Costa Rican Culture Shock: Up Close and Personal

Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.” She’s right, but each nest has its own charm. Mission life is an opportunity to get cozy in many places. As we hug friends back in the prairie over the next few days, it’s a great time to share some cultural quirks of living in small town Costa Rica. You won’t even need your passport.

Hello is an art form.

Once you adapt, you may never go back. Here ladies greet everyone (male and female) with a slight embrace and a kiss to the air beside the cheek. Repeat, kiss to the air. You are giving the sound, not the real smooch. If you feel comfortable, go ahead and touch your cheek to theirs. It’s like the Christian side hug, but with faces.

Always go to your left, so that right cheeks are side by side. Trust me, it’s just driving in your lane. Everyone’s right cheek is common ground. Do not be tempted by any force of nature or physics to change this up. Even when it works, it’s awkward. And if one goes left and the other right, you end up in one of the few spots that bump the Latino personal space bubble. So be wise: go left.

Man-to-man hellos happen by handshake here like normal. In my opinion, girls have all the fun. For someone who once debated if hugging a non-husband, non-family male was kosher, this style of greeting has become sweet. The bit of physical touch is zero about romance and all about courtesy. Try it. You might like it.

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Side note: A funny little dance happens as a gringo when you meet someone and you size each other up to see if you’re going tico-style hug or stateside handshake. Especially between two expats.

And when you travel back to the states, it’s just going to feel cold to offer the business handshake. So my apologies in advance, Nebraska peeps. I love you too much not to pull you in for a moment.

Don’t forget to ask about their day, their family, their pets, and how they are feeling. More questions means more love.

When you enter a room, plan to make the rounds greeting everyone. It’s the best way to kick off any gathering.

Near and far.

Culture here is zoomed in. People stand closer. Cars drive closer (to people and other cars). Houses are built closer, often sharing walls. Land lots on our block span about 22’ wide, so homes link together Lego-style to make the most of space. Laws delegate who owns and cares for each side based on the compass rose. Taxis zip up and down our narrow street, sometimes within arm’s length of the foot traffic. From jeans to grocery aisles, life is just lived tighter. It feels normal now.

But you can’t come right up to our front door. After 5 years here, that would freak me out. Gates and walls are everywhere, reaching to the sky, holding passersby a comfortable distance away from doors and windows. People stand and chat through their wrought iron. For good reason, everyone makes security a priority. Even warm climate culture has healthy boundaries.

So please, come say hello. Tap your keys on the gate and let’s chat. We aren’t afraid to get up close and personal in the land of pura vida.

Be sure to catch the second serving of this three part series: Talking Trash.


What’s your culture of hello? Has your personal space ever been breached? Please leave a comment and tell us your story.

Tree Frog Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

Of Ministry and Mom Guilt: Getting Over What Others Think

She strode up to our prayer gathering, her gray curls beautiful. The group stopped for greetings and her update on the situation across the border. Backpacking alone across Central America, helping out at missions along the way, Nicaragua’s political unrest had sent her doubling back to the children’s home where our family serves.

We hadn’t met, so after a while in the background, I asked her name and introduced myself: I’m Kris, Matt’s wife.

Her response stunned me. Yes, she knew my husband. With him so involved at the Home, she thought I’d be on-site helping more. She hadn’t seen me the whole time she’d volunteered.

The assessment burned. For a moment, I had no words. Matt explained that I homeschool our three children and have a full plate running our household.

She wasn’t impressed. Again it came; she thought I’d be there more.

I jumped in to list my efforts: cooking team dinners, communication for our family ministry and the Home, the longer process of doing cross-cultural life.

Shrug.

There it was out on the table. I disappointed this interesting, brave soul. My labor didn’t count—to her.

I’m not sure what was going on in the heart of that purpose-driven woman, but I can describe a little of the turmoil inside this one. I tried to shrug, also, to nudge her opinion off of me. Instead, it stuck.

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After spending most of the day spinning the scene in my head, I started asking questions and listening for the truth.

Am I spending my time where I’m supposed to?

There are likely as many types of missionary mothering as there are mission families. One feeling we probably all share is wondering if we do enough. Like moms everywhere, we teeter on a scale that almost defies balance: if we work out in the world a lot, we should focus more on home. If we pour into home, we should use our talents outside it more often. Stir in some “cross-culture” and “serving the Lord” status, and things get even stickier.

When I first landed in Costa Rica as a missionary, I thought I had to be perfect. I believed serving in a new culture meant I couldn’t have any of my own. I shouldn’t have preferences or needs. It was all dying to thyself. When I was served inedible food at a restaurant, we didn’t dare complain. When the taxi driver’s cologne cloud and speed-stop-turn combos set me sick and trembling, take up thy cross. For shame, you a) brought so much Tupperware from the states, b) skipped voluntary chapel to give your overwhelmed introvert self a breather between classes, c) used your clothes dryer when it wasn’t raining. And so on, forever and ever, amen.

The strain outpaced my weight-bearing capacity. To keep from being crushed, I had to give up trying to keep up with what I thought people expected of me. I had to find my own scale and sense of balance for the calling God gave me.

