I arrive back to Rania in the rain. The mountains along the road from Erbil to Rania have changed from dusty brown to lush green. They are beautiful. Rivers are rushing with muddy water, an indication that it has rained for some days, and the sun is seemingly lost behind clouds.
It’s hard to believe that this lush land is the same one that we arrived to in early September. Gone is the dust and brown of summer, replaced by vivid shades of green with snow capped mountains in the distance.
Long hours of power outages accompany the rain and we sit on a couch, huddled in our robes sipping spicy, turmeric tea. It’s not as romantic as it might seem. Flickers of discontent are below the surface and I try hard to focus on the positive.
I bake a cinnamon tea ring and the rich scent is a spark of hope until I realize the bottom has burnt. The dim light from a candle wasn’t enough to see if it had cooked long enough and I kept it in the oven too long. The result was as disappointing as you might imagine.
Along with that we are facing some difficult relationship problems and it makes us want to curl up and isolate. Sometimes nothing works out and that’s the honest truth. When everything seems to go against you in a cross-cultural context you begin to question everything.
The rumblings of discontent stir and then boil. As the electricity stays off and we have no hot water for the fifth day in a row, those rumblings erupted and boiled over the pot. We huddled in our living room as I write an email to see if someone could help us. They could and they did. Within 24 hours we had electricity, we had someone to come and fix some other things that were broken and friends brought us over a kerosene heater to take the chill out of the air when the electricity went off again.
Independence and self-sufficiency are all-American values and in many ways they aren’t very good ones. The idea of “do by self” creates a lot of loneliness and defeats the idea of community. We are in a position that could lead to great loneliness and we are more American than we thought when it comes to trying to do it alone or letting our needs be known.
Along with that are reminders of what we left behind. We came from strong church, work, and friend communities – communities that would give and come alongside us, that challenged us to open our hearts and homes to those around us. In our move to Kurdistan, we left those behind. We have been given much in terms of hospitality and genuine friendship, but it takes a long time to grow an old friend, and we haven’t been here a long time. We are also in a place of need. We don’t know things about living here. We constantly need help. We are two adults who are like children when it comes to our understanding of cultural norms in Kurdistan. We would love to invite people to our home, but it’s small and people have bluntly told us that they wouldn’t come anyway. Instead, we accept invitation after invitation without giving back.
Here’s the thing: We have been stripped of our ideals at every level.
What does all this mean? Those reading may immediately cry “culture shock”. But I think some of this is not just culture shock – it’s what writer Rachel Pieh Jones calls “culture stripping”. She describes it well in an essay at A Life Overseas, and I quote some of it here as a reminder to me:
Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.
Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.
You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.
This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain.
Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.
“The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”
These words from Rachel reveal my heart, they reveal what I think is happening under the surface of all that feels hard. In so many ways I hate it. I hate what it reveals about me, I hate that I am not stronger, better, kinder. But in other ways, it reveals truth, and I want truth. I don’t want to live a lie. I want to grow, learn, and move forward even when it is hard. I want to lean into the discomfort.
As Rachel says, this stripping is not a one and done event. It is like the long journey in the same direction – you keep on going because every once in a while you see a glimpse of yourself without the dragon skin, and that glimpse is so worth it.
So – to you who are on this same journey, a journey of culture stripping and cleansing, of getting rid of our cultural dragon skin, may we share the non-idealized versions of ourselves. These stripped and humbled versions that are vulnerable are ultimately far more useful than the ones we try so hard to cultivate.
I write this as I hear the evening call to prayer. The rain and gloom continue outside, but inside there is warmth and healing. A bit of the dragon skin has been peeled but there’s more to come. For now I sit, grateful for the stripping.