Thursday, June 26, 2014

Advice for the family and friends of a returning expat

 A few weeks ago I posted some advice for expats who are either returning home for their summer holiday or returning home permanently.  Living overseas for over 6 years has taught me a lot about how to deal with reverse culture-shock and with family and friends back home.  If I may be so bold, I also want to give some tips for the families and friends of these individuals.  Seeing the way people back home interact with me has taught me a lot of what I really appreciate about people when I go back home. 

1.  Ask a ton of questions.  The initial temptation is to just pick up from where you left off as soon as you see them.  You might ask how their flight home was or how the year was, but you are eager to get back to normal.  However, while things may have been business as usual in your area, their life has probably been turned upside down.  Like riding a tidal wave, your loved one went through the thrill, terror and adjustment of adapting to a new country.  No, you probably don't really know what their experience is like, which is why you need to ask.  You may not get a full picture of their life, but I'm sure that he or she will completely appreciate and love that you are making an effort.  And this will also benefit your relationship, because you will understand a different part of his life.  Ask about what it was like the first couple weeks, ask who he made friends with, where did they travel to, what pictures can she show you, what was the church or local religion like, how has his or her perspective changed on that country or his home country, etc.  I'm sure your expat will be able to provide you with a variety of answers.

2.  Share your l
ife.  Yes, it may seem like your life has not changed very much with the passing of a year or two, but he or she is probably excited and interested to hear all about them.  They want to feel integrated, and it can be a bit disconcerting trying to live life in two different worlds, so try to catch him or her up on everything that has been going on.  Even the little things like funny stories, interesting news, aspects of life that have been hard while he has
been gone, and introducing him to friends you have made are all important to your loved one who is spending some time back home.  This requires a level of intimacy, and this can become increasingly difficult as the years go on, which is why it is critically important to make those efforts to your friend or family member who has been gone a while.  He or she loves you just as much, if not more, even though he has been away for a while, so make sure you communicate that back by sharing your life.

3.  Make the first move.  Remember, your son/daughter/mom/best friend has been away for a long time, so it may be difficult to make the first move.  I often feel a little guilty just calling up old friends after I haven't talked to them in nine or ten months, because I feel like I did a lousy job keeping up with the people back home.  Because of this, you need to make that extra effort to keep your favorite returned foreigner feel like he or she is still loved, appreciated and thought about.  One of my good friends sent me an email a week or two before I returned home and asked me when I was returning.  After replying they said that they wanted to get together a few days after I returned home.  I totally appreciated this because I felt invited back into their lives and am clearly apart of his thoughts.  Your expat on vacation will also feel this love and appreciation. Because locations, businesses, and other information may have changed in the length of time he or she has been gone, in addition to the expat not necessarily having a "home" base, you are now the expert.

4.  Open up your home.  Yes, this seems like a lot.  For myself and many other expats at home, we live usually with our families.  By God's grace, both my parents and my in-laws have a spare bedroom that we can use freely, which is great.  However, not everyone has that luxury.  Some people have strained relationships with their families back home or maybe there is simply not enough room in the house for any more people.  Even for those who are comfortably living back home with their families, it is nice to occasionally change up the location, because it may give a little more privacy than being with family all the time.  Also, if you live in a different area than the expat's family, it would allow them a chance to travel to visit you and see a different location.  I've always appreciated the offers from my friends to stay at their place, even if I don't usually take them up on it.  

5.  Be available.  This is another difficult one.  While you or your family may be working or have a lot of plans in the summer, it is important to try to be available to spend time with people who are visiting.  They may only have a month or two, they have traveled a long way to get there, and it goes by really quickly.  This can often take a little bit of forward thinking, to find out when he or she will be  in your area, and make a plan to get together even if it's for a day or two a month later.  This can also be extended to vacations.  If you are planning a vacation with some friends and family, it would probably be nice to invite him or her to go with you.  I have some really good friends back home that are actually pretty busy in the summertime, but they are usually the first people to try to plan a weekend or a couple days together.  They have wisdom in booking something in advance with us because they know their summer will quickly fill up if they don't try to plan something with us, and I am grateful for them.  If you can, try to be available even during the week, because the weekdays can seem extra long when one spends them by herself. You can do something as simple as having your returned friend or family member pick up a pizza on their way to your house or meet for coffee.

I hope these hints will be helpful for you and the expat you get to spend time with this summer- or at any time of the year. Good relationships don't just happen, but we have to be intentional to cultivate them.

Monday, June 16, 2014

God is a Life-sustaining Scorching Fire

A few months ago I went to the Maldives with my wife for a week.  Needless to say, it was everything we could imagine; azure waters, amazing snorkeling and underwater life, palm trees swaying a few meters away from the shore and clear skies.  I never really saw anything like it and was so happy with the memories we made while there.

One event that was interesting was during our second day of the trip.  We decided to take a boat out to another local island and spend the day snorkeling and soaking up the sun.  It was a clear day and not too hot, allowing for a lot of fun playing in the water and relaxing. 

We lathered up sun-screen in order to keep our white, European skin from being burned.  We also went back a couple times throughout the day to reapply.  However, after snorkeling and enjoying the sun for several hours, we were unable to escape the power of the sun.  We didn't realize it at the time, but we were both significantly burnt by the end of the trip.  I did more snorkeling, so most of my backside was burned, along with my receding hairline.  My wife was more generally burned all over.  It was bad enough that we had to spend most of that evening and the next day inside or out of the sun because we didn't want to do any further damage to ourselves. 

