Seasons

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 84:5

Outside of my window there is frost. The green of summer and the gold of fall are long gone, replaced by winter with its early sunsets and frosty mornings.

For years I lived in places where there were no seasons. Winter was when it got below 15° Celsius and we could bundle up in light sweaters and drink cocoa. Palm trees were our Christmas trees, and we could never convince those who lived in colder climates just how cold the inside of a concrete block building could get. When I moved to a place where there were seasons, I had to adjust to changing wardrobes and activities.

Initially it felt impossible. How could I possibly survive winter? When would the shivering stop? Why was everyone else so excited about the first snow and blizzards?

One of the things you learn when you live in seasons is that if you don’t relax and accept them, you will constantly be fighting with them and everything that surrounds them. It will be you against the seasons, and the seasons will always win.

And so it is with life seasons. If you don’t relax and accept them, you are in a lifelong fight, and you have already been declared the loser. Life seasons always win.

From my comfortable chair looking out on the current changing season, I’m thinking a lot about life seasons, because it’s time to make a change. I will no longer be writing for A Life Overseas.

From maternal child health nurse to boarding school parent to stay-at-home mom to working as a nurse in a large multinational oil company to helping my husband run a study abroad program to teaching nursing students at a public university, my overseas careers and seasons have been many and varied. I birthed five babies on three different continents and created homes in 36 different houses along the way. I lived in four countries, studied three languages, and still only know English well. Through the years I’ve not only had to learn how to create a home in other countries, but hardest of all – I’ve had to learn how to create a home and place in the United States. And it was here at A Life Overseas that my stories and experiences found a home.

I began writing for A Life Overseas soon after I began writing publicly. It was Rachel Pieh Jones who connected me to the site and asked me initially to post as a guest. The invitation was welcome. I had recently returned from working in flood relief in Pakistan, and my heart was restless to make sense of living between. Writing publicly, initially for my own blog followed by A Life Overseas, was an incredible gift. It was through writing that I processed my life experiences from Third Culture Kid to Adult Third Culture Kid and three-time expatriate. Through this medium I connected with so many of you and we “got” each other. The loneliness, the disconnect, the joy, the humor, the homesickness, the reverse homesickness, the jetlag, the lost luggage, the cultural humility, the mistakes, the raising kids, the figuring out life, the missed flights, the language learning, the misplaced pride, the sense that we could never make it back in our passport countries, the “too foreign for here and too foreign for home”* – all of it was here to be wrestled with and figured out. Through writing I processed, connected, cried, argued, and laughed.

Along the way I have grown and learned. I have felt God’s pleasure and direction, His love for the world and for those of us who love the world.

But I have always known that at some point it would be time to pass on this privilege to others. And so it is – now is the time. There are others whose voices need to be heard, others who are living this life who can communicate what it is to walk faithfully and confidently between worlds. I have also known that when it is time to move on, it’s best not to fight it but to go with grace, to go with God. Seasons come and seasons go; only God Himself remains the same.

A couple of years ago while sitting at an airport on a lonely Sunday night, I wrote the following. I offer it here to you as a word-gift, a tribute to all of you. Whether you are weary and lonely or energetic and people-filled, whether you have left your overseas life behind or whether you are still in the thick of it, I salute you and your courage and pray that God may keep you in the palm of his strong, everlasting, ever-loving hands.

Here’s to the lonely ones, sitting at airports waiting on delayed and cancelled flights.

Here’s to the tired ones, weary of travel and goodbyes, idly eating granola bars and sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.

Here’s to the mom, traveling with kids, weary of meeting the needs of little ones who are out of their habitat.

Here’s to the students, in that weird space between childhood and adulthood, carrying Apple computers purchased with graduation money.

Here’s to the immigrant family, a long way from home, juggling as much hand luggage as possible as they wearily look at an airport monitor flickering out their flight delay in blue digital letters.

Here’s to the grandparents heading home after visiting with a future generation of sweet and soft baby smell. A new generation who doesn’t yet know th
ey exist but will miss them long after they are gone.

Here’s to the third culture kid who has said far too many goodbyes. Here’s to the refugee who carries their pain in their body. Here’s to the expat who is moving on to their next post with the fresh memories of their last home like an open grave receiving a coffin.

Here’s to Arabic and Hindi; Swahili and French; German and English; Chinese and Spanish; Portuguese and Farsi – and every other language of the heart that at times must be hidden in new places and spaces, but in the airport is completely at home.

Here’s to the singles and the couples; the black and the white; the discouraged and the lonely; the arguing one and the laughing one —  with more in common in life’s journey than any of us can possibly know.

Here’s to my fellow travelers, sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights in the chaos of modern day travel. May you have safe journeys and traveling mercies. May God keep you in the palm of his hand and may you know his grace.

Thank you for reading my words – In Grace, Marilyn


*From Questions for Ada Diaspora Blues: “So, here you are too foreign for here too foreign for home. Never enough for both.”

God of Loss and Love

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, aching, but securely anchored. As I stood there, I thought about the last two months and how a crisis can set off a whole new cycle of grief and loss.

Though seemingly unrelated, grief is grief, and loss is loss, and every time we experience another loss, buried past losses and griefs can end up resurrected. Like a dot to dot child’s book, grief and loss connect together creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly, as only eighteen year olds who understand all the things can. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 18 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for, for the losses they were undergoing as they faced illness? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so is life itself?

