I leave more than the stale air of a thirteen-hour plane ride behind in the airport bathroom stall. When I emerge into the terminal in Istanbul, I feel like a new person altogether.
I had walked off the plane still wearing the evidence of the life I left behind in Bangladesh. I wore a salwar kameez, the three-piece traditional outfit of my adopted South Asian home. The ample cotton dress, baggy pants, and orna (scarf) across my chest spoke clearly about the place where I had boarded the plane.
I place the salwar into my carryon bag and change into jeans I haven’t worn for a year. I feel a bit scandalous in these first few moments as I walk around with my backside and chest not covered by a second layer of clothing.
I observe people walking by, certain they too must think me inappropriate. When no one stops to stare, I peel off the grey sweater I had been clenching tightly around my chest. I had forgotten what it feels like to wear Western clothing. I push my shoulders back and notice my stride becomes a little stronger.
I love the colorful clothing I get to wear in Asia. I find dresses with my beloved paisleys and gold embellishments. I delight in bell-shaped earrings and bangles that tinkle as they move on my wrist. Not all foreigners who live where I do wear the local dress but on many occasions nationals have commented how honored they are that I respect their traditions.
Every now and then I notice though that I carry myself differently than I did in America. I make myself appear smaller, trying to disappear under my orna, when I walk past the staring men at the tea stalls. I avert my eyes from fruit sellers that I am not going to buy from that day and hunch over to watch my own feet navigating the cracked sidewalks and avoid the tail of another street dog. I feel small in a city of millions. I am someone else in that place, someone who doesn’t belong. Am I still me?
I was plunged unexpectedly into change when I booked a ticket back to America because of a family crisis. I am still reeling from the expediency of it all and from the newness I feel. Or is it oldness? Familiarity? I am someone again that I forgot I could be.
I hold my head higher and meet the eyes of men that pass by, nodding at them. In my hometown famous for its southern hospitality it is rude not to acknowledge passersby with a rhetorical “how are you?” or at least a smile. I quickly put back on my old self, appearing more outgoing, feeling more confident. I haven’t felt this bold in a year. It feels vaguely familiar and disturbing at the same time.
These thoughts swirl around my head along with the words I read just a few hours earlier as my body fought sleep in the plane cabin. “If to change clothes can be to change one’s sense of self; if to change clothes is to change one’s way of being in the world; if to clothe yourself in a particular kind of garment is to let that garment shape you into its own shape,” writes Lauren Winner in Wearing God, “—then what is it to put on Christ?”
I laugh at the instant real-life application of those words and I wonder at the authenticity of how I carry myself in my many worlds. Am I the same person to new friends in South Asia as I am to those who have known me my whole life in America? Do I live with the same honesty online as I do in my face-to-face friendships? I want to be a person of integrity, consistency. But I feel different here. Do I act differently too? Do I always reflect Christ? Or do I put him on and take him off like an orna? Do I clothe myself in him day in and day out or when it is convenient?...
I noticed the Krishnachura trees in early Spring. It was hard not to notice the fiery blossoms that colored the streets. Green is not hard to come by in this country. The reason the background of the flag is green is that this land of many rivers has an abundance of the color in its countless river deltas and rice fields. But the vibrant blooms of these trees is quite unique. They reminded me of the Bradford Pears of my beloved Georgia home. Like the Bradford Pear trees, I noticed this tree was full of blossoms for a short time and then the petals became a shower of red bursting forth in the wind and trickling down to the street below. I asked around and discovered the name of this tropic tree and enjoyed its blooms for a short while.
For months my heart has been downcast and so have my eyes. As my spirit fell low, my gaze followed. My walking can only be called trudging for the past few months. It wasn't my surroundings that brought the pain. I am no stranger to these feelings of anxiety. But in the midst of a downward spiral, I stopped seeing any beauty around me. The heat bearing down on me, the crowds pressing in, the broken sidewalks occupying my vision—I watched my feet going places I didn't want to be.
