Oblivious

For 13 years, a third of my life by the time we left, I lived in a country where I stuck out. I was taller than most every other woman. My eyes were lighter and rounder than every other person. My hair was a different color and texture. I had the coveted crease in my eyelids. My nose was bigger. My feet were bigger. My clothes size larger, even when I was at an ideal weight. I have hips.

I stuck out in a crowd and drew attention most places I went. Everywhere I looked eyes were looking back at me…and did not look away when I made contact.

In the marketplace I was asked repeatedly where I was from, how much I made, how long I’d been around. Privacy was not a thing. These questions were not off limits culturally though they felt incredibly intrusive.

Most of the attention was positive when seen from a certain light. The advice given about how to dress my kids or myself was a form of care even if it was based on an assumption that I didn’t know anything. I learned to take it for what it was most of the time.

But there were those times when I just couldn’t wrap my head around the cultural differences. I spoke sharp words many times when I’d just had enough of being tsk’d at for what felt like the thousandth time.

Some of my friends embraced an effort to blend in by dyeing hair or wearing the shawl that hooked around the middle finger to protect from sun damage. I learned that an umbrella is not just for the rain. I became expert at transporting home a dozen eggs loose in a plastic bag hung from my handlebars, losing one only on occasion.

I adapted. But I never fit in. Ever. I was always a minority and never blended in. But I didn’t fully appreciate my status as a privileged minority until many years in my sojourn in Asia.

Intellectually I understood that my Asian-American friends had a much different experience than I did. At a large round dinner table at a restaurant, my Asian friend would be expected to order even when my language was better. They were assumed to be a tour guide and were questioned about their foreign friends as though we were celebrities.

I could identify remotely with the shame they experienced in the surprised reprimands when their grasp on the language wasn’t up to snuff. But even in recognizing it, I didn’t feel it personally. I felt it for them but could easily put it aside after a conversation and move on. It wasn’t my experience and it didn’t touch my lifetime of shame experience like it did theirs.

My empathy was something but I couldn’t ever really understand.

I felt confident taking trains and traveling alone, jumping in cabs and advocating for myself. My experience was that people listened to me, things happened when I acted. I got what I wanted more often than not. Doors opened for me, literally and figuratively.

But my Asian friends did not. When my friend once explained her fear in a travel situation when she was by herself, I finally grasped a little more of her world.

What if I blended in? What if I were one of the oppressed? What if I feared kidnapping, assault, and violence because that was how people like me got treated? Even if my nationality offered real protection, if my face appeared to be “local”, that protection would not help in the moment.

I’d be stuck and unprotected.

Her experience really impacted me because there was one time when the gravity of the big world and my helplessness in it hit me.

I was traveling, foolishly, alone for the day with my 6 month old baby stowed in the baby carrier to get immunizations a town away. My many other trips left me feeling confident that I could do this trip and it was easier than making a day trip with a 2.5 year old and a baby and my husband.

It all went well until I got out of the cab to catch the train back and someone was watching me put my wallet back. On the large bridge, I felt my bag move and looked down.

The zipper was gaping and my heart beat faster. A major rule of travel is always zip your bags up and I followed it. My wallet was gone, my train ticket was gone, I had no money and no ticket to get home. No ATM card to get money either.

I panicked but I had my phone and called my husband and others noticed my distress. A kind man bought me a return ticket and my husband met me at the station at home so I could pay the man back. He refused repayment.

We made it home and, besides a little panic and lessons learned, it didn’t change my life dramatically.

But when I heard my friends story years later, I wondered what my experience would’ve been if I blended in. If I was part of the class that was not minority privileged. What if I was an Asian woman? Or African?

I could finally see how someone could become the poor soul on the streets near the stations with sad chalk stories written about how they ended up far from home and just needed a ticket…a little mercy.

And I read the stories today and I know why we have such a hard time acknowledging the privileges of having a certain skin color or background.

It’s like living in a world of automatic motion-sensing doors, don’t they always open for everyone else?

They don’t but it can be very, very hard to notice when they always open for you.

Twilight

I rounded the corner in our orange car. Yes, orange. People do strange things in foreign countries like buy orange cars. I sped up in my orange car to merge into traffic. As I met the sight of the hills I saw everyday, a word sank into my heart.

Twilight.

The setting of the sun on a time, a day, an era. We were still living in Asia, but I knew then in my heart, not for much longer. It was the beginning of the end and the knowledge settled warm and uncomfortable in a deep place in my soul.

