After five years of making my home in southeast Asia, you would think people would stop looking at me like I have little green blobs growing out of my head. Yet somehow, I never cease to amaze people with my foreignness.
“You paid the electrician HOW MUCH as a tip?” (Oops, too little.)
“You spend HOW MUCH on rent?” (Too much, apparently.)
“Don’t you EVER want to get married?” (Why yes, yes I do actually.)
“You are purchasing THAT vegetable?” (I am indeed.)
I’m either missing the mark on what is considered appropriate or showing my American values in my choices and actions. No matter how many hours I have spent memorizing vocabulary and asking questions to understand the culture, I sound like an outsider and too often act like one.
Cross-cultural work influences and changes us. When I come home to my passport country, the shape of my heart no longer fits in the containers that it did before I left. I want to sit on the floor, eat rice with a spoon instead of a fork, ask people their ages, and linger over iced coffee rather than rush on to the next activity. I am a foreigner in the places that were once familiar, striving to find a new normal.
This is the strange inheritance of the overseas worker, joy and burden all wrapped up in one. Belonging is one of our core desires no matter where we live. We desire to connect on a deep level, to feel accepted and loved unconditionally. This longing unrealized has been one of the most painful parts of the last season of overseas work for me. When my closest friends point out the ways that I am missing the mark in understanding their culture, I am grateful for their gentle correction but the gap feels wide between their heart and mine.
When I am slow to understand how things work in my passport country or I get that strange look from someone who is actually speaking my language, I feel void of a place where I fit. The search for belonging continues in the places I feel I ought to be able to find it, and yet, too often I still feel like a foreigner.
Realizing that we are forever and always foreign can point us heavenward and remind us that eternity is coming. We have memorized Scriptures of heaven and speak these truths to each other and our brothers and sisters around the world, and I think that we as overseas workers understand the hope of our true home yet to come in very deep and meaningful ways. We don’t belong here and we know that. Sometimes I let the longing for a place of being known push me towards despair, but it doesn’t have to. Instead this longing can pull me into the arms of Jesus who has written my name on the palm of His hand. I love these words from Isaiah 49:12-13, this promise for Israel and for us:
“See, my people will return from far away, from lands to the north and west, and from as far south as Egypt. Sing for joy, O heavens! Rejoice, O earth! Burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on them in their suffering.”
Maybe you are trying to smile back at the well-meaning cross-cultural friends who are staring at you like you landed from another planet, or you are seeking ways to authentically show the new shape of your heart in your passport country. May you know today that you belong to Jesus, and be filled anew with the hope of your home that is yet to come.
How do you feel your foreignness both in your adopted country and your passport country? What truths do you cling to when you long to belong?