April 23, 2016 § 2 Comments
When you’re a tourist, it’s mostly fun to be a tourist. Most people like to help you and you’re treated as a guest. Sure, when you go to buy something you might get taken advantage of, but you don’t know any better, so you can still think that you got a bargain. And if you break a cultural rule—or even a law—you can play the I-didn’t-know-I-don’t-live-here-maybe-even-get-out-of-jail-free card.
But when you do live in a new country, you don’t want to be treated like a tourist. You want to be treated like “one of us,” or at least ignored. So how do you look as if you belong? Maybe it’s the language, but you’ll have to talk first, and that could hurt more than help. Maybe it’s your clothes, but it’s easy to go overboard on that one. Or maybe it’s what you’re carrying around. Of course, it’s what you’re not carrying, as well, for example, a camera or a souvenir bag that says “I ♥ (name of country).”
In my post yesterday at A Life Overseas, I quoted author Tahir Shah’s views on acclimating to a new culture, from his book In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams. Shah had moved to Casablanca, and he didn’t want to be treated like an outsider. He writes that one day his maid, Zohra, overheard him talking about getting “eaten alive” by the salesmen in the vegetable market, and she gave him some great advice.
“Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!” she snapped. “Of course the salesmen trouble you. It’s because they think you are a tourist.”
“But there aren’t any tourists in Casablanca!”
“Well, they don’t know that!”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
Zohra motioned something with her hands. It was round, about the size of a dinner plate. “You have to carry a sieve.”
“No tourist would ever be carrying a sieve,” she said.
That’s it. A sieve. Gotta get you one of those.
(Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, Bantam, 2008)
[photo: “I ♥ Tourists,” by Lain, used under a Creative Commons license; “Markthal Rotterdam” by Kattebelletje, used under a Creative Commons license]
December 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
This is a time of gift giving. It’s a time of buying and making and choosing and wrapping.
In our family, we tend toward minimalism when it comes to wrapping gifts. From my father I inherited the practice of using newspaper. When your package carries the latest headlines, there’s no need for bows or ribbons. And if you’re feeling extra festive, you always have the Sunday comics.
We all know it isn’t the paper on the outside that matters, but we sure do act like it sometimes.
I think that one of the best gifts to give and receive—any time of the year—is the gift of our stories, our feelings, our truths. Sometimes they come in worn-out shoeboxes, in paper bags with the tops folded down, or in cardboard boxes marked “Kitchen” from the last move. They’re offered with trepidation and best received with reverence. They’re precious, authentic gifts, rugged and unedited.
And without a bow.
Are we willing to receive such gifts, or do we prefer presents wrapped neatly in shiny paper, with colorful ribbons curled just so? Do we want only the stories that have tidy, happy endings, tied up with a platitude or moral or lesson? Do we carry our own supply of bows in case the gift givers are lacking?
Are we willing to give those gifts as well? Do we hold back the deep realities of our lives, the honest hurts, waiting until we can decorate them with a “that’s when I knew it all happened for a reason,” an “I learned so much,” or a “now I can see it was all part of God’s plan”? In the waiting there is sorrow and pain.
I can’t help but think of my missionary friends, and other cross-cultural workers, too often feeling the need to adorn their stories so that no one will “misunderstand,” too often saying what is expected or what is easier to hear. I can’t help but think of myself when I’ve done the same thing.
Not all gifts are meant to be shared in the open. Some are too personal. Some can only be given in a private, safe, accepting space. Can you create a space like that for your friends, for their parents, for their children? Without such a place, their precious gifts stay hidden away. And hidden gifts are often forgotten and remain ungiven . . . simply for lack of a bow.
The decorations aren’t necessary. Give your gifts without bows, we’re listening. Receive our gifts without bows, we’re talking.
September 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Here’s the intro to my post today at A Life Overseas—
Do you have that one safe friend?
When I went overseas, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know I needed one.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of friends, good friends, but I didn’t have one particular person who was committed to the role of being that one safe friend. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that all missionaries—and other cross-cultural workers—need someone whom they trust to be devoted to them because of who they are, not because of what they do, someone who will reach out to them consistently, someone who will encourage them, comfort them, laugh with them, and weep with them.
