January 8th, 2008 was a turning point in my life. I was eighteen years old, when I left Texas, my parents and my siblings behind to fly over 6,000 miles to the city of Perm, Russia. It was a dream come true for me, a dream I had carried in my heart since I was five years old.
All through my childhood, I would speak to family members and friends about going to Russia in order to help orphans and feed those who were hungry. I even studied the Russian language during high school.
Stepping off the plane in Perm, I immediately faced my first culture shock, the weather. As a born and bred Texan, nothing could have prepared me for the Russian weather. The airport in Perm had the passengers deplane on the tarmac, load onto a bus, then drive to the airport terminal. The weather was a negative 47 Celsius or negative 52.6 Fahrenheit.
Having left Texas, I was dressed in my rubber farm boots, jeans, a short sleeved shirt and a light jacket. As I waited in the customs line in the cement hanger airport, I thought of my heavy coat packed safely in my checked luggage. This Texas girl was freezing!
Once I arrived, I quickly acclimated to the weather. My farm boots were replaced by thickly padded Siberian winter shoes; my single layer clothing was replaced with several layers of clothing, plus I donned a thick coat, hat, gloves and scarf before venturing out into the Russian cold. Interestingly, I discovered chewing gum helped keep my face warm.
Studying the Russian language helped me communicate with people. Having studied the Russian language on my own prior to leaving Texas, I could understand what people were saying part of the time, yet I lacked confidence in speaking. Language study helped me learn grammar and I quickly gained confidence in speaking the language.
Another area of acclimation was the food. Russians eat potatoes, pasta with ketchup, salted pig fat, and many other bland foods which this Texas girl felt needed an element of spice. Fortunately, I brought a large Ziploc bag of fresh, jalapeno peppers with me. So whenever I missed home food, I would take out my bag and eat a jalapeno pepper.
Some of the Russian men who lived and worked at the mission base observed me eating jalapenos and requested to taste them for themselves. After taking a bite of the jalapeno pepper, they would get this shocked look on their face, jump up and run around the dining area looking for a way to ease their pain. Eventually, they would stick their mouth directly under the kitchen faucet and allow the cold water to stream over their tongues, bringing some much needed relief.
Being a healthy Texan, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for my first visit to a Russian orphanage. The babies and toddlers were crowded into a small room. The room stank of wet, unchanged sheets and diapers. The children were rocking back and forth in their cribs while they gazed off into the distance; their eyes empty and void. The staff sat in an adjoining room watching television. The staff were completely indifferent to the children’s needs.
At feeding time, the staff would bring porridge, quickly spooning the food in the babies’ mouths which would often cause the babies to choke. The choking garnered no sympathy from the staff who continued to push more food into the babies’ mouths.
As volunteers, we would make eye contact as we fed the babies. Even though the staff criticized us, we made sure the baby had time to swallow before putting more food into their mouths. We quietly prayed over each baby as we held and fed them. The babies seemed to soak in the eye contact and comforting arms about them as they would return our smiles. I am thankful I was able to love on them.
Besides loving on babies during the week in the Russian orphanages, I helped with Kids Club on Saturdays. Kids Club was for the older street children. Street children had a home to go to at night, but were basically orphans as they had no parental supervision or care during the day. We would read the kids stories, do a science experiment, play games and feed them lunch.
I enjoyed working with the orphans and street kids who were older and came to the mission’s base regularly to hang out or attend Kids Club. And as my language skills progressed, I made many friends and became very involved in my church.
I loved being a translator for incoming teams, organizing mission events and connecting different people. While I’m thankful for my time loving on the babies in the orphanages, it became progressively harder for me to visit them as I greatly grieved over the manner in which they were treated in the orphanage.
I processed the fact that twice a week the babies were gently held, carefully fed, and loved. It was very hard for me to process the grief I felt over the rest of their lives being spent lying on the floor alongside ten or more babies in their wet, unchanged diapers and clothing; all their wails and cries being ignored; with no stimulation and no interaction as they laid on the cold floor. This was very hard on me and I was ready for a break when I moved to a different country.
Cultural Change: Moving to Kyrgyzstan
After leaving Russia, I moved to Kyrgyzstan to help staff a counseling school. The moment I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I immediately fell in love with it. After arriving in Kyrgyzstan, I decided I would not join the orphanage outreach team. I wasn’t going to visit orphans anymore; my heart couldn’t take it.
Kyrgyzstan’s weather was similar to Texas. The city of Bishkek had the familiar old Soviet city feeling like Russia. The food was much more diverse because of the large diaspora of Koryo, or Russian speaking Soviet Koreans, and I discovered I really enjoyed Korean food.
