Superwomen of the Philippines Teach in Baltimore

It’s a not-uncommon cross-cultural story: A child flies away from his home country and is adopted into a whole new world. He grows up trying to be like the people around him, but he’s different. Maybe he should deny his past and just fit in. But denying who he is comes with a price. Embracing his true identity and exploring his heritage comes with a price, too. It’s an epic struggle, and the non-stop battles threaten to become his identity.

It’s the story of Superman.*

This past week, my wife and I watched last year’s Man of Steel on DVD. Following a trend in super-hero cinema, it tells the gritty, complex, discordant story of a superhero. And, of course, there’s action—so much thunderous, building smashing, ground shaking, tank-fisted action. In fact, right before the umpteenth fight between equally matched super people, my wife said, “Oh, not again.” The movie is entertaining, but it’s nearly 2 1/2 hours long, and with battle after battle, with the ultimate outcome never in doubt, all the excitement became . . . uh . . . boring.

A few days later, we watched another film about people landing in a new cultural landscape, leaving friends and family to try to make a difference in their own lives and those around them. This one is a POV documentary from 2011 called The Learning. It’s about four women from the Philippines, some of the 600 Filipino teachers, recruited by the school district, who teach in inner-city Baltimore.

“I only see America in television movies, in pictures of books, or in magazines,” says Dorotea, one of the four. “I haven’t had a picture of what America really looks like. . . . So this is it. This is America, where the dollars are found.”

Yes, these teachers can earn up to 25 times their salaries back home. That means they can send money back to the spouses, children, and parents whom they’ve left behind.

When she returns to her family after the end of the school year, Angel takes her five brothers and sisters, mom, and dad on their first-ever shopping spree. The money doesn’t seem enough to buy all that they want.

Grace, who has stayed in touch with her infant son by video chat during her time in the States, returns to the Philippines to find a boy who looks away and doesn’t want her to hold him.

“I know in the long run I will be in a better position,” she says. “I really have to suffer the consequences of what I did and what I’m doing.”

Rhea, who shares victories with the students in her special-education classroom, faces setbacks in her family life. While she’s away, her husband is arrested for selling drugs and faces the possibility of life in prison.

“I had this dream, you know, of going into a far place, bringing him wherever I go, and we will start something new—just us, no parents, no friends,” says Rhea. But her world has changed. “This is defeat for me. It’s like I’ve been fighting for so long for nothing.”

With tears, Dorotea says that this, her 24th year of teaching, is “full of adjustments, full of disappointments, full of hurts, full of . . . full of ill feelings.”

One of her high-school students tells her, “I wouldn’t leave my family if I was you. I’d stay over there. . . . You like it in the Philippines?”

Dorotea nods her head.

“You like it over here better?”

Smiling, Dorotea says, “It’s a very tough question.”

The four ladies of The Learning are real-life superwomen, which means they’re strong, but they’re not made of steel. It means they’re not actually superwomen. They’re conflicted, vulnerable, less-than-perfect. They fight battles, in the classroom and in their thoughts. One battle comes after another. But the ultimate outcome is certainly in doubt . . . and it’s anything but boring.

Directed by Ramona S. Diaz, The Learning originally aired three years ago. It is currently making an encore appearance online and is available for viewing through May 12.

*For a deeper discussion of Superman as Third Culture Kid, see Katherine Alexander’s “Clark Kent and Third Culture Super Power.”


Park-Bench Conversations

[I’ve written a new “page” to point readers to posts in this blog that are the most meaningful to me. It’s called “park bench,” and it’s linked in the banner above. And to save you a click, here it is below.]

The posts on this blog, while all under the umbrella of cross-cultural issues, cover an array of topics. All of these are interesting to me, but some of the most important to me are on the subject of transitioning between cultures.

142023581_52b616759aIt’s often a difficult process and lasts well beyond the plane ride. Though there are many voices telling us about the challenges of redefining “home,” many of the stories are not shared eagerly or in public. Rather, they come out in safe places and only in response to careful and gentle prodding.

