You are about to embark upon an adventure as you prepare to serve overseas in God’s big, beautiful world. Nine years ago I was standing where you were, preparing for the unknown. When I was preparing, there seemed to be little resources available to me as a single in what I might expect. Now, thanks to the internet and blogging there is so much more! (Check out John Gunter’s series on Singleness for one good read.)
About six years ago I asked other singles (or those who had served as singles but had since married) what they would share with other singles preparing to go for the first time. About six months ago I was asked by a reader to share those tips here. So here I go!
Prepare Yourself by Researching.
Life in each country is different, obviously. While it may seem a grand adventure to just jump in, save yourself some heart-ache and do some research into culture, language, food, availability of items, and what life is like for a single male or female. This includes internet research as well as asking someone who’s been there – also helps you to start networking which is important once you get there.
Find out what limitations there might be for a single, especially if you’re a woman. What areas are safe; can you go out alone; do you need to be accompanied; what is culturally appropriate to wear… All of this also helps with preparing for packing so you don’t take tank tops when that is absolutely taboo! (But take one, you might take a trip where they’re ok and wish you had one.)
Life is hard when you’re away from your community and internet limits your conversations with them. You’re also stepping into the front lines of battle if you’re going to serve and you can’t slack off or expect what has gotten you through in the past to help you now. Why? Those same things that got you through most likely won’t be there – church will be in another language; you won’t have those close, deep friendships as you’re building new ones; and you might just be in an area where there are no ex-pats and you have to start with learning the language to build relationships…and they might not be of the same faith. Or, your internet (if you have it) is too poor to download podcasts or chat with friends back home.
So, find ways to take a few books or CDs that you can re-read or listen to often – a classic devotional, sermons on CD/computer, a reading plan for extra help…and remember, while having an e-reader is awesome, it’s still nice to have some hard copies of things. I have a small copy of My Utmost for His Highest that I’ve been enjoying.
Hate to break it to you, but if you’re going as a single most likely you don’t get to pick your teammate. If you’re not working in a team, you’ll still not be able to pick who you work with. There is also a very high probability you’ll be working in a cross-cultural team which means your norms for communicating, directing, sharing, etc…will have to change. Be willing to give up your “rights” and/or cultural expectations so that unity can be maintained. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. Plus, as you slowly adapt to another culture and find out that it’s not “wrong” just “different”, you might even decide to adopt those things into your own life!
Remember, it’s important to communicate. What was that? Communicate! If things still aren’t working out, don’t be afraid to ask someone to “translate” or be the mediator for you. (In some cultures, you have to do this anyway to be culturally appropriate). When my South American teammate and I had a big spat, we asked our pastor to intervene. He had experience with American culture and was South American himself so he could help us see what the other was saying, not what we were hearing. Remember, most likely something wasn’t intentional so have grace and try to assume the best.
Honestly, this is something I struggle with no matter where I am. Sometimes it’s a chosen person with whom I feel safe to talk to and share my heart. Sometimes it’s the silent example of my housemate that helps me to keep regular devotion times. But have someone who you can go to when you’re struggling so you don’t keep it bottle up inside. Have someone you can share your struggles with and who is willing to slap you when needed to get you back on track (thanks sis!).
This also includes the non-spiritual side for when you go out. Make sure someone knows where you’re going. Have a back up plan. Don’t just wander off on your own. Trust local knowledge and ask for it, as well as respect it. If the guys we work with tell us not to go out at night or go to a certain area by ourselves we don’t. They know best. Remember, you stand out!
It’s ok to say “No.” Say it with me – No. Yes, you may think you have it easier as a single, you have more free time, you can do more….especially because there will be marrieds (and unmarrieds) who say you can and assume so because you don’t have a family to take care of. In actuality, it’s not true. You have to go shopping by yourself; figure out the transportation system by yourself. All by yourself with no one home to clean or cook or whatever while you’re out. Life overseas just takes longer.
Be available though, to families who ask for help. They need you just as much as you need them and the feeling of being a part of family is wonderful. However, set your boundaries as well so you’re not always being asked to babysit because “you must be free.” Decide how often you’ll help and don’t feel bad. But remember, it’s part of community so dig in and build some roots.
And another note: Work hard, but play hard too. Most people serving set a very bad example of boundaries. It’s so very easy to feel bad about not giving your all and working late hours and weekends because “It’s for God.” God also took time to rest. If you become a workaholic, you’ll burn yourself out and be useless and find yourself back in your home country quicker than you thought. Figure out what you can do to give all while staying healthy – physically, emotionally, and mentally. You just may need to figure out new ways to de-stress and have fun that are acceptable in your new culture, but do it!
Life is about relationships, so take the time to build them. Don’t feel bad about not working as much those first few months because you have to build relationships in order to do more than survive. Relationships are how you learn the language and culture. And for that “duh!” moment – you’re there to serve people, not a time clock. So remember, it’s ok to set things aside because someone stopped by to say “Hi.” My housemate and I did this the other day (for probably about five hours) as we sat and chatted and played games with one of the evangelism team that stopped by our house while he was in town. It’s. O.K!
And don’t just build relationships within the ex-pat community. Find the nationals and build true friendships there. I’ve been so blessed and amazed by my friendships around the world. I honestly probably lacked a little on the side of building friendships with the ex-pats, but what I’ve learned about culture and how I’ve changed (for the better!) as a person because I integrated myself into the local community….You’ll find you have family.
If you’re working in a teammate situation, build friendships apart from those with your teammate. You’ll need time apart, and that’s perfectly okay. But also have common friendships.
Oh, for the gals: be aware of friendships with local guys. While it may seem ok, it’s easy for things to go the wrong way. Find out what’s culturally appropriate as you don’t want to send the wrong message. One idea as well is to invest in a set of rings and keep your “status” private. It can help ward off unwanted advances.
Ultimately, don’t be afraid to go on this adventure alone. If you’re a single female this is probably less of a problem as we seem to have more gumption in doing it alone than the guys do. (Guys, get it together if you haven’t already and quit waiting for a companion before you’re obedient.) Yes, God may bring someone along the way to join in your adventure. But then again, He may not. Either way, be faithful and obedient in His telling you to “Go.”
And don’t do this “because I’ve always wanted to travel.” Having touched every inhabitable continent and spent more time on airplanes than at home, travel gets old fast. It becomes yet another hotel bed, another plane/bus/taxi…and when you don’t have someone to share it with, it’s even harder. Do it because you’re sure this is what God wants you to do. Because when the tough gets ridiculously hard, that
is what will keep you going – not the excitement to see another destination.
For the final conclusion, I want to share a quote with you that I found quite true. You will grow in your understanding of the world, but more importantly about Christ, as you see who God is in different communities. You won’t ever be the same and you’ll have a freedom in and understanding of Christ that many others won’t have.