October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
An imagined but quite possible day in a life overseas . . .
This morning I woke up with my to-do list waiting for me on the nightstand. Item number one was Get out of bed (I’d written that one down so I could start the day by crossing it off). Number two said Copy document. That’s because yesterday at the county government office, when I went to get my resident permit renewed, the lady behind the desk told me I needed to bring a copy of my registration letter to leave with them.
I was more than ready to get that taken care of and move on to the other, bigger, better, more important things on my list. It was an impressive list. I had quite the day planned.
After a quick shower and a slice of toast for breakfast, I grabbed my permit documents and walked the four blocks to the bus stop and took the bus to the copy shop, about 15 minutes away. But when I stepped off the bus I saw that the copy shop wasn’t a copy shop anymore. Instead, sometime over the weekend, it had been turned into a KFG Chicken restaurant. (That’s right, a KFG not a KFC. This one had a big green smiling rooster on its sign.) I called my teammate to get her advice, and she said I could get a copy at a bank. There was a bank down the street, and after going there and standing in line, I asked the teller if she could help me make a copy. She said that was impossible.
On the way back to the bus stop, I called another teammate, and he told me to try the photo shop next to the new high school. I decided to take a taxi there to save time, but the only cash I had was a large bill and I figured the driver wouldn’t have change for it, so I walked back to the bank to withdraw some money from the ATM. But then the ATM ate my card and wouldn’t spit it out no matter how many buttons I pushed. I went back into the bank to retrieve it, but they said that was impossible—at least until after two business days.
You can read the rest at A Life Overseas. . . .
May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
In May of 2004, explorer Ben Saunders completed a solo, unsupported trek to the North Pole—on foot. He set out on his trip from the Russian side on March 5, reached the Pole on May 11, and was picked up by plane on the Canadian side on May 14. So here’s a repost, in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his return.
Also, today is notable because it’s Mother’s Day, and point #9 below is a shout-out to moms, including a very emotional and very long-distance telephone call. Have you called your mum today?
In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”
- Luggage is a drag
Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
- It can be lonely out there
One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
- No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus
When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
- Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back
According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
- The only constant is change
Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
- Culture stress can be a bear
Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
- Coming back can feel like the bear wins
When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson: “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
- People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
- Some people really do want to listen
“I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
- Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
- One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?”
Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
(1 ) Why?
(2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
(3) What’s next?
That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”
As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:
(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above. Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust. [Saunders and L’Herpiniere completed their expedition on February 7, 2014.]
September 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
In a university class I’m teaching, I started the semester by having the students answer some questions about themselves: What scares you? (Spiders, heights, and death were popular—or unpopular, as it were.) What is your hometown, or where else have you lived? (See how I phrased that one, in case we had some TCKs in the group?) Who is your hero and why?
In answer to that last question, a few said Jesus—with a couple adding, “Because he’s, um, Jesus.” Some chose a famous athlete or a figure from history. But for most, their heroes aren’t well-known. They’re personal heroes: my father, because he works three jobs to support our family; my grandma, because she raised my sisters and me by herself; my teacher, because she never gave up on me.
Last year, Amy Peterson wrote a wonderful article for Christianity Today entitled “Farewell to the Missionary Hero.” In it she talks about how missionary biographies of the past have portrayed missionaries as larger-than-life “saints,” often moving from one glorious adventure to another. She contrasts that with the approach of many missionaries today who are more willing to present the hardships and mundane routines of missionary life, as well as their own shortcomings. Peterson even mentions A Life Overseas and some of the authors here as examples of this new openness and honesty.
As I reread Peterson’s article, I am even more a fan, and I’m glad that she has extended the conversation outside the missionary community. So it might surprise you to hear me say that I actually don’t think we should say “farewell to the missionary hero.” I’m not arguing against her premise. No, mine is only a semantic concern. I just want to take the word hero and look at it from a different direction. . . .
The complete post is at A Life Overseas. Finish reading it there.
June 2, 2016 § Leave a comment
I have nice memories from people coming to visit us while we were overseas. Yes, the visits were often hectic and tiring, but some of the best moments were the quiet times when we were all sitting in our living room, having honest conversations about life in another country—honest, thoughtful, and heartfelt conversations.
During one of those times, Laura, a young lady from our home church sang for us. Her father, Phil, was our church’s worship minister, and he’d written a song named “Sovereign Lord,” which had gone on to win the grand prize at the 2002 Write about Jesus competition. We knew that Laura had recorded it, accompanied by her brother, Nathan, who was also on the trip (yeah, they’re a gifted family). So as we sat, gathered around our couch, we asked Laura to sing.
When people came to visit, they often brought us gifts—books and DVDs and cake mixes and games. This was a different kind of gift, and one of the best that we received.
What a nice memory.
April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
Head over to A Life Overseas to read my complete post.
When most people open up their closets in the morning, they usually ignore the out-of-style shirts on the edge, the wrong-color sweaters, the too-tight pants. Instead, as much as they can, they grab something that looks right, something that fits right, something that feels right.
When you transition between countries, your cultural closets get switched. Your choices become limited, and you often have to put on things you’d rather not wear. You’ve given up comfort for other purposes. Some of this discomfort is just an annoyance, like a scratchy tag inside the collar of your shirt. But some can seem unworkable, like that same shirt two sizes too small.
