A Short Correspondence on the Issue of Feeling Trapped

Dear Robynn,

I enjoyed your “Friday’s with Robynn” post (A Hidden Pearl. January 29,2016). It really resonated with me, so thank you for posting it. It was very thought provoking for me.

Earlier this year I experienced a very similar feeling to the one you had having returned from Thailand. My friends and I arrived back from India on January 5th. But my first day of work felt so meaningless. I sat behind my desk and stared at my computer thinking, “who care’s about organizing this stuff….!?!” It felt so pointless and so mundane. And it took me a long time to get back into the swing of things and be motivated again.

It brings back fears I have of being trapped and not being able to move and travel or something. But at the same time I wonder what is it that I hope to find overseas that I cannot find here? Being in India this Christmas was fantastic, but it showed me that even if I was to move back it would not be the same as all the memories I cherish and the experiences I wish to recreate there. As a TCK am I cursed to always be discontent where I am living? Am I always going to be trying to re-establish what I lost? It scares me.

I found that book you lent me very challenging; The Wisdom of Stability, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I love the idea of building that strong community with the people around me and knowing a place and its people intimately, but putting down roots and making that decision that this is where I will live and work and help to build the Lord’s kingdom is terrifying.

Thinking of the Pearl of Great Price is comforting in the midst of all this going on in my head and in my heart. Jesus is here in America just as much as He is in India and Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter. I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment. I need to move away from this idea that I will find peace in any country of this world and move toward knowing I will find peace in the One who created this world.

I think its high time I started to search for this Pearl! And like you said, that hunt for Him will never disappoint!

Dear Young Third Culture Adult,

Thank you again for reading what I write! And thanks for so honestly interacting with it too. I love your heart.

I can so relate to the fears you’ve articulated. I still fear being stuck more than anything. Sometimes when I think about the decision we made to stay here in Kansas I feel a sense of panic begin to creep up from my toes. The idea that we are trapped here, in this house, in this city, in this country freaks me out. I have to constantly present my heart to Jesus asking for daily grace and new mercies.

I think I probably told you this story already…but when my husband Lowell and I decided to buy the little blue house on Colorado Street I resisted. I was anxious to move out of the trailer court only because I really wanted a basement here in Tornado Town. But the idea of BUYING felt so permanent and so forever and so stocks and barrels like. I felt claustrophobic. It stirred up anxiety in me. After we had put our signature on hundreds of papers, initialed countless more and signed our souls over to the bank Lowell and I went out for lunch. Most couples, I imagine, celebrate the purchase of their first home. For me it was a bittersweet time. I cried, wet, salty tears. I’ll never forget Lowell’s response. He put his hand across the table and gently took up my shaky hand. He looked me in the eyes and said what I longed to hear. This doesn’t mean anything. We are not stuck here. If Jesus calls us to Mongolia tomorrow we’ll sell the house. This is not a big deal. There was such reassurance in those words. I felt such relief.

You are not trapped. You are not stuck. I think the enemy of our souls piggybacks on this issue for the Adult TCK. He wants you to think you are stuck. He wants you to feel that a life in your passport country is a purposeless life. Whatever he can do to undermine your sense of worth and calling and purpose He will do. He comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus comes to give us life abundant—“a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)

Returning from Thailand in January was difficult at first. But then out of the blue I started reading a book about prayer. It struck me that our purpose is sure in Christ. We are here for the Kingdom of God. We are here for His Glory. We are here to make Jesus famous. Those things have not changed—no matter where we live. But our enemy likes to erode our sense of who we are. He likes to confuse. He steals our purpose. He makes us feel like we have nothing to offer, that we are meant to live somewhere else. It’s the same argument he used in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The enemy tries to tell us that God is cheating us, that God knows we thrive somewhere else but he’s stuck us here forever to rot away.

It’s changed the way I’m praying. I’m now asking God to protect my sense of purpose. I’m asking him to give me a divine satisfaction with the space he has for me. I’m asking for contentment and joy. And then I’m asking for protection over that satisfaction, over that contentment, over that sense of purpose. Understanding my sense of purpose as something the enemy is opposed to is a new thought for me but I’m trying this out and seeing Jesus victorious in it. To be honest, and this is surprising me even as I write it, I haven’t thought much about my purpose for the last couple of months since I started to pray that way. I think Jesus really is protecting that….declaring it off limits to the enemy of my soul who has tortured me there for so very many years.

Resist the guilt my friend. You wrote, “I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment.”  What might feel like guilt is really an invitation. Jesus is inviting you into deeper places of stability and affection and contentment. He longs for you to find those things in him…

We are so in this together. I wish I could tell you that these things go away. I’m afraid this is your opportunity to find Jesus faithful for many years to come. This is your place of need. This is your thorn in the flesh. But I can also say with great rigor that Jesus WILL BE faithful at every turn. I’ve battled these things over and over again. I can see how Jesus has used this in my story to push me deeper into Who He Is! My faith has grown. I’ve learned that in this suffering He has been kind to me.

