You might feel frustrated, too, by patronizing “help” that actually hurts. Or by work that makes us feel better but makes them worse. Or by global work that continues cycles of poverty. Maybe you’re angered by missions trips cannibalizing local employment, or blind to cultural norms so people are turned off to the Gospel. read more
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Rebecca Hopkins’ blog, Borneo Wife, when she and her husband served in Indonesia. She now blogs from her new American home at rebeccahopkins.org .
A window in my kitchen faces our backyard. Much of my days are spent cooking and watching, washing dishes and listening, making granola and checking. The kids are often dangling or running or whooping outside, playing on our mini-playground with the zipline.read more
We had been living in Cairo about a year and a half when friends visited from Uganda. We ate at the mall food court when they asked how it has been meeting and making friends with Egyptians. I told them it’s been hard: Where do you meet people you can make friends with?
I mean, you don’t just make friends in the food court.read more
The accident with the motorcycle left me shaky, anxious, and worried.
Besides my husband, the person I wanted to talk with was my closest Egyptian friend. I wanted her to help me process through what I could have done differently, what I was supposed to do after, how I could ever drive again.read more
One benefit of my kids growing up overseas is their rich experience of another culture. My kids absorb elements of the adopted country in an organic way. They often see the world with a different perspective from someone–even an adult–who hasn’t left their home country.
I love that my kids have adopted certain aspects from Egypt: They have favorite Egyptian foods. They wash their hands after eating, and believe tissues are reasonable as napkins at the table. My kids know how to say “thank you” to mean “no” if they don’t want something being offered. I love that three of my kids write and speak some Arabic and understand even more.
But wait, you might say, why just “some Arabic?” Haven’t your kids been growing up in Egypt?
Shouldn’t they be picking up the language smoothly and effortlessly like the sponges that children are?
Yes, they are sponges when they are immersed in the language or culture full-time.
FLUENCY: The Picture vs. The Reality
The reality for us? We speak mostly English at home. We attend an English-speaking church. They attend an English-speaking international school.
When my children were younger they attended a preschool where they were the only non-Egyptians. We also attended a Sunday school program at a large Arabic church. We all learned church songs in Arabic and followed the Bible story.
During that season, the kids enjoyed the interactions and even saw friends from soccer-training at church. Through these interactions, they developed a foundation for Arabic and Egyptian culture.
But just as kids learn quickly, with skills only occasionally used, they also tend to forget quickly.
Now at my kids’ school, they take Arabic class four days per week. They are reading and writing Arabic. They are speaking and understanding more all the time.
And they are not at a place of fluency. Neither am I.
Not Good Enough?
While I would like for my kids to be confident about communicating with locals, our experience so far has not provided for them to regularly be immersed in the language to the point of fluency.
And in that, sometimes I hear the message that maybe I’m not doing a good enough job at this cross-cultural thing.
In fact, a friend was criticized by a new member of her team who arrived in the country one day…and criticized her the next day. He couldn’t believe her child hadn’t attained fluency.
Reader, let’s not judge our fellow workers.
Let’s offer grace and seek to understand the situation of those on the field before we share criticism or offer instruction.
My Kids = My Success?
We need to remember to see our children as people, not as a marker of how successful we are cross-culturally.
Maybe your situation does not require your children to learn another language. But it’s possible you had expectations (or others had expectations of you) that your children would be immersed in the culture, surrounded by local children, loving their third-culture-kid identity.
Maybe, due to their school options or where you live or what your family needs to do in order to be healthy, those relationships and that cultural identification hasn’t completely happened for your children.
Some children will love learning the language and love speaking with locals. Some will not.
They may dive head-first into the culture and enjoy making that part of their identity. They might not.
When it comes to our children, it’s important to give them the tools to thrive, the encouragement to keep trying, and the flexibility and grace to find their place.
FLUENCY: CHOOSING TO STRETCH THEM
Since I recognize that interactions with the language and locals will not just “magically” happen for my kids, I make certain choices when possible.
