The Turning Point For Me

When we moved overseas, I thought the adjustment would be easy.

I had already lived in our host country for three months as a single woman, so I knew what I was getting into. (Ha!) Of course I knew that going back married with a 3-month-old baby would be different. But still, I could quickly adjust. I was flexible. I had been in cross-cultural ministry for years already. I loved cultures and people, and I was outgoing and not afraid to try new things. There might be a bit of initial culture shock, but I wouldn’t have any serious problems with the adjustment.

Was I ever in for a surprise.

I was overwhelmed and intimidated. I sent my husband to market and stayed home with the baby. I avoided the neighbors, pretending I wasn’t home. I was embarrassed to try out my newly acquired baby-talk attempts at the language. I was intimidated by going to church, and came up with any excuse to stay home. I was miserable.

Slowly but surely I figured out how to cook, clean, do laundry, and take care of my infant son in this foreign land. But I wasn’t figuring out how to connect with the community. I felt like an outsider, with no ministry, no friends, and no desire to change that fact.

Then, eight months after moving to the field, we had our “splash-down” immersion experience, living with a local family. That had been the plan all along, a plan that everyone said would be best for us, a plan to be implemented as soon as we knew for sure what area we were targeting. It took longer than we expected to discern our target area, but once we settled on a village, we prepared to “go native” for a time.

I was scared to death. Our village was one of the most remote places in the nation. During the rainy season, it was only accessible by one 4×4 route, a 6-hour drive over flooded roads and tractor paths. There was no medical care, no stores, no electricity, no running water, and no other white people for miles and miles and miles in any direction.

It looked like the end of the earth, and here is where we were going to live for six weeks. Six weeks living in one room of a local family’s mud house. Six weeks seeing no other white faces, eating no American food, and having no contact with our family and friends “back home.” Six weeks of living with “our” people, learning who they were and how they lived. Six weeks with no mattress, no couch, no toilet or shower, and no fans.

I won’t lie. That was the hardest six weeks of my life.

I was in tears every single day. I was pretty sure I would go crazy. There were no women who knew English, and I hadn’t learned more than a dozen words of the local language. Scores of people came through the house, peering into our bedroom, exclaiming over our white baby, staring and jabbering like we were animals in the zoo. We were bored. We were exhausted. We were stretched to the limit and beyond, eating strange foods, living on a strange schedule, dealing with the heat day after day, coming down with malaria, then diagnosing and treating it ourselves. We both lost weight. We weren’t sure we would make it through the whole six weeks.

And then, at about 4 ½ weeks, something changed. Life didn’t get any easier. There was still no one to talk to. I was still laughed at no matter what I tried to do. But I was beginning to feel a connection with the people around me. I was starting to see and understand their life rhythms. I knew what to expect from day to day, and started seeing some of the reasons behind what was happening around me. I suddenly realized that for the first time in 9 months of life in my host country, I was starting to adjust.

And that was the turning point for me. A little more than a week later, we moved back to “civilization” to begin serious language learning. I would be lying to say that I never struggled again, but life was truly 100% different. I loved going to market, and went almost daily to buy fresh groceries. I was comfortable sitting and visiting with my neighbors. I felt like a member of the community (albeit a strange one!) instead of an outsider. I knew their expectations, I understood what was important to them, I knew the common rhythm of daily life. I had friends, I had a ministry, and life was good.

I still look back on those six weeks in the village with mixed feelings. My memories are colored by the painful emotions. I’ve never done anything before or since as difficult as I did there. It was trial by fire, and I was sure we would fail. But we didn’t fail, we adjusted – and in the end, that experience gave us the best gift – the insight we needed to connect with our people.

Can you point to a turning point for you? Are you still needing one? If so, how can we pray for you?

4 Comments

  1. Emily Smith September 17, 2015

    “I felt like an outsider, with no ministry, no friends, and no desire to change that fact.”
    The desire to change is such a powerful thing, isn’t it? If only it were easy to find that desire. I’ve found myself so frustrated because I couldn’t just dig down and find the desire I needed to start adjusting.
    It is also amazing what kinds of circumstances God uses to help hit that turning point. I’ve just hit one recently. It has made me wonder why I didn’t do this a while ago. It isn’t suddenly easy, but it is suddenly a challenge I want to overcome. Figuring out how to adjust is no longer something that sends me into panic and anxiety just thinking about it. I just have to give myself grace and realize I couldn’t have begun a lot of this adjusting before. Until recently, surviving was enough and there was much to be learned in that season as well.

    1. Melissa Toews September 17, 2015

      Until recently, surviving was enough and there was much to be learned in that season as well.

      Sooo true! There is a time for everything – a time for surviving, and a time to adjust! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Grace L September 17, 2015

    I’ve been thinking about what “adjusting” means all day. We have been on the field for 9 years and have made this place “home”. We feel much more at home here than we do when we visit the US. I think the changes come gradually as we find ways to function and thrive in our adopted culture.

    We share our house with a small factory that we run, and it was very challenging at first to deal with the locals way of doing things. I remember when we bought a small cupboard for our kitchen and kept in it things that only we could use. It was our little bit of “civilization”, something we had control over. But now we share our kitchen with the small group of ladies more freely, especially when they have lunch there every day. I love it. Every day my kitchen floor gets washed and cleaned up, as well as many other parts of the house.

    We have discovered many foods here that we love, actually nothing too exotic, but simple things like the local pumpkin that we steam and then mash. Oh, it is so sweet. When we were in the states last spring, we cooked up some that we bought there but it was no where near as good as we have here in East Asia. And I missed the Italian coffee that we drink here and the imported German salad dressing. I found myself dissatisfied with the options I could find in the states and anxious to return to the “familiar”.

    All this is to say that we have developed many ways that we live and function here and we prefer it to life in the states. Sure, when visiting in nice homes in the states, I was envious of the well equipped kitchens people had, and enjoyed the luxury of driving around in a car. Even so, we love the life God has given us in this place where He has called us, but it comes gradually as survival encourages us to adapt and find our comfort zones.

  3. Kim September 21, 2015

    I’m feeling much better about my seeming resistance to adjustment here. Thanks for the post. It’s a real encouragement as I navigate these months of life alone in the mountains of rural Japan. I’d give just about anything to have 6 weeks totally emersed. I was going out about everyday.  The past week I haven’t been out once. It seems so pointless.

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