Leaving Early Has Complicated All the Complicated Emotions of Re-Entry

Haven of Peace Academy, overlooking the Indian Ocean

My youngest has been fascinated with finding places on Google Earth. He recently brought me the iPad and said, “Mommy, help me find HOPAC.” 

My son is in third grade, and Haven of Peace Academy is where he went to school for kindergarten through second grade. But even before that, HOPAC was always a part of his life. It’s where my husband and I ministered for sixteen years. The last three years, it was where I was the elementary school principal. 

I showed him how to type in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Here’s downtown, right?” I pointed out. I traced the main road that led to the north of the city. “This is Shoppers Plaza; that’s where we would buy chicken on Saturday nights; this is the White Sands roundabout. Then you turn right here, and see? There’s HOPAC!” 

Together we then traced the road down a little further until we could pick out the house where we had lived for ten years. We zoomed in on it, and a hundred memories rushed out. My eyes grew misty. My finger stopped, hovering there, suspended above our home. Ten thousand miles away, yet so close I could almost touch it.

“I like my new school,” Johnny tells me. “But I like Tanzania better.” Me too, Buddy.

***

I knew there would be grief in leaving. We had planned our departure a year in advance; we knew it was coming. We knew it would be hard. Tanzania had been our home for sixteen years.

But what I can’t figure out is what part of my grief is because we left, and what part of my grief is because we left the way we did. 

***

In July, we found ourselves needing to furnish our new apartment in California. We had very few possessions to our name, which meant we were looking to buy just about everything. Thrift stores, OfferUp, and garage sales became our new pastime. But our favorite were estate sales. There was something particularly thrilling about walking through an entire house, picking out the things we needed. 

Yet I couldn’t help but think about the strangeness of estate sales, this sifting through what felt like the entirety of someone’s life. “It must be so hard for the person that lived here,” I said to my husband, “knowing that strangers are haggling over everything they owned. It’s good that they can hire a company to sell all of this for them, and don’t have to watch it happen.”

And then it struck me: We had that exact scenario happen to us. But we did watch it happen. 

On March 20th, I had come home from my last time at HOPAC to find strangers in my house, opening my cabinets and looking for things to buy. We had been told to buy plane tickets at 1 am the night before, scheduled to leave because of COVID just four days later. Word traveled quickly, and eager buyers wanted to get a head start on the things we were selling. My husband had allowed them in, assuming I had sent them. I freaked out. “Get these people out of my house now!” I hissed. 

The next three days were a frantic whirlwind of sorting, packing, and selling. I sold the dishes out from under the children and the kitchen containers still filled with flour and sugar. We never did get rid of everything, leaving the house with a friend to finish sorting the chaos we had left behind.

At the last minute, I gave away all of my kids’ baby things that I had been carefully saving, taking pictures of them instead. I didn’t have time to overthink whether or not that was the right decision. Recently it occurred to me that I never took my curtains down. I don’t know why that bothers me; it’s not like they were amazing curtains. But I had looked at them every day for over a decade, so it’s strange not knowing what happened to them. 

The night before we left, I was in a tizzy at midnight, trying to find my only pair of closed-toed shoes, which I intended to wear while traveling. I tore the place apart, frantically looking for them. I finally found them outside in a garbage bag; someone had inadvertently thrown them out. I was relieved to find them, but nagged by the worry of what else had been accidentally thrown away.

When my husband’s birthday came around in August, I realized that our traditional birthday banner must have been sold accidentally. I mourned over that birthday banner, and then felt stupid for caring about something so silly. But even now, I get stress-filled nightmares where I’m trying to pack. And there’s never enough time. 

So I guess you could say we experienced our own estate sale. And yeah, it was strange. Traumatic, even. 

***

I keep thinking that I’m over the worst of the grief. We have so, so many good days right now. But then there’s a trigger.

Friends from Tanzania came to visit us last week. It did our soul good to see them. They brought us some things we had left behind:  Yearbooks, certificates from teachers, the name sign from my office door. Special things.

 The flood of memories, again.

I found myself awake at 2 am, tears rolling down my cheeks. Again. I pounded my fist on God’s chest crying, “This is not the story I wanted!” I did not want to leave that way. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. How desperately I wish I could go back and re-write that story.

I can see God’s hand in it, of course. I can see how leaving early was the impetus for my husband getting the job he has now. That might not have happened if we had left in July like we planned. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter; I’m still just sad. It’s good, I guess, that the human heart is capable of holding both sadness and gratitude at the same time.

***

HOPAC started their first day of school at the end of August. I greedily stared at the pictures posted in the parent WhatsApp groups, craving glimpses of my students. A few days later, I reluctantly left the groups, knowing I needed to let go. 

I know how this works. I was the Stayer for many years, so I’ve watched many people leave. I know that it’s hard to be a Stayer and say good-bye, but that life goes on pretty quickly without the Leavers. It has to. So many leave in an expat community, every year, that you can’t sit and stew about it for very long. So now that I am the Leaver, I want to move forward, and to let the Stayers move on. 

