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?