Working alongside those different from us {Book Club}

Have you gotten Fieldwork: a novel by Mischa Berlinski? How’s it going? I want to ask your thoughts on the Walkers, on Martiya van der Leun, on the Dyalo, on the way the story is told. If you haven’t finished it, are you just itching to figure out why David was murdered by Martiya? And is this book bringing back memories from your own personal journey and the places you’ve lived and visited?

I want to, but I won’t! Not until next week when we talk about the book. {Side note: we’ll talk about the book on January 14th and 21st.}

Instead, today let’s talk about one of the themes of the book: working alongside others who might not share our values and beliefs but are {equally} committed.

For those who don’t have the book or haven’t started reading it yet, the Walker family lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand (after having lived in China and Burma) and love and understand the Dyalo, a hill tribe people.  Martiya is an anthropologist who has lived with the Dyalo the majority of her adulthood and also cares deeply for the Dyalo but from a traditional anthropologist way of trying to understand a people group.

I don’t want to say too much more about the working relationship between Martiya and the Walkers so as not to reveal anything from the book. But let’s just say it’s all there: respect, frustration, disagreement, a shared investment, complexities, and in the end separation.

Over the years, I’ve had almost every type of relationship working with other foreigners and I bet you’ve had some of these too.

  • Those who are so taken with the culture but they’ve been there such a short time it’s hard not to correct them and their completely WRONG understandings.
  • Or the folks who are there for a short time (be that a few weeks or half a year) and they push or ask for things they shouldn’t or go on and on about how AMAZING everything is and it takes all you can not to slap them silly (or is that just me?)
  • How about the folks who are actively working against some of the good news we bear?
  • Or the people who, out of their element, begin to consider things of faith afresh and their eyes open in ways that they did not expect (LOVE those!)
  • It’s hard to live with folks who have blatant disregard for the cultures and people we love
  • One last one: the ways we are positively challenged by them to stay true to our calling

I’ve shared space with visiting scholars, an ethnomusicologist, an artist who brought “nudey” drawing (as his uncomfortable translator called it) to an art class, someone who repeatedly compared China to Italy, a person who studied Sichuan Opera (similar to Beijing Opera but it has a clown). I’ve coached people who have had a foreigner turn violent and needed to be “locked up” in a hotel room until the officials figured out what to do; in another case, a person had a psychotic break; I’ve known of someone who grew pot on his balcony (illegal in the country he lived in and caused problems for his employers), and I’ve counselled a woman who heard voices and rode the subway all night. I’ll share more of my stories in the comment section as the conversation unfolds through your stories and experiences. I want to hear from you!

Do you work with other foreigners besides those you might be on some type of team?

What have the joys been? Challenges? Like the Walkers and Martiya, have you had to separate from a person, family, or group (let’s hope it’s not because of murder, as in their case!)

Have you had the experience where you felt more understood or “gotten” by those outside our faith than those who are brothers and sisters? What do we do with that?

Doesn’t this book offer us a goldmine of things to talk about?  Can’t wait for you to share your experiences working with others!


p.s. Next week we’ll dive into Fieldwork: a novel if you haven’t gotten it, there’s still time!

Photo credit  batintherain via flickr


  1. emily thomas January 7, 2014

    This is a great topic.

    I had the opportunity to be on teams with people so wildly different from me.  It was challenging (for both of us) but I was able to see that since they were also fully committed (an important distinction) I witnessed God using them in inspiring ways.  They were friends with people I never would have been able to (or wanted to frankly) be friends with.  And eternal fruit would result.  That helped me look past small differences because I saw the great benefits they brought to the team.

    1. Amy Young January 7, 2014

      Emily, isn’t it so helpful, somehow when people are committed? I remember once riding in the front seat of the truck with my mom and dad and my mom huffing and puffing. I finally asked, “What is wrong?” And Mom’s answers was one of those light bulb moments: “Your dad’s not driving the truck the way I would.”

