Sometimes the greatest culture shock we experience comes from our interaction with other expats and teammates on the ground. We have just arrived, have a thousand questions, and don’t know where to start looking for a place to live. We know people from our host country will be different from us. But we expect (dangerous word, I know…) our fellow teammates to be more like us, to understand, to be there for us, to help us figure out our new life.
But for many reasons, sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. Our teammates might be exhausted from their first term living overseas, the intense demands of their ministry plus the care of their home keeps them focused on those things, and sometimes even differences in personality plays a role. Veterans in the group might forget what it is like to be new.
Not everyone welcomes new people the same way. And yet the way we say hello can greatly impact their experience of settling into a new culture and their desire to stay. Our family has experienced both kinds of welcomes in different countries and I can see the difference both made in our lives.
Depending on each person and situation, the first year overseas may be very hard. It is good when we don’t assume we know what people need but actually ask.
During my first year in two different places the hardest thing for me was to feel unseen. To feel like the people around me were hard to get to know. That the knowing and being known was just not happening.
Here are my two cents for both groups saying hello: those on the ground and those arriving.
For those who are on the ground:
- As a team discuss what welcoming others will look like. Will there be a landing coach ready to pick up from the airport? Who will answer specific questions regarding housing, internet, phone, etc?
- Discuss expectations with the new teammate (s) before they arrive. What kind of support will they need or want? Have they lived overseas before? Be specific in what you can offer and what you can’t. Will your team act as support system to new teammates? Also, if you have a multicultural team, make sure you discuss cultural differences at play. Someone coming from a Hispanic country may have expectations about life in community that are very different from someone from the US. (Ask me how I know this.)
- Reach out regularly to know how the new teammates are holding up once they land. A text letting them know you are praying or an invite for coffee might mean the world on a hard, culture shock kind of day.
- Don’t only worry about practical needs but also make sure they are doing ok emotionally/spiritually. Extra touches can be helpful even if they are not absolutely necessary. The first time we landed in the Middle East a sister from the church had left fun things in our apartment for the kids. That wasn’t necessary but it was oh so good for all of us, to know someone had been thinking ahead about our children.
If you are on the ground – pray that Jesus would love and see and know your new teammates through you.
For those who are arriving:
You may not know it but you are bringing with you expectations regarding teammates or other expats on the ground. Sometimes those expectations are shaped by your upbringing, the kind of life in community you had in your passport country and previous experiences. Those expectations shape so much of your experience in your new country.
To help shape some of your expectations, it might be helpful to engage in conversations with the team before you arrive. You will still have them once you land. But talking it out before hand is still very valuable. Don’t assume your team has talked about these things among themselves:
- What does life in community look like? Where should I expect my support system to come from? (Make sure you define what support system means to you).
- What kind of help are you able to give once I land?
- Does the team work together toward common goals or does it function more independently from each other?
Once you land don’t wait for others to welcome you or initiate a friendship. You are secure in Christ. That security enables you to be the first one to reach out, to be vulnerable, to love others when you are not feeling loved in the ways you prefer. Text, invite, open up. Be patient. This work will bear fruit. It may take a while… but it will!
Being new on the field might reveal your heart in surprising (and ugly) ways. The old man may rear his head as you settle and interact with people on your team or expats near you. Unmet expectations, loneliness and not being known may provide opportunity for you to be bitter, jealous, or fearful of men. Again, ask me how I know this. But rest in this, friend – that the righteousness of Christ is truly yours. In Christ – your old man is dead. You are new.
As we say hello and experience all the newness around us we have the best gift: we exist inside the unchanging Christ. He is our one permanent circumstance. Our oneness with Him enables us to face new friends, new country, and old and new temptations, covered in His righteousness and empowered by His love.