Perspectives from Abroad (Part 2): Perceptions, the West, and Global Identity

Welcome to part two of a three-part series on what it is like to relate with one’s passport country after living abroad. (Click here to read Part One) This series shares a dozen different perspectives from all over the world on some of the issues overseas workers face as they transition between their passport country and another culture. Part two focuses on the realities of life overseas, the global identity one gains while living abroad, and on how the West is perceived by the rest of the world.

Before we start with people’s testimonies, here is a beautiful quote from Marilyn Gardner, on the subject of telling our stories:

“The more I hear from immigrants, refugees, and third culture kids, the more I am convinced that communicating our stories is a critical part of adjusting to life in our passport countries. We have a lifetime of experiences that, when boxed up for fear of misunderstanding, will result in depression and deep pain. As we learn to tell our stories we understand not only the complexity of our experience, but the complexity of the human experience, the human heart. So we learn to tell our stories–because your story, my story, and our stories matter.”


Here versus There: Perceptions and Reality

“Life here adds an extreme amount of stress to the normal day. I could get by on 6 hours of sleep in America; I can’t here. In the US, I used my time in the car driving around to decompress, but I ride a bike here, so I’m always on. I cut the grass with shears and it takes 3 hours. I don’t have a dishwasher or dryer. It takes me more than an hour to get 12 km across town. It’s equatorial; it’s hot and humid all the time. Just normal life, not including the spiritual element, takes a lot out of me.”


 “Just recently I realized that most people in Western countries think that their living standards are the norm for the whole world; having things like 24 hours of electricity, at least one car, a fridge, an oven, running drinking water coming out of the tap, hot water etc. They cannot understand how people can live without all that. But most of the people on earth are still pumping the water by hand, cook on wood, and have no electricity at all. We are living in such a place; we have only 4 hours of electricity a day and neither a washing machine nor an oven. As foreigners we cook on gas but all our neighbors cook on wood.”


“I live on a tropical island that is a vacation to most people, so that’s what a lot of people back home perceive. What they don’t see is the intense spiritual environment that makes living here definitely not a vacation. I experience spiritual attack in intense demonic nightmares that have been interrupting my sleep pretty much since I’ve lived here. I don’t think people back in my passport country understand that some other places are home to some intense and evil spiritual environments.”


“I live in a tropical climate, but I don’t go to the beach every day. I don’t go every week. I might not go every month. I’m not on vacation. This is a difficult place to live.”


“It is hard for me to listen to people telling me about projects they think I should be excited about. I have spent enough time with people working NGO’s, hearing about their various failed projects, and seeing foreign aid pour into ____ , that I have become very jaded about the usefulness and efficacy of any foreign-initiated and foreign-directed project. Of course we feel good about going and building an awesome school, or a ton of wells and stuff, and the people there will praise us for it. What is not seen is the way in which Americans abroad are typically seen as ‘walking moneybags.’ We arrive with our agenda and our funds, and we get to demand things get done our way. We have pressure from our supporters back home to tell a good story anyway. The locals often comply, and receive help and either humbly try to love these incorrigible go-getters from the US, or receive the help because now they don’t have to fix their own problems.  So, when we’d return, someone would say, “Cool you were in Africa? My friend is doing really cool stuff over there; they just built an orphanage on a short-term trip!” I was expected to be excited for them, when in fact, I was discouraged. These people never asked my thoughts about that kind of a project, they just expected me to be stoked for it.”


“I’m sharing what I believe with people, but what works in America doesn’t just work here. People here have a different worldview that may take a while to uncover and understand. Telling people that Jesus died for their sins doesn’t always work; some people don’t care about that. I’m learning more that people here care who has the power over evil spirits, who has the ability to remove their shame and restore their honor.  The way in which Americans love and understand the gospel just doesn’t work here.  So it’s not quick, it’s not easy. I didn’t come here with all the answers. I wish people understood how uniquely different the American worldview is from the rest of the world (different even from Europe and other developed nations).”


We have adopted a Global Identity

“Please remember that when you talk about “them” [Chinese/Muslims/refugees/etc], you are talking about me.”


“It is hard for me to see the news and all the hate with Muslims. Those are the people who love us, share meals with us, and spoil my child. My son calls them “Uncle and Auntie”, “Grandma and Grandpa”, “Brother and Sister.” It’s hard to see all the hate and discrimination.”


“When you make offhand remarks about other cultures, nationalities, peoples, etc., your opinions reveal your attitude toward people who happen to be my close friends. I will step in to represent them and I will probably stand up to you and what you have just said, as you would if I had just insulted your mother or sister or friends.”


“My love, wonder and appreciation for my new home, friends, and culture doesn’t mean I have less love, wonder, and appreciation for you, my passport home, friends, and culture. It just means that my heart is growing more to be like the Lord’s. He is able to love all of us and desires that of us. It’s an addition and a growth rather than a “them or us” or “less for you, more for them.” It’s an enlargement of my love and my ability to love.”


Western Culture: The View from Here

“I think American patriotism can often look either overly aggressive or manipulative abroad.”


“Kingdoms of men will come and go as they always have, and my country of origin is one of those kingdoms. While some argue that my country is more special, beloved or righteous in God’s eyes than any other country, Jesus leaves us no room for confusing his Kingdom and our nation-states. His Kingdom is not of this world. All Christians need to see and believe this, or they are in danger of syncretizing their nationalism and faith in Christ. Our loves must be rightly ordered.”


“We hear a lot over here about the gun violence in America. For many Americans, life overseas would sound scary. To me, hearing the news about shootings in America makes it seem “safe” here.”


“Western Christians seem particularly worried about their civil liberties, and fearful about many things in general. I think they should read more church history. Isn’t the fragrance of Christ poured out on the world when his people glorify him, no matter what happens? We see it here in Christians who are being persecuted. Our King is one who gave up all his rights to die for us while we were still his enemies. There is no power on earth that is not subject to God’s power—do you believe it? Let the goodness of knowing Christ overwhelm your fears.”


“No country is good or bad. I hope American Christians know that in God’s eyes every nation is the same: full of sinners in need of salvation.”

A few more thoughts on being back in the west:

“I love being able to worship with others in my home country.  Even if I can’t find anything else in common, we do have Jesus!”


“It means a lot when my friends respect and even defend the time I need to rest and recuperate–even if it’s only from the journey.”


“I am still afraid of Subway and other stores like it and will always order the same thing because I get so overwhelmed with all the split second decisions!”


“Being able to go to clean parks is a real treat. Here where we live, there is little green space for kids to run and play, and the playground equipment often looks like some sort of tetanus risk!”


“It’s great being able to get outside and be more active!  In my host country it was sometimes even hard to breathe when you were outside. Also, mountains and trails were hard to find.  People who are willing to catch up with you and go on an adventure at the same time are priceless!”

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

4 thoughts on “Perspectives from Abroad (Part 2): Perceptions, the West, and Global Identity”

  1. It ‘tugged at my heart’ when Marilyn said, “So we learn to tell our stories because…our stories matter.” I have spent time in some foreign countries. I have not lived with my heart perched ‘in-between two nations’ now, since 1993. I just realized, though, that it was really only about five years ago that I was finally not missing any other place, and finally not feeling that I ‘should be’ with anyone other than the people in my homeland. This lifestyle of being a ‘home girl’ is proving to be easier for me, emotionally…Hats off to ya’ll who are calling two places ‘home’. May you continue to find grace to do this amazing thing!
    Thank you, Barbara Walker

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