This I know – though I did not know it at 18: Whether we stay rooted to one place throughout our lives or we traverse the globe, the two things we can count on are loss and change. We might think we can control these only to have them surprise us with their insistent persistence.

While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

Is God the author of loss? The creator? The healer? If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes to all these questions arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites. Without the resurrection, the cross is but a horrific, miserable death. With the resurrection, all of life changes, including loss and grief. My questions don’t have answers. Instead they are met with a person. Like Orual in Till We Have Faces, I cry out: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”*

Though I seemingly quote this bravely, my honest desire would be to learn more of God without having to go through loss. I wish life didn’t have and hold so many unchosen crosses. But as I wish, I know that even as a little girl I began to know this God of loss and love. I first felt loss and his corresponding love in the cold steel of a bunkbed, a thin mattress separating me from the hard wires of the base. I felt deeply the loss of a mom and dad, the loss of a home, the loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. In my story, his strong arm led me from childhood to adulthood, a long journey of grace.

The grief and loss dots are connecting again during this period of my life and I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me. Though I may want to ignore him or accuse him of apathy and mistreatment, his light and his love push the shadows of loss away every, single time.

In the book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren writes this: “Here is what I am slowly stretching to believe: there is no shadow side of God; no hidden deception or darkness behind the God revealed in Jesus. The God we pray to is the God who loves us — endlessly, relentlessly, patiently, and powerfully.”

By his grace I continue to press into this, believing that:

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the [loss] that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

Frederick Buechner – Paraphrased

To the New Expat…

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
  6. By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
  7. Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
  8. Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
  9. News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
  10. You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
  11. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
  12. Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
  13. Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
  14. Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.

I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.

Much love to you,

Marilyn

What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!

Note: This was previously published in July 2015

Uprooted with no RAFT

It is mid-September and six months since borders closed, masks became mandatory, and life changed for people around the globe. 

While fall is always a time of movement and change for expats and third culture kids, for TCKs transtioning to college, and for those who have tried to make transitions during the summer from their lives overseas, the tools that many of us have used and used well in the past are not necessarily helpful in this new world. 

Many of us have seen and used the RAFT acronym (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Transition) developed by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, our iconic leaders on all things TCK related. In fact, I myself wrote an essay on transition a few years ago, citing their acronym and connecting the dots to my own experiences. 

As I think about the acronym in the year 2020 and the unexpected chaos and uprootedness that a worldwide pandemic has caused, I think we may need another acronym that gives us a different tool for unexpected departures, virtual goodbyes, and long periods of waiting in the in between. 

It’s with this in mind that I offer a few tips that I’m calling CRAFT, because a Crisis before the RAFT changes everything.

A full disclaimer is that I have been uprooted unexpectedly myself a couple of times, but never in a worldwide crisis like the one we have faced these past six months. I come at this from a public health nurse perspective, a writer, a TCK, and three times over expat. Though I have been through several difficult transitions, they are transitions that are far different than what I know many of you are experiencing. So keep what is worth keeping, and blow the rest away. 

Crisis Management. Response & Resilience. Aftershocks. Forging Ahead. Time.

Crisis Management – First and foremost – Covid has been a worldwide crisis with a dominoe effect. There are three stages to crisis management: Pre-crisis or creating a crisis management plan; mid-crisis – the point where all hell breaks loose and you respond to what’s happening in the moment and try to put the plan into place; and post-crisis – where you evaluate how you, your family, and the team responded to the crisis and evaluate whether your plan was effective. This is the point where you refine and change your crisis management plan based on what you’ve learned. 

Perhaps your organization never even had a plan to begin with and you were left trying to craft your own crisis plan with little support. Perhaps your organization had a well-defined crisis management plan, but it hadn’t been fully tested. This was the first test and leadership is reeling. Or perhaps your organization’s plan was comprehensive and well done, but hadn’t ever considered that there may be a worldwide crisis at the same time as the company crisis. There are all kinds of scenarios. But it is important to recognize that a crisis changes everything. 

The general guidelines for phases of crisis management are to: 

  • Understand the three phases of a crisis
  • Prepare as best as you can to handle each stage
  • Identify and focus on the most critical phase.*

By now, most of us are in the post crisis phase, but perhaps not. Perhaps a whole new crisis has come along with the crisis of COVID 19. Perhaps you are like my friend Mariam, who has had multiple crises along with a pending international move. Very few of us really understand crisis management, and it feels critical to have more information and understanding on this. 

No matter where you find yourself in these three stages, know that this is a very real crisis. You aren’t making it up. You aren’t making a bigger deal of it than you need to. You are simply doing what all of us do in a crisis. Trying ot figure out what is next. 

Response & Resilience – This phase utilizes past experience. If in the past you have seen crises handled well, then your response may be far calmer than a colleague or friends’ response. As I’ve faced COVID 19 myself, I have faced it as someone who has never been risk averse, who grew up in the developing world with every year bringing another crisis. This is really different than some of my friends. In addition, I’ve faced it as someone who doesn’t have health problems. Those two realities have everything to do with the way I’ve responded. We go into any crisis with tools from our past at our disposal. The key is to remember those tools.

