Life among the pagodas
I don’t know anyone working overseas who does not at times feel terribly caught between worlds. This tension is constant for most of us, and it is often heightened by our experiences in returning home, or our attempts to share our life with those in our passport countries. There is typically little or no opportunity for us to have conversations about some facets of this tension, but there is a need for such conversations to take place. We wanted to create an opportunity for others to share anonymously about their joys and challenges in engaging with people and life back in their passport country. Here you will get to listen to a dozen western voices located over the globe, sharing in their words some of the sweetnesses and challenges of this business of being caught between two worlds. Names and specific locations have been removed for the sake of privacy and security.
[A note: This blog series includes some perspective into western culture that some might dislike or disagree with. Please understand that this is not intended to be attack on the western status quo; rather, try to view these words as an appeal from Christians in isolated places, an appeal for more connectedness and understanding; take this as a chance to see what reality is like for another brother or sister in Jesus. It is good for the church to remember, “if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer.” If some of the perspectives shared in this series don’t resonate with you, try to keep in mind that these are real and common experiences for many people who have been sent out by the church, and even for many who have returned to resume “normal” life in the west.]
Jim and I can’t speak for everyone contributing to this, but from our own experience, we delight in the life we have here. We are deeply grateful for all the people around the world who make it possible for us to work overseas. We all have hard or lonely days, as people do everywhere, but we are glad to find ourselves working here for this time and place. We love what we get to do, hard parts and all. We love that it involves friends and family such as you; many of you brighten our lives and make the challenges of yo-yo-ing between worlds worth it. I think everyone who contributed to this series would agree with that sentiment.
My favorite part of being back is the strawberries, chocolate, showers and sweaters.
Getting to eat affordable dairy products whenever I am back is heavenly! Over here a quart of yogurt costs $10, and don’t even ask me about ice cream.
I have been delighted to have great one-on-one conversations when I am back, and am refreshed to discover anew that the bond of being brothers and sisters in Christ can transcend having very different life stories and experiences.
I love being able to go to church in America. Hearing songs of worship in my mother tongue with like-minded individuals: it moves me to tears every time. I always wish that for the people we serve.
It is hard to get used to crosswalks when I come back! Even after three months back in North America, I still couldn’t trust the system enough to cross without feeling very jumpy.
The roads are amazing, they are so smooth, and I hardly ever experience what Americans call “traffic”. What is that?
My favorite part of being back in the States is being with family and friends. I love getting to share stories and hear about their stories. I love getting to see my nieces and spoil them with exotic treasures from the east. Getting to eat my momma’s home cooking is the best. Here I have to search five stores just to find a can of black beans, so it is hard to recreate some of the recipes that are so treasured in the States. The food is great in America; it is nice to have a break from rice. I get my Chick-Fil-A fix when I am there!
The best part of returning to my passport country is not to share what is happening in the country I live in, but instead to be able listen to others sharing passionately about the God-work they are doing in America, locally. America needs “missionaries” just as much as the country where I live.
Coming from a third world country to our home country, I saw all the fat chickens, cats, cars and more, and I thought, “everything is a bit too much here.” We needed to buy some nails and went to a hardware store. We saw a wall full of different nails but we didn’t know what to buy. There were just too many choices.
There is an overwhelming amount of choices! Grocery stores became a trigger of anxiety for me. I couldn’t find what I needed and often felt visually overwhelmed by all of the stuff. Advertisements felt invasive and I wanted peace and quiet.
One of first things I noticed in coming back was the overwhelming amount of choices. I went to the grocery store, because I wanted a box of Kraft mac n’ cheese. I stood in the aisle for 15 minutes, because I was not expecting there to be so many different kinds and flavors of kraft mac n’ cheese. I just wanted the normal kind we had when we were kids! When we go to the store here in _____, if they even have multigrain cereal, it is a good day. We will once a year splurge on the $8-10 dollar box. In contrast, there is a whole aisle dedicated to cereal in America. Needless to say, Wal-Mart is overwhelming.
Americans often start conversations with, “What do you do?” Coming back from overseas unexpectedly due to organizational chaos and political turmoil, I was left without an answer at a church meeting when I came back. I simply said, “Nothing.” I felt that I was being judged by what my job was, and I didn’t have one at the time. It seems that people in America are content to judge themselves and others by their job.
Yes, God meets all our needs, but once in a church group in the west, people asked us to pray for them to make the right choice for the seat color of their new car. I thought, “and what about our friends Asia who have no roof over their heads and don’t know what they will eat next?” But we as overseas workers also have to be gracious with folks in the west. For them it is a serious question and they need to make a choice. For them different things are important than for us, and after having seen a different world overseas, it is a struggle for us to understand their values.
