A few weeks ago, I got home from a long run, soaked in sweat. It’s the kind of sweaty I didn’t know before I took up running in the sub-tropics. The kind of sweaty that screams I need a shower – and now.
But when I reach the bathroom and turn the knob, no water comes. Oh great, I think to myself, what a horrible time for the water to be off. What on earth am I going to do?
And then I have a very Thai thought: get the powder.
I used to think powder was for babies, but in my host culture, powder is second to water when it comes to hygiene. People use it to dry off, to freshen up, to keep their skin soft, even sometimes to spiff-up for an event. So that day when water was unavailable, I was able to somewhat clean up, thanks to some trusty baby powder and a tip I learned from Asians.
We hear often that having an attitude of a learner is of utmost importance for living abroad. This lifestyle has us asking hundreds of questions, learning a plethora of new things with every trip around the sun. Undoubtedly, your host culture has taught you so.many.things. Some things you would not have chosen to learn, and some things that make your life richer, sweeter, deeper.
An individual, independent American has a lot of things to learn from a collective culture. Running has taught me this lesson.
I first took up running when I admitted that transition had brought some unhealthy habits into my personal life. I needed to start building time into my schedule to invest in my health. It was a personal, private decision. So, I started going to the track at the university, plugging in my headphones, putting my head down, and plodding along.
But horrible things started to happen; I was constantly meeting up with people I knew, and they were, gasp, saying hello. I didn’t want to say hello, I didn’t even want to be recognized. Exercise is one of those things in the private/personal file for me. It’s my zone. My personal zone. And people were crashing their way into it.
It all culminated one particularly hot summer evening. I felt like I was heaving like a horse and sweating like an ox, and I saw so.many.people I knew, including the dean from my workplace. And no one seemed to acknowledge that I probably don’t want to be recognized. Everyone kept being friendly. And I wasn’t pleased.
So, I stopped running there. Or, if I would run at the track, I’d go at night when no one was there or I could hover under the cover of darkness. And I was happy again. No one saw me in my weakness, and no one interrupted my podcasts or my tunes. My privacy was mine once more.
But then I started to hear people make comments like “I was talking with so-and-so at the track last night,” or “Last night while so-and-so and I were running together, she told me . . .” And I’d feel a bit like I was missing out on something. One time, I went to the track at prime time and you know what I saw? A lot of people having fun together. Either chatting while they were running around the lake, or even seemingly stopping mid-workout to share a laugh with a friend they ran into.
I saw community. And I kinda wanted it.
But it meant giving up my ideals of private workouts. And that was hard. But slowly, I saw that it was ok to let people see me in my sweatiest of states. They didn’t care. They were inviting me into their community, sweat, heaves, and all.
So I slowly started to accept invitations to run with friends. I cautiously took out my headphones from time to time and tried to just be a part of my surroundings. I stopped averting the gaze of people whom I might recognize.
And do you want to know something? I love this new way. Now, exercise is not just time built into my schedule for self-care, it’s also time for friendship. I’ve become the one initiating the hellos, giving the invitations to friends to join me for a run. I’m loving the feeling of being a part of this community.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, when the great lion Aslan finishes creating Narnia, he gathers the talking beasts together and says “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”
And their answer echoes his cry, “Hail, Aslan, we hear and obey. We are awake. We think. We speak. We know.”
Earlier this year, those action verbs jumped off the page of The Magician’s Nephew and into my heart. Aslan calls the Narnians to awaken, to love, to think, to speak. I think those four action verbs sum up what it means to be a learner. It starts with being awakened, leads to love, changes our thinking, and shapes our words and actions.
Let’s be like the brave talking beasts of Narnia. Let us be the people who are awake, who love, who think, who speak.
And I’m pretty sure we’ll find that the things we learn bring a new sweetness to our lives. Even when it requires a measure of giving up, because that’s when space opens for joy to fill.
So I’ll chug around the track, saying my evening sawatdiis because I have found it to be a source of joy. And I pray my heart is open to learn the next thing that this culture has to teach me.
Because I’m pretty certain that there’s a next thing.
What is something valuable your host culture has taught you that you initially resisted?