Friday, January 28, 2011

Cross Cultural Living: A Chance to Embrace Humility

When you first move overseas you’re less competent than most children in your host country. You can’t speak the language right. You don’t know how things work or where anything is. You lack the know-how to get simple jobs done. You can’t even cook a meal that people will like. (See my last post.) Living cross culturally puts you in a humbling position of weakness.

Occasions to be Humbled

Living in Turkey for 10 years, I’ve had many occasions to be humbled. Here are a few:

• One day in the kitchen years ago my “Turkish mother” showed me the right way to chop a bell pepper. The way I was doing it was wrong. I smiled and silently began chopping the pepper her way, but I was fuming inside. Why does it matter how I chop this pepper? What’s with her? I wish I were more mature.

• Another time at a Bible study group, I handed out the new songbooks I’d had made. We took an offering to help pay for the books, and one of the members announced to the group, “We shouldn’t ask foreigners to do jobs like this. Betsy got ripped off.”

• One night at my folk dancing class our group finally mastered a difficult new dance step. I smiled to the woman next to me and said, “I think we’re finally getting it.” She repeated, “I think we’re finally getting it” in an exaggerated American accent. Ouch.

• Later that same evening, an American friend Brenda and I were talking with a group, and several women laughed and made fun of Brenda’s accent. She turned as red as a beet! I didn’t care so much about one person imitating me, but I was upset by a group making fun of poor Brenda! As we left dance class I thought, “We really do not need this. We give up everything to come and serve the Lord here, and what do we get? People making fun of our accent!”

Why do situations like these bother me? They hurt my pride. Being taught to chop a bell pepper when you’re 28 can be humbling. Being told you got ripped off is humbling. Being teased in front of others is humbling. My pride rebels, and I have two natural reactions:

1. To justify myself. I KNOW how to cut a bell pepper. Or I don’t deserve this treatment.

2. To compare my country to Turkey. In America people would never make fun of a foreigner’s accent. Yeah, right. Think again.

Chances to Grow

In reality, these situations are small chances to grow, but I have to choose my attitude. I can cling to my wounded pride and become resentful. Or, even though it goes against everything inside of me, I can choose to adopt the same attitude Jesus had. “He made himself nothing,…He humbled himself.” (Phil. 2:7a,8) Jesus wouldn’t take it personally if someone made fun of his accent. He would just smile and keep loving that person.

His Word reminds me, “Clothe your selves with humility toward one another because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5) Okay, Lord, I ask you for grace. The next time I’m reminded that I’m a foreigner, help me to thank you for the chance to embrace humility. Help me to have the same attitude Jesus would.

Any comments?

Check back next week when I'll share “What I Can Learn From Turks.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lasagna in a Karniyarik World

I was nervous and excited about my very first dinner guests in Turkey. Would they like my lasagna? I hoped so since I didn’t know how to cook Turkish food.

 We were eight people around the table: our neighbors Murat and Selin, their children Ceren and Necat, Jose, me and our two children. As Jose prayed to thank God for our visitors and our food, I looked doubtfully at the beef lasagna with basil tomato sauce and melted cheese. It looked great to me, but would they like it? I cut it and served it carefully onto each person’s plate. I felt butterflies rising in my stomach when I noticed Murat staring at his plate, his forehead furrowed over piercing brown eyes.

 “What do we do with this?” he asked, looking at the lasagna.

 “Well,” I said, “What do you mean? Um…we eat it.” My children Andres and Camille giggled and whispered to each other.

 “Oh, I just wondered,” Murat said, “How do you eat it? Do you put yogurt on top of this? Do we just cut it with our knives and forks? What is it?”

 Oh great, I thought. This evening is off to a brilliant start. Everyone at the table, including Jose, looked at me waiting for an explanation of what lasagna was and how to eat it. My face went red, and I felt irritated inside. Even if he’d never had lasagna before, at least he could be more polite about it. My enjoyment of the dinner I’d worked to prepare was spoiled.

 Murat and Selin managed to eat the lasagna, and they said how good it was, but I could see that their children had a hard time eating it. They looked relieved when the meal was over, and I poured glasses of familiar, steaming Turkish tea.

 When at last everyone left, I remembered Murat staring at his plate. Did he not realize how embarrassed he’d made me feel? What was wrong with me anyway? Couldn’t I even cook a decent meal that my new friends would like? My face flushed all over again with embarrassment.

 By the next day I was able to laugh about it, and after 8 years the lasagna fiasco has become a part of our family lore. My son will repeat, “What do we do with this? What is this?” And we all laugh, remembering Murat’s puzzled expression.

 I enjoy living overseas, and generally Turks are extremely gracious to foreigners. However, sometimes I struggle with being an outsider who always speaks and does things differently. I remember the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” Maybe the Turkish Sesame Street would have had three plates of Karniyarik (stuffed eggplant) and one plate of lasagna. Sometimes I feel like I’m that person or thing that doesn’t belong.

 During my 8 years in Turkey I’ve committed more cross-cultural blunders than I can count, like the time I showed up at an all women’s tea with my husband. I used to agonize over my mistakes and how silly they made me look in front of other people, but over the years I’ve loosened up. I’ve learned the following:
  • Just be yourself.
  • Relax and don’t worry about doing everything right.
  • Don’t take things too seriously.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself.
  • Enjoy differences rather than be bothered by them.
 Since I’m here, I might as well enjoy being that lone plate of lasagna hidden among all the other plates of karniyarik.
If you live overseas, I’d love to read a comment about one of your cross-cultural fiascos.

