About a year ago I read a blog post about how living overseas is, by definition, stressful. Even in the best of times it isn’t easy. You can read it here: http://www.lauraleighparker.com/2012/03/stress-missionary/
People who have never lived overseas don’t get that. They don’t realize the perpetually high level of stress I live at. When I tried to explain it to the school nurse, she looked surprised. “You sometimes feel lonely? Really?” Well, yeah! But it isn’t just that. It’s everything else too.
Stress like the following:
1. Last Friday doughnuts were served in the school lunch. This only happens once a year. I love these egg doughnuts, but that doesn’t mean I know how to eat them. I glanced at a student sitting a few seats to my left. She neatly sliced and ate her doughnut with her chopsticks. I began to do likewise. The girl sitting to my right looked at my plate, looked at my face, then very deliberately picked up her doughnut with her fingers, broke it, and brought it to her mouth. Her gaze was fixed on me. It was clear she expected me to follow her actions. Later that day I went out to eat with my coworkers. There was a preset menu, so we were all served the same items. One of the items was a fish, sans head and tail. I ate the outside and left the bones on my plate. A teacher on my right asked, “Don’t you eat the bones?” I pointed out that the teacher across from me had left bones on her plate. “It’s okay either way,” the first teacher replied. Uh huh.
It sounds minor and it is. But it adds a certain amount of stress. I’ve learned a lot of Japanese table manners since coming, but I still get “the look.” I still have to pay attention to what those near me are doing. I can’t just zone while eating, or just enjoy myself and focus on the conversation. I always, always, always have to be aware of what I am doing.
2. I spend an hour or more a day studying Japanese. But I’m not fluent yet. It takes work to read. So sometimes, I don’t. In the grocery store I am, in many ways, illiterate. I pick items based on pictures, or memory of package design of something I liked before. I buy a lot of tofu, salmon, eggs, vegetables, and fruit because I don’t have to read more than the prices to navigate those sections. There is one brand of flour I buy, one brand of sugar, one brand of milk.
3. You know that awkward feeling when you realize something in the room atmosphere has shifted and you figured it out ten seconds later than everyone else? That happens several times a week here. I don’t pick up the verbal cues so it is the tones and the silences that give more away than anything else.
And that is just the basic stress. The stress that, no matter what else is going well, is always there.
The upside to this stress is that it means I have an immediate connection with other ex-pats. In the states I’m that awkward person that doesn’t know how to start a conversation with a stranger. I don’t do small talk well, and most of the time it makes me uncomfortable. Overseas, however, that all dissipates. I bond immediately with people who have that stressed ex-pat look. Not the ones with the “Isn’t it a rush to live overseas?” glow. But the ones whose faces read, “Even when I love the people around me and am grateful for my job, sometimes I just want to sit down and cry my eyes out.”
That is the context. The background my daily life here. Why am I giving it to you now? Because this week has been worse.
My group of ex-pat coworkers has been hammering out some team conflict for the past three weeks or so. It’s actually a really good sign, because all of this stuff was there last year but we shoved it under the rug. Now we are actually healthy enough as a team to deal with it. But it has been wearing, wearing to the point where I think we all need a two week break from the conflict resolution.
Then came an email from my dad. I don’t have all the details yet, but at a family reunion last weekend some of the issues we have as a family started to bubble up. Just like the situation with my coworkers, this is stuff that genuinely has to be handled. But trying to handle both of these are the same time is wearing me thin.
I find myself trying to pretend it doesn’t affect me. But my body betrays me. My shoulders are tense. Yesterday I felt like I had to work out, even though it was raining and it completely distresses the Japanese to see me running in the rain. I made it three miles before I was busted by the school nurse from one of my elementary schools. I went home, took a shower, and began eating chocolate. As strange as it sounds, I felt like God told me to eat some chocolate. Like I was supposed to acknowledge my weakness and accept the chocolate chemical high for the stress reliever that it was. I’m also tired, way more tired than I should be. I shouldn’t feel the need for this much sleep. And I shouldn’t have chest pains after I walk up a flight of stairs.
In the middle of this, I am grateful for three things:
1. These have been stressful weeks, but they are actually better than the weeks I had when I first realized the dysfunction. Last year when I saw my coworkers and I weren’t harmonizing, I felt overwhelmed with grief. Ditto for the months I spent in college trying to sort out my family issues. I dealt with all of the emotions from both situations months, if not years, ago. So now I empathize with those who are hurting and rationally try to pick up the pieces. I hurt, but it’s not the same.
2. I receive about three packages a year here. I don’t have a steady stream of care packages showing up at my door. Yesterday I received two. Both belated birthday gifts. Both perfectly timed. In the middle of instability in multiple sectors of my life, I needed two of my friends to wrap their arms around me from a distance.
3. I’m grateful for my relationship with God. What I want more than anything right now is to have a person who loves me unconditionally wrap his arms around me and just hold me. To give me strength by his sheer presence. To let me know by his love that everything will be okay. And in the gap of a human to do that, I’m not above visualizing Jesus doing that for me. He is exactly what I need.