It’s not that there won’t be several people who could do this for you, but without someone specific to take on that responsibility, you may find yourself with no one. When you have your home church, your sending agency, your family, your coworkers, and your supporters behind you, it’s easy for each individual to think that you’re more than taken care of. At a Parents of Missionaries gathering I recently attended, Dr. Dorris Schulz, director for missionary care for Missions Resource Network, said that if she’s ever drowning, she hopes there’s only one person around. That’s because people in a crowd too often do nothing, assuming that someone else will step in.
Being that one safe friend, doesn’t take an exotic skill set. It’s not someone who has all the answers. And it doesn’t need to be someone with experience living abroad. But it does need to be someone who is a good listener, someone who is caring and empathetic, someone who understands you and understands the core challenges of life, regardless of the setting. It’s not an exotic skill set, but neither is it common to everyone.
You’ll need to be proactive in asking someone to be that friend. Don’t assume that people will come knocking, maybe because they doubt your need or their ability. So if you’re looking, what should you look for? What should you expect from that friend? Here are some suggestions:
Continue reading at A Life Overseas.
May 17, 2015 § 2 Comments
Diane Stortz knows a thing or two about being separated from family. She’s the co-author of Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally.
By my reckoning, that means that she knows two things or four about finding books to send to grandchildren overseas.
If you’d like some good advice, go to her blog and read her five points on what to look for when choosing the right storybook for children.
And at Christian Children’s Authors, she puts in a plug for recordable children’s books. Maybe it’s because I don’t have grandchildren yet, but I never knew there was such a thing. What a great idea for staying in touch with faraway granddaughters and grandsons, nieces and nephews.
In this post, Stortz mentions three publishers that produce recordable books: Hallmark, DaySpring, and Publications International. Using that as my starting point, here’s a sampling of what I found (it includes lots of grandmas and lots of bears)—
Conversations to Keep: Grandma and Me
That’s What Grandmas Do
My Grandpa and Me
Guess How Much I Miss You
Guess How Much I Love You
Under the Same Moon
What Aunts Do Best/What Uncles Do Best
I Love You So Much
I Love You Head to Toe
Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You
Bright and Beautiful
All Day Long with Jesus
Bedtime Prayers and Promises
Sesame Street, Together at Heart
If . . .
And here are a couple for sending back the other way—
Susan Adcox, “Grandparents Expert” at About.com, writes that Hallmark recordable books are “pure magic.” “What child wouldn’t be entranced to open a storybook and hear it read in a grandparent’s voice?” she asks.
She goes on to compliment the recording process, calling it “practically foolproof.”
February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
If you were to draw a picture of reverse culture shock, what would it look like? What images would you show? What colors would you use?
If you were to make a video, what kind of video would it be?
Photographer and visual artist Jenna Rutanen was born in Finland, attended university in London, and now is continuing her studies and working in the Netherlands. She has turned her experience in crossing cultures into an art installation, consisting of two videos projected on opposite walls of a room. She calls it “Waiting to Belong,” and here’s how she describes what she is representing:
I am experiencing reverse culture shock during each visit to my home country, Finland. In the past, all the winters that I had spent in some sort of hibernation, would now start to suffocate me because of the darkness. As a child, I spent my time playing in the forests, making tree houses and snow castles but now I can hardly venture going into the forest on my own after being away from it for such a long time. It seems as if I have lost the ability to adapt to the surroundings that I used to belong in and as of yet, I haven’t been able to adapt to my current surroundings either, which has kind of left me stuck between two different worlds. All I can do is wait to belong.
Installation art often seems pretentious to me, and this may strike you that way. You may say, “I could have done that.” You may wonder why Rutanen in her “portrait” is so glum. You may wonder what the big deal is.
But watching the two videos of “Waiting to Belong” is very thought provoking to me, and I think it would be even more interesting if I could stand between them, turning from one to the other.
