Welcome to another edition of the What I’d Like For You To Know series. If you’re new here, the idea behind this series to is to ask women to share something about a specific life challenge or circumstance, addressing some of the misconceptions and (most importantly) telling us all how we can reach out better.
Today’s guest poster in is Elizabeth, from Planet Nomad, a fascinating blog that is one of the very first ones I started reading regularly. Rather than telling you her interesting story myself, I’ll let her jump right in…
When we tied the live sheep to the top of our car, I told the kids, “In America, they’d probably put us in jail for this.” They stared back at me, wide-eyed. When my daughter, then 8, was asked for her hand in marriage by a man who was probably 25, she took it all in stride. “He’ll probably be dead by the time I’m old enough,” she said. “In America, they’d probably put him in jail for that,” joked her father dryly.
My husband and I have chosen to raise our family overseas. So far, our children have lived in Oregon, Mauritania, France, and now Morocco. They’ve had a lot of experiences that make them different, both from their peers here and from their American friends. Sometimes, they feel themselves to be truly global citizens; other times, they feel that nowhere is really home, and no one else is like them.
One of the unique challenges faced by expatriate mothers raising their children in a culture not their own is to teach them enough about their “home” so that they can feel comfortable there, while also somehow helping them function in a place where, for example, intergenerational marriage is common and animal rights don’t exist. This is intensified by the fact that we go through our own culture shock and adjustments.
My children look and sound typically American, but they’re not. They’ve never gone to an English-speaking school. For them, camels and caravans are everyday sights, as is watching a family of four whiz by on a moped. Snowball fights and trick-or-treating for Halloween, on the other hand, are wildly exotic and much to be envied.
During our times in the US, we feel very torn. It’s nice to feel anonymous as we walk down the street, to not stand out in public places. We enjoy being able to understand all the conversations overheard in parks and restaurants. It’s fun to be home. Sometimes I see my children trying desperately to act in a way they think is American, but they don’t always get it quite right. They’re lucky to have good American friends who unconsciously help them blend in. I cut my kids a lot of slack during those times of transition, but I know that others may not understand our circumstances and judge. I may be grumpy myself, suffering from jet lag or reverse culture shock, unsure once again of how to assimilate another set of new surroundings. And we have a lot to do and not very much time to do it, and sometimes friends don’t understand how tired we are, how we long to have an evening or two alone, relaxing.
And yet, I want to fit in. Although I have just spoken of being too busy, sometimes the opposite is true. I’m just a visitor into everybody’s already full lives, and I long to feel at home. Last year, we spent a year in Oregon after six years overseas, and I so much appreciated those friends who made an effort to make sure we felt included, not just by having us over for meals, but by inviting us along to meet new people, to participate in outings to cut Christmas trees or neighbourhood gatherings.
As someone who experiences a moment of panic every time she has to speak to her children’s teachers (who are all French or Moroccan), I would like to encourage everyone to be patient with foreigners on their own soil. I’m relatively intelligent, I’ve taught English in a university, and yet when I stumble over conjugations and forget words in my new language, a lot of people assume I’m not very bright. I even had someone say to me once, “Why are Americans so stupid at other languages?” It’s frustrating! Conversely, when you are the one who perfectly speaks the language, it’s nice if you assume the stranger you’ve just met is smart but just hasn’t mastered all the intricacies of our language. I’ve had other mothers here be patient and encouraging with my imperfect French and non-existent Arabic; they spend time chatting or invite me for coffee or a meal. I am grateful for their patience.
When we first moved to Africa, a lot of people were shocked at our decision. “Isn’t it awfully dangerous to take children there?” they asked me. Even now, 7 ½ years later, people often ask, “Are you in danger?” They are thinking of Scary Muslims—the kind you see on television, with their turbans and scraggly beards and angry eyebrows, their women mere triangles of black not daring to raise their eyes. But this picture is not reflected in our daily experience. Oh sure, fanatics and extremists exist everywhere. But I have many women friends who are well-educated, articulate, ambitious, and working in business or government.
Arabs in general excel at hospitality. They are kind, welcoming hosts, going out of their way to make sure their guests are comfortable and well-fed. Even though we may disagree on all sorts of things, friendship is still possible across the barriers of culture, language, and religion.
Our culture sometimes doesn’t know how to deal with differences and glosses them over, pretending they don’t exist or don’t matter. But culture isn’t always neutral; there are positive and negative things about any way of life. Differences exist. But I’m glad I have the opportunity to raise my family this way. Although there are things we had to give up for this lifestyle, I feel that what we have gained is far more than what we have lost.
In case you were wondering, that sheep on top of the car was a present for a friend of ours who lived in a remote desert village. We ended up eating it. It’s a very normal way to transport livestock. Also, just for the record, our daughter Ilsa is now 11 and still not engaged!
You can read more of Elizabeth’s posts at her blog, Planet Nomad.