Beautifully Broken Belonging

I wrote this poem on January 15 as a way to process my impeding move from China to the U.S. in June. On January 19, I left China for what I thought was going to be 11 days in the US. However, due to the coronavirus, I’m still in the U.S., 50 days later, unsure of my return date. This poem has become even more meaningful to me as I am stuck in this limbo and creating a new normal for myself, all the while waiting to return home so that I can say goodbye to it again. –Kathryn Vasquez

 

 This place.

Always 

A celebrity. 

An “other.”

A goddess.

A ghost.

And double takes.

 

This place.

Culture, Community, and

Collective care.

Beautifully broken belonging.

 

Me in this place.

Is it assimilation or appropriation?

Stress or regrets?

Shock or roadblocks?

Hurting or healing?

 

This place.

Brokenly beautiful belonging.

 

How do I tell of the heartaches and headaches?

That suffocating darkness that

Sat on my chest 

And almost consumed me?

 

How do I tell of that light?

It lifted me out

And washed over me in a waterfall of acceptance.

 

How do I tell of triumph and joy?

Of restoration and worthiness?

Of heartbreak?

Of the cycle of happiness and pain?

Of sleepless nights?

Of peace that passes all understanding?

Of quiet waters?

Of identity?

Of rest?

How do I tell of 

Beautifully belonging to the broken?

 

How do I take: 

What I have learned?

Who I was?

Who I’ve become?

 

And go to a place where 

I can never be who I was

Nor can I be who I am.

What will I become in

That place,

Broken, without beautiful belonging?

 

But I have a consolation,

A hope,

A star to follow through this night.

What I’ve become. 

Who I’ve become.

Whose I’ve become.

The very things to give me strength for the journey ahead.

As I go to that place of beautifully broken belonging.

 

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

Kathryn Vasquez has taught English in China since 2011. She enjoys reading, writing, photography, and traveling. She will be moving back to the US in June, but China has forever changed her.

The Pink Bike

by Rebecca Hopkins

In April of last year, I moved away from Indonesia—my home of 14 years—and sold almost everything. And so, in June, someone gave me a pink bike.

I’m not exactly sure who. My aunt and uncle did the very loving thing of collecting used and new items from their friends to restock a home we didn’t yet have for a life of whose shape we weren’t sure.

I’m pretty sure they mentioned the giver’s name. But the problem was, there were so many names and gifts, and I was disoriented from all the changes that the gifts were still hard to take in. I’d traded one set of overwhelm for another.

On the first truly warm week of summer in Colorado Springs, I pulled the pink bike out of the garage of my parents’ house where we were staying. It took some adjusting to get the seat the right height and to figure out the gears. I had to remind myself that traffic flows on the right side of the road in America. But soon enough, I was moving and the wind was flipping my pony tail and my legs pushed strong.

And then, as I rounded the corner, I realized I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years.

The last time I’d ridden was when I was pregnant with my first child, living on a tiny island in Indonesia where my husband worked as a humanitarian pilot for a nonprofit organization. I remember trying to convince myself that the tropical heat, terrible bouts of morning sickness, rough roads, crazy motorbike traffic and neighborhood harasser weren’t adequate reasons to stop riding for a time. But my new motherly instinct won out over my normal risk-taking personality.

I didn’t give up jogging or writing or teaching English to neighborhood kids. But for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t really ride much once I gave birth. And one day—three kids into motherhood—someone stopped by my house and asked if he could buy my now rusty bike. Without thinking much of it, I said yes.

Life filled with kids and culture and small airplanes and jungle adventures and serving and I didn’t really miss the bike. The next time I touched one, I was holding the back of my son’s bike, holding it steady, urging him to pedal, telling him to be brave.

It broke all our hearts to sell my kids’ childhood bikes that last week in Indonesia. The two small crates we were allotted filled up fast. We had a million choices to make, and the bikes just didn’t make the cut.

They’re just bikes, I told myself, while holding my son, watching someone leave our yard with his bike. It’s just a dollhouse. It’s just their baby clothes. It’s just their school table. It’s just a cat.

It’s just a house we’ve loved and a life we’ve built and friends we adore and the only country my kids have called home.

When I learned my uncle had found bikes for my kids, that knowledge kept me going through all the decisions we had to make. I guarded the news from my kids like a state secret so that we could all watch their excited faces at the unveiling once we got to the States. I hadn’t known, though, about the bikes he’d found for my husband and me. But when I saw all five of them lined up, I could see, for the first time, the building blocks of a new adventure.

