Life among the pagodas
Today marks six months of living in southeast Asia. It seems like time is passing at warp speed—how has it already been six months? I decided to sit down and write some of the things I’ve learned since moving here. Here, in no particular order of importance, are a few of them. (I generally dislike numbered lists, but it seemed the best way to organize my thoughts in this case.)
1. Living abroad has increased my awareness of my own weakness. I’ve realized that I’m nearly powerless to change the impoverished lives of people around me, either materially or spiritually. In being far from home and hearing news from America of cancer diagnoses, deaths, break-ups, friends needing help with their growing families, etc, I feel helpless again, unable to lend a hand in doing anything practical to help. “All I can do is pray, I guess,” I catch myself thinking. Not a good thought, Breanna. It is wrong to look at prayer as a last resort. Through the exhaustion and weariness of the past few months, I’ve been learning that there is nothing impotent about being a position where all I can do is keep my hands still and pray. “Prayer is not preparation for the battle; prayer is the battle.”
2. It is important to know what it takes to thrive personally, and it is equally important to let others have the freedom to do what they need to do to thrive, because everyone is wired differently and every person has a different set of needs. Before moving overseas, I felt as if all the preparatory advice I heard from the greater missionary community was rules about how to do things, how to acclimatize, how to be as much like a local as possible, etc. But the reality is, I will never truly be a local (and with this white face, I’m never going to fool anyone, either!). This means that life here will always be more work for me than it would be had I been born here. I am not here to compete in a Suffering Olympiad. If buying that 130-dollar wash machine gives me more time for relationships and preserves some of my sanity, it’s worth every penny. If having air conditioning means we sleep better at night and have more brainpower and energy to tackle the next day, it’s worth it.
For some folks, thriving means being able to have a weekend getaway from the city every month or two; for us, a day out on our bikes and some time at a western-style coffee shop helps re-energize us. Thriving looks different for everyone in this expat fishbowl; ultimately, a black-and-white rulebook will only destroy relationships. We each need to go to God for wisdom in knowing what is healthy for our lifestyle and goals and what is excessive. Letting go of the urge to judge others is needful in North America for having good relationships, and the need for grace toward one another becomes that much more obvious in the overseas context.
3. For me, personal correspondence is a means of thriving, and not an excess. Before we moved here, I heard all sorts of rules from others about how little/much to keep in touch. I decided to go with the flow and do some self-evaluation as time progressed, and so far, I am not sorry for any of the time I’ve spent corresponding with others since moving here. Those people back home have truly been my support team, and I’ve been able to share with them and get clear-eyed and objective answers/ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to get from people right in the same place and lifestyle as myself. There are women in my life who have walked alongside me from afar, and for every hard day, I have known many days of strength and encouragement because of these friends. I am privileged to get to share in parts of their lives I might not have if I were living nearby; and I need the reminder that the struggles of friends back home are similar to mine, just dressed a little differently. The women who correspond with me are stars on the horizon of the darker days, and I’m so grateful for all their words and time.
4. Humans are incredibly adaptable, even to things we might’ve previously hated! My list of superficial adaptations includes:
– Owning my first pair of flip-flops (still am not a huge fan, but you need them for some things here).
– Owning and wearing more dresses than ever before (being pregnant and being long legged, I do not do well in the local wrap skirts, so dresses are my cooler and more comfortable compromise). I used to hate wearing dresses.
– Loving a cold shower. I heated water for showers when we first got here, until it got so hot that even the water in the holding tank was coming out of the tap hot at 9 pm. In the 100+ degree weather, cold water is a good friend.
– Spending more time in malls in the last six months than in all the past 25 years of my life combined. Malls are the cleanest places to hang out when you need a break, and they’re air-conditioned! And usually you can buy an iced drink at the mall and it won’t make you sick. Ahhh–never in my life have I appreciated malls so much.
– Buying cans of Pringles for a treat every so often. Never ate those things in the states, but living in the land of pork rinds and other mysterious fried food brings out the American consumer in me.
5. Some folks back in North America are quick to make assumptions about us/our life here, and to share them in ways that are isolating/harsh at times. This has been hands-down more difficult and depressing for me than any other challenge in moving here. This has often led me to feel like my life is a product I need to properly groom for North American public consumption; it has made me feel pre-emptively lonely for the inevitable tough parts of long term life overseas. Food poisoning and language misunderstandings are kid stuff compared to what one discovers below the iceberg after living in a different culture for years; coming here married to someone who is a few years ahead of me, I’ve already had a little taste of both sides of that iceberg. I’ve fretted that if someday I mistakenly share what someone doesn’t want to hear, I will be further isolated. This has been a head on challenge for me to seek God’s face and help to eradicate one of my great weaknesses: a fear of man problem.
