Monday, June 9, 2014

Another poem

For a long time, I thought of poetry as Dr. Seuss. Then I learned about haikus. Then I took AP Literature classes. Then Grandma gave me a book by Patrick Hicks. Then I became an English major. Somewhere in there, I fell in love with poetry. If it doesn't work for you, that's fine, but this one is so emotionally significant for me, I'm sharing it with you.

I was asked by our worship leader to read this blessing at the closing worship of the YAGM Malaysia team during our final transition retreat. It was a gift to share the words out loud with these beautiful YAGM who have become my family, who could relate and understand in similar ways, and who didn't mind when I choked up several times. (I can't even read it in my head without getting teary.)

Like the last poem I shared in this space, it bears a specific context in my mind, but the words are flexible to wrap themselves around other experiences. For me, now, they are Jireh Home, they are Sabah, they are Malaysia,  they are Southeast Asia, they are my YAGM family, they are who I was this year whom I will never entirely be again. They can also be about a school, camp, nuclear family, childhood home, hometown, teams, dreams...places you leave and carry with you.

A Blessing in the Dust
From Jan Richardson's Painted Prayer Book

You thought the blessing
would come
in the staying.
In casting your lot
with this place,
these people.
In learning the art
of remaining,
of abiding.

And now you stand
on the threshold
The home you had
hoped for,
had ached for,
is behind you-
not yours, after all.

The clarity comes
as small comfort,
but it comes:
illumination enough
for the next step.

As you go,
may you feel
the full weight
of your gifts
gathered up
in your two hands,
the complete measure
of their grace
in your heart that knows
there is a place
for them,
for the treasure
that you bear.

I promise you
there is a blessing
in the leaving,
in the dust shed
from your shoes
as you walk toward home-
not the one you left
but the one that waits ahead,
the one that already
reaches out for you
in welcome, in gladness
for the gifts
that none but you
could bring.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Culture Shockin'

Several weeks ago, when I was preparing to leave Malaysia, I posted a blog entitled, "Expectations and Quirks," describing what I thought the oddest behaviors I'd have when I made the transition back to my home country. Consider this, from the other end, part two.

One of the best things people can do for me during this confusing, exciting, heartbreaking, and generally overwhelming time is ask specific questions. Believe me, I know how intimidating it is to try and engage in a meaningful conversation with someone whose life has seemed so radically different from yours lately. If asked a general question like, "so how was it?!" my natural reaction is to hit the floor. Too many feelings, stories, conflicting ideas to summarize. The people who have been the most helpful in figuring out how to fit this new Katrina back into the U.S. have asked questions more like this: 
"What food did you miss most?"
"What food from Malaysia do you miss most now?"
"What did your daily schedule look like?"
"Tell me more about the experience described in this blog post...."
"What has been the most unexpected challenge of coming back?"
(and then truly listening to my rambling responses).

Bless them.

So, for you readers who have followed the journey, here are some expected and unexpected bumps and giggles along the ride of "re-entry":

-WalMart is ridiculously overwhelming. 

-People here seem to speak English so fast, and so loud. My brain is accustomed to tuning out if someone speaks too quickly for me to understand their Malay, so if someone starts babbling rapidly, I find myself peacing out. Asian cultures are also not known for being particularly loud (as opposed to stereotypes of other cultures, like Italian or Greek, for example), so I find myself wincing a lot when people around me don't realize they are cranking up the volume. After a year of speaking so clearly, I have also been amazed at my own capacity to get carried away in my own word-speed, and people still being able to understand me.

-I'm freezing. Air conditioning is trying to kill me. I was all excited about wearing "inappropriate" (for a primarily Muslim country) tanks and shorts here. I'm in jeans and sweatshirts.

-I had kind of forgotten about tipping, and definitely forgotten how to do so appropriately. I have yet to leave ringgit for someone in a restaurant, but it's only a matter of time...I can't bear to take them out of my wallet yet. 

-Most Malaysian eating establishments have salt and pepper shakers, but ALL of them have sugar shakers. I literally ask every single time I pick up a white shaker if it is sugar or salt, even if it is snuggling a matching pepper shaker. I also have to be reminded every time I reach for a glass that tap water is okay to drink, and I don't need to boil anything.

-Speaking of warm water: hot showers. I'd forgotten. So beautiful.

-My body is very displeased with the amount of dairy that's going into it. I do it anyway.

-I ate six hamburgers in the first week back in the States. I had no idea I missed meat that wasn't chicken, pork, or fish.