So Texas weather with a Russian speaking population accompanied by Korean food and Soviet-style buildings made Kyrgyzstan ideal for me.
Being confident and fluent in the Russian language led me to being the translator for visiting teams. Because I dressed, talked and appeared to be a native Russian, many visitors would ask how I spoke English so clearly. I would answer that my parents taught me. They would question me where my parents learned to speak English. I would proclaim that my grandparents taught my parents and it was passed down from generation to generation. This led to our visitors being quite perplexed, so I would share I was born and raised in Texas.
I became involved in a local Russian – Korean church, and I fit in so well that I had many people asking me where I learned to speak English. They also questioned me about my motives in dressing and acting like an American. Imagine their look of surprise when they discovered I actually was an American.
It took six months of being consistently invited to visit an orphanage before I finally relented and agreed to visit a Kyrgyzstan orphanage. It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.
Though the orphanage was understaffed similar to the Russian orphanages, I saw a marked difference in the attitudes of the director and the staff towards the children. They would greet and talk with each child by name; maintain eye contact and speak with them as you would speak with any other child; patting them on the shoulder; holding their hand; showing them love and respect. This is how an orphanage should be managed!
Because of my fluent Russian language skills, I was able to immediately connect with the kids. They became the highlight of my week! I looked forward to visiting with them several times a week, sitting with them and chatting. Though physically disabled, their minds were bright. Our volunteer work included doing physical play therapy to aid them with their muscle strength, coordination and movements.
I began taking nail polish and doing nail art with the girls. I found art supplies and taught art lessons and made crafts with them. On days when the weather was pleasant, I began taking each of them for a stroll around the orphanage grounds.
They really enjoyed our walks in the sunshine and the one-on-one chats. They would ask me all kinds of questions: from questions about America, to the flowers they saw on our walk, to what I believed about God and they would share what they knew about God. We all became good friends.
The kids began to look forward to our arrival and would begin shouting our names as soon as they glimpsed me or another volunteer. All of the children would crawl or scoot as quickly as they could manage towards the entryway to greet us.
One day as I was passing by the area of the orphanage where the older girls were housed, I stopped to visit with a few of the girls. As we sat chatting, I ended up bringing out my nail art supplies and painting all of their nails. After this meeting, my week became divided between the two groups. I would spend one day a week with the younger children and one day a week with the older girls. I loved every minute of it!
The memory brings a smile to my face as I remember my time in the Kyrgyzstan orphanage and all the beautiful children I was able to meet. I became very close to many of the children, and when a few of them were adopted into local families, I became their English language tutor. And thus went another five years of my life.
In Kyrgyzstan, I enjoyed incorporating Korean food into my day-to-day life, so it became a desire of mine to live at least one year in South Korea, and God was very kind and generous to give me that long-held heart’s desire.
Cultural Change: Moving to South Korea
Moving from Kyrgyzstan to Seoul, Korea was a very different experience. Unlike the previous soviet cities I had lived in, Seoul was a big, fast-paced, modern city with convenient transportation. Seoul had easy access to food and amenities. And English was readily spoken for those who were not familiar with the Korean language.
My interest in Korea had begun eight years prior when I stumbled onto Korean pop culture on YouTube. I instantly connected with the Korean music, culture and language. I taught myself how to read Korean and picked up language nuances from cultural dramas I watched online.
Having an intermediate grasp of the Korean language and a love for the food and culture helped me fit right in to the mission base in Seoul, South Korea. And because I was their first foreign mission worker, I was able to help them transition in welcoming a cross-cultural experience for other foreigners.
Being in South Korea, I was able to explore museums, old Korean palaces, Korean saunas, botanical gardens, marketplaces, and church. I was able to build friendships, grow in my language skills, and minister to those around me. I was able to work with children from low-income families, North Korean refugees, orphans, Koryo expats and with the Korean missionaries themselves, mostly by teaching English.
After five years in Russia, five years in Kyrgyzstan, and two years in South Korea, my life as a foreign missionary came to an end.
Cultural Change: Moving to Texas
I returned to Texas where I enrolled in cosmetology school to become a licensed esthetician. After successfully completing the school, I trained to become an esthetician instructor.
I found that even though students in America come largely from Christian backgrounds, most of them have never really understood what it means to believe and follow Christ. Many have asked me questions about my walk with God and why I am different from other Christians they know.
Cultural Truth: Missions is a Way of Life
I have been very blessed to have ministered to orphans and many other people from all walks of life in various countries around the world. It was a wonderful experience that I will always cherish. I made deep friendships that continue to this day.
And I realize that missions is not just an overseas thing, it is a way of life, and one I pray will always be with me.