Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Season Change

So, I feel like if you should know something about me. [Warning: You might not like it.] I’m not saying that I’m right, but I’m also not saying that I could be wrong—I’m just sayin’:

God created seasons.


In sports, in nature [I’m specifically concerned about food availability], in our human bodies, in retail, in life in general, and therefore, in relationships. Sometimes I think that my friends think exactly like me and agree with everything “we” think. And then, other times, one of them drags me back to reality by being totally not okay with some outrageous statement that I so nonchalantly make.

It was probably some highly emotional talk where I was feeling warm and fuzzy with a friend where I just so casually blurted out, “We probably won’t be friends when we’re gone from here.” Oh, and I probably smiled and nodded to encourage her imminent and obvious agreement. [Sometimes, I’m such a guy.] Instead of being met with a concurring motion, any agreement whatsoever, I had an upset and offended friend on my hands. For weeks. [Whoopsies. Was it something I said? This might’ve happened three times in two months. But who’s counting?]

I don’t mean to be rude, insensitive, mean or snobby-at all! I’m just thinking and saying what’s on my mind… only it doesn’t come out in the way I mean it, apparently. What I mean to do is express gratitude and show that I deeply appreciate this friendship in the right here and right now. I’m not really a “friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them” type of person. I mean, of course—call if you’re in town or if you remember that I can help you out with something, but in general, in the daily life realm of things, I have strong views on the straight facts that many people come and go, and much of the time, I’m one of those people to you. [Insert that tear-jerking “Footprints” poem here.]

Living overseas puts you in a constant state of making friends and losing friends. People cycle in and out with the seasons and the school years. Life is transient and so are a lot of relationships. But to me, that doesn’t need to be a show-stopper. Truth be told, I don’t want to have to make some life-long commitment to you just because we spent eight grueling, hot and sweaty hours bonding together under the desert sun atop ornery camels with unintelligible names and weeds growing out of their teeth. Diagnose and call me what you will, but I know my reality—I know how many random friends I make in a week [I talk a lot]—and I know how many people I can manage as a close friend. The number is relatively low. And I like that.

I also like how our Father knows how to care for us and give us what… and WHOM… we need at just the right time. I like having temporary friends who are clearly sent to me as a gift to meet a need, be someone I can help or to just delight in one another’s day or work, and then we travel on our ways.

Sometimes we’re friends for a season. And I’m okay with that. I’m really okay with that. I used to be made to feel guilty about that, but I’m resisting these days. I’m finding peace with this all because I know that God made seasons—He loves them, in fact. “There’s a time for everything…” And so I embrace it. True, it helps me to say goodbye and to say hello a little easier. [Sometimes it doesn’t.] But what I really love is that it reminds me that I don’t know if this friendship will be a, if I may, ‘perennial’ or ‘annual’ flower. I’m conscious of the fact that I should make the most of every opportunity, conversation and friendship, because I don’t know how much time I have to “give and take,” and I really just want to enjoy the ride, to be blessed and to be a blessing.

I miss friends today. I wish they were with me or I with them, but we’re apart or we’ve lost contact or I’ve intentionally or unintentionally “unfriended” them on FaceBook. Whatever. I’m just thinking today, that with the religious Month of Fasting [“R” as I’ll call it] so quickly approaching this neck of the world, a lot of friends are going away, new ones are coming and some old ones are returning. Many ex-pats take the month as an opportunity to peace out of the country as many of our majority friends completely change their lifestyles, in some cases. [Double-doosey. More on this next week.] For others, it’s the end of summer projects and for most of us, a new school year is approaching, and nearly everyone is either coming or going. It’s a season change.

And God created seasons.

[A favorite season of mine: Pomegranate season. :)]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Other Foreigners

“…and they’ll know we are [His] by our love…”

The longer I’m here the more I start to pay attention to other ex-pats. When you first meet someone, another ex-pat that is, your first conversation takes a total nosedive into a short, yet intensive, interview process. You ask and/or answer these same questions:

What’s your name?
Where are you from?
What company do you work for
[What do you think you’re doing here]?
How long have you been here?
What’s your language level?
Marital/Familial Status?

You then decide if you’d like to proceed to your first date or if you both will just keep your distance. I’ve found this exercise to be shallow and... BORING.

I finally met another girl who felt the same way.
We both dreaded the sight of a new foreigner in a room, car, whatever,
because we knew we were going to get interviewed instead of met.
A few months later, I was blessed enough to
become this girl’s roommate—she is lovely and pure fun.
And while we watched each other fall victim to this
stuffy cycle of meeting new people
who either just being polite and practicing their English
[but really wanted to know who we were],
or who lacked good conversation skills
[the ones we so obviously possess],
we decided to do what any other single lady living
in the Middle East would do:
Take Control.

