To the “Non-Missionary” Living Overseas

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You are the one who is not a missionary. You are the Christian whose husband is with the foreign service or military. You are the Christian whose wife is a physician in a well-known hospital far away from your passport country. You are the business or military or foreign service family who moves too many times to count.

And you come to this space for respite and encouragement; to learn and to grow. But sometimes, you wish the conversation was more geared toward you.

You don’t know the missionary vocabulary. You don’t raise support. You have many missionary friends, but there are times when the conversation becomes unrelatable. Loneliness and sometimes even inferiority cloud your vision. You may have even felt veiled criticism when it comes to your house and your possessions. You can’t necessarily talk about how your spouse was “called” to what they do, because, was it a “calling?” It made so much sense. You watched doors swing wide open when he passed the foreign service exam. You watched government beauracracy work with extraordinary efficiency as paper work was completed. You have watched miracles as your kids have been moved from the proverbial pillar to post, and yet they are still okay with this journey that you are on.

So, no – you haven’t heard a “call,” but that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen miracles. God has not orchestrated the details of your life any less than the one who bears the title “missionary.”

You are the Christian who wants to be a part of this conversation, but sometimes feels alien.

You are welcome here! We need your voices, we need your perspective.

For years, my husband and I tried to join a mission organization. We knocked on so many doors that our fists were raw with frustration. For sure, he had a great job and we loved where we lived, we loved what we were doing. We loved that God had brought a group of people into our lives that were not Christians, people who we cherished, and they cherished us. People with whom we could share our faith journey and the grace we had tasted– but it didn’t feel good enough. We felt like we needed that stamp of approval from the mission community. The stamp never came.

Instead, God did something so much better. He changed us. He opened our eyes wide to the world around us and showed us that we were in exactly the right place for such a time as this. We relaxed and settled into the life that he had given us, instead of trying to be something and someone that we couldn’t be.

So if that is you today — know how much this community needs your perspective. You are an influencer in your own right, within the context where God has placed you. You are the ones who open your beautiful homes wide and allow others to come and rest. You are the ones who feed people blueberry muffins when they haven’t seen a blueberry for a long time. You are the one who walks among non-Christians daily, and you have so much to teach us by your life.

Don’t let the vocabulary frustrate you – you may not be raising missionary kids, but you are for sure raising third culture kids, and the denominator is the same. Continue learning, growing, and giving to the community around you. Continue praying for the people who God has put in your foreign service or military or business or education path.

There is no limit to the ways God can use people who call themselves by His name. He doesn’t care if the field is engineering or education; diplomacy or relief work. He is still the one who shapes our lives and gives us grace to live where he has placed us.

So know this today: You are welcome. You are needed. You are living out a life overseas and that’s what this is about.

Thoughts and Advice for a First-time 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!

Ten commandments for Expats

A Note from an Impostor

impostor

On Wednesday of last week, Laura Parker announced changes and new leadership here at A Life Overseas. Later that day I received a lovely note on Twitter from Denise James, co-author of the amazing blog Taking Route. Two days later, I received another encouraging note from Jillian Rogers, another woman from this community.

And with that encouragement and love from afar, I write this honest response to this community.

As a missionary kid/TCK I never wanted to be a missionary. When good folk at the Baptist churches that gave sacrificially of their time and money, not to mention a good part of their prayer lives, asked me if I wanted to be a missionary when I “grew up,” I would look at them and pray they didn’t see the panic under my response. No. No. NO. I did not want that. My best friend and I — we were heading off to Emory University to wear mini skirts and smoke cigarettes. Oh yes we were. Nancy was from Macon, Georgia, and I had fallen in love with Macon through her, though I had never been there.

And yet, a few years later I did not go to Emory. Instead, I headed to Chicago and chose nursing as a career — largely because I knew I could use this skill overseas. I knew just one thing: there was no way I was raising my family in my passport country. I couldn’t fathom living in the Western Hemisphere, more specifically the United States. So as soon as I became a nurse, I began making plans to go back to Pakistan and work.