Last week I walked under the Krishnachura tree that looms overhead every time I walk to the market. I walk under it often but haven't really seen it in months. I felt a rare gentle breeze and I stopped to notice it again. Its red blooms have long since fallen off but it is still one of the most beautiful trees I've ever seen. It shades the entire street under tiny leaves that weave together to make a tapestry of color above me. In that breeze and in those leaves I felt the tingling tendrils of something else wrapping around my heart—joy. It was as if God was saying, "Hang on. It's coming like the cooler weather" (that is still three months off here). It was in those moments of the walk, when I looked up again, that I decided to do what I could to find my way back to joy step by step.
It is easy for me to only see concrete in this city. We are a good thirty-minute drive by public transportation to a decent stretch of land on which to play. I miss walks and playgrounds and riding bikes. And on hard days all I can see is overcrowded and unsafe roads that my kids can't play on. But on a good day, on a day in which I decide to look for it, I see green everywhere. In this city of 12 million people scrambling for any patch of land they can get and buildings going up on almost every square inch of it, there is still green everywhere. It is creeping through the sidewalks and up the side of buildings, hanging over verandas, and shading the streets. All this green is telling me that life finds a way no matter the surroundings, the difficult circumstances. Joy can find a way too. So today I'm looking up.
When we first moved I intended the "Life in South Asia" section of this website to be more of a fun section where I would write about culture or what I was learning, how I was listening for God in this new place. But life happened. Transition happened. I didn't write as much at first because—well, uprooting a whole family to the other side of the world takes a lot of time. Then I felt I needed to lay down my writing for a while. Then intense depression happened and my writing became much more serious. I felt the freedom to pick my writing back up and a responsibility to share what I was going through. I have had some incredible connections with people that have said, "Thank you! I know I'm not alone because of what you have written."
When I first experienced anxiety 12 years ago, (well, I am coming to see I have always had tendencies towards anxiety but didn't have a name for it until I was 25 years old) I thought it was just circumstantial. Life changed and my anxiety or depression dissipated for me. But then it reared it's head again during our move to the Middle East, again two years ago, and most intensely in the last year. I now know that like Lauren Winer says in Still:
"As far back as I can remember, anxiety has been my close companion, having long ago taken up residence in the small, second-floor bedroom of the house that is my body. Sometimes my anxiety takes long naps. Sometimes it throws parties. But I don't imagine it will ever tire of this neighborhood and move out for good."
I feel like I'm past the worst of it this time around. I want to say I'm "all better," that I see fruit and new life everywhere. Not yet. Grace P. Cho put the perfect words to the season I am currently in today:
"He is never annoyed with the slowness of transformation but always delights in the intricate care of redeeming burned things. And He is not done with us in the midst of fallow seasons...He burns away the old with fire and cultivates the land for the new things He is doing in our lives, allowing light and water to reach down deep, awakening and breaking open the seeds that have laid dormant before to thrive in the soil He has made good. What will come is a mystery, and we gain nothing when we rush into seasons we’re not ready for. So sit with Him, rest with Him, watch Him do His good and holy work while the land still lies fallow."
I am learning to be okay with this fallow season, trusting I've gone through the fire and that new life will come but that I am still in process. I'm asking for help. I am spending more time reading and seeking silence, working my muscles until they ache and feeling stronger on my mat every day. Playing. Praying. Working. Waiting. I am looking at my kids. Stopping and really seeing them. I see such beauty in my children, see God at work so much in them and in me as I mother them. They are helping me find my way back to joy.
For a while, I said I lost prayer during this season of fire and wilderness. I am realizing I didn't after all. It just didn't look like a daily examen or a war room or a prayer list, however you've come to expect prayer to look. As I read over my journals over the past few months, I see them as prayer. As I walk down the street to the market and notice the unfurling of the Krishnachura leaves and take a deep breath and thank God, I know it is prayer too (more about that one later this week). I am seeing God in things I haven't in a long time. I am noticing. As I walked slowly to the market today I stopped to take several photos. I heard Him speaking. I listened. I prayed "God, give me eyes to see what you want me to see and show me what you want me to share with others." I felt a long still stirring in my soul to write it all down...
