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?
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...
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. – Psalm 147:3
How did I not see this before? I stared at what I had just written and it was like a neon sign was flashing the answer to a question I didn’t even realize I had been asking. I was sitting in a training for cross-cultural workers and I knew the value in preparing spiritually and emotionally for a big transition. But what I didn’t expect was to receive a new layer of healing to an old wound I had thought was closed.
The funny thing about moving forward is that it often requires looking back first. I am coming to realize how healing is a process, sometimes a lifelong one. I want easy solutions, problems solved. Wounds don’t work that way. Scar tissue forms. Old injuries can reappear.
I sat back on my heels, blinking away the tears. I was supposed to be there looking ahead and here I was suddenly plunged into the past. For the first time in a decade, I could see a little bit of why I had been wounded in the first place…
Our move back to the States from the Middle East ten years ago seemed pretty easy to explain—we returned to help family with some unexpected difficulties. But the decision to return wasn’t made without a piercing of my soul, a breaking of our dreams, a deep fissure created in my heart. I was wracked with anxiety and shut down when I learned the pain my family back home was going through. Life from 6,000 miles away became unbearable.
Guilt and years of wilderness walking followed. Was I too weak to stay? Was it my weakness that shut down a dream we’d worked so hard for? Life kept moving and it was easy to just bandage the hurt and move on.
God gave me the gift of walking with a friend a couple years ago through her post-traumatic return to the states and all the shame and litany of questions that came with it. As we cried and prayed together, layers of dead tissue fell away from my own heart. You didn’t fail. You did what God asked. The anxiety you felt in a traumatic situation is normal and He can use you still. I said the words to her while God whispered to my heart that those words that were true for her were true for me as well.
So, imagine my surprise as yet another layer was being peeled away, showing me the work wasn’t done yet. Finally heading back overseas, we went to this training trying to become aware of issues that might arise before we moved. We were given a long list of values, things that matter to us in our daily lives—things like adventure, ethics, independence, privacy, rest. We were supposed to rate how much those mattered to us, then say how well that area could be met in our current culture, and finally how likely we would be able to meet that need in our new culture...
At night these mostly bare walls with fresh paint echo more than they used to, bouncing each memory of the past six years back through my unquiet mind. The crickets and tree frogs sing a melody that is as commonplace to me here as the call to prayer and honking cars was when we lived in the Middle East. I haven’t stopped to notice it in a long time but in these still moments it is blaring in my ears, reminding me of all we are leaving behind.
A long-held dream is possibly just weeks away (the nature of overseas moves is always a little uncertain as we wait on visas and funding and a house to sell). I keep myself busy every waking hour but not just because my list of tasks to accomplish is long. If I sit in the quiet too long, the conflict inside begins to rage.
I see it in my daughter too, her sweet eyes filling up with tears when she asks for another doll accessory and I remind her we have to be selective in what we buy as we’ll only have so much room in the two suitcases each that will carry all our belongings with us to South Asia. We’re giving up a lot of things, sure. But what about the experiences, the people, the opportunities that we are leaving behind? I know the truth—that we will gain as much as we lose. My heart doesn’t always believe it though.
For sixteen years now this dream of living overseas has tumbled around inside of me. Fueled by five international trips in the past three years, fed by the stories we’ve heard from our refugee friends nearby, the dream has only grown. My husband had the seeds planted in his life early too when his parents hosted international workers in their home. The stories of faraway lands seemed otherworldly to an eight-year-old boy but the fire was ignited just the same. We’ve been working towards this for years.
Last month every event seemed to be a last one. We didn’t make a big deal of it to the kids, didn’t want each day to be colored by, “oh, this is your last dance recital and tomorrow is your last Independence Day parade and next week is your last time to that friend’s house!” After a beautiful week with our best friends at the beach house where we have vacationed every summer for eleven years now, we made the long walk to our cars. It’s always hard to say goodbye to them because we live states apart anyway.
The pain didn’t grip me though until the moment I wrapped my arms around my friend to say goodbye. We knew each other when we were just foolish college kids. Life hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. In most ways it is so much better than we imagined though some realities are harder than we dreamed. I kissed her two precious girls goodbye, feeling like I was placing my own children in their car seats. I lingered a moment to whisper “I love you” to the little boy growing in her belly knowing I won’t get to hold him when he’s still tiny. He will be born a month after we leave. The ache claws at the back of my throat and I can’t look at her with the tears burning my eyes, so I quickly turn away...