There are several images that conjure up thoughts of those conversations: a kitchen table, side-by-side cups of coffee, the corner booth in a cafe, a front porch.

For me, it’s a park bench.

I’m not always comfortable with talking face-to-face. It’s easier for me to sit next to someone, with the option of staring into the distance or getting up for a walk. Some of my deepest conversations, with people and with God, have taken place on park benches—at the edge of a mountain trail, in a park, next to a playground, in the courtyard of an apartment complex, at a bus stop on a busy street.

At Clearing Customs, the park-bench talks center on the difficulties of transition, on the grief that comes from losses associated with moves, on finding confidants who are able to listen without judgment. If those topics are relevant to you, too, please follow the category links below.

All of the topics in this blog are interesting to me, but these are some of the most important to me.

[photo: “City Park in Fall,” by Michael Williams, used under a Creative Commons license]

Repost – You Remember You’re a Repat when . . . (Part 1)

Repatriation—to borrow a phrase from John Denver—is coming home to a place you’ve never been before.

Here’s a repost from my first year blogging, with 92 things that remind repats that they’ve been out of the country for a while. As time goes by, more and more of them are happening less and less for me. But some will never go away.


In the hallowed tradition of “You Know You’re an Expat / Third Culture Kid / Missionary when . . .” lists, I offer my own version for repats. This is for the times when you’re reminded that your plug doesn’t always fit the outlet.

Since I’m a former missionary to Asia who’s repatriated back to the US, a lot of my list leans in that direction, but I hope there’s something here for repats of every stripe (or voltage, as it were).

You remember you’re a repat when . . .

1. Your passport is your preferred form of ID.
2. You comment on how cheap gas is in the US.
3. You ask your friends who they’re picking to win the World Cup.
4. Your CNN web page is set on “International.”
5. You accidentally try to pay for something with the strange coins from the top of your dresser.
6. You don’t trust your friends when they say they’ve found a “good” Italian restaurant.
7. You ask the clerk at the convenience store if you can pay your electric bill there.
8. You don’t know how to fill out taxes without Form 2555.
9. You think Americans are loud.
10. You talk about Americans overseas and call them “foreigners.”
11. You find out that living overseas is not the top qualification employers are looking for.
12. You learn to stop talking about the nanny and groundskeeper you used to employ.
13. You have to ask how to write a check.
14. You forgot how many numbers to dial for a local phone call.
15. You tell your toddler, “No seaweed until you finish all your hamburger.”
16. You try to order fried chicken at Burger King.
17. You check prices by converting from what a similar item cost overseas.
18. You think American paper money is boring because it lacks color and the bills are all the same size.
19. You don’t know how to respond when people say, “I bet you’re glad to be back home.”
20. You prefer to hear news reports from someone with a British accent.
21. You wonder why all the commentators on TV are yelling.
22. You wish you’d brought back ten of your favorite kitchen utensil because you didn’t know it’s not sold in the States.
23. You realize international students are you’re kind of people.
24. You ask where you can get a late-model, low-mileage Toyota for around $2000.
25. You turn on the subtitles on an English movie because you don’t want to miss anything.
26. You ask the clerk at the video store if they have VCDs.
27. You wonder if organization should be spelled with an s.
28. You load up your suitcase and you try not to “pack like an American.”
29. You stop bringing your bi-lingual Bible to church.
30. You smirk inside because someone calls a 4.3 earthquake “a big one.”

(Part 2Part 3)

[top photo: “Electrical Outlet,” by grendelkhan, used under a Creative Commons license; bottom photo: “Having It Both Ways,” by Keith Williamson, used under a Creative Commons license]

I Love You, I Hate You: “Girl, Adopted”

After writing about some documentaries on adoption that used to be, but are no longer, available for online viewing, I finally went to the PBS site and found one that is still up—but not for long. If you want to see Girl, Adopted, you’ll have to watch it before the end of this month.

