Monday, April 15, 2013

Soft Landings

When we arrived here in Cambodia, the transition was difficult for me—so difficult that Jeff asked a few times if I needed to curtail our tour here and go back home to the States. I’m not certain why it was so difficult for me here, but I have a few theories: a part of me didn’t want to settle in too deeply here because of the recently experienced reality that I could be ripped away at any time with little warning and without my consent; the logistics of being here with a young child were more difficult than the logistics of being in Egypt without a small child; I was more well-informed and better prepared for life in Egypt than for life here. I believe that all of these factors played a role in my difficult adjustment. They were not, however, the most important factors, though they are the ones I blamed at the time.

I believe that the reason why it was so difficult for me to adjust to life in Cambodia is that Julia wasn’t here. Who is Julia, and why have I not mentioned her before? Julia is a friend whom I met in the U. S. shortly before she and her husband moved to Egypt, where Jeff and I soon moved as well. We were there together for most of my three years in Egypt—and I have mentioned her before on the blog, once in passing by name that I recall. While talking about what I’d been doing with myself since our arrival in Egypt, I said “I've gone out for a least a couple of hours most days with Julia, who is walking me around Maadi to help me get familiar with my new neighborhood.”

Along with our wonderful office sponsors, Julia played a critical role in helping me to settle in and feel at home in Egypt. She’s a high energy, outgoing woman who loves to explore—and she had done a lot of exploration in the time in which she was in Egypt before my arrival. When I did arrive, she was eager to take me out exploring and show me everything she’d found. I never doubted, in Egypt, that anything I wanted to see, do, or buy had been seen, done, or bought by Julia, by one of her many contacts, or by our office sponsors. I stepped out of a supportive network in the U. S. and stepped into an even more supportive network in Egypt. I never felt alone or insecure, and I felt lost and confused only as long as it took me to pick up a phone, send an email, or walk to the nearby apartment where Julia was living. Over time, I developed other friends, but Julia, along with our office sponsors, was there immediately to support me through the hardest days, weeks, and even months: the first ones.

When I arrived in Cambodia, I didn’t have a Julia. We had a good sponsor, but she and her husband both worked and were not available for casual exploration during the day—and even if she had been, Alexa’s jet-lagged sleep schedule wouldn’t have allowed me to take advantage of it the way I did with Julia in Egypt. Jeff’s office sponsor didn’t really get involved with any non-office-related settling in activities like our office sponsors in Egypt had. And I’m really bad about recognizing when I desperately need social support and reaching out for it—the very thought of asking for help makes my palms sweat and my stomach lurch. I had no social contacts here, and although I needed them, it took a while for me to find them.

Then I met Jen.

We’d visited a couple of churches, only to realize immediately that they weren’t for us, before hitting pay dirt at the third. We realized quickly that we had some doctrinal differences that made the church a less than ideal fit for us, but the people were so incredibly friendly … and we needed that so much … and so we decided to tolerate the doctrinal differences and accept the friendships that were offered so freely. We eventually realized that we could not tolerate the doctrinal differences after all, and we left that church, but before we left, we made my first friends, and Jeff’s first non-embassy friends, here in Phnom Penh.

Chris and Jen welcomed us to that church immediately. We quickly became friends with them—they came over for pizza and just to hang out; we sat near them at church; Jen became my go-to question answerer. Jen introduced me to a playgroup, which provided me with the social contacts for which I’d been longing. She offered to share a tuk tuk with me to attend those playgroup meetings, so I rarely showed up on my own and I never got lost on the way, not even when it took almost an hour to get to one friend’s rather distant house. By the time I met Jen, I’d already figured out most of the practical things I needed to know, but she introduced me to the part of Phnom Penh that I needed more than the practical part—she introduced me to the social circle where I would make my home for the rest of my time here.

Too soon, Chris’s contract expired, and due to organizational policy, he was unable to renew it. We’d known from the start when the contract would expire, but promises had been made about waiving the rules and letting him stay for another year, and by the time it became clear that they really would be leaving Cambodia, there wasn’t a lot of time left. Practically overnight, I watched Jen go from crying at the thought of leaving to being excited to begin her life back home. I watched her say her good-byes to the playgroup. I heard her schedule last lunches, brunches, and dinners with those to whom she was closest. And to my shame, I felt hurt and abandoned. Although I was glad that she was happy about leaving—she had no choice, so much better for her to accept it than to dread it—I worried about what my life would become after she left. I had leaned on her more than she realized, and I was not eager to stand on my own.