Getting back on a bike several weeks after our arrival in Colorado was… like riding a bike…except…when it was harder than that. The angles on the roads felt too sharp, my agility less than I remembered it, the air too dry and thin. And when I needed to stop, I couldn’t seem to both jump off the seat and keep my feet from becoming entangled on various bike parts. I dumped it a couple of times, both times while others were watching.  I brushed the dirt off my hands, put on a smile and waved. “I’m OK. Just fine.”

“You always have a lot of energy to move forward,” my sister recently told me. “You’re good at it.”

She has a way of mirroring back who I am in a kind, affirming way.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole nomadic life honing what is probably also a natural part of my personality.  I can keep my eyes on my next step, look for the good in people and places, find ways to connect and put energy into building…building relationships, building a home, building a life. I’ve developed what may seem like a conflicted relationship with putting down roots and uprooting. I’m a wanderer and nomad at heart who intentionally grows roots wherever I land.

I’ve read much about “third culture kids,” this category of highly mobile people who’ve moved in and out of countries and cultures in their childhood. As an Army kid, I was one. Now I raise them. These past few years, I’ve been listening to what others are teaching about them, what I’ve experienced and what my kids are saying.

For all the beauty that a third culture kid lifestyle brings (understanding of and appreciation of a broader world, ability to adapt, a near-absence of prejudices, foreign language aptitude), these kids (and later, adults) know so well the world of loss. Sometimes the losses feel real and present, like loss of bikes and houses and friends and pets. Sometimes the losses are hidden and ambiguous loss, the unseen, hard-to-put-into-words losses such as dreams, confidence, identity and belonging.

For me, it’s actually easier to keep moving, keep building, keep Pollyanna-ing my way through hard things than to stop and grieve. Both taking the necessary time to mourn and also putting energy into moving forward can feel like a balancing act.

In late summer, I joined my dad on a bike ride on Cottonwood Trail at sunrise.  He’s so much better at biking in mile-high altitude than I am. I followed behind his smooth, quick pedaling with my own pumping heart loud in my ears. Soon, I had to shed my sweatshirt, and I stuck it in my backpack with my water and phone. I was still carrying so much else, too. All that was now missing from my life felt heavy. In so many ways, it felt hard to breathe.

“Watch the corners,” Dad coached. “Sometimes there are pedestrians out here, too. Also, be careful of sand.”

The ride was hard and tiring, but also freeing and empowering. And I soon found my own rhythm between pushing myself and pacing myself.

I found a way, too, to both keep my eyes mostly on the trail and also notice the beauty around me. Everything was pink—sky, mountains, rocks, my cheeks. And my bike.

Maybe I was starting to fit here. Maybe, too, I was finding my way.

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

Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

I Got a Job

by Rachel K. Zimmerman

I got a job. This is a big deal. Is this the step that means I have reintegrated (in some fashion) back into my home culture? I don’t know. But I do know that this job seems like a really good fit for me and my priorities post ‘mission field’ (i.e. greater flexibility, lower stress, benefits, etc). I will have actual American benefits — 401k, medical insurance, the whole shebang. 

Why am I so excited, you ask?

Well I wasn’t at all excited about getting a job when I moved back from overseas. I pretty much hated a lot of things about my home culture, mainly because I was grieving the many losses during my life overseas and the loss of my life overseas (i.e. living in Haiti). 

I knew I needed a break when I returned, so I took a sabbatical and interned with a missionary care organization. During this time (more than 6 months), I gradually redefined my faith, reintegrated my values, and remade my life in a way that fit me, my home culture, and the country where I served.

I lived minimally, thanks to the graciousness of others, in order to explore my heart and my passions, focusing on me for the first time in a long time. I knew that coming back to my home country and immediately returning to a full time job in my professional career in healthcare would not be good for my soul at that time.

So I entered back into the workforce slowly. I applied for a few per diem jobs in healthcare that allowed me tons of flexibility to say yes or no to work, to travel as much as I wanted to, and work as much or as little as I wanted. Granted, with less job security and no promise of income during slow times. 

While interviewing for these jobs, I had one particularly formal interview process. During the first formal phone interview I told loads of Haiti stories. Gosh, Rachel, don’t be such a weirdo! I thought to myself. I even told the story of when a woman had a baby at our medical clinic… that didn’t deliver babies.