So, I am finally getting around to writing here in a way that is less structured (as opposed to my essays for places like SheLoves Magazine and The Mudroom). I'll post pictures of things that speak to me and moments of finding God in the noise of this crazy city. In everyday beauty. I may notice five things a week and write about them. I may not see anything that inspires me for a while. I'll just take it as it comes. I am asking God to open my eyes to see Him in this season. There are ways I can see Him in South Asia that I couldn't anywhere else on earth. And I don't want to miss them.
So, from the land that is the contradiction and meeting place of 700 river deltas and also the most crowded city on earth - I am listening with you. This is where God is showing up for me in South Asia.
In the middle of that moment with the cold seeping into joint and marrow, in what felt like an endless night, we couldn’t imagine being warm ever again. We had been hiking down the mountainside all day. The expansive view of the Ozarks still fresh in our memories, we descended into the absolute opposite landscape. My family and eight others had been hiking for four days already. Bone weary, hungry, and exhausted we stood in front of the mouth of a wild cave with our hearts beating loudly in our ears.
We walked into absolute darkness and total silence, overwhelmed with the experiences of the past few days and all the emotions they stirred inside of us. That stillness was harshly broken the moment we stepped out of the cave to find a downpour had begun in the valley. We quickly got to work, easily falling into the teamwork we had built. Those best at building shelters set to work with the tarps, finding the few places of flat ground to stay for the night. As soon as one shelter was set up just high enough for us to crouch under, those who had gathered whatever wood they could began stacking it for those of us with knives. Quick but methodical, we shaved off the soaked bark until we reached something inside that was dry enough to burn.
Hours later we stood huddled near the fire, arms around each other as much for warmth as to keep ourselves standing. Together we’d succeeded in building a fire in the least ideal conditions. We devoured the food prepared over it, grateful for both the warmth and the sustenance the flames had provided. We coughed as smoke gathered in our tiny shelter. We alternated between keeping warm and turning our faces outward to gasp for clean air.
At three in the morning, we wept together as we recalled the past few days. We had done things we never imagined ourselves capable of. We had seen such darkness in ourselves as we grappled for certainty in the wilderness. We glimpsed such light in each other as we banded together as family to carry one another when we didn’t believe we could make it. We felt the deepest cold imaginable as the rushing waters flooded the valley where we stood. We felt the warmth of peace as we sang hymns together and reminded each other that God gave us the strength to press on. Whenever I stare into the flickering glow of a fire, I remember that night. I remember what it feels like to know I can overcome.
In the middle of this moment with the numbness of depression sapping the energy from joint and marrow, in what feels like an endless night, I can’t imagine ever being warm again. I have been stumbling through the day and finally have a quiet house to myself. The expansive view of a new adventure on the horizon fills my memory. My family had been working towards our international move for years. Bone weary, alone, and exhausted I have descended into culture shock that I never saw coming. You prepare for it. You read about it. But you don’t think it won’t shake your whole world. Then it does...
I'm at SheLoves Magazine today sharing how my experience in one valley mirrors another, how I know God gives us strength for whatever we are facing. Whatever challenge you face today, will you join me in choosing to believe God can overcome?
After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering, I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms and so I looked to her for guidance...
"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." - 1 Thessalonians 1:5, ESV.
“You’re so brave,” she said admiringly as she slipped the receipt across the counter. I fought back the urge to laugh or cry, I wasn’t sure which. She saw me one side of me—the foreigner in her country, hopping onto the public buses that merely slowed a bit before one needed to jump off onto the cracking curb. In her eyes, there stood this NGO-worker leaving the familiar to serve the people of her country. It was something she didn’t dream she could do and she said as much.
She didn’t see me thirty minutes earlier, sitting in my quiet apartment before my family began to stir, fighting back the fear that was churning in my stomach like yesterday’s spicy fish curry refusing to go down quietly. She didn’t witness this formerly proudly independent woman trying to talk herself into just opening that door to face the world outside. She didn't see that version of me.
