Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

Stories and The Story

I’m originally from Central Asia.  Now I live half of the time in a European country, half of the time in another Asian country.  

And I cannot go home.

These were her answers to the questions, “Where are you from?  What do you do in that place?”  I had already exchanged these two questions with dozens of other younger leaders, at this international gathering in Southeast Asia.  I had heard answers as varied as:

  • a Swedish woman with an Alabama accent, who is passionate about training university students
  • a Chinese man who works toward wholeness for people with leprosy, attending to their souls and their skins
  • An Indian brother with a ten-inch beard and a smile that infects everyone around him, whether at the conference or at his home in New Delhi
  • A South African lady who asks big questions and uses her expertise in design and marketing to share hope, via the internet and around the world
  • A Nicaraguan who holds church in a dump and inspires children to a future other than picking up garbage

The woman from the sensitive region, whom I met on the second day of the conference, turned out to be one of our speakers a few days later.  She told of what she had experienced while still in her country.  Imprisonment.  Pain.  Solitary confinement for weeks on end.  

The arms of God around her shoulders.  

“I am not a brave person,” she said.  “I am so ordinary.  But I’m here to tell you that if God can give me the strength to suffer for His name, He can give it to you also.

“If God calls you to suffer, He will also give you the strength you need.

She squeezed.  I thought she might dislocate a couple of my fingers.

Lina, one of 60 teenaged Arab girls on the boat that day, had changed since she joined the Young Leaders Program the year before.  She had been unwilling to interact with the other students, and held back whenever she encountered new things.

If concern about peoples’ stereotypes of orphans or of people with disabilities had had anything to do with it, Lina had two strikes against her, from early on in life.

Her teacher had coaxed her to share some of her insights and abilities with Young Leaders.  Thriving in English, developing some real friendships, and leading her classmates to volunteer with children at the orphanage where she lived– Lina had eventually achieved some major victories.  But on this day her teacher was once again trying to coax her.

This time it was to get on board the “banana boat,” a small inflatable raft pulled by a speedboat, a new experience for the students.

Lina didn’t pretend, when we asked her why she didn’t join the others.  She answered with one word: “Fear.”

I put my arm around her shoulders.  I’ve watched you become braver every month since you started the program.  You can do this.

She paused for a second.  “Will you come with me?”

So I got on the banana boat.  Lina buried her face in her oversized life jacket, like a turtle withdrawing defensively into its shell.  She squinted her eyes shut, and when one spray of water hit her, grabbed my hand like it was her lifesaver.  My peaceful words were effective in getting her to look up and enjoy the view… for about three seconds at a time.

I have been riding around, particularly this summer, with my eyes squinted shut and with my head tucked low in defense.  Yes, I’ve been on the boat.  But I have forgotten to look at the view, to breathe through the challenges.  Any little splash, and I grip His hand in panic, as if I don’t know there are already arms around my shoulders.

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One of several amazing Southeast Asian sunsets

After a week surrounded by younger leaders from around the world, in the Southeast Asian nation I once called home, with the Love that expels fear spoken and danced and sung and prayed into me, I had gained perspective.

But I wondered if it would last once I got back.

On the last night, after the session, my Arab friend and I met up with some other conference participants.  We sat across from a Mexican, who works among the physically poor, and a Canadian, who works with “poor people who happen to be affluent”– those leaders of business and government whose levels of power make their spiritual poverty harder to address.

They asked one expected question: “How do you like living in the Middle East?”  I had prepared for it.  I love it, but honestly it is really hard sometimes.

I had not prepared for the unexpectedly sincere follow-up: “What’s hard about it?”

In the seconds that followed three images swept through my mind: pulling up to an airport at night to release teammates, sitting in my empty house on the yellow couch and weeping, and the face of my Arab “younger brother,” who grasps my culture more than most but often still stereotypes my nation and my gender.  I managed an answer: Heavy transitioning in the community of internationals… being in a leadership position that I feel inadequate for… cultural struggles as a Westerner in the Arab world.  

The Mexican put her arms around me, encouraging me about what would happen for my soul this year.

