The Expatriate and the Post Office

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The Expatriate and the Post Office

*find out why I will still use the term ‘expatriate’ later this week in a discussion of this article: Why are White People Expatriates When the Rest of Us are Immigrants?

We have a post office in Djibouti though we don’t have a mail box. We use a PO Box, the same one we have used since 2004. No change. Got it? No change.

We have received many packages and letters through this little box downtown. Most of them arrive within 6 weeks. Except that one Christmas package that showed up in October. And that one from my mom that is still presumably circling the globe about five years later. Most of the time the packages are easy to pick up and most of the time we aren’t asked for a ‘donation’ and most of the time rats have not chewed their way through the box.

Most of the time.

We do have endless guesswork as to how to wrap a package. I have only shipped cookbooks but I have been required to ship them in cardboard boxes, brown paper envelopes, white envelopes, or hand wrapped using whatever paper I can find, each wrapping option demanded by the exact same post office employee. I gave up on planning ahead and simply came to the post office with my Djiboutilicious cookbook and all the possibilities and wrapped it there. The price also varied every time. Ah well, it was an enjoyable opportunity to get to know this young woman.

But last week we hit two snags with the post office. And, believe it or not, they were not due to the Djiboutian Post Office. Let’s blame these two snafus on Malaysia and the United States of America. That’s right people, even in the USA the mail does not flow with perfection.


My friend lives in Malaysia and she mailed us a family Christmas card. The card arrived on March 15 and this what was stamped on the envelope

post office1

At least we know where it was all this time!

And then my mom had this interaction at her New Brighton, Minnesota Post Office. Keep in mind that this comes after twelve years of mailing letters and packages and in fact, she had just mailed a letter the week before. This conversation took place because she had sent me a birthday card, thinking ahead and knowing it would take a few weeks to arrive, but the card was returned to her and stamped ‘insufficient address’. She went to the post office to mail another letter and followed up on why this particular one was returned. I will simply copy and paste the email she sent (the ‘me’ is my awesome mom, PO is the post office employee):

post office2me: Can you tell me please why this letter was returned to me when it has the correct address on it?
PO: well it clearly has been stamped insufficient address
me: but it’s not – this is their address- we’ve mailed many things to this address
PO: but you wrote Djibouti twice
me: yes, because that’s where they live – city of Djibouti in the country of Djibouti
PO: Is it a large city?
me: yes
PO: well then that’s the problem – you used a BP number
me: yes, because that’s where they receive their mail
PO: But if it is a large city say the size of St Paul then you need more than a PO like a zip
me: they don’t use zips
PO: well clearly it is an insufficient address
me: we’ve been mailing letters to them at this address for 12 years.
PO: things change
me: I mailed something to this address just last week
PO: I can’t help you

(and he handed my letter back to me)


I love/hate when he says, “but you wrote Djibouti twice.”

This photo is of me using that BP-numbered box in my doubly-named host country.

How do you get mail?



  1. Betsy March 23, 2015 at 10:01 am - Reply

    After reading the Expat/Immigrant article my interest is piqued for your discussion of it…

  2. Sherri March 23, 2015 at 11:39 am - Reply

    We too have a PO box # and no zip code. We rarely get mail any more. I think it is just too much hassle for people. We once had an envelope that went to the Philippines for a few months before it came to us.

  3. Amanda March 23, 2015 at 11:49 am - Reply

    Ugh. I can relate! I’ve lost track of the times friends have asked me “are you sure there’s no zip code? The person at the post office is POSITIVE there’s a zip code!” Nope. Just Moshi,Tanzania – I tell them to throw in “East Africa” sometimes where the zip should be to appease the postal worker.
    We also get ours on a little box smaller than a shoebox. About half the time. I’m still waiting on a package that was paid expedited LAST Christmas (2013) and one that was sent in August of 2013. We almost always had to pay a “fee” to get our packages, but I’ve made friends with the manager and the customs guy and rarely pay anything (and I’m not gonna lie- taking our blond haired blue eyed 3 year old helps avoid fees too!) Gettin mail is like Christmas whenever it comes- unfortunately it’s so flippin expensive and unreliable people rarely try to send us anything.

