How to Do Life during a Pandemic—Cross-Cultural Workers Can Add to the Discussion

Last weekend, my wife and I used Facebook to video chat with two of our sons, their wives, and our four little grandkids. That’s what you do when your children are serving in a faraway land. That’s what you do, too, when your children, like ours, are close by but COVID-19 protocols tell you to stay home.

When we started out overseas, our parents weren’t computer savvy and Skype hadn’t even been invented yet, but I know how important video conferencing has now become for ocean-separated families wanting to stay in touch. And my recent experiences back in the States have got me thinking about what cross-cultural workers could say about how to live life under the cloud of a pandemic. While people all over the world are scrambling to deal with challenges that have popped up in a matter of days or weeks, cross-cultural workers have been tackling similar problems for years.

Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to consider the things that cross-cultural workers often take for granted that those “at home” might gain from. Typically, it’s easy for senders not to seek your input: “What is there to learn from people who do abnormal things because they live in abnormal places?” But as we get used to a new normal, at least for a while, we all have things to learn.

So with all the dialogue going on now about how to cope with “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “quarantining,” I hope those of you living and working abroad have opportunities to contribute. You have a lot to share.

Here are some examples I’ve thought of:

You and your loved ones have dealt with extended separation and know how to navigate holidays and special events at a distance. You are masters at video chatting online, wrestling into submission Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and more, with sometimes spotty internet and electricity. And you’ve developed even more ways of connecting grandkids to Grandpa and Grandma when face-to-face isn’t an option.

Some of you already knew about the uncertainties of dealing with epidemics, because you’ve served populations hit by them before. Some of you work in areas affected by war, famine, and poverty and have seen staples and medical supplies run low. Some of you are aid workers or medical personnel who have to weigh personal and family safety against helping the ill and needy. Some of you are in places where that safety must take into consideration political unrest and religious persecution, as well. Some of you live where fear hangs in the air.

Many of you deal with compromised health environments every day. You and your neighbors often wear face masks to keep out air pollution when you’re outside or to keep in germs when you’re felling sick. You have to be your own food inspectors and make decisions on what unknowns you’re willing to accept. You take a myriad of vaccinations and precautions to fight off diseases and parasites not common in your passport country (sometimes getting them anyway). And you can’t drink the water.

You have made an art out of cooking meals when familiar ingredients are absent or in short supply. And you’ve created networks for getting the word out when certain items hit the shelves.

Some of you know what it’s like to function in the absence of toilet paper.

And some of you have learned the skill of saying hello without hugging or shaking hands.

Many of you know the challenges of working at home and teaching at home while you’re also living at home, often in a small apartment with no yard outside your door. You have long dealt with the need to find a balance—or rhythm—for your different roles, giving attention to self-care as you care for others.

For Christians around the globe, this coronavirus has birthed a new interest in house churches, as large gatherings have been discouraged or banned altogether. It’s birthed a lot of good questions, too, questions many of you have been pondering for a long time. What are the benefits of meeting in small groups? What are the challenges? What makes a small group “church”? What elements are necessary for a church service—singing, praying, preaching, teaching, sharing needs, taking communion?

What resources are available when the Christian gathering you’ve depended on is no longer available? Out of necessity, you’ve put together a plethora of books, blogs, devotionals, online retreats, Facebook groups, videos, Twitter feeds, and podcasts that help nourish your souls.

Many of you have had to find unique ways to do ministry when the community you serve isn’t close by. How do you care for people you don’t see often? How do you reach out to people who don’t live in your neighborhood, city, or even country?

You know from experience that change brings loss and loss brings grief—and losses should be acknowledged and grief should be expressed. You know that not all losses are tangible or easy to describe, and hidden grief can surface in unhealthy ways.

You’ve learned that small, continued stressors have a cumulative effect, that a drip, drip, drip can overflow one’s capacity as easily as a burst from a firehose.

You’ve learned also that difficult times require safe people for honest sharing, people who are willing to listen, really listen, to the unvarnished truth.

Is doing cross-cultural work the same as living during a pandemic? Usually no—COVID-19 has brought increased difficulties to everyone. But you have faced some similar circumstances. Do you have all the answers? Probably not, unless things have changed drastically since I was overseas. But you do have lessons to share, lessons often learned through trial and error, which can be good teachers.

As we all come together to confront this challenge, please take your seat at the table and join the conversations that are circulating. I hope you’re invited in. We’ll need to keep our chairs apart, though, so maybe you can help me figure out Zoom.

[photo: “DSC06088,” by Nickolay Romensky, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

People living a life overseas are a special breed.  We don’t so much make sense to the normal people do we?

My family is on the tail end of a whirlwind, six week “home” (finger quotes) visit and we’ve been reminded every moment of it what a ridiculous life we have chosen.

Seriously.  Who does this?

By the time this trip is over we will have changed our entire existence eleven times, each one strung to the next by a 4 to 12 hour road trip on the hottest days of the summer in a car with two children and lukewarm air conditioning.  We will have done countless heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we missed you so much” hellos only to turn right around for equally heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we’ll miss you so much” goodbyes.

We live out of suitcases which seem to be gaining weight as fast as we are.

Every few days we switch to another guest bed, couch,  futon, air mattress or (on very special occasions) hotel.

We’ve learned how to use other people’s washing machines and we leave at least one sock or one pair of underwear at every stop (you’re welcome).

We’ve sat perched like a dog at a dinner table waiting for someone to ask for a China story and we’ve fine-tuned our skills of pretending we’re not disappointed when they don’t.

We’ve successfully dodged knock-down, drag-out political battles over issues we probably don’t care about, full on relational melodramas with people we barely know and annoyingly offensive jokes about Chinese food and cats.

Hygiene still matters but I’m not even sure what day yesterday was . . . let alone whether I showered or not.

