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?...
“Oh, boys don’t wear mehndi,” we were told when our six-year-old proudly displayed the bright red paisley design he got on his palm during a recent celebration. We’d seen young boys on the streets with the designs and he just wanted to be included in the festivities, but a trusted friend told us it is a bit taboo. I nodded and made a mental note for next time. There’s always something new to learn.
Learning to live well in a new culture is like being a small child again. We are helpless without the guidance of others. Some may think this ends after we’ve learned where to shop and how to navigate public transportation, how to have a simple conversation or what hospitality looks like. It doesn’t, not if we want to be good students of culture and open ourselves to truly connecting with people in our adopted home. We have to make choices every day to set aside our pride and to place ourselves under the wisdom of those wiser than us.
Humility looks like being embarrassed when we are told to always serve tea in dainty teacups (now knowing why we got funny looks when we gave our guests our enormous American mugs. More is better, right? Wrong.). It looks like serving dinner at the end of the night instead of the beginning like we’d do in American because here visiting first is a priority and serving the meal means the visit is now over. We can’t ever assume we understand and we can’t stop seeking to go deeper in respect for and a willingness to learn from our neighbors.
We need to know how to respect the traditions of our neighbors, how to walk the line between what we hold onto from our own culture and how we fit into our new one. I wear the local clothing (not all foreigners here choose to) but my young daughter doesn’t need to. We fumble with attempts to learn the language but our kids go to an English school and only know a few phrases in Bangla. We eat Bengali food for lunch but don’t deny our son his Nutella.
I am not a natural at humility or taking correction. It actually takes a lot of work for me. While I can easily submit myself to the wisdom of people in my adopted country, I often am rigid when it comes to taking direction on issues I think I know a lot about. I’m not happy about this. God is leading me to the roots of this pride, the insecurity that fuels it.
Feeling like a child again shows me how little I know and I am working to allow trusted people to speak into my life in more than just issues of culture. I especially want to look to those with a different perspective than me. I want to read more books by and follow people on social media who are outside my own culture, faith tradition, and race—people who can speak into blind spots my own experiences have left me with. In areas I know I am weak, I look to those who are strong. In areas where I think I am strong, I remind myself I’m not as capable as I think I am. I still need some work. Okay, a lot of work.
It may not come naturally to humble ourselves but that is why we work at it. When it comes to wanting to belong in a place or to a people, sometimes it is easy to say, “here I am; teach me!” When it is a group we aren’t sure we love yet, a people who rub us the wrong way—it takes a little more effort and is that much more necessary.
Yes, I’m like a child in a culture where I am an outsider. But in so many other ways as well I am like my kids easily take correction on their spelling words. They know their mom knows a few more things about the English language than they do in first and fourth grade. But they don’t exactly love it when I point out their bad attitudes or unkind words. I remind them that I am trying to help them grow into better people and make a mental note that I need to take my own advice. All of us children need reminders that correction is loving, humility is necessary, and we should never stop trying to grow.
In what areas of learning do you feel you are weak?
How do you work towards humility in your life? Does it come naturally to live as a learner?
What steps are you taking to take correction and move towards understanding, in what areas of your life?
“We are homeless wanderers. On this side of glory, we will never be entirely at home. Like the desire to cut and run, the disappointment that God has not yet made all things new…point us homeward.” - Ashley Hales
I moved from trailer park to split-level house, from dorm rooms to efficiency apartments. I’ve lived in a garage apartment on the edge of a bayou and a basement apartment in the home of my childhood best friend. I have made my home in flats in three of the largest cities in the world. I’ve rented, owned my own home, and lived off the kindness of family and friends when my family has been between places to call home. I know well the impact of home, the comfort and the baggage that come with longing to stay and longing to go.
I’ve loved Ashley Hales’ work since she was one of my first editors at The Mudroom and was excited to read her first book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much. I don’t currently live in the American suburbs that I’ve called home for the longest chunks of my life, but the majority of my friends and family do. I thought this book would be for them. It is. But it is also for me.
I’ve been shaped by life in the suburbs and no matter how far I go from them; the hustle for the American dream and the work-harder attitude that is the hallmark of the suburbs remain part of who I am. It has shaped my spiritual life in ways I daily struggle to overcome and in ways that I am grateful for, too.
As I read Ashley Hales smart and honest book, I knew I needed to hear her words on contentment, gratitude, purpose, rest, and finding God wherever you are. Yes, her words are geared towards readers that have lived in the suburbs of America. But I also appreciated the way she likened the suburbs to our human tendency to isolate ourselves from our neighbors and to gather with those like us and her challenge to all of us to “offer our bodies, to see and to notice, and to move toward others in welcome.”
If you’re feeling a little itchy wherever you are (be it suburbs, city, America, or Asia) you’ll hear her words as an admonishment to find purpose where God has put you and find ways to live with hospitality and peacemaking with those around you. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with what you have compared to your neighbors, you’ll be offered gratitude instead. If you’re feeling too busy, worn out, or like you aren’t sure where God is in the hustle of life, Hales offers practical steps to help you slow down and listen:
“You can stop the worry and busyness, the shame and hiding. Belovedness doesn’t come from working harder to be more acceptable or more beautiful…In the suburbs, it is countercultural to live in the light of this deep-rooted belovedness because everything around us says we need a constant stream of more to belong…There is no house, home, suburb, city, or countryside that will finally offer us all that being God’s beloved can.”
As someone for whom the place I live has become one of the biggest definitions of my life for past few years, I heard Hales words loud and clear as a call to not be defined by my place but to live well in it. As I try to be content in a big city while missing my suburban home (but longed for the big city while living in my suburban home), I try to heed her words to “ be an offering day by day,” to “fight to stay present” when I want to flee.