  4. Anna March 23, 2015 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    I didn’t know about immigrants vs. ex-pats. I just think of all the non-Congolese here as ex-pats. Living in a somewhat isolated area of the Republic of Congo, we get mail very rarely. We just got a package that arrived after only 4 months, but it was our first piece of mail in 8-9 months. The one before that took 18 months to get here, and before that, who knows when the last piece was. The arrival of mail is rare. People do send us things, and at great expense. They just disappear somewhere. Or maybe one day they will show up. I have tried to mail things here when I am in the US, and the only problem is having to occasionally explain, “No, not THAT Congo.” Everyone thinks the DRC is the only one. But when we do get a package- the excitement is even more than Christmas. With our last package, we waited until the next afternoon to open it, so that we could really make an occasion of it. We all sat on the floor and took things out of the package one at a time, and passed them around to everyone. In some ways, I wish we had more access to things, but I like the way we appreciate things more when we have less.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 24, 2015 at 5:48 am - Reply

      Love your last line – so good. Learning to not hold to ‘stuff’ so strongly, that’s a great way to look at post office woes.

  5. Shelly March 23, 2015 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Oh yes. When we lived in Singapore this was a problem. It is a city state, so Singapore, or if one is feeling fancy, Republic of Singapore. We routinely received mail that said Singapore, China. The two are roughly 3800 kilometers apart. But as you know just writing Singapore makes it an insufficient address. We never received mail when we lived in Africa. I know that things were mailed to us but who knows where they have gone.

    Now that we are living back in the States my children still believe you need to go “post a letter” at the post office. They are befuddled by the US postal system.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 24, 2015 at 5:49 am - Reply

      One of my kids favorite activities is getting mail out of the box in the US or putting mail in and putting that little flag up. So exotic!

  6. Ron Wiley March 23, 2015 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    We’ve kept the same in Colorado Springs for the past 21 years for the same reason…to have a permanent address no matter where we may be in the world. And now two of our kids share it with us for the same reason: because they are too mobile to get by with just one street address.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 24, 2015 at 5:50 am - Reply

      Thankfully my parents haven’t moved and their postman has figured out that he should just drop any mail there, no matter who it is addressed to. So they get stuff and eventually we get it.

  7. Holly Newman March 23, 2015 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Yes, Singapore, Singapore. Confusing for the sender! When we lived there, we got daily mail delivered by a very loud motorcycle riding postal worker. He would drive up onto our porch, making a U-turn between our dining room table and couch and drop the mail on either one of them. Convenient! But hard when I was trying to nap during a fourth pregnancy only a few feet away inside the bedroom. Most of our packages both ways arrived eventually, I always sent the Christmas box in September. The postal workers at the PO were uniformly grumpy and disapproving. I had always done something wrong, and they freely scolded me. Good for the humility factor, but I was never asked for a donation!

  8. Renita March 23, 2015 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    When I was accepted into college by Oklahoma Baptist University, we were living in Zomba, Malawi. My acceptance letter, which was finally received 6 months after being mailed, was sent to Zambia, Malawi. Someone in Zambia finally wrote on there, “try Zomba.” In the mean time, my father finally called the college to find out what was going on, since we needed to make plans. Seeing as this was 1987, phone calls were not made lightly.

  9. Krista March 24, 2015 at 5:18 am - Reply

    LOL, I live in the good old US of A and have my fair share of mail issues. Where we live the USPS does not deliver the mail. So we get a PO Box, which is literally right around the corner from my house. But, because they don’t deliver the mail our physical address is literally not in their system… the same system that most online retailers use to verify addresses for shipping. And many of said retailers will also not deliver to PO boxes. So I’m stuck. There are a few sites I literally just can’t order from and I just discovered recently why half my orders from one store kept getting dropped and not even back ordered. It was because they sometimes ship from stores and the stores won’t ship to the PO boxes while the online outlets will. I guess the employee I spoke to manually entered my physical address in the system so I hope it helps!
    And yes, I know I’m privileged living here, but it’s still a pain since I live in a rural area and end up having to order a lot of things online. It’s much simpler than dragging my 3 year old twins and 5 year old shopping with me and then finding that the stores only have one of the two identical items I will need for the twins! 😉
    But hey, I’m really good friends with my post master now!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 24, 2015 at 5:55 am - Reply

      Ugh. That would be super frustrating. I hadn’t thought about rural US post. Sounds similar, amazing. And I hear you on the twins thing – well not any more, mine are big, but before!

