Friday, August 26, 2011

10 Keys to True Cross-Cultural Treasure: Friendship

Last week I wrote about my treasures: Turkish friends who grace my life with laughter, love and loyalty.  Ironically, missing out on this treasure would be all too easy. A great privilege of living overseas is life-enriching friendship with people from other backgrounds, but it’s easy to miss out due to challenges like:

Language barriers

Cultural Misunderstandings

Overwhelming responsibilities: juggling home, family, language learning, 

Fear that they might not like me

Cross-cultural frustration (Holding on to “MY” ways, looking down on theirs)


My first year or so in Turkey, I felt isolated. I found that after my neighbors’ initial expressions of hospitality and friendship were over, I wasn’t sure how to make friends with them. At the multi-national church we attended, I felt insecure about approaching Turks.  Would they want to be friends with me? Would they see me as just another foreigner anxious to practice my Turkish or “minister” to a national? After all, any foreigner might be here today and gone tomorrow, so why should they open up their hearts and and lives to me?

Faltering First Steps

I started with small steps I could manage. I’d gulp hard and force myself to take the first step, walking up to another mother at the park or knocking on a neighbor’s door. At church my husband and I started by inviting local believers to our house for a meal. I felt an affinity with single women in their late 20’s and early 30’s since I’d married at age 31 myself.  I’d take a deep breath and call one of them up just to ask how they were doing.


Most good things in life take time to grow, and my friendships with Turks were no different. As the years have gone by, God has given us a rich harvest of friendships with people we trust and appreciate, people we can laugh and cry with.

Here are some keys to cross-cultural friendship that I’m still learning myself:
  1. Don’t be afraid to reach out and take the first step.  If you haven’t seen them in a while, don’t wait for “them to call you.”
  2. Be humble and willing to learn and serve. 
  3. Keep any complaints about their country to yourself 
  4. Be flexible to do things their way sometimes.  Where I live, this means being open to spontaneity, as in “Can I come over right now?”
  5. Give your relationships time.  Building trust can be slow business.
  6. Be honest about your own struggles (I believe this is one of the greatest keys to impacting the lives of national believers.)
  7. Approach them as equals, people who can encourage you.
  8. Visit them in their homes. In our corner of the world, it is normal to call up and ask if you can come over.  This was hard to get used to, but we suspect new friends are initially more comfortable receiving us in their home than visiting us.
  9. Don’t let uncertainty about how to receive visitors or what to cook hold you back from inviting people into your home. You won’t be perfect, but you’ll learn. 
  10. Don’t take it personally if they refuse your invitation the first time. They may truly be busy or they may feel unsure about you. Give it time and invite them again!

Warm, positive relationships with Turks open the door to greater understanding of differences and give me more tolerance for the frustrations of living here. 

Question: What has been your experience with cross-cultural friendships? 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Turkish Treasures

I’m always looking for a reason to celebrate or have a party. This week my family experienced a joyful homecoming. We welcomed our fifth member, a young Turkish woman, back from HER six week trip to America.  Two days later we had a great time hosting a birthday party for her. 

Bahar surprised me by arriving two hours early the day of the party. Still under the effects of jet lag, she’d left work early to rest before our guests came. When the doorbell rang I was in shorts and a tank top, sweaty from working in a hot kitchen, and I hadn’t put on makeup or combed my hair all day. 

In my earlier days, when I was more preoccupied with being Mrs. Perfect and having everything go smoothly as planned, I would have been jolted by a visitor arriving two hours early while I was preparing for a party. But this time I was glad Bahar felt enough like family to come.  I set her up in a bedroom to rest while I made dinner, and ironed my clothes. Then Bahar made the salad and set the table while I got dressed. We had a quiet dinner with my husband and the kids at 6:30, followed by the hurry to get ready. 

It was a memorable party. The doorbell began ringing at 8:00, and we had about 15 guests who continued arriving until 9:30. My son left three or four times to collect first time visitors from the bus stop. Two guests broke their Ramadan fasts in my kitchen with left-overs from our dinner, the Mslm at 8:10 and the Chrstn at 8:30, while the others had cheesecake and snacks in the living room. One friend arrived with her huge dog, which stayed on our balcony 10 minutes before beginning to howl. I spent the evening between the kitchen and the living room, sitting down to talk with friends when I had a free moment. What I enjoyed most was hearing Bahar’s animated laugh as she talked with friends she hadn’t seen for six weeks.

True Value

If I left Turkey tomorrow, the most valuable thing I would take with me would be the friendships my husband and I have cultivated with Turks. It’s easy for cross-cultural workers like us to stay in our own cultural ghettos when it comes to genuine friendship, and in all honesty I am tempted to approach nationals as a teacher or mentor, instead of as a learner and friend. That’s a mistake I don’t want to make.

Let me introduce you to a few friends who enrich my life and consistently teach me new things:

  • Bahar, who is 15 years younger than I, continually shows me what faithfulness and loyalty look like.
  • Eda is a feisty, free-thinking literature teacher, a Mslm who freely explores all kinds of spiritual systems and beliefs. She has shown me something about how modern Turks think.
  • Handan is a pillar in her church, active in discipling others.  When I visit her, we laugh and talk plenty, but we always take time to read a scripture passage and pray together. From her I’ve learned about hospitality. Handan is always ready to welcome a guest with a glass of tea and homemade cookies from her freezer, even if her kitchen is piled with dishes and the living room is a wreck.
  • Elif is a working mother raising two children alone.  She is always excited to share the message with people God puts in her path.  From her, I’ve learned about joy in the midst of trial.