-I am very freaked out by TV commercials and all the brands I'd forgotten existed, and last night I squealed over a kid character on a show I used to love who has "gotten so BIG! Look how much he's grown up!" (Seriously, though, all the kids on Modern Family have changed a lot.)

-I find myself a tad surprised that cows are so far from the road, not sharing the road. 

-It is odd to me that the U.S. Postal Service logo is on trucks and buildings, not just packages from home.

-The strangest thing is not being strange. It is so freeing to walk down a street without people pulling over or obviously craning to get a look at me. No one whistles or yells "hey white baby," or "hi sexy miss, where you go?" 

I was special at Jireh Home just for being Sister, not because Sister was white. 
Here, I want to be special just because I'm Katrina, not because Katrina lived somewhere that not many people from this part of the world get to live. The experience is part of what makes me special, but ultimately the specialist thing about me is just that I'm a claimed and called child of God. The rest of the experiences, the gifts, the (hopefully endearing) quirks, even the color my skin happens to be, are just facets of who that child of God has been and is becoming. Big thanks, to people here and there, who have helped shape my journey so far.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Jumpa lagi

I realized something interesting this week: I didn't know how to say "Goodbye" in Malay. I always say, "Jumpa lagi!" which means, "See you again!" or, to my kids, "Selamat malam!" (Good night!), to which I get a dozen little faces looking up from homework crying, "Good night Sister! Sweet dreams! Sleep well," but I never actually say, "Goodbye."

I discovered this lack in my vocabulary sitting on a bus in Kota Kinabalu. Two of my Jireh Home friends and I had gone in to the city for the day to see "Amazing Spiderman 2" and do a little goodbye tour of some of my favorite spots. We wandered through the mall I stumbled into the first time I went into the city by myself, which became my refuge when waiting for friends or needing quiet time in a bookstore. I took a picture with the mannequin who always cracked me up when I walked by. I thought back to other times in that movie theatre: "Catching Fire" with Lebiana after waiting together for months, "Captain America" as a celebration for the high schoolers finishing their big exams, "Rio 2" for a girls' day with the new warden. I got my usual roti order at my favorite curry house and ordered the drink that I always get there. Then we went to the Tuaran bus stop.

Goodbyes are weird and kind of messy. Sometimes they are actually "jumpa lagi," meaning "I expect I'll see you again someday," like at graduations or moving days. Sometimes they are closure and finality, like breakups or funerals. And sometimes they are uncertain, hopeful, full of gratitude for what has been and doubt about what will be, like leaving a country for possibly the last time. Another strange thing about goodbyes is realizing the things that mean the most to you. My last night of college I cried my eyes out after saying "good night" to my roomie of four years for the last time. Not walking out of my last class, not getting my diploma or loading the truck, just saying good night. So this week, leading up to hugging each of my kids one last time and driving away from Jireh Home, I've been working up to the big goodbyes with other things that have been meaningful in my year.

Which is why, sitting in a half-full bus on a street in KK, I leaned over and asked my friend Kisa, "How do you say 'goodbye' in Malay?" I have been at that bus stop many times during my months here, and the same man has always been there, sitting on a spinny chair at the Tuaran drop off. I don't know his name. He is non-verbal, and communicates through grunts, pointing, and a great smile. He collects the bus fare and lets the driver know when the bus is full. He also always recognizes me, gives me a wave and a smile as I come walking towards him, and counts to see if there are enough spots in the bus for me and whomever I happen to be with. When I traveled alone, he would always make sure I had a good seat on the bus, with room for my bag and near a window with a breeze, keep vendors from bothering me, and give me a thumbs up before we pulled away. This last time getting on a bus to Tuaran, I suddenly felt a need to tell him that I was going back to the States, that I wouldn't be here anymore, that he was my friend and I was thankful for him, and to say goodbye. I tried to mumble all of this in Malay as I handed him my four ringgit and returned his thumbs up. I don't know if he understood. But I am grateful for the chance to realize what he meant to me, to think back on the time in Malaysia and the small things and unexpected people who made it all that it was.

Yesterday I went into Tuaran for the last time. I ate all the Tuaran specialty noodles that I could hold, blew a kiss to the turtle in the koi pond where I've had great conversations, and stopped in to say goodbye to the guy at the pharmacy who has a crush on "Kisa's white friend" (turns out he wasn't working that day, which is maybe for the best). I picked up fruit from my favorite stand and got ice milk tea one more time. Tonight is my going away party. Tomorrow I will hug each of the Jireh Home children and staff, blow them all one last kiss, and take my last ride in the Jireh Home van to the airport. What a blessing to have the chance to see every bit of my life here, to soak it all up and think about what it has been, to be grateful for each detail before saying goodbye.