One of those tools is to initially focus just on the physical. The emotional pieces will come, but you don’t have the energy nor should you focus on them right now. It’s fight or flight, not fight or share your deepest feelings about what is going on. This may sound obvious to many of you, but I am an empath. The ability to empathize is a gift, but it has to be used in the right context. Someone who is bleeding out doesn’t need me to sit beside them and say “How are you feeling? How does that blood loss make you feel?” Rather, they need me to do everything I can to stop the flow of blood. Response means you respond to the immediate issue. Responding appropriately to the immediate issue builds resilience for later in the crisis. 

Aftershocks – On October 12th, 1992 Cairo, Egypt experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. The earthquake was considered “unusually destructive” for its size. We were living in an area called Maadi in a second floor apartment. It was 3:09 in the afternoon local time and I was at home with all four of the kids. The house began shaking as windows rattled and a major wall in our apartment cracked down the center. I thought there had been a subway accident and that the subway, a few blocks from our house, was headed our way. The noise and shaking were terrifying. I had no idea it was an earthquake, but gathered the three older ones to me. The youngest one, Stefanie, was 9 months old and in her crib taking an afternoon nap. “Kids, let’s pray!” I said in desperation. In a few seconds Stefanie began to scream. I ran in just as a picture flew off the wall over her head and crashed on the ground shattering glass. It was terrifying. Equally terrifying were the significant aftershocks felt even days after the earthquake. We would brace ourselves for the shaking and wonder if it was yet another earthquake. 

So what’s my point? Aftershocks of a crisis can be as difficult emotionally as the crisis itself. Aftershocks come unexpectedly and set off previously felt trauma and feelings of shock and helplessness. COVID-19 has been a crisis similar to an earthquake and there are aftershocks that bring up all sorts of feelings. If you feel this, it is not you being weak. These are real and these are hard. Aftershocks can continue for days, months, or sometimes even years. The larger the earthquake, the larger the aftershocks. 

So what do you do? You remain on the alert for aftershocks. They will probably come. Keep in mind that crisis management is the first step. Stay calm – this is a normal part of a massive crisis. Gather your kids to you and talk about what is going on. If you ask adult third culture kids what made the difference in making it through a crisis and building resilience, many will say that it was that their parents and other adults in their lives allowed them to talk about what was going on. Call people that you trust. You too need someone who will be able to actively listen to what you are thinking and feeling. 

Forging ahead with baby steps – People who have had spinal cord injuries have to learn to walk again. It happens step by painful step. This is a lot like what it is to forge ahead when you’ve been or are continuing in a crisis. There is the acute phase, then there is the maintenance phase. Forging ahead is the maintenance phase. What is the new routine? What can we put off, and what needs to be done today? What resources are around us that can help us with what needs to be done today? Gather your resources in a small notebook. Who are the people who can help with the practical pieces of setting up a new household or routine? Who are the people who can help with the emotional pieces? Those who won’t tell you to count your blessings, instead listening as you pour out your heart and by listening help you move forward. Who are those who can help with the details with this life that you least expected? Who can help with the logistics of car shopping? Insurance coverage? Healthcare? All the details that go into setting up a new life. Forging ahead in baby steps sometimes just means knowing who to call for what. 

Time – The last word in the acronym is ‘time.’ In the expat world, we are always looking ahead. Part of this is the nature of the work and experience. We have to look ahead. The task of living outside our passport countries forces us to look at future actions that may include visa or residence permit expirations, transtion times, future plans, ages of our kids as we make moves. Suddenly the pandemic has put everyone in the world in stop mode. We go from being future oriented to not being able to plan for tomorrow, let alone what will happen in a month, three months, or a year. All the careful plans we made have crumbled and the costs in money, time, and emotional health are impossible to quantify. We have to redefine our concepts of time. 

I think recovering addicts have a tremendous amount to teach us about this time. A recovering addict knows that all they have is the next hour. It comes and as they face it without drinking or doing drugs or doing whatever it is that they are addicted to they know that it is a baby step in the right direction. They feel like they are climbing the walls. Their skin crawls. Their heart beats faster. And then, the hour is over. A sigh and on to the next hour. The hours turn into days, the days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, but they will never forget that all they have is today. All they have is the next hour. Recovering addicts are our teachers in this moment. Do what we must in the next hour. Then when the next hour comes, do what we must. 

All we know is that we have the next hour. Maybe not even that – maybe all we have is the next second, the next minute. So we breathe. Because a minute is all you need right now. An hour is all you need. You can redefine time – don’t let time define you. Expect to be like the recovering addict – climbing the walls but making it through. In the words of an addict “Over the past 23 years, I’ve worked to trick my brain into staying in the moment, and not dwelling on the future or the past.”**

As I’ve spoken with family members after the death of my brother it has come up time and time again the wonderful days and hours preceding my brother’s death. By all accounts, he had a joy-filled month with joy-filled minutes turning to joy-filled hours. The death that took him shocked all of us, none more so than those closest to him. But each day of the month preceding his death seemed filled with abundant life. He did not know he would die and we did not know he would die. It seemed he had learned to live each moment, and in doing so find great joy. 

I don’t know, but I do know that when it comes to time, all we really have is now. 

Even as I write this I know that for someone in the midst of all of this transtion, reading this could be annoying. We can have all the tools in the world, but still struggle. One of the things I love about my faith tradition is that we honor the struggle. There is life and growth in the struggle. So I leave you with that: Honor the struggle.

What about you? Where are you in the CRAFT? How do you CRAFT a way to move forward? What would you add? What would you subtract?

