Last week, we were running a few errands around town when it occurred to me that I’ve been traveling, living and volunteering overseas for several months out of the year, almost every year for the last decade! If the Whitney from ten years ago walked up to me right now, I’m fairly certain I might not even know who she was. There’s no doubt about it- living overseas changes you. If you’ve spent time abroad, I’m sure you can relate! And if you are planning to spend extended time overseas, I’m excited for you. It’s one of the most incredible experiences, and you’ll never look at yourself or others quite the same.
After reflecting on these last ten years, I thought I’d break down what I feel are the five biggest ways I know I’ve been changed forever.
- My idea of the world is a whole lot bigger, and a whole lot smaller at the same time.
Doing life in a culture that isn’t your own can really make you rethink a lot of the things you thought you knew and believed about people and the world in general. Being invited into someone’s home for a meal, listening to stories about a friend’s childhood, celebrating their national holidays, praying and worshipping in local churches and mourning with a neighbor over the loss of a loved one… When you’ve had experiences like that, it changes many of the things you thought you knew. You find out that a lot of the well meaning people in your life were wrong in what they told you about “them”. You realize that maybe you had some prejudices and unfair opinions you didn’t even realize were there, and you apologize for your ignorance. You find out you were way more arrogant than you knew, and that the way people do things back home isn’t always better. You begin to see the value in listening as opposed to always having to speak. You stop offering your opinion and begin trying to understand why others think and operate the way they do. And when you do this, you begin to learn! You learn a lot. The world opens up, and with each new place you travel, your hunger to learn grows. You realize how small you really are, and how big the world truly is. At the same time… it suddenly feels so much smaller. You see how much people everywhere are all the same. We were all created with a desire to be known. To be heard. To be given a chance and an opportunity to become something great. We all have hopes and dreams for our futures, and for our children. You start to realize how we are connected in ways you never noticed before. There’s no going back to the world you once knew.
- I no longer think I’m “brave”.
People used to tell me a lot how “brave” I was, especially when I was a single college kid traveling by myself (these were usually people I met randomly on layovers at the airport or somewhere. I doubt anyone who really knows me would list “brave” as a word to define me!) I think that maybe in my immaturity, that went to my head a little bit. And I started to think a little more of myself than I should have. Looking back, some of the things I did weren’t brave, they were stupid. Honestly, I don’t think I want to know how many situations I put myself in that could have had a horrible ending had God not intervened. If I could offer a bit of advice- don’t let the excitement and adrenaline of experiencing new places fog your discernment. And keep in mind that no one really wants to be around someone who thinks more of themselves than they should. With an attitude like that, I can see how it was hard for me to develop the kinds of friendships and relationships that I’ve been able to experience now, and I really regret not recognizing my fault in this area sooner.I still know people who don’t think they could uproot their lives and their kids to move to places that are so foreign to them. They think we’re “brave” and they tell us so. If they only knew! So many moments through out the day, I feel like a little kid who doesn’t know anything. When you live in a new culture, you are constantly having to relearn how to do everything. Here in Kenya, I’m having to learn how to drive all over again. Shopping is a new experience. How I interact with people is very different. I’m always worried I’m going to offend someone by what I say or do or wear. I’m not always sure what someone is trying to say to me (especially if it’s in Swahili). And the reality is, living in a constant place of vulnerability can be really scary! So while I may be a lot of things, brave is not usually one of them. But you know what? I’m ok with that now. If I could choose how people would define me now, I’d rather it be obedient and teachable. I’m trying to embrace the place God has our family, the place we’ve grown to love, despite the moments where I feel so out of my comfort zone. I’m trying to fully engage with the people around me and love them with my whole heart, even though I might not always know what their intentions are, or what they really think about me.
- Home is no longer a place.
I don’t really feel like I know where home is anymore. It starts to get to a point where when you go back home, nothing feels just right or like you remembered it. And the people you used to be close to will never fully understand this new part of your life. It can be lonely. But when you go back to your host country, you realize that you will forever be the “foreigner” in most people’s eyes. We have incredible friends and have had some wonderful experiences, but no matter how long we stay here, we will never be “Kenyan”. Learning to be ok with never fully fitting into either place is a process. I now define the word home as “wherever I am with my little tribe”. And we’ve realized over the last four years and nine months of marriage that we can make a home anywhere, so long as we have each other (and a coffee pot).If you live overseas, you will likely struggle with the lack of permanence and stability that comes with being in a country that isn’t your own. I’d never thought about all the things that were my rights as a citizen and how those affected my every day life- you can come and go as you please, you don’t have to visit government offices and get sent around like a ping pong ball for a simple signature or for the answer to a question. You can buy land, a house, a vehicle… but when you live abroad, everything becomes more complicated. And those issues are always at the back of your mind.
