Who Am I Here?

In every new environment I step into, I find myself asking: Who am I here? And what do I have to offer? Will my authentic self be affirmed or rejected in this place?

My first three years in China as a young mom stretched me out of my comfort zone. Large groups of English students frequently crowded into our two connecting dorm rooms. My extroverted husband, quite gifted with the Chinese language, told entertaining stories while our babies got passed around the room. But what did I have to offer? I felt like I simply blended in with our mosquito stained wallpaper.

My conclusion after those early years was that my husband was made for China but I wasn’t. We returned to the US in 1998 for him to work on his Masters degree and got connected with a wonderful church in Kansas. With great relief, I tossed the ill-fitting China shoes into my closet and slid my bruised feet into comfortable American shoes. Finally, I could be my authentic self and fit in.

I no longer had to answer what had become my least favorite question of all time: “What’s your ideal job?” And have my answer of being a mom bounce back at me with a blank stare.

I felt like I had nothing to offer those career-minded Chinese college students. And that felt like a rejection of who I was.

But God graciously changed my heart about going back to China that year in the States, and we moved into a cozy apartment in a Chinese neighborhood. With space for our three little ones. And couches for our guests to sit on instead of our bed.

I found that as my language improved, my relationships deepened as well. My husband’s former English students were getting married and having babies and some of them came by to ask me questions. About how to love your husband when he’s hard to love. About how to deal with the terrible twos. How does faith actually make a difference in your life? they wanted to know. And I felt like I had something to offer. My China shoes didn’t feel so ill-fitting anymore.

biking_1

Over the next twelve years, as my roots extended into the soil of our neighborhood, China felt more and more like home. I considered it a privilege to live in the land that had once felt so foreign and rejecting to me. I discovered that I could be my authentic self in China and fit in. I felt affirmed in my contribution to our community.

But then we moved to another city, far off in central western China. And it could have been a totally new country. Because I was thrown back in time to the days when I didn’t fit. The days when I felt like God had made my husband for this place, but not me. And I questioned whether I had anything to offer at all.

Our family (now with three teenagers) lived in a Muslim minority village for weeks at a time for my husband’s PhD research. And I struggled with shopping and cooking and communication.

The villagers couldn’t understand what I did all day. I wasn’t out there in the fields, like the other women, growing our own crops. You’re home schooling your kids. What does that mean?

And I realized that I don’t actually like myself when I feel that I don’t have anything to offer. I didn’t want to be in that place because I felt my weaknesses were too exposed.

I have a longing to be connected within a community and to be affirmed in my contribution.

When I don’t fit in, it feels like a rejection of who I am. So I don’t want to be there.

Authenticity, I’m learning, is to be my true self wherever I am. And whether I feel affirmed or rejected in that place, I can keep on being me. The very me that God has created me to be. And to believe that He hasn’t made a mistake in making me the way that I am or in putting me in the place where He has.

Have you too felt like you don’t fit in?  What does authentic living look like in your context?  

28 Comments

  1. Valerie October 14, 2015

    Loved your comment on how you feel when you think you don’t have anything to offer. I’ve been overseas for several years but now that I am here with a small child, my role has changed a lot. It’s been easy to believe the lie that my husband has purpose now but I don’t since I’m home with our daughter. It’s a season of transition for me, trying to figure out exactly what my new purpose is in China as a mother. I need all the camaraderie I can get to remember that I am not alone and I’m not the first person to walk this road. Thanks for the honesty and wisdom you shared!

  2. Cheryl October 14, 2015

    Wow, I feel like I could have written your post (including being in Kansas, in a muslim area, and a husband studying for a PhD)!  I’ve also been in China for almost 20 years, and you’d think I would have found my niche by now and be comfortable in my shoes, but it continues to be a struggle.  As the kids grow, family needs change, and our location changes as well, it’s hard to figure out where I fit.

    1. Jodie October 14, 2015

      Cheryl, Wow. We have a lot in common! It really is an ongoing issue, isn’t it? Not just something we can figure out once and not deal with again. I’ve been challenged recently by Brene Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection she says “fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

  3. Jodie October 14, 2015

    Valerie, thanks for sharing part of your story! You are so right that we need camraderie on our journey. Loneliness and isolation are really challenging parts of living overseas. I would love to share a cup of tea with you and hear more of what you’re learning about your role as a mother and your purpose in China. 加油!

    1. Valerie October 15, 2015

      I would LOVE to fly to CO and enjoy your fall weather and a cup of tea with You!

      1. Jodie Pine October 16, 2015

        The invitation is always there, so let me know!?

  4. Leslie Verner October 15, 2015

    Jodie, I love this.  Thank you for sharing your heart.  It is so helpful for someone like me, who often wishes she were still in China and had dreams of raising a family there, to know some of the realities of trying to be a stay-at-home mom in a culture that doesn’t recognize that as a viable title.  I was also in a Muslim area of China, by the way (and now live in Colorado!):-)

    1. Jodie Pine October 15, 2015

      Leslie, I have really enjoyed following your 31 days series on your blog about re-entry. Transition and adjusting to new environments are areas where we will always need God’s grace. It has been such an encouragement to me to read about the lessons that God has taught and is continuing to teach you. Maybe we can go for a hike together here in Colorado one day!