In the coming weeks and months, time was infused with meaning. Knowing our life in Asia was passing away, we visited people and places to enjoy them, but also to say goodbye.

I tried to remember the roots of the word, “God be with ye” in the moments that felt too final. I wanted normal. I wanted conversation not to revolve around the present, the twilight time, me, but it often did. Such is the reality of saying farewells. They exist in the present. They are personal. They are hard.

Twilight is also the time for good photos, I hear. The light casts warmth and enhances beauty. So it is with the end of things, or it should be. The harsh light softens the edges. The beauty of what was and is and the hope for what will be comes through in twilight.

I wish I always saw people in the glow of twilight, but I don’t. I forget and I focus on the wrong things. I take measure at the wrong time. I’m human. Flawed.IMG_1282

Now, I’m experiencing twilight again with my father. The soft glow of what matters and the ache knowing the sun continues to sent on his life. Feeling and significance infuse normal life with meaning. But the sun keeps setting and the shadows cast longer and there’s no stopping. How I wish I could push pause.

But, life moves on.

Dad and I eat in the roar of a good diner full of people in their own worlds and we in ours. We prepare for the night in this twilight morning. How to walk through widowhood with my mom. We talk about finances and relational anchors and the practicalities of funeral arrangements.

I’m not as frightened by the night of grief and sadness that comes. It weights heavy on my heart as grief is prone to do, but I know morning comes after the night. There is a time for everything. The trouble is not knowing how long is the night.

Grasping at time, as I’m prone to do, exhausts me. Not every moment can drip with significance. Sometimes you have to do the dishes and vacuum the floor. I’m left with the aching experience of living the times and receiving the gift in all its broken beauty.

We call it a severe mercy from time to time.

P.S. There’s a good book by that title, A Severe Mercy. Worth a read.

Soul Food

No basil. After circling through the super store gradually acquiring all the ingredients necessary for the nostalgia of Thai curry, I looked up at the herbs. No basil. Deflated, I just gave up and walked out with most, but not all, of the ingredients I needed.

This time of year for the past many, many years we traveled to Thailand. Conferences, rest, and warmth drew us or required our presence. Thailand holds a special place in our hearts. Many of our family memories include Thailand.

Like this one of a favorite restaurant on a beach. What better fun than climbing a tree while waiting for your food? I wonder what that couple thought of a small person hanging out above them while they ate.

But my kids never really loved Thai food.IMG_0529 They ate all the western selections on the menu, countless smoothies, and chicken satay. My husband and I ate curry and lots of it.

I finally cooked my Thai curry last night sans basil. I opened the fish sauce and played jokes on the boys. “Smell this!” I’d tell them. Being the trusting sort, they did. They gagged. It smells awful. Just like its name. Fish sauce. Yuck. Yet, somehow, it is the ingredient that makes Thai food.

All the kids sat in front of bowls of chili while my husband and I sat in front of Thai curry.

Then, my daughter pipes up. That smell, its Thailand. Yes, I said. It is. And the girl who I never remember eating Thai curry dug into a bowl of rice with curry sauce. IMG_0201

My heart ached with nostalgia. Smells and tastes remind me more than anything else that part of my heart absorbed another place, and I’m not there anymore. I have words for this, my kids do not.

After observing my daughter’s reaction and how they consumed a huge Chinese meal on Friday night, I realize I must draw our hearts together over the dinner table.

The tendency in a move is to unknowingly leave things behind that matter. We left food behind and it’s just not working to leave it there.

It’s a good thing a new Asian grocery store opened not too far from us. Visits there are the piece we’re missing in our American life.

Our family needs more soul food and it’s not chicken fried steak.

What is your soul food? The tastes and smells that take you back to another place?

Writer’s Block

Writers block plagues me these days.  It always does when events too big to fathom arise in my life and a big event looms huge on my horizon.  In 2 months we move to America.  We move to America and I’m trying to fit my brain around that reality.

So, my head is swarming with thoughts and emotions and details and, somehow, I can’t put them together enough to form a cohesive deep thought.  Thus is the reason for my weekly posts becoming not weekly.  I just don’t have the words for this yet.  I’m standing in front of this huge thing and I’m so close I can’t figure it out.

But that’s ok.  It’s ok that I can’t figure it out, say it nice, spin it well, or wax poetic.  When the words don’t come forcing them doesn’t work either so I’m learning to be still when all around me is moving.  Be still.  Ponder.  Move slow…while I can.

A day comes soon when boxes will gape at me waiting for me to toss them a bone.  I will thoughtfully sort through all our clothes and shove them into suitcases.