- I don’t need everyone to understand.
Ready for a hard reality? When people ask about whatever it is you are doing overseas, most of the time, they are just asking to be polite. They want you to reply “Oh, things are going good!” and then move on with the conversation. They aren’t prepared for a long, detailed and passionate response (which is what I used to offer). You will most likely come home dramatically changed by the things you’ve experienced and the people you’ve met, and it will seem like no one really cares (at least at the level you were expecting them to). It will hurt. I know it took me a long time to get over that. I wanted people to want to understand, to want to be more involved, to be as interested as I was. But most of my friends and family had no context for the things I was talking about, just like I had no context or real interest before it affected my own life in such a personal way. It was unfair of me to expect anything from them. These days, I know that just because someone doesn’t respond with the same level of enthusiasm as I have doesn’t mean that they’re rude, that they don’t love me, or that they don’t appreciate the things we’re devoting our time to. It’s just not their passion. And that’s ok. When someone asks, I’ll usually respond with something like, “Things are going great, thanks for asking! Let me know if you wanna grab coffee and I can tell you more about it.” And if they never take me up on the coffee, I don’t let myself take it personally anymore.
- It’s not my job to fix people.
There is so much freedom in this. But it can also be a very hard pill for many of us to swallow. Especially when operating from a western frame of mind when we’ve been bred to believe that it’s our job to save the world. This comes from a genuinely well intentioned place, but I think more often than not, we’ve been a bit mislead. I don’t believe it’s my job to fix anyone anymore. I used to. But I don’t anymore. I strongly feel that we were never created to be someone else’s savior, rescuer, answer or way out. And when we try to fulfill these roles, we usually end up making everything more complicated and doing more harm than we ever intended. Too many times we rob someone of the pride and joy that comes in learning something new or solving a problem themselves because we want things to happen on our time frame and in the way we see as best. We have to stop buying into the idea that because our paycheck is bigger, our skin color is different, our neighborhood is safer, we’re more religious, or we’re more educated, that it is our job to tell the rest of the world what’s wrong in their lives and what they should do to fix it. Keep in mind- there’s a difference between helping someone and then trying to fix them. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to bring hope into whatever difficult situations the people we meet are facing. And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t ever become involved. Over time, I’ve learned that not everyone wants or even needs to be saved from whatever struggle I’ve perceived them to be facing. I’ve learned that many of the things I once saw as “problems” in someone’s life weren’t actually real problems. Sometimes it was just how the culture they operated in did things. Sometimes it just wasn’t the way I had seen things done before and it made me uncomfortable. When you live abroad, you will meet all sorts of people. And if you can learn to listen, you’ll quickly go from pitying many of them, to having a great deal of respect and admiration for them. I’ve realized that some of the poorest people in the world happen to also be the richest, and I don’t feel sorry for them anymore in the way I once did. They’ve taught me a lot, and I am grateful for that. People don’t want to be someone else’s charity case- they want to be valued. When possible, they want to solve their own problems. They want to be able to hold their heads with dignity and receive the respect they deserve. They want someone to ask their name, to listen to their story, and to actually care about them as a person. I believe my job, or maybe a better word is my calling, is to love the people that come across my path the best way I can in that moment (and in a lot of situations, this means not giving money, advice, or solutions at all). What if we focused more on empowering others as opposed to swooping in to save the day and magically fixing everything? When this shift came in my mindset, people weren’t “projects” anymore. They had become real. They had feelings, names, families, stories, and struggles just like you and me. And I was able to be real with them in return. Funny thing is, I feel like I’ve been able to be there for people more in ways I never could when I was trying to force my way into their lives. When there is relationship, you are invited in; you don’t have to tear down the door. Because we are friends, they will occasionally come to me with a problem, to ask for help, or for advice. And I couldn’t take that as more of an honor and a compliment.
So there you have it. I definitely don’t have this whole lifestyle figured out, but I hope in another ten years I can look back and say I’ve continued to learn and grow even more.