Except, I didn’t get to hug those kids goodbye. “Moving on” feels like running in soggy sand when you didn’t get to finish well. There are loose ends dangling all over the place.

***

Whether I like it or not, the earth turns, the sun still rises and sets, the seasons shift. Each day pulls me farther away from that life, pulls me deeper into this new one. I can grieve it and yearn for it and wish that it didn’t end that way, but life continues to go on. 

Time is a healer, and that is a gift. Almost imperceptibly, the scars become a part of who I am. One day, some time from now, I will look back and not want to change the story. I’ve lived enough years to know that truth.

We Can’t Be Sure Everything Is Going to Be Okay

Since being unexpectedly wrenched from our Tanzanian home a month ago due to COVID-19, my family has been living as vagabonds in California, moving in with various relatives every couple of weeks. (It’s hard to shelter-in-place when you have no home.) This week we’re with some in-laws, and I’ve been walking the neighborhood daily.

Whenever I visit California, the perfectly manicured HOA lawns are always a shock to my system after living in a chaotic East African city. These days, the spring roses are bursting into bloom around me, as if in defiance of the pain the world is facing. And like spring flowers, popping up in neighbors’ yards are identical red cardboard signs that read: Everything is going to be okay. There are dozens of them, and they mock me as I pass by. How do you know everything is going to be okay? I silently yell at those signs. I just had to leave my home three months early, and we had four days’ notice. We lived in Tanzania for sixteen years, and since we were planning on relocating in July, this meant we got no closure, no good-byes, no tying up loose ends. Just grief and trauma. We don’t have jobs or a home. So please don’t tell me everything is going to be okay. I’m not in the mood. 

I walk, and I restlessly pound out my lament to God: How long, O Lord? How long before we can start a normal life again? How long before I know with confidence that the school, the friends, the community I left behind in Tanzania will be okay? How long before this knot of anxiety goes away, the weight of grief lifts off my chest? 

I love the stories of God’s deliverance in Scripture. The walls falling down, the giant conquered, the blind man healed. But I have this tendency to speed read through the Bible, focusing on the happy endings and ignoring the miserable parts in between. Yes, God’s people were dramatically rescued from slavery in Egypt. (After 400 years of back-breaking suffering.) Yes, they made it to the Promised Land. (After 40 years of death in the desert.) Sure, God promised them a “hope and a future”….but it would come after 70 years in exile. (That part doesn’t make it onto the coffee mugs.) The Messiah arrived! (After 400 years of silence from God.) 

Ever wonder what it must have felt like to live in the “in between” years before God’s miraculous deliverance? Probably felt pretty defeated, and isolated, and alone. Many, many, many of God’s faithful never saw his deliverance in their lifetimes. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised (Heb 11). You could say that for them, everything did not turn out to be okay. That’s probably why amongst the miraculous stories was a whole lot of waiting and groaning and begging for redemption. 

My soul is in deep anguish.  How long, Lord, how long? (Ps. 6)

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts  and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Ps. 13)

We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be. (Ps. 74)

How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? (Jer. 12)

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Hab. 1)

How long, O Lord? How long? What if life doesn’t return to normal in months, or years, or even ever in our lifetime? What if things get worse? What if everything will not be okay? The truth is that if “okay” means safety, prosperity, and comfort, I might not get that. There is no guarantee. And judging from Christian history and the lives of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world, there is no precedent that God promises me those things. 

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned during my life overseas was in watching the lives of those who have lived and died asking, “How long, O Lord?”  She follows Jesus and her husband keeps cheating on her and he got her pregnant with a fourth child and she has only an elementary education and there is no government support and she works incredibly hard but nothing ever gets better. Oh, and even before COVID-19, there already were a dozen diseases around that could kill her or her children on any given day. Yet still, she perseveres in faith. 

I must remember that I am not promised that everything is going to be okay. In my lifetime, it might not be. 

Unless, that is, we’re talking about the very, very end. I am not promised heaven on earth. I am, however, promised heaven. That’s why Hebrews 11 ends with this: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better.

How long, O Lord, until everything will be okay? Maybe not ever. But I can be okay, because I am a foreigner on this earth. This is not where I belong. I can see Your redemption in the distance, and in the meantime, I long for a better country–a heavenly one. 

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.

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

Forbidden Roots

Moving overseas starts as an experience.

When you move to a new country, the remnants of your old life stay with you for a long time. At first, keeping in touch with your friends back at home is a big priority. You get lots of packages in the mail. You grieve the loss of all that you left behind. But you are excited to be in this new place you dreamed about for so long, and that excitement keeps you going for a while. After the honeymoon wears off–which could happen in a week or a year–then it just takes grit. A lot of grit. As in, I’m going to grit my teeth and stay here even though I hate it.

That stage also can vary in length. But it usually morphs into the next stage, which is a settled acceptance. You re-learn how to do everything you used to be good at–how to shop, how to clean, how to drive, how to relax, how to keep the electricity on, where the best place is to buy mangos. You find a new normal and you forget that it’s weird that there’s a gecko on your wall watching you brush your teeth.