But now is not that time.  Everything in me revs up waiting to shift into gear…but its not that time yet.  It’s the slow down time, the ponder time, the be still time.  I am oh, so bad at it.  The woman in this picture looks like she knows how.  Maybe gazing at her will help me know how to be still!DSC_0449

The boxes and bags are the easy things really.  The people.  That is really what’s got my tongue.  Saying goodbye to the people we’ve lived and worked with for the past 13 years.  The people who knew us when we operated like children because our language ability was so poor in this new land.  They saw us grow up and we saw them grow up.  It is impossibly sad for us all.

But along with it is an excitement about what is to come.  An excitement that rises up and feels traitorous in the presence of all the grief of leaving stands right alongside it.

So, I find myself stumbling around for words and struggling to chain my thoughts together.  Be still.  Slow down.  Ponder.

Just putting pen to paper or, in this case, fingers to keyboard breaks through a bit.  Maybe it is the way God is showing me to slow down, be still, and ponder.  A new thought.

Choking Down the Air

We started a new game in the car on the way to school this week.  Guess the pollution level.  My daughter wins more than I do.  I refrain from guessing until we round the corner that spits us out on the highway.  My guess always depends on how well I can see the large mountain.  Some days I can’t see it at all.  Like today.  On a clear day a tall hill rises in the distance with a pagoda at the top.  It stands a quarter mile away. IMG_0223[1]

I knew when I woke up and descended the stairs that the level bumped up from yellow, orange, to red, and most likely, to deep maroon.  It smelled like someone lit a campfire outside our front door.  The pollution app confirmed my suspicions.  It is a deep maroon day.  Bad.  I feel angry and exasperated.  Why, Lord?  Why do people still burn their fields?  Why do factories belch out particulate matter?  Why is the coal burned in its dirtiest state?  I rail in my mind against the injustices that I live in, but I choose to live here…in all these injustices.  How can I complain?  I don’t know but I find my way to complaining pretty fast!

Then, I ponder sending my kids to school.  Will it help to keep them at home?  Inside?  Not much.  The lack of seals anywhere at all means the pollution drifts into our home and we do not own an air filter.  Air filters help a little, I’m sure, but one doctor told me it’s about as effective as putting an air purifier outside.  I kept my one thousand dollars.  I decided to send the kids to school but request no outside playground time for them.

I think of my friend whose child is recovering from a bout of pneumonia.  How will he deal with this?  I heard my downstairs neighbor coughing continuously last night and then again this morning.  How will he deal with this?  How does anyone deal with the choking smoke?  Do I take him an emergency inhaler and teach him to use it?

My choices spread before me.  Ignore it hoping I can push down all the feelings of anger and frustration.  Hmmm not easy.  Or, I can scramble all the resources I have to lessen the impact knowing the limited chance of success.  At some point I must open my door for something.

My other choice is to escape.  We can drive to the airport and pass over a slim plastic card and our little blue booklets and leave.  Just get on a plane and fly away.  I like that choice when I only think of myself.  But when I think of my friends who have no slim plastic card or little blue booklet with an eagle on the front, my face sobers up a little.  It’s not fair.  It feels criminal to use my freedom and privilege that came merely through birth to escape what others cannot.

The choice I don’t want to make is to accept it and let all the mix of emotions play out while I live my life one step at a time in the midst of the smog.  It drives me to my  knees.  I pray for a strong wind.  I confess my anger and sin for dropping a cuss bomb at a reckless driver.  Thankfully the car was empty but still…but still, that is what dwells in my heart.

Actually, this is not a bad place to sit.  I realize my dependency on the Lord for my very life and the lives of my children and my spouse and my friends.  I face my sinful response to a sinful world.  My deep longings for a world without sin, pollution, sickness, death, and injustice rise up and I long for the Day of the Lord.

The apostle Paul comes to mind. He possessed the ancient version of a blue passport with an eagle on it, Roman citizenship.  And, he used it when it prolonged his life.  I wonder what he felt when he claimed all the benefits of citizenship to appeal to Caesar.  Did he struggle with his privilege?

I bet my Bible will crack open to that theme today at some point.  I want to dig a little deeper.

What trials drive you to the Word today?

Raising a TCK

“You can’t wear that shirt to school today.”  I said as I walked into my daughter’s room while in America.  The problem?  She wore the exact same shirt to school the previous day.

“Why can’t I wear it?  I love this shirt!”  she replied.  I struggled to for a satisfying answer.

“You wore it yesterday.  Is it clean?”  I asked hoping for a stain somewhere!  Anywhere!  I knew where this conversation led.

