Musings, Portland, Social Work, Tidbits About Us

Moving a Mile to Live Abroad

December 26, 2011

Our story of cross-cultural travel and seeing the world with new eyes.

This wasn’t the trip I expected.

I’d been talking for years about traveling the world, chirping in Ted’s ear about experiences in foreign cultures, fresh perspectives, and challenging the middle-class-American-outlook we unwittingly take for granted. (And of course I tried enticing him with prospects of exploring foreign markets’ colorful stalls and opportunities to sample Portland Food Cart fare in situ.)

Winter 2009: One of those What-If? pillow talk conversations. Normally, travel was my suggestion, but this time, it was Ted advocating for scenery change and promising new experiences. He painted a vivid picture of connecting with people willing to share their unique histories and and share their cultures and perspectives, and I agreed to the adventure.

Within five months of that exchange, we woke up in a new land.

New walls. New views out the window. New cultures outside the door. New friendships among people from far corners of the world. Beginning that May, we lived in a little microcosm of the world surrounded by strangers who soon became friends.

One couple came from the tiny Micronesian island of Chuuk. A Native American family joined us with stories of life on the reservation in the Dakotas. African American and Hispanic neighbors shared tradition and recipes.

Our new community spoiled us with food. One memorable evening’s chili cook-off yielded a family buffalo meat recipe alongside classic fare. Another night: Coconut sticky rolls. And others: Ceviche, Carne asada, and Tacos al Pastor.

Midnight Gifts from Neighboring Cooks

I’d receive late-night knocks at the door and open it to find a steaming hot plate of color and spice or a sweet dessert waiting to be shared with a neighbor. In this new environment, we traded cross-cultural smiles, stories, and laughter and grew heartfelt friendships.

Yet we witnessed the veins of a deep poverty runn
ing through the community that rivals any lack I’ve ever encountered.

Poverty of finances. Poverty of spirit. Poverty of relationship. Poverty of respect and hope.

In this new life, we entered a world where people often lived without reliable family or friends beyond the bounds of our little community, and their previous histories of isolation and pain humbled me to the point of despair. My life to this point has been full to overflowing with the kindness and love and support of more family members and friends than I could ever list. Conversely, my new neighbors at times counted Ted and I among their very closest allies.

Pause. Let me go back to a memory from a decade ago. To the last time I so poignantly felt the unfair divide between circumstance:

One March, as an eighteen year old, I visited Mazatlan, Mexico with extended family to celebrate my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. While there, a few of us left the tourist district to visit a non-profit group working to provide meals for underprivileged families of the outlying community. My heart was torn as I returned that afternoon to resort food and smiling spring-break-revelers, remembering the spot at the city dump where children came running to meet the old rusty pickup delivering humble sandwiches.

Had we never ventured out, we never would have witnessed the need for change.

That stark contrast between society’s comfortable status quo and the weakened world of want and need may so easily be missed when we refuse to look, or worse-yet, turn a blind eye…

These sorrowful disparities appear in many cultures. Perhaps you’ve encountered similar divisions abroad: beggars lining the fringes of charming European plazas; tales of drug-addicted, depressed youth living in the shadows of New Zealand’s brilliance; overburdened porters plucked from remote villages to work on tourist treks, toiling to carry excess baggage past majestic South American scenery.

It’s a traveler’s luxury to see these differences while overseas. To ponder and then proclaim. To empathize and raise awareness. To stand for ethical treatment, appropriate wages, and reasonable programs for assistance. And it’s just as much of a traveler’s luxury to retrace the steps back home and turn a blind eye to the very same troubles outside our own front door.

Or a stone’s throw across the city.

Ted and I traveled a less glamorous route than I had imagined to reach our cross-cultural destination: we found the very same heart rending divisions right at home, in Portland, Oregon. Our trip, our journey, our destination: they were all about 5,280 feet away from our conversation that winter night in 2009.

The answer to Ted’s What-If? moved us into a ramshackle apartment complex a mile down the road to start a Transitional Housing community for formerly homeless families as an offshoot of his work as program manager of a non-profit shelter serving Portland and Gresham.

Stepping Stone Apartments: Transitional Housing in Portland, Ore.

No airplanes. No train tickets. No passport stamps or hostels involved in this travel. Instead, we spent the past eighteen months learning about on-the-ground-realities of low income life in America. Struggling and hard working individuals; some strong, some weak. The troubles of abuses suffered and traumas experienced. The grip of addiction and the unfair hand of cards too often dealt. The other-world of payday loans and “post-secondary-education aid programs” solicited by unscrupulous sharks. The food deserts and transportation logjams.

And we learned the refreshing honesty of such a culture. The lack of pretense. The straightforwardness of lives broken, and healing. The slow pace of recovery and the miracle of fallen chains. The nourishing food of community. The knock on the door when my sweet neighbor brings me a smile and a midnight snack of freshly made tamales.

We moved from middle class Portland to gritty and rugged Portland. We entered the lives of families who have overcome more obstacles than I’ve ever been called to face, and in learning from and living with them, my paradigm for living life and understanding the world has changed. Saying goodbye our Stepping Stone friends – Allan, Billie Jo, Heather, Micah, James, Kristen, Emma, Eric, Carlton, Timberley, Marcy, Annette, Daryl, Angie, and so many others – was one of the most difficult pieces of preparing to leave on our coming trip. {We love you guys so much! You’ll be in our thoughts and prayers while we’re away…}

Farewell to Dear Neighbors

Humbled was I to realize my desires for travel and adventure were so comfortably stripped of responsibility at home. And humbled was I to realize the answer to my prayers for foreign exploration was a call to get up, move down the street, begin to know my neighbors, soften my heart, and change my perspective. Not the trip I’d expected, but exactly the journey I needed.

I’ve experienced effects of a heart changing, eye-opening trip without ever leaving the state.

Ted and I carry these experiences and stories with us as we travel forward…

What to do, then, with open eyes? How do we see the world, whether home or abroad, for the disparities and heartaches and honest problems carried by the socially invisible?

How do we look on injustice and engage the solutions rather than turn away, supporting the broken status quo by default?

I’ve not settled on answers; I am forming opinions slowly. I suspect the fine line to be walked lies somewhere in the harmony between personal relationship and practical programs.

To throw money or resources at a suffering human and expect to cleanly solve a problem is misguided. Temporary quick-fixes too often contribute to the persistence of broken cycles. Likewise, to resist human interaction and only engage dysfunctional systems at a level of policy and management is to miss the poignant truths in real-life stories and relationship.

I suspect it looks like this: Acknowledging the existence of the troubles. Connecting with people. Partnering with programs. And resisting cheap guilt-assuaging fixes that only feed the problems

I’ll share more thoughts on this in the next post and throughout our upcoming 2012 travels…

If the past is any indication, this next trip will probably not match expectations. As it surprises us with unanticipated people, circumstances, situations, and insights, we’re eager to look for the lessons and blessings and to learn how to carry the responsibility well.

May we all open our eyes, and our hearts, to the invisible world around us all in our own homes, in our neighbors’ homes, in our own countries, and across the seas as we travel near and far.

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  • Reply Sue Myers December 27, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Thank you Bethany. I love your insights. I am going to steal a quote from you out of this blog. God speed to you and Ted.

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