The year following my graduation into the real adult world of patients, supervisors, night shifts, and more was one of the most difficult of my life. While God’s voice was whispering into my heart, I wanted no part of it. Though on the surface I taught Sunday School to junior high students, and sang “special music” during services, I was dead inside. My days were spent with patients, my evenings at punk rock bars in Chicago. And so I decided I needed to go home. The easiest way for me to go home was to get other people (you know, the ones who give sacrificially) to pay for it.

So I joined a short-term mission. The impostor act was in full swing at this point. I think I made the interview committee cry – I was that good at playing a part. Oh yes – it was going to be difficult. Oh yes – I was a lovely, young, single woman, and was that going to be hard? Oh yes – but I? I had counted the cost, and if the Lord wanted to use this lovely young woman – well then, that was a small price to pay for the sacrifice of the cross. I walked out with their seal of approval and began raising funds to return home to Pakistan.

When I think back on it, I was nauseating. I was an impostor.

But it worked. I received the money and so in September I packed my bags and headed for Pakistan. My mom tells me that when she met me at the airport in Karachi, she was shocked. I was at a stage when I ate my way through misery. She knew I had been miserable and expected to find me a good forty pounds heavier than when she last saw me. Instead, I was thinner than I’d ever been. I was a mess.

I slowly healed in the land I called home. I began loving God and man again. I began caring about what God would have me do. And then I got deported. It would take too long to tell that story here, but I ended up back in Chicago in early January, having only been in Pakistan four months. I often look back at that period as a time when I learned what it was for every waking breath to be a gift of grace from my Creator. I was aware of the presence of God in my life in a way I had never experienced. It was a gift.

Two weeks after I arrived back in the United States, while eating a curry in an Indian restaurant, I met the man who has been my husband for 30 years.  A year later we were back in Pakistan celebrating our engagement with 200 people – Muslims, Hindus, Christians – all come together for a huge celebration.

We got married and immediately began making plans to go overseas. That was our heart beat, one of the things that had attracted us to each other. We decided we would take the easiest route possible and go as short-term missionaries to the boarding school where I was raised.

It was a complete disaster. We were young, immature, had only been married a bit over a year – and we were in charge of 24 junior high boys. We fought with the other staff, we had favorites instead of loving each boy well, we called people names that I can’t write here, but if we were in person I’d tell you. We left the position two years earlier than we planned. We were hurting and bruised. At one point when someone in leadership asked if we had prayed about leaving, I looked at him and said “Maybe the better question is – have we prayed at all? And the answer is no. We haven’t prayed in three months.”

We headed to the capital and my husband began a job with US AID. We were tired, we were angry, we were hurt. And we wanted nothing to do with missionaries ever again.

We found out that God cared far more about our hearts than He did about us being missionaries. He cared far more about obedience than He did about titles. He cared far more about healing our souls than healing our reputation in the missionary community. So we slowly moved forward. Our journey would never have us wear the title ‘missionary’ again, and we struggled mightily with that. Instead, we ended up living as expatriates, first in Islamabad and then in Egypt. My husband worked for a university, and I stayed at home, raising a family and occasionally consulting around nursing and maternal/child health. We struggled in our spare time to learn Arabic and we learned to love the Middle East with a passion.

There were times when we longed to wear that title again. Where we wanted to be in that community. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief. Our best friends still bore those titles. Our tithe went almost exclusively to missionaries. But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

And that brings me to this community. At so many levels, I feel like an impostor. I haven’t raised support for years – and in fact, I hated raising support. I hated it. I haven’t had to answer to a mission agency, to struggle with some of the things you all struggle with, for a long time.

You have an impostor as a chief editor! Wow – that must be encouraging. And so I take this on for a season with complete humility. Believe me, you all will never fail like I’ve failed. But I’ve learned something important – all of us outside of God’s grace are impostors. If we think we can go one minute without His grace, we are impostors, pretending to be something we aren’t. If we think we can do any of the work we do, if we think it’s our personalities or our good looks or our education or our brains or our writing skills that get us places and keep us there, then we are impostors. We are people who pretend to be something we are not. 