      In conflict I now try to make the distinction between “not driving the truck the way I would” (a preference and the other person has the right to drive the truck they way they want to!) OR truly something that needs to be addressed/changed/challenged because you might GET US KILLED if you drive that way.

  2. Kimberly Todd January 7, 2014

    I’m only a couple chapters in and I am intrigued. I read your post with one eye shut hoping I wasn’t approaching a spoiler. =) I laughed and cringed at the insult of being a religious cross-cultural worker when Josh went to visit Martiya in prison. We’re standing on the backs of both heroes and fools, and someday the next generation will stand on ours. I hope we will have set them up well for their work.

    1. Danielle Wheeler January 7, 2014

      “Standing on the backs of heroes and fools,” indeed!  And yes to setting up the next generation well.  I think we too often fail to think about those that will follow us and how what we do impacts them.

      1. Amy Young January 7, 2014

        Danielle and Kim, your comments brought back a memory I hadn’t thought of in years. During pre-field orientation, my teammate and I were told that we had been specially chosen as a peace offering, so to speak, to the school we were assigned to. Both of us had been education majors, I had taught for several years and had an MA, and we were single. The team before us had been a family and a single guy. Turns out the family (who I never met), was crazy. Yes, a very technical term :). I guess the husband had yelled at everyone at the school by the end of the year. But more than that, we/they lived in a guest house that had several young women working the front guest. The husband believed he and his family were being poisoned by the women working at the front desk. You can only imagine how thrilled they staff was to meet more foreigners :).

        Thankfully, though damage can be done that can takes years to repair, there are gestures that can be made to repair them.

        I’ve written before about the wake that we are leaving … your comments are a good reminder to us all 🙂

    2. Amy Young January 7, 2014

      I really tried not to give anything away :)! (Not just Kim, but anyone, let me know if I gave too much away. I was trying to set up the topic, but in “Made to Stick” the Heath brothers talk about “the curse of knowledge” — no matter how hard we try to look at something through the eyes of someone who might not know if, if we know it, we just can’t. I’d read the book 🙂 … I can’t pretend I don’t know what happens. BUT I can not tell you. and that what I tried to do. Let me know how I did. I want to improve!). And now I’m going to write another comment on a different subject. Foreigners who say they are being poisoned by locals.

      1. Kimberly Todd January 8, 2014

        I was actually surprised that you could say so much without spoiling something. You did well, Amy.

      2. Carolyn January 9, 2014

        I thought you did well, too… enough to set the stage, but not give away the plot.  Well done!

        1. Amy Young January 9, 2014

          Thanks Kim and Carolyn for the feedback!

  3. Meagan Stolk January 7, 2014

    I’m currently somewhere in the middle of the Walkers’ story. I have found the book an interesting read, been fascinated by the various characters within the novel and reflecting on situations and people I have interacted with while being abroad.

    I’ve only been in Cambodia for three years but have seen different sorts of people come and go. From the short term teams that is here to save this nation in 10 days (because obviously that’s all it takes) with no cultural understanding and skimpy clothes, to the preacher with jokes and examples that don’t translate, to the expert that has “all” the answers to this country’s problems, to the brothel busters with iPhones in hand ready to tweet every exciting detail and many more. Thankfully there are some really inspiring people that warm my heart as they give their heart to this country. Also, as I have come to know locals better and built relationships with them I admire their wisdom, hospitality and openness of heart.

    Once when I was with a small team visiting a provincial church, a team of 40 foreigners rolled up bundling off the bus with loud energy and enthusiasm. A family from this group asked to trail along with us as we did house calls to families in the village (as they had no translator). We didn’t want to appear rude so we allow them to join us. Big mistake! The waltzed up to people with their 7 step salvation plan that they memorised expecting our poor translator to preach and force these villages to accept Christ there and then. We tried to tell them that we wanted to just greet the families, show love, listen to their stories and invite them to the local Khmer Church where they could be ministered to in their own heart language by Cambodians in a threatening way. The family walked off in a huff searching for another translator to assist them in sharing their agenda. That team of 40 was meant to stay overnight with us in the village. However they vocalised their disgust with the food and sleeping arrangements and piled back on the bus to seek a hotel in the city.

