That’s how long we served overseas. And next month, that will be how long since we moved back to the States.
This year, this month, is also a milestone for Joplin, MO, where we live. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the F5 tornado that devastated our city on May 22. I’ve mentioned the tornado here before, including in last year’s “Coming or Going during Turbulent Times,” but it was in reference to our repatriation. Now I’d like to talk about it in another context: dealing with difficulties that happen “there” when we’re “here.”
My memory’s not really clear on all the details, but I think one of our coworkers contacted us on the morning of May 23 (we were 13 hours ahead) to tell us to go to the Weather Channel online, that a storm had hit Joplin. He, his wife, and kids had also lived in Joplin and had family there, so this was much more than just “news” for them, as well. When we got on the Internet, we saw reports of major destruction. News anchors were saying that one third of the city, home to 50,000, was gone. Surely not! we thought. They showed video of the high school, saying it was “gone” too. But we could see it. There it was! They had to be exaggerating. And yet a storm chaser cried as he stood where houses had once been.
We tried to call our son who was a sophomore at the university in Joplin, but cell service was overwhelmed. He’d been at the house of our forwarding agents nearby when the storm hit. One of them was at work at the hospital but couldn’t get home because the cars in the parking lot were stacked into piles. When we finally got ahold of him, we’d seen more of the damage than he had, because of internet and electricity outages in Joplin. We were hesitant, though, to give many details for fear we were wrong.
As it turned out, the high school was gone, even though many of the walls were still standing. Also destroyed or damaged beyond repair were five other schools, the hospital where our forwarding agent worked, a Wal-Mart, the Home Depot, and Academy Sports. The city of 50,000 suffered a horrific amount of devastation from the rain-rapped, multi-vortex tornado—up to one mile wide and on the ground for 22 miles: 161 people killed, 4,000 residential dwellings destroyed, an estimated 9,200 people displaced, 553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged.
My wife and son and I are now taking tentative steps to return to in-person church after being away for most of the past year. Last week I attended an outdoor gathering and this past Sunday we all went to the worship service and a picnic after. It does feel good to be starting back again—but it also feels very odd and awkward and overwhelming. It’s not the first time we’ve felt that way, though. It’s strangely similar to what we experienced ten years ago, when we moved from living in the capital city of Taiwan back to southwest Missouri, when we found ourselves dealing with “reverse culture shock.”
If you’re not familiar with “culture shock,” let me explain. in 1951, as the concept was being applied to expats around the world, anthropologist Cora Du Bois defined it as a “malady” you face when you arrive in a new country, “precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues.” She writes,
All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. . . . Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result.
Given time, most of those anxieties subside (at least to an extent) and you become acclimated to your host country, your new home. But that means upon returning to your passport country, you find that you’ve changed—and your old home has probably changed, too, while you’ve been away. You’ve adopted a new set of “familiar cues,” cues that now clash with the people around you. Many find going through this “reverse culture shock” even more difficult than what they experienced relocating overseas. It’s more or less expected that the first trip would be disorienting, but coming “home”? That should be easy, right?
My family changed a lot of our behaviors while spending time as missionaries in Taiwan. We learned to take off our shoes and put on slippers when entering someone’s house. We learned that hugging as a greeting was usually too bold a display of public affection. We learned that we should wear a mask when we weren’t feeling well to keep others from getting sick. We learned that at McDonald’s leftover food needs to be separated from the rest of the trash. And we learned that traffic signals can sometimes be treated as interesting suggestions.
Then we came back, and we learned that those lessons needed to be re-navigated.
Other Americans who move to different countries bring back their own sets of practices and attitudes and face their own brand of reverse culture shock: They may have gotten used to less personal space and wonder why Americans seem so stand-offish. They may have covered their heads and dressed to follow local customs of modesty and upon returning are uncomfortable with the styles they see all around them. They may have walked every day among extreme poverty and find the wealth in the US difficult to come to terms with.