We are here on a journey as sinners in great need of God’s grace and love. We are here as people who desperately want to shine the love of God in our broken world, and be true to that. We are here with our own stuff, and God raises us up, like He could the rocks or trees, to praise his name in the hard places.

So I offer you my love, my heart, my words – as an offering for a season. Thank you for accepting them.

And now I’d love to hear, have you ever felt like an impostor in your work? How did God meet you in that place? 

Singing Songs of Joy in a Foreign Land

Psalm 137

In Psalm 137 the song-writer gives us a picture of a people displaced, in exile. They are by a river and they are weeping. They hang up their musical instruments and those around them shout at them to sing songs, songs of joy. Pull up your bootstraps people! Sing songs of joy. It’s not that bad!”

But the Psalmist disagrees. He says this: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

Many missionaries, expatriates, and third culture kids have uttered the same words. How can I sing? How can I praise? I’m displaced. I don’t like where I live. I hurt inside and no one on the outside knows. I don’t fit. I feel like an alien among humans. How can I sing?

Perhaps our unspoken fear is that If we learn to sing songs of joy in this new place, this new land, then we will forget the old, we will lose our identity, all that we know, all that is familiar. As one person put it: “I wanted to preserve my identity, to hold dear the soil in which my roots are settled, to Never Forget who I Am. After all — my identity has come at such a high cost.”

Yet this is the beauty of a God of movement, a God of place. He is not limited by geography. He created time and space, he created place, he created our place. He is the author of our identity. We are beloved characters in a story that will go on forever, a story where “every chapter is better than the one before.”* Our physical location may change, but our song can still go on. The song may change, it may become more of a song of remembrance, but it can still be a song of joy.

God does not ask us to forget. He knows that even as the missionary packs their suitcase and ventures into the unknown, there is much they need to remember, there are roots that are critically important. He knows that from birth the third culture kid was raised between worlds, that those worlds shaped who they are — not only physically and emotionally, but also spiritually. He simply asks us to move forward and trust him. Trust him with our shifting loyalties to place, trust that he will allow us to use the gifts that were so naturally used in the past, trust that the hidden talents will not be wasted. Trust that culture in all it’s complexity, and idioms with all their nuance can be learned. Trust that it is possible to love more than one place at a time, to sing songs of joy in both.

Trust that he will guide, he will protect, he will show us a way, will teach us to sing songs of joy.

And that is my prayer for you, for me in 2015: that wherever we are, we will learn to sing songs of joy in a foreign land.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.*

Psalm 137: 1-6

Author’s Note – this essay appears in the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn R. Gardner in the section on Grief & Loss.

*From The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

An Encounter with the Great Interrupter

train tracks

Two years ago my brother and his wife had an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and been loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?

As a community at A Life Overseas we know intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter. When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.

These interruptions are not easy. There are the myriad of details that boggle the mind and include everything from the first announcement made to friends and colleagues to changing lights so that the bathroom will be more acceptable for the realtor. Details that include sorting through children’s elementary school papers and art projects, dusty from storage, to giving away furniture. There are garage sales and goodbyes, more sorting and midnight tears; there are the tense arguments that burst forth unexpectedly when everything seemed to be going so well. There are the endless “What do we keep?” “What do we take?”  “How can we possibly do this?”

And then there are the pets. In my brother’s case there was the giving up of a cat to their newly married daughter, knowing that Shasta would no longer watch them from her perch on the chair or window. And the “lasts” — the last Thanksgiving in this particular house, the last Christmas, the last __________.(Just fill in the blank.) How I hate “lasts”. The finality puts a nervous pit in the stomach.  But through all this, the interruptions continue and the Great Interrupter continues to guide, and push, and remind us in whispers and in shouts that none of this is possible without His direction and great love.

Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. They lived in a world without cell phones, email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They didn’t even have the pony express. Leaving and saying good-bye was final.

