The heaviness that settled over my chest that morning was as dense as my husband’s weighted blanket tangled around my feet. I kicked off the covers but the anxiety wouldn’t lift. It was one week into the Coronavirus crisis that had settled over our country like a dense fog.
It started on a normal Thursday when I picked the kids up from school. Headlines were trickling in about rising virus cases in the U.S. but when news came that afternoon of immediate school cancellation, we all felt sideswiped. The torrential news that followed overwhelmed me so that one week later I was lying under its weight.
Shame was another layer of heaviness over the anxiety. My husband still had a job, something I couldn’t say a month and a half earlier. I already worked from home so, while days now became a complicated balance of work, entertaining and educating the children, and keeping the house quarantine-clean, I still was able to work. We had the ability and privilege to stay home; others weren’t as fortunate.
My heart grew heavy with worries for friends stuck abroad or separated from their family, others who had to leave everything to return to their passport country, and our friends who still work among the rural poor and refugee communities in Bangladesh—the truly vulnerable. We had it easy compared to what we could have known had this happened a year ago when we were still living in Dhaka. The guilt said, “Shut up, you have nothing to complain about!”
But my children’s eyes told another story that shattered my heart. They were no strangers to living in limbo. While many of their friends in their suburban Georgia school were learning lessons for the first time about battling uncertainty in highly scheduled and planned lives, my children had become pros in the last few years. And their little hearts were weary.
hey were just six and eight when we told them we were moving to India. Once the shock abated, they were excited to dazzle their friends with stories of monkeys and cows in the streets. The first blow came when we were delayed by a few months due to visa issues. Then, after both my husband and I had quit our jobs in the U.S. and our house was ready to go on the market, the path to India completely collapsed.
Our lives became a series of delays, cancellations, rerouting, and waiting. Throughout the journey to our new home in Bangladesh and unexpectedly back again, we learned the hard way about living in the land of the unknown.
Living in Bangladesh, our family learned what it felt like to feel socially distant—separated from our family by 8000 miles but also from our neighbors by a language and cultural barrier. We knew loneliness well. Monsoon rains and protests would keep us isolated in our flat for days. We were constantly adjusting to new norms and the coursing emotions of culture shock that would strike unannounced. Our son asked us weekly when we would return to life as usual, longing for the familiarity of the U.S.
That was…until we told him we would be returning “home” after just a year and a half. Then he cried, “but Bangladesh is home now!” The bittersweet swirling of emotions didn’t end when we returned to our passport country either. We stepped into what we thought would be life as usual and found that we couldn’t ever go back. Georgia didn’t feel like home anymore and we had to start all over again. We then struggled through eight months of my unemployment and were barely a month into discovering a new normal…that the pandemic had upended again.
I was telling a friend how it pained me to see my kids plunged back into the void. My son’s angry outbursts masked his frustration at being isolated once more. My daughter’s thinly-veiled anxiety at possibly never going back to the school she was just becoming comfortable in was obvious when she emerged late at night, unable to rest.
“Write about it,” my friend said. “Everyone is feeling the strain of the uncertainty now, too. Tell them what you’ve learned.” And, you know, it made me feel so much less alone to think of it that way. We’re all in suspension together and no one is going to come out of this current crisis unscathed.
All of America is learning what it means right now to live in transition—stuck between the life they knew and an unknown future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds and each day there is plenty of fear waiting to tighten its stranglehold on us. This isn’t a transition any of us chose. But as I preach the lessons to myself that living in a state of limbo taught us, here’s what I know...
You’d think she was a celebrity, the way I watched her from across the room. I tried to work up the nerve to speak to her but the taste of salt in the back of my throat gave me pause. I didn’t want to embarrass her and I didn’t want to cry. But I wanted her to know what seeing her in that place meant to me.
She was just like every other woman at the conference that weekend. They were the farthest from celebrities you could get. Many were known only to those inside their villages. They had come together to encourage each other, some of them the only followers of Christ in their home area. I heard their stories over the span of those few days, the depth of their hardships and the hope they clung to in the midst of them.
I watched her quietly as she listened to the speaker. Her eyes sometimes closed as she savored the Scripture being read. Other times she leaned forward in her seat. She would tuck her headscarf behind her ear and laugh. I strained to get the joke, my feeble Bangla skills failing me.
The first time I’d seen her face was on my computer screen. My husband and I were sitting in our bedroom over 8000 miles away from this place. We’d been planning for over a year to move to India to work for a non-profit focusing on education and economic development. We had visas in our passports that gave us permission to go. Our house was about to go on the market. I had already quit my job. And then the organization we were going to work for found themselves facing issues with obtaining the permissions to have foreign workers. We were left asking God, “what now?”
Another organization expressed interest in having us work with them. They were located in India’s tiny neighboring country, Bangladesh. We were especially moved by the idea of empowering vulnerable women with skills to provide for themselves and their families.
They sent us a video about the work they were doing with child brides who were suffering from medical issues that arose from pregnancies their too-young bodies couldn’t handle. Most were then divorced and ostracized from their families. Once the women received surgeries that allowed them physical healing, they attended tailoring classes that gave them a marketable skill.
We watched this woman in a remote area on the other side of the world talk about how her life had been changed by the program. When she was asked about her plans for the future, she laughed. She said her plans were just to make clothes for her family and have a good life, a simple life. A life that honored God.
We sat silently for a few minutes after hearing her story, afraid to say the words that marked the finality of what we knew would come next. This was it. We would be moving to Bangladesh...
Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.
We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission.
We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say.
I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.
When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary...
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
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?...