Some cross cultural living environments are quite obviously high stress and would be to just about anyone- foreigner or not. Our time living in Lebanon is a good example of this, especially from around 2005-2008. This was a season of frequent political assassinations, bombs and other threats to various targets around the city. Although we were very secure in God's calling on our lives as a family to be in that place, at that time, there was still a certain degree of daily stress that we had to accept in order to live and function there. We never felt that our family's safety was threatened in any way, but you often don't realize just how stressed you are on a daily basis until you are removed from the situation. I remember vividly, being on vacation in the states sometime during this time frame. I was in the shower and a car back-fired outside. I jumped and immediately began the mental process of wondering where each family member and friend was at that moment. It took a few seconds for me to realize and remember that considering I was in suburban America, there was likely not a bomb on my parent's street. (a shooting, a robbery, maybe, this was after all in Memphis, but a bomb- not likely)
Another example from the same US trip came with a typical summer thunderstorm. My girls really hadn't experienced the displays of thunder and lightening that can come along with a storm, southern style. One of them came running to the back of the house after some particularly loud cracks of thunder, wondering if I was at all concerned about the "bombs" outside. We had a little lesson about weather in the US and all was well.
We've traded the high stress environment of Beirut for the "slow simmer" type of stress found in Jordan. Although the political environment here is mostly stable and the headliner scenarios that cause friends and family back in the states to occasionally question our sanity are much more few and far between, we still live in a very different cultural setting and I guess, the whole frog in the pot of gradually boiling water comparison, could be even more dangerous. On the outside, this is a very modern city with shopping malls, well known restaurants, a decent infrastructure when it comes to city lay-out and traffic patterns etc etc. But on the INSIDE, well it's just not as progressive as you might think. So just when you begin to think, wow, I've really adjusted well here, you better look out, because you never know when a massive case of culture shock is going to hit you right between the eyes at the most unexpected moment.
Here's my story...
The girls and I were heading to the airport to pick up Jason. It was a happy day. Daddy was on his way home, we were leaving for vacation in a few days, loose ends were tied up at the house, we were ready for a relaxing weekend. Me? Stressed? No!! We headed out to the airport, a very familiar route. I typically time our airport runs so that we arrive at the airport a little after the plane was scheduled to land as it usually takes a good 30 minutes to get through customs. Anyway, a very few minutes from home, at one of the traffic circles that is infamous for horrible traffic, there were a few cops on the circle directing traffic. Sadly, they weren't letting cars merge onto the bridge that we needed to get on in order to go to the airport and were diverting traffic through a neighborhood that I was unfamiliar with and I knew to be full of one-way streets that I didn't want to mess with navigating. You could apparently get on the bridge from numerous other directions, just not this little portion of road (25 yards maybe?). The exact same scenario had happened a week before when I was taking my parents to the airport, and I had asked the traffic cop to let me go towards the airport and he very graciously moved the barrier and let me go. (causing me to wonder if there was actually any purpose in blocking this portion of the role besides that they were bored... I think not).
So I pulled up to the barrier and asked Mr. Traffic Cop if I could go towards the airport. (this was all in Arabic by the way). He said no, and proceeded to explain how I could detour through the neighborhood and come out on the other side and get to the bridge. I tried. 2 minutes later I was back in the same spot. Either his directions didn't work or I didn't quite understand them. Just for fun, let's blame him. I asked him to clarify his directions and he repeated them (this time telling me something completely different- see? his fault...) and I tried again. Once again, I ended up going in a very convoluted circle and ended up right back where I started. Just so you can most effectively picture this situation. It's rush hour. There is A LOT of traffic. NO ONE is happy with the foreign woman in the massive van who keeps stopping to ask for directions. So this time, I pulled over to the side, got out of the van and walked over to the cop. His buddy had come over by this time and between the two of them, they gave me directions in Arabic and English of how I could navigate through the neighborhoods, ultimately go under the bridge and come out on the other side of the bridge where I then could merge going in the correct direction (as opposed to scooting over his little barrier that was blocking the VERY short section of road that he was determined not to let me drive down). So, being the good sport that I am, I tried again. This time I was able to make it through the neighborhood, under the bridge to the other side, but I missed the turn onto the bridge and ended up right back at my good friend the traffic cop. Great. By this point, about 20 minutes have gone by (and we are MAYBE 3 minutes from our house with about 40 left to go to get to the airport...).
