In the year before I left for Southeast Asia, I researched everything I should expect during my first months as a missionary. I studied culture shock charts, looked at line graphs of stress levels overseas, asked for advice about how to endure the life of a single missionary, stockpiled my anti-diarrhea medicine, and braced my supporters for a life-altering transition.
I landed in Asia with a heavy-hearted sobriety that lasted a little over a day. Somewhere between watching twin four-year olds dance to “the penguin cha cha” and wondering if I could get a six pack from laughing too hard, I uncovered a happy secret—I was still myself. And I could stay myself. Yes, I would have trouble, but it would be my trouble, not every possible burden since the time of William Carey. And my joy could be full—not a distant, somber joy that strains to see the silver lining, but a deep, belly-laughing hope that annoys the serious and offends the religious.
With this buoyant confidence, I began to learn the ropes.
Lesson One: If you decide to splurge on a foot massage, make sure you don't wear jeans. If you do, you might be herded behind a curtain and told to put on the largest pair of shorts in the country. The shorts will still be about three sizes too small. For the sake of not being rude, you'll force your body into the shorts anyway and then sit through a half-hour of "relaxation," where you'll spend about 85% of your time planning what you would do if the shorts ripped and the other 15% wondering why jeans were so completely unacceptable.
Lesson Two: It’s hard to get upset at the rats in your house when you imagine how much fun they must have had. They often host parties with toilet paper streamers, compete in Oreo-eating contests, perform acrobatics on the curtains, and plan peanut Easter egg hunts for their little ones.
Lesson Three: Every once in a while, usually when you're most exhausted, you have a very special day with no power where you get to do everything in the dark! Treat yourself to dark chocolate and good ice cream on these days only—they’ll quickly become your favorite.
Lesson Four: No matter how rarely you get the hiccups, you’ll get the loudest, most screeching case of your life as soon as you sit down for your first one-on-one language class.
Lesson Five: Driving the wrong way down the road makes more sense that you think. This way, you can clearly see the danger rather than wondering what massive, speeding vehicle is about to crush your motorbike from behind.
Lesson Six: The best way to accelerate your language acquisition is to find a baby animal. You will suddenly be able to remember every word in your vocabulary, including, “Where is the puppy?”, “How old is he?”, “Which dog is his mother?”, “What’s his name?”, “How much did he cost?”, “I like the puppy”, “Is it OK to play with the puppy?”, and “The puppy is giving me kisses.” If, however, you need to look up the word for “kisses” on Google translate, make sure you clear your search history before you loan your computer to your team leader. It will be hard to convince him that you were actually researching puppy kisses.
Lesson Seven: Keep an empty Ziploc bag in your purse. That way, you can dispose of any unwanted food your hostess puts on your plate. Otherwise, you might end up with a shrimp pancake loose in your bag, and no one wants that.
Lesson Eight: Learn the words for health issues early. Otherwise you’ll end up playing a game I like to call “bodily function charades” at the pharmacy, and you’ll almost never win.
Lesson Nine: Don’t ask what happened to the cat. Ever.
Lesson Ten: Never, ever move to a country without a properly set up VPN. This has nothing to do with internet security and everything to do with protecting your access to “New Girl” no matter where you go.
One day soon, I’ll need my diarrhea medicine and my research on surviving the difficult seasons. The work is hard, the cost is great, and the darkness is real. But our enemy can’t feign joy, and there are strongholds that won’t be shaken without deep, hearty laughter. In the midst of an overwhelming task, I am learning to reach for a holy lifeline, a sort of bubbly humility that reminds me I’m too small to carry the weight of the world.
I don’t know how long I’ll labor in this Southeast Asian harvest, but I hope I’ll leave the imprint of worn knees, calloused hands, a courageous spirit, and lungs brimming with the deep, playful overflow of the One who lives inside me.
You see, this Joy is a Person—ever constant when the feelings ebb and flow, ever delighting with happy songs over His future sons and daughters. His name is Jesus, and they will laugh more once they meet Him.