 

Unsettled.

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The I’m From post that Robynn’s daughter wrote so long ago continues to inspire people. I love this piece called Unsettled. It speaks my heart. Take a look and peruse Emily Greene’s blog. 
Enjoy!

I am from

generations of pioneers. I follow trails made by

unsettled hearts

seeking more.

I am from

dusty shoes lined up at the door,

woven rugs hung on the walls,

and tables laden with bread and tea

Emily Greene

This post is a response to “I’m From…” found at Communicating.Across.Boundaries. Originally written on my personal blog under maiden name Emily Harris. 

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Thoughts on Sharing our Stories

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“Perhaps the greatest danger of our global community is that the person in LA thinks he knows Cambodia because he’s seen The Killing Fields on-screen, and the newcomer from Cambodia thinks he knows LA because he’s seen City of Angels on video.”
― Pico Iyer

At a dinner party years ago, our host, a man from England, was waxing wise about China. His wife – a no nonsense French woman looked at him at one point, shook her head and said “Nigel, who made you the expert on China?” Nigel did not miss a second to respond “I read Tai-Pan.” He was referring to the book by noted author James Clavell.

We all laughed, but the reality is more serious. The person who has spent ten days on a cruise ship and has visited nine ports in those ten days is hardly an expert on every country where they have stopped. And yet, they sometimes claim to be. The person who has gone on a short term mission or volunteer trip needs to be really careful of the quick judgments that they make of the country they visit and the people in that country.

I’m as guilty as anyone. It’s really easy to make broad assessments of places and people based on a limited view and a single story. My entire life has been a learning process of how to communicate what I have experienced, and be fair and wise within that communication.

At the same time, when we travel and when we live in places, we do experience the world through a different lens, and we do want to communicate that. That is not wrong. It’s not wrong of us to want to share our stories. Perhaps what this is about is not our stories, but the way we share our stories.

This summer, we will once again see many from western countries take trips to other parts of the world. These trips have different names. Sometimes they are called “Short term missions.” Other times they are called “Vision Trips.” Still others call them “Voluntourism.”

I’m not here to say these are wrong. I think we have to be really careful about telling people they can’t go to other parts of the world. My husband started a semester abroad program in Egypt years ago that is still going strong. It has moved from Egypt to Bethlehem to Jordan, but it still exists. Everyone of the students who went on that program would say it was life changing. And I believe them. I watched these students grow and change during their three months in the Middle East.

I do think there are some ways to do these trips that are better than others. Presenting them as trips where a rich, white Westerner is going to help a poor, brown person is not healthy or wise. But I think there are ways to do these trips well and with humility.

No matter how and where these trips take place, people who go on them will come back with stories. And that’s what I want to talk about. Sharing our stories.

What if we began our stories by recognizing our limitations? By saying “This is what I saw and experienced. This could be quite different from what others have experienced.” or “I only know what I know, I only saw what I saw, but that is what I would like to communicate to you today.”

It’s not fair to tell people they aren’t allowed to tell stories because they only went someplace for a ten-day trip. That ten-day trip had a deep impact on how they view the world, and the decisions that they will make in the future. Neither is it fair to demand that someone spend a lifetime in a place before they are allowed to make an assessment, or write a view point. But it is fair to ask people to have humility when they tell their stories. It is fair to ask people not to speak from an authoritative place. 

So if you are traveling this summer to volunteer or visit, here are a couple of guidelines for sharing your story.

  1. At the beginning, verbalize your limitations. This can be done in several different ways. “Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I want to say at the beginning, that this is my story. Others could have completely different experiences. In no way do I mean to stereotype, and if I fall into that, please forgive me. I may share general information, but I will let you know that it is general.” or “I’m honored to be asked to share what I did this summer. As I share, please know that I saw only a small window of what goes on every day. I want to be faithful in sharing what I saw, but honest in what I don’t know.”
  2. In all things, cultural humility. We don’t know everything about our own culture, let alone someone elses. It is critically important to have an attitude of cultural humility as we go, and as we come back. Cultural humility always puts us in a posture of learning.
  3. Be careful of hyperbole. Anyone who knows me and my husband, know that we love a good story. And some stories are made to be embellished. But we don’t embellish at the expense of others. The stories we embellish are about us.
  4. Watch your use of the word “all.” When we begin to use the words “All refugees do such and such…” or “All South Africans believe this …” or “All Iraqis….” then we are on dangerous ground. We can say many (if it’s true). I can say “Many Americans have an individualistic world view.” That statement is true. But changing the “many” to “all” doesn’t give any room for deviation.
  5. Remember, no one is a single story. I have said this so many times in this space that readers are probably tired. But I won’t stop. No one is a single story. Chimamanda Adichie’s famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” should be required viewing. With 10 million views and counting, many people have already seen it. “The problem with stereotypes,” she says “is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” 
  6. Share what you learned about yourself. The more willing you are to be honest and real, the more your story will resonate. Be willing to share mistakes you made and how you learned from them. Be honest about your pride, your self-consciousness, and your tendency to be egocentric. Give a story about how those things were challenged. The more vulnerable you are willing to be, the more others will see themselves in your story and learn.

