Losing Precious Years in A Foreign Land

by - 4:39 PM

Last night, as I lay wide awake on my floor tooshak – a large Afghan pillow for sitting or sleeping on – I recalled a childhood memory:

I am 7 years old, dressed in my white and dark-blue school pinafore, sitting in the canteen of my primary school back in Malaysia. I am quietly savoring pieces of cut-up pizza bread my mom prepared in my packed lunch. I felt a little embarrassed, as if it was uncool to eat a packed lunch while other students milled about the canteen counter with pocket money to buy cool canteen food. It was a silly, childish embarrassment. I hadn’t made many friends yet – it was one of my first few days enrolled in Standard One at primary school. On the first day, I befriended two boys named Jonathan and Ian, who sat close-by in class and were quite funny.

My dad must have had an off day that week, because I see him jog into my school with a bottled treasure of cold Sarsi (it’s something like Pepsi) just for me. He found me and must have said some encouraging words that I don’t remember now. He gave me a kiss and I waved goodbye to him as he headed back out onto the streets. I imagined him jogging from home to my school on this regular day, stopping by a shop to buy me that Sarsi. My eyes welled up with tears – and I thought about how much I loved my caring, loving daddy. It was my first year in primary school and I missed him, even though I’d just seen him.

I smiled as I lay on my side. I missed him now. I thought about my mom and all the subsequent five years she spent with me and my sisters when my parents decided to homeschool us. After my first two years in the government primary school, my parents found out about a faith-based American homeschooling program and with hard-earned money, bought the first second-hand books to start me off while my younger sisters completed attending kindergarten and joined me a few months later. They believed we would be freer as a family if we took the path of homeschooling – freer to think, to read and write, to learn music, to be creative, and to travel as a family with no restrictions in school days or periodical holidays. I was happy for it. I smiled again as I thought about my mom cooking and doing morning devotions with us to start the day off with prayer and singing (and sometimes dancing around like hooligans to Sunday School songs or old hymns).

My eyes welled up with tears. Even now, as I write this, I tear up again. I thought about my sisters Janna and Jirene. They were always closer together because of their one-year age gap – always annoying me, messing around and talking too much when they were supposed to be doing their homeschool work. I often tried to imagine if I could live as an only child. I would have the peace I craved – as it is, I preferred being by myself and I’d take my books to study out alone in the garden with my dog Lassie lounging by my feet. My sisters, on the other hand, studied indoors upstairs – day after day they faced each other with books in front of them, an arm’s length apart, sitting at the same table. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of incessant company. I was happy to be alone outside with the birds chirping, my dog for company, and the water fountain my parents made with a clay pot, stones and plants, making soothing rippling sounds in the garden. But still, I couldn’t imagine being an only child. 

My sisters made life hilarious – our road-trips and holidays were so much more fun and wacky with them around. I could live with their annoyances. Until now, we all have our vastly different personalities. Sometimes I feel closer to Janna because she is more philosophical than Jirene, and so we can talk about ‘deep stuff’ – when Janna’s in the mood for it. Jirene often can’t be bothered. Other times I feel closer to Jirene because I can tease her easier, and barge into her room unannounced because she’s so funny and lighthearted – if she’s not in one of her ‘raging’ moods. When I took her out recently for lunch on my trip back, we had an easy conversation about the Thai food we were eating, music, her friends, her boyfriend, and university life in Melbourne – it was relaxing for me. Surprisingly, in the area of music, we are alike. She can be super disciplined, and practice her flute a lot – if she wants to. She has chosen to do her Bachelor of Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium – not unlike the path I chose a few years ago. In that funny way, I’m close to my sisters and also far apart from them in a myriad of ways because I have my own peculiarities in thinking and doing things and living life. And it’s all good.

I thought about my highschool years when we first moved to Melbourne in 2008 – and how a new life kept us together in new ways but also drew us all apart a little as life got busy, we attended local schools, and the gap between me and my sisters grew because I was becoming a teenager and they were still in the late childhood stages. I thought about the times I was selfish and worried about my own life as a teenager and later more so when I moved schools and studied at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School to pursue music, with my parents’ boundless encouragement. I thought about the past few years in the summers of 2014, 2015, and 2016 when I decided to venture out solo to Africa for 3 months each time – to follow God’s trail for me in impacting young people through music on the other side of the world. I thought about the moments I might have lost with my sisters because I was out there or busy with my own life – even though I have no regrets about all those choices I made.