  10. MaDonna March 24, 2015 at 5:56 am - Reply

    Just have to say thanks for the laugh. My mom has had almost the exact conversation with her PO – not about listing the name twice, but the addresses and the zip only being three digits, etc. Oh, it reminded me of the package that has been floating around now for the past 13 years now…or being enjoyed by someone else. Oh, the stories to remember and tell. Thanks again!

  11. JoAnna March 24, 2015 at 8:16 am - Reply

    When I lived in Kenya we had a PO Box that happened to have a five-digit number. Cannot tell you how many times we received mail that had first gone to someplace in Alaska where the zip code was the same as my PO Box number. Now if people insist on a post code (usually websites/online orders) I just fill in 0000, we don’t have post codes, and that won’t confuse anyone. 🙂

    I love the conversation between the PO and your Mom…. too funny. (and frustrating!)

  12. Kristin March 24, 2015 at 10:59 am - Reply

    We live in Malaysia and my US Election pamphlet arrived in November 2 weeks after the Alaska elections. It was stamped with a “Missent to Thailand Stamp”, which made me laugh. We rarely have problems getting things, but when we do receive big envelopes, they are always pre opened and gone through. A friend recently showed us a copy of her Economist magazine where an ad showing “too much” skin had been manually inked out by mail people. Who has that job? I’m sure this isn’t unusual to most experienced expats, but it was the first I’d seen something like that.

  13. Krista B March 24, 2015 at 11:12 am - Reply

    Once got an absentee ballot with no possibility of returning it in time to vote. It was stamped “Missent to Jakarta”. Maybe because someone in my home county elections office had written the address: right box, right town, Papua New Guinea, INDONESIA.
    Same island, separate countries.

  14. Cheyl March 24, 2015 at 11:34 am - Reply

    HI, We live in Burkina Faso where we too have a PO Box. We used to live in a town called Djibo, where we would have post that would go ‘missing’ for months, years…then they would suddenly turn up with the stamp ‘mis – sent to Djibouti’ !!! It seems you were getting our post!

  15. Barb March 24, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    When letters are addressed to us with the zipcode (we do have zipcodes in Mexico) added last, the letters often end up somewhere in Ohio first.
    This brings up another frustration: attempting to fill out foreign addresses on website forms for registrations, or purchasing on-line.

  16. Elizabeth Trotter March 24, 2015 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    I’m laughing so hard at the U.S.P.S. story!!

  17. Malana March 24, 2015 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    We have no mail delivery here, either, and the nearest PO Box is 45 minutes away. Last letter sent from the US never arrived, so we just tell our friends to email us or send things to our US mailing address. If anything important comes, our daughter scans it and emails it to us. Hooray for technology!

    When we lived in Boquete, a western Panamanian town with many expats, the Post Office was very helpful with sending packages and there was a wall of PO Boxes out on the porch for 24/7 access. Here in a small eastern community, when we tried to mail a package to the US, we were told that the lady who knows how to do that wasn’t there and no one knew when she was coming in! Shrug your shoulders and let it go.

  18. Amy March 24, 2015 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    The most depressing Christmas ever was our first year in Tanzania. We turned in our slip to pick up our Christmas presents from my mom at the post office. We sat there and watched as the customs officer dutifully opened each of the wrapped presents in front of us. Then she told us what we owed her for the contents. I wanted to cry.

