the business of belonging

“Fifteen more weeks!” my daughter shouted from her bedroom. “We go home in 15 weeks!”

The rest of the kids started yipping and hollering and doing out loud (everything is out LOUD in this house) calculations about what fifteen weeks means exactly. As I listened to them jittering away, I found myself growing increasingly irritated and annoyed. My children haven’t transformed into the cultural chameleons I want them to be, dagnabbit. Why can’t they relax into the experience and savor this special time that we have away from It All, together, in an exotic, foreign land? Why must they always be hankering after our same old boring routines? Aren’t they enjoying this at all? I
mean, come on kids! Be bold, be brave, be strong, CONQUER!

But mostly, I’m irritated at myself because I feel exactly the same way. More and more, my mind is occupied with thoughts of home and all the things I miss. It’s not classy to wallow and whine, and I’m aware that doing so only highlights my inability to adapt well, but whatever. I’m not classy.

Things I Miss: my kitchen, netflix, my bed, dress boots, a real haircut, the van, fresh strawberries, the public library, phone conversations, amazon, sourdough bread, a spacious house, two bathrooms, a toilet that doesn’t plug up with just one small poo, soft chairs and sofas, the fireplace, the yellow-green of new spring, not wearing a backpack, bagels, sausage, salads, homeschooling, knowing what’s going on, church, the five-o’clock glass of wine, screened windows, central vac, etc, etc, etc (for pages). But most of all I miss ease, convenience, freedom, connection, belonging, friends and family, and Being With My People.

Sundays are hardest. It’s the day when everyone hangs out with their friends and family and since we don’t have friends and family to hang out with, it kind of stinks. Plus, there’s nothing to do. Schools are closed, market is mostly shut down, nobody’s online, and there is nowhere to go. It’s the perfect opportunity to fall into the pit of despair and splash about, and I’m not one to pass up a perfect opportunity, no matter how depressing, woe is me.

Of course, no one excepts anyone to go to a foreign country for a few short months and develop life-long friendships and a profound love and acceptance of a place that’s so wildly different from home, least of all me.

Except, I kind of expect that of myself. Or at least I wish it for myself. I wish I was the type of traveler who made instant connections and wrote home glowing reports about making tamales while  having life-altering conversations with the locals. Because the people who can bridge the cultural gap with such ease are the ones who are really good at their work, obviously. Anyone less than that is just an imposter. An overseas worker wannabe.

The thing is, thanks to personality, skills, temperament, something, fitting into Central American culture is, for me, clumsy and awkward. I knew this about myself after living in Nicaragua for three years, and I’m grappling with the boring reality that I haven’t changed one whit since then. One part of me knew this all along and is genuinely okay with the fact that I do my deepest connecting on home territory, but another part can’t shake this crazy hope that I’ll somehow, someway, someday start to feel like I belong here (or in any Spanish-speaking country, for that matter).

One of my friends—a woman I’ve looked up to ever since the very first chapel of my college career in which she seared into my brain the importance of keeping the Sabbath—has spent a fair bit of her life in Central America. She and her husband met while working in Nicaragua. They raised their family in both Central America and the States. They host study tours to Central America. They sing their mealtime prayers in Spanish and eat lots of beans and rice. Heck, they even adopted a child from Central America! By all appearances, they are The Real Deal Workers. The ones who fit in, make connections, belong. They have successfully bridged the gap.

At the beginning of our term, in a delightful turn of events, they were able to visit us in our home. We were lingering at the table (after the pancake breakfast, maybe?) when I admitted my insecurities, my sneaking suspicion that I’m not cut out for this type of work. My proof: I have never made deep friendships. I’ve never felt like I belong.

Her swift response sent me reeling: AND YOU THINK I DO?

Ever since that conversation, I’ve been gentler with myself. I still wish being overseas felt more natural. But just because I don’t want to call Guatemala my home until I’m a shriveled up prune doesn’t mean I don’t have an ability to work here. If my friend can rock the international living thing and feel the same way I do, then guess what: I can (try to) rock this business, too.

The only problem is, most days it doesn’t feel like I’m rocking any business, least of all mine.

But maybe that’s beside the point? I sure am hoping so.


  • Anonymous

    Thanks for being honest here. Larisa showed me your blog, and everyone once and awhile I pop over for a look 🙂 I can relate to a lot of what you mention about just not feeling like I ever fit in or have those mystical friendships that cross all culture and language barriers. If my job is supposed to be that ambiguous "relationship building", how do I work here? It is challenging, and I am still trying to figure out exactly that means to my life in this community, but it does help to know that others are experiencing the same things.