For weeks we have been “ON”.  Big smiles.  Happy faces.  Intentional eye contact from the moment we landed — and we had jet lag that day.

It’s exhausting being “home” — and to be honest the whole life overseas thing can feel equally chaotic at its most settled points.

BUT . . .

I’m learning that there is such a fine line between chaos and rhythm.

Trips “home” would feel like total mayhem to any normal person . . . but we covered that right?  We are so not normal.

I love that the longer we do this the more pages there are in our story are filled with 3 am, jetlag induced Daddy-Daughter milkshakes at any place open.

It has been rich beyond words to pick up right where we left off with dozens of “hello again” friends and we’ve got this whole switching from cousins in one place to old friends in another thing to an art form.

We are expert packers, flexible sleepers, versatile launderers and accomplished lip biters.

We know how to deflect awkwardness and my kids intuitively sense when family at one stop would be horribly offended by things that were fun at the last.

Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.

We are good at this.  We have found our rhythm and in some confusing way a part of our stability IS the movement.

If that makes no sense at all . . . congratulations . . . you might be normal.

If it does . . . you’re probably living a life overseas.


7 Things You “Need” Before You Move Overseas

I don’t know what it is about me (or us?), but every time I gear up to go live or travel to a different country for an extended period of time, I start scouring Amazon Prime. It doesn’t matter if the place I’m going to serve is a third world country, I somehow feel like I need to spend the price of the plane ticket on “supplies” before I ship out.

After mortgaging the house to make said expenditures, the real fun begins.  I then have to cram all those, er, essentials, into two suitcases and one carry- on per person. And then I have to lug all that crap through airports and customs, while my husband pulls his back out heaving those 49.8 (under 50 pounds! Under 50!) suitcases  off those conveyor belts my kids can’t help but almost get their fingers stuck in.

We Westerners and our stuff. 

These are the freakishly huge stuffed animals that we've paid to fly around the world and back again TWICE now.
These are the freakishly huge stuffed animals that we’ve paid to fly around the world and back again TWICE now.

Perhaps I could write about the tendency towards owning things philosophically, but I definitely won’t. I’ll leave that to smarter people, not as dangerously close to burn out as I am. Instead, I’ll indulge our culturally-driven materialism, and I’ll give you my list of must-have items for life overseas. This is fresh for me, as I’ve just relocated (again!) back to SE Asia.

And yes, yes, I did bring thirteen large suitcases and five carry-ons when we came, thankyouverymuch.

And yes, yes, my husband did throw out his back in the process. Par for the course, friends.

“Must-Have” Items for Life Overseas

1. Chacos. They are the most expensive flip flop you’ll probably every purchase, but the things never. wear. out. I have two pairs, and I wear them daily, and I love them. Like, really. I also have a pair of the double strapped sandals. I don’t wear them that much because I can’t figure out how to tighten them to be comfortable (I know, that’s a bit moronic), but I’ve heard the single strap ones are off-the-hook, as well.

2. Juice Plus Vitamins. Where we live it’s hard to get fresh vegetables that are not cooked to death in a stir fry. What am I talking about, it’s just hard to get vegetables . . . in my children. As in, they hate them. But, that’s okay, because I am sneaky, and perhaps passive aggressive. I take the juice plus vitamin capsules, open them and put them in my kids’ smoothies every day (because they gag when they try to swallow the capsules whole). I also have the juice plus plant-based protein powder, which I put in the smoothies, as well. There’s all kinds of research about the benefits of juice plus, and I’ll spare you the details, but I feel less like a loser mom when I slip them to my kids. And less like a loser-person when I eat them myself. Whether you are into juice plus or another product, definitely save room in the suitcase for quality vitamins.

3. Games. There’s something about living overseas that suddenly makes board games more appealing. We have a few family favorites: Settlers of Cattan, Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow, Cards (Kemps, Spoons, etc.), Pictionary, Chess, Cranium, etc. I’ve found that quality family games are easier found on Amazon than the local market. And that’s why I buy ’em and lug ’em.  Of course, favorite toys and books fit into this category. As, would, um, the Xbox.

4. Family Pictures. I made a huge mistake in one of our moves overseas when I didn’t bring many family photos. I figured I could just get frames and print photos out when I got there. Wrong. Getting simple things like water induced a near panic attack at first, so hunting down frames and a print shop seem a mountain I just couldn’t climb. And, so, we spent two years with mostly bare walls. #MomFail. This recent move I did it differently. I went to Prinstagram and ordered about 50 instagram photos to be printed off my instagram feed. I think ordered a few hangers (think twine and clothespins) from Amazon, along with magnets for fridge, and our house was instantly homey. And the prints didn’t weigh much (compared to lots of pictures in frames). #MomWin.

5. External Battery Chargers. These prove essential as you are charging i-pads and phones and whatnot during your journey ’round the world. When you kid is melting down in China during a five hour layover and there are no charging stations in site and the iPad with the movie on it starts blinking that red low battery light . . . you’ll wish you had one. Or two. Or five.

6. Daily Burn. I love this workout app. It’s $10/month, but it has loads of different workout videos that you can watch from any device (iPad, android, iPhone, any smart device), including yoga, cardio, strength training, and an insane section of circuit training routines that I only survived 13 minutes of yesterday. You choose level, time, and type, and then it’s like a gym at home. I know for me, exercise is essential to mental sanity (and fighting depression) and this app has been a lifesaver this go-around. And, nothing says beast like a mom doing knee-pushups and kick-squats in the living room, while her kids watch from over their bowls of breakfast cereal.

7. Kindle. No explanation required.

So that’s my quick list, friends. The, ah-hem, bare necessities for a life overseas.


How about you? What’s your must-have item(s), worthy of lugging across the world? Share links, if you can!