*Understanding the three phases of crisis

**Molly Jong-Fast as written in The Atlantic

Decision Making and Transition

In all my years of coming and going, of moving and transition, I’ve never experienced anything like the transition and confusion that the last months of pandemic chaos have brought into our world. Its impossible to quantify the amount of grief and loss that people around the globe and in this community have experienced. I wrote this piece eight months ago when I was living, breathing and eating transition and the impossible decision making that goes with transition. I hope it helps some of you during this time.

The other night I woke up to fierce wind and rain. On the right side of the house an alley way created a wind tunnel and I could hear the wind howling through it. This house is still new to us and the sounds are unfamiliar. I lay listening for while, thinking of the fierce wind, of storms, and of the comfort of my bed within the storm. There is something deeply comforting about feeling safe during a storm. It is a privileged comfort. 

I don’t always feel that way. There are times when storms make me feel deeply afraid. But not the other night. 

For those who have been following along with me, my journey and the sometimes storm of our transition continues. 

During this time I’ve found it difficult to make decisions. It makes sense. We made a massive decision a year and a half ago that included many smaller decisions along the way. Then in May, a decision was made far above us that changed our lives. This resulted in us making another massive decision and smaller decisions along the way. The result is that I have felt trapped in decision making. 

When I am feeling low, the questions are heavy and unrelenting. How do I know what decisions are right? How do I decide what to do next? Our lives were turned upside down two years in a row. What does that mean? Did we make the wrong choice even though it felt so clear at the time? Or did we make the right choice, and nothing and no one could have predicted what came next? Asking too many of these questions is not healthy. It spins your head and your heart and you end up not trusting yourself with any decision. 

One of the ways I have chosen to walk through this season is by reading Emily Freeman’s latest book The Next Right Thing. The subtitle of the book is “A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions.” 

Before Freeman even addresses decision making, she introduces some foundational concepts that are key to being in a place where you can make good decisions. 

Her first concept is to become what she calls a “soul minimalist.” Clear clutter and create space for silence. It’s this that sets a foundation for making decisions. “The world is run by worn-out people, and our soul is often lost beneath the piles of our everyday life.”

“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space. This space is necessary for you to speak out against the injustices you see in the world, the problems you know you can help solve, and the beauty you long to deliver.”

Emily P. Freeman in The Next Right Thing

Her second concept is the powerful practice of naming the narrative. Naming those hidden things that are affecting our decision making. This has been a hard, painful process for me. Naming grief, disappointment, dead dreams, and anger are not easy, but the process of doing this and being honest with my emotions has been significant. 

Freeman’s third foundational concept is examining our beliefs about God, discovering the disconnect between what we say we believe and how that works out in practice. This is an eye-opening exercise. While many of us say we believe and trust in God, our daily lives are more like those of practicing atheists. Inside we are a bit like two-year-olds convincing ourselves we can “do by self,” while on the outside we choose the right words and phrases to make our beliefs about God sound good and safe. What happens when we are honest, and we admit the disconnect between our actions and our beliefs?

Reading this book and taking an in-depth look at these concepts as I move forward in decision making has pushed me to grow in meaningful ways. 

“Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place.  

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

When we left for Kurdistan, we had no idea that we would be back here a year later, trying to make sense of a dream cut short, of a closed door. It would be easy to look back and accuse ourselves of making the wrong decision in the first place. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we made the right decision. 

I’m think we made the right decision for a lot of reasons – probably the most significant being who we became as a result of going. From learning more about empathy and incarnational living to being humbled by all the areas where we fell short, it was an important process in who we are and in who we are becoming. 

I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up then He is in who we are becoming. Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

I have read and reread the words above – “Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.” 

In closing, I think of an episode of the new season of The Crown that we watched last night. In this particular episode there is a tragedy that takes place in a mining town. Many have died, most of them children. The queen is slow to make the decision to go and there are many reasons and excuses as to why. When she finally does decide to go, it’s clear that people just want her to be with them, to bear witness to the pain they are going through, to sit with them in their sorrow. 

Our Father just wants to be with us…” No matter our decisions, whether they are big or small, whether they will change lives or just our next hour, these are words to live by.

Living Borrowed Lives

“A Syrian painter recently told me that we all have a map in our bodies, composed of the places we have lived, that we are constantly in the process of redrawing. A street from our childhood might be traversed by a train car in which we once fell in love. A garden from a year in London might yield, unexpectedly, a rose from the graveside of our grandmother. This map not only marks who we are but informs the way in which we encounter the world. The painter, a refugee originally from Damascus, was busily sketching the buildings of Istanbul, trying to move his map forward to the new country he now called home.” Stephanie Saldaña as quoted in Plough Magazine

I am writing my map in the other direction. I am trying to remember who I am.

Stephanie Saldaña

I curl up on the couch, reading an old letter from a friend. We were friends during our Cairo days years ago. We saw each other regularly, went to Bible Studies together, had coffee dates, traded ideas on how to adapt recipes with substitutions. How to make a cranberry-orange salad with no cranberries? What is the right proportion of molasses to sugar to create a brown sugar substitute? We arranged play dates and talked to each other about our family members who were far away.

I’m lost in memories as I read her letter. I left Cairo years ago. She left much later, but we both left. A good description of our lives as expatriates is that that we lived borrowed lives. The maps of our lives have had to be redrawn as the places have changed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about borrowed lives as I continue to face my own transition. I thought about this recently as I heard about someone who had to leave her adopted country. She did not want, much less plan, to leave. But like my own story in Iraq, governmental decisions sometimes dictate the time when our borrowed lives end.