“Yes, it is clean.” she replied.

Having grown up in America I know the unspoken American rule that wearing the same thing twice in a week or even two weeks seems somehow shameful.  I remember one elementary teacher who, to my knowledge, never wore the same thing twice our whole school year!  On one visit to America I received the advice not to wear the same thing to church within the same month!  Pressure!

“Well…people in America just don’t wear the same thing often.  They take a break from it and wait awhile before they wear it again.”  I explained uncertainly.  It seemed so shallow to say it.  If the shirt is clean, looks nice, and she likes it, why not?

“Why?” she asks me.

“People don’t wear the same thing a lot because they tend to have a lot of clothes.  If you wear the same thing over and over, people might think its weird.”  Right here I started abandoning my line of argument.  Why can’t she wear a shirt she likes two days in a row?  What does it say about my home culture that I can’t wear a clean shirt two days in a row even when I know I will see the same people?  Or even once a week for a month?  I chafe at the norms.

She looks back at me confused.  “Why do they think it’s weird?” she asks.  I hate to open up to her the vanity that wealth creates.  I want her to stay untouched by such concerns as scheduling her outfits around others’ opinions.  I fight a losing battle.

“I just want you to know that you might get made fun of at school today because you wore that shirt yesterday.  It’s not right but it might happen.  No one cares in Asia but they might here.”  I explain.

She chose a different shirt and I grieve a little inside as this worldly knowledge sinks in to her heart.  I tell her she can wear her favorite shirt when she gets home from school.  She can wear it everyday in Asia if she wants…as long as it’s clean!  I tell her I don’t like it either.

Raising a Third Culture Kid means sailing in uncharted waters for me.  I grew up entrenched in American culture.  Coming to terms with my American self through the eyes of another culture means my mental dialogue abounds.  Sometimes my thoughts exhaust me.  I feel I must deconstruct my guidance to my children and hold it up to the Light.  It abounds with flaws and occlusions that remained shrouded…until I crossed cultures.

I cling to the hope that the things that sift out in all this sifting and shaking that happens in culture crossing will be the things that remain for eternity.  Things that shine brilliantly in the world.

We are in Asia now, so she gets to wear what she wants… for the most part…except to church…when I get a teeny tiny little opinion.

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Watching…

DSC_0012At any moment I can look up and be sure a camera is looking back.  Big brother is always watching…always.  Sometimes I look up and count cameras just to see if I can top my biggest number pictured here.

It wears on me from time to time.  I grow weary of being watched even if it is benign watching and I am not the target.  Then sometimes I forget until I look up and see a camera in a startling place like in church…watching me.

They watch on the internet, on the street, in the malls, in subway stations, in train cars, in airports.

This summer the watching helped us put together how a passport disappeared in the airport.  But something about seeing a passport stolen while four or five people watched passively is a lot to get over.  I now need to forgive faces and not just vague incidents.

I don’t want to see some things.  I don’t want to see the children that get run over by careless drivers and the people who stand by and watch but do not help.  Constant surveillance means video of such incidents condemns but doesn’t seem to change anything.  I become a watcher myself standing by outraged but nothing changes.

Knowing that most will stand by and do nothing for me, I face the question, will I still do something for others?  Will my desire for privacy, so defended in my passport culture, win out and I sink into resentment unable to forgive the sin of a sinful world?

Or will I count this as yet one more way to share in the path that Christ took?  A path with scant privacy?

Half the Sky

I wrote on the chalkboard this week.  The one that hangs by the kitchen door I pass through a hundred times a day.  The board I write stuff on so my scattered ideas have a fighting chance to hone onto a task or two…or ten.

“2 boxes” I wrote.  2 boxes to hold my home school teacher’s guides and workbooks used and unused.  2 boxes to clear off at least two precious bookshelves.  I needed two boxes because we enrolled our children in an international school a month ago.

I fully expected to need these notebooks and guides this very month.  But, life overseas sometimes…no…often means rapid change.  In mid-June I began praying about a change for our kids’ education for the coming year and by early July we filled out the forms.  That’s nigh on the speed of light to me.

As I sort out all the factors that go into making a decision like this it slowly distills into a phrase I hear in Asian culture.  Half the Sky.  Women hold up half the sky so the saying goes.  It’s a beautiful phrase and I love it.  But, I saw myself growing weary because I was going to try to hold up the whole sky if I continued homeschooling.DSC02933

Even now I want to say I could’ve done it.  We didn’t have to enroll them.  And those statements ring some truth but I say them because I want people to see me as strong…as someone who can hold up the whole sky not just half.  The phantom rears its ugly head.  The lie that strength is found in toughness and survival and capability rather than in resting on the One who holds everything together.