I think this is so fascinating because the sun gives life to our planet.  It's rays warm the Earth, provides fuel for plants, allows for the water cycle and has many other life-giving usages.  Without the sun, no life could exist, and if the sun disappeared tomorrow, we would not be able to survive long.  Beyond that, the sun gives a lot of emotional life and health.  If my wife or I are out of the sun for too long, she can become sad and despondent.  Many people go through winter depression where the climate gets extremely cold because they are not getting enough sun.  The sun is absolutely essential to our life and happiness.

At the same time, the sun is so powerful that it can do damage to our bodies and cause at least temporary pain.  We loved being out in the sun, but there are consequences, like getting sunburned.  After the sunburn, we either begin to peel of our outer layers of skin, or become tan. 

I think this is a good illustration of our walk with God.  God gives us life and everything we need.  He breathed life into us, and in Him we move and have our being.  Like the sun, He gives us life and sustains life in us.  We are also redeemed by Jesus, who brings us into a right relationship with Him.  He gives us a desire for Him and for walking in His Light.  Similar to the sun, God makes us happy and gives us real joy.  Without Him our lives would be meaningless, and our lives find their true fulfillment in Him.

At the same time, God, like our sun-scorched skin in the Maldives, impacts, changes and even hurts us sometimes.  When God showed up in people's lives in the Bible, the would often fall down on their faces like they were dead.  God's glory is so powerful and penetrating that we would actually die if we beheld Him with our physical eyes.   When Peter saw Jesus and His miracle of Peter catching all the fish on the other side of the boat, he said, "Depart form me, for I am sinful man, O Lord."(Luke 5:8)  As we draw close to God, we see more and more how wonderful He is, and how unworthy we are. 

Being close to God also costs us something.  We need to submit ourselves to the discipline of the Lord.  There is no punishment for the Christian, but we do receive discipline from the Lord in order to grow us to become more like him.  Like the rays of the sun, as we get closer and want to be more near to the Lord, it will hurt us some.  We also need to discipline ourselves and say 'no' to the pleasures of sin in our lives, which does cost us something.  Jacob had a powerful experience with God, but he walked away with a limp, and so it is with us today. 

I would never trade my trip to the Maldives for having the comfort of sun-free skin.  How much more are we willing to behold the glory of God, no matter how much it changes or affects in the short term.  Let's look forward to the Day when we will have new bodies that can handle the beauty, majesty and glory of the Lord and we can see Him with unveiled faces!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tips for the returning expat

By the time you are reading this post, I should be several thousand feet in the air, and returning back to America for the summer. It's always an interesting feeling going home for the summer, because it is full of excitement, hope, and anticipation about the summer along with feelings of fear of the unknown, whether my friends will still be available or will my friends and family change significantly. As I am going home for the sixth time for the summer living overseas, I thought I would post some tips for those who are planning on leaving now or eventually in the future.

1.  Realize that people back home won't understand your experience. This is probably the most important and critical thing to remember when you travel back home to see your family and friends. You had this amazing (or amazingly difficult) experience, and you've done things, traveled, and built a lot of new relationships that basically filled your time and energy while you were away. Those experiences are completely essential, important and valid while living overseas for any extended period of time. However, you also need to realize that no one from back home will understand or appreciate your experience well unless they've done something similar. That will be hard and will feel very disappointing initially, because you will want to tell everyone about everything that you did. Initially, your friends and family will dutifully listen, even though they won't understand. However, they can quickly become tired and bored because they cannot relate to your experiences. They can also become upset, jealous, or envious of other people enjoying your time. This is your classic case of reverse culture shock, and it can be quite emotional. So, the best tip is to share when you are asked, but don't recount every overseas experience you've ever had, and don't share too much when you are not asked to. 

2. Don't talk about yourself too much. This is related to the first point, but once you realize this, you will be able to focus on others more than on yourself and you'll be able to serve others. You were gone for 9 months, so you might forget that everything back home was not frozen in time. But the truth is, they have had their own experiences over the last year or more, and while it may not seem as exciting as your experience, it's important to validate theirs. So, ask questions and keep updated on what is going on in the lives of your friends and family back home.

3. Make new memories.  Again, this stems from the first point, but it's critical to understand that your friends and family are based on shared experiences, so make new ones in the summer.  You made a lot of new memories with people will being overseas for a year or more, so do the same things with the people back home.  That will allow them to feel appreciated and strengthen your relationships in new and exciting ways. 

4. Put down roots.  Yes, because expats usually get some sort of extended holiday to travel back home, many people only spend that time traveling.  I think traveling around your home country or other countries is fine, but God desires that we put down roots wherever we are.  We need people to speak into our lives, we need accountability, we need some routine and stability.  So, rebuild those lapsed relationships, commit yourself to going to church in the summer, and continue to read your bible and pray everyday so that you are listening to and receiving from the Lord.

5. Make the most of your investments.  Whether you have a month or three months off, use your time in the best possible way.  The vacation time will be over and you will be back to Kuwait or wherever you are sooner than you think.  So, don't waste it all watching TV and doing mindless activities, but push yourself to explore, grow and develop.  Start a project to help the family around the house, take an online course, listen to some inspiring talks or sermons, call up that acquaintance you haven't seen in years.  Make a plan for your summer and try to be faithful to it.  Also, use your money as your other investment.  Going out back home may cost more or less, but that's no reason not to see people.  Use your money to be a blessing to others.  Jesus said to use money as a tool to build relationships with others.  Everyone works hard for their money, but show that people are more important by spending it on them and with them.