What is my calling?

Long before I ever signed up for this surrender, I felt the press of expectations. Our family came for 5 weeks in 2008 to get a taste of mission life without the team experience bells and whistles. Just us conquering the grocery store, bribing our kids with new flavors of jello for patience while we translated packaging. Just me figuring out exactly how short my Rosetta Stone work measured up. When our son’s 3-year-old, out-of-his-element wails sounded once again from the play area chaos, a different single woman from the states had words for me.

You know, to serve in this place, your kids have to toughen up. They have to live like these kids—without parents. We share everything here.

I was still on job interview behavior, trying to say the right thing, go the extra mile, make a good impression. But the rebuke knocked the people pleasing right out of me.

That is not what God is calling us to do.

My bold declaration surprised both of us. I knew it without question, though. God was not asking us to make our own children orphans so we could minister to orphans. Each family has a unique assignment; that was not ours.

My calling, God revealed over time, is to make home for our family. This safe, snug nest is the landing and launchpad for my husband’s full-time leadership at the children’s home. It’s the education of our kids, equipping them for whatever the Lord has for their future. It’s modeling a healthy family for precious hearts waiting to find theirs. It’s cooking up the taste of love for teams and making relationships from afar with words. What God asked of me is not just my contribution, it’s become my joy.

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Each of us has special set of gifts and a call to use them, whether on the mission field or off. We each serve and grow the kingdom in a way only we can. Everyone hears the “not enough” message from some stereo system. It’s time to cut the power on that soundtrack.

We shouldn’t have to look like one another. Life’s canvas is richer if we don’t. Let’s embrace the spectrum of colors each brings to the table and fully enjoy painting our own.

As for me and my house, it’s picked up, but not dusted. In a culture where value is earned by the shine of your tile, I choose to set priorities in line with my calling and trust the Lord for my worth.

In a land full of expectations, the best path is freedom.


How about you? Do you struggle with what others think about what you feel led to do? You’re not alone. Share your thoughts and encouragement in the comments below.

Family Waves Photo by Natalya Zaritskaya & Piggyback Photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash

Tipping Buckets

I went from zero to sixty in the time it took to realize that the internet was down. Again. From nurturing wife planning a trip to the grocery store, to snipping, snapping grumpiness.

The last 10 days were busy with blessings. A long brunch at a cozy café shared with other missionary ladies of the area. The end of homeschool year wrap up and our first official whack at standardized testing online. A mission team from our awesome home church serving alongside us at the children’s home. Five dinners for 31 prepared and shared. My heart-story laid out before new friends. Even a rare date night, courtesy of a kind team member’s willingness to watch our children.

In tandem with the high-octane push of hosting a group, we prayed (and are still praying) Matt through his installment of the coughing crud I spent two weeks kicking. The illness is legit if the man will actually drink hot honey lemon tea, y’all. The good Lord didn’t put him together with a natural appreciation for it. Our modem was fried by lightning strike for the second time in 3 weeks, and the technicians couldn’t drop by to fix it until 5 long days later. Workmen were scheduled to come make repairs on various parts of the house we rent. Like a winter snowstorm—you never know exactly when it will hit, how long it will last, or how bad it will be.

2016_01_12_0108 edit 2 cdocSo when the little spinny connection icon at the top of my phone screen went unglued for the third time in four weeks, so did I. These moments always catch me (and my beloved) off guard. I’m like the huge bucket at the water park that fills quietly over time and suddenly dumps unannounced with the force of a tidal wave. Okay, I didn’t break anything, say any bad words, or do anything more than be short and cross with Matt, then stomp off to regain my reason. Like the monumental splash, it passed quickly enough for me to ask forgiveness and “hug it right” before I grabbed my keys for the milk run.

What am I learning about myself in this life of serving in a different country and culture?  I like things to work the way they are supposed to. Sometimes it’s fun to play pioneer and improvise by catching rainwater from the downspout to flush toilets when city water is out of service. But every once in a while the rolls really do need to be baked when the power goes out. I miss the control of owning my nest and of telling workmen the way things should be done rather than being told what they are going to do and when they may invade my space to do it. I like to be good at things. When my Spanish heads off the fairway into the rough, I feel it like buzz of speaker feedback during a worship song.

I love the role that we have been given to serve the Lord here. We see him moving in ways great and small all the time. We feel him drawing us into closer surrender, showing us his infinite care, our infinite need. Child after child, team after team, the Lord changes lives at Hogar de Vida. Matt in leadership, myself in our kitchen, we really do fit like puzzle pieces crafted to complete the picture for this time and place. It’s an honor to be here, the loving hands of so many in the states supporting this work.

So why the deluge? How can I make holes in the bucket to release the weight of life’s cross cultural, ministerial idiosyncrasies? We are three and three-quarters of a year here. Shouldn’t I have this down by now?

No.

I really mean it. No.

Listen one more time, self that expected to fling her whole being into new language and culture like a baby duckling following momma-duck off of a bridge into a sunset pond.  And then realized that being momma-duck in this beautiful family meant most of my hours are spent serving behind my own front door.

