17 October 2013

12 Years in Kenya; I am a Triangle - An Illustration of Me

I have been aware for some time now that I have become different... that I’ve changed by living in a foreign land and among foreign people. In many ways, since God sent me to live in Kenya, it has not been easy when I’m back home in the States. It’s subtle but it’s ever present.

It certainly doesn’t seem like going ‘home’ should be so hard.  

After all, it’s where I was born and lived for the first 45 years of my life. This tension or anxiety is rather non-descript. I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on it for my own understanding, let alone put it into words for others.

Let me share one innocuous, almost silly, example:

Because of Kenya’s year-round temperate climate, if a store or office is open for business, there are no doors. Patrons simply walk in to the premises. In the evening, when said business closes – to be sure – large metal doors are closed making the establishment secure. But in the daytime – during open hours – there are no doors for customers to open or close.

While recently in the States, so many times I was confused by doors. Are they automatic or manual? Do they open in or out; do I push or pull? Just when I was getting used to automatic doors – the kind that are programmed to open as you approach them – I would encounter a manual door and practically walk right into it. I was expecting it to open. One particular time I kept pushing on a door, until a man showed me I needed rather to pull it open.

Okay... where is a hole where I can hide?

Such awkwardness is compounded greatly when it comes to relationships and interacting with people whom I know. I actually feel clumsy when greeting Americans. Do we hug, and if so, do we turn to the right or to the left? Do I shake hands with this person? Or do we kiss?

Of course, it goes way deeper than doors and greetings.

I don’t know who I am or what my role is when I’m back. During each of my field-stays (my time in Kenya), my friends and family back home inevitably experienced things that I missed out on. And, of course, they likewise have not experienced the things I experienced while I was in Kenya. It can be hard to connect like we used to, almost like there’s some kind of invisible barrier.

Part of me mourns each time I go back.

In the past, the best way I knew how to describe this vague and uncomfortable feeling, was to liken it to arriving in the middle of a conversation. I don’t quite know what’s already been said in my absence and I don’t quite know what my contribution to the conversation should or could be.

Or… do I even I fit into the conversation? Will what I have to say make any sense?

Four years ago, when I attended a Missionary Debriefing Retreat at Mission Training International, we were taught something that stuck with me:

For every one year that I’m away in Kenya, it’s as if two years have passed between myself and my friends or family members. During each other’s absence, we have both been growing and maturing – often in different directions. This factor is like doubling my time away… and our time apart from one another.

While I was at the retreat this year, our discussion-group leader shared a fairly simple – and yet quite apt and enlightening – illustration with us. She enhanced it with simple drawings.

As Beth brought her illustration to a close, I had tears in my eyes. A box of Kleenex was passed around to others in my group. Each one of us sat silently and let the impact sink in.

I found it to be quite profound.

I share it with you, in the hopes that you’ll get a glimpse into my reality. Please read through it slowly so you can adequately absorb the concepts. Allow the simple illustrations to enhance my words.

It’s not just a thesis; it describes me.

I AM A TRIANGLE - The illustration

People living in Circle Country are Circles. Even though each and every Circle is slightly different, with their own personalities and nuances… they all function and think entirely according to their Circle Culture. This Circle Culture has a subtle influence over how every Circle behaves and thinks about a variety of issues. Generally speaking, there are certain norms to which all Circles ascribe. The influence of Circle Culture begins from the moment a baby Circle is born.

These cultural issues, distinctions, and norms would include such things as:

·         perspectives on birth, birth order, and the circle of life
·         their take on dying and death
·         views about the world
·         whether or not the culture is based on Honor/Shame, Truth/Guilt, or Power/Fear
·         attitudes toward conflict resolution
·         simple things like food preferences and celebration of holidays
·         styles of greeting one another
·         proper ways to leave someone’s home
·         concepts about money and the sharing of resources
·         philosophies on time-management and time-keeping
·         beliefs regarding the role of women in society and the treatment of the elderly
·         attitudes and behavior toward the poor and needy
·         outlooks on changing ones environment verses allowing nature and fate to take its course
·         whether or not there exists a culture of reading or a general curiosity about the world
·         how God interacts with mankind
·         distinctions between a society based on community and one that applauds and favors the individual
·         matriarchal or a patriarchal society

Naturally the list can go on and on. In addition to these viewpoints, philosophies, and attitudes that are peculiar to Circle Culture, each Circle also has a history of sharing life and experiences together and building memories with other Circles.