Behavioral interviewing is the common interviewing technique in healthcare (and beyond) in the States these days. These are typically 1-3 hours long, asking specific questions that start with “Tell me about a time when… 

You faced a difficult situation? (umm did you miss the part about me just living in a foreign country for a few years?.. Isn’t that enough said? Blank stares…)

You were in conflict with a coworker and how you resolved it? (umm you mean the 12 Haitian colleagues that I was supposed to lead and had no idea how to?)

You faced a seemingly impossible scenario? (umm you mean the time that we delivered a baby our medical clinic in a foreign country?)

You get the point. Behavioral interviews target storytelling from your real past to try to see how you will actually respond in stressful situations. While these interviews went well (and no, I did not give the above answers), it can be challenging to pull from previous life experiences other than the extremes of a life overseas.

It’s been almost two years since I returned from Haiti, and it’s time for me to settle into American culture just a little bit more. I’m in a new season, a new transition, a new state, a new professional license, and applying for new jobs. It was still daunting but less so this time. I made it through an entire two-hour long behavioral interview and only told one story from Haiti. I drew other stories from my previous work experience before and after Haiti. 

It’s not that I want to minimize my life overseas. I loved my life overseas, and it was very complicated, as most are. I feel like my life overseas is finally more integrated into my everyday life. Not all the stories I tell involve my life in Haiti, and I don’t suppress them like they are years and stories I want to forget. It’s a natural part of conversation, but it doesn’t have to come up.

I’m excited about this job. In corporate healthcare America. I never thought these words would come out of my mouth. I love my profession. But I’ve found, through living in another culture and self-discovery, that I love a lot of other things too. I like teaching yoga and participating in missionary care. I like being in the kitchen, cooking, and making kombucha. I like writing, keeping up a blog, an email list, and I’m working on writing a book.

So I found a job that allows me to practice my profession while leaving time for me to continue to explore my other interests. I never thought it would happen.

What I want to say is that it’s possible to feel more integrated. I’m sure my story is different than yours; everyone’s is. But I got a job. And I felt confident and comfortable in the interview process. I’m hopeful and excited about this job. AND it’s not the only thing about me. I can still be a global citizen and travel (though that schedule will be a bit more limited) and practice yoga, and missionary care, and many other things.

And I can work within the limits and boxes of corporate America and reap the benefits of a steady income, health benefits, and retirement benefits. 

I got a job!

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

Rachel K. Zimmerman is a physical therapist who spent two years working alongside a capable Haitian team to establish a community health center outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A self-proclaimed ‘geographically confused’ individual with a Texas license plate, an Oklahoma license, and 40 Haitian stamps in her passport, Rachel currently resides in Washington where she enjoys coffee, teaching yoga, and gasping at the majestic view of Mount Rainier. She is a recovering perfectionist, lover of cross-cultural workers, and student of trauma and healing subjects. You can read along at her blog, catch her on Facebook, or follow her on Instagram.

4 Ways to Give Yourself Grace During Re-Entry

by Bernie Anderson

White Subarus and silver Toyotas back out of their respective driveways, plodding their way to respective workplace destinations. I don’t know where. Department stores, manufacturing plants, and office buildings with cubicles.  

I wonder how many of these folks love what they do?

That could be me.

I sit on the borrowed front porch of a friend’s house in suburbia and cry.

My life was college students and events in a country that was not America. Open mic nights with long conversations into the evening about Jesus and music and work and life. Bible studies and food and college kids in my living room, singing songs, laughing, sometimes crying, and always eating. People who were so integrated into our lives they’d pretty much become family.

But no more. That life is now 8000 miles away.

Suburban America is my home again for the first time in nearly a decade. And it’s weird. I don’t like it.

I don’t have a job. I don’t have a place to live. I don’t have a ministry. I don’t have any local friends. Most significantly, I don’t even know who I am right now.

And now my coffee’s cold.

Sure. I know I’m a child of God. My identity is in Christ. I am accepted in the Beloved. But, honestly — that all feels like “blah, blah, blah” on this particular morning, sitting with cold coffee on a borrowed front porch.

We missionaries and ministry-types should always seek our identity in Christ and not our work. We know this. Most of us would even proclaim it from a pulpit when things are going well.  