Do you see the similarities to the adjustment to post-COVID life? Just substitute home with normal in the above transitions, and you’ll see how reverse culture shock can describe the disorientation that many are experiencing. Should we wear masks or not? Should we sit close together in large groups? Do we hug, shake hands, bump fists, tap elbows, or just say Hi at a distance? Should we follow the advice of the CDC or social media?
Some of the adaptations we’ve made over the past year we’re eager to get rid of. But some have become habit, and some we might simply prefer. Will those who’ve switched to homeschooling make it a permanent change? Will we continue working from home? Absent our usual face-to-face interactions, have we found new groups we identify with? Will we keep on attending church online? Will our churches continue to offer virtual services? Have we become more comfortable worshiping in small groups? Will we continue to Zoom into meetings? How long will a bookmark for a COVID dashboard sit at the top of our Web browsers?
And what about our children? Families who move abroad raise “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids), children who are molded by living between the world their parents grew up in and the world they themselves have grown accustomed to. It can be hard for them to find a place where they fit in, especially when, as “hidden immigrants” in their passport countries, they look on the outside as if they belong, but inside, they feel out of place. Similarly, some are labeling the children who are growing up in the shadow of COVID, or who are born into a post-COVID world, as “Generation C.” How much of an effect will the pandemic and all the restrictions associated with it have on them?
There’s something else that missionaries and other cross-cultural workers know about cultural transitions, whether coming or going: they bring a fair amount of loss and grief. They also know that this grief can become “disenfranchised” when it stays hidden inside because it doesn’t fit what others (or ourselves) think we should be feeling. Many around us have lingering health issues from COVID. Many have lost loved ones under extremely difficult circumstances. Many couldn’t be with family members as they suffered. Many had to hold memorial services over the Internet. Many have worked countless hours on the front lines. Many have lost jobs or businesses. Many are struggling to get by.
And yet the return to normal tells us that we should move on. We should celebrate. We should go to all the weddings and birthday parties and graduations and vacation getaways that we’ve missed over the last year. It can be too much for some . . . though not for all.
Many have already returned to their old lives without missing much of a beat. (Some cross-cultural workers are able to do the same.) But for those who haven’t, for those who are slow to come back to in-person worship services or who sit on the back row when they do—arriving late and leaving early, feeling more like observers than participants—there’s a need for patience and grace. That patience and grace needs to be extended from those who are comfortable to those who are not, and those who are hesitant need to extend it to themselves, and others, as well.
Please understand that not all of us who are holding back, in whatever form, are living in fear. Not all of us are judging those who take a different approach. Not all of us are trying to make a statement. Not all of us are lacking in faith.
But even for those of us who are. . . .
Patience and grace.
And in the future, if you ever see a returned missionary family sitting quietly on the back row at church, even after they’ve beenaround for a few years, please remember where they’ve come from.
Did you know there once was a time when empathy didn’t exist in the English-speaking world. During that time, all those poor souls lived in a “Dark Age” of feelings in which they had only sympathy to rely on when faced with others’ pain. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the word empathy was imported from Germany to save us from our uncaring detachment. As I wrote in “Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places“:
Empathy . . . is a relatively new term, introduced into the English language by psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener in 1909. Titchener got the idea for empathy from einfühlung, a German word crafted 50 years earlier to describe a form of art appreciation based on projecting one’s personality into the art being viewed—thus, “a feeling in.”
Of course, I jest. Before 1909, our forebears did just fine commiserating with each other. In fact, here’s a passage on that point from a sermon by the British preacher Charles Spurgeon, delivered in 1890:
When a person who has been very despondent comes out into comfort, he should look out for desponding spirits and use his own experience as a cordial to the fainting. I do not think that I ever feel so much at home in any work as when I am trying to encourage a heart which is on the verge of despair, for I have been in that plight myself. It is a high honor to nurse our Lord’s wounded children. It is a great gift to have learned by experience how to sympathize. “Ah!” I say to them, “I have been where you are!” They look at me and their eyes say, “No, surely you never felt as we do.” I therefore go further, and say, “If you feel worse than I did, I pity you, indeed, for I could say with Job, ‘My soul chooses strangling rather than life.’ I could readily enough have laid violent hands upon myself to escape from my misery of spirit.”