  19. stacie March 24, 2015 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    My favorite part of the whole thing is the actual existence of rubber stamp that says “MIS-SENT TO UGANDA.” Are there really SO many things that accidentally wind up there that they needed to create a stamp for it??? I can’t help but imagine a whole heap of mail sitting there in front of one harried Ugandan postal worker whose job it is to stamp all the mis-sent mail before sending it on. 😉

  20. Mel March 24, 2015 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    The post office doesn’t know what’s going on most of the time! I sent a check for our plane tickets to a church in Washington – we live in Oregon. It should have been there next day, maybe two days tops. Sent it priority mail. Good thing, I could track it. They sent it to Maryland. Um what? And then it went around the East Coast and circled back across the US to Washington state and finally made it. No refund for my priority mail price because it reached it’s destination! No one knows why it went to Maryland. Good thing it wasn’t time sensitive, just had $1800 for our mission team’s airline tickets. No biggie 😉 UGH. So I get nervous when we send things to our missionary friends. I know they’re likely to get half of what is sent. Some of our friends in Haiti can’t get mail at all. *btw, your first sentence says mail “pox” LOL 🙂

  21. Jessrings March 24, 2015 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    I love reading your posts. It’s so much like my life in Addis Ababa. I really like to tell people back in the U.S. that mostly only expatriates in my country get mail, and that we don’t use zip or postal codes, just to see how people react :).

  22. Jen March 24, 2015 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    being back in the States it’s overwhelming how much mail I get. So much of it junk mail, random catalogs and advertisements. I almost miss the the lack mail and the real pleasure it was when a letter arrived three months after it was sent.

  23. Christina March 25, 2015 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    no zip codes for me here in tanzania … And I live in Iringa town , Iringa region so often it just says Iringa Tanzania. I do sometimes add the East Africa bit so my mail doesn’t end up in Australia (Tasmania!!). My friend sent me a parcel from Korea and it never came and never came. My address is my school’s PO box. Then last Friday a guy came to the school to tell me that I had a parcel waiting for a very long time (no kidding?!) and that I might want to come get it ! This was after I had been several times to check and been told there was no package ! I was so excited for it to arrive !

  24. Wilma Findlay March 29, 2015 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    Years ago on a summer team to Hungry, our mail was sent to an Austrian address. My mother sent weekly letters from Massachusetts. Months later I received the letter back in in South Carolina. Even though it had been addressed to town name, Austria, EUROPE, it came back to the USA via Ndola, Zambia then to Austria then to my home address. Curiosity lead me to ask a fellow student, who had grown up in Zambia, where Ndola was? I was surprised to learn is was not even the capitol city of Zambia.

  25. Becky March 30, 2015 at 12:54 am - Reply

    I always think there should be coffee table books about hospitals and post offices in foreign countries. Hilarious and wince-worthy stories abound in both. In the Czech Republic, we’d gear up for the post office—I’d arm myself with snacks, toddler entertainment, and courage, as I was certain to stand in the wrong line, possibly get scolded, and not have the right exact change. In Singapore, we’ve had things rejected for writing the address in the wrong color on the envelope and yes–our stateside friends have struggled to explain to thorough postal clerks how Singapore can be both the city, state, and country. More often than makes sense letters arrive with a large, bewildering, “China” written under the address. Your blog made me smile, affirmed global kinships, and made me want photos of all of us standing in our respective post offices wondering whether or not it will be a day to laugh or cry. I’m grateful for the miracle of mail, but I’m also appreciative that I’m not the only marveling at the quirks.

  26. […] Last week they launched a kickstarter campaign to fund the first printing of the journal, to which I happily contributed. This week they are busy launching their Somali-language magazine Dhugasho and I am happily promoting the English-language journal to Djibouti Jones readers. Head over to their kickstarter page, donate if you feel so inclined, and look forward to getting a copy of this lovely journal in your mail box (actual mail box). […]

  27. […] It makes it so much easier to get the book to chefs and readers. Every single time I went to the post office in Djibouti to mail a copy, I had to change my packaging even though I dealt with same employee each time. It […]

  28. Robin BG February 9, 2016 at 1:39 am - Reply

    Oh the fun of international post! When I was in Brasil, almost every letter that my mom sent me from the US went first to a town in Georgia (the state, not the country) that had a ZIP code the same as my CEP in Brasil. And yes, she wrote BRAZIL in big letters each time.

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