Maybe that's a way to live life. Not necessarily always wondering if each day will be your last, but being deeply aware of as much of it as you can. Telling people how much you love them frequently, so you don't have to pack it all in at the end, no matter what kind of "goodbye" it may be. Maybe we live with the hope that each goodbye is simply "jumpa lagi"...see you again. Until then, my friends, jumpa lagi.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


One of the most humbling things about being an English major in college was acknowledging not only the power of words, and how they can fail, but also that sometimes and despite your best efforts, other people just use their words better than you can to articulate certain experiences. Thank goodness. So for this blog entry, as much as I love sharing my own words, I give you someone else's to describe this experience. 

I first heard this poem in college. My good friend Pastor Mike and I both love poetry, and I suspect he found this one through his daughter, who also served in YAGM several years ago. It was read to us again at orientation, accompanied by stories of  YAGM alum that related to various stanzas. I am amazed by how many of my own stories I can connect to the poem. But for now, my words will pause, and give space to see how the words of someone else connect to your stories, too.

*if you are not much of one for Biblical stories, the poem is in reference to the story in Exodus of Moses leading his people out of Egypt...the first Passover. But, as masterful writers do, it also tells stories of other peoples, YAGM.

Passover Remembered...
by Alla Bozarth-Campbell

Pack nothing.
Bring only your determination to serve
and your willingness to be free.

Don’t wait for the bread to rise.
Take nourishment for the journey, but eat standing.
Be ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind-
fear, silence, submission.
Only surrender to the need of time-
love justice and walk humbly with your God.

Do not take time to explain to the neighbours.
Tell only a few trusted friends and family members.
Then begin quickly, before you have had time
to sink back into old slavery.

Set out in the dark. 
I will send fire to warm and encourage you. 
I will be with you in the fire, and I will be with you in the cloud.

You will learn to eat new food
and find refuge in new places.
I will give you dreams in the desert
to guide you safely to that place you have not yet seen.
The stories you tell one another around the fires in the dark
will make you strong and wise.

Outsiders will attack you, and some follow you
and at times you will get weary and turn on each other 
from fear, fatigue, and blind forgetfulness.

You have been preparing for this 
for hundreds of years.

I am sending you into the wilderness to make a new way
and to learn my ways more deeply.
Some of you will be so changed by weathers and wanderings
that even your closest friends will have to learn your features
as though for the first time.

Some of you will not change at all.

Some of you will be abandoned by your dearest loves
and misunderstood by those who have known you since birth
who feel abandoned by you.

Some will find new friendships in unlikely faces,
and old true friends as faithful and true
as the pillar of God’s flame.

Sing songs as you go, 
and hold close together.
You may at times grow confused
and lose your way.

Continue to call each other by the names I’ve given you
to help remember who you are.
Touch each other, 
and keep telling stories.

Make maps as you go,
remembering the way back from before you were born.
So you will be only the first of many waves 
of deliverance on the desert seas.
It is the first of many beginnings-
your Paschaltide.

Remain true to the mystery.
Pass on the whole story.
Do not go back.
I am with you now and I am waiting for you.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Turns out there are pros and cons to having 38 brothers and sisters.

Pros: you have lots of role models and shoulders to cry on, and plenty of people to play with.

Cons: when one person gets a confirmed case of tuberculosis, EVERYONE gets shots.

Let's face it, most people get the heebie-jeebies about needles sticking into their skin on some level. Most of us have learned to be chill about it, but whether or not you admit it, there's always that rush of relief and pride when the nice (or mean, depending on how the shot went) nurse says, "Okay, done!" and you look down at the little cotton ball and realize your arm may not, in fact, need to be amputated.

I'm not super skittish about needles. I think I used to be, but then my cousin Anna was diagnosed with MS at thirteen and had spinal taps, self-injected meds, and monthly IV drips and took it like a superhero, so I decided I could suck it up for a flu shot or two. Things I AM skittish about: conveniently forgetting which vaccinations I've had and deciding that accidentally getting a double dose of TB vaccine would probably cause my arm and possibly leg to fall off. Not that I am a hypochondriac, mind you.

Turns out my best friend, the internet, informed me that I probably didn't have the vaccine already (though web MD also told me in college that I might have prostate problems...), and my other best friend, my country coordinator, patiently reminded me over the phone that I cannot, in fact, get tuberculosis by getting a shot, but I CAN get it by being coughed on (which happens often in a home of 38 kids) and NOT having the shot. I don't actually buy the "you-can't-get-this-disease-when-we-inject-bits-of-it-into-you" thing, because one time I definitely got the flu the day after my flu shot, which my mother and the adult-ish voice in my head that sounds like my mother says just means I already had it and there's nothing the shot could have done at that point. Which I believe. Kind of.