Spurgeon’s “sympathize” certainly seems like what we call “empathize” today. Again, in my post, referring to Brené Brown’s saying that “sympathy drives disconnection” while empathy is “feeling with people,” I wrote that that second definition
actually sounds to me like a good description of sympathy. In fact, when the word sympathy came about over 400 years ago,it was from the Greek sin, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling.” . . . in other words, a “feeling together.”
It makes me think of the joke What did people used to call organic, non-GMO food? Answer: Food.
So what did people used to call sympathy that was filled with empathetic feelings? Answer: Sympathy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of empathy. It’s just that I’m a defender of sympathy, too. Empathy isn’t a special, emotionally gymnastic form of sympathy. Rather, it’s genuine sympathy, in a world where the concept of basic sympathy is too often seen as condescending or false. That’s why you’ll hear people say, “I don’t need your sympathy!” But it’s also true that most don’t mind getting a “sympathy card” in the mail. In fact, if you sent them an “empathy card,” they’d probably think you presumptuous.
With all that said, I’d like to present a wonderful expression of sympathy. It’s from Netflix’s The Crown, season three, in an episode titled “Moondust.”
It comes in two short monologues given by the character Prince Philip. (I say “character” because while The Crown is based on the lives of the royal family, it’s still a work of fiction.) Actually, the first doesn’t express sympathy at all, but it sets the stage for what is to come.
In “Moondust,” Prince Philip has just watched the 1969 moon landing on TV and is enamored with the American heroes of Apollo 11 . . . enamored, and envious, and agitated, as well. It is under this circumstance that Robin Woods, the newly appointed Dean of Windsor, invites him to meet some priests who have gathered at St. George’s House. As Prince Philip listens to the weary clergymen share their discouragements, with one grading his life accomplishments a D minus, Dean Wood’s asks Prince Philip for his thoughts. He responds,
I’ll tell you what I think. I’ve never heard such a load of pretentious, self-piteous nonsense. What you lot need to do is to get off your backsides, get out into the world, and bloody well do something. That is why you are all so . . . so lost. I believe that there is an imperative within man, all men, to make a mark. Action is what defines us. Action, not suffering. All this sitting around thinking and talking, I . . . Let me ask you this: Do you think those astronauts up there are catatonic like you lot? Of course not. They are too busy achieving something spectacular. And as a result, they are at one with the world, and one with their God, and happy. That’s my advice. Model yourselves on men of action, like Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins. I mean, these men score A triple plus. They’ve got the answers, not a bunch of navel-gazing underachievers infecting one another with gaseous doom.
I must say that the circle of men reminds me of groups of cross-cultural workers I’ve been in, coming together to share our wounds. But Prince Philip doesn’t identify with that kind of gathering. He’s a man of action, not a pitiful navel-gazer. No, being a pilot, he sees himself as a comrade with the astronauts. So he arranges a personal visit with them when they come to London. But his high hopes for conversing with greatness are dashed when, alone with the three, he finds them to be shallow and uncurious about life’s bigger questions. “They delivered as astronauts,” he tells the queen, “but disappointed as human beings.”
He later returns to St. George’s, to the circle of priests, but this time with a new sense of belonging, a newly discovered kinship with other men who are facing mid-life crises—though he can only bring himself to say “that crisis”:
And of course one’s read or heard about other people hitting that crisis, and, you know, just like them, you look in all the usual places, resort to all the usual things to try and make yourself feel better. Uh . . . some of which I can admit to in this room, and some of which I probably shouldn’t.
