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
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.
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.
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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.