Did you feel like you were living in a fishbowl while you were preparing for overseas service? Your board seemed to look over your shoulder at every move. Potential supporters felt they had the right to know all about your prospective work. Although that was uncomfortable, nothing can really prepare you for the shock of cross cultural fishbowl life.
Now people are curious and seem critical of every aspect of your life. At home you knew what questions people were likely to ask. Overseas you cannot even imagine how they will expect you to think, speak, and act. After 22 years of experience on our field, I am still amazed from time to time by the scrutiny of our lives by the nationals.
Every culture has its expectations about what is private and what is public. I most recently felt the sting of this scrutiny over the cost of our housing. Now, it is not only culturally acceptable, it is expected, that people ask how much you pay for things. They do this among themselves. But to our western ears and independent natures, this still feels like an intrusion.
The follow up comment is usually that they know a cheaper place to buy, or a better product for that price, or an anecdote about their own bargaining acumen. But with ex-patriots, there is the added insinuation that as a foreigner, you couldn’t possibly know what things should cost. And when we’re tired it seems particularly hard to take these comments gracefully.
We are very good shoppers and have always lived quite frugally. Our close friends here have asked how much we are spending for rent. Happily, they usually respond that it is a nice area to live in with easy access to shopping and public transportation. However, the occasional acquaintance will say that it is such an expensive part of town and that they have relatives who only pay half as much. These comments can tempt us to justify ourselves and our decisions.
This recent experience reminded me there are many different ways we can feel like we are living in a fishbowl.
One friend described the evening entertainment of the villagers they were living amongst. The houses were built with space between the slats for ventilation. So a quiet supper by candlelight became the evening drama for all the villagers with their eyes peering between the cracks. There was so little variety in their lives that the PWs’ source of entertainment was to move the furniture around frequently. This was always a special treat for their audience!
A short term PW I once knew lived with a local family. They had small children who were active, but well-behaved. They would have loved to go to a nearby park for fresh air and exercise. But the local woman said the park was too dirty. She really never knew if her host was just embarrassed by the little park and didn’t want to give the PW a chance to criticize it, or if she really thought it was dangerously dirty. Possibly she had just forgotten what it was like to keep two active toddlers cooped up all day inside. In any case, my friend abided by her wishes.
Sometimes there are misunderstandings due to values. One PW working in Africa was asked why she didn’t wear a head covering in her own home or while she was teaching. She wisely asked a question of her own. She asked if the student was offended that she didn’t wear a head covering all the time. He said, “No, I was just curious.” She explained that she was not used to wearing one at home, yet because of the church customs, she did wear a covering in church. She said she would have begun to wear one at home and in class, however, if it offended him.
Once I nearly caused a panic because I decided to jog for exercise. The locals were suddenly on alert. Why was their PW, running around the compound?! I was told it was just too upsetting to see me exercise in that way!
The scrutiny is not always limited to the nationals. The way we care for and discipline our children may be constantly up for discussion and criticism. One PW we worked with was shocked that I didn’t punish our son for climbing a tree with a local boy and bringing down a bird’s nest with a baby bird. Fortunately, before I introspected about whether I was wrong, another PW came along side. She said, “With all the birds in Africa, this isn’t a criminal offense! Boys should be able to climb trees and check out bird’s nests.”
How we fix our hair, our weight gain or loss, our relaxation and entertainment all may be examined and discussed. The daily grind of this kind of scrutiny takes its toll. Depending on our personality and our frame of mind at the moment, we may react quite differently.
Looking behind the words to see the motive can help us respond well. When we can see it is just curiosity we can turn a question into a fun cultural lesson. If we know they are just trying to save us trouble or money or time, we may be able to learn from their comments. When we can see it is not from a bad motive that they ask, we are able to accept the scrutiny as just part of the price we pay to serve overseas.
For those times when the comments are really criticism, we need some different responses. Prov. 15: 1 says, “A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper- fire.”(The Message translation) Remembering this may save us from some painful experiences. Sometimes we can make our reasons seem more acceptable by claiming weakness on our part. When we cannot accommodate their opinion, it may be helpful to formulate some stock answers that can defuse confrontations.
But, almost more important than how I react outwardly, is how I react inwardly. Getting angry at others for their criticism can damage my relationship with them. Getting depressed as I introspect and re-evaluate my decisions is fruitless. Plotting revenge is even worse.
Knowing that fishbowl life is just part of overseas service helps. We are not alone in our experiences. Cultivating a sense of humor about it can often take the sting out it. Learning what our neighbors think is funny may help a bit too. Recognizing when the comments are not malicious can save a lot of frustration.
Probably the most important reaction is remembering why we are here! Knowing why we are here helps put the fishbowl life in perspective. Our lives are an example of the believer and may be the only book our neighbors have to read. Since we live in a fishbowl, swim in a way that honors Him.