Our exchanges of stories continued, as I told them of the woman on the red motorcycle who had once given me a ride in Southeast Asia, and the Canadian told of how being the son of Indian and Malaysian parents– and working with senior business folks in Saskatchewan– was strangely like being a blonde woman in the Middle East.  A light rain fell through the opening in the outdoor canopy, and we went on regardless of the time.

Toward the close of the night, the Canadian asked if he could go back to what I had said at the beginning.  “When you return… and you are in leadership…”  He paused for a second.

“Own it.”

I felt terribly ordinary.  I looked at the table and said something about knowing I was supposed to lead whether I was good at it or not.

“No!” he replied.  “Be good at it!  You’ve been mentored more than most people have been.  You don’t need to be perfect.  You’ve got this– you have what you need.”

He continued, with belief: “And– when I read the Story– it’s a story of joy and light.  Yes, there is grief, and there is darkness… but ultimately it’s a story not of darkness, but light.”

I lifted my head.  My eyes opened.

And they have remained so ever since I returned to my second story home in the Middle East.

Sound track for this month: The Art of Celebration, by Rend Collective.  Song Joy link is worth listening to now.

The Most Dazzling

She inhaled deeply from a bright red hookah.  She had bought it with money she earned by teaching Arabic to foreigners, and brought it on this day to enjoy on my front patio, as she told me about her recent hard conversations with her fiancé’s family.  Tone staying cheerful, she switched to English for the serious line.

“I may never get married now.”

We were soaking in the warm sunlight of a January afternoon.  I offered her brownies and coffee for comfort, which she swallowed along with the mint-flavored smoke.  Mugs printed with hearts and the phrase “World’s Best Lover” sat in front of us.  She had given them to me last year, thinking that they translated to something like “Person I Love Most in the World.” 

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I will never tell her differently.

She gave one final sentence in English: “But you live happy– look at you, too– and you’re not married.”

Restlessness had seized me earlier that morning.  It was my day off, probably the last full day off I would get in the upcoming three weeks.  But just as sleep is most elusive when most sought, the harder I tried to focus on renewing soul and body, the more restless I became.

I attempted to be still, but my mind bounced from topic to topic like a Facebook newsfeed.

  • Remembering a late-night Skype call I had made the night before, and reviewing the groceries I needed to purchase that day.
  • Thinking about details for the center’s English program registration on Sunday, and planning for the Young Leaders’ day camps the week after.
  • Trying to get a plot twist in a movie I watched, and getting ready to console the emotional friend coming for coffee that afternoon.

Minutes piled into an hour, and still I sat on my couch, unproductive but unrested.  I crabbily thought, I want You to speak– without much hope for an answer– and turned on music, a last-ditch effort at refocusing my soul before I needed to move on to groceries, and visitors, and another week.  The first two lines said:

God loves His family

Like a man loves His wife.  (from Ben Pasley, Chair and Microphone 1)

And suddenly I had a memory of a conference in Southeast Asia, nine years ago, and a woman named Sharon.  She invited everyone to join her at 5:00 a.m. for a time of prayer.  My roommate, a short-term volunteer, woke up at 4:45 a.m. saying that God had spoken to her through a dream, drawing her to go to this meeting.

I had unintentionally woken up at 4:42 a.m., with a mosquito persistently attacking my right ear.

We were the only ones there with Sharon.  But what she prayed, I may always remember.  I was 22, and content with being single at the time– though I had already had the privilege of being in weddings for half a dozen friends.  Sharon asked God to give me joy in being loved by Him, like the joy of someone who had just gotten engaged.

Overflowing delight and irresistible desire to share it.  Combined confidence in knowing that I am beloved, and boldness from the fact that nothing can shake it.  Nothing can separate me from this love.

Wondering, nine years later, as I sat on the couch, is this kind of connection strong even on ordinary days– when the errands pile up, when my focus is wanting, when I am… well… crabby?

The night before, I talked on Skype with a good friend.  She nuzzled her newborn, told me what it was like to be a mother of three, and said she did not have any big updates.  I marveled; taking responsibility for three small lives, in addition to her own and her husband’s, sounded big to me.  I talked of “ordinariness”– travel plans, language study, and sweet soul talks in Arabic.  She talked of “ordinariness”– house plans, feeding schedules, and the sweetness of speaking life to her neighbors.