When given the opportunity to play tennis with an American coach or an Egyptian coach, I’ll choose the Egyptian Arabic-speaking coach for my kids. If possible, I will find Arabic tutoring for my kids during summer break so they continue to develop their language skills.
What choices do you have available to get your kids into the local culture and language? Can they
take group lessons–art, swimming, karate, science–with local kids they don’t meet at school?
attend a family retreat or camp?
participate in a church class for their age group?
play with a local adult who speaks the local language and teaches local songs?
This might require extra work from you, parents. This might require a bit of pushing to get your kids on board.
I don’t think we should push our kids toward fluency beyond what they can reasonably handle. But I do think we make efforts to let our kids experience their host country in a non-touristy, daily-life kind of way.
Why Our Kids’ Adaptation Matters–Beyond Our Egos
The more natural and enjoyable experiences our children have with their host country, the more opportunity for them to identify with parts of the culture.
This creates ownership of the culture that helps to make them an ambassador for the local people of your host culture–becoming a voice about what is good and valuable about a foreign culture, strange and unknown, to their passport culture.
Your kids learn in a more natural way how to relate to different people. Maybe they’ll be able to move through different cultures and become like them in order to save some.
The bottom line: We give our children the opportunity and encouragement (and sometimes a little push) to be involved in the culture and language, learning more about their host country.
And we don’t use our children’s language or cultural fluency as the marker for our own success. That’s a part of their story. Not our merit badge.
Editor’s note: Anyone serving overseas can relate to the truism of the post below: The life of an expatriate–missionary life included–is filled with farewells. “Goodbye” doesn’t just launch a life overseas. It defines part of this new, transitory existence.
My friend looks at me, her face stoic, almost nonchalant and it’s hard to know if I’m doing this right.
I should be better at this. How many times have I said “goodbye” over the years?
There were the zillions of moves I made as both a kid and an adult. And here in Indonesia, expats come and go and goodbyes are anticipated or very sudden. But they happen all the time.
I’m moving to another part of Indonesia in a few weeks. And I’m saying goodbye a lot like I’ve lived life here over the years—sitting on the floor of a friend’s house, bouncing back and forth between awkward small talk and serious heart stuff, my kids fighting for space on my lap, knocking over glasses of hot tea onto the wooden planked floor, a light morning rain tapping on the metal roof.
Throughout ten years of visits with friends, I always feel both totally out of my comfort zone and completely in my element.
I guess you could say the same thing about my relationship with moving. Somehow I feel very at home with packing up and starting over. And yet it also makes me feel lost every time I do it.
I wish I could say there is more “good” in all of my goodbyes here. But just like daily life here, they’re a bit messy, confusing, and almost always sweaty.
I go, intending to say the right word of thanks, and hope for some kind of satisfying closure, but usually, it feels like we’re being interrupted. Maybe the friend is in a crisis and I’m not really sure it’ll end up okay. Or I’m still learning how to love well in this culture, in my second language, and I’m pretty sure I’ve left behind a long list of misunderstandings and offenses.
Then I wonder about the stoicism I see. Does the goodbye matter? Do I?
I bet I look stoic sometimes, too. But really, I’m distracted…by my kids hiding in my shoulder so they don’t have their picture taken again, by the sound of the mosque’s call to prayer, or by my own desire to just have this goodbye over with so I can go home and hide, too.
Sometimes I get a text later with more honest feelings and that should feel better. But that just makes me feel sad, too.
That “Lost” Period
I know it’s going to be okay. The next place is exciting and the people are great and the work there is amazing and I need to just get there and move forward and grow roots and a bunch of other cliches that do actually work.
But still…right now I’m in that “lost” period. And I’m wondering if anyone else out there is here with me, too?
One small decision this week helps me. I plan to cut a branch off my plumeria tree—the one my husband gave me for my birthday a few years ago—and take it with me on the plane ride. Then I’ll plant it at my next home.