Weynsht with her adoptive parents before their flight to the States

Documentaries are at their best when the filmmakers step out of the way and just let the subjects of the films speak for themselves. That seems to be what happens in Girl, Adopted. It presents the story of Weynsht (pronounced win-shet), who, at the age of 13, is adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia by a family from Pyatt, Arkansas. The ups and downs don’t come in the adoption process itself—with the finalization providing the climax. Instead, the adoption is the beginning of the story, with the relationship between Weynsht and her new parents supplying the joys and frustrations.

Near the beginning of the film, Melanie, the adoptive mother, says, “We feel like everything happens for a reason and in perfect timing, and I think that we were meant for her and she was meant for us.”

After living in Arkansas for some time, Weynsht shares her own view. “Things happen for a reason sometimes,” she says, “and I still just waiting for a reason.”

Throughout the film, covering five years, Weynsht voices competing emotions concerning America, her parents, and her own identity. And, as young people often do, she talks a lot about love and hate.

Soon after her arrival in the States, she voices her love for Usher, her mother, a Barbie doll, and Wal-Mart.

Later, she says to her white girl friends, “I love you hair.” And when she talks about her desire to find another family, she tells her parents, “I never say, ‘I love you, too,’ because I hate you.”

After more time has passed, Weynsht says, “I really like being Ethiopian person, but I hate being black,” and, “I hate my hair.”

Weynsht on her visit back to Ethiopia

When her father takes Weynsht and her sisters to Ethiopia to visit her orphanage, she finds out that she has an older brother, and her confusion deepens: “I don’t care. I do care, actually, but . . . ,” she says. “I’m just . . . so many things in my head.”

Her mixed emotions turn to anger when she thinks that her father is forcing her to meet her brother. And then she’s afraid: “If I met my brother, why would I want you guys? What makes you think I need somebody else? If I have a brother, I’m wanna stay with my brother.” Then she adds, “And I don’t want that ’cause I love you guys, and just stop.”

Girl, Adopted is certainly not a simple advocacy piece for adoption. In fact, while Weynsht’s father, Chris, concludes that adoption is “worth it, even if it’s hard,” he also says,

At one point, I thought that everyone should adopt a child. It’s something that everybody can do. All they’d have to do is just open up their homes and their hearts and let a kid in, but I don’t really hold those same views today. I don’t think that everybody should do it. You have an idealistic view of adoption, and then as you go along, the details of that view are filled in.

Chris, Melanie, and Weynsht are brave to have let the cameras follow their lives for five years. I’m glad they did, because the result is a compelling work that helps the rest of us fill in a multitude of powerful details.

Produced and directed by Melanie Judd and Susan Motamed, Girl, Adopted (2013) is part of the Global Voices series from Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the WORLD channel. The 78-minute video is available for online viewing until October 30. It can also be purchased on DVD.

[photos courtesy of ITVS]

The Psychological Health of Missionaries—Adding to the Research

6903821997_e0a95ce498_nHere’s a quick question:

What percentage of returned missionaries and aid workers report psychological disorders during their time overseas or shortly after their return? What do you think? About a quarter, a third, half, two thirds, three quarters?

According to a 1997 study conducted by Debbie Lovell-Hawker of Oxford University, the answer is “about half.” More precisely, Lovell-Hawker’s findings show that among the returned missionaries and aid workers she studied,

46% reported that they had experienced a clinically diagnosed psychological disorder either while working overseas or shortly after returning to the United Kingdom.

Before I went overseas, I would have guessed much lower than half, but after I first heard this statistic referenced in a debriefing I attended, in my mind, the number began to grow much higher than 46%. Statistics have a way of doing that.

Lovell-Hawker’s research included 145 aid and development workers and missionaries from 62 organizations. Though not definitive, the findings are significant as a wake-up call to cross-cultural workers, sending agencies, NGOs, churches, and member-care givers. And they also can assure those repats who are struggling that they are not alone.