6. Living overseas takes an inordinate amount of energy, and living in a developing city is totally exhausting (even the locals will say this), but I have been pleasantly surprised to find that I love being a city dweller in Yangon. I enjoy the people, diversity, and movement of this place. All in all, I have only had one “I am so annoyed with this place right now” moment, and it was because of my own poor planning: an unfortunate series of events that left us stuck in traffic and too late to make it to an embassy on time—thereby wasting more than half a day getting nowhere. I see so much of God’s grace to me in how I’ve been able to transition from being a rural girl to living in a city of over 6 million.
7. Going from “adult” to “infant” overnight is difficult, humbling, sometimes immobilizing, and really the most perfect way to learn to listen to God and the wisdom of others instead of myself.
8. Food is a big deal. Mysteriously, sometimes a bite of what I’m used to will fill me up more sufficiently than trying to eat a triple helping of something perfectly safe, but unfamiliar to my digestive system. I would have difficulty feeling full and satisfied after eating local food, but a half helping of spaghetti and meat sauce and my body would say, “hey! I know that food, I feel satisfied!” I still struggle with feeling guilty for having so much trouble with local food, but I’ve come to accept this as a limitation (and perhaps it is only temporary due to pregnancy) and to simply enjoy making/eating some western meals each week without guilt.
I have laughed at myself over food more often than anything else since moving here: since when did seeing a Sour Patch Kids advertisement on Facebook ever make me feel sentimental? I hate those candies! Or why do I, who always mocked jello “salad” back home, now find myself lying in bed fantasizing over a helping of this quivering delicacy? Yes, food is a big deal. It is more than just a source of fuel and nutritional content; it contains layers upon layers of depth in terms of relationships and memories. A bit of ice cream may not be great for my teeth, but I’ve discovered it does great things for my psyche, so I’ve embraced the indulgence (and the little dairy shop down the road from my house isn’t complaining, either.) There is something about a summer’s day that can only be said with a spoonful of whipped cream and fruit; it’s not always about the food itself, but about remembering and having a sense of home.
(A tip for all you folks who host international students: give them the chance to eat and celebrate some familiar food, no matter how weird/unhealthy you think it is–they may need it physically and they certainly need it emotionally.)
9. Being mute teaches me to pray; being vulnerable teaches me to pray without ceasing. Moving to a foreign country is almost like taking a vow of silence; so often the only other being who will understand me is God. Couple that with the few things I do know how to say, and I find myself asking for his help for simple things all the time. The wondrous part of it all has been seeing his kindness and faithfulness to me, how he truly has met all my needs, even before I had a chance to ask. Before I can even finish praying for a sober taxi driver for my solo ride home at night, an upstanding fellow pulls up, understands my broken Burmese, and gives me a fair price for a safe ride home. Before I can finish an agonized prayer about, “are we living in the right place?” something in the group conversation going on about me answers my questioning prayer perfectly. I have been convicted in realizing many times how immature I am about prayer, and the truth of the words, “you do not have because you do not ask.” Truly, there is not a step I’ve taken here where God hasn’t been my shield, and I’m slowly, stumblingly learning to talk to him more and more; I’ll never stop needing his help, and I ought never stop asking.
Moving overseas has made me feel more physically weak/vulnerable than ever before. I’ve learned how desperately I need God, how faithfully he carries me through, and how kindly he prepares me for the challenges of each day and each change. Psalm 125 was an encouragement to me before we left: “those who look to him are unshakeable, like Mount Zion,” and I’ve seen God give me strength, even as I’ve felt more weak and incompetent than ever. I think one of the overarching lessons of the last six months is the truth of these words, “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace” (Hebrews 13:9).
Satisfactory adherence to man-made rules, feeling competent, being in good health, having tangible results for a hard day’s work… these may have been a source of refuge, security, and personal identity in the past, but no more. I stand here by grace alone, and as I look ahead to the next six months of my life, my only hope is in that sweet, strengthening grace of my Lord, who has faithfully gone with and before me in every step of this sojourn.