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Sunday, May 22, 2016

The White One

They forgot to tell me that this wouldn't be easy.

I heard that student missionaries who go with another mission organization go through a rigorous psychological test as part of their application. Then they attend a student missionary camp for at least two weeks in the summer where team building features prominently in their experience. They're sent out with at least one other partner and often work with a career missionary family.

I, on the other hand, managed to get out of the online study guide course based on the Mission to Passport Handbook because I'd taken a student missionary course 10 years ago and had been working at a self-supporting institution in a foreign country since then. I'd even recently completed graduate studies focusing on third-culture kids. I portrayed myself as qualified but I quickly learned I was not.

While there are other missionary volunteers here, they came at least 6 months before me and have already created bonds with the other missionary volunteers. I don't have a career missionary family I'm assigned to work with. Unlike career missionaries, I don't have access to a psychologist if I need one. Ironically, I'm older than some career missionaries but I'm here alone. This is the hard part.

I'm very thankful for my family and my best friend who faithfully keep in touch through chat, email and phone. In an era where electronic communication has been reduced to a series of emojis and abbreviations, they still take the time for hour long conversations or to write meaningful emails. I cherish the moments we share and am grateful for the bonds that keep us close. I think if I didn't have that connection, I would have left and gone home in the first week or two.

It seems strange for me to struggle. I could write the textbook on TCKs and adapting. Yet I've learned since coming here that it's really important for me to be able to connect. More important than job satisfaction is feeling understood and heard. Finding that, though, is not so easy.

I am highly sensitive to non verbals. I know when someone is tuning me out or uninterested in what I have to say and shut down when I sense that. This leads, then, to a growing reluctance to share because I don't want to be rejected. Which, in turn, leads to decreased vulnerability. The higher the walls, the harder it becomes to build quality friendships.

I'm not sure if it's a TCK thing or if it's just life. Toddlers who are complete strangers can hold hands and walk away, gabbling in a language only they understand. Children exchange toys in the sandpit and are quickly friends. It seems the older we get, though, the more we filter, evaluate, judge and the less we accept, listen, and connect.

I have a quotation on my phone that resonates with me. It's a feeling I've had for as long as I could remember.

So here you are, too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both. 
~Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Falling, Falling

Fireworks, bricks falling, thunder, or gunshots. I never know which it is, other than being able to rule out thunder if there is no accompanying storm. I try to look out my window to see if I can spot pretty bursts of multi colours but there's the side of the building and a towering palm tree obstructing my view. So I wait. Eventually the sound dies down. I still don't know what it was.

Another airplane disappeared today. Conflicting reports debate whether debris found near a possible crash site is from the plane or not. It was a smaller one, just 66 people on board as opposed to the several hundred that have died in previous tragedies. Similar disappearances have occurred. But it's still unsettling to follow a news story and imagine the last moments of those who were on that flight. I always do that.

There were at least 3 young children on that flight. That's what always gets me. The children. Whether it's sudden death or slow abuse, I hate it when children have to suffer. They are innocent, helpless, and exposed to things they should never have to endure. It is a sick world we live in. And yet there are people out there who insist the world is getting better and there is no devil and question why we need a God. Ask the children, I say, and they will tell you the truth.

This morning I had a nightmare. After I woke myself up out of the terror, and eventually went back to sleep, I found myself in a second nightmare where I was re-telling the first nightmare and experiencing even more fear. Once again I woke myself up. I can't recall returning to or reliving a nightmare within a second nightmare before. At the same time, I'm getting over a cold and may have been too hot or feverish in the night which could have caused bad dreams.

I'm still rattled by my friend's screams in the early morning two weeks ago when she learned her father had suddenly died from a lingering illness. I woke to the sound and haven't been able to fully shake it from my memory yet. I know it's the traditional way of mourning but I wasn't prepared for it. Then seeing my other friend lose consciousness for a moment in the cafeteria and fall flat on the ground, thankfully coming to right away, yet it still shook me deep down. I've been coming too close to death for comfort lately.

I'm not sure why these things affect me so deeply. I am an emotional person which may explain why I feel so fragile, but I think it is also difficult because I don't have someone to reassure me and hold me so I know I'm not alone. If I were home, I could hug my family for comfort and they would respond in kind. Here, I walk within a glass barricade which I will shatter if I reach outside myself for empathy. I cannot break it because then I will no longer have protection but I will still be lonely.

Being in the mission field isn't a simple trip to another country, a mission, and life outside of the ordinary. This is front lines stuff and it may not necessarily be for the souls of others. It may be for my own soul. I can easily give up or change my standards to be accepted by others. This life as a single person requires dedication, persistence, and the ability to be kind to myself as I adapt to a different reality. It means learning to walk through the lonely holding to Jesus the best I can when I can't see or touch Him.