Other  findings include

• 18% reported that their problems developed while they were overseas—82% said they began after returning to their home country
• Depression was the most frequently reported problem, occuring in 87% of the cases
• Those who reported having psychological problems had spent significantly longer time overseas than those who reported having none

(Debbie Lovell-Hawker, “Specialist Care: Psychological Input,” Global Connections Member Care Conference, February 18, 2002)

Moving forward from this study, there are some things I’d still like to know: Has anything changed in the 26 years since the findings were published? What would the numbers be for all missionaries and aid workers, not just those who’ve returned? What would the breakdown be among those working in relief and development vs other settings, such as teaching or church planting in developed areas? Are the numbers consistent for workers returning to countries other than the UK? And what about TCKs?

The good news is that there are researchers who are working on these and similar questions.

The Research Continues

One of those researchers is Lynette H. Bikos. Lynette served as a guest editor (along with M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall) of a special issue of Mental Health, Religion & Culture in 2009, titled “Missionaries.” Lynette is director of research and professor of clinical psychology in the School of Psychology, Family, and Community at Seattle Pacific University—and she also happens to be a friend who lived next to me, on an adjoining farm, as we grew up in northeast Missouri. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and she corresponded with my family and me as she worked on her research.

The special issue includes 10 articles dealing with several aspects of cross-cultural adjustment among those whom the editors call “religiously motivated sojourners.” I’d like to highlight four of those articles:

“Social Support, Organisational Support, and Religious Support in Relation to Burnout in Expatriate Humanitarian Aid Workers”
(Cynthia B. Eriksson et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This assessment found that 40% of expat middle managers in an international faith-based agency were at “high risk” of burnout in one of three areas—lack of personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and disconnection or distance from those being cared for—but less than 4% reported high levels of burnout in all three.

According to the authors of the study, “This suggests that despite intense work and chaotic environments a majority of workers find ways to identify accomplishments, stay connected to others in their work, and rejuvenate. Team relationships, friendships, and positive organisational support may contribute to the resilience for these workers.”

The findings also indicate that younger workers are at a greater risk of burnout, as they register greater negatives in all three burnout areas. But while age was a factor, the number of years serving with the agency was not.

“Resilience in Re-Entering Missionaries: Why Do Some Do Well?”
(Susan P. Selby et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

The authors posed the question ‘‘Why do some re-entering missionaries do well while others do not?’’ and interviewed 15 Australian cross-cultural missionary workers to help find the answer.

All the participants were over 25 years old and had spent at least 2 out of the previous 3 years in a non-Western country. Based on their responses, the researchers divided the missionaries into two categories: “resilient” and “fragile.”

In the interviews, the eight resilient missionaries described having

• flexibility
• higher expectancy and self-determination
• denial in the form of minimization to deal with their distress
• good mental health
• more social support
• a positive reintegration
• a personal spiritual connection to God

In contrast, the seven who were considered fragile described

• less flexibility
• lower expectancy and self-determination
• less use of denial with minimization
• poorer mental health
• less social support
• difficulty reintegrating
• a decreased or fluctuating personal spiritual connection to God

It is interesting that while the results of a questionnaire measuring depression, anxiety, and stress (DASS 21) showed higher levels for the fragile group, the scale showed that only one out of the entire group (including resilient and fragile) had an actual perception of being “personally stressed.”

“Psychological Well-Being and Sociocultural Adaptation in College-Aged, Repatriated, Missionary Kids”
(Michael J. Klemens and Lynette H. Bikos, Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

When the researchers compared a group of MKs to non-MKs at a Christian university, they found that while both groups scored in the healthy range of psychological well-being (PWB),  the missionary kids’ scores were significantly lower.

The missionary kids’ MK status accounted for only 4% of the variance in psychological well-being but was responsible for nearly a quarter (23%) of the difference in sociocultural adaptation (SCA). In this latter area, the MKs reported the most difficulty in “taking a US’ perspective on the culture; seeing things from an American’s point of view; understanding the US’ worldview; understanding the US’ value system; and making yourself understood.”

“Curiously,” report Klemens and Bikos, “neither the age of the participant, nor the number of years abroad, nor the number of years since repatriation was related to PWB or SCA for the MKs.”