Ok, so now things are about to get ugly. I could feel the tears coming on. And these weren't just, I'm going to make myself cry so the cop will give me my way crocodile tears.... These were extremely real, I'm about to be bawling like a baby and scrunching my face in all sorts of weird ways tears. So once again, I pulled up to the cop and attempted to explain to him what was happening. I'm late to the airport, I am not understanding your directions, just last week your fellow traffic cop friend moved the "blankety blank" barrier for me, would you please have a heart and LET ME THROUGH!?!?!?!?!? AT this point, he gives me the Arab click and raise of the eyebrows which means "absolutely not" and he turned away and started to walk away. His friend even grabbed his arm and basically said to him that he should move the barrier and he clicks again. Cue the tears. So then I start bawling the really ugly kind of tears. Abbey is rubbing my back telling me it's going to be ok, Maddie and Naomi are staring at me with kind of the deer in the headlights what in the world is happening to my mom kind of look and Anabelle is about to start crying too. Remember, I am not pulled over to the side of the road at this point. I am totally blocking traffic and causing a fairly decent scene. But dude is not budging.
Y'all. It scares me to think how tempted I was to get out of the car and move the barrier myself. I really almost did that!! I think I even said to the girls in the midst of crying that I was going to do that. What would have happened?! I don't really know but it wouldn't have been pretty. Well thankfully, I didn't. I composed myself most likely thanks to the prayers of my eldest who was still rubbing my arm and by this time praying out loud- I think something along the lines of "Jesus, please help my mom come back in place of crazy psycho lady...". I'm kidding, she was actually praying very maturely for the whole situation, and as He does, God answered. We tried the convoluted neighborhood route one last time and this time merged effectively on to the bridge amidst many cheers from the peanut gallery, otherwise known as my daughters.
End of story, right? Wrong! I couldn't stop crying! I mean I was bawling, totally out of control sobbing. It was pretty ridiculous. And, in that moment, I could not begin to verbalize just what exactly was wrong. We continued toward the airport and about 5 minutes later, I got flagged down by another cop. I'm not even kidding. Well, the tears had not even begun to stop. The girls are staring at me like, oh my word, this is going to be really bad. Thankfully this cop was super nice. I'm sure he thought I was crying because I got pulled over. (he said that I completely ran a red light, by the way. I'm pretty sure I didn't but given my current state, who knows). I attempted to explain to him how mean his co-worker had just been to me which made me look even more crazy, I'm quite certain, but at least he let me continue on without a ticket (that makes 3 that I've cried my way out of in my life, by the way- this one wasn't on purpose though....).
I did eventually get control of myself (although when we picked up Jason at the airport and I had to repeat the story for him, I lost it all over again), and once I was in a better place (emotionally), I had to ask myself WHY I had lost it so completely and totally over such a seemingly small thing. I don't know that I could site one specific factor. I think it was really a combination of things: the gradual build up of the stress of living and functioning in a foreign culture, the inability to truly communicate what I am trying to say especially in a stressful situation, my extreme frustration with being treated poorly because I was a foreign women (this may or may not be the case but in this situation, my intuition told me this is what was going on and that was very frustrating). Anyway, there is a long list of possibilities. I think for me, in that situation, language was the biggy.
I have a decent amount of Arabic, but especially when I am stressed it just really won't come out. It's so frustrating to not be able to express adequately what is in your heart, and, even worse, to just feel so very dumb because of your lack of ability to communicate. Learning language proficiently is such a huge part of living effectively within a foreign culture. No matter how many people around you communicate in English, there will be countless times when those people are no where to be found and even if there was someone who could supposedly "speak English", they still might not understand the heart of what you are saying. Bottom line- I was way frustrated by my lack of Arabic and how tongue tied I became in an emotional situation. In those moments of tears and stress, I found myself questioning how in the world I would ever become an effective communicator of important heart issues when I couldn't even get through a minor traffic issues. Obviously, there was more to it than that, but that is the story I was telling myself in the moment, even though it took me a few days to step back and figure out the source of my tears.
