A third of my career of over 35 years has been spent working abroad. I am often asked what the differences are compared to practicing in the UK and since I have never been in a distinctly missionary role, in one sense there has been very little difference.
I still had to find a church or fellowship to join, practice regular quiet times, look to see if I could contribute in some small way to the local church activities. All the time trying to keep a steady Christian witness at work. And because the church is the family of God worldwide it is my testimony that I found a common bond with Christians wherever I have been.
To illustrate this, it has been just like putting on clothes, the same clothes, more or less, though the climate was different. But still tops, bottoms, socks, shoes, etc. The clothing illustration is appropriate. Wherever we are, we still have to clothe ourselves with the armour of God. Ephesians 6:13,14. “Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then.”
And yet, and yet………. of course, it is very different. The culture, the weather, some church practices, the absence of old friends, food you are not used to, relatives far away, health concerns, road safety issues and making new friends who do not have your background. In many ways it can be a completely different ball game. After I have been in China for any length of time, I always get a shock on my return to Scotland, everyone is so pale skinned and speaks such good English!
As a Christian one thought that does help me is that this world is His world. Everyone I meet, all the different environments, are His creation. The people and the environment may be strange to me, but they are not to Him. If the Rock who supports me knows about them, then that is cause for confidence. I try as best as I can, in humility, not mimicking or parodying, to understand the local culture. 1 Corinthians 19:22 says “I have become all things to all people.”
Nearly all the work is routine, wormers, vaccinations, spays, etc. But there are dramatic events. I have been called into a village with three suspect biting rabid dogs wandering around. (One was rabid, two were not, but we did not know that at the time.), I have managed tiger, lion, cougar, buffalo, giraffe, wild boar, a pack of hunting Coonhounds, and slept every night for a week with baby orangutang. (Yup, changed its nappy too.) I had a Land Rover whose petrol tank dropped out not once but twice. Once, as we stood, there were cows dying all around us with blood present in their nostrils. We checked it was not Anthrax and confirmed severe acute bracken poisoning. I have found myself suddenly facing a nine-foot cobra which I think was as surprised as me and I quickly shut the door. I once castrated in quick succession six fully grown stallions, under thiopentone. There was nothing else apart for xylazine for sedative: speed was the key. Around that time, we were also castrating 300kg boars and that had its moments too. I have stitched up security guards skin wounds, injected one or two folk (they in return injected me) and so on. It is as though UK work is like black and white photographs on paper while abroad you are working in colour with oil paints on canvas. It is more dramatic and with greater contrast. So, the emotional highs are higher, the work more demanding of thought, the tears more heartfelt, the laughter with purer joy.
In these circumstances one’s own prayer life and bible readings often have a reality and directness. The metaphor in Ephesians 6 of being engaged in a struggle has reality. Once, when I was abroad, out of the blue a Chinese friend asked me in detail my daily reading practice. On hearing it, chided me, told me what I should be doing and left. The advice was sound (!). I had been a bit lax for someone engaged in a struggle. Crucial when all is going awry is the support of Christians back home. I believe when facing issues, you should ask for prayer. Paul did. As the VCF secretary knows I am willing to say ‘help’. I am also thankfully still in contact with a group of University Christian Union friends from way back over 40 years now. And of course, my close family give support. My own view is that because of other people’s willingness to give of their own time to prayer I have come through some challenging times. I think this is relevant to the rest of the UK: we are a fellowship of believers acting in a profession with a significant high stress level.
Ironically the other main challenge is returning to work in the UK, which I have now done four times. Handling new computer software is scary. In the old days it was just a different shape of record card. Generic drugs always changed their names, one or two new drugs popped up, and there is the “flavour of the decade” with regard to anaesthesia and analgesia. One has to get to grips with all this. Luckily the clients and conditions remain the same. One of the most difficult things is adjusting one’s perspective. Relatively speaking most things in the UK are minor or very minor. Abroad many matters significantly affect the quality of life for man and beast as I have heard also from both my daughter and closest friend who have worked overseas. On return they have taken a while to get used to (a) people having little empathy with the work they did (b) people in the UK spending a lot of time on matters they would regard as trivial. Working abroad one is very likely to confront death, in some cases quite frequently. Clean water may not be easily available, power may be rationed, roofs can leak, typhoons can ruin environments and landslides can occur. The temptation is for someone returning to tell the folks at home “To get a grip” and that they should be “Very thankful for what they have and the basics that they take for granted everyday”.
This self-righteous attitude is of course no good and anyway one good reason you got back in one piece is because these good folks prayed for you. To my mind this is a complex issue: but a slow careful reading and re-reading of Galatians 6:1-10 can begin to unravel it.
So, to sum up working abroad? Three things to bear in mind. (1) It is the same, well almost. (2) No, it is not the same. You will see and do things that will change your life. (3) 1 and 2 above appear paradoxical but two apparent opposites can be true. So here is a third one: Going out is not the main challenge, adapting on return is.