“Reduction in Burnout May Be a Benefit for Short-Term Medical Mission Volunteers”
(Clark Campbell et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This assessment looked at how international short-term mission trips affect burnout among volunteers.

The participants in the study, most of whom were physicians and nurses, travelled to South America for two weeks to provide medical care in a non-disaster-relief setting. Prior to their departure, the group members’ responses to questionnaires showed that they were experiencing moderate burnout. Their burnout levels were again assessed one month and six months after the trip.

“The major finding of this study,” report the researches, “is counter-intuitive: that medical personnel who are emotionally exhausted, have an impersonal response towards their patients, and lack a sense of [personal accomplishments] (moderately burned out) benefit by working hard with numerous patients in an international context.”

They found that levels of emotional exhaustion and perceived personal accomplishments showed significant improvements following the short-term trip and continued in a positive direction in the 6-month followup.


All good research builds about what has been learned before and leads to questions for new studies in the future. I join with Lynette and her co-editor in hoping that the information in their special issue of Mental Health, Religion & Culture encourages others to join in the “exploration” of the psychological health of missionaries. There is so much more to be discovered.

(Lynette H. Bikos and M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, “Psychological Functioning of International Missionaries: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This special journal issue also includes several articles specific to the experiences of female missionaries. I hope to discuss these in a future post.

[photo: “Confused,” by Mary T Moore, used under a Creative Commons license]

Repatriation: We Don’t Have a Clue until We Have a Clue

2265417682_ba2b629871I recently received an email from a friend, Sherrie Russell. She and her husband, Glen, have been missionaries in Panama since 1997, working with an indigenous tribe there. They have also served in Puerto Rico (10 years) and have ministered to international students at the University of Missouri-Columbia (6 years).

Sherrie was responding to an email from me, updating her on our transition back to the States. Looking for full-time work over the last two years has been a disappointing process for us, and she and Glen understand, as they were in a similar place when they came back from Puerto Rico. I can’t say the same for myself back then. I was one of those she is talking about when she says, “No one had a clue about what we were going through.”

Sherrie’s openness and honesty is an encouragement to my wife and me. I am grateful to her for letting me post some of her letter here:

I remember so well coming back from Puerto Rico and moving to Columbia and working with Latins at the campus ministry, how I had to take a job at McDonald’s and Glen had to drive a school bus while trying to reacclimate and keep it all together, and trying to understand “why” God didn’t supply what we needed to stay in Puerto Rico, in a work we loved (although it was hard and slow), with a people we wanted to see come to Christ, and in a place that was home.

I’ll never forget feeling so alone among so many kind people after we moved and began to know all of you. . . . It was like no one had any clue about what we were going through (not your fault and we knew that at the time)!

And eventually, when we did decide to go to the Dominican Republic and started trying to raise support . . . I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend at DQ.  We were there talking, and I was expressing my doubt about raising support (I mean, we couldn’t even raise a little more to stay in Puerto Rico) to her and she said something like, “You know the Lord will provide if it’s His will.” Of course she was just trying to encourage me . . . but out of my mouth and heart came this response, “He didn’t!”  And as soon as I said it, I realized how wrong I was!  I was so shocked that I felt that way and knew I had to remember that He does provide . . . but it was a very difficult time for us!

Even thought the Russells had made plans to move to the Dominican Republic, Sherrie says, “God took us to Panama instead.” About their six years in the States, she adds, “We began to learn how to wait on the Lord in Columbia, but it’s one of the hardest lessons in my opinion!”

And living abroad, too, hasn’t been easy for Sherrie. In 2007 she contracted mononucleosis and has suffered from bouts of severe exhaustion since then.

I haven’t been able to go to church or Bible studies this week because of my health situation. It’s been six years now, but I know God is faithful, and He is teaching me so much that I couldn’t have learned any other way.  One thing is that I’ve become so much more content!  Being able to cook sometimes in the morning to help Glen prepare some of the dinner for that day makes me so happy and thankful!!

