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]

What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo!

An imagined but quite possible day in a life overseas . . .

This morning I woke up with my to-do list waiting for me on the nightstand. Item number one was Get out of bed (I’d written that one down so I could start the day by crossing it off). Number two said Copy document. That’s because yesterday at the county government office, when I went to get my resident permit renewed, the lady behind the desk told me I needed to bring a copy of my registration letter to leave with them.

I was more than ready to get that taken care of and move on to the other, bigger, better, more important things on my list. It was an impressive list. I had quite the day planned.

After a quick shower and a slice of toast for breakfast, I grabbed my permit documents and walked to the bus stop and took the bus to the copy shop, about 15 minutes away. But when I stepped off the bus I saw that the copy shop wasn’t a copy shop anymore. Instead,  sometime over the weekend, it had been turned into a KFG Chicken restaurant. (Yes, a KFG not a KFC. This one had a green smiling rooster on its sign.) I called my teammate to get her advice, and she said I might be able to get a copy at a bank. There was a bank down the street, and after going there and standing in line, I asked the teller if she could help me make a copy. She said that was impossible.

On the way back to the bus stop, I called another teammate, and he told me to try the photo shop next to the new high school. I decided to take a taxi there to save time, but the only cash I had was a large bill and I figured the driver wouldn’t have change for it, so I walked back to the bank to withdraw some money from the ATM. But then the ATM ate my card and wouldn’t spit it out no matter how many buttons I pushed. I went back into the bank to retrieve it, but they said that was impossible—at least until after two business days.

I saw a cab outside and flagged it, and when I showed the driver my money and asked if it was OK, he said No problem. When I told him where I wanted to go he said No problem. But when he stopped next to a man on the sidewalk selling watches and spatulas and asked him how to get to the new high school, I realized that he didn’t know where it was—not the new high school I was talking about.

I said that we should head in the direction of the main bus station and he did that. On the way, we chatted about presidents, his and mine, about religion, his and mine, and about families, his and mine. Our conversation ended when we got stuck at an intersection while a parade passed by. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t find a way out. He wasn’t happy at all and shared his international vocabulary by yelling the two English words he knew, each having four letters. When we finally ended up in front of the new high school, I gave him my money and he set his emergency brake and got out of the car, motioning for me to follow him into a convenience store. It turned out that his version of No problem was for me to get change there. The clerk said I had to make a purchase, so I got a pack of gum, even though I don’t usually chew gum. In return he gave me some smaller bills, and I paid the cab driver. I told him I was sorry, and he said No problem.

I made my way to the photo shop, and when the owner finished with a customer, I said I needed a copy. He said he couldn’t do it, but I should go to the bank nearby. I said another bank had told me that it was impossible. He smiled and complimented me on my language skills. Then he led me to the bank and asked the security guard if I could get a copy there. The guard took my letter and gave it to another bank worker, who left and came back with a copy. I asked how much it cost, and he said No charge. I thanked him and the photo-shop owner said, Amazing, you speak just like one of us.

With my copy in hand, I flagged another taxi and was headed back to the county office. When I got there I took a number and joined the crowd in the seats against the wall. There were three officers behind their desks, and I hoped it would work out for me to be helped by the kind-looking young man in the middle.

When my number was next, the person in front of the kind-looking young man got up, but then so did the kind-looking young man, and a not-kind-looking not-young man took his place. I sat down at his desk, presented my documents, and explained my situation. When I told him that yesterday the officer had told me to bring back a copy of my letter, he took it from me and went back to show it to some other workers sitting behind him. They looked it over somberly, pointing out some words and shaking their heads. Then the not-kind-looking not-young man came back and told me I needed an “official” copy.

I told him I’d never needed that before, but that didn’t do any good, so I asked where I could get the kind of copy he wanted. He said it would have to come from a bank. I told him that my copy was from a bank. He told me it needed to be from a government bank.

I left and realized it was past lunch time. I’d seen a lady selling some kind of meat on a stick at the corner so I walked over to her cart and placed my order. But before she could serve me, her phone and the phones of the other vendors near her started buzzing. They looked down at them and then raced frantically with their carts into the alley. A few seconds later, a policeman strolled by, content to have the food sellers—who obviously had no permits—out of sight.

That meant I needed to walk farther to get something to eat. On my way, I passed by a foreign-goods store that I’d not heard about before and saw two cans of Dr. Pepper in the window, right next to a box of Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries. Dr. Pepper is a rare sight here, and I figured it would make a good gift for my teammate’s upcoming birthday. I went inside and picked up the cans, but when I flipped them over, I saw that they were well past their expiration date. I asked the shop keeper if she had any newer ones. She exited to a back room and returned with a case of Coke Zero. I told her it wasn’t the same, but she told me that was all she had. Then she smiled and added that my language wasn’t very good. She said she had a foreign friend who had been here for only two months and he sounded way, way better than me.