In the past few months I have heard of over 25 families having to unexpectedly leave their adopted countries. Just now, as I opened my email, I read yet another story of a family unexpectedly repatriated.

These are hard, hard stories. Each story has different details but the common thread is that it is not their choice. Their choice, indeed my choice, would be to stay. They have forged relationships and created homes in places far from their passport countries. Sometimes they have lived for years in a place, only to arrive at an airport and be refused entry.

Admitting our expat lives are borrowed is a difficult thing to do. We often fight this, imagining perhaps that we have more control over our lives than we actually do. But with admission comes great, great freedom.

As I thought more about our borrowed lives, I realized that we can apply some of the same principles of borrowing things to our borrowed lives.

A borrowed life may be borrowed, but it is still a life. When I borrowed my neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, it may have been my neighbor’s but it was still a vacuum cleaner, and actually a far better one than I had ever owned! And what do we do in life? We live – we don’t fear what might happen. God doesn’t give us grace for our imagination, he gives us grace for what actually happens. We plant gardens and hang up pictures. We buy furniture and we create homes. We make friends and we find coffee shops. We seek the welfare of the cities where we live. Our life may be borrowed, but it’s still a life.

We respect and care well for the things we borrow. We know we don’t own them and some day we will need to return them, so we take good care of these things. We treat them with respect. This same principle applies to our expat lives. We treat these lives with the respect they deserve. It’s an honor to be invited as a guest into another country or home – yet often we act like they are the people lucky to have us. We may come with specific skills, but we are not God’s gift to any country or place. God is the gift, not us. God has been at work in places far before we arrived, he will continue to be at work once we leave, so we treat our borrowed lives as the gifts that they are.

We borrow things we need. The reality is that we need this expat life more than we admit. We have come to rely on the rhythms, though they be difficult. We reach a level of comfort living between and we don’t want to lose that. We are also often more comfortable with our economic status in our adopted countries. Often our residence comes with a government stipend that we would never have in our home countries. Other times, the currency of our passport countries yields a good return on exchange, putting us into places where we don’t have to worry about money in the same way. The cost of living in Kurdistan for my husband and I was a fraction of what our current Boston life costs us. Yes, there were hard things about living in Kurdistan – but I think we needed Kurdistan far more than Kurdistan needed us. I’m still trying to process that one.

Sometimes borrowed things get lost or damaged. The mature person will admit this and make proper restitution. So it is with our borrowed lives – sometimes we don’t treat them with care. Sometimes we take relationships for granted. Sometimes we assume our lives hold greater value simply because of the color of our skin or our passport. While this is rarely an open admission, this attitude subtly works its way into our work and relationships. Confession, repentance, and restitution are the only healthy ways forward.

Everyone has a borrowed life, we are just more aware of this fact. Here’s the truth – every breath, every step, every word – it’s all borrowed. We have been given this life for such a time as this, but none of us – whether expat or not – know when this life will be over. Job loss, health loss, death – all of these things are part of our journey. The worker or expat can be in a much healthier position to realize this than many of their peers in their passport countries.

The question remains, what happens when I lose my borrowed life? How do I move forward? How do we move forward? We grieve. We cry. We pray. We praise. We redraw our maps with the One who created us. We continue our borrowed life in another place, trusting that one day this will all make sense.

Mountains of Transition

“Beyond the Mountains, There are Mountains”

Northern Iraq is a place of mountains. From our front balcony in Ranya we looked across at the snow covered mountains of Iran. At the back of our apartment, beyond the mosque, were the rugged Kewa-Rash or “black mountains” famous in our region. Beyond those mountains were more mountains. We never tired of looking out over the mountains and seeing more and more mountains. As far as the eye could see, there were mountains.

Looking at those mountains and climbing them are two different things. They are beautiful to look at, but they are not easy to climb.

We have just begun settling after mountains of transition. As I have journeyed through this and lacked the energy to express publicly what I have felt, it has helped to look back at some of what I’ve written in the past. The words of God to the Israelites urging them to “Remember” are not lost on me. In our journeys, God calls on all of us to remember. Remember what came before, remember what God has done. Remember and Rest.

So today I am remembering and resting, trying to take in what I wrote a year and a half ago and follow my own advice.

I’m on a balcony in South Carolina looking across at a lake and then mountains. There are mountains, and then more mountains, and beyond that, there are even more mountains.

My view is stunning and soul-quieting; soul-quieting during a time where my soul deeply needs rest and my heart is beginning to feel the deep loneliness of transition. I feel it most when I wake up. A feeling of disorientation surrounds me and I am lost. It’s as though something or someone has died. I lie quiet for a moment, breathing through the panic. And then, it’s gone. I sigh and hold out my hands, the Jesus Prayer on my lips.

A Haitian proverb says “Deye mon, gen mon” – “beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This afternoon, as I quiet my soul and look out towards the horizon, I realize that transition is like this. One mountain after another to be climbed and conquered, or at least climbed. Mountains of change and mountains of moving; mountains of decisions; mountains of goodbyes and ‘see you laters’; mountains of letting go of what I hold so tightly and don’t even realize. Mountains of explaining and re-explaining; of prayers and laying all at the mercy of God.

And that mountain of loneliness? For me, this is the biggest mountain of all. There are both universal and uniquely individual components to this loneliness. I am humbled as I recognize those attributes. I realize that many in our world understand these feelings, yet they are still deeply personal, still difficult to articulate.

