Did you ever have a new kid transfer your school from another country? And they didn’t know what MTV was and their shoes were really weird? Or have you met someone at a party and instantly you realize they know twelve words of English? Someone so culturally other that every moment of conversation with them is painful?
We’re those people right now. We’re the African kid who moved to your middle school after arriving in the US three weeks prior. And you were like, “You like Red Hot Chili Peppers?” and they were like, “From my tribe?”
We don’t share histories, we’re unfamiliar with the social norms. When my housekeeper pointed on a map to where the most famous Bollywood star lives, I said, “Mmm, okay,” and wondered who she was talking about.
We holidayed (look at me speaking all British) in Indonesia last week. On one hand it was amazing. We walked on a volcanic sand beach. We drank fresh kiwi-cucumber-lemongrass juices for breakfast. We posed with wild monkeys. On the other hand, the open space for our minds led us straight to a bit of sadness.
For the first time since moving to India, we didn’t just think fondly of our friends back home, we ached for them. I daydreamed about scratching my old, messy-haired dog on his big head while he pants in my face (I even miss his hot bad breath). We longed for conversations that didn’t involve a cultural hoop to jump through (“Oh, you’re from [insert Indian town I’ve never heard of here]. Is that a . . . uh, nice village?”). My mouth watered for pollo verde tacos (and waters again as I type this). We craved familiar.
Upon returning to our apartment in Mumbai, sunburned and toting a suitcase of dirty clothes, I decided that my life from here on out is doomed to difficulties. I may travel the world and have a wonderful husband and plenty of material wealth, but never again would I have another close friend. And then I remembered that I was experiencing jet lag and my thoughts could not be trusted. I cried anyway. I also prayed.
At our favorite restaurant two nights later I told Benson my fears, and he encouraged me to nurture the friendships I’m already beginning to form in India. He reminded me of women I admire and told me to keep pursuing those relationships.
In the Bible study I’ve joined in a tall building a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment, we’re studying Ruth, who took the steps she could when she found herself in a much lower spot than I’m in. For her, that meant picking up other farmers’ leftovers in a barley field in the middle of Bethlehem. What steps could I take?
Friendships in a foreign land don’t happen naturally because there’s nothing natural about befriending the new kid with the weird shoes. It’s similar to how I imagine dating in 1940. Somebody actually has to make deliberate moves. Formality is required.
I sent texts. I scheduled a lunch, a coffee, a time to pray. But God was steps ahead of me. When I picked up the phone with plans to ask one woman to get together, I saw that I already had a text from her saying that she couldn’t wait to hear how my vacation went. A few hours later I texted another woman to ask if we could meet. Her response: “I was just about to call you!” She invited me and Benson to spend the day with her family over the weekend.
Another woman, who is also an expat, and I met at Starbucks (yep they’re here, too). When I told her about the upside down vacation, she said their first vacation as expats was the same, that they’d spent the week staring shell shocked at one another. She knew the exact advice to give me to navigate this world. In short, manage my expectations.
A fourth woman. She’s wise and humble and in a position of leadership, so I know many others look to her for support. I didn’t want to hog such an precious resource. I chopped dates at the kitchen counter as Benson encouraged me to reach out to her anyway. I sent a shy text. I received a vulnerable one in return with a request for more friendship.
I cried again, this time at God’s goodness.
I’m left wondering, what is it that a familiar, same-culture, in-person friendship can give me that Christ can’t give me?
I want someone who really gets me, and I remember that my Creator knows me better than I know myself. I need a person who understands my hard stuff, and I think of Jesus praying so hard that His sweat was like blood. I crave comfort; He gushes it.
The year ahead of me looks hard, rich, fun, busy, slow, scary, amazingly blessed, much like the four months behind me. I pray I keep the mindset of picking up barley one step at a time while remembering that God is working ahead of me.