Yesterday was a day of knowing I was in the right place and perhaps it would be long-term. Today is a day of longing to be back in a land where people communicate and I understand, granola doesn't have 80 peanuts to a cup, thrift stores sell paperbacks for 50 cents, and Chipotle burritoes are stuffed with fresh guacamole. But most of all, I'm with those who love me.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Plastic Faces

Michael Buble's song I Wanna Go Home has been floating in the stillness today. Though there isn't someone special I'm missing particularly right now, the chorus echoes my loneliness. The sharp contrast of blue sky, white cloud, and clean lines of towering apartment buildings on the next mountain, along with the waving palm tree right outside my window fail to lift my mood. I'm trying to remind myself there are so many things to be thankful for, like life, friends, food, a bed to sleep on, cool weather.

But all I can think of is a pine-strewn gravel driveway, a white Suzuki, a small bedroom now devoid of personality, Walmart and Chipotle, steamed greens, laughter at Tangos, a calendar a month behind, and my precious family. Frustrated, I find myself wanting to return to the country I purposely left behind for this adventure. I miss the familiar, the known, the kindness of others.

Why is it so hard to identify that this life is my life now? Why does my heart insist on reaching out when my head knows undoubtedly that I live a life more fulfilled here? Why do I always feel like I'm living in limbo?

I realized one important thing today: I do not handle crises well, therefore I should not plan on going into career or ministry fields that are closely linked to crisis management such as school counseling, ADRA project management, social work, etc. I freeze or wait for others to act first instead of stepping up boldly to take control.

I realized another important thing also. I want to settle down. I wasn't made for traveling the world or even living in a country where I cannot communicate or relate. I was created to build quality relationships with a few friends, do my work well, support the church financially, and be faithful in learning Who God is. While I dearly love being here and continue to feel peace that God has led me here for this season, the tears are indicative that my heart still hasn't found its home.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Nuts & Haircuts

Today has been a full day. It started early, with a Skype call home to wish Mom a happy birthday and Rachel was on the call too so we covered 3 countries and spanned the globe. It was frustrating as always, though, to try to talk because the picture kept freezing and it was very pixelated. I know we shouldn't complain because it's free communication but when you miss home and family, being able to see them clearly makes it a little easier to bear.

I rushed to get a bit of breakfast, picking out two large handfuls of peanuts from the small bowl of granola I poured. I don't know why it is necessary to dump a bucket of peanuts in the granola, as any nutty granola I've ever had saw nuts as a condiment rather than the staple of the dish. And since I don't like peanuts and I'm trying to keep my fat intake down, I pick out as many peanuts as I can. I hate to throw away food but I have to make some adjustments since I don't prepare the food myself.

Speaking of food, I'm so thankful for Luda & Shahin, a young couple who oversee the supper line at the caf, because they always make sure I have a cheese-free option to eat. On Wednesday, I went for lunch and was told that the caf had completely forgotten about me. I picked through the offerings and came up with grilled (think raw heated) cabbage, a patty (that I later realized was eggy & cheesy), the requisite salad, and bread. I do enjoy salad and bread but it is the same 3 ingredients every lunch and supper, 7 days a week. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce.

So I took my plate of food and sat down at the table, trying hard not to cry. I spent the last 20 or so years learning how to cook simple, healthy vegan food so it was difficult to find joy in what was staring up at me from the plate. It had been at least a week since I'd seen steamed greens (which are super cheap here). I reminded myself that I wasn't starving and that the most important thing was to keep a smile on my face. So I did, even when I was told we hope you're not too salty! at the end of the meal.

One of the dilemmas I've been struggling with lately is how to address matters in a Christian way. If someone chooses to play secular music on Sabbath afternoon on an organized Christian trip, do I say something? If someone forgets to prepare a simple meal that has been part of the rotation for several weeks now, do I say something? If someone tries to make me feel like I should be praying more because I'm struggling with being far away from all that's familiar, do I say something? If someone says I shouldn't be upset with limited food options because they forgot to make something, do I say something? When did Jesus address things and when did He let them go?

A dear friend cut and styled my hair this afternoon. She used a hairdryer with the diffuser attachment to straighten and curl it into shape. The hairdryer was blowing out very hot air and there were several times when it was uncomfortably hot on my face. I sat there, stone-faced, not saying a word even as I wondered if it was possible to get burned from a hairdryer. Thankfully, the air would only blow for a couple of seconds and then she'd shift it to another spot away from my face. But as I sat there, I began to think how this experience was mirroring my experience in life.

People may say things or try to persuade me to do things that are not kind or based in the Bible. I have a high tolerance, low-conflict, personality though, so I often won't say anything, even if the situation is making me very uncomfortable. I know my values but I don't know to what extent we can place our values on other people in public situations without causing a confrontation. What worries me is twofold. I will drive people away from Jesus with my set of standards and I will allow myself to be pushed around because I don't stand up for myself. Both are not ideal.