No. You aren’t supposed to have it all figured out yet. Life doesn’t work like that.

2016_01_12_0105 edit cdocI have heard a repeated theme recently from anointed missionary friends, fully immersed in the culture, whose Spanish knocks my Gallo Pinto off:

After all the years, all the effort, I’m still different from the surrounding culture. I will always be different to them. Not unloved. Not without great impact. But yes, different. Still making mistakes and working through misunderstandings.

In this season, I, Kris, am not out in the culture much. Fail. My Spanish is passable but highly imperfect. Fail. My boys have little to no interest in learning another language. Fail.  After 2.5 years of honest effort to engage a great local Spanish church, we felt led to join an English-speaking congregation. Fail.

And yet, we have seen the Lord move endearingly in our children through this new church body. Win. We’ve made new friendships and laughed more than I can remember since we left language school. Win. I’ve conquered my fear of navigating my way around the country. Win. I surrendered my pride in doing homeschool completely myself and enrolled the two older E’s in an online program. They were challenged and learned all sorts of new skills.  Just as important, our relationship got a chance to blossom with someone else in charge of the class work.  The entire family enjoyed their first year. Total win.

Understanding that I don’t have to have it all down perfect is perhaps the greatest release valve I can open. Giving myself grace to do my best and leave the rest in the Lord’s hands engages the sprinkler to make a fountain.  All those expectations don’t belong in my bucket anyway. I need to give myself time and space to recharge, freedom to not know it all.  I need to remember that sometimes life is messy and the Internet stops working when you have exactly one day left to finish the Stanford 10 Math tests. It’s okay to not be okay. Everyone has a unique journey. My job is not to achieve perfection. My calling is to live with those stresses trickling over open hands, through fingers extended to receive what the Lord has in each moment. To be the blessing that only I am capable of being to those around me.

To be a watering can, rather than a tipping bucket.

 

2016_01_07_0031 edit cdocEven the sparrow finds a home,
    and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young
at a place near your altar. . . 

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,    who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
    it will become a place of refreshing springs.
    The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
 They will continue to grow stronger,
    and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.

                   Psalm 84:3a, 5-7 NLT

Celebrations of the Ordinary

They happen every day.  Sometimes I miss them, my eyes focused on the road ahead of me, the to-do list on my shoulders.  But when I catch a glimpse, and stop my busyness, my spirit looks up to share a smiling gaze with the Almighty.  A butterfly outside my window, a sweet moment with the children, a miracle unmerited.  I am leaning into the Lord’s heart in the celebrations He gives our family, both large and small.

  • Snowmen painted on my toes Tica-style in honor of the winter white stuff we miss on the prairie.
  • The little dear who eyed Matt with caution and shied away from his hand while we prayed over her entry into the Hogar de Vida family, running to give him a hug a week later.  Hearing the kids call out, “(Ma)Teo!” when he goes by.
  •  2014-11-28-0686-color-cdoc.jpgRealizing the soft blues and greens of the quilt I pieced before we launched to the mission field coordinate perfectly with the view of trees, mountains, and sky out our balcony.
  • The verification that our second language is taking root.  Yelling, “¿Qué está haciendo? / What are you doing?” without thinking when awakened from a dead sleep at 3:30 a.m. by someone’s loud footsteps on the neighbor’s tin roof next to our bedroom windows.
  • Sharing hospitality and life with friends around our table.  Cracking jokes and being real in Spanish and English.
  • Discovering the High School Musicals with my kids and savoring this season when singing the songs with their mom is still cool.
  • Laughing nonstop with House Tias on a 3-hour bus ride.  Hearing my name called out in the verbal melee, “Krease!”
  • 2014-11-29-0729 leaves edit cdocSeeing Ezekiel charm team members, Eliana in her element helping out in the houses, and Elijah playing alongside boys his own age.
  • Feeling the Holy Spirit show up in a unique way each time I share my testimony with a team.
  • God’s mercy and my husband’s ingenuity saving my laptop after a baptism by pumpkin spice tea.
  • Celebrating our Elijah’s arrival into double digits and his growth into a tender warrior.
  • Sips of coffee and birdsong in the presence of the Lord each morning.  A basket ready on my dresser with bible, journal, candle, and everything else I might be tempted to leave my chair for.
  • The tiny infant who fussed night and day against some unknown anxiety, calming into peaceful smiles and trusting cuddles through Hogar’s united intercession before the throne of our good Father.
  • Standing here, humbled on holy ground, filled with gratitude for the provision, prayer, and affection poured out on us.  

2014-11-29-0875-edit-cdoc.jpgWe would not be here without all of you.  It is an incredible privilege to be your hands and feet, serving in this land.  Often I ask, like David, “Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” 2 Samuel 7:18.

Thank you for every way that you have joined with us in this journey.  May the Lord of the harvest multiply each seed sown and return to you a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into your lap this holiday season.  Merry Christmas from the Gnuses in Costa Rica.  A savior has been born.  May His light illuminate your 2015.

May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father. He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light.  Colossians 1:11b-12 NLT


Linking up with VelvetAshes.com/the Grove/ Remembering.