Keeping Your Bearings When Living Cross-Culturally

It is easy to feel lost when you cross cultures.  Really any of the analogies will suffice—lost at sea, stranded in a crowd, wandering in the forest or in a new place in the dark.  A few years ago I learned how to scuba dive and the most terrifying feeling was when you became so disoriented that you lost track of the surface of the water. Living cross culturally can feel just like that (though re-entry can feel much the same)—you are swimming along enjoying the experience when you’re suddenly lost, alone and scared.  Here are some of the ways to keep your bearings when you begin to lose track of who you are, where you are and what you’re even doing there in the first place.

1. Die to yourself, but don’t lose yourself.  You are going to have to die to yourself daily and most of the time you won’t get to choose the crosses.  You may as well accept this.  God will honor your sacrifice.  At the same time, look for ways the Lord is trying to bless you by allowing you to be the person you were before you moved overseas.  For me, it was running and cooking.  In China, I lived near the countryside, so I could run without everyone in town elbowing their neighbor to come out and check out the strange white girl running without being chased, but I know other foreigners who had gym memberships and used that as their outlet.  When I lived in Africa, I laced up and ran through the village in my long skirt at the crack of dawn.  You can make it work.


2. You are not going to change the culture, so you may as well start noticing some of the great parts about it.  Anyone who has visited China knows those aspects of Chinese culture that just grate westerners the wrong way (no lines, pushing in crowds, never actually saying no even when you mean no—to name a few), but what about those aspects of non-western culture that we need to learn from?  Those parts that are actually, possibly MORE biblical, like not being so darn independent and individualistic that we can’t ask for help?


 3. Stay calibrated and keep your bearings. Have you ever had to “calibrate” your printer? According to dummies.com:


 “Calibration refers to the proper alignment of the inkjet cartridge nozzles to the paper and each other; without a properly calibrated printer, your print quality degrades. You’ll want to calibrate your printer when you see lines appearing fuzzy in artwork or when colored areas in printed images start or stop before they should.” 

 If your “print quality” is “degrading” or your lines are appearing “fuzzy,” then it’s back to the cross with you for calibration!  This is often easier said than done, but taking an hour or two out of my day or week to sit at the feet of Jesus can do wonders for my perspective.  Do you need to spend some time being “calibrated” and realigned to Jesus again? 

Most of us are familiar with this verse (though the Message version was new to me):

“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people:  religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever.  I didn’t take on their way of life.  I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.  I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.  I did all this because of the Message.  I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”  1 Corinthians 9: 22-23 (MSG) 

We need to keep our bearings in Christ—not our bearings in ourselves, our culture, our expat community or even in the culture we are striving so hard to adjust to, but our bearings in Christ first.  He is our true North in the disorienting confusion of a culture that we start to understand just in time to be eluded by another question.

4. Lastly, enjoy the gift of Kingdom Culture.  Kingdom Culture is that sweet spot of culture sharing made possible by belief in the same Savior; the center of a Venn diagram where insider and outsider culture collide into a central culture of love, sacrifice and humility at the foot of the cross. There is nothing like the cross to serve as the great equalizer.  I finally discovered this through relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ who just seemed to “get” me even though our cultures collided in so many ways.  This is a special gift of grace made possible by a gracious Father.
 

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
 
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.
 

 

What are some of the ways you have creatively been able to retain parts of your identity even though you are living overseas?  Are you staying calibrated to the cross?  What changes to you need to make to be able to do this?  How have you experienced Kingdom Culture?

