~ by Cynthe (Macomber) Burbidge, '01
Reflections from a Forever M.K. - Imagine you are 9 years old, stepping off the plane, into a world where the rumble of
conversation around you is not understandable, not translatable – sounds like
babble to you! Foreign
smells waft past your nose – the stench of exhaust, of boiling peanuts. As you follow your family down the ramp into the baggage claim
area, you find yourself being pressed up against on every side, with no regard
to lines, or who got there first, or who’s smaller and about to get crushed!
It’s exciting and overwhelming all at once. Mom and Dad told you about this
moment, but no one really knew what to expect. Before you know it, you’re being
swept away into a world you never knew existed, sights and scenes that your
9-year-old American mind doesn’t quite know what to do with: children your own
age knocking on your car window, pressing their noses up against the glass as
they gaze inside to see who might be able to offer them a few coins to survive
on; dirt-caked faces, yet they grin from cheek to cheek; tinted teeth bearing
witness to their malnutrition and despair. But you don’t comprehend that. You
only see someone who might become your friend tomorrow.
The heat is almost unbearable. It sticks to your skin, sucks up the oxygen so
that it’s almost hard to breath, there’s so much moisture hanging thick in the
air. You find yourself always sweating, even at night when your crawl under
(no, not your blankets), just a nice cool, stiff bed sheet, with the fan on high-blast, sending warm air your direction as the sounds of dogs barking, disco
music pounding and roaring car engines becomes your lullaby.
Your life has been suddenly transformed before your eyes. You step on the plane
from your familiar orderly environment, and step off into a world of chaos and
disorder. From that moment on, life will never be the same.
This introduction to unfamiliarity is only the beginning. As you begin to
interact with the world around you, you realize that you need the help of
translators – and your parents! The smells, the food, the sounds – everything
is new to your senses. It will take time to adjust to this new world.
As life on the mission field progresses, it is characterized by picking up and
moving every couple years, by making and leaving friends every year. The
anticipation of the summer is not ease of vacation and fun, but who you have to
say goodbye to. New kids in class are the norm, and most of the time the
question is “what mission are you with?” and whether they moved up from a rural
school and are boarding or if they are one of the privileged few who actually
get to live with their parents. On Sundays, you interact with those whose
homes range from tin shacks to mansions with marble floors. Not one person you
interact with is alike. When you do ministry at the national schools, you
find yourself saying to the kids, “Please, I don’t want to give you my
autograph – I just have white skin, but I’m no different than you are.”
When you go on furlough, you find yourself repeating, “No, I don’t live in a
hut, and yes, I know what television is.” When you step off the plane on
American soil, you find yourself wishing you didn’t have white skin and an
American passport, because you feel different than those around you, but
everyone thinks you are just like them. A Jr. Whopper from Burger King is a
delicacy, and silent nights an unfamiliarity.
People used to ask me, "What feels more like home to you: the Philippines or the
U.S.? My response commonly was “Well, if home is what is familiar to you, then
neither: unfamiliarity is familiar to me. So put me on a plane!”
My "norm" growing up was for everything around me to be different, unfamiliar.
That experience has stayed with me as an adult. Every time something in my life
gains some element of familiarity, whether it’s a relationship where I suddenly
feel like there is less to learn about who someone is or what they are like, or
a job that I’ve “mastered”; to "know" and “become accustomed to something"
is a cue to me to move on and find something new to engage with.
Over the past two years, God has done much to help fight this restlessness that most MKs (and others like me who grew up moving around a lot) understand so
well. And in the process, I’ve realized just how much it really does impact my
I’m not used to being understood easily. I’m used to having to explain my world
to the world around me, and vice-versa. Seeing myself as someone that has
something in common (actually a lot in common) with those around me makes me
uncomfortable. I’m growing, but I think this one characteristic, this
“familiarity with unfamiliarity” is probably one of the most insightful windows
into my soul I can offer myself and others as I seek to grow in Christ and the
person He desires me to be.
Perhaps I put myself on an extreme – that everyone has to do some explaining of
themselves to others. But even that thinking is the symptom I’m referring
to. I think I’m different from everyone else around me. Because growing up, I was different. I didn’t get enough
opportunity to bridge those gaps and say, "Wow, we have a lot more in common
than I realized" because by the time I reached that point, that person would
move on out of my life. Everything about life on the mission field is moving
on...quick, grab this while you can because it might not be there tomorrow.
There is no sense of long-term.
The funny thing about this is that I can still cross cultures and make a friend
with just about anyone (as long as they are kind and gracious enough to
want to be friends with me!) I’m not intimidated by our differences – I thrive
on them. "Tell me more about..." The world in my eyes is full of
endless opportunities to learn about experiences I have never had, but some other
human being has. I ache to put my feet in their shoes and experience the world
as they do.
Another thing I have come to realize over the years, it is that you
cannot appreciate your unity until you recognize your differences. I suppose living overseas has a funny way of making you realize how unimportant
those differences are at the end of day.
Am I being contradictory? Perhaps. Maybe the experience of others
around me is such that their challenge might be acknowledging their differences,
whereas my learning curve is acknowledging the common ground.
So, to all my friends and loved ones: my apologies if I run from our
similarities. I am just not
accustomed to being with those who understand me. Being different is familiar
to me. Being the same is not. I’m growing, but...I have a long way to go before
I will be able to accept the fact that my common ground with others is a good
and desirable thing for me.