It’s the anticipation—and tedium—of waiting for something to happen, and (spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched the videos yet) nothing does. That’s one of the things that makes reverse culture shock difficult. It’s the nomad gazing at the horizon, waiting for herself to adapt or for her surroundings to become more accommodating, or waiting for both to re-become what they used to be. And it’s the pale landscape waiting itself, staring back at a daughter who has returned a stranger. It seems to say, “I am what I am. It’s up to you.”
These are frustrating feelings to have. And if you become impatient watching the videos, maybe that’s part of the point.
(Jenna Rutanen, “Artist Statement: Waiting to Belong,” jennarutanen.com)
January 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
When does a house become a home?
I asked that question of some friends a while ago. One answered, “When your mess is everywhere.” Another said, “When you feel part of the neighborhood.” My wife said, “When you hang your pictures on the wall.”
When we first moved to Taipei, another missionary family let us live in their apartment for a few months while they were back in the States. We needed a house to stay in while we looked for a place of our own. But it wasn’t our home; it was theirs. Their clothes were in the closets. Their books were on the shelves. Their beds were in the bedrooms.
Later, we found that place of our own. It was on the 17th floor of a 21 story building. While we enjoyed living there, the family who owned the apartment had left some of their furniture there, so we always knew it was someone else’s place, and sure enough, after about two years, they told us they wanted it back for themselves.
When we moved, we ended up in a great apartment with a huge balcony . . . and a hovering landlord. She wouldn’t let us forget that we were in her house, like the time she dropped by on Sunday morning to prune the plants on our balcony so that their leaves wouldn’t clog the drain. The next day she saw me at the post office and commented on the strong odor in our house. It was my wife’s cooking, I said. Spaghetti. Not a good smell, she replied, frowning and shaking her head.
So when we got ready to move back to Joplin, Missouri, we should have been ready, right? Well, while we were busy moving from house to house in Taipei, the city itself had become our home. We had developed routines there. We had made friends there. We had a found a purpose there.
But we needed to move, and move we did. Though that was over three years ago, Joplin doesn’t yet feel like home again and neither does the house we’re in now. We’re renting, and we’re not making long-term plans to stay here.
Actually, it’s the third non-home house we’ve been in since our return. The first was a residence that our church had purchased for visiting and returning missionaries. We were there for about six months and are very grateful that it was available. We certainly weren’t the only ones in Joplin in transition at that time. It was June of 2011 and we were living across from the parking lot of the church property where two “tents” stood, distributing food and prayers to those affected by, as everyone here calls it, the tornado.
While we were there, the items that we’d had shipped from Taiwan arrived and we unloaded them into the garage. From there we moved to a rental house, with me still looking for full-time work and all of us wondering what the future would bring, praying about where we’d land.
In Taiwan, I remember reading news about the recession in the States, but I didn’t anticipate how much it would affect my ability to find a job once we returned. Ask anyone looking for work and they’ll tell you how difficult it is right now. Add to that the fact that being out of the country makes a person out of sight and out of mind for potential employers. With so many people looking for employment, those doing the hiring hold most of the cards, and they’re reluctant to take chances on someone who could do the job. Rather, they’re looking for someone who’s already doing the job. And the risk is much lower if they choose someone whom they’ve known for a while.
Since our arrival, I’ve worked at a number of money-making ventures, often overlapping. They include being a janitor and a paraprofessional at an elementary school, cleaning at another school, working at a multi-media ministry, teaching ESL, driving a delivery truck for an auto-parts store, recruiting international students at a university, and donating plasma.
We’re still not sure if we’ve landed yet or if that will come later. And the pictures aren’t on the walls. Instead, they’re still packed up, stored under our bed. When we finally do open them up, I think we’ll find some that we forgot we have.
When I asked my question about a house becoming a home, another friend had this response: “It’s when you can go to the bathroom at night without turning the lights on.”
That reminds me of a passage in a book I read several years ago. It was discussing people who had been blind for a long time and then had regained their sight. Now that they could see, navigating their surroundings obviously should be much easier. Yet when they needed to move through their house—their home—quickly in an emergency, they would close their eyes. That was more familiar to them.
When we’re under stress, we rely on the familiar to help us find our way.
That’s home . . . the familiar place, the comfortable place, the place where we can close our eyes and know we belong.