As I watched my brother and sister-in-law I saw a quiet trust that sustained them. It reminded me and other observers that when God as the Great Interrupter is involved, although it may not make sense to some,  you are in a safety zone  and your soul can rest in this knowledge. For with great interruption comes great expectation.

Have you encountered God as the Great Interrupter? What is the story of your interruption? Join us by telling your story in the comments. 

This post is specifically dedicated to Laura Parker and Angie Washington, the two women who came together to start this online community, both of whom have had major encounters with the Great Interrupter these past few months. Thank you for your heart for all of us, more so for your heart for God.

Picture credit: http://pixabay.com/en/seemed-track-threshold-train-soft-102073/

The Inevitable Pain of Loneliness

There is a depth of loneliness that one experiences while living overseas that is difficult to articulate. Away from all that is familiar, the nagging ache can accost us at odd times, almost like grief. Yet in a very real way, as a fellow writer friend said “Loneliness gives me my humanity. She connects me to millions of others around the globe who are displaced, afraid, betrayed, abandoned. Loneliness whispers, ‘see you are not alone’. The pain that she brings also reminds me that I’m still alive. And I’m more fully human for having encountered her.” In today’s guest post John Gunter speaks to the inevitable pain that loneliness brings but also addresses the hope we have in living through that pain. Read more about John at the end of the post.

city at night

As I type this, I am sitting on the back deck of my apartment in Asia.  There is a subway track in front, along with the panoramic view of sky scrapers of which most are still under construction.  It is quiet right now, as life in this crowded mega-city is readying for bed.  Other than the sound of a TV coming from an apartment of a near deaf person a floor or so below me and the hum of the occasional construction truck winding down the streets 10 floors below, it is quiet. . . it is peaceful. . . however, it is lonely.

I have been thinking about loneliness a good bit today.  Partially because I heard a tremendous sermon on it from a friend in the United States; partially because I am, in fact, struggling with loneliness right now.  It comes and goes often with me living in an apartment by myself here in Asia.

It can come with the sight of something that reminds me of a niece or a nephew or when something funny happens that I know a good friend in the States would appreciate.  It can come from a picture over Facebook reminding me that lives are moving on without me in relationships I used to hold dear.

Loneliness can come with an email informing me that I have missed yet another family event or wedding or friend gathering.  Today it came from just hearing my Dad’s voice over the phone.  Yesterday it was in learning of the passing of a friend’s grandfather.  Life is happening in many places, yet I am sitting here on an empty back deck in Asia, or so it seems sometimes.

Loneliness truly has been an occupational hazard for me in choosing this life of living and working overseas. Don’t get me wrong, I honestly would not choose a different life than the one that I have lived thus far.

My mind races with the experiences I have had, friendship I have forged, mountains I have been fortunate enough to traverse (both metaphorically and in reality). . . and I am grateful to the core.  God has been good to me well beyond my ability to express my gratitude with my feeble words.  However, this life of living and working 10,000 miles from the city of my origin, the city where I learned to walk and read and drive and hit a curve ball; this life does get lonely. Tonight is such a night.

Even in the midst of nights like this, I am drawn to the sweet reality that I am not alone.  There are others who understand me, who understand the way I am feeling at this moment.  I understand that we ALL suffer with loneliness from time to time.  We all have seasons of isolation, of longing, of heart-break. I understand this and it comforts me in a “misery loves company” type of a way.

Even more so, I am reminded of the most terrifyingly lonely moment in history.  It was the day that our Savior, the creator of the universe, the One whom willingly left His home in heaven, and humiliated Himself to the point of becoming a child, suffered the anguish of the cross.

At that exact moment, Christ Jesus cried out in heart-broken honesty “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”!  Matthew 27:46-50 was not just the retelling of a factual event, it was the honest depiction of our Savior lonely, hurt, and rejected by those whom He loved.