I left empty handed (figuring expired Dr. Pepper isn’t worth US$3 a can) and walked around until I found another convenience store, where I spent too much time looking for things it didn’t have and ended up buying a hard-boiled egg, a half-sized can of curry-flavored Pringles, and a bottle of water.

I knew where there was a government bank on the subway line, so I asked the store clerk how to get to the closest subway station. He said it was in that direction, over there, past that but before that, then to the left and then to the right and then to the left again, or something like that. I took off and got there after asking for directions only three more times.

On the subway, I had to transfer twice. On one line a high-school-aged girl wanted to practice her English and asked me where I was from and how old I was. On another line a little boy came and stood beside me, comparing his height to mine. His mother took our picture.

I got distracted trying to decipher the advertisements in my subway car and missed the stop I was aiming for. I didn’t realize I’d gone a station too far until I’d already passed through the turnstiles, so I decided just to walk back to where the bank was. When I got there, I waited in line and then asked for an official copy. This called for another mini conference, and then they sent me to a room upstairs. The lady there took my letter, left for a few minutes, and returned with a copy stamped with the bank logo in red. This time it wasn’t free, so I paid her for it. She left again for a few more minutes and came back with a receipt.

I took the copy, along with all my other papers, and got back on the subway, heading to the county office again. When I got there, it was closed. That’s because, as the sign on the door said, it always closes early on Tuesdays, which, I guess, everyone knew about, except me. That meant another trip on the subway and then another bus ride back to my house. Before going home, though, I stopped at a cafe to sit for a while and drink some coffee.

I fished the list out of my pocket along with an ink pen and crossed off item number two. Then I glanced down at the other, bigger, better, more important things on it. They’d have to wait until tomorrow.

But today, today I made a copy. And it wasn’t just any old copy. It was an official copy.

When my coffee cup was empty, I got up to leave. I unwrapped a piece of gum and put it in my mouth.

Yes, today I made a copy. Woohoo!


[photo: “Braden’s Woohoo!,” by Laura Molnar, used under a Creative Commons license]

(Hey, Anisha—after I started writing this I saw you publish your Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day two weeks ago. I know that this isn’t exactly the same, but I seem to follow in others’ footsteps a lot when it comes to blogging. Bummer! I think I’ll move to Florida.)

Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider

My day job here in Cambodia is serving as a pastoral counselor. In a typical week, I meet with clients from Asia, the Americas, Australia, Europe, and occasionally Africa. And whether these clients are missionaries, NGO workers, or international business people, they’re all trying to figure out how to live well here. In Cambodia.

I was recently asked to share at an international church on the topic of Living Well abroad. I gave it all I had and presented my compiled thoughts and hopes. This article is an extension of that presentation.

It’s not short and it’s not fancy. But it is pretty much all I’ve got. 

My hope is that this article might serve as a resource, a touch point, for you and your team/org/ministry/family/whatever. If you’d rather listen to the podcast of this material, you’ll find some links at the very end. All right, here goes!

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How long were you in your host country before you cried really hard? You know, one of those famous UGLY cries that no one sees but certainly exists? Was it sometime in your first year? Month? Week?

For me, it took about 27 hours.

Our theme verse for those early days was 2 Corinthians 1:8, “We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it.”

But we did.

For as Paul Hiebert writes in his seminal work, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, “Culture shock is rarely terminal.”

Theory can only get you so far. At some point, you have to get your feet wet and Nike the thing. That’s what this article’s about. It’s an attempt to give some practical, hands-on, nitty-gritty, [insert random epic language here], rubber-meets-the-road, advice.

Much of this comes from my own experience of transitioning a family of six from the suburbs of mid-west America to the concrete vistas of Phnom Penh. The rest comes from observing lives and stories in that enigmatic place we call “the counseling room.”

The four specific areas we’ll consider include Living Well Abroad…

  1. Theologically
  2. Spiritually
  3. Relationally
  4. Psychologically

 

1. Living Well Abroad: Theologically
How we think about God matters. Of course it does. You already know that. But we sometimes forget that our theology also plays a vital role in how well we fare on the field.

First, we must remember that productivity does NOT equal fruitfulness. Indeed, our aim is not even to be fruitful, but to stay attached to the Vine from which all fruit comes. Our aim is to know him and his heart, to “remain in him.” Staying attached to the Source, hearing his heartbeat, is the only way we will be able to do “the will of him who sent us.”

There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all. Let me repeat: There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all.