So, wherever home happens to be for you at this point in your life, if you want to learn how to live more faithfully in it, I believe Ashley Hales book will be an encouragement and challenge to you.
We like our warriors a little wounded, flawed. It makes for a more interesting story when the hero has to overcome their demons to win the day. Wonder Woman goes on despite her broken heart and disillusionment. Odysseus had to deal with his hubris to complete his journey. Paul continued his ministry, never rid of the thorn in his side.
For a writer, this is Storytelling 101. Your protagonist should have a blemish that makes him relatable. As our own stories unfold, though, we want to glide through the battle unscathed. We think that our wounds disqualify us. We can’t let anyone see our flaws or they wouldn’t believe we are competent.
I was fresh out of my first big battle with anxiety when I interviewed for a role that eventually took me to live overseas. I talked about my coping mechanisms and downplayed my pain. I didn’t understand anxiety’s grip on me then, the way the dark worry would wrap it’s tendrils around my heart over and over again like a monster lurking in the depths for its unsuspecting victim. But still I knew that I needed to gloss over these issues if I wanted to appear capable.
A decade later we have come a long way in our collective conversations of mental illness but still I feel apprehensive every time I tell a piece of my story. I have learned the art of smiling and saying “I’m okay” when my insides feel as if the sea beast is squeezing them until they turn to dust. I know all the typical responses that will be offered, down to the Scripture verses people will quote. I know those who will insist I pray harder or those who will suggest medicine at the first anxious thought.
In some recent quiet moments amidst the ongoing war, I had retreated to tend my wounds. I was listening to the prayers of others when I couldn’t find any words of my own. These words from an examen offered on the Pray As You Go app became a salve I daily applied to the hurt:
“You love me as I am. You touch my life with healing. You call me to bear fruit. I give my wounded self to you to be a channel of healing to others, to be a wounded healer with Christ who died, and rose, and comes again.”
I started to realize that my wounds don’t disqualify me and that my scars make me like the Wounded Healer I follow every day of my life.
When Jesus arrived in Israel, even those closest to him wanted him to be something he was not. His followers were expecting the Son of David to come in fury, to throw off the yoke of the Roman Empire. They wanted a warrior King; they got a suffering Savior. They put their hands in his wounds and then watched him ascend, victorious over death.
I started to realize that not only do my wounds not disqualify me, but also my scars make me distinctly able to be a healer to others who struggle as I do. When I started talking about my anxiety and depression there were whispers, however they were not the kind I expected. I was met with the quiet admissions of “me too.” Others trusted their stories to me and we realized our wounds looked the same...
We like programs, events. They have defined timelines and an expected outcome. We like to show up and give money or time to a cause. We want to help but we want boundaries too.
Reading Shawn Smucker’s new memoir Once We Were Strangers, I was reminded of the time my “event” of helping a refugee family from Afghanistan as they resettled in their new home in America. We felt accomplished when we helped set up their apartment. We felt less accomplished when we spent hours sitting with the family of 10 talking and letting the kids play. But we found something we didn’t expect, that this family needed less help and more friendship. "Help" wasn’t definable or simple. It required more than we imagined we could give.
Smucker unfolds the story of his growing relationship with Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, with the same ease and grace of a leisurely afternoon having coffee with a friend. In this beautiful true story, we get to be the witnesses of a life slowing down, a perspective changing, and a conviction to love deepening.
“What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority?” asks Smucker who met Mohammad with the intention of helping him write the story of his flight from Syria. But the two find something much more than they expected in a friendship that unites their families.
I received an advance copy of this book to read with excitement on so many levels. I believe Shawn Smucker is one of the best storyteller’s of our day (and have highly recommended his novels to you). I have a passion for seeing the stories of refugees elevated and think this couldn’t be a timelier story, as there are more refugees in the world than ever before as my own country is turning it’s back on them. I currently live in a country housing the second largest refugee population in the world after the Syrian refugee community and work for an NGO that seeks to serve this people without a country. My own life has been changed by friendship with people outside my own faith tradition and I think those in the Western Church need constant reminders to get outside our own culture and faith communities. There is so much beauty to gain from cross-cultural friendships.
Smucker delivered on every hope I had for Once We Were Strangers.
It is a vivid and inspiring story of embracing the diversity that challenges our biases:
“Every time I leave Mohammad and his family, I feel I’ve been given so much. Every time I leave them, I feel they have given me a small gift of peace, a kind of shalom absent from so much of our culture these days. It’s good to have friends who life quiet, peaceful lives. It seems strange to me that of all the families I know, most of whom are Christian, Mohammad’s family lives the most quiet, peaceful life of all.”
It is a gentle battle cry for Americans to wake up to the needs of others (from an author who admits this very friendship was both diagnosis and beginning of the cure of his own prejudices):
“There are days I wonder if this world can continue to exist under the current load of hate and misunderstanding and evil, when I wonder if the hearts of all people can somehow find a vaccination from racism and virulent nationalism and a concern only for ourselves.”
“We have to pull out all the stops in welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, in getting to know those who live around us, in showing love to our neighbors. We can’t afford to isolate people anymore. We can’t afford to push people to the fringes of our society. This world we’ve created is a product of isolationism and fear, distrust and anger.”
And it was a surprising challenge to me to open myself up beyond programs and my ideas of what “help” looks like. It is a call to slow down and see others, to love:
“Our desire to help is often an arms length. People actually need a friend.”
Grab a copy of Once We Were Strangers, be inspired, and then get out there and meet someone different than you. Experience the life-changing power of community.