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Linking up with Velvet Ashes

 

Here are a few related posts that I found interesting:

“The Seven Lies of Living Cross-Culturally,” http://www.thecultureblend.com/?p=2172

“Living Well Where you don’t belong,”   http://www.alifeoverseas.com/living-well-where-you-dont-belong/

“17 Things that Change Forever When you Live Abroad,”  http://masedimburgo.com/2014/06/04/17-things-change-forever-live-abroad/

 

Photo: By Jeremy Harbeck (NASA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

My Story: When Marriage is Viewed as Selling Out

I had always heard those stories of people being “called” to missions, then meeting someone, falling in love and never actually going.  Or, even worse, going and then returning home…for a man (dun, dun, dun).  After being “called” to missions myself during a conference at 16, I knew I never wanted to be that girl.  I hardly dated in college, wanting to keep myself freed up to be able to go on the mission field.  I even broke up with one guy a few years later, telling him, “I don’t want the ‘white picket fence’ kind of life because God has called me to missions.”  After going overseas, I was a bit dismayed when I was placed in a city with one female teammate and only two other foreigners in the entire city, both in their upper 50’s. How was I going to meet the godly, single man who was also called to my specific people group in my tiny corner of China? (seriously)

So I tried online dating.  “At the very least, you’ll be encouraged by how many matches you get!” another single friend encouraged me.  I signed up for EHarmony, filled out my profile and waited for my numerous matches to encourage me that if I tried hard enough, I really could find Mr. Right.  But nope.  Just one match.  (It just may have been the fact that I checked the little box, “Am not willing to leave my current location (China) for someone…”).


After that, I came up with a Grand Plan.  I decided the best thing for me to do would be to marry a Chinese American.  Perfect.  That way we would already have both cultures in common.  So I picked the ONE single Chinese American in our organization and dropped a few hints….nothing.

I finally gave up the search, which is of course when I met someone who was out of the question: a guy from Chicago (the city I had dramatically exited with tears, commissioning and prayer meetings five years previously)—an actor with no “calling” to live overseas.  Wrong.  Wrong. Wrong.  This was not The Plan.  I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I was “leaving for a guy,” so I said I was taking a “home leave.”  When we soon got engaged (3 days after I flew back from China), I was actually nervous to tell people.  I knew what they’d be thinking…I thought you were “called.”  You sure are quick to abandon your “call” as soon as you meet a guy.  Don’t you need God more than you need a husband? Did you mishear God’s will for your life? Why are you selling out? 

No one actually said any of these things, but I knew what they’d be thinking because I had thought the same things about others in the past.  I felt ashamed of “forsaking my call” for something as “weak” as marriage. 

I think part of the problem was that throughout all my years of singleness I had fortified myself with verses affirming my marital status.  1 Corinthians 7:32-35 seemed to portray married people as distracted and bogged down by the world and single people as holy and completely sold out to the Lord.  Isaiah 54: 5 called the Lord my “husband and maker,” which I took literally and thus felt completely guilty about when the Lord wasn’t enough of a “husband” and I had to replace him with an earthly husband.  When I feared I would never have children, I found comfort in Psalm 17: 13-15 that seemed to say that people with children would have their “portion in this life,” while  those who didn’t have children would be satisfied in the Lord.  With these verses, I was impenetrable.  I wasn’t even open to the prospect of God bringing a man into my life.  So when I met the Actor, I was completely blind-sided.  I really think it was the only way that I would have let down my guard.

Fast forward ten years, after lots of grieving over the loss of China (weekly tears for the first year), running parallel to the joy of an incredible husband and two devious, yet delightful children, I’ve come to these conclusions:

3.    God can and does use any state of being—single or married—to refine us and make us holy.
4.    Being a missionary isn’t the ultimate expression of your love for Christ.

I’ll unpack these a bit more in some other posts, but for now I will comment on #3.  1 Corinthians was a huge stumbling block for me as I found myself falling in love, but as a married woman, now I think:  Am I more distracted than I was when I was single? Yes.  Do I need to worry about meeting my family’s needs?  Yes.  Am I more worldly?  Possibly. But the ultimate question is this:  Do I love God less? No.  And more importantly, does He love me less?  Absolutely not. 

So far, marriage and missions have been mutually exclusive for me.  Grief, loss of identity and loss of purpose are just a few of the emotional pits I have found myself scrambling out of in the past five years of re-entry, but I have slowly found more peace about “leaving my calling.”  One help was reading in Matthew 22, which includes the parable of the marriage feast and Jesus answering the Sadducees’ incessant questions on marriage in heaven. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that He seemingly skirts their questions about marriage and instead reminds them to love the Lord with all their heart, soul and mind.  It turns out that marriage wasn’t the issue at all–the issue was always about God having ALL their hearts.  Marriage can certainly muddy the waters of devotion, but nothing can change His love for me.  In fact, it gives me a pretty good forum to work out that second command to love my neighbor as myself.