We are both deep in radically different streams of ordinary.  But they flow regularly into the same river, requiring the same things of us: open hearts, surrender, forgiveness, discipline in little matters, love, a sense of humor, courage, and reliance on One greater than ourselves.

I got off the couch, as the song finished.  Invited God’s presence into the grocery store errand.  Invited Him to the table with me and my hookah-smoking friend, asking Him to be present as we processed her probable divorce (a broken engagement is equivalent to divorce here, and stigmatizing socially– especially for the woman).

I was still slightly restless and unfocused.  But the blessing, given almost a decade ago on the other side of the world, was moving to a deeper level.  It was starting to look less like an engagement… and more like ordinary days, with three kids.  And a mortgage.  And a steady fire where the heart sits.

My fingers were wrapped around the mug with its proclamation, “World’s Best Lover.”  I looked at my friend.  She released a puff of smoke and switched back to Arabic to ask, “What?”

“You know, right?” I answered.  “You know the reason I can have a full life, even without being married yet?”  She smiles.  She knows this.

In my heart I pray Sharon’s blessing again, with the updates:

May you be someone for whom the “ordinariness”

of life is infused with

contentment, confidence,

and boldness and joy.  

May these come from knowing you

are unconditionally, steadfastly, and 

passionately

loved.  

I don’t always feel this.  But that is why there is a second story.

Love is the most dazzling when we are the least worthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Letter

A letter from my grandfather.  The thin sheets have survived six moves in eight years. When I lived in Southeast Asia, he sent them to me, along with a recipe for homemade bread.

I remember squinting at his scratchy cursive.  It took a long time to understand.

I served Grandpa’s bread on a floor mat, to some neighbors who had come over to celebrate Thanksgiving with me, that first year overseas.  The smell transported me from that island in Asia to a hilltop in Maine.  For years as I was growing up, on visits to Grandpa’s, the sweet, warm aroma of bread had greeted my family before he did.

We would stretch our legs after the two-hour drive up north, then enter through the side door of his farmhouse.  Grandpa didn’t always hear us coming in– especially later in his life– but the smell said we were welcome, he had prepared something.  We were loved.

Last week, the teenagers from the Young Leaders’ program didn’t hear me come in.  They were occupied taping photos of the pilot onto black and white balloons, preparing dozens of tiny candles for a vigil, and wrapping words around their grief until it spun into poetry.  They did not know his name while he was alive.

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But the shocking news of his death had made him an international headline, and even after media moved on, it made them feel like they lost a brother.  So they searched for ways to express their loss, their loyalty, and their love.

Just days afterward, we heard of 21 more killed.  Words seem cracked and dry.

I don’t know where things will go.  In the next five months, over half of my coworkers will move.  I will begin directing the Young Leaders program in the spring, right when fresh faces are arriving.  The steady rhythm I just learned will give way to a different song.  New colleagues will join at the community center.

The relative stability of our region in the days ahead…the relational dynamics in our shifting team… the reality of how much (or little) Arabic I understand will understand in a given conversation…

All of these are unknown.  And all of these will change.

Frequently.

Recently someone suggested picturing faithfulness as a kind of water.  For someone who enjoys metaphors, strange as they may sound, I didn’t get this at first.  But then, I pictured:

A barren rock face.  There’s a small pool of liquid in the middle, but no sign of beauty, none of strength.  Below the surface, unseen, water seeps deeply into the ground.  There it meets just the right combination of empty spaces, pressure, and intense heat.   Sometimes at predictable intervals, other times unexpectedly, the water bursts forward.  A geyser.

It’s not a bubbly, flowing stream, how I used to see faithfulness.  It is mostly quiet and hidden from sight, under an unyielding surface.  It is fiery.  The pressure and empty space work together for something positive.  At just the right moment, grace and power erupt.

And the transformation from hard ground to geyser only takes place along the earth’s faults.  In broken places.

My understanding has often proven too limited to trust, my attempts to predict the future usually result in frustration… But if I still my soul I hear this reminder: I’ve made a way for you here.  I’ve prepared something– just wait.  