But it’s super easy for missionaries and ministry-types to cross a line. When you’re off the field or you no longer have the ministry you’ve given so much to, sometimes you don’t know who you are anymore. There’s loss. There’s a hole that used to be full of activity. Activity that was not just busy, unimportant, and impotent things. These were vital activities. World-changing, life-changing, eternal things.  

But it’s gone now.

For missionary me, it’s 8000 miles away. And I am in suburbia with front porches and Subarus and Walmarts and cold coffee.

This was one of the lowest moments of my life.  

When coming off the field, these are the realities many face, with any honest reflection. So much of my identity was tied to that work and to that place. It’s not easy to settle back into the homeland.

Coming home is a process that’s longer than an airplane ride. A process that takes time. Whether you realize it or not, you’re grieving. I was experiencing grief that morning on the borrowed front porch. It was my morning of mourning. I was grieving a significant loss. And grief needs time.  I’m looking at that moment five years later, and it still makes me sad.

Taking on another country as your home changes you. You will not return to your passport country the same person.

Grace and time are keys. Be generous with yourself and your time. Reflect much on the generous grace of God.

Here are four ways to give yourself grace during the transition.

 

1. It’s okay to not be okay
This will be your reality for a while. People will ask how you’re doing, and you’ll say, “fine.”  And that may very well be a lie. It’s okay to not be “fine.” You’re going to have a lot of conflicting emotions. There will be the joy of reunion and the pain of loss all mixed in the same emotional smoothie bowl. You’ll be happy to see folks you love. You’ll also miss a lot of people, places, and memories from your adopted home. You have two homes now. Most people don’t get that. You’re starting all over again, with little understanding of what’s ahead.

Know this will pass. You’re not going to stay in the state of discombobulation forever.

But for this time, it’s not only okay — it’s essential.

 

2. It’s okay to be the conversation dropout sometimes.
For a significant season, I felt like I needed to mention our old home in almost every conversation.  I’m confident it was annoying.

But it was the only thing I knew how to talk about.

Every other conversation was about jobs and yard work and politics and cheeseburgers and all things America. I didn’t know how to enter into those conversations with any sort of knowledge or enthusiasm.  

You have to look for common ground. And for a time you will find very little of that. Give it time. This will pass, as well.

In the meantime, learn to listen well. Take on the job of cultural assimilation using the same intention and the same tools you did when you landed in your field of service. It doesn’t fix your heart. But it helps.

 

3. It’s okay to take a transitory position.
Jobs are abundant in America right now. Jobs that are as satisfying as the one you just left? Probably not. My second language is proprietary to a single part of the world. It’s useless in America. Entering the job market, I assumed my marketable skills were minimal or maybe non-existent. I didn’t want to be a “missions pastor.” My assumption was a future in manual labor or the service industry.

Don’t listen to the lie that you “don’t have marketable skills.” Because of your unique overseas experience, there are important things that only you can do. The ability to navigate cross-culturally requires incredibly valuable soft skills that employers pay a lot of money for. But, you may have to take a transitory job to figure out what those skills are for you.

I threw my resume at the wall like so much spaghetti and took what stuck. I landed a fund-raising position with an international non-profit and learned how to function in the American workplace again. I knew it wasn’t going to be my gig from now until I retire or die. But it was a gig from God. I learned. I grew. And, eventually, I moved on.

 

4. It’s good to get help.
I had a third-party coach who helped me through this transition. Having another voice and another set of eyes is critical and (at least in my opinion) non-negotiable. Making this transition on your own is not healthy. Check with your organization to see if they will help pay for a development coach who will assist you through this process. This person can make all of the difference.

It did for me.

Time is key. Leaving the field is not just leaving a job. It’s leaving a life. Transition off the field is as life-altering as moving to the field. Be ready for this.  

My moment with cold coffee on a borrowed front porch happened five years ago. Time has passed. I’m okay. There will always be residual scar tissue. But grace (with time) does heal all wounds.

So get ready to embrace the discomfort and swim in the beauty of the grace of God. Give yourself time and space to land.

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

Bernie and Renee’ just celebrated their 30th year of marriage while residing in Greenville, SC. Their two adult children launched while the whole family resided in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Currently, they serve as the regional leadership couple for Southeast Asia at New International. Bernie is a leadership and non-profit coach and consultant who writes and publishes daily at bernieanderson.com/blog.