What did Jesus do? He spoke plainly to the religious leaders, gently to the common folk, and kindly to the outsiders. He defended what was right even as He overturned perceptions about Who God is and what He expects us to do. Jesus was not a pushover; He had a character that was molded by God. But He knew when to speak and when to be silent. Was He more often a speaker before His trial or more often silent? Something to study out.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Lyrics Kind of Girl

Are you a music or lyrics kind of person? she asked, staring at me intently. Lyrics were important to her; I thought it was a blend for me as I couldn't stand listening to a song if the lyrics were good but the music was horrid. Then, a couple of evenings later, as I idly scrolled through Facebook, a line came to my head and refused to leave. I knew it was a song, I was pretty sure it was Phil Collins, but I couldn't remember the title. Heading to YouTube, I typed in the line. Take A Look Through My Eyes popped up. I pressed play and in an instant tears came even as I knew. I was a lyrics person.

The last few days have been a bit challenging. I was somewhat startled to notice feelings of depression sneaking over me since I couldn't rationalize a reason for them. I spent an entire day in my room with the curtains shut because I didn't want to face the world (thankfully it was a holiday). I found myself ready to cry for no reason, cancelling appointments, and saying no when asked to help instead of eagerly volunteering. I craved sweets and slept very little.

I wondered if what I was feeling was normal, so I posted my questions in a Facebook group of fellow MKs who understood the TCK experience.  The answers were quick to come, the majority of which were encouraging, extending understanding and empathy. There was a 2.5 or 3 month mark I'd apparently not been notified of which I was hitting right about now where the feelings would hit a downward turn. This was not unusual to my situation; it was part of the reintegration process for TCKs who returned to their host countries as adults.

I'll include their answers in a separate post but there was one answer that still makes me stop and think. One person thought my symptoms described a feeling of mourning. I was startled to consider that because I was convinced there was nothing to mourn. I was living in the country I'd mourned for 17 years and the one I'd left I'd been all too eager to put in my past. If I was mourning, who or what would I mourn?

Perhaps grief is deeper than we realize and more potent in its ability to touch wounded spaces in our hearts and evoke the memories once buried deep down. Perhaps I'm mourning familiarity of half my life left behind. Perhaps I'm mourning the loss of wholeness since a return to the land of my childhood has not restored a splintered family from a difficult divorce. Perhaps I'm mourning the integration of a reality that I'd lived and a fantasy I'd dreamed of for so long. Perhaps I'm mourning the fact that knowing now I could have left sooner cannot change the past.

Coming to a new country carries a Pandora's box of change. This is one crazy adventure I'm on which sometimes hits me in the face with its boldness. I came a somewhat timid woman but I cannot expect to thrive in timidity. I've had to learn to ask, to persist, to speak out, to be firm, even while learning to be a woman in the midst of it all.

I think what I'm mourning deepest of all is realizing all those years I resented living in one place because I was convinced that was reducing my chances to find a life partner is a false premise. It was my dream since I was a little girl to grow up and become a mommy one day. Now in my mid 30's, I see the possibility of that dream slowly evaporating in time's harsh glare.

So maybe this is why I grieve. It is not the country. The country is merely a stage for the emotions that would have unsettled my world whether I were here or there. This is a defining time in my life and I mourn that the definitions are being written without my consent.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Shake the Can--Fizz Explodes

Coming here, I'd imagined something grander than reality. I'd pictured a flood of emotions as the plane came in to land, just as I'd cried when the plane took off 17 years prior. I'd imagined my old-time friends meeting me at the airport, overjoyed that I'd returned. I'd imagined walking around the campus and being overwhelmed with memories.

I tried to feel emotional when the plane landed, but I was mostly tired and it was difficult to see past the guy who was sitting at the window seat. I didn't want to stare too much either, in case he thought I was trying to flirt as he'd been rather talkative on the 4 hour flight from Germany. I was relieved to be on land again, as flying has become less and less a favourite pastime, but it didn't really matter in which country the land was.

A taxi driver picked me up at the airport and because I stood in the visa line so long, I missed him standing there with a sign and had to borrow a stranger's cell phone to call a friend who could let the taxi driver know I was there. The stranger was also a taxi driver & when I didn't give him a tip, he stalked off annoyed. The taxi driver was equally annoyed that I took so long to get through but thankfully I didn't speak any Arabic so he couldn't tell me off.

I've been here 2.5 months now and the memories have been mostly ones already tied to family photographs and home movies that I'd memorized over the years. Occasionally I'll have a flashback tied to a sensory memory but I'd had more of those back in the US. Now the memories made me homesick for the home I'd just left instead of the one I'd finally returned to.

