Being understood

I feel like one of the things that we encounter regularly as a family, as a couple, as individuals is that people often don’t understand us. For some it’s that they don’t understand why on earth we would pick up and move to a place like Haiti in the first place, let alone stay there with a family. They certainly don’t understand why we would be willing to stay through political uprisings, death threats, arson attacks, natural disasters, and any of the other things that we’ve been there for in our time there. They don’t understand our approach to life there, why we do certain things or think certain ways. And, the hard part for us is that no matter how hard we try to explain it, for some people it just won’t ever make sense.

When we find people that do “get” us it’s so liberating. We’re more free to just be who we are. We don’t feel the need to edit what we’re saying simply because it’s so far from what they might be able to comprehend. We usually know those “needs editing” people simply because of the deer in the headlights look they often exude. It can also be exhausting to try to explain your life over and over and over to only get to a point where you know that this person is just never going to understand. It’s too far out of the realm of what they know to be true in their own lives. And you know what, that’s fine. God doesn’t call everyone into places like Haiti to live in the things we live in. But, he has called us.

One of the hardest things about living in Haiti is that it’s so incredibly complex that much of it can’t be easily understood or explained. I always tell people it’s like a really big onion. You peel away one layer only to find a whole bunch more. You can’t see the core of the issue easily, and each layer has complexities of it’s own. And, you’ll probably cry along the way.

There are no easy answers in Haiti. There are lots and lots of problems, and on the surface it may seem that there are obvious solutions or reasons for why things are the way they are. We frequently have those types of conversations with visitors. We like to spend time talking with them while they’re with us about the things they’re seeing, feeling and experiencing simply so we can gauge where they’re at. It’s amazing what people will tell you without words when they’re in a setting that is far from their norm. In those conversations we often spend most of the time answering questions, which we love. And, people tend to notice the same things and struggle with the same things when they come. Unfortunately there are times where we don’t have answers simply because Haiti does not provide them. And other times, more often than not, when there are answers, they are not the things that people want to hear. They don’t fit into what they know or are comfortable with. They are not pretty or easy. Sometimes it’s just that us North Americans can’t even understand the starting point of where cultural beliefs start from and have been built. We’re starting from completely different places.

One thing that has been an incredible blessing to us while being home is that God has brought some amazing people into our lives in a professional capacity, and they’ve been just the types of people we need to work with in the situation we’re in.

Yesterday I had another doctors appointment at the OB’s office. The clinic we’re working with is a bit different than most. There are three doctors all working together and throughout your pregnancy you see all of them so that when it comes time to deliver you know all three and have a relationship with them all rather than getting to the hospital and finding out that your doctor isn’t available and having some stranger doing the deed. My last appointment a couple weeks ago was with the one doctor I wasn’t familiar with, and I loved her. She didn’t bat an eyelash when I told her we were heading back to Haiti for a few months, but rather told me all the ways they would work with our family to help us feel as comfortable as possible with everything and provide the best care they could.

When we went in yesterday I knew my appointment was with one of the other doctors, someone I knew of, but I had never actually met face to face. We were from the same church and I knew her and her husband (an eye specialist) were very involved in missions, and they had been supporters of CWH for a while. When we walked in she came around the corner and the first words out of her mouth were, “I’m so excited to finally meet you guys face to face rather than just reading about you in the paper!” As her and I started the appointment she shared some of her background. She grew up overseas and that spun us into a conversation about how different life is as an expat. We talked about the fact that, without realizing it, you naturally do things that are essential for functioning in that culture, whether it is always being aware of what is going on around you or taking certain safety measures. Many times people don’t even realize that you are doing it, and we ourselves are so used to it that it just becomes second nature. Case in point. When we have visitors and I take them on an outing what they don’t realize is that I’m constantly scanning. If I’m driving I’m scanning the road. Not only what is directly in front of me, but what is all around. It’s a constant cycle of checking mirrors, looking to the sides, watching for people and vehicles and anything that might spring out in front of you. And, watching for anything out of the “norm”. When we’re out walking or doing errands people don’t realize how I hold my purse or that I’m still always scanning and making sure I always know what’s going on around me. I’m always listening and trying to be on guard. All of this is happening while I carry on conversations with them about the things they are seeing and hearing. And most of the time they never know it’s happening.

As we kept talking there were several “Yes!” moments where one of us would share some thing, a generality about living cross-culturally, and the other would completely understand. Those things that people often don’t want to hear about, the things that don’t make sense, the decisions you have to make because you are living in a place that isn’t like home and home stuff and mindsets don’t work.

I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone living cross-culturally for a long period of time is working with those that haven’t. I am not saying any of this to offend anyone. I just know that we have had our struggles as have all of our long term missionary and expat friends. And this isn’t just in Haiti but has been shared with me by other friends that have lived in other cultures. In fact, my doctor shared a term that her and a friend coined while out in the field – culturally discombobulated – someone who has the best of intentions, but really just doesn’t get what’s going on around them in another culture.

