How to jump in cross-culturally (without drowning)

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jump in cross-culturallyWhen my kids were learning to swim, they loved the thrill of jumping from the edge of the pool into my waiting arms.

I cautioned them over and over that they should make sure I knew they were jumping before plunging in. If I wasn’t ready, they would go under.

Inevitably that would happen at least once with each child. I would always manage to grab them before the situation turned remotely serious, but they did not enjoy the surprise of floundering on their own.

And isn’t moving to a new culture a lot like jumping straight into the deep end?

In many instances, that’s the only way to do it. While you can learn a few things by dipping your toes into the culture on a short-term trip, most learning and adjustment comes through the experience of all-out living in the country.

Jump In Cross-culturally. Don’t Drown

The reality is that you will experience some floundering when you jump in cross-culturally. You probably will feel like you are red-lining some days.

I know I’ve had plenty of those, even week-long thrashing around. I’ve felt in over my head and wondered when to snatch the next breath.

Consider these ideas–so you don’t drown as you serve cross-culturally.

Ask for Help. Accept Help that is Offered.

I’ll speak for my countrymen: We Americans are pretty terrible at this.

I’m reminded of this character trait as I meet families who are new to the field. Their energy and good intentions push them to think they will handle everything on their own.

Don’t get worn out before you accept help.

Everything is fair game to ask for! The expat community is usually happy to help with everything from baking soda to picking up your kid from an activity to letting you take a shower when the water stops in your building.

They know firsthand how hard it is to jump in cross-culturally. Usually, they’re ready for you.

We borrow money from each other when we don’t have cash. I call my neighbor to accept a delivery for me if I’m not home. And I’ve often been the middle person to pass on messages from English to Arabic and back again.

On the field, asking for and accepting help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a recognition we are all in this together. 

We’re one body, with one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6). And those watching can tell what it’s like to follow Jesus by how we love one another (John 13:35).

Schedule mini-vacations before you’re desperate for one

Summer vacation, spring break trip, maybe a trip at Christmas break. These are the main vacation times we usually consider. But being on the field and working cross-culturally, you need to consider mini-vacations more regularly.

This does not have to be a big trip or a huge expense. But it’s important to schedule in times to get away from the demands of your position and the energy to cross cultures.

Make space to rest and play; to enjoy God.

A mini-vacation might be a day at the beach or day-use at a hotel pool. It might be going to see tourist sights and letting yourself be a tourist for the day (not practicing language and trying to fit in).

Maybe you have time for a weekend away. Or maybe you do a stay-cation and decide not to study language or practice hospitality for a weekend while you rest, play, read, watch a fun movie, and let the pressures sit in the corner for a while.

I often didn’t realize how much I needed to get out of the city and all the responsibilities of daily life until I was feeling frazzled. Then it was a reactive “I need a vacation!” decision.

Adjusting to a new daily routine–new shopping, foods, transportation, language, money, customs–all takes a toll. We need a chance to recharge and find some fun–because God cares about that, too.

Make sure someone is there to support you

Just as I told my kids to make sure I was ready for them to jump, it’s a good idea to have someone safe you can talk with when jumping in cross-culturally–someone to catch you.

On the day that you burn the chickpeas twice (yes, that’s me!) and wonder if you will ever make it, you need someone you can open up to without fear of judgment or criticism. Someone who will affirm that some days are hard and that we have new mercies every morning. Someone who has their own stories of accidental faux pas (we all do!) and learning something the hard way.

In my experience, not everyone I meet is instantly someone I can connect with. I have spent time praying that the Father would provide a safe friend who I can trust my fears and concerns to.

I would encourage you to look for someone in your community, at your child’s school or at church or in your neighborhood. Cross-cultural workers are often willing to open up and go deep faster than people from your home culture; there is something about the work and shared experiences that brings our guard down.

Be Careful about Committing to All the Things

You will probably have opportunities to get involved in many activities. Whether speaking opportunities or Bible studies or being active in the church or school, there can be many ways to spend your day.

Start slow. Be on your guard against FOMO. The truth is that no matter what we choose to do, we miss out on something else. We are finite creatures. Don’t try to do everything.

When we first arrived in Cairo, we did not get involved in the expat community for several months in order to give ourselves time to get to know locals, to figure out where we wanted to go to church, and to establish our rhythms as a family. That was a boundary we created so that we didn’t get sucked into more than we could handle.

For you, maybe the boundary is only have one commitment per week. Maybe it’s not taking leadership positions for six months to a year. Maybe you choose to go to a church of local believers for several months before getting involved in an English speaking community.

Don’t take on the boundaries of others. Choose boundaries that are right for you and your family.

Your limits = good

Jumping in cross-culturally to relationships and ministry is one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had the blessing to engage in. I have gotten to learn more about God’s character, His love for the nations, and His perfect mercy in new ways.

And I have been reminded I have limits.

God, in His infinite and perfect wisdom, created us that way. Lean on Him, trust His provision, and take it slowly.

Sarah serves in Egypt with her husband and four children. You can catch her blog here–and don’t miss her post on Go. Serve. Love about what she wishes she would have known.

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