A friend recently commented that living cross-culturally strips back your identity to its most basic shell. My experience took me on a journey from being a competent, confident adult who was contributing to his community to a place where every aspect of my identity was challenged.
This was partly by my own choosing. Several years ago Marie Clare and I, along with our two children, departed Melbourne (one of the world’s most livable cities) for Bangkok, Thailand. We spent our first year studying Thai. We easily could have moved to Thailand to teach in English or to work in a large international church or school. However, we felt a strong desire to partner with the local church, to be involved in community and to learn to speak Thai.
We have now been in Thailand for three years. A large portion of our time has been dedicated to learning Thai, watching the people and environment around us and attempting to understand a culture that often intrigues us. We are often exhausted, frustrated and at times desire to return to a place where we are understood and are able to clearly articulate our thoughts and feelings.
Thai is a tonal language with 5 distinct tones. The meaning of a word changes based on its tone. Thus far I have yet to master these tones. I have discovered I enjoy getting out and about and speaking to people. In English I love to talk to people about politics and debate the current hot topic. However, in Thai my conversations last 5–10 minutes before I run out of things to say. In meetings I am 5–10 seconds behind the conversation. By the time I have decoded the conversation and translated my thought into Thai, the conversation has well and truly moved on. Thai people are kind and they are always amazed by how much Thai I can speak. But I know how far I have to go before I can think and speak Thai effortlessly. The more I learn, the more I know how much I don’t know.
So is learning Thai worth it? Why can’t I, like many mission workers here in Thailand, just speak English and get someone to translate for me? Then I could get down to doing what I really love: teaching and discipleship.
The answer is yes, it’s worth it! I don’t always feel this way. It is hard living in a place where you can’t express your thoughts clearly and have deep conversations. However, this journey is not about me. I have come to understand that without walking humbly with God, one cannot understand or practice justice, mercy or humility (Micah 6:8). Not being able to speak has provided me with an opportunity to observe, to slow down, to listen and to pray. Language learning has taught me to rely on others and on God.
God often reminds me that I am not walking on this journey alone, nor am I leading the way. I am walking humbly with Him. My identity is not found in my Australian passport, my Persian heritage, my science and teaching degrees. My identity is found in God my father.
Emmanuel is a qualified chemistry and biology teacher. He and his family are in Thailand long-term, partnering with the local church in outreach and discipleship.