Between two worlds

Between two worlds

Originally written for our May 2016 Picture of the Month email update

Living between two worlds is exactly what the month leading up to Home Assignment feels like.  There is so much to do to prepare for a summer in the US – buying plane tickets, hotel and rental car reservations, taking prayer card pictures, preparing presentations, getting Luka onto a one nap schedule, because c’mon, who has time for two naps, and the list goes on and on.

But of course we can’t only focus on our summer.  Ministry is still happening.  Safe Haven girls need to be taught, papers from class at ABTS need to be graded, Sunday School curriculum is still being written, sweet refugee children are eagerly awaiting their weekly music class.

There is also all the work needing to be done in order for us to be gone for three months.  Preparing games, crafts and homework for the Safe Haven summer program, arranging for someone else to teach a capstone course at ABTS, getting the house ready for guests to use this summer.

Add to that all the end of year craziness, a bazillion birthday parties, science fairs, final exams, end of year shows… I know you all can relate!

Oh yeah, there are also three children, who for some odd reason keep needing to be fed!  :)

It’s a lot.  We are busy.  Sometimes I look at my calendar and can’t decide if I should cry or laugh.  But to be honest, we can do busy like this for a limited time.  We are actually pretty good at busy.


What surprises me every time we get to this stage of Home Assignment prep is how hard it is emotionally.  We were at a birthday party last weekend, and when I took the picture above, I was laughing at my crazy little girl in her fancy dress at the top of the tree, while all the little boys stood shouting at her from the ground to come down!  It’s not safe!  You will fall!

But as I looked at the picture later, it represents so much of what life feels like in this transitional stage.  Even though we are only leaving for the summer, it’s different than a family vacation.  It’s a big transition for us all.   And in preparation for the changes, I find myself disconnecting emotionally.  While normally a birthday party is a great time to connect and get to know other parents better, I kinda just want to climb that tree and sit and watch from afar.

It’s a normal part of this life… the back and forth, never really fitting in anymore, but it still surprised me when I realized it was happening again.  So I fight it, I force myself to stay engaged, to live in the present, and to leave well… knowing that it’s going to be a whole long summer of transitioning between hellos and good-byes.  I’m reminded of when Jesus was on His way to heal the sick little girl, but was stopped by the woman who needed His help.  He stopped.  He engaged.  He gave that woman all of his attention even though a little girl on her death bed was waiting for him.  It’s a great challenge to all of us… to focus on what or who is in front of us, no matter what our to do list looks like.

Some things I might never understand

Some things I might never understand

Just like learning a new language is a life long process, so is understanding and adapting to a foreign culture.

We are constantly learning new aspects of Lebanese culture and shifting our actions or attitudes in order to fit in or not offend.  Sometimes, even though we’ve intellectually understood how the culture works, our first reaction to a situation is still very American – understandably so, as this is our default.  Other times, we find ourselves responding as any Lebanese would.  And sometimes we leave a situation or conversation and wonder, “what in the world just happened there?” as we haven’t quite figured out culturally what is going on.

What do these things have in common?

The concept of public space is one of those cultural phenomena that is easy to see and yet I often struggle really understanding.  A few months ago, I read a blog by mexicaninbeirut commenting on the issue of public vs. private space.  She explains it really well:

I recently talked with a Lebanese friend who happens to be an anthropologist, specialized in Lebanon. She was telling me that one fascinating thing about the Lebanese is that the concept of public space doesn’t really exist. It is more of an inside/outside phenomenon, where inside (my home, my relatives’ homes, my people’s space) is to be protected, cherished, polished and cleaned (indeed, Lebanese houses are gorgeous, spotless and tastfully decorated… on the inside) and outside doesn’t really matter. Outside is not mine, so why bother taking care of it?

This explains why the public park is literally falling apart (as in, when we were there this past spring, the swing set collapsed while a dozen children were swinging and playing on it!)  Why people throw trash out of their car windows.  And why our balcony is the resting place for our neighbor’s brooms, used up insect repellent cartridges, hairballs, cigarette butts and dirty Q-tips.  (For the record, I think the broom was an accident. :))

Even though I sort of understand the mentality of private vs. public space, it is still hard for me to imagine my upstairs neighbor cleaning his ears and then deciding the best place to throw his used Q-tip is out the window.  On to my balcony.

The never ending piece of advice

The never ending piece of advice

As the girls and I were walking home from play group today, Isla tripped and cut her leg open on a piece of concrete.  We were pretty close to home, and when we got there I quickly realized that it was quite a big gash and she was going to need stitches.

