Home is Where You Put Your Heart

This post first appeared on Assist News Service in May 2016.

When I moved overseas as a missionary, people would often ask me if I missed home. For various reasons, it was always hard for me to know how to answer. During my first few years in Ukraine, this uncertainty was because I wanted to be sensitive and respectful to my host country. The bald truth of the matter was that, yes, I missed the United States passionately—not because I was so attached to American culture, but because I was so miserable in Ukraine.

I arrived in Kyiv as a new bride, unable to speak anything but a few rudimentary phrases in the language, with zero experience living long-term in a large city or a non-Western context. My dad, who was very supportive of my marriage and my move, has since told me that despite believing that I was doing the right thing, he knew that I was going to have a difficult time adjusting. “Give it two years,” he said to himself, predicting depression after that. But I didn’t have to wait that long. I didn’t even have to wait one year. I never had the “honeymoon phase” that experts describe as the initial experience of missionaries upon moving to a new country. Within weeks of arriving in Ukraine, I was swallowed by a depression that I couldn’t shake for over four years, when we eventually moved away from Kyiv to serve in a different Ukrainian city.

During these years, when people would ask me if I missed the States, I could easily have given them a list of all the things I missed that was as long as the line for the cramped public transport van I rode to get to the nearest metro station. I missed not being afraid of being yelled at every time I interacted with a stranger, I missed restaurants and businesses with customer service, I missed drivers who followed the rules of the road, I missed the independence of being able to hop in my car and go wherever I wanted, I missed knowing what to expect, I missed knowing what was expected of me, I missed being able to communicate effortlessly and clearly, I missed having real conversations about real things with real friends (none of which my awkward Ukrainian would permit), I missed feeling like I had a personality, and most of all, I think I missed feeling confident and capable. But the sheer depth of my misery made me uncomfortable admitting any negativity at all, lest somehow my questioner, who was usually Ukrainian, would guess my true feelings and be offended that I found life in their country so disagreeable. So I would shrug and say something lame like, “Well, I miss my family.” This was ultimately insincere, because of all the things I missed, my family was much lower on the list than all the other things I just described. For me, lengthy separations from family have never been difficult, maybe because I grew up splitting my time between my immediate family in California, where I lived and attended school, and my extended family in Hawaii, with whom I spent most summers. But when put on the spot to share my feelings about living in Ukraine, I felt that saying I missed my family was the only safe and acceptable response.

A few of the dear friends God eventually gave me in Ukraine.

After we moved away from Kyiv, with its fast-paced, high-pressure lifestyle, I discovered a completely different side to Ukraine, one that was much more gentle and welcoming, and I thrived. In Ternopil, our new city, the question people asked me most frequently was not whether or not I missed home, but whether it was better to live in the United States or Ukraine. While I was much more comfortable being open about my feelings by that point, I was very cautious about how I answered this question, because I knew that most of the people asking it were dissatisfied with the quality of life in Ukraine and were dreaming of finding a way to emigrate to the West. However, I also knew enough Ukrainians who had moved to the U.S. or Canada and were dissatisfied with their new lives to make me realize that the people asking me this question were probably overlooking all the positive aspects of their homeland. So when I answered, I would acknowledge that life in the United States was more comfortable, and they would nod as if I was confirming something for them, but I would surprise them by adding that I enjoyed living in Ukraine because of how relational the culture was and how warm and hospitable the people were. I would admit that if we ever moved back to the States, I would really miss these things, and that material comfort isn’t the key to happiness. I could tell from their faces that this clearly was not the answer they were expecting, but it usually made sense to them, and I hope it helped at least a few of them see things in a new light.

Our kids’ lives have been enriched by many good friendships as well.

Now we’re once again living in Kyiv. After eight years in Ternopil, God called us back to the capital city, a place where neither my husband nor I ever wanted to live again after becoming accustomed to the quieter way of life in a smaller city. But things are different this time around, especially for me. I’ve now been living in Ukraine for thirteen years and am much more fluent in the Ukrainian language and can even do a decent job of following a conversation in Russian. I can have real conversations, and I have real friends. And I’ve changed in other ways too. I’m comfortable here. I know what to expect and what’s expected of me. I’m more accepting of cultural differences that I used to find jarring and even offensive. And I appreciate so many things about my host country. In fact, I have no desire to move back to the United States. I’m content and happy right where God has us, even in the middle of Kyiv.

Maybe because I’ve been in the country for so long, people no longer ask me if I miss home. I sort of wish they would, so that I could share how God has changed me, and how I don’t think of the U.S. as home anymore. In fact, when we visit the States, I find myself having to readjust to the culture where I grew up; operating in it is not intuitive anymore. It’s true that I don’t feel 100% at home here in Ukraine either, but it’s close, maybe 95%. God has changed my mentality so that now home is heaven, and I’m happy and privileged to live wherever He calls me on earth.

Despite this mentality, however, I have to admit that sometimes I still feel the weight of this missionary lifestyle. Even though missing people isn’t something I struggle with much, there are times when I wish we weren’t so far away, when I long to be closer. I missed the weddings of all but two of my high school and college friends. I wasn’t present for most of my little brother’s formative years, and now I feel like he’s a young man I hardly know. I couldn’t be there for my sister’s bridal shower, baby showers, or childbirths, and I didn’t even meet her first child until she was 3 years old. Now one of my dearest friends is battling stage 4 cancer, and despite the fact that I long to be present with her and help support her and her family as they walk this very dark and difficult road, I’m ten time zones, two continents, and an ocean away.

On days like today, I feel like my heart is breaking, but I know that moving back to the United States is not the answer. Sometimes turning our backs on God’s call seems like the easy route, but in the long run, it is far more costly than obedience. We lose out on blessings He had in store for us that would have made our initial sacrifice seem puny. Why else did Jesus say, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time” (Mark 10:29-30, ESV)? And I know that my heart would be torn either way, because no matter where we lived, we would be separated from people we love. This might sound melancholy, but it only takes a shift in perspective to realize that it means we are incredibly rich. We have loved ones all over the world. How many people can say that?

I may have missed almost all of the weddings of my American friends, but we have been privileged to witness the unions of many, many Ukrainian friends.

The answer to this dilemma lies not in seeking a way never to be separated from those we love. The answer is found in seeking to love those around us, moving forward on the path God has given us, one day at a time, trusting that He Himself will be there for the dear ones we have left behind, raising up others to be there for them when we cannot.

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