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Are Expat Families Really Any Different?

Quick link: But What’s So Different About Being an Expat Family, Anyway?

I wrote at Velvet Ashes about being an expatriate family and what that means for my kids. Honestly? I don’t know exactly what it means for them, they are going to have to figure that out on their own. I have some ideas and we have some conversations, but ultimately, as two of them are about to ‘launch,’ they will have to do some work in this area. From race to gender to wealth to faith, things have been different for my kids than they would have been had we stayed in suburban Minnesota.

My twins are seniors and our conversations have naturally turned toward university choices. For my family, of course, that includes conversations about America and culture, home and upbringing. We moved to Somalia when the twins were two and we’ve lived in the Horn of Africa ever since.

One evening, my daughter asked, “But what’s really so different about growing up here? How does my experience compare with that of a high school girl in Minnesota?”

How can I even begin to answer?

Read the rest of the essay here: But What’s So Different About Being an Expat Family, Anyway?

Acclimating to Africa, a Book Review

Debbi DiGennaro sent me her book Acclimated to Africa last week (full disclosure, she sent it for a review).

Have you read African Friends and Money Matters? I found that book helpful, while simplistic and limited in scope. This book reads in much the same style, as Debbi unpacks some significant cultural differences between African and Western cultures.

To be honest, my only real criticism of the book is this set up: African/Western. Debbi directly addresses this and her explanation makes good sense. It is true that narrowing down the focus would make for an entirely different book, so I’m glad she discussed her choice. Still, I found it grating to read over and over about Africans and African culture. We’re talking about fifty-four countries, hundreds of people groups, hundreds of languages. My co-worker from Zimbabwe had a very different response to African Friends and Money Matters than my co-worker from Kenya did and both said the book had a highly West African bent to most of the issues.

That said, many of the topics Debbi raises are major issues in cross-cultural adaptation, no matter what the specific cultural traditions are – gift giving, value of relationships, managing money, perspectives on time, birth, death, spirituality, and so much more. From deep cultural differences to things that on the surface appear minor, Debbi unpacks much of what a Westerner can expect to encounter in daily life on the continent.

Adaptation and cultural competence requires patience, self-forgiveness, curiosity, and a willingness to be changed. Too many expatriates assume that if they eat local food, wear local clothes, and use a few local words, they have adapted.

Wrong.

Cross cultural adaptation is so much deeper than these things, it is almost laughable, if our failure to adapt weren’t so sad and inter-personally damaging. It is pretty easy to eat ugali with my fingers. It is far harder to change the way I see time or possessions or faith or grief.

With humor, clarity, and relying on local perspective, Debbi pokes holes in this theory of easy cross-cultural adaptation. The major takeaway for me from her book is how challenging and rewarding that adaptation is. The only way to do it well is through ever-deepening relationships, with persistent humility, and a good sense of humor.

I would recommend Acclimated to Africa as a resource for opening up conversations on teams, among coworkers, between neighbors and friends. Know that it is only a guide, though, and be sure to ask your own host community how their perspective differs or is similar. As has become so common now to restate, thanks to the wonderful Chimamanda Adiche, author of Americanah, there is no single story.

Use this as a guide to your international growth, let yourself be challenged, and learn to see the world from another perspective.

You will never regret that.

You can find Acclimated to Africa here and read more about Debbi at her website here.

 

Pirates! Poverty! War! FGM! On Manipulating Headlines to Capture a Reader

How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?

Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.

Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.

But.

Who cares?

Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.

(By the way, you can see the handiwork of these young women on Facebook and Instagram and you can even purchase it as of April 2 here)

Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.

This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.

How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?

Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):

It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.

So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.

For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:

Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure

(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)

For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:

They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!

(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)

For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:

Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student

(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)

For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:

With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run

(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)

Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.

We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.

Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.

Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.

(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)

 

Should We Send Used Clothes to the Developing World?

Quick link: To Donate or Not to Donate?

At A Life Overseas today, I posted an updated essay for a few years ago, it includes new ideas, studies, articles, and experiences. I’m not an expert in development work. I’ve made my share of mistakes and have had many good intentions turn sour. I’ve learned some things and I think I’ve done some not-so-terrible things. This post is an attempt at stirring up the pot, at challenging us all to rethink how we can be both generous and wise.

I’m glad Amy Medina was brave recently and talked about similar things. And I’ve suggested many times that people read When Helping Hurts. I also suggest you read a book called The Crisis Caravan.

This book has more of a focus on how humanitarian aid impacts war and violence (as in, how it is implicated in the never-ending cycles) but I think many minds will be rocked (mine was and I’m used to stories like these) and ideas challenged.

We want to do good. We want to be generous. We have so much stuff. How can we also be wise and effective? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some ideas.

*This was originally published as Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa on Djibouti Jones in 2014. I bring it up again because on a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenyan small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and Kenyan employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave my husband her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought a gorgeous dress. And then I read The Crisis Caravan: what’s wrong with humanitarian aid. Mind-blowing.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations.

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa? (I’m using Africa because that is where I live. The issue is globally relevant.)

Click here to read the rest To Donate or Not to Donate?

New Expats, Old Expats, Hold On to What You Believe

Quick link: Don’t Forget the Things You Know Are True

In case you missed it, A Life Overseas published my post this week about some of the things we know are true that are deeply challenged in the first year abroad. And in every year after that.

All the training, preparing, packing, and planning has left you utterly exhausted, unprepared for reality, insufficiently packed, and carrying plans that will be chucked out the window upon arrival. Those who sent you and those you received you have done their best, but they haven’t been perfect or complete, and I want to remind you of some important things.

There are some things you know to be true. These things will be challenged to their very deepest core in your first few months abroad. You’ll forget them. You’ll call people liars (even if just in your head) when they remind you of them. You’ll wonder how you ever could have been foolish enough to believe them. That’s part of the process. That does not change the fact that these things are things you know. They are true. They have not changed, even while life is only wild, chaotic, and stressful.

Read the rest of Don’t Forget the Things You Know Are True here.