What I’d Like For You To Know: An American Mom Overseas

WhatidlikeWelcome 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.

39 thoughts on “What I’d Like For You To Know: An American Mom Overseas

  1. Cibbit says:

    Interesting story. I am intrigued by the image of the sheep on the roof of the car and then on the dinner table. I am now even more thankful for Publix Supermarket.

  2. susan says:

    Thank you for sharing Elizabeth’s story, RIMD. As Expats (not an ‘exotic’ local but still a foreign country), the thing we’ve learned the most is patience. Patience with those who don’t understand us and look at us as though we are stupid – the language barrier can be huge, patience with ourselves and the realization that when we return, we need to have patience for others who are different than ‘we’ are.
    There are many of our ‘habits’/culture that we’ve shed/done without since moving. We wonder how long it will take to pick them back up when we return – or will we let them go?
    On a light note ‘High School Musical 3’ will be premiering soon – even in foreign countries – about the only American culture my kids get now. 🙂 Is that a good or bad thing?

  3. Deanne says:

    I too am an American mom, living overseas with four children, and it is by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Your post helped me see some of the positives to our decision. It’s hard to focus on that when you’re constantly stared at, ignored, laughed at, etc. Thank you!

  4. Trixie says:

    Hi Elizabeth!
    Thanks so much for sharing; I really enjoyed your eye opening post. When we live in one place and one culture for so long we tend to think that’s the only way to live. It’s nice to see another part of life.
    Take Care,

  5. Ruth Ann says:

    Thank you for a wonderful synopsis of ‘expat’ life. Can’t wait to check out your blog!
    Our three kids were born in Thailand – those years were life changing to say the least. Three kids in four years in a third-world country.
    Moving back to the States was almost as difficult as adjusting to life in a new culture. I always thought that we were returning ‘home’ – what could be so difficult about going ‘home’?! It has taken a few years – but I am happy to say that I can shop in Walmart now without suffering sensory overload. I can go to the grocery store without having a breakdown in front of the mammoth selection of cheeses.
    We really enjoyed our time overseas – maybe we will go back when our kids are all out of diapers!

  6. Laurin says:

    I lived in Beirut, Lebanon for almost three of my formative years (read junior high!) and then taught in Ecuador in my twenties. Fantastic experiences, both. You did a great job of painting the in and out of country dilemmas! I love reading Planet Nomad!

  7. SouthernRose says:

    It is so refreshing to hear from other Americans who have lived or are living overseas and who see that foreigners are not bad, weird, anti-American people. We lived in Japan, Guam, and France for a total of 7 1/2 years until our return to the States last summer. We travelled to many other countries while living in each place so got to experience many different cultures. It seemed everywhere we lived or visited, we were accepted and often adored. Our youngest son, who was almost 3 when we first left the US and was 10 when we returned, used to ask some of the oddest questions when we first came back. When he asked me what the little red flag on the mailbox was, I knew we had been gone a long time. I am thankful that our children have a special view of the world (one that a lot of Americans, sadly, will never have).

  8. Queen of My Domain says:

    As a former expat living raising my son in Finland I can so relate to some of these points. It’s an experience I would never trade for a million years.
    But I can still remember the kindness so many people showed us as we stumbled over their language. I remember how my head would turn so quickly anytime I heard english just so I could carry on a conversation with a native speaker. And the joys of being able to read all the signs down a street were another thing I remember missing.
    The thing I wouldn’t trade for anything are the friendships we still have and the understanding I acquired as an expat. It’s a big world out there and most Americans only get to experience a small bit of it.

  9. Erin says:

    I love to hear from other ‘westerners’ living in a differnt culture. As a returned missionary kid I know of all the trials and difficulties in my ‘home’ culture and the culture I was raised in. But I also know of all the wonderful experiences.
    Thanks for sharing some of the different experiences you’re family has gone through :).

  10. Amy says:

    Wow, I just added you to my feed reader. What a fascinating life!
    I’ve lived in Indiana since birth. I’ve traveled, and even traveled with friends who were native to the country (France) we traveled to, so I’ve had the full immersion experience, but I can’t imagine living in Africa. Wow. Just wow.
    Amy @ http://prettybabies.blogspot.com

  11. Jenni says:

    I lived overseas for a time as a teen and I am so grateful for that experience! Thank you for sharing…I wish my children could have half the experiences that your children are having!