    1. Amy Young January 7, 2014

      Meagan. Whoa girl! You have given us a lot to chew on and I’m grateful!! And I’m also sad. I have a feeling the group you are referencing came with the intention of doing good, but without the complimentary goal of learning/listening how “good” (in its broadest sense) — on a human and sp level could be achieved. It’s a good reminder to me, no matter my age, stage, level of comfort in a culture to stay teachable and humble.

      AND I’m glad you’re liking the book :). What questions are you dying to discuss with others?

  4. Jessica Hoover January 7, 2014

    Oh this is a subject that I come to the table with a lot of thoughts and experience with. Living in the developing world (particularly post-conflict Africa) you meet a lot of folks who are heart set on doing “good” and we worked with a lot of folks in West Africa who were trying to fix themselves by doing “good”.

    They were struggling with things in their past and hurt (much of which was from religious upbringings that were void of the Gospel) that they thought they could fix through the work they were doing. That opened opportunities to share truth, but also made it a struggle as we watched them self medicate with alcohol, promiscuity and other temporary bandages for the wounds.

    We found them to be one of our biggest fields of ministry, but also the hardest field to tend faithfully if that makes sense. For some of them it was the first time they had seen a marriage that was healthy and happy. One year we spent our Christmas with a group of expats and not a single one was a believer. It was strange and somehow VERY right. What better time to share Jesus?

    1. Amy Young January 8, 2014

      Jessica, I so appreciate you teasing this aspect of the expat life out. There was a season where God was calling me to reach out (read make breakfast for) to a group of recent college ex-pats. Well, I would have cooked my fanny off for those I thought I was called to (NOTE: not Americans). But the Father reminded me, I am to serve whomever he chooses :). And it turned out to be a rare privilege and an important life lesson!

  5. Christy J January 7, 2014

    I just started reading the book tonight. I’m intrigued and looking forward to reading the rest of the story. As this is the first time I’m joining the book discussions, I’m wondering if I should wait until I finish the book before joining the discussion in the next couple of weeks if I want to avoid spoilers?

    On the topic of working with people different from us, I’m learning a lot about that this year! I currently share a house with 3 other ladies who work at the same school I do. Our age range is from 24 to 51. We have vastly different backgrounds. Honestly there are some days where I just wish that there was someone around who understands where I am coming from. Even though we all are here with a similar purpose, I often feel like we see the world SO differently. But then…there are those times where God’s grace shines through all of that. A while ago I was going through a very difficult time and these three women surrounded me with love, prayers, and tremendous support. Those are the things that matter. I am so thankful that God can bring together a group of complete strangers who would never be friends in any other setting and bond them into a beautiful community.

    1. Amy Young January 8, 2014

      Christy … so glad to have you here!  The plan is to be done with the book by next week. But since we’re going to talk about it for two weeks, how about this, next week we will not discuss the very ending (we’ll save that for two weeks). If anyone gives away the ending, I’ll delete it. I’d love for you (and others) to still participate!

      And what a picture of the body your housing situation is — out of variety and a motley crew, beauty CAN come (not that it always does :))

      1. Christy J January 9, 2014

        OK, thanks. I’ll try to get as much read as I can by next week. I’m excited to get a chance to participate in a book club, I’ve been missing the one I was in while I lived in California.

  6. Lizzie Talcott January 7, 2014

    Oh so many thoughts to be had on this subject.  This will push me to be honest about the ideas/thoughts/opinions I hold and then evaluate them in the open light.  Because let’s face it, so often we judge silently and call it “keeping the peace.”  I read in a book once that, “politeness is deception in pretty packaging.”  This should be an adventure of honesty!

    1. Carolyn January 9, 2014

      I am definitely guilty of this… ouch!