It's strange, this tension that the ATCK must live in. We long for homes we've left, imagining them to be the perfect blend of familiarity and adventure, but when we return we find them as real-life as the home we most recently lived in. The memories are more closely connected to the people we lived them with and when the people leave, the places lose their shine for a time. Creating new memories is always possible but then the nostalgia shifts to impatience. Why is it this way?

I have found myself going through a rollercoaster of emotions since I arrived. At first it was terribly difficult trying to fit in and find my place in a world I'd left as a teenager and now returned to as an adult. Cliques and groups were already formed mid-year and I had to observe quietly, engage determinedly, and wait patiently until enough time had passed for me to be accepted and to feel at ease. Thankfully, my TCK experiences sped up the process so I found myself feeling comfortable in 2 months instead of the requisite 6.

Once I felt at home, I began to create memories from my own story. It was no longer the home I grew up in but the home I chose. And I was content. I felt at peace, I had solid friends, and I had many adventures to write home about. My life and heart were full.

But then there were panic moments and lonely days. Today was one of those. My contract is for a year and I'm nearly 1/4 of the way through that already. Relocating to a new country, selling my car, and packing up my life in large black plastic bins with yellow lids means I have to reinvent myself again very soon. I have just a few short months left to enjoy this experience before I have to start a grown-up job hunt and face life in the real world. That frightens me.

I think what is hardest of all, and this is why I write on my blog here rather than on the one I've created for friends & family to read, are the lonely days. The days when I refuse to use my JC Penney plastic bag for the bin because I want to keep the familiar red logo where I can see it. The days when I insist on saying wahturrr and cookies instead of wohter and biscuits. The days when I'm secretly pleased inside when someone turns to me and says incredulously, But I thought you were American! and I shake my head no as I explain my complicated heritage. The days I cry, not for the land I've left behind, but for my family who mean the world to me.

This is the hardest part of growing up. Accepting that we no longer sit around the kitchen table Friday night, eating and laughing and bursting into spontaneous song. That we no longer pack the tiny Suzuki to the roof with camping gear and set off blithely, shouting With fresh fruit for dessert as we pass confused bystanders. That I no longer come home at night, turn the lock in the door, and know that I'm stepping into a home where I'm loved. Those memories will always be there but the time to live them is gone. Now, I pray for the years we're all together again to come quickly and hold my breath inbetween. When we talk on Skype, I get frustrated because the internet refuses to allow even the small luxury of seeing their faces because your connection is unstable. When I need to talk, they are sleeping and when I need a hug, I can't be close to them.

Living in a developing country is difficult. I don't even know how to get to the post office and if I managed, I wouldn't be able to communicate with the people there to help me send a letter. The nearest proper grocery store is 20 minutes walk away and we live on a rather steep hill. I miss eating greens for lunch every day. Taxi drivers proposition me for immigration papers in exchange for less than $10.

I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing here or why I came. I didn't have a calling to this country; I came for closure because we left so suddenly the first time. I think I came to see if this is what I wanted to do long-term. I am worried now that I will have to when I think I don't want to. This was my leap into the unknown but I'm ready to go home now. Except I can't.

I'm living a blend of several lives, trying to reconcile past with present, to determine the course of my future. I know I need to trust God with what happens next but it's difficult when I've lived a life of uncertainty. Sometimes it feels like my faith is even smaller than the proverbial mustard seed.

It's nearly midnight. I'm sitting on my pink polka-dotted mattress, waiting for a mosquito to return. It's passed by 5 times already but each time my hands clapped together to capture thin air instead of the voracious insect whose bite itches for several weeks. My calendar is turned to May and to the left, February through March are taped to the wall as decorations, the pink craft tape keeping them in place as nails are not permitted on the pristine white. To the right, photos of family & friends create a collage of memories and colour above a counter littered with kitchen utensils and the ever-present 10-litre water jug. The mosquito Vape is plugged in but it never seems to do much good. I'll have to turn on the fan again so I can sleep tonight. 

Tomorrow I teach 2 hours of class and I haven't prepared a single thing. Yesterday I slipped on the last 3 steps on the way to the kitchen, my feet went out from under me, and I sat down hard on the tile floor. There was no ice in the communal fridge so I walked 10 minutes to the nearest grocery store, hoping they'd have some. They didn't even have frozen peas. So I bought two cans of 7-UP, hobbled home as quickly as I could, and put one in the fridge to keep cool while I used the other to ice my back. I made ice but it took 3 hours before it was halfway frozen. Today I have a nice purple bruise and a large bump where I hit the steps. My abdomen and back are sore from the fall. Why do I live in a country where they don't have ice and I can't drive to get some?