I love you. 

The letter closed with the verses that, in his words, “had that meant so much to your grandmother and I.”

My grandpa passed away two years ago, but over the past two days I have heard his voice in my memory, just like I heard it when I first read that letter.  He is reciting these words:  Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

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Burning Question

I walked with eyes forward. Step quickly. Attempt to look purposeful.

I had absolutely no idea where I was going.

For over a year, I had been living in Southeast Asia. My group had asked me to move to another city for a month, and do a research project on the area for a new community development team. I had resisted. I had seven excellent reasons why me doing such a research journey by myself was a terrible idea.

But the ugly, true name of the resistance, in this case– resistance to the unknown, to the uncomfortable– was fear.

Somehow I ended up going anyway…. and my fears proved justifiable. My plane was delayed due to heavy winds. My host family couldn’t take me in until five days after I arrived. Foreign politics (in 2007) felt personal to that region’s occupants, and occasionally some people, frustrated with the West’s involvement, would throw angry words toward me as I passed.

On a less serious note, my first conversation with my expat contact was also bumpy– she chose the gentle phrase I would never go out in that to let me know that my capris and short-sleeved shirt were NOT up to the modesty standards of this part of the country.

She also let me know that she wasn’t impressed by my presence in the city. If your company wanted to know something about this area, why not just ask me? What are you going to learn in a month that I don’t know from living here?

What, indeed? I sat gaping at her kitchen table, feeling like an imposition even as she agreed to let me crash with her until my host family returned. She took me to see where she worked, and then I was on my own. Might be exaggerating, but only slightly, to say I was the only blonde in that city of 600,000. And I walked, vaguely thinking I should go shopping for some long sleeves, trying to set my face like flint while internally answering the burning question: Why am I here?

That question returned to me forcefully this week, when I moved in with an Arab host family. Although this “homestay” is just half a month, and in the same city as supportive coworkers… discomfort and the unknown have visited me like distant relatives, the kind who show up without invitation and make themselves at home in the living room, fluffing couch pillows and saying they’ll sleep there just fine, without stopping to ask if they are welcome.

My host family has a beautiful home, and currently one bedroom is being reconstructed, at unpredictable hours.  So I may come home late at night to find them demolishing a wall, or wake to the sound of buzz saws and hammers.   I can’t seem to get a feel for the rhythm of family life, either.  This means long stretches of silence, times when I step out to meet a friend and inadvertently miss a family event, nights when the good conversations don’t begin until late, or don’t begin… Each day’s plans, like the construction noise, are unpredictable, somewhat jarring, and– at least in theory– building something.

Still, I find myself wondering, Am I getting enough language? Am I learning what I need to learn culturally? Is this worth the price, giving up my schedule? Because if unpredictability, for me, is sandpaper, then my desire to plan and achieve must have some rough edges. The friction between the two shapes me, but sometimes I just feel the burn. Why am I here?

As I walked along that road alone in Southeast Asia, I was crying out, “God, I know You are before me, behind me, above me, beneath me.  Right now I need to know You are beside me, because I feel so far off…”

And I was remembering the answer to the question: Why I came, is that You told me to be here.

Sitting on a red motorcycle, wearing exercise gear and a white head scarf, balancing a young child behind her, a woman was watching me, curious.  “Selamat pagi,” I said as I walked by, greeting her in her language.

She looked shocked.  “You speak my language?  What’s your name?  Why are you here?”  A few minutes later, she was inviting me to hop on the red motorcycle.

Although I don’t recommend this in all circumstances, I said yes.

But that is a second story.

 

–Song with the Story: You Have Called Me Higher, a simple, solid one from All Sons and Daughters

Layering Up

“What should I wear when I visit you?” my friend from New York asked.

“Layers.”

Temperature sits at 115 degrees.  Culture calls for covered legs, covered arms, but away from the public eye, survival calls for something less strict.  Light sweaters to be shrugged off.  Scarves to be undone.  Long pants exchanged for bliss… I mean shorts.

Here, she noticed, while somewhat stifling in moments, the layers shield us from the sun’s intensity.

