But. There’s a problem.
I’m at a loss for words.
I suppose I should rewind. I can begin before the beginning, when I was a junior in high school processing and praying about where to go after I graduated. The trembling frustration of knowing I wanted to be a teacher so desperately, but not wanting to follow the classic “go to college, get a degree” American plan for my life. International missions was infused through my veins in the womb. Growing up as a YWAM kid, my vision and path for myself was directed on completing a DTS and dancing out into the nations to be a missionary like the ones I’d gobbled up so many biographies about. Please don’t send me to “college”, God. Please no.
Oh, the irony that it was my polka-dot Vans splashing through the mud of a Phnom Penh slum, combined with traipsing on smooth tiles of a primary school in that crowded capital city of Cambodia– was where something on the very depth inside of me groaned, stretched, and screamed: You need to go get trained, you need to become a teacher, for THEM. It was growing up in YWAM that I learned I needed to be equipped, and follow whatever path God laid out for me.
And so, a few months later, I stumbled upon Bethlehem Tertiary Institute, located in Tauranga, New Zealand.
Small. Christian. In my parents’ homeland. Three magnetic forces. However, I don’t think I thought as seriously about it until I looked at the Primary Teaching course plan and saw Teaching Children from Diverse Cultures set for Year 3– I’m in, take me now! I gushed.
Fast forward two years and I’ve graduated high school, hopped on a plane to live in New Zealand. What an exciting adventure all of my own! This is amazing! I love it here! I love BTI! Yet the joys of life in Bethlehem (window seats, green hills, secondhand books!) didn’t cover up a unique pain I hadn’t encountered before: monocultural isolation.
Hang on. New Zealand is a multicultural nation and there are so many kinds of people coming in and going out. I probably would get more culture shock living in the Midwest of the USA than here! But still, I hadn’t realized how much growing up with fellow YWAM kids in my class since preschool had affected me so deeply. We all had the nations engrained in our brains. So what? That was normal.
Not anymore. Nestled between mustard-and-maroon bricks of the BTI classrooms was a group of about 30 students who the majority had been born and raised in one country, with little international travel. There I was, American accent with New Zealand cultural understanding, running on Hawaii-time… hoping, somehow, to be understood.
Oh, it was good for me. Being so unknown was so good for me. Healing, too. My unresolved grief from growing up in a shifting social environment could come up without the whole room breaking down! I could become known as Kayla and not whose sister or daughter I was (despite the beauty of family identification, I had leaned on it too much for security). Through this all, Jesus became the constant. I learned to communicate with people who were different from me– namely, my friends and classmates who didn’t have a cultural identity crisis like me and all my previous friends had. Oh, how good it was.
You can see then, why I thought that my multicultural medley could be kicked out the door for a time. My longing for missions could be put on hold. Right?
Over my summer break before this senior year of BTI, I spent one month on a YWAM base. You should do a DTS! I heard constantly, which was normal, and I loved being in a missions community again. Yet later, when I had gone back to Tauranga, a disgruntled doubt started rattling inside of me. The path you’re on doesn’t include that side of your heart… you chose BTI and teaching. If you want international missions, just get that BTI and two years of work out of the way, then go do DTS. Then that part of your heart will be fulfilled. Only then. It didn’t matter that I had felt God say “Don’t do DTS” three years earlier. Holy Spirit was poking, poking me– asking “What do you want?!”– while I listened to that other voice:
The path you’re on doesn’t hold all that you long for… He’s misleading you– by being at BTI and not in full-time missions, He’s really taking away what is so precious to you.
Jolt to Monday morning. I’m perched on a grey plastic chair in a room that looks like your average New Zealand primary school classroom. In fact, we’re in the heart of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. Nothing’s different… except the flags on the wall and the flags on my heart.
“My name is Sayed and I am from Afghanistan.” He has a cheeky grin, probably 12 years old.
“… I was born in Somalia but I went to school in Malaysia and now I live here.” She looks wise beyond years, a leader in her own right.
“… I’m from Myanmar.” He is short, but I know South East Asians. I later find out how good he is at soccer. He smiles.
Where are you from? The question jolts me into reality, after I’ve been picturing those countries in my mind. The girl, scarf over head, asks me not because she notices I am different, nor that she cannot place my accent. No, she is asking where I am from because she knows it matters. It matters to us all.
As part of Teaching Children from Diverse Cultures, or TCDC as it is fondly known, we were required to go on a three-day “Immersion Experience” in a school context that is unfamiliar to us. I first heard that we could go to a school for refugee children, and my heart jumped. But then I shook it off. I should go to a Maori immersion school. “I’m not going to be in New Zealand all my life… I’ve already had international experiences…” was my reasoning. And having better skills in Maori language (te reo) would look good on my Graduating Teacher Standards. Prep came for our three-days and I almost groaned, Do I really need to be explained to about islander culture when I grew up with it all my life? I joked with my American-turned-Kiwi lecturer that my “Immersion Experience” was when I had practicum at Bethlehem College, with uniforms and New Zealand accents!
“A few of the Pasifika schools dropped out,” says the email from my lecturer, a week later. “Would you be willing to go to the refugee centre?” and I just laugh aloud. Yes please. It’s just another nail on the billboard yelling: I SATISFY YOUR DESIRES. Later, I chuckle and pray. “Really?! Come on, Jesus!!” “What?” He shrugs his shoulders innocently. “One of the Pasifika schools dropped out!” (If you look closely, you might catch His cheeky wink).
I and three of my friends spent three days volunteering with the various classrooms in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. The New Zealand government allows a quota of United Nations referred refugees to come and live (approximately 700, which is about 1% of applicants). They provide a six-week transition time at this site, which was built as military housing and feels very much like a YWAM base, with dozens of languages bouncing between buildings. The refugees learn as much English as possible and basic skills to live in NZ society, for example, the children were learning about “school uniforms” the first day we arrived. The staff are heroes with servant-hearts, the students wholehearted– and you soon forget that before arriving here, those beautiful people were literally fleeing for their lives.
And it was them that recognized that beyond a doubt, where I was from mattered.
My own international medley didn’t need to be explained to the girl born in Somalia and lived in Malaysia. My parents being from another country than the one I grew up in– this resonated with every student in that classroom. My experiences were necessity as a teacher there. What I had was needed and normal. And it gave me so much hope– that if I felt so at home here, surely God has this for me in my future.
Finally, I heard a quiet voice, underneath all of this, extinguishing past lies and pulsating from deep within. This soft whisper, slowly gaining volume and momentum as the days went on…
You CAN do what you long to do…
right here on this path you’re on.
On that same pale yellow page were these words as well:
I can’t believe I did this.
Was a teacher of refugee children
in the heart of my mother country
What,tell me, come on,
what could be better than
My fingers twitch and tangle above my keyboard this Saturday night. Obviously I wasn’t a total loss for words! Yet… now… when I think of the way God has led me, despite all my wrestling against His call to university and my ill expectation of where He’s leading me in the future… oh, now, when I think of His perseverance to fulfill His purpose and to satisfy my heart…
I really don’t know what to say– except, maybe, just maybe, type a tiny…
“Lovers, keep on the road you’re on
Runners, until the race is run”
-Coldplay, Lovers In Japan
“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
–Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV
Photo credits: Renee George: Mount Maunganui rocks, November 2012. Pieter Heres: Cambodian school girls, July 2011.