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

Coming Back From Narnia: What Re-entry Feels Like

by Beth Watkins

It’s been a little more than a year since my husband, a new immigrant, and I relocated back to the U.S. after I’d been away for more than 6 years.

It’s hard being back. They call it re-entry shock – the special kind of culture shock that happens when you’re back in your own culture after significant time away. You feel disoriented in a place and among a people that is and are your own.

It is also hard because I have no idea how to sum up the last few years, even to those who know me well.

It was like I went to Narnia. When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy stumbled out of Narnia and back into the dusty wardrobe from whence they came, they weren’t the same people who went in. No one could understand what had happened and how their experiences changed them. I’m sounding dramatic, I know, but the extraordinary had happened and they struggled explaining it, being understood, and assimilating, because they no longer fit in the shapes of where they came from and returned to.

The people they returned to hadn’t seen what they had seen. And it was no one’s fault, but it was grievous to them. They’d been profoundly changed – and were distraught that they couldn’t return. They’d loved deeply, experienced loss, felt alive. But they went back through the closet and couldn’t take others back with them to see what they’d seen. So, they tried to explain, but as we know, words can fail when it comes to describing our deep life-altering experiences.

I don’t feel fully American anymore. My cultural glasses have fogged. But I also don’t at all feel Sudanese, South Sudanese, or Egyptian. (And though I’ve picked up lots of British-isms from my husband, I am certainly not at all British, either.) I am a sort of in-between. I’ve been warned by people who lived overseas for many years that I have been changed by my overseas life, and I’ll always be a bit “other.”

The best way I heard it explained was that I was, let’s say, an American square going to live in the triangle culture of North Africa. While in North Africa, my square edges got sanded down a bit. I acclimated to the culture there, I assimilated a bit, while still retaining much of my core American-ness. The longer I was there, the more the subtle sanding continued. Now, in my return, my sharp edges don’t just come back. I’m still squarish, but also a bit triangular now, too.

I don’t fit in the triangle of North Africa, but I don’t fit right back in to my square here.

I’m mostly this, with a little bit of that, a splash of other, and the people I feel “get” me and my husband and what we have gone through the most, are those who have gone through their own bit of sanding down in other places or through other experiences. Diamondish circles, squarish triangles, rectangular diamonds: those are our people.

It is difficult and frustrating sometimes feeling like we don’t actually fit anywhere, that no place feels quite right. But it’s a gift too, I’ve found. It’s sharpened my gaze to those who are a bit other where they are too.

I know in small part the feeling of the refugee kids in the after-school program where I volunteer, trying to speak our language well and figure out how to do life in an overwhelming place. I have a heightened sense and immediate sort of understanding with people I can see are hurting, who have survived or are surviving very difficult circumstances. Our experience has drawn us to go to a very different church than the type of church we would have chosen in a previous life. It’s made me braver about the situations I enter into, about the conversations I’m willing to start, about the kind of life I still want to pursue.

So, while I still feel out of place, sometimes even among my own family, I’m so grateful I was able to walk through that door and enter into a reality other than my own. And now that I’m back, while I will grieve not being able to return to my own Narnia, I am grateful that it’s left me craving diversity, itching to be in proximity to others who are different from me, and sure that these things make our lives richer, our own selves better, and the world a more gracious and empathetic place.

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

Beth Watkins spent the last 6 years working in North and Sub-Saharan Africa with street children, refugees, and other vulnerable populations. She is currently settling back in the US with her immigrant husband and writes about living toward the kingdom of God and flailing awkwardly into neighbor-love at iambethwatkins.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Debriefing: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

After I wrote about debriefing last month, some people responded with versions of . . . Sounds like a good idea, but where should I go?

That’s a great question, and I’d like to point you to a place where you can find some options. Here at A Life Overseas, click on the Resources link at the top of the page, and you’ll see a list of debriefing opportunities under the heading “Re-entry and Debriefing Resources.” It’s not an exhaustive list, but with the continued help of this community, we can make it more so. Can you give us the names, URLs, and locations of other places you’d recommend? Just comment below or leave your contributions in the comments section at the end of the Resources list.

Of course, Where? isn’t the only question worth asking. So as you think about what might be a good fit for you, here are some more questions to get you started:

Who is offering the debriefing?
Is it led by an organization, or an individual?
What is their philosophy? Do they have a statement of faith?
Who are the facilitators? What is their background, experience, and training? Do they have specific areas of expertise? Have they written blog posts or books that you can read?
What have others said about their time there?
What language(s) will be used?
What are their policies concerning confidentiality?