Stories are important. When we stop listening and telling stories, we will stop being human. We walk in our stories every day and sharing them with others is important. If we share them well, everyone benefits.

What would you add that would help us tell our stories with integrity and honesty? 

The Language of Transition

Cairo View 2 Sarah Groves quote

“I do want to make sure we have a language for transition and crossing cultures and homesickness and living in a state of between-ness. I did not have that growing up and have found the TCK vocabulary helpful as an adult.” Elizabeth Trotter as quoted from A Life Overseas

Like Elizabeth, I did not grow up with a language of transition. My husband, who, much like Elizabeth, grew up as a military kid, did not have a language of transition either. Whether you buy into the term third culture kid or not, whether you use the term cross-cultural kid or not, it strikes me that having a language of transition is critically important.

Though I’m still in process when it comes to a language of transition, I want to use this space to write about what I think it means.

The language of transition means know the importance of goodbyes. We honor the goodbyes. That may look different for every member of the family, and that’s where it gets tricky. Honoring the goodbyes means we won’t make our kids get rid of all their treasures. Yes, I get the problem of space. But that stuffed lamb means more to your little girl than you can possibly understand during the chaos of moving. The doll house? Do NOT give it away! I repeat: Do Not! Honoring the goodbyes means making space for different members of your family to grieve their “lasts.” Their last trip to that favorite restaurant; the last trip to school, to church, to the playground. Honoring the goodbyes means making sure that final meal is with people you love deeply.

The language of transition means knowing the word “Saudade.” That 12th Century word from Portugal, thought up by the diaspora who longed for the soil of Portugal, but had no vocabulary, no language of transition to express it.

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

These are feelings so deep that you can scarcely give words to them. Your throat catches. You experience an intense, but wordless, longing and desire. How do I know this? Because I have experienced it, first hand. What we long to describe is Saudade. It also means we know how to “kill the saudade;” how to find ways to contain the longing so it doesn’t destroy us. Finding the restaurants or the people who know the world that we came from, getting together for an evening of food and talk. Killing the saudade is a sweet and necessary activity in transition.

The language of transition includes building a RAFT. Knowing the importance of reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination. This was an acronym developed by Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock in a chapter of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among World. The entire chapter is devoted to transition and dealing with leaving one place and starting in a new one. It is a constructive and practical look at leaving well, at closure, at saying our goodbyes in peace. You can read a summary of what it means to build a RAFT here.

The language of transition means having a vocabulary for cross-cultural adjustment. For a child, much of the art of crossing cultures is learned from the parents. So if the parents are struggling and resisting the host culture, the kids will pick that up and internalize it. The language of transition means that as adults we will educate ourselves on culture shock and cultural adjustment and work to pass that on to our kids. It’s a verb, not a noun. It takes action on our part. Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines from a poem come to mind as I write this:

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

While that may seem like a harsh ending to a life, the meaning could not be clearer. Cross-cultural adjustment is imperative and having words and understanding of it is part of the language of transition. I would also add that cultural humility is a necessary ingredient to the work of cross-cultural adjustment.

Finally, the language of transition means  learning to understand the idea of living between worlds. “Every good story has a conflict. Never being fully part of any world is ours. This is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing. We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between. This is our conflict and the heart of our story.”* Learning to be comfortable in the space between is part of the language of transition.

Like learning any language, the language of transition is not mastered overnight. Rather, it takes time, effort, laughter, and tears. We make mistakes, we get up, and we move on. But developing a vocabulary of transition is an important step along the way.

*From Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

A Moment Between Worlds

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I’m sitting in a Pakistani Restaurant in Los Angeles, just two miles from the airport – because that’s what we do when we are global nomads. We find comfort foods and places wherever we go, places where we can kill the saudade.

I arrived just a couple of hours ago from New Zealand and knew I had too much time to stay at the airport, but too little time to go very far. So I looked up restaurants near the LA airport and found Bihar Halal, described as an authentic Pakistani restaurant a short ride away. It is indeed only a short ride from the airport and I walk into the smell of naan and curry. There are mostly Pakistanis in the restaurant, a sure sign of its authenticity. I sit down and order a chicken curry, raita, and tandoorki roti. No fancy Americanization of this delicious food – just authentic curry.

