Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Beauty and Struggle of Building Friendships in Another Culture

My friend just posted a photo from last night. Each Wednesday these girls and a couple of others slip away after dinner with our families and meet a local restaurant or coffee shop. Sometimes we open our Bibles, sometimes we pray, this time we played Scrabble, often we just end up talking. That's what we long for, just talking. Ladies with whom we can share this unique stage of life with.

The photo reflects, for me, some of the best and toughest things about life here.

See, maybe five months ago, we had been here several months already and I had intentionally avoided getting involved in activities with other Westerners outside of language school. We picked an Indonesian church, my kiddo goes to an Indonesian school, and we were trying to spend our time in our neighborhood, involved in Indonesian events. See, I spent years as a child in a town like where a number of nonprofit international organizations stationed their bases around an international school, which led to a strong expatriate community. Which is really cool, except that meant that a lot of people could come and in the end spend hardly any time in the Indonesian community.

For me, this is really important. I want to be involved in the Indonesian community. It's why I'm here. I don't want to be isolated in a Western bubble, no matter how fun that bubble is.

But after a few months I talked to a friend at language school and we gathered some ladies to meet once a week, after the Indonesian community heads inside after dark and at the time our kiddos head to bed. I didn't want to take time away from our involvement in our local community, but I also recognized that chatting for five minutes on breaks from language school classes wasn't enough to build deeper relationships with the ladies there. And I know we are struggling - with cross cultural adjustment, being far from families, learning to be moms of little kiddos, figuring out marriage in this context, being Christians in a non-Christian culture, and being Westerners in Asia. I recognized that living a life of love here means loving... ALL of the cultures around me, including the Western one.

It has been so beautiful. Just a couple of hours a week for a few months, but there is this intimacy that is built quickly when you are sharing a super unique experience far from your families and community. It's the same it was in my childhood. We are different people and personalities with different backgrounds but when thrown together with a common faith and no other options from your own culture, there can be such warmth and love developed so quickly. Pretty cool.

But then also... discouraging. Because I've spent 8 months intentionally building relationships in my neighborhood, and I feel like in most cases I'm at that very beginning stage of friendship with the people around me. The contrast with the fast and nearly unintentional intimacy with these ladies from language school makes me sad in some ways, because oh how I long for that intimacy within the Indonesian culture. I wish that when we leave here I would be leaving dear Indonesian friends who had known my heart and I known theirs.

Time. It takes time. I struggled with this in Dallas too, when after two years of meeting regularly with folks from my church I still felt like we were all trying but I didn't feel close, you know? I didn't know or understand Texas or football or the Dallas mommy world, and my life was foreign.

But with time and commitment, it happened. Shared experiences and struggles drew us together even when the lack of other commonalities never changed. I settled into the culture, they grew used to my differences. It will be there same here. Once we settle in Papua after language school it will take time and probably quite a bit of loneliness to get to the point where shared experiences usher us into the community despite us being foreigners. As we come and experience death and births and marriages and struggles and growth - we will be a part of the body more and more. That is what I long for. That's the power of staying. That's the power of long-term.

There's also just the uniqueness of the type of relationship that I value. I feel at home and connected when there is this heart-level of conversation that might just be a very American thing, or a very Western thing? I don't know. For older women here with families, that type of friendship is rare. I am more likely to develop those friendships with the younger generation and... yahoo! ... we will be working on a college campus! But you know, it isn't just that type of relationship that is valuable. I want to learn to love well and not expect a certain type of culturally-determined intimacy. We do have friendships here with people that we really value and will miss. I think we will only understand it all in retrospect.

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