It seems a little silly and indulgent, especially because the next yard has its own plumeria trees already. But then I remembered how my mom would pack up all her plants and stick them in the back of our station wagon and take them to the next Army post.
Like she knew, too, that taking living things from your last home would help you figure out life in the next one.
Sometimes I need to remember life doesn’t end just because your time in the last place does.
What about here?
But what of my work? I set a date for myself when I’d force myself to pull out of everything. The orphanage. The hospital visits. The neighbor in crisis. And then I keep extending it…then moving it up.
Can’t decide if it’s better to put it off until I’m neck-deep in boxes, for one more visit while I’m just down the road, or just rip off the band-aid. Both sound bad.
And what about my fears? There are people who are coming after us who will never know me here in this place, on this team. What happens to the place I had in this place?
It’s small, I know. I’m small. This island is small. But me, here in this place for this time, mattered to me.
All the adventure and growth and friendships and faith and pregnancies and flights and prayers and disappointments and doubts and grace—they all mattered to me. What happens to all that?
I know. Some of it goes with me. It changed me, after all, broke me to pieces then healed into something new.
And some of this place will remain. This has been the hardest part for me to believe. But in case you’re going through your own goodbye or bad-bye, I want to remind us both. Just as the relationships matter to us, we mattered to friends, too.
The Hello-Goodbye Circle
One of my childhood tricks for coping with moves was to sagely remind myself that every tear-filled goodbye started with a scared, hope-filled hello and many hellos end up in teary goodbyes.
That sounds like a lot of tears. But the point is, those goodbyes have to happen so the next hellos can happen so the next goodbyes can happen and I’m starting to wonder how I ever found this comforting.
It seems I’m not in the mood tonight for my own pep talks. But I’ll finish this by asking this: Is there anyone out there saying goodbye, too?
I thought so. Then let’s be a little bit lost in all the goodbyes and hellos together.
Rebecca Hopkins (www.rebeccahopkins.org) wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot.
She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding and truths that last longer than her latest address.
In our efforts at Go. Serve. Love to help you in arriving well overseas, we’re posting from one of our partners, the all-new Mission App–which allows you to search and apply to 30 agencies with one app, and one application.
Check out their thoughts below on how set yourself up for a smashing start overseas.
Is this home now?
Your footprints in the cement of your new host country haven’t even had a chance to dry and the question pops into your mind, “How do I do this well?”
Everything is so new, so unfamiliar, and so important.
Take a deep breath. God has brought you here and will walk with you. Here are a few practical tips to keep in mind.
In arriving well overseas, Relationships are key.
So keep your relationship with the Lord fluid & fresh and He will make your path clear. As you feast on His presence, His life will overflow from you while you dive into your new life and community.
Being genuinely interested, asking tons of questions, and sharing time and simple resources with your neighbors will go a long way in building trust and friendships.
We’re all different in our ways of navigating newness. So there’s no right or wrong way to approach this. But the important thing is to be available, showing interest and care.
Classroom learning is great and helpful, though likely the best times will be over a cup of tea, or a shared meal, the local market shopping experience or as you walk through your neighborhood or village.
Remember your kids are experiencing a big learning curve as well.
Take time to talk about your kids’ concerns, what excites them, what makes them nervous. (It’s important your kids are arriving well overseas, too.)
Encourage them to talk about what’s important to them. Gently share Scriptures that will help them recognize God’s sovereign power, keeping each of you in His loving care (see verse list below).
Share your own experiences and feelings about inadequacy and fears as well. Make a list of strengths and weaknesses and pray through them for each other.
Soak in the truth of God’s Word.
Read and write down or memorize the Scriptures that speak to your own situation as God leads you.
ARRIVING WELL OVERSEAS: A FEW verses TO GET YOU STARTED
Deuteronomy 31:6 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I AM God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
Psalm 56:3 “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You!”