In a recent piece on “Going Home“, Tanya Crossman ends with these words:

Right now the best I can manage most days is just getting by. Take small steps toward building a life here. Celebrate tiny achievements. Look for little moments that encourage me, that tell me it’s going to work out and one day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life. Transition is hard. It’s exhausting. But it’s also worth it.”

Small steps.

Tiny achievements.

Little moments.

It’s going to work out.

One day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life.

Yes, beyond the mountains are more mountains. Taken all together, the view may be beautiful, but the steps are overwhelming. But taken one by one, reaching out to others in the journey, I just might make it.

What about you?

Expat . . . With a Drill — How Living Cross-Culturally Messes With Your Values

orignially posted on www.thecultureblend.com

I am an expat . . . AND . . . I own a drill.

Hold your applause until the end please.

It’s funny how the value of stuff changes when you live cross culturally.

This month we crammed the full sum of our belongings into eleven 52.0 pound (23.6 kg) suitcases and plastic tubs (not counting carry ons or the cat) and threw the whole heavy bit on an airplane so we could (once again) call ourselves expatriates.  Two years ago we took a strikingly similar trip in an airplane going the other direction so we could call ourselves repatriates.

We spent the last two years “restocking” our lives with American piles of stuff (mostly made in China) only to sell it or give it back to Americans on our way out.  Now that we are back in China we are restocking again and  I am noticing that there is a vast difference between America restocking and  China restocking.

When I moved back to America I wanted tools.  Lots of tools.  Tools for fixing things and for breaking things.  Tools for banging and smashing and tightening and straightening and loosening and scraping and sanding and cutting and fastening and climbing and nailing and setting things on fire and putting out the fires that I start.  Tools for putting holes in stuff.  Tools for lifting up heavy things.  Tools that you could shoot electricity through and chop things in half.  I wanted tools that would hold my other tools and more tools that would help me pick those other tools up off the ground without bending over.  I wanted tool boxes and tool bags and tool buckets and tool cabinets and tool hooks and tool hangers and tool shelves and (just imagine it) a whole, entire tool wall  . . . that would glow just from being awesome.

I wanted to be THAT guy.  The one whose friends would know that no matter what job they needed to do — I would have a tool for it and they were welcome to use it.

I gave it my best shot.

I spent every Saturday morning driving to the yard sales of other men who were upgrading to better tools and selling their old ones.  I would come home like a cave man dragging a wooly mammoth for the entire village to feast on.  Spreading my bounty across the living room floor I would beat my chest and grunt . . .

“THESE!!!”

“ARE MY TOOLS!!”

My wife tried to reason at first:

“Jerry, when are you ever going to use this?”

“Could.”

“How much did this cost?”

“Cheap.”

“You don’t even know what this tool does.”

“Do too.”  

“What does it do?

“Doesn’t matter.”

She eventually recognized the futility of rational thought and just started patting me on the head.

Why fight it?  There was clearly a hardware store shaped hole in me that needed to be filled and I was determined.  Each time I got to add to my collection was a victory and victories are for celebration . . . not common sense.

Then we moved back to China . . . and I bought a drill.

That’s it.  One drill.  The cheapest one they had.

And I gotta’ tell ya’ — I’m walking high this week.  Victorious all over again.

It’s the strangest thing.  Just weeks ago I gave away three drills exactly like my new one as well as two other drills that were much nicer.  I sold saws and hammers and bags full of screwdrivers and wrenches and I wept quietly as other men walked away with my two years worth of plunder.

Then I replaced it all with a drill.

Life is different in the expatosphere.  I rarely have an occasion which demands tools beyond those you can find in the Fisher Price starter set and I’m not sure where I would put them if I had them.  Most of the people around here have a screwdriver or two.  Maybe a tape measure and  possibly the half sized hammer that comes in the same plastic box.  There are zero glowing tool walls around us and quite honestly I would feel ridiculous even pursuing one.

I do have my drill though which is pretty much all it takes to be THAT guy.

Tools are just one example of things that would be considered gratuitous  luxuries in my new world and base essentials in my old.

I have three friends here who own a car.  Three.  That’s it.

Where I come from it’s nothing for ONE person to own three cars but unthinkable to have none.

Here — there is a sense of, “waah — you got a car?”

There — the sense would be, “Waah — you don’t have a car?!”

Don’t get me wrong.  We don’t get all judgy here.  It’s not like “well WOOTEEE DOO DOO.  Look at Mister Flashy Cash driving his fancy new car all around the town.  Must be nice!  Dirty joker.” It’s more like, “Wow.  You passed the driver’s license test AND you don’t mind driving in Chinese traffic?  Cool.”

It’s a bonus — BUT there is nothing pitiable about NOT having a car.

Or a dishwasher.

Or a garbage disposal.

Or a television.

Or a dryer.

Or a vacuum.

Or a full sized refrigerator.

Or an oven.

Or a bathtub

Or a lawn mower.

Or an Xbox.

Or gluten free pizza dough.

Or a drill.

Here’s the kicker.

Many (if not most) of our friends have a paid house helper.  Usually a middle aged woman who comes to their home during the day to clean the apartment and do the dishes.  Some of them cook meals and watch the children.  They might even do the shopping AND when the expats aren’t careful . . . they become a part of their family.

