dear abigail::how can I adapt to PW life in a foreign culture?

>> May 6, 2010

Dear Abigail,
About 3 years ago I came to France on a teach-abroad program, planning to stay here for 7 months. Seven months turned into a lot longer because I met my husband, a French-American pastor in downtown Paris. 

We've been married about 8 months and in some ways it's been the most overwhelming time I've ever experienced. Relationally we're really enjoying married life, but on every other level I'm really struggling. 

I find myself resentful of so many things: attempting to minister in a language that's not my own, pressure to entertain in a way that's up to French meal standards, missing friends and family back home (feeling very lonely!), unspoken pressure at church to be more involved in church activities, disliking my church's style and wishing I could have chosen my church, and alternating between feeling invisible and like a celebrity next to my husband. 

All this is added to stress of learning a new language and culture. Sometimes it just makes me want to scream or cry, or both!  I want to rise above these feelings and really love the church rather than resent my new role but I just don't know how. Any advice? ~ PW in Paris

Dear Paris,
I know firsthand how it feels to marry into a another culture. The different ways of communicating, the unexpected expectations, the feeling that you are always stepping on eggshells to keep from unintentionally offending someone at church or in your extended family. After 7 years in a cross-cultural marriage, I can tell you that the first years are the hardest - and if you work at it together as a team the culture shock will eventually fade.

When it comes to being "the foreign PW", sometimes it can feel like you're wearing a bulls-eye. Everyone watches the PW in a normal church, but when you're crossing cultures it seems that the expectations can be even higher! You are not alone!

Here are a few ideas for making your new life a little easier:
  • Make sure you stay connected with the "folks back home". Use Skype to webchat for free, or keep a blog to show them your photos of daily/weekly life and share what has been happening.
  • Check around to see if there are any other non-French PWs in your area. Contact them and ask if they'd be willing to get together sometime. See what advice they may have to share (if they've been living there for a while), or they might become a partner in the process if they are new at it too!
  • Observe the ladies in your church and ask one or two to be your "French mentor". Ask them to teach you the art of French cooking, or if they'd be willing to have a coffee date once a week so you can practice your language skills. Pick women who are great at the things you want to learn, and ask them to help you "become more French"! They'll likely love the opportunity to "improve" you, and you can gain new friends and cultural insights in the process. 
  • Don't give in to the pressure to do or be more than you are able right now. Those abilities will come as you grow. Try selecting just one (two at the most) church activities to involve yourself, and politely decline other requests. (You may need to solicit your husband to be your protector in this. People will probably take it from him much better than from you if he is the one urging the members to respect your boundaries.) 
  • Remember that going to a church that's "not your style" isn't unique to ministry in another country. That's just part of being a PW. Lots of PWs show up every weekend to minister beside their husbands in churches that they wouldn't pick if they were just a member. And almost every PW on the planet has probably had to do it at some point or another. Remember that this congregation isn't necessarily a lifetime assignment, but your relationships with the people in this church can be for life. Eventually your husband will pastor elsewhere, and most likely you'll miss something(s) about this church very much.
  • Focus on the things you can change. You can't change living in France. You can't change being a PW. You probably can't change how much you desperately miss home. But you can change the way you cook for others, and the language you speak, and maybe even your fashion style - in order to become closer to the people around you. Try to make those things as enjoyable and social as possible, and you might even learn to like new ways of doing things! Most of all, don't let other people's cultural expectations come between you and your PH. 
~ Abigail

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