Psalm 73:23 “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.”
Psalm 91 —The entire Psalm. A favorite is “For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.”
Matthew 28: 19-20 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Romans 8:26-27 “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God!”
Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Reach out to someone local, or to a family, to show you the ropes.
Ask them basic questions like:
Where should I do my shopping (if there are choices?!!)– or the proper way to cook/prepare a local food item.
What do you believe about life after death?
How do you dispose of garbage/waste?
What traditions do you have as a family?
Tell me about your family history.
How do you connect or hang out with others in the community?
Where to you go for medical assistance?
How do I locate school supplies or toys for children?
Where do I find garden tools?
Are there things I should avoid or be sure to do when I am out and about in the community?
Often it is the others we serve with that may be the most challenging.
Even though we have the same goals and purpose, we can have very different ways in mind to achieve them and/or our lifestyles and backgrounds prove to be very different.
The Evil One would like nothing better than to get us distracted by our differences and ‘majoring on the minors’ – we must resist this trap of our number-one opposition. Remember, we are in a spiritual battle and the evil one will use all manner of evil against us – but we are overcomers through the Lord Jesus Christ!
I didn’t know exactly how living in a Muslim country would change me.
I thought it would change how I see the world. It would impact how I understood people, I guessed. I hoped it would give me greater understanding for others, their perspectives.
What I didn’t know, or even imagine, is that living in a Muslim country (well, majority-Muslim) would affect how I look at men and myself, literally and metaphorically.
In many Muslim cultures, there is a larger separation between the genders than in typical Western societies. This means men and women generally do not interact as freely or casually.
Some men and women do not even shake hands with the opposite gender. This means that what is seen as socially acceptable, socially respectable, tends to be quite different from what I’m used to. I hail from Texas, a friendly country where everyone smiles and greets each other and hardly anyone is a stranger. Handshakes were a given and hugs were commonplace.
I didn’t know how challenging it would be to welcome people into my home, cook food for them, talk about life and faith, and then send them off with a nod of the head. No handshake, no light punch on the shoulder.
And I certainly didn’t know that it would change how I interact with American men as well. We all want to conduct our interactions in culturally-appropriate ways, so we drop the side-hug and simply wave hello. It feels strange to me.
I didn’t know living in a muslim country would affect how I look at men. literally.
In our Western cultures, eye contact is usually a way we show respect and interest in someone or in what that person is saying. We make eye contact to greet people, eye contact to talk about life, eye contact to show that we see them.
Even if I stop to buy vegetables from a man I don’t know, I will barely look at him and focus my attention, very business-like, on the vegetables. I don’t look down at my feet, but I don’t look in his eyes.
Photo credit: IMB.org
If my husband knows the man and the man knows us all as a family, I might be a little more relaxed in looking at him when we talk, but I will still use a very businesslike tone.
See, respectable women do not chat it up with men on the streets.
Same goes for taxi or uber drivers. They should not be asking my name (more on that later) or asking personal questions. There is no need to carry on a conversation beyond directions to the exact location, if needed.
Back to eye contact. I didn’t realize how I would internalize the rules. How I would struggle when back in Texas to make eye contact with men again.
The Spin Class Story
I can distinctly remember a time when we were back in Texas and I decided to take a spinning class (an indoor bicycle fitness class). Since it was my first time, the instructor, who was a man about 10 years my senior, helped to adjust my bike while I stood nearby.
As he made polite and very reasonable conversation, I found myself looking down at the bike and giving very short answers. I wouldn’t look at him. I was feeling uncomfortable. Then it dawned on me: No one in that room was going to think I was disrespecting my husband by talking with the instructor in this situation.
This interaction was very normal in this setting and even if I had become chatty about all things bicycles, I still would have appeared normal. I had to make myself relax.
I noticed these same tendencies many more times during that stay in Texas. Over the years since that time I have been able to adjust a little better. This often takes a little bit of conscious effort to recognize where I am and to let myself be a little bit Texan.
