Finding Belonging in a Foreign Country

Out of Place – Jodie’s Story

As a newly married introvert, I found that the label 外国人 “foreigner” was the only thing that fit me in our newly acquired host culture. While my extroverted husband with his natural language ability and flexible personality seemed custom made for China, I felt out of place. 

If you would have selected me with chopsticks out of a boiling pot of homemade dumplings, I would have been the one whose thin wrapping had busted apart so that my filling had become indistingushable from the broth. Who was I? Just a pale tasteless jiaozi wrapper with no substance.

Finding myself in a new country

For three years we squeezed into two connecting dorm rooms in Foreign Teachers’ housing, at the same university where my pre-married husband had completed two years of language study. I squeezed my own slowly progressing Chinese lessons into baby #1 and then baby #2’s nap times. I squeezed my Flying Pigeon, with carefully balanced bags of produce from the market on my handlebars, through shoulder to shoulder bicycle traffic. One night I even squeezed myself into the baby’s crib while my husband entertained an audience of English students with his animated Chinese stories in our living room/bedroom. 

Squeezed became my middle name.

And I struggled to make peace with my identity that had gotten squeezed out.

Not only was I wearing the impossible-to-blend-in general label of “foreigner,” but my specific vocation of “stay at home mom,” I discovered, was a very foreign concept. When I answered the college students’ most frequently asked question, that my ideal job was “to be a mom,” there was simply no category in their brains to put me.

Because I didn’t fit, I questioned that I had anything to offer.

I struggled with the language. I struggled with homesickness. I struggled with being flexible. I struggled with privacy whenever we ventured out and everyone wanted to touch my blond babies. And I struggled to be affirming of my husband, when I secretly wished that God had given me his gifts and personality that fit so well in China, instead of mine that didn’t seem to fit at all.

After those three years in the dormitory, when I was 8 months pregnant with #3, we bought our own apartment just down the street from the university. And after a year back in the US to pursue graduate study, we returned to plant roots in a neighborhood that became our home for the next 12 years. I found that more physical space in our cozy 3 bedroom apartment also provided me more emotional space. I felt like I was able to breathe in a way I hadn’t before.

God opened that apartment door for me to develop relationships with a handful of former students who had gotten married and had babies of their own. Now they had a useful-to-them category to put me in and opened up with their struggles and questions. As my language improved, I became a better communicator and I realized my passion of studying the Bible together with seekers and believers.

I had finally found my sweet spot of living out who God had made me to be. I was a dumpling that kept its substance in the boiling water now, and I had my own flavor.

Fast forward twelve years. 

Our family of three teenagers packed up our belongings, gave away our dog, boarded an 18 hour train and replanted ourselves in central western China. My husband was pursuing a PhD in Muslim minority studies; as part of his research we had the opportunity to live in Gaoli village with 2000 Sufi Muslims.

And once again, I found I didn’t fit.

Finding belonging in the presence of God

Homeschooling in the village was a very foreign concept. To the women who spent their days in the fields, I was a real oddity. I tried to offer my help in the kitchen at community festivals, but they informed me that I was slow and not-helpful. And so I found myself backed into the shadows. Wondering who I could be and if I had anything to offer at all.

Struggling with migraines definitely didn’t help with my identity either. The day before our host family’s memorial festival, on the death anniversary of our host’s first wife, I really wanted to help with the food preparation for the more than 100 guests. But a migraine confined me to bed most of the day. At one point, our host came into the room where I was resting, to show our boys which prayer rugs needed to be moved, and looked down at me, “What’s wrong with you? How come you’re sick again?” And on each of my trips to the outhouse, I imagined the relatives who had come to help, critiquing me: “Lazy bum. Avoiding work. Good for nothing.” 

God graciously met me in my pain that day, in my nothing-to-offer state and gave me His Presence to focus on instead of condemnation. Immanuel. He is with me. It’s okay if I’m not understood. 

I realized then, and am reminded as I look back now, how much Jesus truly understands the depth of being misunderstood. He knows, in the fullest sense, what it means to be homesick. To not fit in with the crowd or with others’ expectations of Him. Whenever I feel out of place, I can experience Him, out of place with me.

In whatever out of place situation you find yourself in, He is Immanuel for you too.


If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this series is for you! Every Monday, we’ll hear from someone who has also struggled to belong. Be sure to subscribe below to get The Scoop so you never miss a post! As a thank you, you’ll receive access to belonging-themed scripture cards and adult coloring pages in the free for you library!

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Meet Jodie Pine

Since returning to the US after 20 years in China, Jodie has pursued soul care, writing, and shepherding cross-cultural women in their re-entry to the US. She has also taken on the role of full-time caregiver to their youngest of two adopted Chinese sons in his battle with brain cancer this past year. You can connect with Jodie on her website, Facebook, and Instagram.

*Feature Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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