It’s how people live here.  It’s common and there is no stigma around it.

However, it’s almost embarrassing to share with our three car, glowing tool wall having friends back home.

“Well WOOOTEEE DOO DOO — Must be nice to have a maid!  You got a butler too? Tough life over there huh?!!”

It’s funny how we set our parameters around what’s essential and what’s extravagant based on the people around us.  It’s even funnier to see it from two sides.

Now you’ll excuse me . . . I have holes to drill.

Leaving Well: 10 Tips for Repatriating With Dignity

originally posted on The Culture Blend

It’s that time of year again.  Leaving time.

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.

Click here to see why expats hate June

Here are ten tips for repatriating with dignity.

Tip #1:  Make a Plan

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?

Emotion.

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.

Grace.

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?

Click here for Part 2 about what happens after the plane ride:  Landing Well — 10 More Tips on Repatriating With Dignity

And here for Part 3 about saying goodbye and going nowhere:  Staying Well — 10 Tips for Expats Who Are Left Behind

And here for Part 4 for the welcomers: Receiving Well — 11 Tips for Helping Expats Come Home

Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and are thinking that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they need to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You’ll see them around just after Christmas.

Fetal position.

More homesick than ever.

Pricing airfare again.

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you go home for Christmas (or otherwise detach) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

So what?

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

originally posted on The Culture Blend

I Might Be Amish

I felt strangely Amish today . . . in a bizarre, science fiction, alternate universe, I live in China where there are no Amish people kind of way.  From now on I will be blogging by candlelight.

I grew up in a part of America that we call the Midwest.  Actually, if you look at a map, most of the “midwest” is geographically closer to the East coast but no one in that particular part of the country prefers to say they live in the Middle East . . . so we call it the Midwest.

Midwestern values are simple.  Sit up straight, don’t cuss in front of your mother, buy American and don’t stare at people.  Like all values though, there are exceptions.  For example as important as it is to buy American products (we start riots over this) it is acceptable to buy imports if and only if said imports are 1. cheaper . . .  2. better quality . . . or 3. closer to where you live.  Hence Wal-Mart . . . and Toyota  . . . and everything else.

The two exceptions to the “no staring” rule are as simple as the value itself.  

1. Staring is allowed if the person or persons being stared at are obviously unaware that the staring is taking place.  It’s a little-known fact that Midwesterners have distinctively overdeveloped neck muscles and a keen sense of peripheral vision.  The neck muscles are developed by repeated “glance aways” which is the proper response when one is caught staring.  The peripheral vision allows them to intuitively sense when it is all clear to turn back and commence staring.

2.  It is acceptable to stare if the person or persons being stared at are the exact combination of really “unique” AND not a threat to your physical well being.  Ironically “unique” can encompass a broad range of traditionally non-midwestern characteristics but non-threatening is pretty cut and dried.  For example, large tattoos on a pasty white teenager with orange hair leaning against the wall outside of the Wal-Mart smoking a Virginia Slim cigarette.  Ok to stare.  Large tattoos on a huge, bearded man with a ponytail and black leather jacket that is embroidered with a human skull and the words “Kill em’ all, let God sort em’ out” straddling a Harley Davidson, smoking a Marlboro Red . . . Look away. Determining who fits the exception and who doesn’t is complex and confusing to the outsider but for the midwesterner, it is second nature.

The Amish fit perfectly into exception number 2. 

They are a fascinating group of people who migrated to the States from Europe in the 18th century and have been led by their religious convictions to live the simple life, free of modern technology such as electricity, automobiles, telephones and iPads.  They also embrace very simplistic, non-commercial fashion guidelines similar to that of Ma, Pa and Laura from Little House on the Prairie (all of which makes them really “unique” . . . at least in the spying eyes of the common mid-westerner).  They are famous for outstanding craftsmanship, building barns in one day, long beards with no accompanying moustache and non-violent, pacifist living (which makes them non-threatening and even a little bit cuddly).

Prime for staring at.

When I was a kid we would occasionally drive through “Amish country”.  There was a giddiness that came with the trip.  My mother, who was generally the prime enforcer of the “no staring” rule, would transform into some kind of Amish marketing rep.  “We’re in Amish country Jerry . . . better look out the window we might see one . . . I wonder how many we’ll see today”.  Now that I have kids I realize that this was just a sneaky parent trick to buy a few minutes of peace and quiet but it worked like a charm, every time.  I would sit with my face pressed against the window waiting for the adrenaline rush of a big black horse and buggy.  Just being in proximity where I knew we MIGHT see a real, live Amish person was electric.  In my mind I drifted to a strange place, dreaming of how awesome it would be to live the Amish life and knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it one bit.

“There’s one!  There’s one!” It’s like we were whale watching.

Dad would slow down and as we passed I would wave as excitedly as if they had been Mickey and Minnie themselves.  They waved back with less enthusiasm than I would have expected from the Disney’s but still . . . they waved.

Several times on our recent trip to the States we had an occasion to drive through the Amish communities and the magic lives on.  The moment I would see the big yellow horse and buggy sign I would have the kids perched on their lookout.  “There’s one! There’s one!”  One day we counted eight.  Good times.

I live in a Chinese community that is also home to a lot of foreigners (like me).  While we come from all over the world most of the foreigners around here share two characteristics.  We are really “unique” and generally non-threatening.  Walking home today I saw a mother grab her daughter and playfully whisper something into her ear.  The little girl laughed and looked at me.