Ahhh, yes. Roommate, as I’ll call her, just wants to meet someone and have them ask her her favorite color. That’s all she wants: For someone to care enough to know that she has a favorite color. So she started introducing herself and immediately saying, with a smile, “What’s your favorite color?” I found this to be highly entertaining and started joining in. [Ya see, Roommate is much sweeter and gentler than I, so if we get a rowdy one, someone who wants to stick to the above script, I step in and pretty much refuse them entry until they answer her question. It’s fun. For us...]

They’re so caught off guard, because this color question is not listed on the “How to Quickly Size Up Another Foreigner” index card that they have memorized, that they either fumble around or get a little intrigued. This pretty lady doesn’t want to know where you’re from, where you’re living, what company you work for, what work you’re doing or even how novice your Arabic is or isn’t. She wants to know what your favorite color is. Because obviously every person who possesses a soul also has a favorite color. And sometimes, she gets to have a real conversation with a stranger, in her heart language, where she doesn’t feel like the last thing she has to say is: “World Peace, Stan.”

Roommate’s inspired me to not ask these questions. And it’s been a lot of fun. The color question is hers, so instead, I like to ask: “What’s your favorite food?” Everyone has to eat at some point and if you’re living in my region, it means you eat a lot and quite often. I’ve found it so interesting that, when faced with a non-routine [silly] question, people go off auto-bot mode. I think it’s because when we meet other foreigners, we feel like we’re being judged and measured. We have to somehow, for some reason, prove ourselves to the other “Whiteys” in town to legitimize our own presence, so we have our little story prepared. And we resort to these lame, impersonal questions.

Maybe I’m making people a little uncomfortable. Maybe I kind of don’t care. We’re in the Middle East as Americans. I think that it’s pretty reasonable to be somewhat uncomfortable anyways, so what’s a few more moments with me? If we’re going to love each other and support one another’s work and lives, the best way to start is by appreciating each other. To let each other know that we care that you’re a real person, not just another commissioned warm body. I’d love to know that you’re allergic to peanut butter—I’d hate to make your whole apartment building peanut butter cookies and you not get one. [Sad.] We’re here to introduce and live out our Father’s Love, right? So let’s start with one another, ya know, our teammates. I don’t want to spend all my time with you—don’t worry—but I would like to know how I can best love you, not judge you. It’s not my town—it’s His. And I welcome your work and value your life. I, of all people, should be able to at least partially identify with the commitment you’re making and the sacrifices you continue to make. After all, I’m doing it, too.

By the way, Roommate’s favorite color is teal.
She’ll be happy to know you asked.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Be Known

There are a lot of aspects of loneliness that I’m encountering these days. [Besides the constant reminder that I’m single and the implications are therefore that I am deemed incomplete, by Americans and Arabs alike.] I have my national friends constantly meddling in my life—in food, fashion & a future marriage, inshallah [God willing]. The other day one of them asked me if I was scared to die before I got married. [Oh.my.goodness.] For some reason, when they’re not asking God for my husband [Arab or American] to just walk around the corner and into my life, they’re talking to me about being prepared to be married. It’s funny: I don’t ever recall telling them that my one goal in life was to be married. I’m pretty sure I didn’t come here to get that done—far from the reality, actually. [Before I left, my dad seriously talked with me about how I was not to come home with any boyfriends with a first name that starts with M, S, or Aggghh. A lot of male, Arabic names do begin with those letters, errr, sounds. Haha.]

A much less ridiculous and ever-present loneliness I experience is that of not being known. Even my deepest most special friendships are void of many simple truths about me because they’re too hard to explain or culturally inappropriate to share. Something as simple as, “Hi, I’m Sarah, and this one time, I had a boyfriend,” would totally smash their worlds and their image of me. Of course they assume that I’ll live with many guys before I get married, because that’s what Hollywood shows them [please, remind me to send a ‘thank you’ note their way—I really appreciate this], but me confirming that I’ve held a boy’s hand who was not a close relative is really destructive to our relationship.

There are many things that my friends won’t understand and so I don’t share. Beyond our language barriers and differing worldviews, cultural expectations stand strong. And it’s amazing the shame I feel for doing totally normal [American] and acceptable things [FIVE YEARS AGO] just because they’re not normal to them, my sweet friends. I’ve been marveling at how we humans have constructed societies and cultural norms—all these rules that we live within and dare not go outside of. Where I live, skin and hair on women shouldn’t be seen outside the home. But a few thousand miles away, in the plains of another continent, women wear skirts and no shirts. And in places like India, they show their bellies and arms, but keep their legs covered. [What.]

Something I’ve come to love and hate about being human is how I so desire to be known. I want someone to know me and accept me. I get tired of going into fancy living rooms, drinking mint tea, and eating the chocolate chip cookies that I brought to just smile at my friends’ families, and try to decipher these best faces that I’m seeing.

“Gosh, you’re beautiful and I’m super jealous that you can totally pull off that much eyeliner, but please—say something real to me. Ask me something that I care about. Something that matters. I’m still unsure how much I weigh in kilos or how much my rent is in American dollars, but I’d like to know you and I’d like for you to know me,” is all I can think to say. But I don’t. Because that’s not transferrable in these living rooms, in this country, in this language, in this culture, in this religion.