If a Circle gets on a plane and flies to Square Country to live, she will land in the midst of Square people. All of these Squares function entirely according to their Square Culture. And just like the Circle Culture influences all Circles, so the Square Culture influences all Squares beginning at birth.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that these two cultures are vastly different from one another. Simply stated - and forgive my being redundant - one is a Circle Culture and the other is a Square Culture. In one, all the people are yellow. In the other, all the people are blue.

While Circle person lives in the midst of Square people, she may adapt to a degree. She may come to value and admire some of the practices and attitudes of the Squares and their Square Culture. Circle person may experience a certain level of comfort living in Square Country and some things may rub off on her. But she won’t ever quite fully absorb the culture of Square Country. As much as Circle person may eventually feel like she fits in…. she simply will never truly belong. She will never truly be a Square; she is, after all, a Circle.

However, by living within Square Country and while surrounded and influenced by Squares, Circle person will lose a bit of being a Circle. It happens subtly and over a period of time, as she embraces some of Square Culture. It’s very imperceptible, but in her heart, she realizes more and more that she’s not as yellow as she used to be.

Now not quite 100% a Circle and certainly not a Square, she will live life in the ‘in-between’. 

It will be as if she has transformed into a Triangle Person. She has undergone a metamorphosis, deep down inside.

Her shape and her color have evolved into a different shape and color. She has the tints of her two life experiences – yellow and blue – but they have now become green.

She’s different. Without knowing it, she slowly and unconsciously changed by living in that different country – Square Country – and by being surrounded by a different environment with a different culture – Square Culture. She slowly realizes she has a mixture of the two worldviews and other cultural distinctions. She has shared life and many Square experiences with Squares. She has created a history within Square Country.

But it’s not a bad thing. It seems very natural and okay to her.

Now… if this newly developed Triangle person gets on another plane and returns to her original Circle Country, she won’t return as a Circle person. She boards the plane as a Triangle Person. She’ll remain the Triangle she has become.

Once arriving back in Circle Country, she will realize she doesn’t quite fit in there anymore. The vast majority of Circles have never left Circle Country, or perhaps just for a visit. This new Triangle has to realize and accept that it’s not their fault; Circle people simply have no point of reference to relate to their friend, who is now no longer a Circle like them... but a Triangle.

As a Triangle Person, she begins to realize she’ll always be a little bit of a Circle as well as a little bit of a Square. She’ll never quite fit in like she used to in her own country and in her own culture.

Back then – when she was a Circle in Circle Country – it was so comfortable and easy. Nothing seemed to require any effort. 

Now things are awkward. Everything seems different. Sometimes she finds it to be really hard.

She wasn’t expecting this. However, it’s inevitable. It is simply the nature of the beast.

Now she’s somewhere in the middle, not fully a Circle anymore, and not a Square either. She lives and exists in the in-between.

She realizes and comes to accept that she is – and will always be – a Triangle. She will always live in-between two countries, two cultures, and two shapes of people. 

This is me.

I am a Triangle person.

When I’m in Circle Country, I am a Triangle.

And when I’m in Square Country, I am a Triangle.

No matter where I am, I will always feel like I’m different.

I will always feel like there’s some sort of dis-connect.

It is what it is.

And it’s okay. I have accepted it.

I am, and always will be, a Triangle.

~       ~       ~      ~       ~       ~      ~       ~       ~      ~       ~       ~

I hope this illustration will help you understand me better. 

Please leave me a comment. It just takes a moment.

By the way, I posted a slightly different version of 'I am a Triangle' at Thrive Ministry's online magazine. You can see it here.

My daughter Naomi is also a 'Triangle', having lived abroad for four years (in both India and Singapore). She recently blogged about this illustration, too. You can see her version by clicking here.



Anonymous said...

Although I was only gone for a little over 2 years, I relate strongly to this post. A great illustration of what it's like to live in another culture and then come back "home."

Anonymous said...

Makes complete sense. Somehow it also makes me want to become a triangle...strangely enough I think it makes a person more rounded (excuse the unintentional pun). Kelly

Gary Wiram said...

A very good cross-cultural lesson. I'd be interested to know what you've found Scripture to say about this. BTW, Pastor Jack Sedgwick (who married my Wife and I) was a missionary in Kenya, with his Wife Dottie, for seven years. I've subscribed to your blog. Check mine out at http://ebenezerposts.com/.

Anonymous said...

Exactly what it feels like... thank you for sharing! In my opinion accepting is the most important part...to be happy. Enjoy life :-)

Thirza said...