My mother died recently. She . . . she saw that something was amiss. It’s a good word, that a . . . a-amiss. She saw that something was missing in her youngest child, her only son. . . . Faith. “How’s your faith?” she asked me. I’m here to admit to you that . . . I’ve lost it. And without it, what is there? The . . . the loneliness and emptiness and anticlimax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing but haunting desolation, ghostly silence, gloom. That is what faithlessness is. As opposed to finding wonder, ecstasy, the miracle of divine creation, God’s design and purpose. What am I trying to say? I’m trying to say that the solution to our problems, I think, is not in the ingenuity of the rocket, or the science or the technology or even the bravery. No, the answer is in here [points to head], or here [points to chest], or wherever it is that . . . that faith resides.
And so, Dean Woods, having ridiculed you for what you and these poor blocked, lost souls . . .[laughs] . . . were . . . were trying to achieve here in St. George’s House, I now find myself full of respect and admiration and not a small part of desperation . . . as I come to say, . . . “Help. . . . Help me.”
Notes after the episode inform us “For over fifty years St. George’s House has been a centre for the exploration of faith and philosophy. Its success is one of the achievements of which Prince Philip is most proud.”
When in Rome, sometimes we do as the Romans do just to fit in. Sometimes it’s out of necessity. Sometimes it’s because their way is actually better. And sometimes it’s because, well—Why not give it a shot?
Has your host culture offered you ways of doing things different from what you’re used to, ways you’ve tried on for size, sometimes finding out they fit you to a T? Mine sure did.
There was the time in Taiwan when we hired a local moving company to help us relocate to another apartment. Much to my surprise, the movers, small, wiry gentlemen, carried most of our things backwards. I don’t mean that they carried them from our new place to our old one. Rather, they carried them on their backs, with their arms wrapped around behind. Big boxes. Heavy boxes. Small appliances. Where I’m from, most of us carry things in front, next to our bellies, and often need help doing so. And we ache the next day. I’ve tried carrying boxes their way, and it works. Maybe I’m the one who’s been doing it backwards. (The movers also taught me how to hold the elevator door open with a folded-up piece of cardboard, but I digress.)
And then there’s that oft-photographed tourist attraction in Asia—the squatty potty. . . .
Finish reading, and join in on sharing your own discoveries, atA Life Overseas.
“This Hellish Desert Pit Has Been on Fire for More Than 40 Years”
There are places on Earth that are a little creepy, places that feel a little haunted and places that are downright hellish. The Darvaza gas crater, nicknamed by locals “The Door to Hell,” or “The Gates of Hell,” definitely falls into the latter category—and its sinister burning flames are just the half of it. Located in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan (a little over 150 miles from the country’s capital) the pit attracts hundreds of tourists each year. It also attracts nearby desert wildlife—reportedly, from time to time local spiders are seen plunging into the pit by the thousands, lured to their deaths by the glowing flames.
So how did this fiery inferno end up in the middle of a desert in Turkmenistan? In 1971, when the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to the Karakum in search of oil fields. They found what they thought to be a substantial oil field and began drilling. Unfortunately for the scientists, they were drilling on top of a cavernous pocket of natural gas which couldn’t support the weight of their equipment.The site collapsed, taking their equipment along with it—and the event triggered the crumbly sedimentary rock of the desert to collapse in other places too, creating a domino-effect that resulted in several open craters by the time all was said and done.
The largest of these craters measures about 230-feet across and 65-feet deep. Reportedly, no one was injured in the collapse, but the scientists soon had another problem on their hands: the natural gas escaping from the crater. . . . So the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks’ time.
. . . .
But . . . the scientists in Turkmenistan weren’t dealing with a measured amount of natural gas—scientists still don’t know just how much natural gas is feeding the burning crater—so what was supposed to be a few-week burn has turned into almost a half-century-long desert bonfire.
By far, my post with the most views on a single day is “Eight Years Ago, ‘The Impossible’ Happened,” published the day after Christmas in 2012. In it, I write about the movie The Impossible, in which Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor portray a couple whose family is vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami hits. For some reason, that post got into the gears of Google’s machinery and for a time showed up on the first page of search results for the film’s title.