So I made the very adult decision to corner the nice medical official man and/or nice nurse lady after they injected all the kids, find out if they spoke English, and ask lots of intelligent questions like "so IF I get this shot, do I get a cool band-aid?" (This is how my college roommate persuaded me to take most immunizations and it worked brilliantly.) But first I watched.

I watched to make sure the nice nurse lady in her nice white uniform was wearing gloves like I was trained to do in Wilderness First Aid. I watched her use a new clean needle for each kid and promptly throw it away in a designated bin. I watched her patient smile and precise fingers and decided she was legit. But more importantly, I watched the kids. I watched the older ones stride forward with good natured smiles, offering their arms as the younger ones squirmed and hid their faces in my shoulder. I watched the ones who were a little freaked out put on brave faces, both to persuade themselves, their peers, and their little brothers and sisters that everything was okay. I saw them smile with relief when they realized they hadn't felt a thing, and sportingly show their arms to their friends, assuring that it didn't hurt. Emboldened by their older siblings success, the little ones put on brave faces, too.

It made me brave. It made me realize that this, too, was accompaniment. These kids who didn't accuse the one sick-y who made them all need shots, who cheered when a particularly tearful companion walked away with their cotton ball blinking at the anti-climax, who watched with fascination as the nurse carefully immunized their friends... they made me brave. They made me march forward to sing to one of the little ones as we held her in her chair, crying and squirming, and hold my staff friend's hand as unnecessary support. Even after all the kids had left for school, I offered my own arm to the nurse lady, who, though she lacked cool band-aids, turned out to be nice after all.

It's a beautiful thing, bravery. I kind of think it's not something we get on our own. Sometimes it is required on a very individual level, like walking up to the nurse lady while everyone watches, or asking for help, or looking around your new bedroom and realizing your family is halfway around the world. But the way it grows and develops reserves inside you is from others. Other people who show us that the nurse lady is not out to amputate your arm, who maintain your dignity with grace when you ask for help, who say things like, "I love you," "I believe in you," "you can do it," and "I'm proud of you." It grows from the people who put aside their own fears to tend yours, and from you putting aside your own heebie-jeebies to take care of your little brothers and sisters.

Though I didn't really need it, my friend on the JH staff held my hand when I got my shot, too, and made funny faces for me. I didn't notice the shot was over (or started) until the Nice nurse lady asked me to grab the cotton ball. My friend exclaimed, "You didn't feel it?! AH! I gave you strength!" She was right.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Expectations and quirks

I've learned a great deal during my time as a YAGM. Much of what I've learned has been about myself. I've always known I have to be careful with expectations. I was the kid who cried when my birthday was over because even if it was wonderful, it wasn't what I imagined, and I was the middle schooler who cried when Halloween was over because it was never quite as fun as when I was little. The nice thing about moving to Malaysia was the inability to form very many expectations. What have I learned about expectations this year? To have none (which is impossible), to expect the unexpected (what does that even mean?!), to be aware of what they are and how their being met or unmet affects you (which often shines light on some annoying qualities in myself.)

So how do I prepare to go back to a place I already know, when I've changed, and the people there have changed? What do I expect? How can I brace myself and others for expectations not being met, or negative ones being met?

I don't know.

Lots of lovely experienced people have been sending me lots of lovely helpful advice about reverse culture shock and grieving and transition. My brain and my soul are working very hard to prepare myself and my loved ones as best I can for whatever all of that means in my own journey "home". I'm starting to be able to touch and dig into the deeper, scarier hopes and fears of leaving here and going there, but not enough to articulate yet. However, I still want to share each step of the journey with you as best I can, so I have prepared a more lighthearted list of what you can probably "expect" from me as I experience reverse culture shock from Malaysia to the United States. We'll call it "quirks" I've picked up here:

-I might wiggle my eyebrows and up-nod to acknowledge you. This is not a sexual gesture. It is a greeting.
(I learned this after a month of much confusion as to why 8 year olds were giving me the up-nod.)

-If I want your attention, I will flap my hand, fingers down. Fingers up IS a sexual gesture.
(I will also refrain from crying, "SEEEEESTA" to get your attention. You are welcome.)

-In Malaysia, we point with our lips or chin. If hand gestures are necessary, I will point with my left thumb.