 

Have you ever felt that singleness is viewed as more holy than marriage?  Have you felt guilty about leaving the field to get married? How did you reconcile your “call to missions” with your “call to marriage”?

Linking up with Velvet Ashes.


Photo by:  “Sandra and the ring” by Lbartley – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Because You are Single: A Letter to my Younger Self


I once was an “expert” single person. After five years in China, I knew how to travel across the world with 100 pounds of luggage, stay in hostels alone, barricade myself on bunk beds at night on 27 hour train rides, and cook for one. 
 
Sometimes it was fun, but often it was lonely. 
 
At 32, I did end up miraculously getting married to a man I wouldn’t have picked at a time I wouldn’t have planned. But that is another story.

Ten years later, I write this to my 26 year old self who had just sold her car and possessions, quit her job and left all her prospects for marriage to go live in the middle of nowhere (only four foreigners in the entire city and an eight hour bus ride from an airport) and obey the call of her Jesus. 

Dear Younger Self,

I know you are scared of being lonely.  The following may not assuage your desire for marriage, but it may help you to see the value of this season on the days when you just want someone to rub your feet and listen to your day.
 
First of all, because you are single, God is going to meet your needs in very tangible ways.  This is hard to accept, but sometimes God purposely leads you into the wilderness.  Loneliness can be His means of grace in your life.  He has demonstrated this through the heroes of the faith who have gone before you and in your wilderness, He wants to:
 
~ Tell you that He sees you and wants to give you something to quench your thirst as He did for Hagar (Gen. 16:7-11, 21:17-21).
 
~ Bring you to the end of your own strength so that you will rely on Him alone to give you the nourishment you need for the journey ahead as He did for Elijah (1 Kg. 19: 4-8).
 
~ Provide for your very basic needs through His daily provision of manna as He did the Israelites (Exodus 16:1-36).
 
~ Simplify your priorities when you have been stripped down to only what you really need like John the Baptist (Mat. 3:1).
 
~ Test your faith in Him as He did Jesus–and then send angels to minister to you in your need (Mat. 4: 1-25).
 
Married people feel lonely, too, but when you are single, you must rely on God alone to provide for you in your wilderness.  Some days you will find yourself face-down in a dusty field, wondering what you’re doing and why you’re doing it–alone.  It is those who are the most thirsty who are most ecstatic over the provision of water.  God will see you, provide for you, hold you and strengthen you.
 
Because you are single you will have the opportunity to go deeper in your relationships more quickly than married people.  I know you don’t want to hear this, but you have the gift of time.  Time to wander the markets, time to accept spontaneous dinner invitations, time to visit new friends at their homes in the countryside, and time to study language.  A married person doing marriage well will just not have the time that you have to delve into relationships in your new culture.

You are also more likely to have more satisfying relationships with other singles on your team and in your organization than you would have if you were married. 
 
There will come a day when you will miss the sweet friendships you naturally developed with other women just because you had to share a room with them at your yearly conference or eat meals together because the families on your team were all busy.

Because you are single, you are going to fall in love with Jesus in ways you might not have if you were married.  Those times when you are bumping along in a crowd, with families on your team or eating a delicious meal that you cooked and ate alone, you will feel that twinge of self-pity and longing, yet you will also have a deep sense that Jesus, Immanuel, is there with you. And He knows you to your core.
 
If you so choose, you will have hours to seek, find, hear His voice and know Him. You will not only sit at the feet of Jesus, but you will lean on his chest. Yes, you will have guilt that you just binge-watched an entire season of Gilmore Girls instead of spending time with Him, but the minutes you spend in His presence will create a reservoir that you will one day, especially if you do marry, draw from daily.