But quite often, you still need that grit to get you through another water shortage or your third flat tire in one week or another Christmas without grandma. The lure of your old life is still there, and your heart will regularly long for what you left behind.

Your new life is still an experience. It’s something temporary—even if it lasts years—because in the back of your mind is the assumption that someday you will return to your real life.

And then, somewhere along the road, so slowly that you don’t even realize it, you adapt. You fully transition. I don’t know when it happened for me. But I’ve lived in Tanzania for fourteen years now, and I don’t think it starting happening until somewhere around year eight. It’s different for everyone, I’m sure. It happens a lot faster to children.

It’s a strange, strange feeling. It’s not that I’ve stopped missing those I love who I have left behind. It’s that I have stopped missing that life. I used to long to return to that life, and now I can’t fathom leaving this life. The good things are so numerous that I hardly notice the hard things anymore.

My roots have crept down into this rich foreign earth, grasping firmly to the people and amongst the culture and way of life, intertwining my life with places and events and relationships. And the tree above is vibrant and thriving.

This normal has become so normal that I can’t imagine leaving it.

Except, I know that someday I will. We don’t have plans to leave Tanzania, but I’m certain that we eventually will. I am not a citizen, or even an immigrant. My passport is still American blue; Tanzania is not my country. Our residence here is dependent on a fragile balance of health, financial support, ministry opportunity, and government favor. Yet the thought of leaving someday fills me with an intense grief, knowing that it will tear away part of my being. Not just a loss of place, but a loss of who I am.

The experience has become real life.

Which is a good thing, of course. It’s what every expat should want to attain. But it’s also a tragic thing. It’s like coming to the realization that I’ve fallen in love with something that I can’t keep. I know that my deeply planted roots will one day be unceremoniously yanked up again. It will hurt, and pieces will surely be ripped off.

And I’m not sure I want to think about that.

So You Want to Cross Oceans and Cultures. Are You Ready?

Is your passion for the glory of Jesus Christ stronger than anything else?  Do you believe in the depths of your soul that he is the greatest treasure of the universe, and that heaven and hell are real?

You may envision the glory of adventure, you might be full of noble good works, and maybe new challenges thrill you.  But all of this will be crushed under the magnitude of the difficulty of learning another language, the isolation of being away from your home and culture, and the tears of your parents….or your children.

It’s got to be about Jesus, not you.  Not your fulfillment.  Not your vision.  Not your success. Ultimately, it’s got to be just about him.

If you are married, is your spouse steadfastly unified with you in this passion?  In work such as this, there is no such thing as a spouse that is along for the ride.  After Jesus, prioritize your spouse.  If God wants you to do this, he’ll make you united in your vision.  Or at the very least, he’ll give your spouse the willingness to humbly seek after that vision.

Are you willing to submit yourself to stringent accountability?  Hundreds of people will be keeping you accountable.  Every church who puts your picture on their wall.  Every person who writes a check each month.  Every child who prays for you at bedtime.  All of them will expect you to live a life of integrity and humility.  All of them will be expecting to hear from you regularly.  Are you—or are you willing to become—a good communicator?  Are you willing to vulnerably share with people beyond your group of close friends?  Are you even willing to share your life in front of large crowds?

Are you adequately trained?  Good intentions are great, but they are not enough.  You can have the most willing, servant-like heart, and yet be more of a liability than a help overseas. Do you have a valuable skill to share?  Education, business, agriculture, linguistics?  If you are planning to be a leader, administrator, or church planter, have you proven yourself first in your home country?  Are you an avid, dedicated student of the Word of God?  If not, then now is not the time for you to go.  Get trained first.

Are you willing to be more teachable than you ever have been in your life?  Forget everything you thought you knew about people. Be ready to reconsider what church looks like, what productivity looks like, what wealth and poverty look like. You’ll be starting from scratch with an entirely different worldview, and even right and wrong won’t seem so black and white anymore. Think every aspect of your theology is set in stone?  Get ready to have your world rocked.

Are you ready to be patient and to persevere?  There certainly is a place and a purpose for those who serve overseas for just weeks or months. But real fruit and lasting change?  Be prepared for it to take much longer than you ever expected. Years longer. Know that God will need to do some serious work on you first, before your impact will be measurable.

Do you feel inadequate, weak, and overwhelmed with this task?  If so, then that’s right where God needs you to be in order to use you. Open your hands, your heart, your plans. Be willing. Be weak. Be okay with failure. You don’t need to have strength, or super-spirituality, or even courage.

You just need to trust.  Trust, obey, and be faithful.

Why do missionaries leave the field? Help us find out!

by Andrea Sears

Craig Thompson published a very informative article here at A Life Overseas in July about studies that have attempted to discover the primary reasons that missionaries return to their home countries.

What really struck me in that article was that:

  1. The research is dated, as much has changed on the mission field in 20 years;
  2. The definitions of missionary turnover have been convoluted, leading to cases being included that shouldn’t have been and vice versa; and
  3. Working through mission agencies to get data, rather than asking the missionaries directly, leaves room for a host of problems that affect the data.

