family and friends, landscapes of places you have lived and love, pictures your children have drawn that look oh so much better when they are framed…all of these when arranged can create a sense of place. My mom had a framed picture of a New England winter that she hung wherever we lived. I loved it long before I ever saw snow. Her past and her own sense of place were connected to that picture, and hanging it on the wall was symbolic of place.
Local handicrafts for the win. The best way to create place may not be bringing the latest deals from stores in your passport country. Don’t try to model a designer home in a suburb. Instead embrace the beautiful pieces from your adopted country. My friend Bettie could turn a mud hut into a mansion. She had a gift for finding treasures in the bazaars in Pakistan. Brass, pottery, and textiles that were inexpensive and beautiful found their way from a crowded, dusty shop onto the shelves of her living room. Buying them was a tangible way to focus on the artistry and artisans in Pakistan. Every piece was unique and had a story.
Buy cheap, but get lots of it. If you’re making curtains, don’t go for expensive material that you skimp on because of the price. Your curtains will look better if you buy lots of material that’s cheaper. That way you can make them look full and rich; not skimpy and expensive. Several framed prints with inexpensive frames will look better on your walls then one expensive frame. Several cheaper pillows will give you a much more homey look than one expensive pillow.
Get help! In every community you will find an artist and a decorator. Here’s how you find the decorator in your community: You walk into their home and take a breath – how do they manage to create such a lovely space? But instead of asking them, instead of allowing them to use their God-given gifts of artistry, you secretly harbor feelings of resentment. They might sound like this “Well, if I had money, I too could….” “Well, their landlord takes better care of their place….” I’m sorry to tell you – even if you had more money, your place wouldn’t look like hers. Because he or she has a gift. So ask them for help, get them to walk through your space and give suggestions. Even though the differences may be small, they’ll make a big difference in your space. Helping you will delight them – trust me on this one.
Our physical space may change more than we might like, but God invites us into this journey of creating place and home and it is a gift.
How have you created place and a sense of home in the countries where you live and serve?
Blogger’s Note – I am grateful for our sister site, Velvet Ashes, for the inspiration to write this piece.
People living a life overseas are a special breed. We don’t so much make sense to the normal people do we?
My family is on the tail end of a whirlwind, six week “home” (finger quotes) visit and we’ve been reminded every moment of it what a ridiculous life we have chosen.
Seriously. Who does this?
By the time this trip is over we will have changed our entire existence eleven times, each one strung to the next by a 4 to 12 hour road trip on the hottest days of the summer in a car with two children and lukewarm air conditioning. We will have done countless heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we missed you so much” hellos only to turn right around for equally heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we’ll miss you so much” goodbyes.
We live out of suitcases which seem to be gaining weight as fast as we are.
Every few days we switch to another guest bed, couch, futon, air mattress or (on very special occasions) hotel.
We’ve learned how to use other people’s washing machines and we leave at least one sock or one pair of underwear at every stop (you’re welcome).
We’ve sat perched like a dog at a dinner table waiting for someone to ask for a China story and we’ve fine-tuned our skills of pretending we’re not disappointed when they don’t.
We’ve successfully dodged knock-down, drag-out political battles over issues we probably don’t care about, full on relational melodramas with people we barely know and annoyingly offensive jokes about Chinese food and cats.
Hygiene still matters but I’m not even sure what day yesterday was . . . let alone whether I showered or not.
For weeks we have been “ON”. Big smiles. Happy faces. Intentional eye contact from the moment we landed — and we had jet lag that day.
It’s exhausting being “home” — and to be honest the whole life overseas thing can feel equally chaotic at its most settled points.
BUT . . .
I’m learning that there is such a fine line between chaos and rhythm.
Trips “home” would feel like total mayhem to any normal person . . . but we covered that right? We are so not normal.
I love that the longer we do this the more pages there are in our story are filled with 3 am, jetlag induced Daddy-Daughter milkshakes at any place open.
