International Series: American Mormon Abroad
We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.
Today’s post comes from Bridget. Bridget has a BA in Linguistics from BYU and an MA in TESOL from the American University of Sharjah. She has lived in Japan, Russia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and (currently) the UAE, ending up with a husband and three children somewhere along the way.
I grew up Mormon in Portland, Oregon. My husband and I have three young children. For most of our marriage and most of our children’s lives, we’ve lived outside the United States. I’ve been an American Mormon overseas for seven years now. I’ve been Primary Pianist in Kyoto, Young Women’s President in Moscow, Primary President in Sharjah, and co-leader of a two-woman Relief Society in Damascus.
They say the church is the same no matter where you go, but they are wrong. The church is very, very different. It’s the essence of the gospel that remains the same. In the overseas wards and branches I have been a member of (and the “stick,” as we called our six-person group in Damascus), I have seen the church stripped of its cultural baggage – or at least of its Intermountain West cultural baggage. And I’ll be honest – it’s a beautiful thing.
Beautiful, but sometimes jarring. Our ward here in Sharjah, UAE, where we currently live, is made up almost completely of members from the Philippines. The rest of us are what I like to refer to as “miscellaneous” – American, Canadian, British, Australian, Ugandan, Ecuadorian, Swiss, Kazakh. Regardless, we’re in the minority. This means that sitting in Sunday School (well, Friday School, since we have church on the Islamic Sabbath), you get to listen to exchanges like this:
TEACHER: This verse of scripture reminds me of that amazing story we all know about what happened at the Manila Temple back during the [such-and-such] rebellion.
CLASS (everyone except the Americans/Brits/Aussies/miscellaneous): *murmurs of recognition and agreement.*
TEACHER: I know! It’s amazing, isn’t it? [Further extended comment in Tagalog.] Now, moving on…
I tell you these differences not because it makes my ward or branch overseas better, but because it proves the point I made earlier – that the cultural trappings of church overseas are different from those in the mainstream Intermountain West, but the gospel is gloriously the same. A faith-promoting anecdote about the Manila Temple is still faith-promoting, even if you have to re-orient your worldview to take it in (and, in the end, don’t understand the punchline).
Being free of Intermountain West Mormon Cultural Baggage (IWMCB) means that if your aunt from Boise comes to visit you in the UAE and introduces herself in Relief Society, she has to say she’s from Boise (blank looks from all)…Idaho (blank looks from all)…UNITED STATES (oh, why didn’t you say so?).
It means teaching music time in Primary in July and deciding to sing the pioneer songs in the Children’s Songbook…and then realizing that all the children want to do is gaze at the book’s illustrations of the pioneers because they have never seen such a thing before.
Speaking of Pioneer Day, being free of IWMCB means observing Pioneer Day in Damascus, Syria – but in celebration of December 16th, 1921, when 50 persecuted Armenian Mormons made the dangerous trek from Turkey to Syria and arrived safely on that day.
Without IWMCB, you don’t care so much about bare shoulders because almost all the girls in Young Women in your branch in Moscow come from homes with alcoholic/absentee fathers, and the one girl with an intact family is living in the country semi-legally as a semi-refugee from a country so impoverished that Russia was a considerable step up.
When you don’t have to worry about IWMCB, you’re more accepting of non-traditional family situations. It means recognizing that those children on your Primary records who never show up? They’re not inactive. They’re just back in the Philippines being raised by grandparents, aunts, or nannies so that mom and dad can live and work in the UAE. All of a sudden, the construct of “dad works; mom stays at home with the kids” is not only NOT some form of cultural ideal, but is just plain…irrelevant.
Without IWMCB, you’re free to recognize that you have more in common with the Muslims of your host country, rather than the Christians.
My ward overseas is a place where you can be a woman and wear pants to church, and the Bishop tells you how nice you look.
For me, being an American Mormon overseas means that I go to church with people who don’t look like me, who were raised differently than me, in different countries with different political problems and histories. When we first moved to the UAE and I was embarrassed to admit that I was overwhelmed by all the friendly Filipinos and couldn’t always tell them apart, they laughed and said that we Westerners all looked alike to them, too.
Church here is not a place of cultural homogeneity; it’s a place of differences. But culture aside, we’re all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meeting together to worship and grow in our testimonies. As an American overseas, I’m glad to call myself Mormon.