My conversational abilities are sometimes lacking when I first return to North America. I have a hard time making small talk, not to mention forming grammatically correct sentences! It isn’t anyone’s fault—it is just part of transitioning between languages, I think.
One big shock in returning to America is re-entering the fast paced life. Here, people are the priority, not the time. So if you are a few minutes or even hours late, it doesn’t matter, what matters is that you came. If you are 5 minutes late in America, you can be met with impatience. Everything is so scheduled and fast, I get very overwhelmed. At the check out the lady told me like 5 times to swipe my card, before I could even figure out which way it went into the machine. So very different from a cash-based society.
A couple of months after returning home (to Canada) I went to a local produce stand to pick up some groceries and I picked up some avocados and almost started crying because I didn’t know if I was paying too much. For the past two years, I had bartered for all of my fruits and vegetables and even though the price was clearly listed I couldn’t remember if that was a suggestion or the fixed priced. I then realized I was in Canada, paid for my avocados and left.
After being back in America a few months and working a manual labor job, my supervisor seemed inordinately impressed that I could accomplish relatively simple tasks. It seemed there was an impression that people who work overseas chose that work because they couldn’t do anything else very well. This sort of person does exist, but the vast majority of people working overseas regularly battle fussy water pumps, repair hair-raising electrical wiring, dispose of various dangerous creatures, learn multiple languages and generally end up with a lot of varied skills for their trouble. If you need a jack-of-all-trades, find yourself an overseas worker.
Don’t be surprised if my kids are badly behaved at times. Traveling and transitioning between countries often brings out the worst in them. We get so excited to have play times with English-speaking kids, but the constant traveling to visit so many new people wears them out. There is pressure to enjoy this fun time, but it is mixed with all the new social situations that home assignment brings, and it can be scary and stressful for the kids. Go ahead and say to my kids, “Ok I can get that for you, but please ask nicely first,” just like you might correct a close friend’s child. Then I’ll feel like we are picking right up where we left off. We are family. We aren’t “special” missionaries that you haven’t seen in two years.
The hard part about coming back to my passport country is not being able to be there for my friends overseas—especially local friends—when they are going through rough times.
Expectations were a challenge when we returned. We had so little resources in our location overseas, so people had little to no expectations. Food was mediocre and furniture/decor was low budget. The power was unreliable, so entertainment was found in the form of games/fires/conversation. Back in the US, I felt super behind culturally (had NO idea what the current favorite TV shows were, or who won the Super Bowl, etc.). I couldn’t impress people or relate to them, so relationships fell flat. Our old friendships felt anemic.
Coming back to America and meeting with people who fed me dinner and asked good questions until midnight was a surprise and a joy.
Having so many friends all over the world is nice—if I ever want to travel the world, I could probably get away with not having to pay for hotels. But it can be very difficult not being able to have all these dear people in the same place, not having them know one another or care for one another in the same way I do; having a social life in one place that is completely alien to my friends in another place. It is difficult not being able to be near them whenever I need or want to be (especially when they are in dark places and walking through tough times).
On our last visit to the states, I went away hungry from a lot of group gatherings. People wanted to talk and catch up, we had a baby to feed, and often I didn’t get enough to eat. It was like getting married and not getting a bite at the reception, except it happened every week, or more. I am really grateful for the young friends who took the baby on occasion and gave us a break from feeding. I wish that more people could have helped us, though.
I’ve found that it has become easier to love people more intensely, even when I haven’t necessarily spent a ton of time with them. You sort of begin to live in the reality of “I only have today” and you love them for today as much as you can. There are pros and cons to that. Some people who haven’t been in this situation sometimes feel that you are too overbearing and weird. People who you have known in previous chapters of your life may feel at odds, or feel hurt by this. But overall, I feel like my ability to love people has grown.
I love it when people send a quick reply to our newsletter updates, even just to say hi. My favorite is when they include news from their own life, even if it is just about washing the car, or a new window dressing.
Download Skype, or WhatsApp; see if we are online, ask us how we are doing (in a world where, “you look fat!” is a greeting, “how are you doing?” is not intrusive!), give us a call. We love hearing from you.
I want to know how you are doing. I feel like I lob my prayer requests out there and text my prayer team, but I still feel very disconnected from people back home. I can’t call everyone, but when we do get to talk, I really do want to know what’s going on in your life. I want to know if you’re going to Europe or if your kid broke their arm or that you bought a new house. I don’t want you to think your life isn’t important because it isn’t my life. Just drop me a random email telling me what’s going on with you. I’d really love it.