When I lived in my home country I had a weekly ritual. I would slip out of the house under the still dark sky and escape to a coffee shop to write. I wouldn’t emerge until the sun was rising high in the sky and I had explored the depths of my soul on the page. I would return home to my family just beginning their days while I was buzzing with caffeine and passion. I felt powerful, invincible.
When the sunlight hit my face that morning I sat straight up in bed reaching for my phone to check the time. I forgot how early the dawn comes here and I saw it is not yet six. I eased out of bed and got ready quickly only to then sit there staring at that menacing door. I’d barely left my house all week, hemmed in by culture shock and depression, a kind of fear and anxiety that were as unexplainable as they were unpredictable. After eight months in this South Asian Mega-city, I felt breakable, broken....
People think life overseas is one big adventure. It’s not.
It’s still just life, lived out in an unfamiliar location. You quickly forget the exotic and get into mundane patterns of existence. The rains that flood the streets whenever there is a downpour aren’t interesting anymore, but just an obstacle that makes the kids’ bus two hours late coming home from school. You make the mistake once of trying to go out before Iftar and learn the hard way that you should stay home after four o’clock for the entire month of Ramadan to avoid the standstill traffic. You trudge down the same sidewalks and past the same half-erected buildings day in and day out because going much farther than your small section of the massive city drains the remaining energy that the sweltering heat hasn’t already taken from you.
Many days you stare at the same walls as you stay inside, too tired to battle it all. You look out over a sea of green you noticed as beautiful when you first came but the beauty is lost on you. You see the exotic looking banana trees but only to notice they have all grown down into cracking sidewalks, pushing their roots through the bricks constantly in need of repair. You may be able to see a small, luscious yard but it is behind the gated walls of one of the few verandas dotting the sea of high-rise apartments. Your territory has become concrete walls and barred windows, looking out over a section of the earth that feels very small despite its millions of inhabitants.
Maybe the view out your window looks very different than mine but I have the sneaking feeling you might have looked at it in the same way at some point. I have literally and figuratively felt trapped a lot in the last few months. Our tiny space inside the vast city we inhabit has felt like it is closing in on me. My legs long for spaces to stretch out, my heart yearns for a place to allow my children to run. My soul too longs for room, for wider prayers and for someone to hold space for me.
I’ve had the joy of a few intimate friendships that have deepened over time and which fueled my life and kept me going. In their absence, I feel like the grinch whose heart has shrunk a few sizes. My mood, energy level, and prayer life all are evidence of a heart and soul that feels only the restrictions on my life and doesn’t see the beauty anymore.
The counselor I have been talking to over email tells me I am right on schedule, a textbook case of culture shock and that these feelings are normal. They don’t feel normal. They feel stifling and overwhelming with a side of shame. I have always been a proponent of asking for help when you need it. But it still took me weeks after I received the counselors email address to actually reach out to her. Feeling completely exposed in front of a stranger is a new place for me, an uncomfortable and messy one. A necessary one...
The sound of the waves has faded into memory by now and the story of deliverance threatens to dissipate right along with it. Free from bondage, witnesses to miracles beyond belief, we thought we’d be settled by now. As our feet dig circles in the burning sand we understand why. We are still living in exile. When will we finally be home?
A year ago everything about our path was unknown. Jobs in one country had fallen through but we pursued opportunities in another, little known to us. We were selling our home without another yet in place. We didn’t know when or where we’d land. It was in the words of Exodus that I found courage, believing God would part the sea for us.
I recently sat down at the prompting of a spiritual director via an online retreat I attended. We were instructed to map the last twelve months of our lives. We were to mark the high and low points in our journey. That was easy enough to do. But then as part of this “peaks and valleys” exercise we attached a color to each experience, representing an emotion. In each moment were we angry, scared, excited, sad, happy, or tender towards God, others or ourselves?