It’s the Water and the Dirt
When I and my family moved overseas, we weren’t surprised by culture stress. We may not have been fully prepared, but we weren’t surprised. What did surprise us, though, was that we couldn’t always identify the causes of our irritation and pain.
For many stressors, you know just what hook to hang them on. Singing at church feels a little off? It’s because everybody’s clapping on a different beat than you are. Can’t sleep? That’s because of the all-night traffic outside your window. Nagging cough? Pollution.
Being able to name a problem helps us sort things out. It gives us vocabulary for talking about it with others. It helps us better understand our new home and ourselves. It helps us find solutions. It helps us cope.
But sometimes, there is no hook, at least not an obvious one.
A few months after we landed in Taipei, my wife developed a “cold,” a cold that lasted on and off for over a year. Our doctor couldn’t find a solution and none of his remedies helped (one medicine caused her heart to race). Finally, he diagnosed her with shui tu bu fu, which can be translated as “not acclimated to the water and soil.” That’s odd, because we didn’t drink the water, and with all the concrete, and we rarely saw the soil. . . .
June 13, 2015 § 2 Comments
My son pointed me to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, where John Koenig creates words to name before-unnamed emotions and ideas. Many of them are melancholy, such as amenuerosis, “the half-forlorn, half-escapist ache of a train whistle calling in the distance at night”; and chrysalism “ the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm. . . .”
Others are more on the humorous side. For instance, a reverse shibboleth, is “the practice of answering a cellphone with a generic ‘Hello?’ as if you didn’t already know exactly who was calling . . .”; and lalalalia is “the realization while talking to yourself that someone else is within earshot, which leads you to crossfade into mumbled singing. . . .”
Expats have their own feelings and experiences that are yet to be named, and I think this needs to be remedied. So while I don’t have Koenig’s talent, here are a few of my offerings:
the condition by which your over preparation for answering an expected question in another language overwhelms your auditory senses and you answer the query you’ve anticipated, no matter what is actually said, as in responding to “How many would you like?” with “Yes, but no ice, please.”
the glorious sound of the immigration agent thumbing through your passport looking for an empty page—and then adding the stamp that says you’re free to enter.
gazing out of an airplane window, seeing the new landscape below, and feeling joyfully overcome with the real and imagined possibilities.
the act of trying to predict which agent in the office will be the most likely to give you your visa or other important document and then conducting complex calculations concerning the number of people in line in front of you to see if you will get the agent you hope for. A domestic version of this is sometimes encountered in the DMV.
the physical and mental reaction that occurs when you realize that the chocolate-covered, cream-filled donut that you just took a bite of is in fact not a donut and that’s not chocolate and the filling might very well have gristle in it.
Finally, here’s one more from Koenig: onism
April 18, 2015 § 8 Comments
What do you see when you see a dock?
A place for studying the horizon?
For dipping a toe in the water?
For casting off?
Or a place for lowering your sails?
For stepping onto dry land?
For coming ashore?
Is it a place for setting out or coming back? Much depends on the compass of your heart.
If for you, the dock is too short, out of desire or necessity, you build it forward, step by step, plank by plank, as you go—through the spray and the mist and the fog. And when you’ve built till you’re more coming than going, you see another shore—build, step, build, step. You are there.
This is crossing cultures. This is creating a bridge. This is going from home to home.
Then, at some point, out of desire or necessity, you step back onto the bridge. You must have been gone a long time, because what was once a complete span is now incomplete. You need to build to close the gaps. And at times you’re simply on a dock again, building to a shore you cannot yet see. Strange. It was a bridge before.
This time while you’re crossing, you find that in the mist there are others with you, and when they talk, you understand them, because they are speaking your language.
“Where are you from?” you hear someone ask, and the answer, “That’s an interesting question.” “You, too?” one says. “Me, too,” another replies. You understand them, not because you use the same words, but because when you speak those words you agree on the impreciseness of their meanings: near, far, hot, cold, friends, enemies, rich, poor, family, strangers, here, there, hello, goodbye. Their meanings are slippery, like the damp boards beneath your feet. And the slipperiness is comfortable.
In time, you cross the bridge again and again, sharing familiar greetings with those in the misty middle. But never do you set out without having to repair what was built before. You continue . . . build, step, build, step.
What is a bridge, but a paradox, leading from home to home, from not-home to not-home? Your heart’s compass spins. The shores, they push and pull, they give hugs at arms length, they don’t plan on changing, but they do. The same can be said of you.
And then, out of desire or necessity, you settle down farther inland. You put down roots in loose soil. There’s a dock over the next, next hill. You go to visit from time to time and walk its length. You listen to the slap of the waves. You breathe in the smell of the ocean. You taste the salt in the air . . . and you remember the sounds and the smells and the bitter-sweet flavors of where you used to be.
What do you see when you see a dock?
You put down roots in loose soil, but you still speak the language of the bridge.
These thoughts are inspired by Mission Training International‘s “Pair of Ducks.” MTI uses two rubber ducks—a “yay duck” and a “yuck duck”—to show cross-cultural workers and their kids that all the places where they’ve lived have their good and bad parts.