While mission agency data is a convenient source of already-compiled information, it’s also subject to error and/or misinterpretation at several points. First, thoughts and feelings must be transferred from the returning missionary to a file at the agency. Then it must be collected and passed on to a researcher, who must “translate” this data to a standard set of factors to be used for the study. Things can be left out that might be relevant, simply because different agencies have different debriefing procedures and questions, and some do a better job than others with this process.

And finally, agency data can lack important pieces of the story because the missionaries may not have given full disclosure to their agency about all the reasons for their return, for many possible reasons. We’ve all probably known returning missionaries that have a “politically correct” reason that is given to the mission agency and donors, and another set of “behind-the-scenes” reasons that not everyone hears about.

 

Why this project?

Given the above background, it seems that we need (1) some new research, (2) based on the right population, (3) with a consistent set of questions and categories, and (4) addressed directly to a broad base of returned missionaries without having to filter responses through their agency.

Well, I just happen to be in an academic setting this year with people who need research ideas, while my husband and I serve as the Missionaries-in-Residence at John Brown University for our furlough. And this topic has been an interest of mine for some time.

Like any missionary on the field for any length of time (my family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years), I’ve seen my share of fellow missionaries come and go, and for a plethora of reasons. This has prompted some reflection about the keys to longevity on the mission field. As the U.S. church seems to move toward a short-term team model and away from long-term missions, this question is more relevant than ever. If fewer young people are willing to consider long-term missions, it becomes extremely important to figure out how to keep those long-term missionaries healthy and productive on the field as long as we can.

Missions is an amazing and complex endeavor. It’s both incredibly hard and incredibly rewarding, both gut-wrenching and fulfilling at varying times, or even at the same time. The factors that bring us to a sense of “calling” and the factors that end that season are complex, personal, and not easy to unravel. I want to try anyway. If it helps us to figure some things out, it’ll be so worth it.

 

What can you do?

We’ve developed an online survey with the supervision of JBU faculty and a student research assistant. This is where you come in. If you are a missionary who has returned home, please take 15 minutes to complete the survey (linked here and below).

A missionary who has returned home is defined as a person who has done missions work for longer than a short-term team engagement, and has returned “permanently” to their passport country (i.e., not on furlough or medical leave, for example).

Important things to remember about this survey:

  • While we never know if something is permanent and we could conceivably be called back to the field, go ahead and fill out the survey if you do not currently have plans in motion to go back overseas.
  • DO NOT fill out the survey if you changed mission agencies or host countries, but remained on the mission field.
  • DO fill out the survey if you still work with your mission agency, but are now placed in a role in your passport country.

Please be totally honest. It’s an anonymous survey and results will not be published by agency. There is a blank for entering your mission agency, but only to make sure that the responses are not heavily weighted for one agency only (and therefore potentially biased based on one organization’s policies or practices). Our hope is to include participants from a broad range of mission agencies and faith backgrounds, and seeing varied responses in that field will help us to make sure we are doing that.

If you are still on the field, please forward the survey to those returned missionaries that you know. I know it takes a few minutes to think about who you should send it on to, but getting a good sample is critical to being able to interpret and apply the results to a broad population. It doesn’t matter where they served, how much time has passed since they returned to their home country, what led them to return or what type of missions work they did. The more people participate, the more valid the results, and the more useful (and credible) the findings.

The survey will only be open until December 6th, so please participate and encourage others to do so promptly.

Again, here is the link to the survey.

 

How will the results be used?

Access to better information about what missionaries experience on the field will help to improve their preparation, their experiences on the mission field, and the care they receive through the hard stuff. Your participation (or forwarding to others who can participate) will provide valuable insight that can be shared with mission agencies and the general missions community about where we can direct our efforts to better support missionaries.

————————–

Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years, and is serving as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

Leaving (and Arriving) Well — what to do when your time comes

You’re probably going to leave the field.

Someday, somehow, the vast majority of us will say goodbye, pack up, cry tears of joy or sorrow or both, and depart.

How will that work out for you?

Well, frankly, I have no idea. But I do know that there are some things you can do to prepare to leave and some things you can do to prepare to arrive. And while a cross-cultural move is stressful no matter which direction you’re going, knowing some of what to expect and how to prepare really can help.

The first part of this article deals with Leaving Well, while the second part deals with the oft-overlooked importance of Arriving Well.

In Arriving Well, we’ll look at

– Embracing your inner tourist,

– Making movie magic,

– Identifying your needs, and of course,

– Grieving

We’ll wrap up with an Arrival Benediction, which is a prayer for you, the transitioner, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Preparing to Leave Well – How do I debrief all of this?
Maybe it was nine months or maybe it was 19 years. In any case, debriefing is your friend.

For starters, find someone to talk with. A safe person who will value your thoughts and feelings about the whole range of your experience. They don’t have to understand missions or life on the field; they just have to be willing to listen, empathize, and listen. (And yes, I said that on purpose.)

Try making two lists: one of what you’ve gained and one of what you’ve lost. And remember, this isn’t algebra; you’re not trying to balance an equation, and the sides don’t have to balance each other out. In fact, they won’t.

