On Living Cross-Culturally

Teaching in a land far away, long, long ago…

You may or may not know this about me: I lived in Japan for three years. I was a few weeks shy of my 25th birthday when I went there on an exchange-teaching program through Charles County Public Schools. I was an “Assistant English Teacher” (or AET) for the city of Koshigaya, just north of Tokyo, working primarily in the public middle schools, working with other AET’s from around the globe; we were recruited from any country where English is the first language. And even though I started that adventure 20 years ago, some of the things I learned and experienced still profoundly impact my life.

When I first arrived in Japan, everything was new and different. Learning to stay to the left instead of the right when riding the escalator or walking down the street. Adjusting to the very, very different school system there. Figuring out how to use the rice cooker in my apartment. Remembering to take off my shoes when entering – and figuring out how to do it gracefully (something I fear I never, ever mastered.) Learning how to ride the train system – and how to strategically be squished in a small space with hundreds of strangers while lurching down the track. Quickly learning that azuki bean paste looks a lot like chocolate filling at the bakery – but tastes completely different! Trying sushi for the first time. Remembering to always carry a pack of tissues with me since the train station bathrooms don’t have toilet paper – and realizing that at every train station, someone will be giving them away with advertising on them if I forgot them. (The key, however, was remembering that BEFORE using the restroom – and making sure the tissue packs I accepted were not pornographic!)

So many, many adjustments. So much to learn. Behaviors to change. Things to remember. Working hard to learn the language (something else I never mastered.) Adjusting.

Until one day, I forgot.

I forgot I was living in Japan. Life became normal again. What once was strange was now commonplace. What once was frightening was now understood (even if not accepted). What once was mysterious, awe-inspiring and magnificent (like seeing Mt. Fuji from my apartment when the wind blew away the smog) became insignificant. Life became routine.

Until it didn’t.

Every once in a while, something would happen that would throw me. It would remind me – usually harshly – that I was LIVING IN JAPAN. This was not my home. This was not my culture. I was a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes that realization was triggered by a happy occurrence. Often, it was triggered by something awful. But it always came like a bucket of cold water dumped over my head.
You may or may not know this about me: 41 years ago, I made the commitment to be a Christ-follower. I was only 4 at the time and certainly did NOT understand all the implications of what it means to say “Yes” to Jesus’ offer of eternal life. But when I was 4, I understood that I was a sinner, that Jesus died to take the punishment for my sins, and that I needed to accept that gift for myself.

As I have journeyed through this life, I have grown in my understanding of what that means and in my commitment to being a Christ-follower. I have learned many new and amazing things as I have studied God’s Word. He has shown up in my life in incredible and astonishing ways, over and over again. Providing for my needs. Bringing just the right song at just the right time. Making a verse stand out in neon as I read His Word. Answering prayer. Guiding my steps.

But I often forget.

I forget that this world is not my home. I forget that I am a stranger in a strange land. I forget that I am not living for the here and now but for eternity. I forget to “seek first the Kingdom of God and HIS righteousness”. I forget that many, many of the people around me do not have a personal relationship with God. They have not been forgiven because they have not asked. They have not seen prayers answered because they do not believe. I forget that I have one purpose and one purpose only – to glorify God. This life is not about me. My comfort. My happiness. My successes. Or my failures. My struggles. My needs. This life is not about me. It is a short, temporary journey leading to an eternal home. And that is not just true about me – it is true about every person I meet. Their lives, like mine, are “flowers quickly fading”. And their lives, like mine, are short, temporary journeys that will end in an eternal destination – life with God forever or life separated from Him. My sole purpose in life is to be a gigantic, glowing, flashing sign that says, “God loves you. He wants to be your friend. I know because He says so in His Word, and because He is my friend – let me point the way to Him.”

When I forget all that, life gets really, really hard. And really, really complicated. When I try to live like I am in charge, like I get to call the shots, like I get to write and run the playbook, life stinks. It is always messy because we are all sinners living in a sinful, fallen world – regardless of what I am remembering. But that mess gets magnified and I seek to be glorified when I forget who I am – and Whose I am – and that this is NOT all there is. It makes me grateful for the buckets of cold water that get dumped over my head by life. Sometimes by glorious things, like standing in awe of His creation. But often by harsh things that I would rather not have to endure. But I am grateful for them, either way. Because they drive me to remember. They drive me to the arms of God. They drive me to readjust my thinking yet again.

Those buckets of cold water remind me that:
I am not home yet.
Every day I am living cross-culturally.

And they force me to ask:
Will my life show that today?!
Will I choose my way today or His?
In how I drive?
How I speak?
What I watch, listen to, read?
How I respond to those with whom I disagree?
How I spend my money? My time? My energy?
And a thousand other ways.

It was impossible for me to blend in while I was living in Japan. Large, blue-eyed blondes with curly hair stick out over there. No matter how often I forgot, it was obvious to anyone who looked at me that I was not from there, that I was living cross-culturally.

Oh, may the same be said about me today! May it be obvious to ALL who see me that I am not home yet. And may it not take buckets of cold water to remind me of that fact. I want to live remembering.

How about you?

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