Though this reality does not make the sting of loneliness depart, it does make me feel better.  My circumstances have not changed. I still miss my family and friends.  I still miss companionship during nights like this.  However, there is comfort in knowing that my friend and Savior, Jesus Christ, understands me. He is with me.  He will get me through lonely times like this.

For this truth I am grateful to the center of my soul, to the core of my being.  I am grateful for Christ’s suffering, His betrayal by all those whom He loved.  Because of this, I am confident that He understands me in all things, even during lonely nights (and months) in Asia, nights like this one.

Because of this reality, I am also certain that Christ understands and is with YOU, no matter what is going on in YOUR life.  No matter what heart-break you are suffering, what loneliness has gripped you, what disease afflicts you, what addiction has taken root, Christ understands and is present.

For this, I am grateful. For this, I am drawn to praise and joy. . . the praise and joy of my friend and Savior, Christ Jesus.

What helps you when you are experiencing the inevitable pain of loneliness? 

John Gunter grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but has lived in East Asia for most of the past 15 years.  John loves his life in Asia, but misses his family, friends, church, baseball, and bar-b-que (in that order) immensely.  He enjoys scuba diving when the time and location permits. John blogs on issues of faith, purpose, singleness, and Asia at http://johngunter.net.

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31 Flavors of Foreigners

Next Door NeighborsWhat’s your favorite ice-cream? Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors of ice-cream are fairly well known in the States. They’ve added some more flavors, but they founded their fame on the great number 31. My 1st choice is Rainbow Sherbet. So yum!

This is a get-to-know-you post! Let’s take it a little deeper than ice-cream preference, though, okay? Dessert information is mighty vital in any acquaintance; but we shall go to another classification of flavors.

What flavor of foreigner are you?

Charts make me happy. I put together a fun chart to help you answer that question. I call it “The Foreigner Classification Chart”. Start on the left and follow the flow to find out what flavor you are. Then leave your answers in the comments section.

The Foreigner Classification Chart:

31 Flavors Image.docx

(You might try clicking the above image to enlarge it if the text is hard to read)

novtrip 196
DaRonn and Angie Washington

Neat, right? Connection empowers us. True story: most Bolivians assume at first glance that I am German and they think my husband is Brazilian, even though we are both from the U.S.  Many presuppositions placed on foreigners about origin and occupation might give us advantages, and they might hinder us. Our minds classify people, whether we like it or not. Expanding our classification system helps us to interact with a broader spectrum of people.

Questions to answer in the comments section:

1. What’s your favorite ice-cream?

2. What flavor of foreigner are you?

You might want to check back and scan the comments periodically to see if any other readers here at ‘A Life Overseas‘ happen to be the same kind of foreigner you are.

For further reflection you can think, and comment if you like, on this bonus question:

BONUS: What’s the general opinion of the people native to your region regarding your flavor of foreigner?

Whatever flavor you are, it makes us super pleased to know YOU are a part of the conversation here and we hope that you find the content on this site helpful and thought provoking.

 

– Angie Washington, co-editor of A Life Overseas, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: angiewashington.com twitter: @atangie work blog: House of Dreams Orphanage

The Help

We stood in the driveway staring at the house we had rented in Port au Prince, “This looks like New York,” she declared. “My family will call me bourgeois living in a huge house like this.” She was correct in her observation, it was a very nice house; similar in size to every house we’ve ever owned or rented.

The disparities between our socio-economic realities are pointed out in similar ways on a weekly basis.

For five years Geronne has lived and worked with our family.

The tired statement “Most Haitians live on $1 a day” only serves to annoy me. I once worked for a mission that loved to remind its donors of that. I always wanted to scream, “BUT ONLY BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT YOU PAY!

Our family has taken that impossible-to-live-on amount and multiplied it by approximately ten. Even the math morons in the crowd know that only amounts to $300 per month. A low wage in our economy is a high wage in hers.

Our friend Geronne, a person we love, a person we do daily life with, is working a job with our family for a salary that is significantly more than all of her eight siblings are making out in the village. That should feel good, right?