He does not expect you to kill yourself in his service. Now, you might die in his service, of course, but it should not be because you’re a workaholic.

If you want to thrive abroad, you can’t try to meet your deep insecurities through making someone (a missions boss, a sending church, God) happy. No amount of productivity will heal the wounds in your soul.

In fact, trying to meet your own deep emotional or psychological needs through missions will tear you up. And it won’t be good for those close to you either.

Resources:
Margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please stop running
The Idolatry of Missions

 

1.a. Simple prayers are your friend. 
For me, after we’d gone through a really rough patch (misdiagnosed typhoid fever, culture stripping, bad news from home, etc.), I clung to one simple cry-prayer: “I will worship the Lord my God; I will serve only him.” It’s a declaration from Jesus at the peak of his temptation. It’s what Jesus fell back on at the very end. So I did too. And honestly, for a while, it was the only prayer I prayed.

That being said, in Matthew 4, when Jesus made that declaration, Satan left him and angels came and ministered to him. I’m not a businessman, but that seems like a pretty good trade.

Speaking of Satan…

 

1.b. Your theology of Satan matters. A lot. 
Don’t give Satan more credit than he’s due. Don’t blame him for everything.

Why not? Well, it’ll keep you from taking responsibility for your own stuff, and it’ll keep you from doing the hard interpersonal and INNER personal work that you need to do.

Here’s my general rule: don’t blame Satan for things that are reasonably foreseeable.

If it was reasonably foreseeable that eating that street food would give you giardia, don’t blame the devil when you get sick and can’t leave the bathroom! I’ll be really sorry you’re sick, but you don’t need to bring the devil into it to garner my compassion and prayers.

If you ignore Sabbath and run yourself ragged, don’t blame Satan when you feel depressed and burned out. Don’t blame the natural result of your workaholism on “the darkness.” [Note: I am NOT saying that depression and burnout always result from a missionary’s failure to Rest. But if a person has been burning the candle at both ends and then starts to feel the flame, it’s not fair to blame the devil.]

Proverbs 7:6-9 provides a noteworthy example of reasonable foreseeability:

“While I was at the window of my house, looking through the curtain, I saw some naive young men, and one in particular who lacked common sense. He was crossing the street near the house of an immoral woman, strolling down the path by her house. It was at twilight, in the evening, as deep darkness fell.”

The wisdom literature doesn’t blame some massive evil scheme for this guy’s sin. Its lesson for us? Do the hard work of not being naive. Do the hard work of getting some common sense. And don’t open your computer at night or visit the red light district when you’re lonely and it’s dark.

Resources:
Before You Cry “Demon!”

 

1.c. You need a robust theology of Heaven. 
You want to live and thrive abroad long-term? You’re going to have to have a pretty good grasp of Heaven. I’m not talking about end-times theology, I’m talking about the reality of eternity, for the saved and the lost.

Resources:
Heaven, by Randy Alcorn
When you just want to go home
The Gift of Grief

 

 

2. Living Well Abroad: Spiritually
There are two powerful words we need to understand deeply. Those words are “Yes” and “No,” and they are sacred words indeed.

Initially, when you move abroad, you don’t know anyone and you’re probably in language school, so you can say yes to everyone and pretty much everything. But watch out, because your ratio of yeses to nos will have to change. If you want to stay healthy, you will have to start saying no to more and more things. And if you don’t make that transition well, if you don’t learn to say no, you will end up saying yes to all the wrong things.

Recently, I heard a preacher boldly state: “Satan is always trying to get your yes.” Indeed, from the beginning, the Liar has been getting people to say yes to stuff that will make them say No to the Father. And it continues.

Balancing our yeses and nos can get tricky, triggering our Fear of Missing Out or our fear of being completely overwhelmed, which is why I love that Justin Rizzo, a musician at the International House of Prayer, sings about “the beautiful line to walk between faith and wisdom.”

Learning when to say yes and when to say no requires both faith and wisdom. After all, it is possible to say yes to too much because of our “faith,” and it is possible to say no to too much because of our “wisdom.”

Again, this is precisely why we need to spend time connected to the Vine. We must remind ourselves often of this truth: The most fruitful thing I can do today is connect with the heart of Jesus.

May God give us the grace to serve with both faith and wisdom. Not as opposite ideas, fighting for domination, but as buffers and guardrails, keeping us from veering too far to one side. Or the other.

 

3. Living Well Abroad: Relationally
Life abroad can be bone-jarringly lonely, so connecting with friends is vitally important. Those friendships might surprise you; they might be with expats and nationals and folks you first found strange. But whatever the case, deep connection with other human beings IRL (in real life) is crucial to whether or not you “live well” abroad.