Not that I should be surprised, but over the next few days, God used another unrelated situation to encourage me and remind me that He is in the details, He cares about the small stuff that concerns me and He is so faithful to encourage me in just the way that I need.
As part of the process of moving to a new school in this country, the girls' "file" (essentially their school records) from their old school must be picked up (from the old school), taken to the correct division of the Ministry of Education, stamped and signed and then delivered to the new school. Well, I had accomplished the first part of this task and had been carrying the files around in the car for several weeks. My problem (besides a basic lack of time to complete this task) was that all I knew about the correct division of the Ministry of Education was the name of the suburb in which it was located. I knew nothing about this decently large suburb of Amman except that at one of the roundabouts there is a statue of a coffee urn as this is the landmark that I used when taking Maddie to a birthday party about a year ago. Add to that, the fact that directions to specific locations in this part of the world are not exactly easy to come by. They typically don't use street names or maps but rely on landmarks and word of mouth to get from one place to another.
So, a few weeks ago, after receiving multiple calls from the new school wondering when in the world I was going to take care of getting the files signed and stamped, I found myself with a free-ish morning and realized I really needed to get this thing done. Jason and I agreed that it would be strategic to take Anabelle with me as these government offices can be extremely frustrated. Think mobs of people trying to get official work done, no lines, no order, no English. What could it hurt to have my cute little American blonde (by Arab standards) baby with me? All of this is assuming that I could even find the government office to begin with?!
So here are the facts:
- I had to get these papers signed and stamped at an unknown location to me and I needed to do it yesterday.
- I had proven myself to be less than efficient quite recently in communicating in Arabic on the subject of directions.
- I knew that I needed a victory in the area of language and in the area of checking something off of my to-do list in an efficient manner.
Now, before you think I'm crazy for heading out on this mission with so little information and so great a potential for frustration, here's what I've learned from 10+ years of overseas living....
- There are inconvenient and annoying things that you have to do as part of cross-cultural living and if you embrace those things with a good attitude and trust God with the results, it CAN be very encouraging (the opposite is unfortunately also true and can result in increased whining and complaining)
- Each new task can be an adventure and there are endless opportunities for life lessons along the way if you look at it in that light
- Check your pride at the door. Just forget it. Fully embrace the fact that you know nothing as the foreigner and are completely reliant on the hospitality of those around you.
- Know that there is nothing you can accomplish in your own strength, remember that God is in ALL of the details and remember to surrender those details to him on a daily basis.
So off we go on our little mission to get the papers signed (and to hopefully renew my love for the culture in which I live and my ability to function within it). You guys, I was so amazed (why are we always amazed?) by the way in which God showed up in this little thing.
I said a prayer, got in the car and headed to this suburb pretty far off of my beaten path. I went to the only landmark in the area that I knew (the traffic circle with the coffee urn) and asked the first traffic cop that I saw for directions to the Ministry of Education. Would you believe it was about 50 yards away from me on the left hand side of the same street I was on (something I could fully understand in Arabic!). We parked, went in and a nice man (who first did his duty of yanking Anabelle's thumb out of her mouth and lecturing me on the horrors of thumb-sucking), escorted us through the crowd, straight to someone who spoke English, stamped my papers and handed them back literally within 5 minutes. Aside from the whole thumb yanking incident, I might have thought that I met an angel sent to help me in that government office.... ( Maybe an angel who fully embraced the culture he was assigned to, thus the thumb yanking.... ).
Anyway, that was a long story for a fairly simple point. Cross cultural living can be exhausting, humbling, heart-wrenching, but so amazingly rewarding when you fully submit each day to God and trust him with the details: knowing that He knows even more than you do exactly when you really need a victory- no matter how small it is in the grand scheme of things. He will give that victory, pick you up, dust you off, and enable you to go about the tasks that are of much greater importance. Trust him with the dailyness of your life and rejoice in the simple answered prayers.
Thank Him for the victory that only He knew how much you really needed.