Thank you for sharing this. Having lived abroad from 1992 until 2011 and then having repatriated to our "home" country of Switzerland (where I have never lived as an adult for more than a few months at a time), I can certainly relate to this "triangle" picture. We've been back for almost two years now and I can honestly say I haven't "arrived" yet. It helps to just accept that I will always be different, as will my children, who spent their first formative years in Kyrgyzstan. It doesn't make it easier, necessarily, but it does help. Thanks!

deb said...

Gary, I'm glad you liked the triangle analogy. It really impacted me when I heard it.

I found your question about related Scripture to be intriguing. What comes to my mind are the many references to our being aliens and strangers on this earth (ex: Psalm 39:12; 1 Peter 1:1, 2:11).

deb said...

Anonymous and Thirza, I'm glad you also connected with the illustration. I agree: acceptance of the reality of being triangles is key.

deb said...

Sarah, having visited you in Uganda... I would say your 'little over two years' transformed you into a bona-fide triangle :)

Kelly, cute pun!

Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought about the triangle illustration but it so perfectly illustrates what happens. I'm sure my two daughters (who have lived abroad), would agree too. I saw how both didn't quite fit in overseas or here at "home". Nancy

Anonymous said...

This blog on being a triangle was quite thought-provoking. It makes perfect sense, but it has to be difficult being a part of two cultures and not perfectly comfortable in either one.

The Budo Bum said...

I highly recommend this book to anyone traveling and living across cultures. "The Art Of Crossing Cultures" by Craig Sorti. It includes a chapter or two on reverse culture shock. I think you will find it helpful. I also think that suggesting that you will never really fit in does you a disservice. Of course you will not fit in as you used to at home, but you will create a new way to fit that suits the new you.

deb said...

Budo Bum, thanks for the book recommendation. I've put it on my 'wish list'. And thanks for the encouragement about creating a 'new way to fit in that suits the new me'. I like that!

Anonymous said...

I read your posts and Naomi's and found them very thought provoking. I moved to the UAE 4 years ago for a job. I'm now 62 years old and a grandmother of 3 young kids back in the States. I have a great life here and freely admit it will be difficult to go back 'home'. Many people assume that I am just here to make money and counting the days until I can leave. Actually I wish my kids could have the experience I've had. I consider that I've been changed for the better.

Carol Beckx said...

Both your post and Naomi's have found their way to me at a most opportune time. I emigrated to Australia three years ago and will be travelling back to visit family and friends at the end of November for the first time since I left.
I have thought that it would be strange to be back - now after reading this, I go more prepared as I realise that I have become a triangle person.

deb said...

Marge, I guess 'it is what it is'. It's my reality. There are pros and cons to it, just like everything in life. But, in general, I believe I've grown in many ways through my experience of living in a foreign culture.

deb said...

Nancy, I would love to hear your daughter's thoughts on the subject!

deb said...

Anonymous, thanks for leaving a comment! I also feel that I have changed for the better through my experience living abroad.

deb said...

Carol, glad Naomi and I could help out as you prepare to make a visit home!

Anonymous said...

Hi Deb. I have lived in various countries. And that feeling of not belonging when you go back home. .. woah! Not easy. But I wouldn't change it for anything. Our world view changes and we are all the better person for it.

Anonymous said...

You rock, deb. thanks so much for this... you referred me to this a while back but i finally got around to reading it. ry

deb said...

Anonymous, I like how succinctly you summed it up. And I agree: 'We are all the better person for it'.

Ryan, fellow Triangle, I'm glad you read it!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let you know this article has really blessed a LOT of folks. I have forwarded it to many people and it has helped them tremendously.

God has given you such a wonderful gift and you share it so well. Thank you so much for your obedience to the call and all you are doing to further the Kingdom there in Kenya and beyond.

Hugs! Kathy

deb said...

That's cool, Kathy. Thanks for passing it around! My daughter also shared it on her blog, in a post about the same 'triangle' illustration. Her's had been viewed over 15,000 times and mine has now had over 1,300 views! Seems there are a LOT of 'triangles' out there!

Jules said...

I came here from your daughter's blog.. you guys did such a great job explaining what so many of us former expats feel. I had a lot of problems when grocery shopping when I came back from Kenya, the shopping culture is so different. Mostly very small differences, the way the attendants talk to you, the questions the cashiers ask you, the order of things, all of that combined made me dread every trip to the store. I simply didn't know how to act, to respond, nothing was coming out naturally. The part on how you have to double the years makes so much sense... it puts things in a whole new light.

Anonymous said...

We truly understand your blog. Our son and daughter were home schooled for high school in Fiji and we all returned to the states to put them into college feeling different - never really fitting back into the American culture. No one really caring what happened with our lives while we were gone. We could tell them what we did for three years and they would tell us what the latest movie they saw was. Just no understanding of our lives.