  5. kylie October 15, 2015

    Thank you for sharing, Jodie! I have been dealing with similar problems, but a little bit on the opposite spectrum. I used to be teaching University and felt right at home with my students, and like I could bond with them {not to say that it wasn’t challenging at times} but now I’m living in a more conservative Muslim context with a baby and one on the way, but also managing an educational NGO, and I feel out of place and misunderstood. I think that people (and not just the people here) expect me to just stay home and be mom, but I don’t think that’s what God has called me to at this time.

    Living in a culture where women are marginalized has been really challenging for me. Trying to figure out how to follow God’s calling on my life, when that means I might look different than everyone else around me, has been tricky. But, I love how you said, “Authenticity, I’m learning, is to be my true self wherever I am. And whether I feel affirmed or rejected in that place, I can keep on being me. The very me that God has created me to be. And to believe that He hasn’t made a mistake in making me the way that I am or in putting me in the place where He has.” 

    If we are working and living for Him, then the opinions of those around us don’t really matter. And He isn’t going to call us to something that doesn’t glorify Himself in the place where He puts us.

    Thank you!

    1. Jodie Pine October 15, 2015

      Kylie, I love how you shared the same struggle on the opposite side of the spectrum. People’s expectations of us and the “norm” of what other women are doing in our context can really affect us. I know it must not be easy for you to be a “different kind of woman” where you are, but you are absolutely right that God puts us where He wants us and can use us in ways might not have ever imagined. Asking that He would give you confidence in Him to be all that you are right there and that He would be glorified through your courage to be different.

  6. Julie October 15, 2015

    Jodie, I too appreciated your words – “I didn’t want to be in that place because I felt my weaknesses were too exposed.” I felt that that was a big part of what made living in Asia hard for me – it exposed my weaknesses, put me in close contrast to people who were much more talented than I in certain areas. After years of receiving a lot of pats on the back and encouragement both at work and at church, suddenly in Asia it seemed like I was not good at almost anything on my task list. It still hurts my pride to remember that, because I still don’t like to discuss the things I can’t do well, and instead of being thankful for that gift of being humbled, I often just felt like I wanted to escape and go back to where I could look more in control and talented. Thanks for the reminder that God can help us to be ourselves (even when that means admitting that we are not good at certain things, and probably never will be) and accept our strengths and weaknesses as part of His sovereign design.

    1. Jodie Pine October 15, 2015

      Julie, thanks for sharing your journey! When I look back at my first three years in China (and my last 4 years), I think that God stripped away a lot of my pride and self-confidence. I wanted to be where I felt I had some strengths and competence. But what a better thing to learn humility and a greater understanding of how God uniquely uses our combination of strengths and weaknesses to bring glory, not to ourselves but to Him. May He continue to be glorified through your life right where you are.

      1. Julie October 15, 2015

        Thanks! I wish the same for you!

        1. Jodie Pine October 16, 2015

          I’ve been thinking more of what you said, Julie, about being thankful for the gift of being humbled. So much wisdom in that! We don’t like the process of being humbled because it feels humiliating, but what a better place to end up: having a more clear understanding of who God is and who we are. It really is a gift!

  7. Ashley Felder October 15, 2015

    Yep, same struggles as mentioned above, here! We’ve been in China 5 years now, and I’ve felt out of place…useless…purposeless many moments during those 5 years. And, too, my hubby acclimated in the blink of an eye. We came with a 14 month old and have added 2 along the way, so I get the odd looks when I tell people I’m busy by just staying at home! I know God has and can use me in this current role, but I often struggle to see it. Do college girls really want to know how to change a diaper? Cook a meal that takes 1.5 hours? Answer the 487th question from my 4yo? I mean, that’s the raw deal right there! Because I’m a people person, my husband is good about making sure I have contact with adults throughout the week. But even when I hang out with locals, I still feel like it’s a lot of work to connect with them. I wonder what I’d feel/think if we just moved back home. But I can’t dwell there. Here’s to dwelling on the fact that He has me here, now, so be content and let him use me however He may!

    1. Jodie Pine October 15, 2015

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Ashley! I think you brought up something really important when you said “I’m not going to dwell there.” Even when we struggle to see how God is using us, we can choose not to dwell in the defeating thoughts of self-condemnation, self-pity, or comparing ourselves with our husbands/others. We can choose to dwell in the truths that we have enough and we are enough because of who He is and because we are His beloved daughters.