-I may, out of habit, touch my sternum after I shake your hand. It is a sign of respect.

-I will probably slurp noodles.

-I will either refuse to eat rice for months, or crave it with everything and be shocked that every home does not include a rice cooker and wok.

-Wearing shoes will probably be awkward for me. Particularly closed-toed ones.

-You might find me spread out on a tile floor, because that is the coolest place to sleep.

-I will try not to laugh at you when you complain about heat, and I will try not to complain about being cold when it is 60 degrees. ( English anyway. No promises about complaining in Malay.)

-You might hear me giggling in bathrooms. Don't worry, I'm just excited about accessible toilet paper and hand soap. Also actually feeling completely dry after a shower.

-Getting into the "right" side of vehicles will be wildly confusing for me.

-I may turn on subtitles for movies, and be disappointed that they are more or less accurate. English subtitles here are hilarious.

-I will drop Malay phrases. I just will. Ask me to teach you a few if you want to make my day, or remind me you don't understand, but please don't get annoyed at me. It's just a habit, and one I had to work hard to gain.

-Even when speaking English, I might simply say "can" as a response or add "lah" or "bah" at the end of words. I'm not trying to be short with you or make fun of you...those are enthusiastic terms! Oklah?

-I will miss my loved ones here. Just remember that I missed you, too.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Before I left for Thailand, I was chatting with my country coordinator, Chris, about all the unexpected twists and turns my life has taken over the past few years. I snarkily said something along the lines of, “I just wish would stop throwing curve balls for a little bit so I can figure out how to be a grownup.” He gave me a look. 
“Life never stops throwing curve balls, does it?” 

Though we were expecting that our YAGM year would be filled with challenges in addition to the joys, the YAGM Malaysia team has experienced a few extra unexpected twists this year. With huge amounts of support from our partners in Malaysia, the ELCA staff, and our communities back home, we’ve navigated each hurdle as they come, and it has still been an amazing and grace-filled year. 

Due to some visa issues, the Malaysia crew will be ending our YAGM year differently than planned. As you already know from earlier blog posts, Malaysia’s immigration policies became increasingly less predictable this year. I want to be clear that we have never been in any danger. The ELCA would never send YAGM volunteers into a country knowing that it would be unsafe. For several years, volunteers have had no issue staying in the country for the planned amount of time on a tourist visa with a few out-of-country retreats throughout the time of service. YAGM’s presence here is not illegal. However, it has become more apparent this year that visa policies are changing, and until the boundaries are more clear, ELCA Global Missions has made the pro-active decision to discontinue the YAGM Malaysia program for the time being. 

This means that for the next few years, no new volunteers will be sent to Malaysia until it becomes more clear how to avoid situations where people like me have to leave in the middle of their time of service. It also means that the ELCA is not comfortable risking anyone else experiencing immigration difficulties this year (I was not the only person flagged, just the only one who left as a precaution for a while). So, the decision has been made that this year’s YAGM Malaysia volunteers will end our service early, in May. 

Leaving Malaysia two months earlier than planned comes with a wide mix of emotions. For me personally, I feel some relief at avoiding the uncertainty of visa complications, grief at the suspension of a beautiful program, and of course, sadness at leaving my community here. I also feel so grateful for the hard work and consideration of all the people who came to this tough decision, and all the people who have supported us along the way handling challenges with grace. I feel humbled that I’ve had this opportunity, and that my visa troubles are small compared to so many in the world. I am thankful for time to prepare and say goodbye, and for loving communities across the world, both to bid farewell and welcome home.

Our last day in Malaysia will be May 11. All nine YAGM volunteers in our country group, along with our country coordinator, Chris, and his wife, will fly to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for our closing retreat. We hope for this to be a time to celebrate, to grieve, to have fun together, and to process and prepare for transitions. From there, we will be spreading our journeys. Several people have decided to continue volunteering, through other programs in other countries, for the last couple of months of our planned year of service. A few are traveling before making their way home. I will be coming back to the States at the end of May, and am excited about several of the opportunities that await me there over the summer, including visiting the school that has been partnering with Jireh Home while I’ve been here. 

We have one month left in Malaysia. It will be a roller coaster of excitement, uncertainty, mourning, packing, goodbyes, hellos, transition, tears, laughter, and, in true Malaysian style, lots of food. Please keep my Malaysia family, both the YAGM team and community staying in this beautiful country, in your prayers, and, as always, thank you for your love!

For an official statement from the Program Director of Young Adults in Global Mission articulating and explaining this decision, please email me at