Our daughter is now in Thailand; our son was in Australia but is now moving to South Africa with his South African wife and we are back in Fiji. Where do we fit in? Right where God wants us.

deb said...

Jules, I'm glad you liked both of our renderings :) I wholeheartedly agree with you about shopping in the US. Whenever possible, I use the self-checkout lanes!

Anonymous, I completely understand what you mean by this comment: "We could tell them what we did for three years and they would tell us what the latest movie they saw was. Just no understanding of our lives." It's really hard, isn't it?

Here's a great quote by Oswald Chambers: "You feel amazed at the sense of God's call, and in your eagerness you talk to someone about it, and you find that they much prefer to talk about their breakfast."

Superb final comment - "Where do we fit in? Right where God wants us."

Michelle said...

Read your daughters article, which lead me to yours...
Will be returning home after 16 years away and the range of emotions I am going through is huge...
This helped so much :)

deb said...

Michelle, I'm glad the illustration helped. Wow, 16 years away is a long time. Hope your return goes well!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I just stumbled across it and am so thankful for it..as I am home on a short visit and finding that I am DEFINITELY a triangle trying to connect in this circle world I call home! Thanks for putting some clarity to what I'm feeling and experiencing!

Kerri said...

Thanks for sharing this - I saw your daughter's post on my friend's FB page and then clicked on your blog! I was overseas for 2 years - when I read that for each year over - it's like being away for 2 - so that makes 4 years! That sure helps me understand myself even better because I though 2 years was hardly anything! I am now in my "circle country" but in a whole different type of circle than where I born and raised. My experience living overseas has helped me in my experience now with adjusting to this very different circle!
I'm very happy to be a triangle! :) It's just kinda lonely sometimes, but I keep seeking out other triangles - they get me, even though they weren't in the same square country I was in...
Thanks again for sharing!

deb said...

Anonymous and Kerri, thanks for stopping by my blog. Glad you both found some benefit from the illustration!

ReloLanding said...

Thank You, Deb for a great article. I love the illustration… makes so much sense! I have posted the link on my facebook page - hope you don’t mind.
I know exactly what you are talking about. After 10 years in the US, I moved back to Germany 16 month ago. After going through all the struggles a re-entry shock has to offer myself, I decided to make use of my skills and training and started coaching repats. I would love to use your idea/illustration with my clients….. I am sure they will also benefit from it.

Anonymous said...


I have identified so much from this article about being a triangle, that I want to use it as a topic in a digital storytelling story. It will be a personal narration, but I would like to illustrate this illustration, would it be possible to use a couple of images about the circle, square country and becoming a triangle.
Many thanks

Kimberly said...

Ha, look how long it's been since someone commented! I found this through a link on Naomi's blog article; I found her blog (recommended by a young woman at my church I had NO idea had lived in India for 4 years) right before moving to Vietnam for a year with my husband to do something totally different, at age 54! I was a bit scared about adapting to a new culture and I've always wondered why people ever want to be "expats." (I am very familiar with missionary culture and have dear friends who were at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya for years, and another friend who attended boarding school in Kenya while her Canadian/British dad was in business there) Naomi's triangle group is amazing and has helped me so much in adapting and knowing I'm not alone and being able to laugh at crazy situations. I love the triangle illustration! I both look forward to going home in 4 months and also dread it a little, knowing to expect some difficulties. Now I am happy to follow your blog, Deb, and someday I hope to go to Kenya, maybe we can meet. The world is growing smaller all the time! Thanks for sharing this cool illustration.

deb said...

Kimberly, it's great to still get comments on this blog post... especially after an almost 2.5-year gap! I know RVA, as I have friends in Kijabe. That's great you're on the Triangle Facebook page and that it helps out. Hope it goes well for you as you resettle back at 'home'.


ereno said...

Also found this link through Naomi's group. I just cried a little bit while reading your explanations, especially your list of cultural expectations and norms because I've been exposed to this for many years having married someone from a different culture (my husband is from Istanbul and I'm from the US). We recently left the US and moved to Dubai and while here I used Facebook to find and join many groups where I could hopefully meet people who understand - but this, especially this, gave me something to hold on to: "no matter where I am I will always feel like I'm different...
I am and will always be a triangle!"

deb said...

Thanks for taking a look at this blog post, ereno. That final comment also really hit me when I first heard the Triangle explanation! "I am and always will be a triangle!"

I recently heard that same concept put a bit differently:

"My cross-cultural sojourn means I will never again feel at home in a mono-cultural environment." ~ Crossing Cultures in Scripture, Marvin J. Newell