She couldn’t (wouldn’t?) walk, so somehow I managed to carry both her and Ruby up a block where we could catch a taxi to the hospital.  Isla is bawling her eyes out at this point, mostly because she has been terrified of the hospital since Ruby spent so long there when she was first born.

So we get a taxi and hop out a street away from the hospital so I can drop Ruby off at a friend’s house.  I manage to get Isla out of the car, but I can’t pick her up to carry her because I’m holding Ruby.  She’s still bawling and there is blood running down her leg.  A man and woman pass by, so I ask them if she would mind holding the baby just for one second.  She takes Ruby from me, I pick up crying Isla and take Ruby back.  She asks me first if I’m Russian and then what is wrong with Isla.  So I explain… she fell, cut herself and we’re going to the hospital for stitches (mind you, this is as we are walking through traffic and I’m carrying both children in my arms.)

Her response?

“You should really put a hat on that baby.”

An open letter

An open letter

Dear friends, acquaintances and random strangers,

I am really trying to adapt to the culture here.  Which means, when you didn’t know I was pregnant and told me I was fat, I tried my hardest to just smile.  And when you asked me why I still had a belly when my baby was “already three months old,” I tried my hardest to respond graciously.

When you give me (wrong) advice about how I’m raising my children, I’ve stopped defending myself, I’ve stopped trying to educate you.  Instead I just nod and smile and say “thank you” even though I know I am not going to put hard liquor on my baby’s gums to help her teething pain.

I think I’m making good progress.

But.  When you tell me – in front of my children – that one of my girls is more beautiful than the other, well, don’t be surprised when I argue, when I loudly defend their unique beauty, and when I tell you that you are wrong and shame on you for saying such a thing.  Honestly, I don’t care how culturally inappropriate it is for me to disagree loudly with you about this.  Okay fine, gossip with your friends about which of my girls you think is prettier, smarter, nicer, whatever.  But shame on you for telling me what you think.  And an even bigger shame on you for telling my children what you think.

I will not take it.  Consider this fair warning.


Mama to TWO amazing girls

Just say no

Just say no

Asking for directions on the streets of Beirut is a bit of a joke.  “They” say that if you need help getting somewhere, you should ask at least three people and if there are any similarities, follow those.  Problem is, you could ask three people and get three completely different sets of directions.  (Although I will say, when you do get good directions, they are totally my kind of directions!  None of this “go north on Whatever Road and then head east for 3.2 miles”….  no, we get real directions like “walk until you see the little shop with the suitcases out front and turn right, then go until you see the man on the corner selling lottery tickets….”)

One aspect of the honor/shame culture that we are living in is that when you ask somebody a question (directions, for example), “I don’t know” is generally not an acceptable answer.  Which means directions to such-and-such-a-place are often made up on the spot.

I think this is also the source of the infamous “bukra!  Inshallah….”  which means “tomorrow!  God willing….”  Drop off laundry to be washed and ask when it will be finished: “Bukra! Inshallah….” which really means in three days.  No more cucumbers at the veggie stand?  “We will have more bukra!  Inshallah…” which could mean tomorrow or it could mean Friday.

We’ve been here long enough that we don’t take a “bukra! Inshallah….” seriously, nor do we follow directions and expect to reach our destination on the first try.

But where this inability to just say “I don’t know” really threw me for a loop was when we were in the hospital with Ruby for the first few weeks of her life.  As I’ve been processing the experience a bit lately, I finally realized that this is a big reason it was such a frustrating time.

Our doctor (not the first one, but the one we chose the second time we were re-admitted) was wonderful.  She took as much time as we needed to explain what was going on, what we were hoping to see, and what was coming next.  But we only saw her once per day.  The rest of the time we were in contact with the nurses and residents.  Whether we asked or not, we were constantly being told that “after this one more little test, you will be going home” only to have the doctor stop by hours later and tell us we needed to stay another 24 hours.

The up and down of packing our stuff thinking we were going home because that’s what we were told by a well-intentioned nurse only to have that hope dashed when the doctor appeared was emotionally exhausting.  And I just didn’t realize at the time what was going on… but as I look back, I see I was just missing a major cultural puzzle piece that would have reminded me that no one wanted to give bad news, no one wanted to say they didn’t know what was coming next.  But instead I took the words at face value and as a result was frustrated and discouraged day after day.

Looking back, I can totally see what was going on… but in the moment I didn’t even contemplate what kinds of cultural cues I might be missing.  Such is the life of cross-cultural living.  Sometimes I feel like we are really starting to adapt, to fit in, and then other times, I feel like I’m totally missing the boat.  It’s a never-ending, life-long learning process, that’s for sure!