It wasn’t hard to figure out what the mother was saying . . . “There’s one! There’s one!”  

Nothing new.  That happens everywhere we go.  It’s the price of being “unique” and non-threatening but I wonder if it’s different around our apartment where so many the foreigners live.  Do Chinese parents elbow their kids and say, “hey we’re in foreigner country, pay attention you might see one”? Do kids keep track of how many they see?  Do they dream about what it would be like to live the life of a foreigner and know that they would never like it?

As they passed the little girl smiled and gave me the all too familiar, “HALLO!” I smiled back and with the enthusiasm of an Amish Mickey Mouse said, “HALLO!”

Sometimes its good to see myself through the eyes that I use to look at the rest of the world.  

I’m so Amish.  

 

this post was originally posted on The Culture Blend

 

Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye

airport

“Make sure you say goodbye” I text these words to my youngest son, followed by “It’s important to say your goodbyes.”

He is only leaving for the summer, he will be back on the same campus next year. But it is critical to me to say this to him. I want my children to be able to say goodbyes, to honor them. I want my children to be able to honor their grief, not suppress it as though it is unimportant, as though it will go away and not leave an imprint on their hearts.

I do the same for my youngest daughter. She is graduating from college, ending one stage and moving on to the next. “Say your goodbyes.” I tell her.

These kids of mine? They’ve moved so much. They’ve lived on different continents, in different countries, cities, and communities. And I am desperate for them to know how to honor the goodbye.

Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.”*

It’s March and for the transnational family or child parties and packing will soon fill all the days and worry and tears interrupt the nights. In a couple of months there will be graduations and school endings, job changes and home leaves; home life will be dictated by lists and deadlines. And the unspoken questions will be will we leave in peace, or will we just leave?

And in the midst of all of this it’s easy to forget that grief must be honored and goodbyes must be said. 

So I can’t shout these words loud enough. I can’t speak them clearly enough. I can’t emphasize them strongly enough. Honor the goodbye. Honor the grief that comes with the goodbye.

My bookshelves are filled with books on cross-cultural living, on identity, on belonging, on growing roots in a global world. Every day I think about these things as I read about military brats and third culture kids, kids and their parents who live like bridges between worlds, gathering up their portable lives into suitcases full of mementoes as they move on to the next place. I interact with moms who are worried they are ruining their children, moms who fantasize that life in their birth countries is stable and perfect even as they try to plant roots in countries that are unfamiliar. I connect with third culture kids who never want to move again, who establish their bodies and souls in one place even as they decorate their homes with remnants of their past lives. I also connect with third culture kids who are itching for that next move, that next step – restless and longing in the small towns where they find themselves, unable to see the threads that begin to tie them to these towns.And every day I am more sure of the need to honor the grief, to honor the goodbye. 

And I think about what honoring the grief and honoring the goodbye means. We grieve because we are losing places and people that we love. Each goodbye is a little like death, it’s saying goodbye to permanence and the relationships as we know them. They will change, they have to change. Comfort and hope will have their place, and they are part of the process, but sometimes we need to just sit with the grief before being forced to move on. The global transnational family has developed an amazing capacity to adapt, to move forward, but sometimes we need to just stop where we are and honor that moment, honor the goodbye.

Years ago we moved from one part of the city of Cairo to another, a seemingly small move. But the move still came with loss of connection and community. The kids were leaving their school, we were leaving our neighborhood. We planned to move all our belongings before leaving for the U.S for a home leave. After we returned we would settle into our new space. Part of this move meant giving up our small, red Zastava car. The car was tiny and we barely fit in it but we loved that car. We would arrive places and pile out while others looked on in amazement that we could fit so many children in a car that is smaller than a Volkswagen Bug. The night that we watched another family drive away in our red car my son Joel was inconsolable. I remember walking with him that night, his small hand reaching up to my larger one, and hearing his tears, his sobs. The car was symbolic of this move. “Why do we have to sell our car?” he wailed. Walking beside him I remember part of my heart breaking as well. “I’m so sorry Joel. I’m so sorry.”There was nothing else I could say. I look back at that time and I’m glad that’s all I said. Because in truth, there were no other words.

I think that is what it is like to honor grief. It is sitting with it, not trying to push it away, not providing false reassurance, just sitting. Can we sit with it and let it flow? Can we sit quietly with ourselves or with others and not push an agenda of false happiness? Can we learn that grief is good, grief is individual, grief is rarely nicely organized, grief is physical and emotional?

So if you are one of those people, one of those families that is saying goodbye this June, I offer this: Sit with your grief, let it flow, don’t try too hard to analyze, don’t push yourself or others to some ‘right’ response. Just sit with it. Because as the grief comes, so will the comfort.

And as for your goodbyes? Say your goodbyes. The goodbyes will hurt, they will smart. Like a wound feels when the salty ocean water washes over it, you will brace yourself. But just as the salt in the ocean provides healing so will goodbyes offer healing to your mobile soul.

Are you one who is saying goodbye this year? I would love to hear from you on what you think makes a ‘good’ goodbye. Others, what do you think about honoring grief and honoring goodbyes?

A great resource is the RAFT plan: Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination. Take a look here for details on this.


Now Available – Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey “…a must read for those wanting to build bridges.” Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, American University, Washington, D.C. 

Portions of this book were previously released under Passages Through Pakistan.

This post first appeared in Communicating Across Boundaries.