These are my Turkish treasures, friends that bring joy and value to my life. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

15 Hacks for Avoiding Burnout on the Field

Turnover of cross-cultural workers is high in our corner of the world. We’ve heard informal statistics indicating that over half the ex-pats serving in our country have been here two years or less.  In ten years we’ve seen foreigners leave for many reasons:  visa problems, difficulty learning the language and adjusting, job related stress, health issues, problems with children and their education, but I suspect the number one reason is discouragement. The soil is hard here and the fruit is slow in coming.

After an intense year working on a new outreach project while homeschooling, I had the opportunity to slow down this summer and invest extra time in my own personal life.  Now I feel refreshed and ready to face the challenges of seed sowing again.

Taking time for personal renewal helps to avoid burnout and increases our effectiveness.  Here’s my brainstorm list for spiritual renewal and avoiding burnout:

1.  Quiet Time.
Spending half an hour daily reading the Bible and listening for God’s voice gives me a fresh perspective on life every morning. It’s the backbone of my spiritual life.

2.  Invest in your Spiritual Growth.
Read Christian books, listen to podcasts, seek out a mentor or attend conferences when possible. One of my favorite on-line resources is the daily devotional, Word for Today.

3.  Make sure your goals are realistic.
My husband and I struggled over the slow progress of our new outreach effort until we realized that part of our discouragement stemmed from unrealistic expectations.  Others expect to come and master the language in just one or two years. Very difficult unless you are super human.

4.  Invest in your marriage.
My husband and I have a weekly date time, which started when we watched the Alpha Marriage Course DVD’s five years ago. We went on a marriage retreat for the first time last year while on furlough, and found it to be a great investment of time and money.

5.  Make time for fun with your family.
We have movie nights and play games while listening to vintage rock.  (Only my family has heard me belt out “Like a Rolling Stone” along with Bob Dylan!)

6.  Make sure your kids know the language and have local friends. 
This is important if you are homeschooling. We insist that our kids participate in at least one community extra-curricular activity each year. Other friends put their kids in local schools for a year or two. Bottom line: Kids struggle to be happy if they don’t know the language.

7.  Cultivate true friendships where you can be yourself and share your struggles, both with nationals and other foreigners.

8.  Continue learning new things.
Last year I joined a Turkish folk dancing class for several months.  This year I’ll be learning Latin with my kids.

9.  Enjoy a hobby. 
Check out Creative Contentment for a great example of someone who makes time for creative pursuits in Western Turkey.

10.  Follow a secondary (or primary) pursuit that gives you an outlet or additional avenue for fulfillment when spiritual fruit is slow to develop. This could be a secular job, a hobby, or academic studies. My outlet is being a “professional” homeschooling mother.

11. Reach out to others when you are lonely.

12.  Keep in contact with family and friends back home.

13.  Read for pleasure. 

14.  Get involved in your community.

15.  Make time for regular exercise.

What about you? Do you have any other suggestions or ideas for maintaining spiritual vitality and avoiding burnout?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Drums at 4 A.M.

Wake Up Call
The booming drum beat woke my husband and me at 4 a.m. on Monday, a reminder that it was the first day of Ramadan. As I lay trying not to wake up, I heard the lonely drummer walk up one side of our block and down the other, the beating drum growing fainter and then louder again as he turned the corner.  If I’d gotten out of bed, I would have seen kitchen lights flicker on in the darkness.

For us the 4:00 a.m. drummer is a minor nuisance, interrupting our sleep.  For our neighbors who are fasting, it is a call to action.  Women rise to prepare the pre-dawn meal and everyone drinks as much water and tea as possible before 6 a.m. to be able to make it through the day until the evening prayer call at 8:30, which signals the end to the fast.

Fasting from food and water is quite hard, if not dangerous, during the cruelly hot and long August days. Housewives and retirees tend to sleep a bit more during the day, but many working people keep to their regular schedule, despite the sleep deprivation caused by getting up at 4 in the morning.

It’s a month of hardship but also revelry; the 8:30 iftar is a festive meal.  Special dishes are prepared; dried fruits and baklava are eaten.  Grocery stores set up Ramadan displays stocked with dates and ingredients for Turkish sweets.  Television commercials feature special products. Restaurants offer iftar menus. Some people actually gain weight during this month of fasting.

This month is a tangible reminder of the pervasive presence of Islam.  Amazingly many people who do not practice their faith during the rest of the year make it a point to fast during this special month. People spend more time praying and reading the Koran. It’s a special time for giving to the poor. 

How my life changes
Many fellow ex-pats don’t like this month.  Some say that they sense heightened spiritual darkness and oppression.  By 5 o’clock in the afternoon tempers flare in the markets, on the streets, and on the buses. Caffeine and nicotine withdrawal has got to be hard for this nation of tea drinkers and smokers.  

Here’s how Ramadan affects me. I try to:

1.  Lay low and rest a bit from visiting friends during the day. Many of them are fasting, but if I go visit them, 
they will insist on offering me food or drink.

2.  Look at it as a time to focus on praying for our friends.

3.  Be aware of spiritual influences.  I don’t like to look for the devil under every rock when things go wrong, but I remember James 4:7. "Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."

4.  Thank God again for my salvation.

5.  Crank up the music and worship Him!

6.  Look at Ramadan as special opportunity for dialogue with friends. It’s easy to bring up spiritual topics right now.

7.  Be careful about eating and drinking in public. Many locals don’t fast, and it’s not illegal here to eat and drink on the street, but I want to be respectful.  This means we don’t eat family meals on the balcony any more.   

T i  This is a picture for you of the most overriding current event going in my corner of the world. It will continue until August 29th. Would you consider joining us to pray for a special touch for these dear people who represent 1/5 of the world’s population?