It is truly impossible to explain what day-to-day life was like in our particular corner of South Asia. I might as well be a million miles away rather than several thousand, for all the difference between that world and my life here. I look around my American surroundings and search for similes to give inquiring friends, but find none.
So often, for lack of good descriptive words, my entire eighteen-month “South Asia life” is pushed to that same-titled compartment in my memory, and days go by in which whole swaths of my life there are un-talked about, un-thought of. The gap is too wide and my brain hurts from trying to bridge it.
This has become more apparent than ever to me now that I have my own house again. Week by week we’re settling into our rented 1,400-square-foot brick bungalow, making it our own, taming the backyard, taking on some furniture-painting projects, and, of course, house cleaning.
I’ve always dreamed of living with a houseful of hard wood floors, but it’s astonishing how quickly dirt accumulates on them. I suppose some forms of vinyl and carpet are more forgiving, but somehow every speck shows up on our sleek dark wood. So I’ve determined to sweep the entire house twice a week. I feel like that’s a reach-able goal.
But say things get a little crazy here and I forget. Or say I remember and would just rather sit on the futon and read blogs during naptime than sweep the floors; say the house only gets swept once a week. Well, the dust and dirt that I sweep in my entire house from one whole week is about equal to what gets swept in our South Asian flat in one day.
You think I’m exaggerating.
How about I put it this way: some of you know that by the end of our time overseas we had a full-time house helper/cook/nanny extraordinaire who did virtually all of our cooking and cleaning for us. When I mention this fact to people here, I sometimes hear the response: Wow, must be nice...
I get that. It sounds a little extravagant.
But, I’m here to tell you from very recent experience that it’s way, way, way easier in my house in Columbia to do all my own housework and cooking and laundry and dishes (no dishwasher here sadly), than to have full-time help and deal with the daily cleaning situation there in South Asia.
It’s way easier to load my kids in the car and drive downtown to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping at Publix, than to have a supermarket delivery service and a vegetable cart parked outside the front gate and an ironing man and a gardener.
It’s not just the dirt or the burning trash or the typhoid-infested water or the blankets of black dust or the cows nosing through the garbage or the roaming dogs or the cat-sized rats (okay, I only saw a cat-sized rat once . . . but I saw many, many smaller rats) or the exhaust fumes or the heat or the daily power outages or the open stares or the poverty or the throngs of people pressing against you where ever you go or the traffic or the noise level at all hours of the day and night.
It’s not just one thing–it’s everything, all mixed together, all day, every day. And add a couple of preschoolers to the mix (or three, or four, if you’re some of my friends), a house helper who speaks little-to-no English, and you get a typical day in South Asia.
Looking back, I guess I didn’t blog about these realities all that often, because it just sort of felt like complaining. Even scrolling back through the hundreds of photos on my laptop, I’m struck with how charming our life looked. Parts of it were charming. But lots of it are left out. Not intentionally of course, but no-one wants to take pictures of raw sewage. And, in time, all of this starts to become your new normal. You forget what life used to be like and you move on with what you have. That’s a good thing, I think.
But now that I’m out of it, I can admit that it was really, really hard. Hard for anyone, but especially hard for a mom and a housewife.
Our country was truly a wondrous one. She’ll always live in my heart as a place of vivid colors and sing-song voices and beautiful skin shades and so many warm, generous hearts. But even South Asians themselves will tell you: day-to-day life there is not easy. Those who’d lived in the U.S. and even some who hadn’t, constantly asked us, “You have everything. Why would you ever leave America to come here?”
(And in all honesty, some days you think to yourself: I don’t know; why the heck did I?“)
If you have friends living overseas as missionaries–especially if they are moms with young kids–give them all the prayer and encouragement and love you can. Every day is hard. God gives grace, yes He does, but it’s still hard. Exhausting. Thankless. Lonely. Incredibly, un-heroically mundane.
Don’t put them up on pedestals. They are serving Jesus in the dust-coated laundry and the stares and the crawling traffic of their everyday, and they do not feel like saints. They know they’re more sinful than ever, and they need to be reminded that God loves them right now, in their mess, and that you do too. They cherish every email, every care package, every hand-written note and Vonage phone call.
To all of you who loved me from afar when I was there in the mess: Thank you.
To my friends who are still there in the mess, who have stayed: Thank you. You’re in my heart and in my prayers when I’m here sweeping my floors and when I’m loading armfuls of wet laundry into the dryer and when I open my door to the quiet, clean air. I miss you.