“It is your birthday. You are bringing us this cake?”
“Yes. Because I lived in South Asia for a long while. On birthdays there, it is common to give candy or small gifts to friends on your birthday. I did it for seven years there, and it became part of my birthday tradition. I’m not sure where the tradition came from in South Asia, but I’ve adopted it because I like it.”
“Oh. Okay. Fun. So this is culture.”
“Yes—of that country and of me.”
On my birthday I bought a small cake for my language teachers to share on their lunch break. While this is different from their own tradition, they enjoyed it. For several friends in my community, I bought blooming flower tea balls from my favorite tea shop. My husband took me to lunch there because he knew there were several menu items similar to the food featured in a cooking competition I enjoy watching on TV.
I delivered the gifts later in the day and spent a little time talking with these people in my life. It’s a good way to celebrate the connections, love, and relationships God has brought to me. I also find it deeply rewarding to see the encouragement that personal, thoughtful attention brings to others. For the past year, I’ve been living in a new country, so I took gifts to several ladies I spend time with in my daily routine. I’m happy to be getting to know them.
I’ve chosen this story for the Dear International Worker category because I truly appreciate the countless ways my expat life experience has changed me. Every person, culture, and people group I’ve shared a bit of life with has left a mark. It feels like a collection of tattoos on my soul, each one unfolding into the next, telling the story of my relationships around the world— how my friends and I have changed because of our time together. If I could see it, I think all the tattoos would come together in a vividly colored pictorial history, showing my life and others’ intertwining in God’s story of this world.
Not all of my experiences have been good. Some have been terrible in fact, but I’m thankful for the growth and learning that resulted. Each time my heart has been broken, it felt hope again when I discovered there were people who would love me and walk with me when I had nothing left to give. I’m thankful for healing and opportunities to give grace and help to others.
As international workers, we constantly encounter what is different and new to us when it comes to cultures, perspectives, traditions, etc. Sometimes we fall in love with certain traditions of our host countries and adopt them. Sometimes we create hybrid concepts, combining the best things of our passport and host cultures, as my family did in South Asia. We took aspects of an Autumn holiday in South Asia and mixed them with what we love about Autumn in our own culture. Our family ended up with a fun, interesting hybrid holiday we looked forward to celebrating together every October. Occasionally, we invited other people into this creative celebration and made some amazing, meaningful memories. I will tell this story a little later 🙂
There are also times when relationships with people in my host countries have highlighted thoughts or traditions in my life that I am forced to reconsider. This can be uncomfortable, especially when it involves ideals deeply rooted in Western culture. Sometimes I choose to leave these behind so that I am freer to know God more, love other people better, and embrace who I am in Christ more fully.
But the good news is, whether my expat life is feeling comfortable in the moment or not, I am free to change in ways that better reflect my Creator. So are you.
Dear International Worker, for all of the challenges our expat lifestyles bring, there are also blessings. There are ways you will inevitably change just from the experience of living abroad, but there are deeper ways you can allow yourself to change. You will be free to better reflect your Creator than ever before; to experience Him in ways you would have never considered apart from life in your host country. I’ve found that time and shared experiences with people in my host country can bring positive change if I am unafraid to lean into life, even when God uses it to reveal sin and ugliness in me. At the beginning of my expat journey I somewhat expected this, because I knew God would continue changing me in struggles with sin. What I didn’t see coming was the freedom to enjoy parts of my life and personality I’ve been too timid to embrace in the past. Growing into that continues to feel amazing.
We are free to change.
When we first see the necessity for big changes in ourselves, it can feel daunting. But over time, it can be treasured for the gift it is— especially when taken as a gradual process that involves forgiveness, grace, and patience.
I have a few more stories and thoughts about change and the expat life I want to share in the coming weeks.
Thanks for reading!
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