One morning I posted on my wall on Facebook that I was listening to Andrea Boccelli and making spaghetti sauce with fresh basil and loving it!  A friend from Columbia whose child I taught at the preschool where I worked wrote that I was easy to please!  I thought about that, and I have become easy to please, and that’s good!

My wife and I enjoy Bocelli’s music, and while we were in Taiwan we bought our first Bocelli CD. Sherrie’s letter got me to look him up on YouTube, and I came across a video for his “Canto Della Terra” (“Song of the Earth”). If Steve McCurry made music videos, they might look like this.

[photo: “Loneliness,” by Flavio Spugna, used under a Creative Commons license]

Two Great Resources for All Things Member Care and Missions

2164279407_666969752a_tMissionary Member Care
I recently found out about an ebook by Ronald L. Koteskey, Missionary Member Care: An Introduction. Koteskey and his wife, Bonnie, have served in member care for over 16 years and share this and other “resources for missions and mental health” at the website Missionary Care.

There is a wealth of useful information in Missionary Member Care‘s 169 pages, but the parts that interested me the most were

  • An overview of the trials faced by the “father of modern missions,” William Carey, and his family. (I’d read about some of what they went through, but hadn’t known the full extent of it.)
  • The writings of other early missionaries, revealing their struggles and their need for member care.
  • Numerous books and websites dealing with member care.
  • Information on a number of member-care organizations.
  • A list of conferences for member-care givers.

And the second great resource? That’s where I heard about Missionary Member Care. In case you’ve never seen it, it’s Brigada, a weekly “web journal offering resources, strategy tips, tools and ‘hacks’ to Great Commission Christians.”

There are a couple ways to read Brigada, edited by Doug Lucas, founder and director of Team Expansion. One is to go to the website, where the newest issues are displayed, as well as a link to the archives, with issues dating back to 1994. The other way is to join thousands of other subscribers by signing up for weekly updates.

Brigada‘s information comes from a myriad of sources, and if you’d like to submit your own items for publication, you can do that, as well.

[photos: “Number One,” by John Ayo, used under a Creative Commons license, and “Copper Number 2,” by Leo Reynolds, used under a Creative Commons license]


An Ambassador from the Brazilian Rain Forest to New York’s Concrete Jungle

516818391_0849517be5_mIn September of last year, Nilson Tuwe Huni Kui traveled from a village of 600 in the Amazon rain forest to New York City. The 29-year-old Tuwe has a unique way of describing jet lag: “First you arrive physically and you are very tired,” he told BBC. “But only after a while, your soul gets here, too. Because the plane is very fast, but the soul takes longer to arrive.”

Tuwe is set to finish up his nine months in the US at the end of May, having come to New York to study English as a Second Language and to take filmmaking and film-editing classes. His trip is sponsored by Tribal Link’s Indigenous Fellowship Program and the Nataasha van Kampen Foundation. Tuwe is working on a documentary called Us and Them, showing the challenges faced by peoples living in voluntary isolation near the border of Peru and Brazil as they are confronted by illegal loggers, narco-traffickers, and oil prospectors. His goal is to learn English and sharpen his technical skills so that he can become a professional filmmaker, to get the message out to a wider audience.

This is not Tuwe’s first trip as an ambassador to the outside world. Tribal Link originally met him five years ago at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity‘s 9th Conference of the Parties in Bonn, German, and then, last summer, talked with him again in Rio de Janeiro at Rio+20.

Following are a BBC video highlighting Tuwe’s introduction to New York and an interview from Tribal Link in which Tuwe further explains his role as “a spokesperson and a messenger of [his] people.”

I can only wonder about the effects of reverse culture shock on Tuwe as he returns to his tribe. It may take even longer for his soul to catch up on the return trip.

(“Culture Shock for Amazon Chief’s Son Who Left Rainforest for New York,” BBC News, March 17, 2013; “Tribal Link Welcomes to New York Nilson Tuwe Huni Kuin, 2012 Indigenous Fellow,” Tribal Link, December 15, 2012)

[photo: “New York City,” by Kaysha, used under a Creative Commons license]