Where is it located?
Does it take place in your passport country, or near your place of ministry?
Is it along your scheduled route, or would you rather it be off your beaten path?
Is it in the mountains, next to a lake, in a city, outside a small town?
What’s nearby?
What are the facilities like?
Where will you sleep—on site, at a hotel, in the home of a host?
Is it close to an airport, and is transportation available from the airport to the site?

Who will attend?
Will there be others there at the same time, or will you be there by yourself?
If there’s a group, how large will it be?
Can others from your organization attend the same session?
Are children welcome? Is there a minimum age?
Does the debriefing include a program for children, or is child-care provided?
How many young people will there be? Will age groups be divided?

How much does it cost?
What is included in the cost?
Are room and board provided, or should you make your own arrangements? (If food is included, can dietary needs be accommodated?)
Are scholarships available?
Is there a penalty for cancellation?
Will there be extra transportation costs to factor in?

When does it take place?
Are there multiple dates each year?
How long does it last?
When is the registration deadline?
Does it fill up quickly? Is there a waiting list?
How long after reentry do they recommend you wait before debriefing?
Is there a minimum time you’ll need to have spent on the field?

What is the schedule like?
Is the daily schedule flexible?
Is free time included?
Will attendees have time for informal interaction with each other?
How is time divided between group activities and individual debriefing?
Are times set aside for organized worship?
Is there anything you should do to prepare?
Will there be follow up after the debriefing?
Can you arrive early, or stay late?

Not all of these questions will be important to you, but some will. And you might have questions of your own—born out of your specific experiences, needs, and expectations. You can help out the rest of us with your additions to this list. And again, don’t forget to go to the Resources page and add your suggestions for where to debrief. That will be a big help, as well.

[photo: “Welcome home,” by Stefani Woods, used under a Creative Commons license]

When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed:

When our inner GPS is “recalibrating”
When we decide to go overseas, our convictions tell us that we’re making progress. No matter what careers or plans we’re giving up, mission work is a promotion. And as we acclimate ourselves to our new home and the depths of our new work, we say things like “I could never go back to my old life.” But what happens when we do go back? We’re faced with the jobs, lifestyles, and habits that we told ourselves were in our past, and we can feel guilty for pointing ourselves in that direction. Forward seems backward and backward seems forward. The way of life we are seeking can be the way of life that we fear.

In The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Matt B. Redmond writes about the difficulties of living a run-of-the-mill life when we believe that radical service is what God wants from us. As a pastor, Redmond had often preached this message:

Your days should be blood-earnestly marked by an urgent, nerve-twisting love for people you have never known. And if you truly loved them you would join the mission team’s trip at the expense of your vacation to know them. If you loved God, you would do it. And if you really believed—BELIEVED, you would go and stay. You should want to go. It should be hard to stay where you are in the comfort of where you are.

While understanding the value of the call to “change the world,” Redmond looked over his congregation and realized that he also needed to preach another sermon—that there’s “a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers.” There’s a God for construction workers and teachers and the unemployed and cooks and cashiers and bankers. That last one Redmond learned about through experience. After writing his book, he left his church position and took a job—for him an often frustrating job—at a bank. As he writes at Echoes and Stars, living out the mundane can, at times, frustrate the soul, even as it teaches valuable lessons, and practicing it can be harder than preaching it.

When embracing means letting go
The goal for those of us who’ve returned is to find our place and to live out God’s kingdom here, but that means releasing the hopes and dreams and prayers that we’ve held close for so long. Will we go back?  Probably not . . . but maybe? We can’t stay in a holding pattern forever. That’s not realistic nor is it healthy.

As time goes by, we give up our support, we quit mailing out prayer letters, we change our Facebook details, we forget words in our second languages, we take new jobs, we buy houses and couches and lawn mowers, and we hang pictures. With each step we see ourselves moving further away from resuming our cross-cultural lives, and we hear the distant sound of closing doors. Some slam quickly, while others we watch slide closed slowly, over time.