A few nights ago, a friend’s family had me join them for their “breaking fast” meal.  It was the first day of Ramadan.   They made a local favorite from a recipe so good the mom refuses to share it; they ate quickly, in silence, having tasted no food or water since before sunrise (14 hours, temp of 115).  Feeling slightly awkward, I ate my lamb, and wondered about leaving.  Then someone said, “Spoons.”

It’s a card game that mirrors musical chairs, in that the loser is the one with the slowest reflexes.  The unfortunate player holding no spoon at the end of the round is”punished” by the winner, with a mild dare.  For two hours, we crowded around a deck of cards and battered silverware.  Their parents sat on the couch, enjoying watching us enjoy ourselves.

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Somewhere within the laughter of that night, I remembered the last time I had played this game.  It was New Year’s Eve, in New York, days before I would leave the country.  Playing games sometimes shows new sides of personalities.  But I leave that to your imagination.  I remembered playing with neighbor kids and teenagers on my front porch in Southeast Asia, when we couldn’t speak much of their language, but Spoons let us laugh together.  Vague memories of games in high school, on retreats or all-nighters or with the spoons in restaurants (shaking head).

That memory took on a new layer this week, as Ramadan opened, amidst a silent meal and a rambunctious game of Spoons, among friends who I am still growing to understand, little by little.

Sometimes I just want to shed the layers, return to what is comfortable.  I fear losing something important.  But then I forget that layers can add depth, add richness, not stifle.  So in the heat, I am letting the layers pile on:

  • singing songs that were the anthems of my home fellowship, here with smaller groups of voices
  • celebrating life events & holidays with new friends who are here
  • pulling favorite coffee mugs from the shelf, to be sipped by other, thirsty throats
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Prints

A couple of months ago, a crafty friend showed me how to make prints, layering levels of paint and stamps– processes that I, in my craftlessness, don’t find straightforward.  I tried a layer or two  and protested, “This is a mess.  Can I start again?”

“It looks like a mess,” she agreed, perfectly calm.  “But the best prints often start out like that…. You have no idea what it’ll look like ten or twelve layers from now.”

 

 

 

Rickety Stair Stories

It’s snowy.

Things have been wrapping up over the past few weeks.  Just in the past two days, I graded the last papers for the class that I taught, and attended my final board meeting for my local congregation.   This afternoon had me sniffling as I went through dusty drawers of seldom-used items.  Keep.  Throw out.  Give.  Recycle.  Look up on the internet and try to figure out what it is. (That’s for my under-utilized electronics…)

And what I really want is to have people sit in my house as the snow falls, or to hit a coffee shop with friends and my “to be done on computer” task list.  But the snow made me less adventurous, so some things had to be done today in the quiet of this basement: just me, Pandora playing in the background, and an occasional sniffle because of dust.  Mostly because of dust.

One of the drawers I cleaned out held an old flash drive.  On it were research notes from my “ethnographic study” in Southeast Asia.  A twenty-two year old version of myself, with several months of language study and very little clue how to do it, went to a big town on the outskirts to look at life there.  My host family’s house was on stilts, as per local traditions/comfortability ideas, and a rickety staircase led to their door.

My twenty-two-year-old self, nervous and off-balance with a big red suitcase, attempted to make her way up to the door.  This led to a rather ungraceful “stumble” between the slatted steps.  My host family, concerned, asked me several times if I was okay.  When I replied that I wasn’t hurt, just embarrassed, they reassured me, “At least no one saw your fall!”

For the next hour, everyone in the neighborhood– or that’s how it felt– came to meet me.  It wasn’t every day a foreigner came to this area of town, much less took up residence there for a month with the sole objective of hearing people talk and learning about their stories.  And during that hour, my host family told each person who entered the hilarious story of my fall up the stairs…

And that became my first research note, “re-discovered” today on my flash drive :-).  Now I sit in the quiet, and I can hear the sound of my host sister’s voice, the good-natured laughter of our neighbors, and the quickly-forgotten consolation, “At least no one saw!”
I tell my present self that it’s okay.  Stumbling toward new things, sniffling on the way– some moments are made to be savored in quiet, and others in community.  But I think I’ll go out in the snow tonight.