She enjoys running water and electricity and meals and shelter in addition to her small salary. She jokes that she hates visiting her village home because she likes sleeping with the comfort of a fan. That should feel good, right?

Troubled by the fact that Geronne’s sister was raising Geronne’s daughter for her, we asked Geronne if her daughter Jenny might want to move into Port au Prince, too. Our culture imposed on hers, we wanted to see mother and daughter under the same roof. I want the same opportunities available for her daughter as I want for my own. Geronne’s salary increased when we agreed to pay for most of Jenny’s schooling. That should feel good, right?

With the money she is earning Geronne is building a house out in the village. Slowly but surely she adds the next piece and continues to plan for her future; for her daughter’s future.

Without Geronne’s help in our home we could not both work our “jobs”. The amount of laundry and cleaning necessary to run a household of our size is close to a 40 hour a week job. She helps with cleaning. She helps with kids. Occasionally she cooks the evening meal. She is the reason everything runs as well as it does. When something comes up that keeps us from coming home on time, Geronne steps in and handles caring for the kids. It is not an exaggeration to say that without her we would be rendered ineffective. We trust her. We love her.

She tells us she loves her job and is so glad to have met us in the village seven years ago. She tells us we are family. She is happy. We are happy. It all sounds so warm and fuzzy and fair and equitable. Right? Everybody wins, right?

For some reason, that is not exactly how it feels. Something about having ‘help’ in our house leaves me feeling off balance.

When Geronne started asking Jenny to help with things we put our foot down. “Geronne, we don’t want a fourteen year old working in our house” we said. Her reply disquieted our perceptions, “You want your children to know how to work. That is why you don’t want me to pick up their toys. I want my daughter to know too. She needs to learn how to run a household just like your children. I need her to learn by doing.”

When Geronne decided after three years of living together to start making coffee in the morning, we bristled a bit and said, “Please. Stop. We can make our own coffee!” Her reply, “I am awake earlier than you and I like to it. Please don’t tell me not to do something kind.”

My husband Troy is no Lord Grantham, and I’m certainly nothing like the Countess. So, why do we feel uneasy? Have we watched enough Downton Abbey to be troubled by the disparity between “upstairs” and “downstairs”? Is it because we are white and Geronne is brown and something in the history of our lineage bothers us? Is it because I can leave this island any day I choose – and she cannot? Is it because I cannot fully imagine being willing to do the work she does for room and board and $300 a month? What is it that makes it so uncomfortable?

I don’t have any desire to be filthy rich. I don’t yearn for flashy cars or fancy vacations. I don’t want or need everyone to have the same income level. That is not it at all. It has occurred to me that even if I could pay Geronne a U.S. salary, I’d still find the whole arrangement a bit unsettling.

As I’ve come to love Geronne I’ve realized that she doesn’t necessarily want what I have either. She is not silently seething about anything I have while she switches the fourth laundry load of the day. She would like her daughter to be educated, her simple country home to be built. When she gets ill she would like to have the cash flow to go visit a competent doctor. In her culture, gainful employment means a lot of pressure to share the money she makes with many others. Given the choice, she would probably prefer a lot less of that pressure.

I’ve recently decided that this dilemma, this uneasy feeling, is not one that can be solved. It will always feel odd to me to have someone doing my housework. It will always feel uneasy knowing how vastly different our economies are. I was born in Omaha, NE. She was born in La Digue, Haiti. I went to school and learned to read. She went to school then dropped out in fourth grade and did not learn to read until she was in her mid-thirties. I went to college. She doesn’t have anyone in her family that went to college. I don’t think $300 is very much money. She does.

I have decided that maybe it should make me uncomfortable. Maybe my discomfort keeps me in check. Maybe I am better suited to face each day here because I want to find ways to close the gaping distance between us.

What about you? Do you have household help? Is it easy or uncomfortable for you, and why?

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Tara Livesay  works in Port au Prince, Haiti with Heartline Ministries.

blog:  livesayhaiti.com  |  twitter (sharing with with her better half): @troylivesay