When we lose even more of our Me Toos
We’re no longer missionaries, no longer expats, no longer neighbors to the nationals oceans away. So with whom do we identify? Well, there’s still the group of fellow travelers living through the challenges of repatriation. But even then . . . as our roots grow deeper and we become more a part of the landscape, we find ourselves leaving that group, that identity, too. As our prayers are answered, as our goals are realized, are we walking away from even these brothers and sisters, those who aren’t as far along? What about next year, when we hear of other cross-cultural workers just returned? Will we have forgotten what they’re going through?

With each move, we leave others behind. May we continue forward and yet still remember, and empathize with, all those who continue in the places where we’ve been.

When disappointment becomes a way of life
During a flight across the Pacific, following a time overseas involving several setbacks, my wife and I watched Last Chance Harvey, a movie about a down-on-his-luck American pursuing the affections of a tired-of-being-let-down Brit. In one scene, Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) implores Kate (Emma Thompson) to give their relationship a chance. She replies,

I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it, because it’ll hurt. . . . and I won’t do it. . . .

You see, what I think it is, is . . . is that I think I’m more comfortable with being disappointed. I think I’m angry with you for trying to take that away.

When we’ve faced disappointments, especially disappointments on top of disappointments, we can get to the point where we find comfort in the predictability of our discomfort. So we stop hoping for something better, because we’re afraid “it’ll hurt” more.

Ruth Van Reken, Adult Third Culture Kid and former missionary, discusses something similar in Letters Never Sent. As a TCK, she’s many times had to let go of things she holds dear, and as an adult, she writes the following concerning her engagement to her fiancé, David:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

A few months later, after her wedding, she writes, “God didn’t yank David away after all!”—though she still needs more time to deal with her continuing fears.

When everything’s “OK”
Last month I wrote that as we chronicle our lives, we need to share epilogues to our stories even when things haven’t gone the way we’d hoped. But it can also be difficult to share the positive updates, too. I know my own tendency, when I hear someone’s slice of good news, to say too quickly, “Glad to hear all is well.” And then I stop asking questions and cross that person off my prayer list. We so much want to get rid of all the loose ends in our lives and in the lives of others. But I distrust tying everything up in a neat bow, because, well . . . life.

When Letters Never Sent came out in 1988, the publishers gave it the subtitle “One Woman’s Journey from Hurt to Wholeness.” In the 2012 edition, Van Reken writes in a new epilogue that when she originally saw the full title, her reaction was a feeling of horror and she immediately called the publishers. “That subtitle isn’t right,” she told them. “I’m not whole yet. My life is still in process.” But they responded, “We need to sell the book,” and the subtitle remained unchanged. (I guess most readers don’t like unresolved issues.)

But the new version has a different publisher and a different title: Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. For Van Reken, there is hope in the process. Yes, transition brings wounds, but God’s grace brings healing, bit by bit, even if complete wholeness is still out of reach. It may take longer than we’d like, or longer than we’d planned on, but healing does come, because of the one we follow— Jehovah Rapha, the Lord who heals.

So . . . our pictures are on the walls!

Some of our pictures made the trip from the States and back again. Some we added to our collection while we were abroad. We’ve got photos, prints, and a puzzle mounted in a frame. And another one is the painting at the top of this post, by my now 96-year-old mother. It has a prominent place in our entryway, which is appropriate, since we’re working on a new beginning . . . and Mom didn’t take up painting until her 70s.

We’re enjoying this time of being closer to family. We’re enjoying meeting our new neighbors. And we’re also looking for some more pictures to hang, ones that represent this next chapter we’re starting, while we make our new home. It may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it it can’t be good.

As I work on my own epilogue, I’d like to return to Van Reken’s—and close with her description of the healing that is still taking place for her. It is so good to learn from the wisdom of those who have traveled the same paths before.

[T]his is my story—a life hopefully in process and growing, but not completed nor perfected until the Shepherd I love calls me for my last journey home.

(Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Ruth Van Reken, Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing, Summertime, 2012)

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?

 

 

I Can’t Handle This

The barista brought us our fru-fru coffee all decorated and foamy. I would be leaving Bolivia in a couple days and my friend wanted to spend some time with me. She and I had history. You get connected to someone when you’re climbing a mountain (literally) with them.

I went to Bolivia with mountain moving faith. 13 years passed. Then in one of the darkest valleys I have ever known the decision to leave was made.

In my raw state I was in no mood for a friendly chat. I barely had enough energy to be seen in public. Her face emanated pity. When she said the next thing to console me I might have been sharp and slightly embittered.

