I’ll Be Your Big Sister For a Minute

I'll Be Your Big Sister For a Minute

You are about to start on a grand adventure, one that will mark you in ways you never could have imagined. I still remember the wide-eyed excitement when I found out I was fully supported and could purchase my tickets to head to Southeast Asia. I get butterflies in my tummy when I think about arriving for day one of pre-field training, knowing so strongly that this was one more step closer to departure day.

I also remember the tears. Gracious, there were buckets of tears in those days! All the goodbye parties, the final hugs with my family at the airport, the sadness over what wouldn’t fit in my suitcase.

Like so much of this life, there is joy and there is sorrow in the moments of preparation to head to the field. We have to make room in our hearts for the good and the hard, which is no easy task. In the midst of it all, those valleys and mountain tops, here are a few pieces of big-sister advice I would pass on to you for the preparation days.

Read all the books! I’m a reader, so this was easy for me, but also so important. I highly recommend Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-cultural Service by Amy Young. You will learn more about yourself and the ways you grieve and handle stress, and also gain tools for how to navigate the messy beautiful days of transition. Keep this book on hand and pull it out when the day comes to transition back to your passport country. Amy also has put together a worksheet of activities for families going through transition! I also recommend Getting Started: Making the Most of Your First Year in Cross-cultural Service by Amy and Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter. Read books about your future home, about Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and how to adjust to a new culture. Check out the Velvet Ashes Resource page for more book ideas!

Ask the people who have gone before you. Before making my packing list, I wrote to a long-time worker in the city I would be moving to and asked all the questions. What kitchen items can you find there? What do you recommend I bring? She responded with helpful advice like making sure to bring facewash I liked since many of the products there contained whitening agents, and undies in my size. She told me what stores or markets I could find certain kitchen and baking items, and what was just impractical or impossible to use there. It reassured my detail-loving heart to have those specifics! If you don’t know anyone personally who has lived in the place you are heading, reach out to your organization for recommendations. Or, use one of our regional hashtags on social media!

Support raising blues? Be honest and real with people. I was sharing in my childhood fellowship and someone asked me point blank, “How much do you need?” I had danced around the dollar signs without getting super specific, but I answered him honestly. Shortly after, more people jumped on board to support me monthly and my goal was met. It’s awkward and hard to talk about finances and to ask people for money, but I have found that just being up front with people is helpful!

Pay attention to expectations. I’m not sure we can completely rid our hearts of expectations, since even declaring we have no expectations feels like an expectation. Ha! But check in regularly with your heart and the hearts of your family members or teammates. Do you imagine living in a house with AC and that’s not even possible? Do you expect to finish language school in four weeks but others are thinking it will be a six-month commitment? Do you expect to be best friends with your teammates, or that the different climate won’t bother you at all? Journal those expectations out or talk to someone about them. It’s not bad to have them, but unmet expectations can be jarring and unsettling. Getting them out and then realizing what might be unrealistic can help relieve some of those bumps along the way.

Start slow, if you can. My teammate and I had been in Southeast Asia for several years when we helped new teammates get settled. We followed the pattern that had been set in place upon our own arrival: immediately find housing and furnish it, sign up for language study on day one, get the lay of the land on day two. They told us later that they were completely overwhelmed as they tried to make decisions in the fog of jet lag, and I was reminded that had been my own experience. So, if I had it to do all over again, I would start slower. I would give buffer time to recover from long flights and a whole different climate. There’s nothing wrong with jumping in and getting things settled, but also give yourself grace to adjust.

In the midst of it all—the support raising, packing, selling, goodbyes—don’t neglect your heart. Don’t stop sitting before the Father, hands open in surrender. Each step of the way, let Him comfort you, speak to you and move you. It can be easy to say, “I’ll do all of that once life is settled again!” Yet, He is the one who will give you the wisdom, comfort and strength you need to navigate the huge transition that is coming. Hold tight to His hand—what a grand adventure awaits you!

If you are preparing to go to the field, what questions are on your heart right now? If you have recently (or not-so-recently) transitioned to the field, what’s your top piece of advice?


  1. Patty June 11, 2020

    Thank you for this blog. I am hoping to head out at the end of the year to SEA. Any advice will be helpful.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann June 11, 2020

      Patty, that’s exciting! I love that part of the world so much. 🙂 I’d love to connect more with you!

  2. Michele June 11, 2020

    Here’s a quick little tidbit for those moving to a tropical land: It takes your body about one year to adjust to that climate if you haven’t lived in it before! I’m so glad I was told this by an experienced expat who’d learned it from an expat doctor. For some reason that fact doesn’t always get passed on to newbies, and they don’t have compassion for themselves in that part of the adjustment. It’s normal to be unreasonably tired and even to get sick more easily as you adjust. Be nice to yourself!

    1. Sarah Hilkemann June 12, 2020

      That’s great, Michele! Definitely knowing the places where we can give ourselves extra grace helps with expectations. 🙂 The heat was a big challenge for me, and there were rest times built in to my days, which helped. I also had to be really careful to stay hydrated!

      1. Michele June 12, 2020

        For real- I used to get headaches almost every day in the first six months. I had spent a couple of years in Kenya before that- one of which was in the desert where it was 102 F every day. But the friend/leader who’d given me this warning about the tropics had also been in the horn of Africa before SE Asia, so he warned me that this was different or I would have thought I was more prepared for that climate than I was.

        While on weather tips, I can also say that living in north India and Nepal which is not nearly as cold as my native Wisconsin in the winter, was horrible to get used to because of the drafty concrete buildings with no heat inside. I hear the same about China and some other places. Climate is a small detail that gets passed by, but it feels huge in the middle of culture shock.

        1. Sarah Hilkemann June 12, 2020

          Climate does “seem” small, but I also think it is one of those things that we don’t pay attention to, or we might be really hard on ourselves. Why can’t I just deal with this? I had a lot of guilt for not being more “productive”, and sometimes hearing from someone else that we are normal or have permission to go slow and adjust can be really helpful.

    2. Deanne June 17, 2020

      On the health side of things, for the first year you (and your family if you have one) will be picking up new viruses, adjusting to new pollens and being sick will be part of that. You will feel like you are constantly down with something, but be patient and (as was said) give yourself grace. Your body will adjust.

      1. Sarah Hilkemann June 17, 2020

        That’s a good reminder too, Deanne! I wish it wasn’t that way. 🙂 But knowing what’s going on can help eliminate some of the shame/stress that getting sick a lot might bring.

  3. Laura June 12, 2020

    Thanks for the “start slow” comment. My team has typically been on the “start slow” end of the spectrum (perhaps too much), and recently had some new members very frustrated by NOT having everything set up on day one. It was a good reminder to me how everyone is different- and what feels slow for one person might feel fast for another, or vice versa.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann June 17, 2020

      Yes, that’s really important, Laura! I tend to take things slower so was quite overwhelmed by getting set up so fast. But others might need to feel settled more quickly. Different expectations, right? 🙂

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