Life in a Fishbowl: Honest Reflections

Michelle Moore1

Your life on display for all to see.
All aspects visible from every angle with little privacy or escape.

If you’ve lived outside of your home culture in an expat community, you know exactly what it means to live life in a “fishbowl.” You live, serve, worship, and play…all with the same people. A close-knit network of friends and colleagues is a blessing, especially in difficult places to live or in the middle of a crisis. However, there is the potential of feeling smothered by a lack of privacy and unsolicited “advice” from well-meaning colleagues. So, what’s the secret to a healthy, well-balanced, God-honoring life in this type of community?

Looking back over 10+ years of living overseas, I can give thanks for the many blessings that come with living in a close-knit expat community. When I first arrived overseas to serve as a teacher, I felt as if I had gained an instant family. I was quickly absorbed into the community and took on various roles, including “auntie.” Early on in my transition and newly discovered cultural infancy, I soaked up the wisdom of those who had come before me as I fumbled through figuring out how to do life in a new place. It was a blessing to be surrounded by an instant community of like-minded people and have someone there to talk to, ask questions of, and assure me that the waves of culture shock would soon pass. We collectively experienced the successes and difficulties of ministry, milestones in students’ education and development, celebrated new life, grieved losses, supported each other during illness, and banded together when political instability arose.

It was a comfort to know that there was always someone there…
and then there came a point when there was always someone there.

As life settled into a rhythm, I realized this new-found community was unlike any I had lived in before. We were all witnesses to every aspect of each other’s lives, whether we wanted to be or not. Everyone knew intimate details of each other’s lives, whether directly or indirectly and had words of “advice” that were shared freely. I quickly discovered that my role as a teacher didn’t end when I stepped off campus. Parents felt free to seek professional help for their children at prayer meetings, while I was eating lunch at the market, during mid-jog in the neighborhood, and in passing at the grocery store. My house wasn’t off-limits either.

Many teachers lived in the school’s neighborhood. “Teacher row,” was the name of my street. Ok, not really. It was the nickname that referred to a block of houses where many single teachers resided…and everyone knew it. Students often stopped by our houses while taking Fido for an evening walk to ask questions about an upcoming test or to get help on an assignment that was due the next day. I’ll never forget walking out of the house one morning to find a student’s report they promised to “turn in” by the end of the previous day in my roommate’s motorbike basket! 

After a few months of being “on-duty” 24-7, I began to feel stretched thin by a lack of margin in my life. I realized if I didn’t develop healthy boundaries between myself and my community, I would burnout like a match and not be able to fulfill my commitment to serve.

In their book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life Drs. Cloud and Townsend describe the function of boundaries as something we should set up to “keep the good in and the bad out.” Here’s what this looked like for me:

1.  Learn to say NO, even to good things.

Sometimes we justify taking on “one more thing,” especially when it comes to ministry. The truth is, our schedule has limits. It was easy to become overwhelmed by the needs of families and the plethora of opportunities to serve. In addition to teaching, people were needed to lead youth group and Bible studies, coach sports, tutor, babysit, organize community events, and serve in the local church. Saying “no” to roles that would help meet the needs of students and families was one of the hardest lessons to learn. After all, it was the reason I came overseas!

2.  Draw physical and emotional boundaries.

The people-pleasing side of me had a difficult time separating work and home life, especially when parents would approach me in the community about the needs of their children. I learned how to listen to concerns and then set up appointments to continue the conversation during school hours. Because of the close-knit community, I also had to develop gracious responses for inquiries about children’s progress from people other than their parents. For personal needs, over time a very small group of trusted friends formed with whom I could share personal news and concerns.

3.  Make my home a sanctuary or escape and not a place of ministry.

When I was feeling suffocated by the closeness of our community, a friend lovingly reminded me of Jesus’ example of leaving the throngs of people who were clamoring for his attention to go up to a mountain to pray and spend time with his Father. Was I doing that? No, I had no place to go! There were people at every turn. It seemed un-missionary-like to not use my home as a place of ministry, but I had to invest in creating a place where I could escape to be refreshed.

These examples are specific to my experience and location that may, of course, look different for others who are married and have children. Colleagues who have families have created additional boundaries such as: making sure there is time for just the immediate family to spend together (e.g. family devotions; family night); time for spouses to connect, especially if one travels frequently; and when planning events and commitments, acknowledging there can be a struggle to let ministry activities take precedence over investing in the relationships and ministry of family.

What does this look like for you?