Some folks more easily list what they’ve gained. If that’s you, it’s important for you to wrestle with identifying and grappling with losses.

For some, the losses are the prime (or only) thing. If that’s you, it’s important to wrestle with the truth that there is some good in all of it, even if the only good is God.

There is tremendous power in making room for the paradoxical truths that there was good and there was bad and there IS God.

 

Preparing to Leave Well – Am I a Failure?
Maybe some things failed. Maybe things really did hit the fan. But there is a world of difference between stepping back and saying, “Wow, that thing failed,” or even, “I failed to accomplish that goal,” and “I AM A FAILURE!”  If you find yourself lurching towards the “I am a failure” side of things, heads up, ‘cause that’ll destroy you.

You’ll need to deal with that sense of being a failure; if you don’t put that to rest right here and now, it will rise from the dead like Taylor, all the time.

It will blind you to whatever God is calling you to next. Please don’t let it.

Further reading: To the ones who think they’ve failed

 

Preparing to Leave Well – What should I read?
Well, for starters, here are two articles from A Life Overseas writers…

Leaving Happy or Leaving Well? (by Jerry Jones)

“Everyone wants to leave happy but not everyone wants to leave well.  In fact, some people are so committed to leaving happy that they absolutely refuse to leave well.”

Transition – Building a RAFT (by Marilyn Gardner)

This one is my go-to when I’m meeting with a client who’s preparing to transition. Do yourself a favor and read Marilyn’s thoughts about building a RAFT.

 

If you’re willing to invest in a book or two, these are highly recommended…

Returning Well: your guide to thriving back “home” after serving cross-culturally

Perry Bradford, President of Barnabas International, says this about Returning Well: “Thousands transition back to their home cultures each year without any formal debrief to assist them. Returning Well will guide the reader into an in‐depth look at their transition and lead them to discover how to manage the re‐entry process with spiritual and emotional health.”

Looming Transitions: starting and finishing well in cross-cultural service

This one’s from A Life Overseas writer Amy Young, and it’s excellent. Also check out the companion book, Twenty-Two Activities for Families in Transition

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Embrace your inner tourist
Many of us want to hit the ground running. We’ve got a bazillion things to do and people to see and contracts and license renewals and logistics and ieoafioefoaeifnaeoifneoiafjeio…

But you know, much less has to be done immediately than you think. Really.

Instead, what I’d like for you to do, for a time, is just pretend to be a tourist. Let jet lag have its day, and then be a tourist. Maybe forgo the tourist pants and camera straps, but if you want to go all in, go for it.

A tourist is one who “is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.”

Let yourself enjoy your new place, even if it’s your old place; it is your new place now. Go to the parks and museums and restaurants. Go where tourists go, and go with tourist eyes. The place has changed, and so has your vision.

Enjoy the place. Enjoy the people. Give your soul time to breathe.

I always ask clients to list out the stuff that absolutely HAS to be done in the first two weeks. Ask yourself, “Will I die if this doesn’t happen RIGHT AWAY?”

Remember, God’s where you’re at. You didn’t leave him on the field. The Creator’s not stranded in customs. Ask him to show himself in this new-to-you part of his creation, and then give yourself time and space to hear his reply.

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Make movie magic
Some people will care about your stories. Some won’t. Some will act like they care and then their eyes will glaze over like a warm Krispy Kreme donut.

Which is where the movie magic comes in.

I want you to create a movie poster. Come up with a few sentence snapshot of your experience (whether it was 6 months or 6 years). I want you to have something that’s quick and that you can say without having to use a lot of computing power.

This “movie poster” is for the well-meaning folks who pass you in the church lobby and say, “How was your trip?” I want you to have something to say to them besides, “YOU MEAN MY LIFE?!! YOU MEAN HOW WAS THE LAST DECADE OF MY LIFE?!!!”

For those folks, give them the movie poster. Maybe it’ll intrigue them and maybe at some point they’ll want to hear more of the story. But if they don’t, whatever.

Then, I want you to create a movie trailer. Create a two or three minute synopsis of some of the important points. Tell some of the story, but don’t reveal it all. Keep in mind that a movie trailer isn’t designed to tell the whole story, but to help people decide whether or not they want to invest in the full-length feature film.

Some will watch the trailer, they’ll hear your three-minute story, and be satisfied. They’ll say, “Wow, that looks cool. I’m never going to see that.” And of course, some will say, “Hmm, that actually looks really interesting. When is it showing?”

And then create the feature film. The movie.

This is your story, shared with the folks who really want to hear it. These are your people.

Not everyone will want to see your movie. And that’s ok.

Not everyone will like your movie. That’s ok too.

You weren’t making it for them anyways.

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Grieve again (and again and again)
Grieving big losses is measured more in years than months. So when you’ve been back for 5 weeks and hit a speed bump, please don’t be mad at yourself and don’t you dare think, “I should be over this by now!” Um, just no. Even if you move back to the same town where you grew up, you’ve changed and the town’s changed and this isn’t Kansas anymore.

