What I Wish I Knew Before Moving Overseas

We've been living in Cambodia for nearly three years, and at times, I feel as fresh and naive as the day I walked off the airplane into the hot, muggy air of Southeast Asia. There is so much I still have to learn - about myself, about Cambodia, about how to live as a foreigner and guest of a country that is fascinating, challenging, and beautiful.

But there are a few things I wish I'd known before I moved overseas. I'm sure some of them are unique to my situation and my personality, and may not apply to everyone. But if you're thinking about working overseas, some of these may be issues you will want to be prepared for before you jump the pond.

1. I am more ethnocentric, judgmental, and given to stereotyping than I imagined.

I used to think I'm a pretty open person about different cultures and lifestyles. But living in a culture opposite of mine in so many ways has smacked me in the face and shown me how much I think my way {or America's way} is the way to do things.

My gut reaction to cultural practices or beliefs different than mine is often not to think, Oh how interesting! but, Why in the world would they do it that way?!

 Hot/cold traditional medical practices; food habits; dealing with conflict; and especially anything related to time - all of these are issues I have struggled to accept and integrate into my way of relating with Cambodians.

And once I have a difficult interaction or experience with someone here, I find myself thinking, That's just typical; or, that's just how people are - completely generalizing a few negative experiences to an entire population. But being disappointed by a national isn't any different than being disappointed by another American. We're all broken, imperfect people who mess up. It can just be difficult to see that through the cultural lens. And when I generalize about Cambodians, it's easier for me to distance myself from them and think I'm not prone to the same sin - which is a huge self-deception.

Where I erred the most was using my culture as the standard. And that is just not biblical.

God's Word is our measuring stick of morality, truth, and acceptability. And this is true regardless of where you're living, whether in Johnson County, New York City, or Poipet. One of the biggest mistakes missionaries have made in the past is trying to force nationals to change their culture, not to become more like Christ, but to become more like Westerners.

I'll be honest - this is an area I struggle with every day. But the reason I struggle is because my heart still has a lot of pride and self-centered thinking that God is slowly uprooting and replacing with humility and grace.

2. Community is in constant transition.

I've already written about the challenges of community overseas here {part 1 and part 2}, but I still wish I'd been prepared for relationships that functioned so differently than my friendships back home.  I think I would have approached them with a different mindset and been more willing to jump in with both feet. Community may be transient, but it is deep. And it's always a balance between maintaining friendships back home and friendships here, as well as relationships with nationals and expats.

3. Language is difficult but critical.

If you want to be successful in your life overseas, you need to study language.

This can be difficult if your organization doesn't provide funds or time for you to study full-time. But if you really want to understand your new country, the culture, the history, and the people, it will be nearly impossible to do that without speaking their language. Fight tooth-and-nail for the space to learn to speak like a national, and never stop making it a priority. I speak out of regret that I have stopped studying and seriously plateaued. But I still think it's critical for a successful transition overseas.

4. Church is harder than you think.

This experience will vary greatly, depending on where you're serving. But in many locations, there are no healthy English-speaking churches - and even more, no healthy churches at all.

 We attend a Khmer church locally, and I love seeing the Khmer believers worship and fellowship together. I am so grateful for the chance to be part of a local church. But I'll admit, a lot of the time, it's really difficult.

In America, we are so used to the freedom to find a church that really "fits" us. Hipster, coffee-drinking, post-mod midtowner? Suburban, van-driving, mall-loving, stay-at-home mom? Senior citizen who loves soft music and the KJV? We've got a church for you! If you don't like the music or the preacher or the sermon times, it's easy to find a substitute. But that turns church into an experience that is all about my preferences - and that is not the church Jesus calls us to.

Here in Poipet, we don't listen to sermons or sing music in English. I can sometimes follow along in the sermons in Khmer, but my brain quickly tires out, and my thoughts wander. And even the style of preaching is very different from the three-point-sermons most Americans learn in seminary. Preaching is much more in the circular-storytelling-fashion of Eastern cultures than linear Western thought.

But has God used that church in my life? Definitely. Do I want to keep going? Yes. Do I have to work harder to get fed spiritually? Absolutely. Thank God for podcasts and online sermons and Bible studies and iTunes. I have to be intentional in seeking all that out, because it's not handed to me every week.

5. You need a support team back home.

One regret? Not starting a support team before we moved to Cambodia. Earlier this week, I wrote about how to keep your friends back home without losing your focus. But a support team is more than just friends to chat with on Skype. It is a group of people who are serious about praying for you, who can call you out when they hear the doubt or selfishness or arrogance in your voice, and who help remind you of God's calling when you wonder what brought you here in the first place.

Once you transition to life as an expat, it's very difficult to get that kind of group together. And even before you leave America, you need that group to be encouraging you, helping you with all the emotions that you have to process in starting a new life.

There's probably one more thing I should mention that I wish I'd known...

How much I love this life God has given us.

Crazy? Yes. Challenging? Yup. Frustrating? Oh yeah.

But is this what God wants for us?


And when you have that assurance, that you are obeying God and He is the one sustaining you through it all, life will be an incredible journey.

If you've lived overseas, I'd love to hear some of your thoughts about all this, too. What are some things you wish you'd known beforehand? And if you're thinking about moving overseas, what are some questions you have about the changes coming?