I eat with my fingers and soon my nose is running, the spicy taste delighting my palate and forcing me to wipe my nose. The TV is set to a station in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Periodically an advertisement comes on and the Pakistani National Anthem plays in the background. I hum along with it. My Urdu is challenged as I try to follow the plot line of a crime show.

Suddenly my situation strikes me as absurdly surreal – I just arrived from New Zealand, I’m sitting in a Pakistani restaurant, and I’m watching a crime show on Pakistani TV in the middle of Los Angeles. Just yesterday I was sitting in my friend’s garden in Christchurch, New Zealand eating breakfast. Sometimes my worlds change too fast and I am left spinning, like a top spun over and over again by a child who won’t give the toy a rest.

When my mom and dad first moved overseas they would travel by ship. Instead of frenzied airport arrivals and departures, they would wave from the balcony of a ship. They would wave until those they loved faded out of sight, and all that was left were tears on their faces and a wide ocean that would be their landscape for the next six weeks. They left slowly, and they entered slowly. Those long days and nights at sea prepared them for their next steps on land. It was a good way to travel. For six weeks you were literally between worlds, without expectations from either.

Sometimes I wish it were still that way. We move so quickly between countries that it is hard to breathe. Currency, language, food, and customs change in a short plane ride. The cultural lines get blurred and we have high expectations of how quickly we will adjust to whatever culture we find ourselves. No wonder we find ourselves exhausted, collapsed on beds with tears on our pillows. It’s all a bit much.

As light fades outside the restaurant, I realize I have been traveling hard and fast.  The crime show has finished and I am now watching recaps of the Pakistan/India cricket game. I am alone, but not lonely. Instead, I am content in this world I live in. In his book, The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer says this: “In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.” A busy restaurant may be an unlikely place of stillness, but for me that is just what it is.

I paid the bill a long time ago and it is the goodness of the restaurant owner that he has allowed me to rest without distraction. I sigh and pack up my things, reluctant to give up this moment between worlds.

But it is time for the next journey, one that will take me back to an apartment building in Cambridge.

The top is still spinning, but curry and naan have slowed it down and eased me into reentry. I am content.

At least for now.

___________

Note: Tomorrow I will be announcing the two winners of the Meditations coloring book! Stay tuned!

Also, please continue your thoughts and prayers for the people of Pakistan as the country mourns for those who died and hopes that those who are wounded will heal.

  • Evil in Not the Final Word ““Has not Pakistan suffered enough?” I shout the words inside, knowing that few would understand my reactions. Yet, the Pakistani flag lights up my newsfeed and I am grateful for friends who do understand, who know and love this place that so many of us called home.”
  • I am Pakistan? “Our humanity has constraints; limitation is after all a characteristic common to all people. We do not therefore have the emotional capacity to mourn all who die in this world and to scream at all the wickedness that weaves so deeply through every culture. But while  our tears are reserved for Western nations, the rest of the world is right to be suspicious of us.”
  • Keen Pain in Pakistan over “Lives Shattered into Pieces”  “Shock and grief enveloped Pakistan on Monday as the official death toll from the attack in Lahore a day earlier rose to at least 72, with 341 people reported wounded by officials.”

“I wouldn’t give it up for a moment!”

Airport Happy Place

….and other things we wouldn’t give up! [With thanks to Michele Phoenix.]

I love playing the game “Two truths and a lie.”  It’s a get-to-know-you game, designed so that strangers can begin feeling comfortable with each other. The premise is that you tell a group three things about yourself. Two of them have to be true, but one of them is false. The group has to then decide which one is false. With a group of people who have never left their home towns, you get quite a few “I love my pets” “I love my kids” “I went on vacation to Vermont” (of course, the lie is that they didn’t go on vacation to Vermont, they haven’t left the state.) But if you play this game with others, the results are extraordinary. From a CIA operative taking out someone’s appendix to being in a Bollywood movie, you find out extraordinary things about people.

Third culture kids, whether they be from the military, business, diplomatic, or mission sector, are by far the best at this game. They can take their life experiences, experiences that haven’t all been easy, and tell their stories without being accused of boasting. They can pick the best parts of their lives and share them.

It’s this game I thought about when I saw the video below.  Michele Phoenix asked adult third culture kids (in this case, adult kids of missionary parents) what they liked best about growing up between worlds. She then had younger kids recite their answers. The result is a fun two-minute video. It’s like someone took all the answers to two truths and a lie and put them together in video form.

The wealth of experiences mentioned in this short video is something to celebrate.While Communicating Across Boundaries has a broader audience than missionary kids, any TCK, adult TCK or cross cultural kid could love this. After you watch it, feel free to tell us some of your experiences in the comment section.

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For a look at the survey that Michele Phoenix did on adult missionary kids, take a look here. 