My sketch looked like the plummeting hills of a roller coaster, the kind that makes your stomach plunge into your throat with each startling twist. The last marker, like the “you are here” on a map was a low point, a blot of black ink indicating fear. I realized as much about our lives is as uncertain as a year ago. We thought, like the Hebrews, that past the sea we would find freedom. We found more questions instead. Six months into life in a new country we ask: When will the language start to make sense? When will we stop feeling so lost, make a friend who really knows us, feel settled or fulfilled, have expectations met? How long will we stay? A thousand questions remain and home seems an unattainable dream.
In full color, all the tiny transitions of the last year became a map of my journey of fear and faith. We were prompted to ask, “When have I felt this way before?” as we looked at our experiences. The green of new life and excitement contrasted with the dark points of fear and I realized in both excitement and fear, joy and sadness, we’ve been living in the wilderness. Yet sometimes I found joy in the desert of the unknowing and others I retreated into despair. What was the difference?
We're all wandering, on our way somewhere and facing transitions and unexpected bumps along the way. With what lens do you view the journey? Through fear or with the eyes of faith? Join me at SheLoves today and share where you are in this journey...
It's such a small thing; it couldn't possibly have that big of an impact. It's just like the small bud of a flower, the ones we watch developing daily on the plants that grow in the nursery right outside the window of our fifth-floor flat. It's such a small thing—that negative thought. That complaint, that fleeting feeling of guilt or shame, that sideglance at the thing someone has done to annoy me.
But here's the truth about small things: They always grow. I find myself constantly admiring the vibrant pink tendrils of the bougainvilleas all over the city, which start small but take over whole verandas and sides of buildings. My thoughts have been doing the same thing lately. I started to notice it early in the month when my attitude turned sour and my insides felt raw. I was on the edge of tears whenever anyone said a word to me and couldn't understand why.
The next day I kept my mobile phone on me throughout the day and typed a quick sentence every few minutes. Wherever I felt my thoughts taking me, I took note of it. Reading over them at the end of the day, I felt as if I was beating my way through an overgrown path where thistles scraped at me and branches clawed at my skin. One negative bud had turned into a full-grown thought-life that brought nothing but death.
I was shocked at what I found when I took the time to slow down and look inside. Lies had woven themselves around my heart and crowded out the truth and joy of God's Word. Transitions are hard and painful things, to be sure. Five months into life in South Asia we are deep in the feelings of inadequacy and failure, of uncertainty and culture-shock. But I was letting all of those hard feelings define me and I knew it had to stop or they were going to choke the life out of me.
So even though it kind of felt like that old recurring dream of showing up in front of your entire class naked, I typed up a call for help on facebook. I brought the dark thoughts of failure and fear I was having into the light for all to see. I went to bed while most of my friends and family on the other side of the world were waking, into a deep sleep that never feels like enough these days. I woke with a vulnerability hangover. Ugh, should I have said those things? I groggily unlocked my phone and the tears that had threatened for weeks came tumbling down and continued throughout the day as the comments poured in. Over 40 friends in 6 different countries responded with messages of support, with prayers and encouragement, with "I've been there" and "Thank you for your honesty."
I'd love to say that one act of confession freed me from the shame that has wrapped itself so fully around my heart but it is a daily battle, a choice to speak the truth into the darkness and a discipline to find thankfulness in the midst of the monotony and loneliness that mark early expat life.
There's a simple exercise mentioned by Barbara Brown Taylor in her memoir Leaving Church and made popular again recently by Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy who says: "Even though most of us can easily articulate what’s killing us, few of us pay attention to what’s giving us life." Taylor asks the question: What is saving your life right now?
In the midst of countless little deaths every day (the convenience of driving a car or easily getting around a city, the access to outdoor space to play, the access to friends and family, the freedom to write in a busy season of language school), I have to stop living in the grief of it all and finding little joys, things that are giving me life, saving my life.