  8. Michele Womble October 15, 2015

    When I first came to Russia I didn’t think I had anything to offer.  I came because I believed God wanted me to – and while I was excited, I really didn’t think I had anything to offer (especially compared to everyone around me 🙂 !!! )  and I didn’t understand why He wanted me here – I just knew He did.  Since then, (20 years ago) I’ve gone through season of feeling useful and season of not feeling useful.  Sometimes I wonder if  (wish) I could have done a lot more in the seasons where I was not as useful – but then some of those times were more focused on my kids…(and some not) …I love your words “ authenticity, I’m learning, is to be my true self wherever I am” –
    and I think that if we can just learn that, really, in whatever season we’re in to be our true selves, we’ll find that we’re “offering” way more than we could ever have suspected.  Sometimes just being there is enough.

     

    (I don’t like myself much, either, when I feel I don’t have anything to offer. 😉  )

    1. Jodie Pine October 15, 2015

      Michele, you are a real example of faithfulness! I love your idea of offering people the gift of ourselves. I think that’s exactly what God wants us to do.

  9. Monica F October 15, 2015

    Jodie, thank you, thank you for this post, and I LOVE the picture!  My family took a year-long sabbatical after ten years in southern China working among a minority group.  Those first 3 years for me too, where really, really hard.  Learning language with a baby in tow, while my husband got to jump in head-first was very difficult for me.  Once we moved to the countryside, I was able to put my nursing and teaching skills into practice, but finding that ‘sweet spot’ was always challenging for me.  Looking back, I realize how desperately I was trying to rush ‘ministry’ and feel useful.  There were many days, even in the few months leading to our sabbatical, that I was thinking out-loud, “What in the world are we doing here?  Are we making a difference at all?”. I rediscovered my true-self over our sabbatical period- when my jobs, ministry, local relationships, and false expectations of myself were all stripped away.  I do long to return to China now, but would do things a lot differently so that my authentic self could thrive.  It’s comforting to know that I can identify with your story (and other too) who have walked this road of authentication.

    1. Jodie Pine October 15, 2015

      Monica, yes! When we’re in situations where we are questioning ourselves and questioning God, we need to be stripped of of all the baggage we are carrying around, come to the cross, and ask Him to help us “rediscover our true selves.” So glad you were able to do that on your sabbatical! And the next step of allowing our authentic selves to thrive wherever God has us is equally important. I think this community at Velvet Ashes is a great place to encourage each other on “the road to authentication” in our different parts of the world!

      1. Monica F October 15, 2015

        Yes, thank you so much!

  10. Anna October 15, 2015

    When I first arrived in at our overseas hospital in Congo, there was a war going on in the province right across the river.  I’m completely non-medical, and was taking care of our 3 kids while my husband worked.  Most of our things hadn’t yet arrived, and I couldn’t do school.  I didn’t know how to shop at the market, get our laundry done, prepare food, etc.  It was a bit of an adjustment.

    Our house was the official & unofficial gathering place.  Everyone was coming in with stories of surgeries, and trauma, and other medical cases & procedures.  I felt really useless.  But in time, I found my niche.  I realized that all those people doing the exciting, stressful medical work need an open door, a listening ear, food & water.

    Now I’m in another transition point, and not quite sure what that means yet.

    1. Jodie Pine October 16, 2015

      Anna, that is so encouraging to hear how you discovered you could offer an open door and a listening ear to those who were doing the medical work where you are. May God help you to see what He has for you in this new season of your life as well.

  11. Sarah October 16, 2015

    Wow – I can really relate to this post, Jodie!  The place is different, but I also came here as a young mom and watched my extroverted husband find his niche quickly while I kind of retreated into myself and felt like I didn’t have anything to offer in this new context.  It was especially hard because I had felt like I had had a lot to offer before we moved here.  It took time (maybe 4-5 years!?), a lot of prayer, a lot of hours learning Spanish, and a willingness to change my perspective on how God might want to use me before I started to feel myself here.  I’m still figuring it out!

    Oh, and that church in KS?  That’s our home church!!  I’ve heard about you and your husband often.  =)

    1. Jodie Pine October 16, 2015

      Sarah, thanks for sharing. What a small world! Definitely learning the language makes a big difference in being able to build relationships, doesn’t it? And that’s always more challenging for us to do when we have small children! Glad that you are seeing how God is using you there. May He continue to give you a deep trust in Him as He works in and through you.

      1. Jodie October 21, 2015

        And I totally understand your response of retreating into yourself when you feel you have nothing to offer. That’s what I do too. There’s a quote by Ralph Winter about how we can travel thousands of miles to reach our destination where we want to make an impact, but those 18 inches out of our front door can be the hardest. Especially I think when we are filled with doubts that He can use our lives to make a real difference. Prayer and a willingness to change our perspective on what God can do are huge pieces that you brought up, Sarah. We don’t want to put Him or ourselves in a box.

  12. Aubrey November 29, 2015

    I was so encouraged. Thank you for sharing this with us, Jodie!

  13. Jodie November 30, 2015

    So glad to know that Aubrey! Thanks for commenting

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