Resources:
Velvet Ashes (this links to their articles tagged “friendship”)
10 Ways to Nurture Healthy Friendships

 

3.a Marriage
I’ve been living with my best friend for nearly 17 years. And frankly, we’d like to stay friends. If you’re married, I’d like for you to stay friends with your spouse too. Here are some ideas that have helped us…

– Google “First date questions” and screen capture the results. Next time you’re out on a date or alone together, whip out your phone and get to know each other again.

– Be a tourist for a night. Pretend you don’t speak the language and go where the tourists go. (I realize this might not apply to everyone, but I know it’ll apply to some.)

– If you have kids, try to get away for 24 hours. Because even 24 hours away can feel like forever. And when you’re away, don’t talk about work or the kids. (And if you don’t have anything to talk about besides work and the kids, take that as a sign that you need to get away more often!)

– Read a book about marriage. I’m continually amazed at how little effort we put into the one relationship that we want to be the deepest and longest and best.

– If a book is too much, check out The Gottman Institute on Facebook. Follow them and read an occasional article. 

Dudes, remember this: your wife lives here too. If you’re doing great but she’s really struggling, you gotta push pause and figure it out. Are you both thriving?

And when it comes to arguing, remember the age-old adage our marriage therapist said over and over and over: “If one person wins, the couple loses.”  : ) 

Resources:
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife
Marriage is the Beautiful Hard
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy

 

3.b. Parenthood
We moved to Asia when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three. And the loss of how I used to parent nearly killed me. Really. Most Saturdays, I’d get depressed and overwhelmed by all the good we had left behind. Here’s a snapshot of what helped me…

Be Creative. Early on in transition, creativity is very hard to come by. You’re exhausted and on the edge already, so ask around. Ask other parents, “What do you do for family time here? Where?” Just remember, what works for one family might not work for your family. That’s OK. Find the things that work for your family, and then do those things. Boldly.

Remember, use other parents and their ideas, but don’t judge yourself by other parents and their ideas. Some ideas will work for others that will not work for you. Figure out what’ll work for your family. Then do those things.

Be Crazy.The Cambodians think we’re crazy, and maybe they’re right. We have a badminton court on our roof and a ping pong table in our garage. And we use our moto as a jet ski during rainy season. Maybe I am crazy, but I’m also not depressed.

Spend Cash. If you need to spend some money to share a fun experience with your family, spend it. And don’t feel guilty about it. Now, if you feel like God doesn’t want you to spend it, then don’t. But if you’re afraid of spending money because of what your donors might think, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and spend it.

Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that the most important question when discussing a family activity is, “What will our supporters think?” That question destroys kids.

 

Resources:
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid

 

4. Living Well Abroad: Psychologically
At various points in our overseas journey, Elizabeth and I have needed debriefing, coaching, and counseling. In fact, so many of the good things in our life and ministry have been directly influenced by specific psychological help.

One area that’s so simple (and important) to talk about is meta-emotions. Simply put, meta-emotions are what you feel about feelings.

Don’t freak out on me just yet. I know this sounds like a Pixar movie.

But honestly, a healthy question that we need to ask much more often is this: How do I feel about what I’m feeling?

For example, if you feel angry at your host country and then feel GUILTY for feeling angry, your feelings of guilt will actually block you from dealing with the root of your anger. Does your anger make you feel like a bad person? A bad Christian? Like you’re a failure because you don’t even like the people you came to serve?

You see, how you feel about your feelings will make a huge difference with how you handle them. Do you keep talking to God about your feelings? If you’re ashamed of your feelings or believe that you shouldn’t have them, chances are your praying will cease forthwith. And that’s not cool.

An illuminating question in all of this is, “How were emotions handled in my family of origin? Did I grow up in an emotion coaching home, where emotions were safe and expression was easy? Was I taught how to feel and name and share my feelings?”

If so, that’s awesome. It’s also pretty rare.

Did you grow up in an emotion dismissing home? Were emotions anything but safe? Did you hear, “Don’t be sad/angry/whatever”?

In your family, did emotions hurt people? If so, I’m sorry. The first step is to acknowledge that this is the case, and maybe see a counselor.

Why does this matter? Because meta-emotions will massively impact what you do with your feelings, and what you do with your feelings will massively impact how you do with life abroad. 

 

Resources:
Meta-Emotion: How you feel about feelings
A Life Overseas Resource Page
Here’s an 11 minute video outlining a tool I use with about 90% of my pastoral counseling clients:

 

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This material was originally presented at an international church here in Phnom Penh. If you’d like to see the handouts and/or listen to the audio of that presentation, click here. The message is also available as a podcast. Just search iTunes for “trotters41” or click here.