  • Becky

    You are far braver than I for even trying this adventure! No doubt you will all look back on this fondly. Just after you get that real haircut in your boots and sleep in your own bed.

  • Anonymous

    I'm an art lover…..always have been. And…I wanted my daughter to love art as much as I did, so I dragged her to one gallery and museum after another. Every vacation was punctuated with visits to museums and galleries. She moaned and groaned and would tell her friends how intolerable her vacations were because of all the art. I guess I expected too much…….then years later when she was a college student studying in Europe and found herself in Vienna on holiday, she called me one evening, so excited she could barely find periods at the ends of sentences. "Mom", she blurted, "I found the most wonderful gallery right near my hotel; the art is superb and I'm bringing back some wonderful prints for you to frame for my room!!!" There's nothing like time and perspective to make it all right. This is an experience that will enrich their lives……..and you will live to know it! Angela Muller

  • melodie davis

    Let's hear it for kids who express what we can't say sometimes. I've been homesick during at least three times of newness: in VS in Kentucky, in Spain as a junior year abroad student, and also when my family moved to Florida. You can tell the kids the weeks will go by too fast from here on out. I'm betting that at least two of your kids will do this same thing some day… and you can go visit them and cheer them up. 🙂

  • the domestic fringe

    If I were there, I think I would be crying in my tortillas by now. I admire you and your whole family for the work you are doing, whether you fit in or not.

  • Kathy

    How to make friends when you are overseas for an extended period of time:
    1- find commonalities (In China the noodle shop lady had a daughter the same age as my daughter, so they would play together & Grandma would show me how to cook. I don't speak Chinese, they did not speak English, but we still laughed & talked in our native languages & somehow communicated.)
    2- Since I like to cook, I asked people "how do you make…." & they would show me. Often times I already knew how to make something, but it was more for the conversation & learning experience. While in Poland I learned how to make saffron chicken from a French lady & in China I learned how to make Hungarian Goulash from a Czech lady. It all starts with "can you show me?"
    3- Volunteer somewhere – libraries are always needing people to stock shelves
    4- Throw a party & invite the neighbors (or the teachers in your school)

    Remember that your interactions are also teaching your children how to interact.

  • Ellen

    I don't comment much, but I've been reading for about a year, I think. And I wanted to say that I appreciate you being honest about this. I have a desire to take the kids and go overseas for a year when they're older, but I worry that I just won't do a good job of integrating. (My husband works for the Justice Dept., and we could get a short term assignment potentially.) I didn't get to see much of the world growing up, but my hubby did (military brat), and I think he is better for it. You're reminding me not to have crazy high expectations for this potential adventure. Thanks. 🙂

  • Suburban Correspondent

    I totally get this. Realize that the effects on your children (and maybe even yourself) won't manifest themselves until after you get back. Realize that the homesickness is normal. I was away for a year (and not even in a foreign country!), and – on bad days – I would feel physical pain just picturing my front hall and how the door opened out onto a view of our townhouse neighborhood and all its goings-on. I'd imagine standing on the hardwood floor of the foyer and I could FEEL how everything looked and the sense of belonging I had there. Words can't describe it. But I think what I missed most was that feeling of being able to relax, of knowing where everything was, knowing all the people I saw. Just fitting in, you know? It's exhausting being somewhere new, with all your normal routines blown to pieces and having to re-invent the wheel on everything, everyday.

    You know what's awesome? Those first few weeks at home – I thought repeatedly that that was what heaven must feel like, coming home. It was worth being away just to have that feeling.

    • katie

      And I remember as a kid, being (not foreign, but different) places with my parents and they were dismayed that I was grumpy the whole time and bent on being back home again. But in my mind, it was a particularly impactful trip, one that taught me much and gave me so many experiences I still refer to today. Stuff like that is often not fun to live through and it would be way easier to just be home — hence some homesickness, ornery-ness — but even as a 10 or 12 or whatever age I was, a kid can learn to love the experience after the fact.

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    I can't help but think about the ways you are impacting the women you are working with…just spending time and teaching and laughing and chatting. Sometimes it's the little things that count…you just never know what little bits of encouragement and wisdom you are imparting to them. Just remember, small changes can make a big difference… Just be yourself and follow God's lead…that's all He requires of us.

  • Mama Pea

    Regardless of what you think (or imagine or wish) you may want, what came through to me in this post is the fact that you have a very fulfilling, meaningful, satisfying, happy life at home. And for that, dear lady, oodles and scads and whole big bunches of people would gladly trade you for the life THEY are living. (Your kids' attitudes regarding this adventure they are currently having [not at all bad] also indicates the wonderful childhood you and your husband are giving them . . . at home.)

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