Big losses take more like two years to grieve, not two months.

Further reading: How do we process loss and grief?

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Identify your needs
This was originally written about cross-cultural living, but it applies here too:

We’ve got to start asking our cross-culturally-working-selves, “In an ideal world, what is it that I really need to make it? To thrive? To be ok? To survive where God’s called me? What is it that I really need?”

Can I mitigate it, or do I need to sacrifice it? These concepts continue to ring off the walls of my counseling room, and I think transitioners need them too.

Read more here: The One Question We Must Ask

 

An Arrival Benediction
Here’s my prayer for you, a prayer for the middle spaces:

May you arrive more whole than when you departed, though the intervening time may have been splintering and hard.

May you arrive with more hope than when you left, though you’ve been in hopeless situations more often than you thought possible.

Perhaps you’ll arrive empty, but may those you’ve left behind (there and here), fill you with the love of the Father, aged and distilled through time and perhaps darkness.

May you arrive with peace, knowing in your gut that he is Good, that he is Faithful, and that he isn’t finished with you (or with them).

May you find rest, safe in the arms of love, behind the Captain of the Lord of Hosts, your Healer.

And may you hear him ask you the same question he asked a confused and lonely and traveling Hagar, “Where have you come from?” and “Where are you going?” At the end of the day, may you proclaim along with Hagar, “You are the God who sees me.”

And after your arrival,
May you keep your eyes fixed on the horizon,
Awaiting the day of all days,
When the sky will split,
The darkness flee, and
He will, finally and irrevocably,
Arrive.

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

The Language of Transition

The vocabulary of those of us who are a part of A Life Overseas includes many words that focus on movement.

Journey. Pilgrimage. Moving. Leaving. Re-Entry. Arriving. Transition.

All of these come with stories – funny ones, poignant ones, and hard ones. Beyond the stories are adults and kids who are part of communities and families that are in constant change.

On Monday, writer Kay Bruner offered wise advice and concrete exercises to help anxious children deal with transition. Today I continue the theme in talking about developing a “language of transition”.

It was over a year ago that Elizabeth Trotter wrote this in one of her posts:

“I do want to make sure we have a language for transition and crossing cultures and homesickness and living in a state of between-ness. I did not have that growing up and have found the TCK vocabulary helpful as an adult.” Elizabeth Trotter 

I thought a lot about this as I read it

Like Elizabeth, I did not grow up with a language of transition. My husband, who, much like Elizabeth, grew up as a military kid, did not have a language of transition either. Whether you buy into the term third culture kid or not, whether you use the term cross-cultural kid or not, it strikes me that having a language of transition is critically important.

Though I’m still in process when it comes to a language of transition, I want to use this space to write about what I think it means.

The language of transition means know the importance of goodbyes. We honor the goodbyes. That may look different for every member of the family, and that’s where it gets tricky. Honoring the goodbyes means we won’t make our kids get rid of all their treasures. Yes, I get the problem of space. But that stuffed lamb means more to your little girl than you can possibly understand during the chaos of moving. The doll house? Do NOT give it away! I repeat: Do Not! Honoring the goodbyes means making space for different members of your family to grieve their “lasts.” Their last trip to that favorite restaurant; the last trip to school, to church, to the playground. Honoring the goodbyes means making sure that final meal is with people you love deeply.

The language of transition means knowing the word “Saudade.” That 12th Century word from Portugal, thought up by the diaspora who longed for the soil of Portugal, but had no vocabulary, no language of transition to express it.

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

These are feelings so deep that you can scarcely give words to them. Your throat catches. You experience an intense, but wordless, longing and desire. How do I know this? Because I have experienced it, first hand. What we long to describe is Saudade. It also means we know how to “kill the saudade;” how to find ways to contain the longing so it doesn’t destroy us. Finding the restaurants or the people who know the world that we came from, getting together for an evening of food and talk. Killing the saudade is a sweet and necessary activity in transition.

The language of transition includes building a RAFT. Knowing the importance of reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination. This was an acronym developed by Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock in a chapter of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among World. The entire chapter is devoted to transition and dealing with leaving one place and starting in a new one. It is a constructive and practical look at leaving well, at closure, at saying our goodbyes in peace. You can read a summary of what it means to build a RAFT here.

The language of transition means having a vocabulary for cross-cultural adjustment. For a child, much of the art of crossing cultures is learned from the parents. So if the parents are struggling and resisting the host culture, the kids will pick that up and internalize it. The language of transition means that as adults we will educate ourselves on culture shock and cultural adjustment and work to pass that on to our kids. It’s a verb, not a noun. It takes action on our part. Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines from a poem come to mind as I write this:

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

While that may seem like a harsh ending to a life, the meaning could not be clearer. Cross-cultural adjustment is imperative and having words and understanding of it is part of the language of transition. I would also add that cultural humility is a necessary ingredient to the work of cross-cultural adjustment.

Finally, the language of transition means  learning to understand the idea of living between worlds.Every good story has a conflict. Never being fully part of any world is ours. This is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing. We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between. This is our conflict and the heart of our story.”* Learning to be comfortable in the space between is part of the language of transition.

