Three months ago—in the middle of a global pandemic—I left the safety and security of my family, community, and well-paying job in California to move across the world to Tunisia. Here’s a glimpse into what I've learned in my first 90 days as a new IDEAS Associate.
1. To give myself time. I was not able to travel to visit my project site before my move because of the challenges presented by COVID-19. Instead, I created a long list of books, movies, and websites I intended to review to get to know the history and culture of Tunisia. However, I also made the decision to work until just three weeks before my departure, so between fundraising, packing, wrapping up work, and saying goodbye to friends and family, I had little time for study.
Thankfully, COVID kept me in quarantine for my first two weeks in Tunisia. I am normally a go-go-go kind of person who would have burned the candle at both ends to visit every local tourist site within a week of my arrival, but the forced confinement allowed me to ease into my new environment. From the safety of my temporary apartment, I could see, hear, taste, and smell aspects of my new life without being overwhelmed and with the space and time to process all my emotions, including loss, fear, confusion, surprise, and excitement.
My local project partner created a schedule for me that includes six months of orientation and language study. I initially wasn’t sure that would be necessary, but have since developed an appreciation for their wisdom. Navigating a new culture is exhausting. Everything takes me longer here. At home I could take care of my regular household business quickly and easily because I already knew the when, what, where, and how of the tasks, but here I first have to learn all of those things, then study the foreign vocabulary I will need to accomplish my goal, then probably make multiple attempts to try to put all of my new knowledge into practice. While I look forward to officially starting work on my project in the Fall, I am glad to have this time for learning and growth.
2. To celebrate both diversity and similarity. Before my departure, the IDEAS team impressed upon me the importance of approaching my new community as a cultural learner rather than as a cultural critic. When I’m tired, frustrated, scared, or lonely, it can be so easy to switch into a mode of judging my host culture by what I see on the surface rather than by building my knowledge of the history or worldview that underpins daily life. Rather than focusing on dilapidated buildings or frustrating bureaucratic delays, longer observation and the development of relationships with people who have greater cultural fluency than I do can help me appreciate my host culture’s emphasis on hospitality and their ingenuity and resilience despite limited material wealth.
At the beginning, it was much easier to see the differences of life in my host country than the similarities to my old life back home. On my first walk around my new neighborhood, I was intimidated by a pack of stray dogs picking through the trash strewn around the street. To balance my initial shock, I began intentionally looking for commonalities, like the shop on the corner selling my favorite kind of ice cream and neighbors who were growing plants in their yard that were the same as the ones I had in my yard growing up.
These shared elements helped me feel like the gap between my old and new worlds was not as big as it might first have seemed. Now I celebrate having access to both worlds. Some days I’m feeling adventurous and I head out to explore a new part of town and seek out local delicacies at a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood restaurant, and some days I am comforted by the familiarity of a video chat with friends back home or a Papa John’s pizza at the mall.
3. To step out in faith. Making a move this big is scary—not horror movie scary, but rollercoaster scary. The exhilarating kind of scary that tests your faith. In the year before my move, I focused on learning to surrender to God, and that has been excellent preparation for living in a country where I am virtually an infant, relying on the Lord and His people for my daily needs. I have historically struggled with prideful self-sufficiency, but here I am learning to ask for and accept help from my team, benefitting from their experience and deeper cultural knowledge. I am also learning to lift up my challenges in prayer, and as a result I am seeing those prayers answered in awesome ways.
One of my prayers right now is that the Lord would help me build a network of friends and surrogate family here. It would be easy to stay in a bubble of English-speaking expat team workers and church friends, but I didn’t move 6,500 miles for that. To live with contagious hope I need to be willing to stumble over my words in a new language and introduce myself to my neighbors. I need to be willing to surrender my attachment to my old identity as a competent and articulate professional and embrace my new role as a child-like learner who seeks to convey through attitude and actions the good news that I cannot yet express in words.
I am incredibly grateful to the IDEAS team for everything they have helped me learn so far. I look forward to the day when my use of the term “back home” refers to Tunisia rather than California, and to supporting the next new IDEAS Associate (maybe you!) taking their first steps on this exciting journey.
About the Author: Julia is an IDEAS Associate and moved to Tunisia in 2021. She will be overseeing community needs assessments, project development and implementation, local partner relationships, and impact measurement for an IDEAS partnering project. Click here if you'd like to learn more about taking the next step towards leveraging your professional skills to restore hope!