Keeping Your Bearings When Living Cross-Culturally

It is easy to feel lost when you cross cultures.  Really any of the analogies will suffice—lost at sea, stranded in a crowd, wandering in the forest or in a new place in the dark.  A few years ago I learned how to scuba dive and the most terrifying feeling was when you became so disoriented that you lost track of the surface of the water. Living cross culturally can feel just like that (though re-entry can feel much the same)—you are swimming along enjoying the experience when you’re suddenly lost, alone and scared.  Here are some of the ways to keep your bearings when you begin to lose track of who you are, where you are and what you’re even doing there in the first place.

1. Die to yourself, but don’t lose yourself.  You are going to have to die to yourself daily and most of the time you won’t get to choose the crosses.  You may as well accept this.  God will honor your sacrifice.  At the same time, look for ways the Lord is trying to bless you by allowing you to be the person you were before you moved overseas.  For me, it was running and cooking.  In China, I lived near the countryside, so I could run without everyone in town elbowing their neighbor to come out and check out the strange white girl running without being chased, but I know other foreigners who had gym memberships and used that as their outlet.  When I lived in Africa, I laced up and ran through the village in my long skirt at the crack of dawn.  You can make it work.

2. You are not going to change the culture, so you may as well start noticing some of the great parts about it.  Anyone who has visited China knows those aspects of Chinese culture that just grate westerners the wrong way (no lines, pushing in crowds, never actually saying no even when you mean no—to name a few), but what about those aspects of non-western culture that we need to learn from?  Those parts that are actually, possibly MORE biblical, like not being so darn independent and individualistic that we can’t ask for help?

 3. Stay calibrated and keep your bearings. Have you ever had to “calibrate” your printer? According to

 “Calibration refers to the proper alignment of the inkjet cartridge nozzles to the paper and each other; without a properly calibrated printer, your print quality degrades. You’ll want to calibrate your printer when you see lines appearing fuzzy in artwork or when colored areas in printed images start or stop before they should.” 

 If your “print quality” is “degrading” or your lines are appearing “fuzzy,” then it’s back to the cross with you for calibration!  This is often easier said than done, but taking an hour or two out of my day or week to sit at the feet of Jesus can do wonders for my perspective.  Do you need to spend some time being “calibrated” and realigned to Jesus again? 

Most of us are familiar with this verse (though the Message version was new to me):

“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people:  religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever.  I didn’t take on their way of life.  I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.  I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.  I did all this because of the Message.  I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”  1 Corinthians 9: 22-23 (MSG) 

We need to keep our bearings in Christ—not our bearings in ourselves, our culture, our expat community or even in the culture we are striving so hard to adjust to, but our bearings in Christ first.  He is our true North in the disorienting confusion of a culture that we start to understand just in time to be eluded by another question.

4. Lastly, enjoy the gift of Kingdom Culture.  Kingdom Culture is that sweet spot of culture sharing made possible by belief in the same Savior; the center of a Venn diagram where insider and outsider culture collide into a central culture of love, sacrifice and humility at the foot of the cross. There is nothing like the cross to serve as the great equalizer.  I finally discovered this through relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ who just seemed to “get” me even though our cultures collided in so many ways.  This is a special gift of grace made possible by a gracious Father.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.
What are some of the ways you have creatively been able to retain parts of your identity even though you are living overseas?  Are you staying calibrated to the cross?  What changes to you need to make to be able to do this?  How have you experienced Kingdom Culture?


Linking up with Velvet Ashes


Here are a few related posts that I found interesting:
“The Seven Lies of Living Cross-Culturally,”

“Living Well Where you don’t belong,”

“17 Things that Change Forever When you Live Abroad,”


Photo: By Jeremy Harbeck (NASA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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