It has been rich beyond words to pick up right where we left off with dozens of “hello again” friends and we’ve got this whole switching from cousins in one place to old friends in another thing to an art form.
We are expert packers, flexible sleepers, versatile launderers and accomplished lip biters.
We know how to deflect awkwardness and my kids intuitively sense when family at one stop would be horribly offended by things that were fun at the last.
Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.
We are good at this. We have found our rhythm and in some confusing way a part of our stability IS the movement.
If that makes no sense at all . . . congratulations . . . you might be normal.
If it does . . . you’re probably living a life overseas.
When my wife and I and our four children stepped off the plane in your country, with our 12 carry-on bags—and all our plans, enthusiasm, expectations . . . and naiveté—you welcomed us. In fact, the customs agent greeted us with a smile. And during the following years that we lived among you, we lost count of your kindnesses.
We weren’t refugees, we didn’t arrive on your shores having been forced out of our homes, we weren’t stranded. We had chosen to come. You didn’t find us naked and bloodied at the side of a road, but still you were often good Samaritans to us. When you saw us sitting on the curb, so to speak, facing roadblocks or not sure where we were headed, so many of you did not simply walk by on the other side.
For this we thank you.
To our language teachers who patiently, ever so patiently, led us through vocabulary lessons and guided us on the nuances of your culture, laughing with us but not at us, thank you.
To the food-cart vendors who listened to us practice the names of what they were selling and cheerfully rewarded us with wonderful tasting snacks and meals, sometimes putting something extra in with our order, thank you.
To the policeman who loaded up our family in his patrol car and took us home after we got lost on a walk, even though we ended up being only three blocks away from our apartment building, thank you.
And to the people near our home who didn’t think the worst of a family, who, for some reason, was riding in a police car, thank you.
To the young workers at Subway who bravely came forward to serve the foreigners wanting a turkey sandwich with “that” and “that” (no, not “that,” “that“) and some of “that” and “that” and “that,” thank you.
To the cab drivers who regaled us with their political insights while taking us where we wanted to go, and to the one who found my son’s billfold on the sidewalk and drove up and down the street until he saw another of our sons and gave it to him, thank you.
To the man on the street begging for spare coins who accepted our friendship and allowed us to pray with him, thank you.
To the hairdresser who loved to trim my daughter’s hair and then proudly styled it as if she were a Hollywood starlet, thank you.
To the university professors who partnered with us, introducing us to their students, and to those students, who listened to our stories and served us many, many cups of tea, thank you.
To dear friends who let us join them in celebrating the birth of a child and mourning the death of a parent, and who shared in our joys and struggles as well, thank you.
To the produce seller at the day market who told my wife when fresh strawberries would be coming in soon, thank you.
To fellow passengers who confirmed that Yes, we’d gotten on the right train, thank you.
To the young professionals who let me join their Bible study in a cafe, sharing my hope that it could someday become a house church, who read the Bible with me in their heart language even though it would have been much easier for us all to speak English, thank you.
To the lady who collected our recyclables twice a week and to her young daughter who taught us what they could take and what was simply trash, thank you.
To the Christians in the church plant who let us worship with them when we first arrived, helped us find an apartment, and blessed us in so many other ways, thank you.
To those who made all of our visitors from overseas their honored guests, thank you.
To our family doctor who treated those visitors when they got sick, at no charge, thank you.
To the surgeons who skillfully operated on our son’s heart for eight hours, thank you.
To more doctors, and nurses, who cared for another son when he severely burned his hand and spent 42 days in the hospital, to the specialists who performed the skin grafts, and to the therapists who guided us in his care, thank you.
And to the lady who saw me at a store on the day of your biggest holiday and asked me if I had plans—I told her No and she invited me to her house for a celebration with her mother and brothers and their wives and children and didn’t retract the offer when she found out how big my family was, saying that she wanted to show us hospitality because that’s what someone had done for her years before when she was an international student at a university in Texas, with no plans for Christmas—thank you.
We thank you all for so many acts of grace, large and small, for seeing us as neighbors, for making us feel at home.