Though I don’t expect anything near those kind of results, it’s with a little bit of déjà vu that I’m now writing about Watts’ 2020 Netflix movie Penguin Bloom. Again, Watts plays a woman vacationing in Thailand with her husband and three young sons when tragedy strikes. This time, though, it’s not a region-wide disaster, but a personal one, with Watts’ character, Ann Bloom, falling off a rooftop and breaking her back, leaving her a paraplegic.
Bloom’s story following the accident is ultimately an uplifting one, with much of the inspiration coming from an odd source, an injured Australian Magpie, named Penguin, that is adopted as part of the family. You can probably see a series of clichéd plot points writing themselves, but the film is actually based on real life—with a real-life magpie—written about by Ann’s husband, Cameron, in Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family.
The first portion of the film centers on the devastating effects, physical and emotional, of Ann’s injury, with things looking much more hopeful by the end. This progression comes through in two small scenes, one early on and one much later.
In the first, Cameron comes home from work and asks Ann, “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she answers.
But then as he helps her into bed, she voices her frustration: “Never ask me that question in front of the boys again.”
“What question?” he asks.
“How am I?” she replies. “I don’t want to have to lie to them,” and he answers, “OK.”
In the second, at a more positive time in Ann’s healing, she invites Cameron to ask “that question.”
“Which question?” he asks.
She answers, “The one I told you never to ask me.”
“How are you?” he responds.
Here’s a trailer for the film, followed by a two-part story on Penguin and the rest of the Blooms from 60 Minutes Australia.
It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.
I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.
So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”
It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).
Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.
I never knew Miriam Beard. I never had any conversations with her, nor do I have any personal anecdotes about her to tell. So last onth when I discussed her writing and her well-known travel quotation, I was limited to using what I could find in Google searches.
How happy I was then, when after I published my post, I received an email saying, “I really appreciate you bringing the work of my grandmother, Miriam Beard, to the attention of a broader audience.”
No, I never knew Miriam Beard, but now, thanks to Karen Vagts, I’m getting to know her better. And Karen has graciously allowed me to invite you into our conversation, so that you can get to know her grandmother better, too. Thank you, Karen, for sharing this with us:
“My grandmother was a person of immense talents but often under the shadow of her parents, the historians/activists Mary Ritter and Charles Beard, and her husband, the military historian Alfred Vagts; managing their literary output consumed more than her fair share of her time. But she was an immensely talented writer (one of the first women to attend the Columbia School of Journalism and wrote a wonderful series of stories for The New York Times, including an insightful article about the status of women in 1920s Japan) and published a two-volume History of Business. She was however very modest about her achievements, which is why her obit was sketchy.
“As an American born in England, Miriam perhaps was already predisposed to be a global traveler but her interest in travel was probably sparked by her travels to Asia in the 1920s, when her father was asked by the government of Tokyo to consult about the rebuilding of the city following a major earthquake. The Beards traveled throughout Asia during a very critical time—when the political tremors that would lead to WW2 were starting to vibrate—and that greatly impressed Miriam—I recall that she was particularly fascinated by Shanghai. After she married, she and her husband lived in Hamburg until the Nazis came along and then thereafter she travelled with friends and family wherever she could. She passed along her love to travel to her son and her granddaughters.
“My grandmother sent my father—in between high school and college—to the Experiment in International Living program in Germany. This was in the late 1940s and Dad had the task of sorting bricks from bombed out buildings in Munich for re-use; he then got to wander around Europe for a couple of weeks, a real eye-opener. Ironically, wherever he went in Europe, he was warned about thieves and pickpockets because the post-war situation in Europe was still so dire. But it was not until he landed back in New York Port Authority that his knapsack got stolen!”
“She also funded my sister and my first independent trip to Europe, took us on excursions, and gave us a subscription to National Geographic. She also assumed that being multi-lingual was an innate characteristic. The world might be rather different if everyone had such a cosmopolitan, well-travelled grandparent!
“Much appreciation and I look forward to the time—hopefully in the not-to-distant future when we can all feel comfortable traveling to view the world.”
[photos: “Family of Charles A. Beard,” The DePauw University Archives Documents and Photographs; Miriam Beard, courtesy of Karen Vagts]