by Petina Abbott
They say home is where the heart is. If that’s the case, then I have a few. Home, in Australia, the South Western suburbs of Sydney where my family lives, where I was born and raised, where I can slip in unnoticed into most social environments, where I know what is expected of me and I have creature comforts such as a warm bed, Mum’s home cooking, regular routine, familiar and accessible church, a common language, clothes that fit and beautiful environments. It’s the place where I hold my identity.
Then there’s the Northern region of rural Thailand. A place that is not so familiar or comfortable, away from biological family and thrown into a new cross-cultural conglomerate of believers who become my new family – and not just because we share the same faith but because we experience the same things, each and every day and work so closely as a team. Northern Thailand, whereas hard as I try to be unnoticed, I will always stick out like a sore thumb, and my life will be watched as if living every day like Truman Burbank (The Truman Show). Northern Thailand, a place where I no longer know what is expected of me, no longer have a regular routine or easy access to church and Christian resources, where shopping for clothes becomes an expensive if not impossible venture and communicating everyday becomes a thought-provoking, challenging and exhausting undertaking, often with quite hilarious and sometimes humiliating results. But it’s still home. After 3yrs, it’s home. I have friends there. Friends I can converse with over a meal and good old fashioned karaoke fun. Friends I will journey through life with. Friends whom I can celebrate birthdays, Christmas and other important community and cultural events with. I have deep connections with these Thai people, and I have a role and place within this context that brings fulfilment, joy and both a richness and challenge to life. It isn’t what I planned, sure. It isn’t easy to build or discover at times true, but it’s there, and it’s where my heart is.
In this situation, where home is multiple places how do we reconcile life and living? How we transition and settle, or do we?
I have always seen home as my base. The place where I unpack my luggage after a long journey, the place where I keep coming back to after a hard day’s work, the place where I can go and shut the world away for some peace and quiet. This means often home is a hotel room. It may be someone else’s house while I am being billeted during my partnership development. It may mean sharing a space with someone temporarily, or it may mean long periods of time on my own, but without a doubt, it is always where I am.
For me home is the place where you are invested. It means a place where you are concentrating on life and living for a particular period of time. This may be a holiday with friends and family, it may mean student accommodation while you are training and learning or it may mean your bedroom, where only you exist in the world, and you are able to unwind, reflect and digest all that has transpired and all that will. For cross-cultural workers it means often we are aliens in Australia (and quite often in the host country where we spend most of our time and work) because although we are living in Australia, our base is here, we are still invested in our life overseas. All that we do while we are overseas is with the aim of being able to go back. Our conversations revolve around the last few years of our life living somewhere else. Our perspective, friends, experiences and stories all come from some foreign and distant land. We’re not caught up with the latest music, cult fad, news, politics, TV and fashion and so our conversations here often seem boring, or irrelevant and we long to be back amongst those who understand us and can relate to us – even if it is on a miniscule level. The longer we are away, the worse it gets. Even though I am back in Aus, and have enjoyed catching up with my family and friends, I have tried hard to maintain relationships with those I have left behind through facebook. You see with technology, the world has gotten so much smaller – or is it bigger and we are no longer able to keep up?
I remember my first day back at my Bible Study. This is a group of ladies I have been journeying with since before I left for Thailand. We are a group who were meeting together around God’s word for years, sharing deeply about our struggles and joys and praying together. It is a wonderful group of ladies whom I love and who love me. They have been so supportive and encouraging throughout my time in Thailand and welcomed me back with open arms on my return. I have loved being amongst them again, and it really has in many ways felt like home. But boy has that home changed. People have moved on, others have come amongst our midst – people I don’t know. While sharing prayer points, many of which were follow-ups from previous requests and situations I was feeling so lost because I didn’t understand what was going on in each person’s life. When it came my turn to share – my points were all about the home I had left behind – the things they couldn’t understand or reconcile. There is a disconnect between the two places we call home. Often, we become so immersed and integrated into our new “home away from home” the host country as we call it and so familiar with its customs and lifestyle that Australia ceases being our home entirely. That hasn’t happened for me just yet, but I know many of my colleagues for whom that is true.
I guess it’s just as well the Bible calls us all aliens in a foreign land. In Ephesians 2:19 Paul writing to the church in Ephesus says “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…..” and in Hebrews the writer describes the great people of faith as recognising they were ‘aliens and strangers on earth……. looking for a country of their own.” These passages have taken on new meaning since moving to Thailand as nowhere am I more foreign, and yet still able to call it home. We are all foreigners, living in an alien land. This world will never be our home. We were designed and called to somewhere greater. But, the pull of this world is still so real. The attraction of this world – with all its beauty, joy, life and love is still where we live. It is where we are invested and immersed in. It is where God calls us to serve and minister and live and love. It is our heart for people, a God-given heart that keeps us here and calls to us, but it is our home in Heaven, with our Father where we truly belong. This is our home. This is where our heart is.