Our family had been in Ethiopia for about two weeks one February when we decided to visit the village where we’d soon be living.
My husband John is a water engineer. Our task was to put in a water system for the Tokay area and surrounding villages. We had just begun language school in Addis, so our skills were limited–but we were excited to see the village where we’d live for the next three years, about four hours west.read more
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Rebecca Hopkins’ blog, Borneo Wife, when she and her husband served in Indonesia. Her pieces have appeared in Christianity Today. She now blogs from her new American home at www.rebeccahopkins.org .
I was so tired I don’t even remember which of my kids was throwing the fit in the security line in some airport somewhere in America.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
We get it. The journey to overseas missions can feel like you’re trying to build a plane midair. With a root beer can, scotch tape, and a plastic flower. On the hard days, it’s possible you need some unshakable truth as you head overseas.
So today we’ve cobbled together a free printable infographic with some truths to hang your hat on, even if some days it feels like an overlarge sombrero. Post this in a cupboard, on a bathroom mirror, or tucked in all those books you’re reading for your training.
And chew on God’s promises for you in this journey.
You can’t be serious! People don’t even know what Balaam’s donkey is.
That may be true. But I do.
So your favorite Bible character is…a donkey.
Well, I identify with him. And I sympathize with him. And I guess I hope with him.
See, like a donkey, I’m a worker. I love working. I love seeing something productive getting done.
But … I also realize, after all these years, that I am not the greatest, the best, the one with the most potential, the one who will accomplish the most. I’m not some great leader. God made me a manager; an administrator.
Which brings me to the amazing thing about Balaam’s donkey. He was just a donkey. I sympathize with that. But here’s the stunning part of it: God can speak through donkeys!
Isn’t that beyond belief?
That means there is hope for me! God can use me too.
I’ve quit trying to have the wittiest response, the most insightful answer, the commanding presence, the coolest look. Take me, or leave me, but I’m a “me”. A donkey.
And I am convinced that God can, and is, “speaking” through me.
Unimpressive. But Vital
Of course, people aren’t impressed by donkeys. But they are surprised that God can make a donkey talk. And they benefit from the piece God provides through me.
Balaam’s donkey saw things his brilliant leader couldn’t see. And he helped to “avoid” the impending disaster.
Of course, he was rewarded with a beating, but that’s sort of par for the course, too.
And my donkey friend made it into the Bible. Not bad for a day’s work. Along with the prostitute who poured perfume on Jesus feet. That shook a few folks up too.
Then he went back to trudging along with an overweight, money-hungry Balaam sitting on his back. The mundane. The common. Yes. But it needs to be done.
I wonder whether Balaam treated his donkey with a little more respect after that? Or was he nervous to be around a weird donkey?
The Lackluster Plow
Thinking of us missionaries, how many of us “oxen” have plowed fields around the world for years and rarely heard a word of appreciation? We’re often taken for granted.
But the God who created us remembers us. He even gave the oxen and friends a special shout-out in the (quite missional) Jonah 4:11:
And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?
Job and Abraham would have been nobodies without their animals. At least in the eyes of the world.
Balaam’s Donkey, and a (Braying) Message for Missions
If you’re feeling like your gifts or job description or position mean you’re negligible in the missions world–welcome, friend. You’re in good company. Know that we’ve never known the names of some of the greatest in the Kingdom of God.
From my own perspective? Allow me to speak, if you would: It’s not bad being “just” a donkey.
Editor’s note: If you’re wondering about your “small” life, consider camping out in 1 Corinthians 12 this week.
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.