Like learning any language, the language of transition is not mastered overnight. Rather, it takes time, effort, laughter, and tears. We make mistakes, we get up, and we move on. But developing a vocabulary of transition is an important step along the way.

*From Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

This blog was originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries

Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed

When I’m overseas, I dream about Target.  Everything I need, all in one place, at reasonable prices!  So when our furlough started a month ago, I visited Target the day after I arrived.

We’ve been missionaries for 13 years, so I should know better by now.  Target’s awesomeness can be a little too much to take in just 48 hours after leaving East Africa.  I was instantly bombarded with hordes of conflicting emotions.  Wow, it’s all so amazing!  Look at all this stuff!  Yeah, what’s wrong with Americans?  Why are they so materialistic?  That one pair of shoes could feed a family for a week in Tanzania.  And in just a couple of years, all these clothes will be cast off and end up in some market in Africa.  So why should I even bother shopping for them now?  Oooohhh….but I really like that blouse.

Emotional whiplash.  I couldn’t keep up.

And then when I finally did finish shopping, I felt like an idiot as the clerk tried to help me use the chip card machine.  Shoot, I thought I was doing well by just remembering how to use a credit card, and then they go and change all the rules on me!  “Sorry,” I mumbled to her.  “I’ve been living overseas a really long time.”

Ah, going home.  We dream about it.  We long for it.  We count the days until take off.  But when it finally arrives, the reality just doesn’t match up.  And we find ourselves in the midst of adjusting, all over again, to a place that we thought would feel like home.  We find ourselves struggling with disillusionment and discouragement.

So why can visiting home feel so hard?  Here are some thoughts.

People move on.  When you leave home for a just a few weeks or months, it’s easy to slip back into the same routines of life.  Friends, social events, and jobs all come back together just as they were before—just with more stories to tell.  But when you leave for years, life goes on without you.  In your mind, time stood still back at home, but in reality, your friends have gone through hard stuff and happy stuff, and you were not there to experience with them.  And all those people who sent you overseas with much fanfare?  They are a lot busier now, and might forget to roll out that red carpet you expected.

You are a different person.  Spending years in a different country changes you.  You’ve adapted to new ways of speaking, interacting, shopping, sleeping, and raising kids.  There are literally new pathways in your brain.  It’s not so easy to just drop all of that on a 14 hour flight and expect to become the same person you once were when you get back home.  You are not going to see the world the same way ever again.

Which leads to the next point:  You won’t be treated the same way you were before.  You’re in a different category, and even close friends might not know how to relate to you.  People often won’t be able to understand your life overseas, they don’t know what questions to ask, and you’ve entered a spiritual plane that is intimidating.

Your home country will not look the same.  You might go out to dinner, and find yourself feeling guilty about how differently that money could be used in your host country.  The people around you might appear more fickle than they did before you left, and you might feel a lot more critical of your home culture.  The barrage of new emotions can be disconcerting and disorienting.

And to top it off, Furlough never looks like real life.  During all those years overseas, you day-dreamed about your life back at home.  You imagined yourself back in your happiest of memories:  Christmases by the fire, family movie nights, Sunday lunches with grandma.  And though you may get to re-experience a lot of those things on your furloughs back home, you quickly come to realize that furlough life is nothing like your old life.  You are living in strange places out of suitcases, you travel constantly, you have to be an extrovert even if you aren’t one.  You get glimpses of your old life, but it’s never really the same.

But.  Before you despair, let me encourage you with this:

There truly are a lot of wonderful things about visiting home.  Absolutely.  You will certainly find an abundance of joy in reuniting with the people, the churches, and the food you have missed for so long.  And even Target, of course.  But adjust your expectations.  Don’t get your feelings hurt by people who have moved on.  Don’t expect the red carpet rolled out for you.  Don’t be surprised by bombarding emotions and know that not all of them will be happy feelings.  And do expect that the feelings of estrangement and isolation will increase with every progressive furlough.  Enjoy the wonderful parts of visiting home, but don’t be surprised when it’s not everything you hoped it would be.

Also, learn be content with where you are.  Don’t spend your entire time in your host country dreaming about life back at home.  Work hard to be all there, to fully immerse your mind and your heart completely in your new country.  Remind yourself that as much as you miss life back at home, that it was never perfect, and you’ll find that it’s even less perfect than you remember.

Dear Life Abroad — I’ll keep my identity, thanks.

“Loss of identity.”

It makes every list doesn’t it?  Right near the top.  Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.

When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column.  In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.

“Adventure that will change your life forever.  Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods.  Community like you’ve never experienced.  Frequent flier miles galore.”

“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through.  New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.

I get it.  I really do.

I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.

I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.

I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).

MY LIFE ABROAD HAS NOT TAKEN MY IDENTITY FROM ME.

On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity.  Stretched it.  Molded it.  Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.

 

Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.

 

ONE:  EVERYTHING WE DO CHANGES OUR IDENTITY

It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does.  The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.”  We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.