Then I started to cry – I was surprised, as I let out this heaving sob of sadness mingled with slight regret. I knew I didn’t need to say sorry to God because I’ve already cried about this many times in the past and I know He has forgiven me for the times I had judged my sisters as less than I, or bypassed them in my busy pursuit of other passions, things and concerns. I’m so thankful for the many deep and meaningful conversations I've had with them in recent years as we’ve all emerged from our teens into early university years and fresh young adulthood. The understanding gap is narrowed as we seem to grow closer in age. Still, the feeling for me is that it’s never quite enough.

I know compared to many other families, my family has had it wonderfully good – thanks to my parents’ ethos about family togetherness, we’ve spent so many hours together on our travels: family picnics, hiking trips, going out for nice lunches and dinners, late-night talks and family devotions praying together. Still, it is always never quite enough when it comes to people you love.

It’s a little paradoxical – but it is perhaps precisely because you have spent so many hours with them over a lifetime, that you can still feel it more piercingly sometimes that you’ve taken them for granted, that you’ve walked past them in the house many times without saying hi or asking how they were doing. As I cried and cried, with great sobs and rolling tears spilling onto my flat pillow, I felt sad that I was now so far away from them – but also I felt strangely good that I was crying about it. My soul was being honest. I felt my heart expressing honest grief about the cost and sadness of losing precious years – moments, days, catch-ups, dinner-times – with my family and friends while being away from them in a foreign land.

As my sisters will attest, I’m a great, big crier. They love to exaggerate and laugh at me and call it ‘wailing’. They’ve all heard me cry in the shower, in my room, when I’m praying, or singing and worshiping God with my guitar, or when I come back from a long trip in Africa. I can’t go even a week without crying. And it’s a great thing to cry. To weep when you feel connected to God, when you’re sad about something or a situation someone is in, or when you feel frustrated. For me, crying is always a way I draw near to God and He draws near to me – whether in jubilance and thankfulness, sadness and grief, or fear and tiredness. Crying is good.

I realized that it was a normal and wonderfully human thing to feel bad about losing moments and even days, months and years with people who are precious to you. I allowed myself to feel the sadness. Rather than deny, make excuses, or push it away, soaking in the sadness makes you love better. I let God comfort me in the silence even as I comforted myself with the thought that on my recent trip back to Melbourne, I spent many good conversations with my parents and sisters. There’s something about being based in a foreign land and coming home to find that it’s a different place now. Your foreign city is now your temporary home, where your stuff for living and working belongs. Your family home is now your holiday home. It’s strange. But it also makes you appreciate your loved ones more – like never before.

As I continued sobbing, I prayed that God would return any years or moments that were lost in the past or that would be lost in the present – whether due to my own selfishness and busyness, or even as I have chosen to live far from my family for the time being to answer my dream and call in Afghanistan. I knew without a doubt that I’d done the right thing to be here. I was not trying to escape my family or Australia. I was answering a call. There’s a big difference. I remember a few years ago, when I could not yet conceive of leaving Melbourne permanently for any reason, I prayed a prayer that if and when a time came for me to answer the call to go somewhere else in the world, it would be difficult and it would hurt. I didn’t want to be like the epicurean globetrotters or backpackers who gleefully leave because they want to run away to ‘freedom’, to live their own life, to do as they please. That's easy. I wanted my leaving to be difficult – because then it would mean it was costing me something to answer the call. In recent months, I know that prayer has been answered. I’ve reached a stage in my life where I can be anywhere He wants me, but at the same time, still feel the hurt to leave my family and friends and life in Melbourne behind for something unknown.

There’s a saying in the Bible where God promises to restore the years that the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25), which to me on this night, meant that only He can preserve relationships and the time that appears to be ‘lost’ when people are apart. He can restore the lost time by keeping us connected in spirit as much as we could be connected through technology. He can deepen our friendships and family bonds even as we pray for each other, and love each other from afar. In future days, he could give us special seasons or periods of rest, and holiday or togetherness. I started to calm down on the tears as I realized that in the end, only God – my Father, and my Friend – can truly be there for me in my loneliest moments. I played a song on my phone called ‘Lean Back’ – and I cried some more as I listened to it, but it also lulled me back to sleep with the comfort knowing that in this lonely place, I’ve found the Love that is better than all others.

You will never leave
Your love sustaining me
Before I even knew
What love was

You’ve brought me here to rest
And given me space to breathe
So I’ll stay still until
It sinks in

I will lean back in the love arms of a beautiful Father
Breathe deep and know that He is good
He’s a love like no other

Now I can see
Your love is better
Than all the others
That I’ve seen
I am breathing deep
All of Your goodness
Your loving-kindness to me

[Cover Photo: An Afghan boy runs to catch the kite with outstretched arms. The look of freedom and longing on his face. Photo by Omar Sobhani, Reuters.]

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