Last week I was doing an interview with a young lady who is interested in coming and working on our staff in Paris. When I asked her if she had any questions for me, she responded by asking me what surprised me the most about French culture. I confessed to her that the most surprising thing to me was, really, the fact that I was so surprised.
In the weeks and months leading up to my move, I imagined many things. Surely moving to a top dream vacation spot would be nothing but wonderful. I quickly found myself corrected, however, by life abroad. The slow pace of life, the different philosophy of customer service, the way to deal with conflict with neighbors – all of the minute details of life suddenly became insurmountable obstacles.
I have told many young people who are preparing for life overseas that they can take all the intercultural classes they want – nothing can truly prepare you for actual day in and day out life overseas.
In my first couple of years overseas, I quickly felt knocked back by life, ministry, and relationships. I’m still ‘in the game’, and along the way, I’ve picked up some things that have made me more flexible and adaptable. Here are a few things that have helped me maintain health and resilience overseas:
- Stay physically active.
During a particularly difficult season, I started running. Well – the word running is used loosely there. I started walking with a little bit of slow huffy puffy jogging interspersed. I made myself a running playlist and started getting outdoors every day. I could not believe the difference this made in my mind and in my body. During difficult seasons, physical activity can be difficult to engage in, but it always gets me to a place where I can trust my own brain a little better.
- Be fully present.
It should come as no surprise that often on the hard days, I wanted to go home. When I first moved overseas I spent a lot of time thinking about other things I could do with my life. I had just graduated from university with my degree in Secondary English Education, and I loved teaching. On the hard days I would find myself looking at job postings for schools or churches. It was when I let go of “Plan B” that I found myself bouncing back more quickly on the hard days.
- Make friends
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s important. Most overseas workers have the option of staying around others like them – other English speakers, other Americans, other workers – whatever that group may be. It’s certainly easier and more comfortable for me to swap stories and share life with other members on my staff. However, it’s important to build community outside the walls of team or family. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s amazing how much richer life becomes when you begin sharing your heart with people who are very unlike yourself.
- Unapologetically embrace your field.
Okay let’s get real here for a second. I live in Paris. It’s not the worst thing in the world. And I spent quite a bit of time early on feeling guilty for that. But once I allowed myself to live with gratitude for the place God had called me, I found so much joy in that space. There was one morning a missions team was coming through Paris with an 8 hour layover and they asked me to meet them in the city and show them around. It was December, it was cold, and I unhappily agreed to meet them at the Notre Dame at 7 AM. As I sat there in the dark on a cold, stone bench waiting for them, I found myself replaying everything I hated about this cold, dark country.
As I expected, they called me at our scheduled meeting time to tell me they couldn’t leave the airport. Moments later, I sat and watched as the sun rose behind the cathedral. That day I wandered around Paris, stumbling upon markets and buildings I hadn’t seen before. It was that day I fell in love with the city.
Overseas workers around the world I have spoken to find that they are the most happy when they have allowed themselves to fall in love unapologetically with the city they are called to. Whether that is bragging about the ridiculously good coffee in Tanzania or seeing sunrise on the beach in Vanuatu, God has given us all beautiful gifts wherever we are – it is up to us to embrace that.
I think finding yourself overseas is something that you don’t realize is happening – you just look back one day and see the difficult path you have walked. In the day to day choices we make, we can set ourselves up for greater success abroad, and – if you ask me – the work we put in day to day ends up being so worth it.
What helps you stay flexible in your work? What habits have you developed to contribute health and wellness to your mind and body?