Traveling While White

Blogger’s note: I have received some good feedback and pushback from this article – always good when you write a piece like this. Based on the feedback, I realize that it’s is not necessarily the simple black and white issue I have made it to be. I still hold to my original premise, that many, if not most of us, do benefit from the privilege of skin and perhaps passport color, but I welcome your feedback. It is important to note that this is in no way designed to be a political piece. It is an observation while traveling. 

I arrive in Auckland, New Zealand at six in the morning, bleary-eyed with little sweaters on my teeth. It’s been a long flight from San Francisco.  
I am tired but excited as I go through passport control. Exiting the desk, where uniformed women and men look down through glass windows from places of power, I see a family pulled aside. The family looks tired, exhausted really, travel weary and ready to settle. 

Four kids of different ages and stages sit, stand, and lie across chairs. A man with passport control has their passports and is talking on the phone. I don’t recognize the color of their passports, but from the color of their skin I know they could be from any of a number of countries. The father is clearly worried, the mom looks resigned– resigned to wait, to be patient, to accept whatever will come. 

In these brief moments, as I take in all that I see, I realize all over again what I’ve known all along: traveling while white is a privilege. This family is traveling while brown, while I travel while white. 

In all my years of travel to over 30 countries, I have never been detained at an airport. I have never been subject to extensive searches. I have never been suspected or considered suspicious. I carry stamps in my passport from countries that are on the State Departments “no fly” list, I have been to places considered dangerous– yet I have never had any sort of difficulty going anywhere. 

Because I travel while white. I have done nothing to deserve good treatment, but I do receive it. It is not my birthright to be able to walk out of and into countries freely, but I get to anyway. 

I travel while white. I am part of the privileged minority of the white. 

I can deny it all I want, but it is still the truth. Traveling while white is a privilege that I’ve done nothing to deserve. 

This is part of what it means to be aware of one’s own privilege. I need to own that privilege and realize that it is not like this for everyone. 
Traveling while white means: 

1. I’m never detained

2. I am welcomed to almost everywhere I go

3. I am considered safe, not a threat

4. I am treated with respect

5. I can express anger without getting in trouble.

6. I can make a fuss and not be reprimanded.

7. I can treat others poorly and not be confronted.

8. I receive smiles and nods, rarely stares and auspicious glances. 

9. I usually get my own way.

10. I receive apologies when things don’t go my way. 

I sigh as I look back at the family, wishing I could help. But I’m a stranger to Aukland, I don’t really know what is going on. All I know, is that I’m white and I’m really tired. 

A Lonely Planet

I’m sitting at Gate 97 in the International Terminal of San Francisco’s International Airport. It’s evening and weary travelers are staking their claim to prime seating locations — the areas with booths and plugs are going first, followed by side seats near plugs. Our electronic age demands above all that we keep our gadgets powered, at the ready for use.

I arrived this morning from Portland, Oregon. I came to speak at a conference and my time has been busy and rewarding. A group of third culture kids has once again wormed their way into my heart and I am better for it. 

I have been in more airports and logged more travel hours than I can count yet travel still  brings out an introspection in me — I sit and I wonder about the lives of all those I see. I wonder who they have left and who they are going to see; what tears have been spilled over hard goodbyes. I wonder what brings them to this particular flight on this day. For 13 hours we will share a space in the sky – but most of us will still leave as strangers. 

We live on a lonely planet. A planet that needs tragedies to bring out the humanity in people, a planet increasingly connected even as it is increasingly divided. We sit in airports the world over, waiting for flights, passing time, tired and often lonely. 

We need each other more than we know. Our DNA is wired for connection, for human companionship and intimacy. More and more, researchers are concerned about the loneliness that manifests itself in so many, a loneliness that affects our emotional and physical health. 

Yes – we need each other more than we know. 

An announcement comes over the intercom, alerting us that our flight will be boarding shortly. 

I think of those I am leaving behind for a brief time. Those I love the most will be on a different continent for the next ten days. I am acutely aware that anything could happen. I say a silent prayer, reminded once again that I cannot live this life without God, without faith in a God who is ultimately good and merciful. 

My introspection is cut off, interrupted by a young woman who asks if she can share my space and plug in her computer. 

I smile and say yes, connected for a brief moment and I am grateful. 

Valley of Weeping

We arrived in the Bekaa Valley and immediately felt the temperature change. It was cold and damp, the sun hidden behind a grey cloud. We entered a cold, concrete warehouse full of large, blue bags and boxes. This is where food and supplies are stored for refugees in the area. A truck was parked outside and volunteers were busy filling it with bags and boxes, all part of todays food distribution.

Inside the building we met Bashir, the director of Heart for Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley location. He explained to us that this is the hub for the 13 camps and thousands of refugees that they have committed to working with in the area. We would be going to visit a school and then head to a camp where we would be part of a regular food distribution. Along the way, we would meet and hear the stories of a few refugee families.