This week it's been as simple as taking a few minutes to have cha at a roadside stand with friends from language school, choosing to not study for a night and watch a couple hours of TV with my husband instead, finishing that Easter watercolor so that there was something of the season in our home, listening to Elevation Worship's Do It Again on a loop, and making myself get out of the house and go to a church service in the local language. I didn't understand many words but I raised my hands to the beautiful beating of the drum and the chaotic and heavenly sound of a roomful of voices lifted in prayer all at the same time. I felt closer to God at that moment than if I'd known every word that had been uttered that night. It was not just choosing to do those things but stopping to notice them, to relish in them and thank God for them.
Today when the darkness feels like it is choking out the life that is but a tiny seedling, I have to make the choice again and again. Will I let this hope be smothered or beat back the darkness? Will I choose to let joy grow?
For a moment, as the sunlight filters through our red paisley curtains casting a warm glow across the tile floor, I forget. It’s just a split second though before the sounds of the city pierce the morning and I am plunged into the day ahead. I remember that I am simultaneously home and 8000 miles from home.
We’ve lived in South Asia four months now and our flat has a warmth to it that feels like a haven when we walk in from the crowded streets. It is home. But the teeming masses outside our door, the culture that surrounds us, and the language that engulfs us—it all still feels so far away. Our brains live on overdrive, trying to process all the newness and the words we know we have heard before but can’t place. Studying a complex and hauntingly beautiful language simply makes me tired…all the time.
For the first few months, I held onto everything I could because I’d let go of so much already—frequent calls to family and friends, TV, anything familiar. And I especially wanted to keep up my blog and writing commitments. It was my tie to home, to who I had been and wanted to still be. A couple months into full-time school there was a tugging at the back of my heart that I didn’t want to face. I was stress and overwhelmed. Instead of finding joy in what awaited me in the day ahead just managing normal life felt daunting. Writing deadlines on top of that felt like torture.
The tug wouldn’t go away. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to let go of something tethering me to a place that I wanted to be but was no longer. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I spent the last three years building my passion for writing into something that defined me. For a long time, I didn’t dare call myself a “real writer.” Each published piece gave me more confidence. Seeing my name on essays published in several books, I finally boldly claimed the title author, writer, editor. It is my writing that opened the doors for us to move to this particular job overseas and I will be working in communications down the road once we get some grasp on language. But it’s my personal writing, the places I show up every month and the communities I love (Mudroom, SheLoves, Ready Magazine, Redbud Writer’s Guild) that I didn’t want to loosen my grasp on.
In the middle of a particularly low week when I could barely lift my eyes to heaven, one of those online communities I love posted this blessing by Jan Richardson:
That each step
may be a shedding.
That you will let yourself
That when it looks
like you’re going backwards
you may be making progress.
That progress is not the goal anyway,
to the feel of the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you
in each place it makes contact,
to the way you cannot see it
until the moment you have stepped out.
Each word was a knife to my heart and a salve to the same wound. Through the tears I typed an email to all my editors and told them I need to take a step back for right now. It feels like a little death, letting go of my writing even for a time. It may be for a couple months. It may need to be longer. It’s another thing that I worked hard to build that I am tearing back down, like the home we sold, the people we left behind. It makes me feel so lost.
But maybe being lost isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps this shedding of parts of myself is exactly what I need right now, to be fully dependant on God for who I am and what gives me worth. Not deadlines. Not readers. Not even the joy I get from telling stories. For right now, I need to just be present where I am and being obedient to just this one day. Maybe I need to live the story for a while before I have the space to write it.
You may not see my words in the usual places over the next few months. It feels like going backward. I have to believe it isn’t though, that it is progress to wherever it is God wants to take me…and you next. So thank you for showing up, for reading my words. I hope you will stick around and this conversation will continue soon. It will shift and change. Life always does.
But when you are feeling lost, maybe these words that spoke to me will be a comfort to you too. Know that you may not feel like you are accomplishing anything. But if presence is the goal, then be where you are. Be fully there and believe that someday…maybe not soon, maybe not when you expect it…but someday, you’ll step out into something new to realize God was accomplishing something great in you.