As a very hot summer month slipped by, I took up a few new and exciting responsibilities for the coming year, I stopped buying the kids winter clothes because they will wear uniforms, and I mentally planned to shop and drink coffee at Starbucks their first day in school.

At home, I looked more and more at those two bookshelves in our homeschool room and the books that laid on top of other books on other overfilled shelves above and I embraced reality in a more physical way.  I began pulling things off for storage.  It is not the time to give them away but it is the time to pack them away in the two boxes I keep forgetting to get at the grocery store.

A new season begins for our family…and I still don’t know what new name to give the homeschool room.

Summer Heat

DSC_0039If I ranked seasons…and I do…summer ranks last.  Dead last.  For some reason God planted me in place after place that heats up to unholy temperatures in summer time.  The furnace of Texas and now the furnace of Asia.

Because I know it is the right thing to say, I say God must know what He’s doing and somehow the heat will lead to greater sanctification of my soul.  And, because I know a seed must fall to the ground and die before producing anything I can give mental ascent that the feeling of dying in the summer heat might serve a purpose.

Yet…I still enter the heat of summer dragging my feet and fighting a dull, pervasive grumpiness of soul.  For three months makeup slides off my face and I feel ugly.  For three months, my kids want to swim everyday in the blow up pool and spray each other with the spray nozzle set to the “kill” setting.  For three months, the grocery store refuses to turn on it’s a/c until 3 pm.  For three months…

I admit I deserve a prize for being a brat.  We do run our home a/c day and night in summer.  Ice constantly occupies our freezer drawers.  My suffering is slight compared to some.  But when it comes to discontentment, comparing with others rarely nips my disease of complaining up at the roots.

Instead my eyes opened a little this week to my need to come before the Maker of summer and submit to His seasons physically and spiritually.  Is it possible I can grow in the Lord just by being willing to live in the heat that He brings for a while?  To even cheerfully set up the pool for my kids in the heat?  To put on makeup every once in a while to cheer my soul even knowing it’s going to disappear in an hour?  To go to the grocery store and refuse to open my mouth to complain about the a/c schedule?

Learning to come under the reality of my days instead of fighting and wishing and complaining is no small task for me.  I just now begin to accept that possibly my whole summer’s spiritual assignment revolves around cheerful submission to the heat of summer.

I wonder what He holds on the other side as I choose to walk through this barrier to contentment.  I bet it’s good whatever it is.

What season ranks last on your list?  Why?

Things Lost

After 12 years of constant interaction, my passport is a familiar sight. Until a few weeks ago that familiarity lulled me into forgetting the importance of my proof of identity and my permission slip stuck inside.20130719-135640.jpg

My husband’s passport went missing and the hoops we jump through right now to get a new one…well…let’s just say we planned to do other things with our summer. Instead he looks forward to multiple days carrying papers around that prove his identity so he can one day receive back official proof of his citizenship and permission to live in a foreign country. Most of the process involves just showing up at the right place with the right paperwork so the official with the big red stamp gets the pleasure of bringing it down with force on the properly filled out forms.

Some things go missing and I give them up quickly as lost. Other things I turn the house upside down for like those gold earrings I misplaced for a time. When I lose things I closely retrace my steps in my head. We lost a fancy camera at the airport once and I didn’t notice for a week. I gave it up for lost with a sad heart but still checked when I took another flight that next week. I received it back from lost and found with tears! Some things come back.

But the passport never came back. We looked and looked.  We asked.  People helped us.  We reluctantly returned home.  Then we called from home.  Then he went back to look himself.  Security officers showed him the surveillance video and he discovered why we never found it.  Someone took it off the floor where it dropped minutes after it landed.  A man ignorant of its importance or purpose.  A man who stood to gain nothing from his theft while it costs us much.  Our hope that it slid under a trash can vanished.  We lived through the time to search and entered the time to give up for lost.

Trading stories this past week with friends about things lost brought a smile to my heart as I saw more clearly.  In searching, in wading through bureaucracy, in looking for things lost I share in the things of the Lord just a bit.  An understanding enters my heart.  He searches too.  He searches for people…he seeks to give a regal identity to the lost.  He searched for me.

I do long for the day when passports and visas and proof of citizenship fade away but for now I remind myself of the importance of contemplating things lost as I fill out yet another form or look up yet another important address.

He searches for the lost.