The school was a few miles away and up a gravel road. A mural on the outside, painted in primary colors, brought a bright splash of color to an otherwise bleak building. The inside, as though defying the outside to determine its fate, was full of life and learning. The school principal explained that the school focused on the neediest kids, kids who were orphans or who had lost at least one parent in the Syrian conflict. There was room for 75 kids and he said that parents are constantly pleading with them to accept their children. Many of the refugee kids have no opportunities to go to school and have now missed two to three years of critical learning. No school means long days at refugee camps with hundreds of children. No school means a generation lost to learning the basics.

We visited each classroom, watching dedicated teachers, some of them refugees themselves, focus on English, Arabic, and Mathematics. I longed to whisk some of the kids away and soak them in a hot tub for hours. It’s hard to keep clean with no running water, and kids around the world attract dirt like magnets attract metal.

Our next stop was at a camp around fifteen minutes away. The camp had 165 tents and with an average of ten people per tent, hundreds of residents. The food and supplies truck had already arrived and men were busy unloading. We received instructions: Each family would get one bag of food that contained sugar, tea, lentils, salt, rice and a few more basic supplies. Added to that we put three containers of oil, a bottle of dishwashing liquid, and soap into a bag. We got to work filling bags while the volunteers called a member of each family over to receive their allotment.

Most of the families from this camp came from farming communities in Syria. They are used to hard work, and life has never been easy for them. But refugee status has added a whole new level of ‘hard’ to their existence. Each family pays for the tents that they live in, $600 per year to use the land. The camp is isolated, far away from any stores or businesses. Men try to find work, but it is limited to informal arrangements as they don’t have legal status to work. Being paid ‘under the table’ means that you have no rights to argue your pay. You take what you get and move forward.

While the food distribution continued, we walked through the camp to visit a family. Taking off our shoes, we walked across the carpeted ground and sat on pillows set up around the sides of the tent. We asked the family their story. They were farmers in Syria near Aleppo — the family had 1500 olive trees that they tended and used as income generators. They lived simply, but the olive trees had been in the family for generations. With ISIS coming in and wreaking havoc, they fled to nearby Lebanon and had been at this camp for over 15 months. The olive trees were gone now, chopped up for firewood, no longer a living thing offering fruit and oil.

The extended family was large and growing, with a pregnant daughter-in-law as well as other family back in Syria.

Just one family. Just one story. But symbolic of so many more. Olive trees gone to waste, trees that had stood for generations helping a large farming family survive. Gone. Tragically cut down by people who care nothing for life. A family displaced, living in extreme cold and extreme heat in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

We left the family, knowing we had so little to give. Now, a week after leaving Lebanon, I write this so I remember. So the pictures stay in my heart and mind a little while longer, so that I don’t forget. The rallying cry of these refugees is “Don’t forget. Don’t forget us. Remember us. Pray for us. Tell our stories.” And so I must.

We said our goodbyes and left the valley in late afternoon, driving up through a mountain pass where a thick fog blurred the valley below. Looking out the window, vision blurred, I thought about a Psalm I memorized years before:

How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
         In whose heart are the highways to Zion!

Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring;
         The early rain also covers it with blessings.

They go from strength to strength,
         Every one of them appears before God in Zion.*

I look at the history of the verse and understand that historically this is a valley of weeping. And so these refugee tents full of people are scattered across this valley of weeping, this valley of tears. I can only pray that along with the tears is a God who sees and remembers, a God who will turn this valley into blessing.

*Psalm 84:5-7

Note: This week I hope to relay several stories from our time in Lebanon and Jordan. Thank you for your interest.

The MK/TCK Aversion to Being a Tourist

Attempting to be ‘good’ tourists on our last day in Amman

I love travel. I love planes. I love airports. I love that feeling of getting another stamp in my passport, of going into unchartered territory, of waking up on the other side of the world.

But I hate being a tourist. I hate associating with tourists. I despise the wide-eyed wonder and giggles of tourists when they see naked children beside the road. I groan at the “Well, that looks different! I wonder what it tastes like!” said loudly from the table across the room. I cringe when people stop in the middle of the road, lost and discombobulated.

For years the words “I’m not a tourist! I live here.” were on my lips when I went to bazaars in the Middle East. Even if I didn’t live in the place, I learned the phrase just so I could set myself apart.

I purposely try to book apartments off of websites or stay in guesthouses instead of hotels, just so I can give off the air that I know what I’m doing.

The problem is – sometimes I am a tourist. Often I don’t belong and I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know where to eat or shop. I don’t know local customs and can barely say hello. I don’t know any idioms and I don’t know how to get places.

I am a tourist. I am traveling or visiting a place for “pleasure.” That is the definition of being a tourist. I don’t live and work in the country I am visiting. I am not on a work trip. I am a tourist.

So why is it so hard to admit?

