South Asia. Nearby mountains. Cold.
At our community’s Christmas gathering, our Fijian friend wrapped chicken in banana leaves, then roasted it in the ground while his wife made fresh bread and prepared for the guests. Around a huge bonfire in their yard, we all ate and sang the evening away while our children played together. The UK, USA, Finland, Australia, Germany, Brazil, and several other countries were represented in the dishes we shared at this outdoor Christmas potluck. The next afternoon, we threw a Christmas party/ birthday gathering for our daughter and enjoyed everyone being in our home. The electricity went off in the middle of the party and stayed off for hours, but since that happened everyday, we turned on camping lanterns as usual and carried on with the festivities. Someone had been able to charge his laptop while the power was on, so we projected a movie on the wall then passed around blankets and popcorn. The next evening we enjoyed prayer and Christmas carols by candlelight at our neighbor’s house.
Our Christmas week in South Asia usually went something like that. It was an amazing week of celebration when we took time to be together in simple ways, remembering that in Jesus, God came near in the flesh. Near is a good word because we all loved each other deeply and shared a unique fellowship I have rarely known before or since that time. Those kinds of relationships take a long time to develop. While nothing was ever perfect, it felt really close sometimes. It was a wonderful season of our lives and while we still love each other deeply, that season is over. Many of us have moved to new countries. Our kids have grown some. The needs and life situations of each family have changed.
Transition into new seasons of life happens to everyone, everywhere. It isn’t unique to international workers. But our expat lives tend to bring acute, frequent reminders that change is always happening– that our forever home is nowhere to be found in this world. Reminders of this truth are both blessings and challenges.
The tendency, at least for me over the past three Christmases, has been to hold on to what near meant in South Asia– all of the people, places, and life circumstances that came to feel like home. Last Christmas I definitely enjoyed my new surroundings, tried to be present with family and friends, and made the most of it. However, part of me was deeply sad because I grieved the former season of my life. I craved belonging, being known, and community. Near is not achieved overnight, or even over a few months. I think that is okay, because having known what it meant to me once, I’ll know when it starts happening again. This year I am not afraid because I know it can happen again. It can happen in a way that is right for my new season of life.
Southeast Asia. Nearby mountains. Intense heat and humidity.
I still miss everyone from my last country (that’s okay by the way), but at the one year mark in our new country, I sense the beginning of new relationships and traditions. It feels hopeful. Our second Christmas here feels a little more settled.
A few days ago, a friend invited my daughter and me over to make crafts with her family and to play with newly hatched chicks. I had dinner with the other ladies on my team two nights ago and it wasn’t as hard to know what to talk about as it was last year. The school friends at my daughter’s birthday party last week were simply called friends instead of new friends. We’re looking forward to fun family activities on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because we know how to plan more than we did last year. Both yesterday and today, neighbors were inside our house for a little while, talking and playing games. Our daughter and her neighborhood friend are making plans to play together every afternoon during Christmas Break. Business owners in our small community know who we are now, so we’ve given and received gifts with each other. Our cats are smacking ornaments off the same tree as last year, but have grown a little calmer as not to knock the whole thing over…yet. We like our routine. Daily life and relationships have grown familiar, though we have much to learn.
Still, outside of our family, there is no near. At least not yet. But it’s getting closer and we feel it. For us, near is a beautiful process that unfolds over time. Our hearts grow to love new people, places, and traditions. Slowly they become more familiar. Eventually we will have feelings of home. When we leave, the love we feel for everyone and everything in Southeast Asia will probably be irrevocable, as it is for everyone we love in our former country. I’m so glad God is preparing a place where I will be home forever with all the people I love.
In the past, new seasons of our lives became home faster than we were able to perceive, until something happened to reveal our hearts– that we’d become more attached than we realized. It is encouraging to feel the beginning of that in this country.
Dear International Worker, I’ve shared this with you today because there is a strong possibility that like me, you are in a place or season of life that doesn’t feel near yet. While it may be a good situation, it may feel more new than familiar. I want you to know it’s okay to feel like this. It’s normal. If you miss former things, it is not necessarily bad. It means in your former season of life you knew something good and real. Because you know what near feels like, you will know when it starts happening again for you. It will not be perfect of course, but it can be good.
I hope that even if you feel afraid or sad, you will also be open to finding goodness in the culture, people, and life circumstances that surround you right now. The important things from your former season are still with you. You can cherish them while being fully present to experience new things that are taking root and growing right in front of you. That we would know this and be able to live well in the knowledge, is my prayer for you and for myself this Christmas season.
Thanks for reading!