“God won’t give you more than you can handle,” she said with a sincere smile on her face.

I stared and shook my head. I knew it wasn’t true. I cared enough for this dear friend that I wanted her to see me, hear me.

“Where’s that verse found?” I asked.

“Oh, I am not sure. I don’t know. I will have to look it up. But I know it’s there,” she said.

“That’s not a verse in the bible,” I said with a flat voice.

She insisted. I resisted.

“Let me explain it this way,” I began, “If that verse existed then it would mean that I don’t need God. If He is only going to give me what I can handle on my own then I have no need of Him.”

She stood by her belief. I would expect nothing less of her. The conversation veered to children, church, and other things. We ended the encounter with sweet embraces, kisses, true sentiments spoken with eyes and hearts locked. She is precious to me.

But I still don’t think that is a verse in the bible.

These last few years have brought more doubt than I care to admit. I doubted myself. I knew that if what I was going through was given to me by God then He hadn’t read that verse, because I could not handle what was going on.

I broke. That’s not “handling” it. That’s breaking.

I went to look it up and see if it really was in the Bible. Where do I go to find the verse? Google of course. Here’s a screen shot of what popped:

god give handle

Apparently the Interwebs have some mixed feelings about this cliche too. I especially appreciate the sentiment in the lower left hand corner. Yeah. That.

Where was I going with this? Oh yes. The bible. Eventually I did land in the silky paper pages of my bible at the infamous verse:

“The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.”  1 Corinthians 10:13  (NLT)

Evil and badness try to get at us all the time. Those Corinthians were some seedy folk and had some huge temptations to face. When I hear temptation my mind goes to one word: sin. The verse talks about the choice to take a breath and look around for a different way rather than to directly follow the path of sin. When we are tempted to sin we can find a way not to. That’s God’s faithfulness.

He’s not lumping  a heap of hardship on me just so He can tell me to go handle it.

He does burden us, though. Listen:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG)

Are you tired? Yes. Tired of trying. Tired of faking it. Tired of suffering silently.

Worn out? Um, yes. Worn out from running too hard with no rest. Worn out from allowing people to use me.

Burned out on religion? Amen. The formulas weren’t working.

Come to me. Get away with me … I did not think this would be a literal get away.  Leave the mission field? Never, God! Move back to the States? That would be like a prison sentence! I said these things out loud on numerous occasions.

Now I’m sitting in my home in suburbia, U.S.A. There’s a minivan parked in the two car garage. I’m about to go to work at my part-time job that helps pay the bills. This move is not a furlough. It’s indefinite. What just happened?!?!

Most people have been extremely kind to us through this transition. The one person that has been the hardest on me is: myself. Yep. But I am learning.

I am learning the unforced rhythms of grace. To walk and work with Jesus, to keep company with Him. Even when that means ending my missionary life overseas.

I’d like to tie this article up with a nice neat bow of practical steps or keen advice. Can’t. Won’t.

Maybe we can sit a bit and let it be okay to say, “I can’t handle it.” No cliches. No quick fixes. And then just wait and see what happens when we are honest with God… honest with ourselves.

Debriefing Resources

Debriefing

Thanks to the facebook followers of our A Life Overseas page we have a list of debriefing resource links. Please share any resources you have found helpful. We would love to bulk up the list with resources around the globe.

Other names for debriefing include: home assignment, re-entry counseling, member care, and processing for repatriation.

Christian Training Center International at The Inn (Franklin, North Carolina, USA)

Life Impact (various locations around the world)

Link Care Center (various locations around the world)

Mission Training International (Palmer Lake, Colorado, USA)

Missionary Health Institute (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

The Rest Initiative (Maitland, Florida, USA)

TEAM (various locations around the world)

Thrive, empowering global women (various locations around the world)

TRAIN International (Joplin, Missouri, USA)

The Well Member Care Center (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

ONLINE:

Member Care Radio

Expatriate Connection

BOOKS:

Re-entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home” by: Peter Jordan

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” by: William Bridges

Trauma and Resilience” by: Schaefer and Schaefer

As Soon As I Fell: A Memoir” by: Kay Bruner

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As stated up top, if you have links to resources that could help in the area of debriefing, counseling for repatriation or re-entry, member care, processing for home assignment, or other related needs those living overseas might have, please share.  Thanks! Be well and take care, my friends.