Bridging Continents

“Where are you from?”

It was a simple question, one that I used to be able to answer readily. But in that one moment I was completely disoriented by the question, and for a few seconds that seemed like minutes, I had absolutely no idea what to say.

Every answer that came to my mind didn’t quite fit somehow. Kisumu? That’s what I was used to saying while traveling in other areas in Kenya. America? Well, yes, if people probed further to ask where I was originally from, that was the answer. Pennsylvania? Um, maybe. That was a good answer if the questioner knew much about American geography.

I was on the streets of New York City, on a week-long trip with students from Faith Builders. I had arrived at Faith Builders only a few weeks previously, and before that I had been at “home” in Lancaster County for only two months after spending four years in Kenya. America to me was still a dazzling place, fraught with surprising conundrums.

To that friendly lady in New York who asked the question, I think I finally managed to say something about growing up in Lancaster County and currently attending college in northwest Pennsylvania. But the question remained in my own mind.

And so, I write this for all the rest of you who have ever been baffled by that where-are-you-from question, since I know that my experience is common to many. I write this for you who know what it is to be part of two (or more!) completely different cultures and to wonder how to build a bridge between them.

I write this because this summer it was four years since I left Kenya, after living there for four years, and sometimes it seems like yesterday. Sometimes it also seems like something out of a different lifetime. Either way, my life is changed forever.

As I reflect on these four years since the Kenya years and especially on those early days of transitioning back into American life, various impressions stand out:

The weird brain fog and memory gaps
Perhaps one of the strangest things about jumping between two worlds was the way my brain could not process certain things. In general my memory serves me well. But in those months of transition, I forgot weird things in such a way that sometimes I felt like I was losing my mind. And while I remember details of some of the things during the last days I spent in Kenya, I have absolutely no memory of the last evening I spent there. Last summer I was with a former fellow-missionary, and she showed me her scrapbook album with pictures of the party we youth had that last evening. It is sort of creepy to look at pictures of yourself taken only a few years before, when you have no memory whatsoever of the happenings in the pictures.

The uprooted feeling of not knowing where home is
You know that feeling when you’ve been on vacation or something, and you think to yourself, This has been fun and all, but I just want to go home now. Returned missionaries get that feeling when they are at “home.” I still get that feeling occasionally, four years later. Maybe that’s not all bad.

An odd sort of grief
Like any kind of grief, it can hit you over the head at the strangest times. “It’s like a death,” a friend of mine (who had also lived in another country for several years) told me not long after my return. It’s true. The richness of having friends on different continents comes with a hefty price tag.

The time warp factor
It may seem like people don’t change much in four years, but they do. Even though I came home to visit occasionally, I still mostly pictured people as they had been when I left. So sometimes it felt like I had entered a time machine. My little third graders were suddenly entering eighth grade. The two-year-olds were starting school. I was a complete stranger to all the little children.

Technology advances
Do you realize how much technology changes in only four years in these modern times in which we live? I’ve never been one to keep up with all the latest technology, and I tend to learn about new gadgets and such from friends who have them rather than by reading about them or experimenting for myself. People in Kenya did not have all the latest electronics. Smartphones and ipads and came out while I was away, and I sort of learned about them distantly. I remember the dismay I felt in coming back to America and finding everyone glued to their phones. I’m still smartphone-illiterate.

The Thousand Tiny Surprises
So many things were surprising or astonishing. Sometimes this was delightful, like rediscovering the beauty of changing seasons and being completely in awe of things as simple as frost. Sometimes the surprises were humorous in an odd sort of way, like when I would see a shadow or something on a wall and subconsciously think it was a gecko. Sometimes they were completely disorienting, like that where-are-you-from question. Some things, like shopping, almost gave me a mental breakdown.

Some things still amaze me, and I don’t ever want that amazement to rub off. Foremost among these is the fact that I can turn on the faucet and have clear cold drinking water come gushing out. I shower in water that is good enough for drinking. Also, I am amused by people who complain about a few potholes in the road. Good roads and ease of travel in America still blow my mind sometimes.

It’s been a little while now since the last time I accidentally turned on the windshield wipers when I was trying to hit the turning signal. It’s been a while since the last time I absently scanned the night sky for the Southern Cross, only to remember that it isn’t there. If someone today would ask me where I’m from, I could probably answer the question easily. But though the tides of the Indian Ocean have long since washed this picture from the sand, they’ll never erase the Africa forever imprinted in my heart.

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Metamorphosis and Such

This little miracle never grows old: the way these fat little crawling creatures turn into graceful beauties that flit away on the breeze.

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It’s such a fun, easy way to bring some real-life science into the classroom. Are monarch butterflies perhaps making a comeback? I searched in vain for caterpillars the last few years, but this year I didn’t even collect all the ones I found. My kids were enthralled. They also learned to say the big word metamorphosis, and I think they even understand what it means.

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This little miracle never grows old either: the way I get goosebumps of pure joy when I get to stand in front of a roomful of eager children that I call “mine,” after a summer of having no children. This first month of school has flown by in all its busyness, craziness, and happiness.

I now know what it’s like to have my little room stuffed with twenty-three students. That little gap you see is where there’s actually still space for the door to swing in (which is always a plus, you know).

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The space problem is working out better than I was afraid it might. It does make some issues though, one of which is the fact that a row of desks has to be against the wall, right by the heater. This heater has all kinds of little grooves and crevices just large enough for things like pencils to fall into and just small enough to make fishing the things back out almost impossible. You would not believe how many pencils, crayons, etc. that heater has already eaten.

Going through a day with this class is a little like hanging onto the reins of a very spirited young horse. Stay alert and give proper guidance, and you can GO PLACES. But slacken the reins just a little, and you’re in for a runaway.

Although when I stopped to consider things the other day, I realized that I have about eighteen students who pretty much do what they’re told and listen in class and get their work done like they should. But then I have about five who, um. . . keep life interesting. I need constant reminders not to let the five overshadow the eighteen.

This is what happens when you have construction at your school over the summer, and the new grass needs a chance to grow.

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But we gladly put up with minor inconveniences like this, because the construction project means that we now have a gym! No more rainy-day recesses in the classroom. I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.

I’m also ridiculously happy about this:

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Who knew that a few sheets of colored copy paper from the office, a bit of scotch tape from my desk, and about five minutes of my time could so easily solve a problem that has bothered me all through my teaching career? Why didn’t I think of this ten years ago? I’ve learned that I’m not the only person who suffers from the brightness and incorrect color spectrum of fluorescent lights, so I’m passing on the idea to anyone who needs it. Maybe it looks cheesy, but what does that matter in an elementary classroom? And, by the way, the kids love it.

N prayed the other morning, “. . . and help us not to get angry at each other when we are playing at recess.” Yes and amen, Lord. We have a little work to do in that area. Watching the transformation of young lives as they become men and women who love God with all their hearts is more beautiful and miraculous than seeing metamorphosis in nature, but it takes a little longer.

Meanwhile, we patiently watch and pray and do our part to the best of our ability, trusting the only One who is able to change hearts.