After Chris and Jen left, my life continued. Without Jen to lean on, I slowly began to feel more like a part of the playgroup, rather than like Jen’s friend who also comes to playgroup. One of the drawbacks of being an introvert is that it takes me a long time to connect with people—and often, once I connect with one person, I allow that one person to be my link to the group rather than becoming part of the group myself. That’s what I had done with Jen, and it wasn’t until after she left that I forced myself to make more of an effort. That effort was worthwhile; there are some wonderful women in the group, and I’m extremely glad to know them—but it was an effort.

Not long after Jen left, about the time I started feeling at home in Phnom Penh and in the playgroup, Jeff and I met a new family at a church we visited, the one we’ve attended since that time. Jesse and Sarah, along with their adorable daughter, were new to Phnom Penh. Jeff and I both realized quickly that we enjoyed this family, and we wanted to be friends. And we did become friends. I offered what assistance I could to Sarah, remembering well how lost I felt those first few months. I couldn’t help with most of the practical issues Sarah faced—the embassy takes care of most of that for us—though I could help with some things, like where to find cornstarch or other specific grocery items. And I could introduce her to a group of good women who could help her a lot more than I could—the playgroup.

Eventually, Jesse and Sarah started a Bible study group. We were the first to join, and we offered our house as a meeting location. The group grew in number and in closeness. We developed a whole circle of shared friends and acquaintances, rather than just the his-at-the-embassy, hers-at-playgroup circles we’d had before. The way I see it, the friendship, the support, and the social network that Jesse and Sarah have given us far outweigh anything that we’ve given them—and when you add in the understanding and encouragement and friendship that I feel from Sarah personally, I definitely come out ahead.

Apparently Sarah disagrees.

As we’ve gotten ready to depart Phnom Penh later this week, I’ve said my round of good-byes, much like Jen said hers so many months ago. The playgroup hosted a Kosovo-themed party in my honor, to which Sarah and Clara rode with Alexa and me. The Bible study had a very special time of sharing and prayer for our family—and although Sarah was unable to attend because Clara was ill, she was the one who organized it all. Our church had a special prayer time for us—no doubt suggested by Jesse and/or Sarah. And at every turn, Sarah has made it clear that she will miss us, that she will miss me, that she is sad to see us go and really would rather we didn’t. In a note that Jeff found for me after our last Bible study meeting and that I always will treasure, Sarah credited me with making her adjustment to Phnom Penh easier than she anticipated.

I’ve been thinking of Jen a lot lately, seeing some similarity between my situation when she left and Sarah’s situation now. Jen was my first friend in Cambodia, and I was Sarah’s. Jen introduced me to the playgroup, as I did Sarah. Jen provided both practical and social support that I desperately needed, and I provided what support I could to Sarah. I hated to see Jen leave, and Sarah isn’t very happy to see me go.

But there are vast differences, too, between my situation and Sarah’s. Sarah has branched out and made more friends—she’s fully a part of the playgroup already, and she has social networks outside of it as well. Sarah and I lean on each other in different ways, whereas my friendship with Jen was more one-sided, with me needing much more than I gave. There is no doubt in my mind, and hopefully none in Sarah’s, that she will thrive for as long as her family remains here. Yes, there will be hard times (there always are, especially when living in a country and a culture not your own), but she has everything she needs to push through those times. I see her already befriending and supporting new arrivals, providing them with the soft landing that we all need so much when we first arrive in a new country.

The soft landing that Julia and our office sponsors gave me in Egypt.

The soft landing that I didn’t have at first here, but that Jen tried to give me as soon as she met me, and that the ladies of the playgroup extended after Jen’s departure.

The soft landing that I tried to give Sarah, though she returned the favor much more than she realizes.

The soft landing that Sarah is giving now to those new women who cross her path.

I think of all these adjustment periods, the soft and not-so-soft landings I’ve seen and experienced, and it drives home to me just how important friends are—how important these friends are. Not only Julia, Jen, and Sarah, but the ladies in the playgroup. The men and women in the Bible study. The men and women who were in our life group back in Egypt, and the women in my Bible studies there. The men and women who were our “office family” in Egypt. All of those people who come together to help each other and support each other and just live life with each other during these times of transition and adaptation. Those people who become an international family. And most especially, those people who keep an eye out for newcomers, making a deliberate choice to help them.

I’m grateful to these people—to Julia, to Jen, and to Sarah; to the members of the playgroup and the Bible studies and the churches to which I’ve belonged; and to God, for channeling His blessings through His people and for putting us into each other’s paths to help and support each other.

And I’m hopeful that not only will I meet my next Julia, or Jen, or Sarah soon after my arrival in Kosovo, but that I will have the opportunity to be someone else’s Julia, or Jen, or Sarah, both in Kosovo and wherever I end up next—even if that’s the United States.


  1. This was beautiful. I love the honesty and the love expressed in this post. Thanks for sharing this story.


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