I am an Island
“They love to take short-term trips over here…” a former co-worker and neighbor explained. He had moved from Indonesia to Singapore and was visiting after changing locations. Talking about Christians in his new host country, he continued, “…but when they’ve had enough, they retreat back home.”
I tucked that comment in my back pocket and continued on my journey until I read an author writing on cross-cultural work and money who brought up the word ‘insulation.’ Originally, it came from the Latin root, insulatus, meaning ‘made into an island.’ Now it means ‘to separate or cover with a non-conducting material in order to prevent the passage of heat, sound, etc.’
Who, me? Couldn’t be! And yet, after returning from our second home assignment, logging ten years since we made the move to Indonesia, my husband and I began to notice some uncomfortable feelings in our own hearts. We had become experts at being as connected or disconnected as we wanted with nationals, whether Christian or Muslim. Sure, sometimes things culturally go over our heads. Yet, sometimes we conveniently insulate ourselves, oh so subtly, just by using unspoken excuses like, “We’re foreign. I didn’t catch that in the local language. We live differently. We have different values.” The truth is, because of our position in life through our means and foreign-ness, we can easily retreat into our own homes, culture or even back to our own country whenever we want!
There are at least five levels of existence for people living cross-culturally:
- Fed-up—“I’ve had it; get out of my face; I can’t take anything else that’s new.”
- Distant—“God called me here—I’m here. Please leave me alone.”
- Functioning or floating – “Life’s good, I’m fine and stable. That’s enough for now.”
- Trying hard–“I’ve learned a lot, life’s good, but what does that word mean?”
- Intense–“Wow–this is close! I’m still learning a lot!”
The other day I was at a ladies neighborhood meeting. Each member wore her brown batik uniform, except me. I was in the States last year when they ordered them and haven’t yet succeeded in purchasing one. Everyone spoke the local dialect, except me. I’m still trying desperately to learn it. The tiny packed room was somewhat a blur of exchanging money, recording amounts, bantering back and forth, caring for the stray kids who ran in and out, etc. Since my language comprehension was limited, my other senses were quite heightened and I noticed facial expressions and tone of voice while I tried desperately to remember a few words to write in my notebook later without looking like I was engaged in language learning.
If I was Fed-up, I could have easily skipped the meeting. Or I could have been Distant and sat there disengaged, letting my mind wander and think about the barbeque chicken and mashed potatoes I was going to have for supper. I chose to Try hard–to make conversation, learn the names of the two ladies I hadn’t memorized yet and capture a few new words in the local dialect. It takes constant effort!
Perhaps the most dangerous and frightening possibility in all of this is to insulate my heart. I am referring not only to insulating myself physically or even mentally but putting a protective wall around my inner being and feelings to the point that I am not as caring, considerate, and loving as I should be toward nationals. If I invisibly separate my heart from them, they cannot get to me and I cannot really feel for them.
Who are some positive examples? I think about Jesus. He wept, He felt, He was moved by people’s needs. He saw their hurts and knew what was real. He honestly faced the people around Him and their life situations. I think about the apostle Paul. He kept his eyes and ears open and knew people’s scrapes and fights. He encouraged them towards love, peace, and joy. He prayed and pled on their behalf. He was real. I think about people around me today. One global working couple comes to mind. I see them laughing around the kitchen table with young people, crying with those in pain and using the local language as best they can. These are examples of people who are exposing their hearts, not insulating them.
In a cross-cultural living situation, there are times when we must become like an island. We must retreat, take a break and put up a protective wall in order to survive. When it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on! Be willing to truly look with honest eyes and listen carefully to those around you. Let yourself cry, laugh and dare to feel, even when it hurts. Expose your heart for the sake of the gospel rather than insulate it. I’ve found that the Holy Spirit opens my eyes and softens my heart to the people in my life who are His concern at the moment.
There is a common but heartfelt prayer that touches me to the core whenever I hear it come from the lips of economically poor Indonesian brothers and sisters before we eat a meal: “Thank you for this blessing…and we pray for those who at this moment have less than we have.” To me, it’s a perfect example of not insulating my heart.