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?...
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. -1 Corinthians 13:12, NLT
I don’t recognize her anymore. Her short hair swoops across her forehead and her smile looks easy. She appears certain about her place in the world, about what lies ahead.
In the photo taken a year ago, she blends into her family. Their matching black shirts and denim say they are a unit, one. She’s like a puzzle piece that has always fit in a certain place, next to them.
When I look in the mirror now I see a different picture. My short hair was too hard to manage in the South Asian humidity so it has been growing out, now twisted in a little bun at the base of my neck. A headband has become a permanent fixture over what is too unruly. My cheeks are less full, the more natural diet I eat these days and the miles I walk around this massive city erasing some of the pounds I put on in the past few years. Any clothes I brought with me in our move stay relegated to the early morning hours before anyone might visit our house. After that I wear local clothes, a scarf draped across my chest.
I stand alone with sad eyes, a piece without a puzzle. I’m only part of a picture that once existed. I’m not her anymore. I’ve been reborn as someone else in this place.
I don’t recognize her anymore. Her eyes were hard and her mind was closed. She saw the world in white. She didn’t know a world of diversity existed out there. She saw the world in black. There was the truth and everything else, and she was to convince others of the right way.
In the photo taken twenty years ago, she stood opposed to her family (and a lot of other people). Her heart was in the right place but her methods were all wrong. She wanted to love but she didn’t know how.
When I look in the mirror now I see a different picture....
"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....
I see them every day on the streets—the hungry. They stretch out trembling hands and plead for something to sustain them. A handout is not enough though. It may fill them for the day but they are back at the same bus stop the next morning, empty-handed and asking for more.
I’ve been that person for many days. I come to God with open hands and I ask for more of who He is, some feeling of His presence to carry me. I can’t count the number of books on prayer and contemplation I have read in the past few years. I begin reading with a hopeful heart. This is the one that will jumpstart my prayers,I think, that will tell me where my heart has gone astray in its connection to the giver of life. But I close the book in sadness. I don’t see any changes in myself.
The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning has been in my kindle queue for a while and I opened it on a whim last month. When I finished reading it I felt more like that pleading pauper than ever. I saw so much of myself in the flawed character of this alcoholic ex-priest, this man both attracted to and repelled by God. I knew his heart in the way he was never settled, always searching. But he had something in all his wandering that I didn’t—this ability to accepted God’s love fully and not get bogged down in his own failures and attempts to earn the love of the Father.
I wept with longing as I read: “Is your own personal prayer life characterized by the simplicity, childlike candor, boundless trust, and easy familiarity of a little one crawling up in a Daddy’s lap? An assured knowing that Daddy doesn’t care if the child falls asleep, starts playing with toys, or even starts chatting with little friends, because the daddy knows the child has essentially chosen to be with him for that moment?”
I yearn for this kind of trust in God’s affection for me. I want to believe that my attempts towards Him are enough, that in all my lack He is still infinitely pleased with me. I kept coming back to Manning’s words, devouring his autobiography in a few days and then launching into Dear Abba. I didn’t yet see any kind of shift in my prayers but I was so taken with this ragamuffin that I kept reading.
I was invited to a two-day retreat with a few other expat ladies in the South Asian city I’ve called home for nearly half a year. I longed for connection to someone in a place where loneliness is my daily companion. I came again with trembling and empty hands, not sure if there would be anything to fill them...
“Are you going to break up with me next?” she cried in frustration and anger. That anger should have been directed completely at me but it was also pointed at God.
I will never forget the look on my sister’s face when I told her I had broken up with my boyfriend. Disbelief mixed with pain and anger flashed in her eyes. I had caused that. Four years older than me, she was no longer in high school but we were in the same circles and shared a lot of friends. We shared a lot in common—except my faith in Jesus. There were other reasons this guy and I parting ways but my sister got around to asking me if it was because he didn’t share my faith and I admitted that was partly it.
It always came back to this with us. I pushed (hard). She pushed back (harder). Disagreeing never accomplished anything except for driving a wedge between two people who couldn’t see the world the same way. I thought I could argue her into believing. I think she would have stopped herself from believing just to spite me ... and she would have been right.
I cringe when I think back to the headstrong and arrogant youth that saw the world one way and expected to debate others into the Kingdom of God. I wish I could change this part of my history but what I can do is learn from it. Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is the fear of disagreeing altogether.
I spent so many years mending the damage from my ignorance and never wanting to harm another, especially in the name of the Jesus who never pushed His way into anyone’s life. I have taken the backseat of being a learner and I am more comfortable there.
I still have strong opinions. Just ask my small circle of friends close enough to hear my real political opinions. These are things I do not air publically. The thought of doing so recalls memories of that unkind girl and makes my heart beat faster than it should.
Enter social media and the fact that I am a writer in Christian circles—both of which these days means airing opinions and feelings, writing them out for all to see. I would say I picked the wrong vocation if I had actually picked it. Ask most writers and they’ll tell you it picked them, that they can’t help it. But that doesn’t negate the dread I feel about disagreement (especially about matters as deeply personal as faith and the way we express it)...