Sometimes it’s extreme, and sometimes it’s very subtle. These people are often well intended. Their hearts are absolutely in the right place. They want to be helpful. But they simply lack knowledge. They haven’t spent enough time there to really understand what’s going on. They don’t understand the depths and nuances of the culture. They don’t speak the language, and if they do it’s probably just the basics that get them by, not the nuances, jokes and underlying things that make up language. And often in their place of not knowing enough they make major judgements or mistakes. They feel they know how things should be and don’t understand why you may approach things from an entirely different perspective. It’s hard for them to shake their own cultural upbringing, and often they spend most of their time trying to fit the things around them into what they know, and it just doesn’t work. Often they want to try to find a fix for the problems around them, and they don’t understand that everyone wants to fix what they see, but that the problems are so complex there are no easy answers.

When conversations come up where our guests are hashing through things and feeling frustrated about not being able to fix Haiti’s problems I often tell them that it’s okay to not understand all of it. ¬†Heck, we know missionaries and expats that have lived in the country for 5, 10, 15, 20 years or longer, and they have all told us that the longer they live there, the less they know. These are people that speak the language, have worked directly and intimately with people and understand a lot about the culture. Why would anyone coming in for a week or two weeks or a month be ahead of the game? The other thing I share with friends, family, visitors – anyone interested in Haiti and her problems – is that it took generations to get things to where they are, and it’ll take generations to make any major changes.

I realize that not everyone wants to hear the truth about what it’s like to live in a different culture. Sometimes it is easier to come in and see the surface stuff. It’s easier to think that everyone is nice and friendly. It’s nice to think that everyone is happy you’re there and that you’re helping. It can be hard to hear the realities, but I really don’t understand why people are sometimes so resistant to it. Why is it easy to accept that in your own culture there are certain realities about how people function but many don’t expect to see those same things in another culture, or struggle when they are present? The truth about Haiti (and any other culture) is this: there are wonderful, hard-working, sweet, amazing people, and there are people that are not kind, that are only looking out for their own interests, that will take advantage of you and will lie to you. That, is a reality. We have to choose how to live in that every day. It takes prayer, discernment, wisdom and a lot of forgiveness sometimes. It means getting out of bed every day and choosing to keep going even when you know that day is going to be hard, and rejoicing in the small victories and good moments.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the doctor yesterday was that she was so conscious of the fact that Haiti is home for our family. We talked about when I should fly back to have the baby and she said that normally she would recommend and earlier time than what we were thinking, but that because we know we have access to a good doctor there she’s fine with us following his recommendation, especially “because that’s your home, and I wouldn’t ask you to be away from your home for longer than necessary.” It was so nice to have someone be so sensitive to our life and be so aware of thing things that are important to us.

We can’t always explain why we love Haiti. On the surface it would seem that with everything we’ve gone through it would be natural to want to pick up and head back to Canada or the US. But, we both feel a deep sense of calling. As my doctor said yesterday, “You can’t explain it, it just is. This is what God wants for you and you need to be obedient to that.” I saw this Francis Chan video on another Haiti missionary family blog a while back. They were writing a similar post and their comment was, “Many of you don’t understand why we do what we do, and this is the only way we can think of that can really communicate it.”

For us, life isn’t about being safe. It isn’t about it making sense. It isn’t about having the easy answers, or being able to explain things. It’s about being obedient to the calling God has given us, to seeking his wisdom and living the life he has for our family. Sometimes that may not be “safe”, it may not make sense to others, it may mean making hard decisions, it may mean being uncomfortable for a while. But, doing the opposite would be wrong. We’ve felt so blessed that we’ve been connected to people that understand where we’re coming from. We know that these people are looking out for the best interest of our family. They want to see us healthy and doing what we know we need to be doing, and they aren’t asking us to do it in context that is all safe and protected, that makes sense. They take us for who we are and are working with us in that. We are so very grateful. I love that God gives us what we need when we need it.

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About Leslie

I'm Leslie. Wife. Mother. Missionary. In the day to day my husband and I are responsible for running Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian mission that builds and distributes water filters to Haitian families. Living in Haiti full time provides lots of stories, and as I tell my husband, our grandkids probably won't believe most of them. Maybe writing them down will give me some credibility.

4 thoughts on “Being understood

  1. Leslie, you have such a gift with words! Thank you for being obedient and being willing to go where you are called. Thanks also for the encouraging video. Have you read any of Francis Chan’s books? He is very challenging and has really changed that way that Derek and I have looked at our whole spiritual lives. It is great to hear that all is well with the new baby! Such an exciting time and it is a blessing to have a glimpse into this time in yours, Chris’ and Olivia’s lives.

  2. I was able to meet Peter and Sara and boys this past week. We were in Haiti and sharing with them our flight plans on getting out through the Dominican. I’m not sure what they decided but hope they are able to get out! Sure wish you would have been there so we could meet…maybe at the end of January. Not sure when you are headed back! Take care of yourself and that new baby sibling for Miss Olivia!

  3. Thank you for sharing your heart like this. There is something so encouraging about being around people who understand and who get you, who don’t need explanations. Those kind of relationships are truly gifts from God. I’m thankful you have them in your life.

  4. Thanks for the reminder of coming home from Haiti.It’s been many years since I worked there (in Laffiteau area),but I still can’t park my car where it can be blocked in,even at friend’s homes.
    Great summary,you’ll get better at appeasing people’s curiosity over time,don’t worry.

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