When you have lived in a place that others only visit,  that place, that city and country, become a part of your soul and your heartbeat. You see through the lenses of one who lives there. You know where the best places are for fruit and vegetables; you have a favorite restaurant; you have friends and develop community. And when you’ve done that in a couple of different countries then it seems impossible to just visit places for pure pleasure. There has to be more. You have to connect and communicate across the boundaries that being a tourist perpetuates. When you know what it is to communicate on a deeper level, it is so difficult to feel stuck in the role of tourist; the role of one who is present only for “pleasure.” Not to work, not to live, just for fun. Somehow it seems wrong.

But the reality is, it isn’t wrong. Being a tourist can help people learn and grow, help people to see the world through new eyes. If tourism is done right, then people gain knowledge of a new place and new people. They see the old through tours, museums, and ruins. They see the new through interacting with real people on streets and in stores. Being a tourist is not a bad thing. Being a tourist can help us learn about governments and problems in countries, can help us learn to be better people and better stewards.

While living and working in a country is definitely my favorite, either long or short term, there are sometimes when I have no choice but to admit that I’m a tourist. My question then becomes “How can I be a ‘good’ tourist?”

But that’s for another day. 

How about you? Are you a TCK or MK who hates being a tourist? Would love to hear your stories through the comments. 

Waking up on the Other Side of the World

Istiklal Caddesi on Sunday Afternoon, Istanbul by Stan Brown

Last night my parents left for Istanbul. My niece, Sarah, drove them from Rochester, New York, to Toronto. There they embarked on a non-stop flight to Istanbul.

They woke up on the other side of the world. 

I’ve done this many times myself, but I still shake my head in amazement. How is it that our worlds can change so rapidly? How is it that in a matter of 10 hours, we can arrive in a totally different part of the world?

I know the mechanical and physical part of it, that’s easy. We have airline travel and that has changed the world. What I’m marveling at is the emotional and psychological piece.

You wake up on the other side of the world to the call to prayer and strange syllables being pronounced all around you. You wake up on the other side of the world in a haze of excited exhaustion. Traffic bustles and the city of Istanbul is at the end of a work day. You wake up on the other side of the world, greeted by those who make their home in a 3-bedroom apartment, part of a middle class neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.  You wake up on the other side of the world, united to family who love you and welcome you with special care, even as you leave behind family who love you and care for you daily. 

On A Life Overseas this morning, Elizabeth Trotter has written beautifully about this. Elizabeth will wake up on the other side of the world tomorrow. She leaves Cambodia, a place where she has been writing her name in the land, and heads to the United States. She writes poignantly about this transition:

“Who am I, and where do I belong? I live in this city and traverse its Asian streets, all without quite belonging to them. Yet I don’t quite belong to the immaculately clean American streets I’ll soon be walking, either. Belonging is a slippery feeling for a global nomad. It can be everywhere, and it can be nowhere, all at the same time.

From now on, wherever I go and no matter which side of the sea I settle on, I will always be on the far side of somewhere I love.” from Elizabeth Trotter in The Far Side of Somewhere.

My parents embarked on a life between worlds long before I was born. When I came into their life, they had already planted their feet both sides of the globe — in Pakistan and in the United States. Their careers were spent waking up on the other side of the world, always leaving someone behind. At first, it was parents and siblings. But as time went on, it was their own children and grandchildren. They are ever-familiar with the tightness in the chest, the swallowing, the tears just beyond the eyelids — all symptoms of goodbye. 

As I think about this, I remember the One who knew what it was to live away from his Father, the One who left all that was his, and woke up on the other side of the world. This Jesus knew the agony of separation. The words “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” were on his lips as he was dying. He knew what it was to long for the place where you truly belong, and so he sent a Comforter.

“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;”*

If I asked my parents their secret to waking up the other side of the world, they would tell me that it is this Comforter that makes it possible.

Because when we wake up on the other side of the world, the Comforter comes with us. 

*John 14:16

Photo Credit – Stan Brown

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.

Hearts Made Larger

We returned from Iraq yesterday, touching down at Logan Airport’s international terminal late afternoon.

It is difficult to find words in English to describe our trip. Amazing, interesting, challenging, joy-filled …..those adjectives are not strong enough so I’ll stick with this: The trip was extraordinary.

This was my first time to Iraq. We arrived in early morning and left a week later in early morning. I walked off the plane to the heat of the desert and my heart felt immediately at home and alive. This is a place of the heart.

The people of Iraq have experienced sanctions, war, and now displacement for years. Sanctions began in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait under the regime of Saddam Hussein. This means that the population aged 12 to 25, which was the primary group that we worked with, survived sanctions that deprived the country of critical resources. Those sanctions caused diseases from water that was not clean, widespread malnutrition, lack of proper medical care and supplies, and so much more I will devote an entire post to it. It is important to note that the sanctions did nothing to rid the country of Saddam, it merely hurt the people of Iraq.