Everything changes us.

College.  Job.  Marriage.  Kids.  Accomplishment.  Tragedy.

All of it becomes a part of who we are.

 

TWO: YOU ALWAYS GO FORWARD — YOU NEVER GO BACK

Here’s where I think the rub is.  I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.

Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum.  It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds.  We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.

Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.

So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not.  In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.

Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.

College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.

That would be a loss of identity for sure.

 

THREE:  YOUR “LIFE ABROAD IDENTITY” IS WORTH HOLDING ONTO

Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad.  I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.

Here’s a clue:  It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.”  That comes later.

It’s NOT,  “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.”  That’s a big one but it’s not number one.

Ready?

It generally goes something like this:  “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be.  I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”

That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me.  It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.

Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.

They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.

 

For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.

Anyone else?

 

 

The Closer We Get To Moving “Home” The More I Want To Stay Here

A couple of months ago I had an exchange on facebook with a friend of mine from university days.

Sal and her husband have been living in the Middle East for the past three years. They moved there with their three young children so that they could immerse themselves deeply in the context and culture, learn to speak Arabic, and then return to Australia and work more effectively with refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East.

Last month, Sal put the following status up on her facebook profile:

It’s 2 months today until we fly from our home here in the Middle East to our home in Australia. As they say, I am feeling all the feels. I can hardly believe it’s been 3 years (almost).

Like the Grinch, my heart has grown three sizes (or more) since being here. The warmth and depth of hospitality and friendship – often in the midst of incredible hardships – I will cherish always.

I replied:

This is SUCH an up and down time. What an amazing journey you guys have been on. Thinking of you during this time of packing up and saying goodbye and tearing loose and replanting.

Then Sal asked me a question.

Do you find that the closer it gets to leaving, the more you want to stay? I have been looking at new apartments going up near the kids school and thought “It would be nice to live there.”

It was so interesting to see this from Sal. I know this last three years of mothering 3 little ones, building relationships, and learning a new language in a culture and context vastly different from her own have not been easy. And although I don’t know all the ins and outs of their story, I would guess that she has, at times, found herself counting down the days until their return to Australia.

But her question also makes total sense to me.

“Oh, yes. Yes. Totally,” I wrote. “There are so many reasons why this can be.”

I dashed off a jumbled paragraph to Sal about this that day (as we tend to do on facebook), but I found myself thinking about her question long after I’d pressed ENTER.

Since it’s been on my mind (and since I’m pretty sure Sal and I are not the only ones who have inhabited this tension) I want to expand on my answer here today.

woman-staring-out-to-sea

Dear Sal,

Oh, yes. Yes. Totally.

There are so many reasons why this can be.

First, you are finally settled to a large extent. You know how to navigate the environment–how to get places, and where and what to buy at the markets. You can speak the language and actually have a conversation that extends beyond greetings, the weather, and if your baby slept well the night before. You know what to expect from your transplanted life.

And your life there is vibrant and alive and full of details that now feel both normal and yet still, somehow, novel. That daily duality of normal/novel that you are living continues to stretch your perspective and your heart and your emotions. You feel like a different person than you were when you left Australia, and you are. You have stretched in so many ways to grow into an entirely new reality.

But so many things about the future remain unknown. You might be going back to the same city you left, but you are returning a different person. You will likely be living in a different place, doing different things. And those new people and jobs and opportunities are likely impossible to visualize in detail. They are aspirations and possibilities that can pale in comparison to the vivid realities of daily life in your adopted home.

So.

Right now you are simultaneously mourning all the wonderful things you are leaving, without being able to fully grasp all the wonderful things you are going to.

You know that the wonderful things you are leaving when you get on that plane “home,” you’re likely leaving forever. You might come back, but it will never be the same.

And then there are the people. You have cooked and laughed and cried and journeyed with so many people during the last three years. You have heard stories and witnessed realities that have taught you, humbled you, buoyed you, and broken your heart. You have felt privileged, helpless, guilty, grateful, and everything in between.

And you are leaving these people behind to face an uncertain future. You are leaving, when so many of those who will stay behind in your adopted home right now long for their chance to leave.

So it makes perfect sense to me that—on the precipice of leaving—you find yourself longing to stay, celebrating all that is and has been good about your adopted home.

This is a time for both grief and hope, mourning and excitement. And if right now there seems to be more grief than hope—more grief than you would ever have expected to feel during those long, hot early days there—remember that you are letting go of things and people you have come to love and respect.

And remember that all the things you have come to love about the Middle East and all that it has taught you will help align you with others who have loved and lost their homes there, too.

That is why you went in the first place. That is why you are now stepping out in faith again into a new reality and going “home.” To your “other” home.

Oh, Sal. Wishing you and your precious ones safe travels and many fresh joys in the weeks ahead. I’m looking forward to seeing you in this next chapter.

Love,
Lisa

Have you ever experienced this tension?
Please leave a comment and share your experiences.

And, if you’d like to learn more about Sal’s journey in the Middle East, take a look at one of her passion projects during her time there: tea and thread: portraits of Arab women far from home.