Finally, because you are single, you will be called (forced?) to come to grips with sacrifice. You feel like the greatest sacrifice you are making in going overseas is surrendering your desire for a husband. Like the article you ran across many years ago entitled “Chastity: Love Wasted on God,” about the woman breaking her jar of precious perfume on Jesus’ feet, you, too, will feel that you have so much love to give that is being “wasted.” 

All I can tell you is that the joy, peace and pleasure of Christ Himself that will wash over you as you pour yourself out for your first love will sustain you. And don’t be ashamed when you leave your gift at the altar only to run back and scoop it back into your arms again. He is a loving Father. A kind Father.  A forgiving and giving Father. 

He does not give His children gifts of rocks or snakes, but only the best gifts are reserved for those He calls His children. 

And nothing we give Him is ever—EVER—wasted. 

Keep handing your desire over to Him. 
Keep walking. 
Keep living. 
Keep learning. 
Keep loving. 
Keep growing. 

It is not too hard a thing for the Creator of the earth to bring someone into your life if that is His plan. He brought Eve to Adam in his sleep, after all.

And I know that you know this, but if you are not content now in your singleness, you are certainly not going to be content in your marriage. Nothing can fill the true longing in your heart for intimacy like intimacy with Christ. 

Not even a man.  

In His thirst-quenching, never-changing, always fulfilling love,

Your Older Self

Related Post~Serving Single in China

Next Post~When Marriage is Viewed As Selling Out

Linking up with Blessed But Stressed, #InspiremeMondays
#Write31days
and
Velvet Ashes



Check out my #Write31days series: Re-Entry: 31 days of Reflections on Reverse Culture Shock

I write this to my 26 year old self who had just sold her car and possessions, quit her job and left all her prospects for marriage to go live in the middle of nowhere (only four foreigners in the entire city and an eight hour bus ride from an airport) and obey the call of her Jesus.

Soon Enough

March in Chicago is a quiet, agonizing torture.  Like waiting in line at the check-out and you are next in line, but no—the lady in front of you grabbed something without a price tag and you are still waiting, waiting, waiting.  I admit that I harbored some serious resentment towards the woman on the radio this morning who was going on about the  grey days, slushy streets and pelting sleet being officially over today—yay!, the first day of spring!  Glancing down at the temperature on the dash of my car registering 17 degrees, I smashed off the radio with more vehemence than was necessary, stomping out into the bitter, windy, winter day.  This Florida girl is running out of patience with this scene. 
The Voice and I went to see Hubbard Street Dance/Alonzo King downtown to belatedly celebrate our anniversary.  It was moving, disturbing and beautiful.  The oldest dancer on stage probably wasn’t much past 30, which was a sobering thought for us as 30-somethings.  A career in professional dance will only last about 20% of your life.  Life is long (God willing), but the seasons within that life are varied and will never repeat.  Lord, help me to live fully in every season you have me in.  Let me not wish that I were in spring when there is still so much sledding, cocoa drinking and fire cuddling to do right now.  Soon enough, Spring will dash in with her own flaws for me to complain about.

Missionary Gone Rogue

I am a missionary gone rogue.  Funded by supporters and my organization to live in China, I received a masters in Intercultural Studies and spent two years in full-time language school studying Chinese.  I had relationships, was living in a Chinese community complete with neighbor visitors, vegetable gardens, and a live-in pet bunny.  I was called.  I was thriving.  I was fluent.  And then I came home. 

I remember discussing missions with friends in high school.  “I’ll go if God really wants me to go, but I want to stay,” they’d say.  I’d surprise them with, “I’ll stay if He really wants me to stay, but I want to go!”  I finally had my chance to go to China and lived there, loving it, from 2005 to 2010.  So when God had other plans and led me back to the states, it was with great difficulty that I surrendered to His mysterious plan.

His plan included rerouting my path from China, missions, language study and a PhD study to changing diapers, making goofy faces at my 6-month-old and quiet evenings with my husband.  My plan was to marry a missionary in northwest rural China, while God’s plan for me included marrying an actor living in the northside of Chicago.  This blog will hopefully serve as an outlet as I reconcile my desire to live a ruggedly adventurous life serving God where most people will never go with the journey that He has me on, serving God on the normal, domestic path that many mamas have tread before me.