  12. SAHW says:

    Awesome post! I loved the reflections…especially the flip side…which is that there are many non-native Americans who are now American citizens living in the US, but not “Americanized”…so we should be kind and welcoming to them, just as we would want if we were in the reverse situation.

  13. Ewokgirl says:

    Having been an expat myself, and now having my 4 nieces living as expats in a foreign country, I truly could relate to this one! Adjusting to a new culture isn’t so bad because you expect it to be hard. What you don’t expect is the befuddlement that comes from reverse culture shock when returning to your own culture. I was very unhappy my first semester of college because of it.
    Your kids are getting a fabulously unique experience that will shape how they relate to others in very good ways. I can say that living overseas left me with a permanent sense of compassion and patience for those who are different from me.

  14. Sugar says:

    What a beautiful way of life. I have often toyed with the idea of living part time in my home in Mexico. It’s not that far away and the culture isn’t completely the opposite of life for us in San Diego. And yet, there are so many differences. I want my children to appreciate the heritage that I pass on to them. I want to remember what it was like to have Spanish roll off my tongue so easily. I want to slow down. Life abroad would be lovely…

  15. Beck says:

    A LOT of people in my extended marriage are in multi-cultural marriages, which has really made me aware of certain attitudes – both in the broader culture AND in myself. It’s been eye-opening.

  16. Hanna says:

    As an MK who spent the first 18 years of her life overseas, your children will be forever greatful for the experiences you’ve give them. However, I would really suggest a great magazine called Among Worlds. It’s written by adult Third culture kids for adult Third Culture kids. My parents love reading it as well because it really helps them “get” their children (even though they raised us overseas, there are still disconnects at times between how you as a parent will see life and how your children as TCKs will see life).

  17. marina says:

    Hi, I can relate to this woman in every sense of the word. I’ve been living abroad for over 6 years years and my son was born in costa rica, but he’s part russian jew and guatemalan born in another country and traveling non stop to see all his family and to satiate his mom’s travel bug:)
    however, now that he’s getting older, i actaully want him to feel a bit of true americanism, even if it would be for a short moment!

  18. camila says:

    I’m one of those children who grew up all over the globe. Now I’m raising my own child in America, a country that is not my own. I have to say, I have been here almost 10 years and it’s hard to put down roots after all that moving around, but I am forever grateful to my parents for all that craziness!

  19. Phebe says:

    Wow! Thanks for this! Boy, can I relate! I grew up in Korea (age 8-18, except 2 yrs in States). You DO end up sometimes feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere, but you sure wouldn’t trade your experiences for anything!
    I still get that glimmer of “odd man out” when my friends talk about some TV show that I never knew existed. I’m happy at home here in the States with my husband and 3 girls, but there are moments when I long to see a rice paddy or a crooked little street. It’s a little hard to explain…

  20. Brenda says:

    I raised my kids in 3 different Latin American countries and they turned out great. I think the experiences they had made them smarter, funner people.

  21. Rachel says:

    Thanks for sharing Elizabeth, I can relate to the culture shock. I lived in Israel last year, and had an adjustment period both arriving there and returning back to the States. And similarly, I have the same stories about people asking if I was safe. And still, it is an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
    I appreciate that you were able to share this insight with us.
    be well,
    rachel 🙂

  22. G.E&B says:

    Thanks for sharing. As an Arab diplomat’s child I’ve lived all around the globe and grew up to be a pretty well adjusted Third Culture Kid (I think).
    Being a third-culture kid hasn’t always been easy but being a TCK’s parent requires lots of courage.

  23. Bonnie says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for this glimpse. My hubby and I have talked about living oversees at some time. I think it would be great experience for our kids. However, I also can’t see us going for longer than a year or two. 🙂

  24. Lori ~ Simple Life at Home says:

    We’ve been living overseas for about 6 months now – also in an Arabic country – and we were greeted with much the same response. People thought we were nuts!
    We are about to take our first trip back to the US and I’m a little worried – not about reverse culture shock, my kids are still REALLY American – but that it might make it all that much harder to come back.
    The expat life is full of benefits, but it’s really hard at time. I’m really glad for the decision we made to come on this grand adventure, but it’s been a road of ups and downs, that’s for sure. Thanks for the encouraging words!

  25. Suzanne Eller says:

    This is my favorite part of your blog. Thanks for allowing us to glimpse into an American Mom’s life overseas, and for helping our perspective grow. I love that every time it offers tangible ways to connect with each of the women. Love it!
    Suzie Eller

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