A week is a short time to take in the enormity of the situation, but the conversations and time we were able to have made our hearts larger. The spirit and resilience of the people of Iraq are commendable, and I am humbled to have met so many and to hear just a few of the millions of stories from this area.

My heart is made larger from the people I met.

In 1923, Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher raised in Austria wrote a book called Ich und Du, which translates as I and Thou. Buber’s premise is that we find meaning in life through relationships, and we interact or engage the world in two primary ways: Through I-it or I-thou.

The I-it relationship looks at the relationship of subject to object. I-thou looks at relationship of subject to subject. How this works out practically is that if we see others through the lens of I-it, they become separate and we can detach ourselves from them. The I-it relationship focuses on a single story, reduces people to objects instead of living beings that reflect the image of God. I-it fails to see the complexity of human interaction. By contrast, I-thou enlarges the relationship. I-thou sees the whole person, encounters that person, not in relation to what the person can do for them, but as a person made in the image of God.  I-thou is a way to engage the world with a sense of honor and responsibility, with humility and desire to learn.*

My encounters with people who have been internally displaced in Iraq, who fled with the clothes on their backs, and if they were lucky, a suitcase, were I-thou encounters. My heart was deeply enlarged as I saw resilience, joy, willingness to tell their story, to accept me as an outsider, to acknowledge their own strength and hope. My heart, and I know the heart of my husband, was made larger. I can only give glory to God for this time.

In the coming week, I hope to recount several stories that I have permission to share. I will share stories of fear and hope, of prayer and resilience. I have returned, and my heart is larger.

I’ve included a couple of pictures today with actual quotes from people. Thank you for reading, for being willing to see people through the I-thou lens.

*I do great disservice to Buber’s work in this small explanation, but it is what best describes our time in Iraq so I chose to use it.

“What hope do you have for us in Iraq?” ” We have hope that you can return and live out your faith in peace and joy” “Al hamdulilah”

“You are so strong!” “We ARE strong! We surprised even ourselves!”

 

“The road may be long and full of our blood but we will go back waving olive branches. Love is stronger than hate”

Oh, the Places We Go!

I’m headed to Iraq today. With friends visiting, work, and the chaos of life it has been difficult to focus and get ready. The trip came about so quickly and is a surprise gift. But it also has me trembling – there has been too little time to prepare. So I go, knowing I have little to give, much to learn, and at heart – I am a big baby. But I’m also a willing baby. So my prayer is that I cling fast to the God I love and stay focused and willing.

In the midst of all this, I found the perfect picture to hang on my wall at work. I hang it to help me dream and then focus. It’s a balance isn’t it? That need to be fully present, and yet not forget to dream. Dr. Seuss captured the dream well in his beloved book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!  As I head off to Iraq, I think of the book and I smile.   

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”

“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. but mostly they’re darked.
But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?”

To give you a sense of what is happening, our small team of four will be in the city of Erbil. I will be helping at a clinic as well as assisting with an art therapy program for teenage girls, all of them displaced from their homes and communities. It will be hot – weather forecasts are 115 degrees and full sunshine during the day, going down to around 82 at night. It’s a dry heat like Phoenix, and I’m reminding myself how much I love Phoenix. My husband has been to Erbil so has given me a briefing on what to expect, but we go knowing two things: flexibility is a must and we are visitors and learners.

On Saturday evening we received a beautiful travel blessing from our priests, Fr. Patrick and Fr. Michael. The church overwhelmed us with baby and hygiene kits, put together for us to take to refugees and internally displaced people. We feel deeply loved and supported in our journey through Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church. Though we are the ones to physically go, they are the ones who walk beside us in prayer and love. More and more, I am overwhelmed by the mystery of the Church and the community of believers within.

And so the blog will be quiet while I’m gone. I have a lovely guest post from a reader, and I hope to write a quick post at some point, but for the most part, it will be a still space and I will debrief when I return.

Thanks so much for reading and caring. 

How do You Open Your Heart?

Fred Perry quote

A year ago I wrote a piece called “People Have Friends; Governments have Interests.” A friend of mine made this comment on the post, and so I offer it to you today.

I have been blessed to live in and travel much of the world that many Americans would consider dangerous and full of people who would mean us harm or ill will. Many of my best friends come from and live in these places that have been “branded” by media and by politics. The only way to experience the humanity of another or “the other” is to open your heart, your home and the opportunity for friendship and wait to be amazed.*

How do you meet those who are “the other?” What has helped you open your heart to those who are different from you?

*the quote is from our friend, Fred Perry. You can read more about him here.

A Life Overseas – Thoughts and Advice for a First-time Expat

I’m over at A Life Overseas today! I would love for you to join me there. Here is an excerpt to get you started:

***********

Ten-commandments-for-Expats

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.

Read the rest at A Life Overseas by clicking here.