How Living in a Muslim Country Affects How I Feel about…Myself
I didn’t know how living in a Muslim country–in a culture that is very conservative–would impact how I felt in my own skin.
I tend to stand out among the crowd on the street. My looks aren’t Middle Eastern. I look like a foreign woman and foreign women have a reputation for having loose morals.
This means that I’m often working against the question of “Is she like what we see in movies? Is she a desperate housewife, too?”
Even as the clothing styles are changing here–going back to knee-length skirts in some areas, sport leggings, sleeveless tops–I’m careful about how and where I participate in fashion trends. I already stand out and I don’t desire more attention.
I didn’t know how observant I would become about what other women wear…and about how the West looks from here.
I’m very uncomfortable when I see tourist women wearing clothing that is not conservative. I am uncomfortable for them, recognizing they don’t know the message they are sending.
Watching American movies and TV shows, I think, “Yeah, I wouldn’t want my daughter to grow up in the West if this is really a completely accurate picture.”
I see the casual sex, the friends with benefits, the revealing clothing, and I know that for people who don’t know America, they don’t know that some of that is just Hollywood. Not all college students are crazy drunks who party and sleep around. Not all housewives are looking for a fling on the side.
It’s worth noting here that just as not all Americans hold loose morals, not all Arabs are terrorists and not all Arabs are Muslim and not all people living in the Middle East are Arabs. Let us not fall into the trap of stereotyping, either.
What’s in a Name
I didn’t know that I would sometimes struggle with my own name. In this culture, a woman does not give out her first name.
I have a Middle Eastern friend who has lived in the same building all her life and the doorman there does not know her first name. He simply calls her “Engineer” now that she is an engineer. The produce man calls me by my husband’s name. Yes, that’s correct, he calls me by a man’s first name.
It’s a little awkward at first.
Taxi drivers should not ask for my name, shopkeepers should not ask for my name. But they do sometimes, because they try to push the boundaries of propriety and respect with me because I’m foreign and might be ok with it. I always reply, “My husband’s name is…”.
And then there’s Starbucks (or any other chain coffeeshop) and I get confused at what name I should have on my cup. My name? My husband’s name? When did this become the difficult part about ordering?!
(In actuality, it’s fine for me to use my first name at these venues that are very Western. It has been interesting, however, to see how I stop for a moment and wonder what to say for my name.)
LIVING IN A MUSLIM COUNTRY: Why Following Their Cultural Rules Matters to Me
Photo credit: IMB.org
I didn’t know about these aspects of change and adjustment that I would experience living in a Muslim country. As I live this life out, as I live my life in a way that loves my neighbors and loves the God who loves them enough to send His own Son as a sacrifice, I am willing to adjust and adapt, to be mindful and to change.
Sometimes those adjustments are difficult. They cause me to look inside at how I see myself and how I see others.
All of these cause me to look to God and ask Him to show me what is good and right, what is important and valuable. And being reminded to lean on His ways? That’s always a good thing.
About the author: Sarah has served overseas for nine years.
Editor’s note: We’re pulling this post from the archives to answer a key recurring question: Does Christianity destroy culture? Are you importing Western culture when you bring the Gospel? We weigh in.
If you’ve ever stood in the middle of African worship, it’s…well, it’s pretty hard to stand still.
Gotta admit. At a refugee-center staff retreat, I started as a mild observer. I marveled at the literal full-bodied movement and vocalization: music that took over my heart, my body. I was, um, really dancing (don’t necessarily try to picture it…) to worship for the first time. Moisture leaked from the corners of my eyes.
Perhaps you can see what I’m talking about:
After a rousing snippet of this kind of worship in staff devotions the week before, I’d told the teachers, this is just a sliver of what the African church offers the world. Every culture has its own strengths, its own vibrant display of the image of God.
And when Jesus comes, I will have watched so many cultures become the truest version of themselves.