And so, most of the time, I return home to my quiet apartment, painstakingly full of really delicious food, my face covered in kisses and my heart aching from the holes.

But He knows my name. He even knows the secrets in my heart, the ones I’d never share even if I got the chance. He delights in me. He sings over me. He wants me to just be still and quiet and just know Him. He whispers to me. He fights for me. He is familiar with all my ways. He knows me. Better and more intimately than I know myself. [And He’s not even bored.] I’m made complete in Him.

And I’m finding that I sometimes wonder if
He brought me to this desert region
to just delight in Him.

To learn to love being lonely because it’s then and there
that I slow down and am quieted to really meet with Him.
To really just stand before Him like the little girl I am,
in my yellow dress,
and ask Him if He thinks I’m pretty
and if I’m doing a good job
and if I’m making Him famous today
and to just tell Him that I love Him.

Just abide, He tells me. Stick close and learn a life of Love.
He hides us in the shadow of His wings.
And that, to me, is beautiful enough
to count all the costs of not being “known” in this world
more than worth it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Refrigerator Family

As the sweet little foreigner that I am, I get to jump through all kinds of hoops, many with live flames, to just be here and then stay here. I’ve recently discovered that my very best friend, we’ll call her Amina, has several family members who hold high positions in the secret police. [This. Is. Awesome! ]

My passport’s always due for an inspection, so sweet Amina called up her relative, a real top dog, and we showed up at his station. The little rent-a-cop, armed guards tried to stop us as we walked in like we owned the place, but she just said her last name and he said something to the effect of, “Ok. Have a nice day, ma’am.” And as I was sitting in her relative’s office, we’ll call him Mohammad, we were the only women I could see in the whole building.

{{Something that’s really important in relationships here is that you always do whatever you can to use whatever connections or position or power you have, called wahsta, to help your family and friends. It’s almost like every interaction is some kind of exchange of favors. It’s interesting, and good to know, being an American—everyone thinks that I have boatloads of money I’m not telling them about and can easily bring them to America. [Be careful, ya Sarah.]}}

So we’re sitting there: me, Amina, Mohammad and the judge, teacups in hand, the fan circulating the hot air, and I learn about what is now one of my favorite Arab sayings. My friend and her relative were talking about other family members, but then suddenly switch to some tribal language that’s different than Arabic and the judge starts talking to me [in mostly English, praise God] about how he’s about to release a bunch of prisoners, so I need to be extra careful and always lock my door because I’m “shagra.” [Cool. Thanks for that. Don’t tell my dad.]

Amina turns to me and asks how I’m doing and if I’m understanding anything they’re saying. I tell her “No way! It sounds like Greek—it’s not even Arabic, is it?” They laugh at me and bless my little heart in Arabic [sometimes I wish I couldn’t understand that… ]. We’d been visiting for a while, with my passport in the hands of some young man with greased up hair somewhere in the same building, I hope. They switch to Arabic and I lean over to ask her why they are talking about refrigerators. [Apparently, I know this word in Arabic.]

She translates to Mohammad and they burst into laughter, calling me clever and sweet. She then proceeds to explain that they are talking about some family problems and how, sometimes, it’s better to just not get involved even when they try to involve you. [I nodded my head like I knew what she was talking about.] Mohammad had said that Amina and her husband were “refrigerator family.” And that’s where she stopped, all pleased with herself, expecting me to rejoice with her.

[You should know that this is how I routinely get yelled at:]

“I don’t get it,” I tell her with an apologetic grimace.

Like YOU are my
refrigerator family.
This is niiiiiiiiice, ya Saaarrrrraaaahhhhh

Yeah, still not pickin’ up what she’s laying down. All I have are images of “Refrigerator Perry” of the 1980’s Chicago Bears, magnets and children’s art work flashing in my mind. Or maybe Amina and her husband as refrigerators with arms, and their kids as little baby refrigerators. A refrigerator family?

Mohammad said that Amina and her husband were the kind of people where you could walk into their house, say hi, and go straight to the fridge and open the door. [This I understand: I have three HUGE brothers and a dad. Boys, like, live to stand at the refrigerator with the door open, just looking inside.] “It means that you’re close,” she said as she put her extended index fingers side-by-side. “You can’t just walk into anyone’s house and open the refrigerator! Haram!! [Forbidden.]” Once I understood, I was warmly received into their conversation and I praised their close relationship, as the judge chuckled at me. Mohammad smiled at me for the first time as Amina told him that I was her refrigerator family, too. This is a high compliment.

What I keep in my heart is Amina calling me refrigerator family—as if I have always known her and been close to her heart. These are the moments that really matter, the ones that surprise you by showing you how lovely life and friendships really are.

[I’d love to show you a picture of Amina and me,
and maybe her refrigerator, but I can’t.
Instead, here’s a picture of her girls and me
making pancakes in their kitchen.
The refrigerator’s behind you.]

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