  7. Jennifer January 8, 2014

    The challenging times when other people think that if you simply do not talk about it then it will just go away. When bringing it into the light is the last thing they want to do. When recognizing the problem, makes you the problem. When nothing you do or say is right. The challenging times when we simply walk one step at a time, do what we believe God wants us to do, say what we believe God wants us to say, even when on the surface at least it seems to make things worse instead of better. The times we need to keep our eyes fixed on the one who does know the end from the beginning, who sees what we do not see.

    1. Kimberly Todd January 8, 2014

      Thank you, thank you. This word has given me courage for this day.

  8. Mikkin Helvig January 8, 2014

    ooooooo….I’m more intrigued now.  I just picked the book up from the library yesterday.  Are we reading the whole book by next week or only the first half or other specific chapters?

    1. Amy Young January 8, 2014

      Well, the plan is to be done by next Tuesday Asia time/Monday (don’t know how to call it — North America) time. Hopefully you can get a good rhythm. How about this, we’ll not spoil the very end in case people haven’t finished it.

      1. Mikkin Helvig January 9, 2014

        Sounds good!  I just was thinking maybe we were going to do the first half on one day and the second half on another like we did spread out with the devotional.  Then I didn’t want to either not read enough and have something spoiled or read too much and not have the  suspense of the discussion.  I am sure I can finish by Tuesday/Monday. 🙂  It’s a novel….enjoyable to get lost in it…we had Thai soup for dinner last night (I think it’s because I had been reading the book in the afternoon)!

  9. Carolyn January 9, 2014

    I definitely got lost in it!  I spent yesterday afternoon letting dishes and kids go unheeded with my Kindle stuck to my face… I was a bit dubious about the content when I picked it up, but it turns out it’s a REALLY good read.  Extremely well-written, suspenseful, and SO informative about all these different perspectives on cross-cultural living!  I hope we talk about Mischa’s own perspective on cross-cultural living too, as well as the “m”s’ and the anthropologists’, since we’ve all probably come across “Mischas” who just hang out in a foreign country, living life and having a good time, but with no real vision for their lives.  I loved the profundity of the whole book and the thought-provoking ending… can’t wait to hear what you all think!

    1. Amy Young January 9, 2014

      Ah, this is helpful as I was going to craft the next post this afternoon or tomorrow!! And I can see why you might have been dubious :), but I’m so glad you gave it a chance. It’s the kind of book that helped me have a birds eye view. I felt like I could see some car crashes coming and wanted to yell, WHOA. Berlinski wrote in such a way I didn’t feel he overly talked down to anyone. Really appreciate that about him!

  10. Carolyn January 9, 2014

    P.S. We’re planning an annual family holiday in March and we just spent last week booking our tickets to Chiang Mai (there’s a conference we need to go to as well) – so I already had Thailand on the brain!  Perfect timing.  Now I can’t stand the fact that I still have 9 weeks of snow and ice to weather! 🙂

    1. Amy Young January 9, 2014

      I guess humming “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” wouldn’t be helpful 🙂

  11. Jenny January 9, 2014

    Such a great conversation and I love how it is brought up in the book! Other than my team I know very few expats in my country (it’s not a popular destination apparently or they just don’t stick out ;). I have been on a “team” by myself this fall so all of my interaction has been with nationals which has been really fun. Just this week a couple short-termers showed up, and a national joined our team, and I was reminded of all these tensions again (though thankfully the Americans have been here before so it’s not as pronounced as it could be and they want to learn). I’ve only been here 3 years myself and feel like there is still so much to learn so leading a blended team will be such a challenge!

  12. Patty S January 12, 2014

    Just read through all the thought provoking comments here and want to ponder them a bit more.   In a large expat community, it’s rather easy to just avoid persons who challenge your thinking – or your reason for being here.  But it’s shortsighted to think we are only here for those who fit our “target people group”.   Our Father doesn’t show favoritism.  Thanks, friends, for the reminder!  And Godspeed to those of you who live in places where you don’t get to pick and choose your community.  Teaming with people whom I didn’t choose have been some of the richest – and most challenging – relationships I’ve experienced on this side of the ocean.

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