Friday, January 14, 2011

One Woman Making a Difference

Nalan looks like an average Turkish housewife at first glance. When I went to visit her, she chatted about her children, recipes, and learning English. She left the room several times to bring more of her delicious carrot cake and tea from the kitchen. I didn’t realize that she was also walking down the hall to look in on her 17 year old son and make sure he was still breathing.

Nalan is not an average housewife. She is the mother of a boy with MPS and the founder of Turkey’s MPS Society. MPS is a rare disease, a genetic lysosomal storage disorder which leads to cellular damage, mental retardation, loss of organ functioning and ultimately death.

I started praying for Nalan when I learned that her son Emre could now die any day. I went with a friend to visit her so we could offer to pray with her as an expression of love and compassion. I wanted her to somehow know that God loves her.

Would it be all right if we go and see Emre in his room and pray together there?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. As we walked down the hall, I felt nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, and I hoped I would react appropriately. I felt undone when I saw Emre’s tiny form on the bed. He lay on his side under a blanket with a feeding tube attached to his nose. His ashen face lay expressionless on the pillow with closed eyes and a swollen tongue protruding out of his open mouth. His hair was shaved short, and when I saw a faint trace of moustache above his lips, I was moved to tears as I thought of my own robust 13 year old son who is also sprouting a moustache. Nalan smiled over Emre and bent down to kiss his head.

“This is my boy,” she said smiling with shining eyes. “I’m so grateful that he has lived 17 years, much longer than the doctors said he would. I want him with us as long as possible.”

It struck me then that although my plan was to share God’s love with Nalan, He could teach me a lot through her. I had never seen such a vivid example of a mother’s love.

Although caring for her son is a full-time job with a certain ending, Nalan is not bitter. She does not sit around feeling sorry for herself. First she started an internet network of MPS families, and in May of 2009 she founded Turkey’s MPS LH Society together with five other women.

Working from her living room with her computer and telephone, Nalan is making a difference. Her goal is to reach MPS families with information about the disease, to help them get access to treatment, and to give counseling and support. There are 35 families in the Aegean region alone who are members of the society, but Nalan talks to people from all over Turkey, counselling them as they struggle with the challenges of living with MPS and putting them in contact with doctors who can help them.

“What makes you do this,” I asked her. “Don’t you have enough to do just taking care of Emre around the clock?”

“I don’t want other families to have to go through what we did,” she answers. “When I learned Emre was sick, I said, ‘Where are others. Are we alone? There must be other families going through this.’ We couldn’t find them. We were alone.”

My son didn’t have access to early treatments that would have improved his quality of life. It is too late for my son, but I want to help others.”

I prayed for Nalan and Emre that day, but when I left her house I felt more inspired than sad. Nalan’s example touches me. One woman can reach many lives. One woman can make a difference.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Big Dreams and Small Beginnings

Do you have any secret dreams that look so out of reach that you don’t even consider pursuing them because it would be too scary and impossible to try?

Last week I told you about my brother’s craft beer brewery. It’s an unlikely comparison, but his brewery encourages me as I think about our impossible dream of a church plant in a Muslim city.

My brother is starting his beer brewery out small. He bought the equipment, and is now looking for a warehouse to rent. He will start making and selling what he can by himself. “It’s what I can afford to do on my own,” he says. It’s a small beginning.

We are starting our new church plant small, too. We are reconnecting with old friends, praying for and reaching out to new people, seeking to share God’s love. Right now our church planting team consists of two families. We meet together on Sundays in our homes.

Our first church meeting was definitely a small beginning. We prayed for weeks and invited friends, but on the first Sunday morning no one came! There we were: two couples and 4 children, an unlikely church! I was so discouraged. “Lord,” I said. “This is not the great start I had in mind. Aren’t you supporting this? Aren’t you behind us?” Then I heard a voice whisper in my ear, reminding me of Zechariah 4:10. “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”(NLT) I knew God was speaking to me.

Small beginnings can lead to great things. The Wright Brothers first plane flight lasted only 12 seconds, but they didn’t give up. The first automobiles travelled at 2 to 4 miles per hour and broke down frequently, but developers didn’t give up.

We’re not giving up on our church plant either. We’re taking small steps, doing what we can and trusting that God will breathe His life and power into our small efforts. Last Monday night I shared the gospel with a girl I gave a ride home to from dance class. Yesterday I visited a friend and talked openly with her about my relationship with God. I prayed for her before I left. This afternoon my husband went to visit a man he gave a New Testament to last week. We’re sowing seeds and trusting that God will water them and bring growth.

Sometimes our dreams and goals are so overwhelming that they seem out of our league. We’re paralyzed because we think we have to do something big. When my husband started to talk about planting a church in Turkey, I thought, “Who, us? Are you kidding? Who are we to think we can plant a church?”

But here we are, taking small steps, doing what we can now to walk towards the dream God gave us and trusting that His power in us will accomplish more than we could ask for or imagine.

Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. “What about you? Do you have any dreams or aspirations? Is there some small beginning step you can take this week towards your goal?