Rules for America

Rules for America

Culture shock is a funny thing. Though we know what to expect, there are certain things we still struggle with every time we come back to the US. The overwhelming number of choices, the wide open spaces… libraries! Splash parks! Goats!

For Caleb and I, we at least know the “rules” of social interactions in America, although they are not as instinctual as they once were. Do I hug this person or shake his hand? How closely do I need to watch my kids at the playground? Is the suggestion to get together real or just a nicety? We often have to take a second and make sure we are playing by the proper rulebook… because the American way of doing things is no longer our default.

Our kids are Beiruti born and bred, and so guiding them through what’s appropriate or not is a constant conversation while we are here on Home Assignment.

So, if you want to avoid offending or getting yourself killed, here are the basic rules of life in America, according to my kids after three weeks of HA:

  • Eat cereal every morning
  • Don’t throw toilet paper in the trash can
  • Don’t throw trash on the floor outside
  • Speak English
  • Wait in line
  • Move to the right when an ambulance comes
  • Shake hands, don’t kiss people on the cheek (unless you love them!)
  • You can show people the bottom of your feet
  • You can wear shorts and flip flops to church
  • You can wear tight pants and shorts
  • Don’t take candy or interact with strangers
  • Use your turn signal

So there you have it, all you need to know to make friends in the good ‘ole US of A!

You do not please me

You do not please me

The word 3jab means something along the lines of “it was pleasing.” It’s a word we use a lot – “I didn’t like the pants”… “did you like the play?” … “oh I liked that joke a lot!”

So when my best friend sat down next to me the other day and said, “ma 3jabtini” (literally: you don’t please me), you can imagine my confusion. You don’t like me? I stared at her for a second. Wait, what? I’m understanding all the words coming out of her mouth, but… what?

Clearly my look of shock was enough to give her pause and explain the meaning of the idiom. Apparently I wasn’t looking or acting like myself. “Huh, she’s right. I feel oddly tired. But I shouldn’t be physically tired. Ah, maybe I’m emotionally tired. Luka’s bird did die in my hands as I was trying to save it. Hmm.”

But the fog didn’t really lift over the next few days. Something heavy inside me was pulling me away, pulling me down somehow.


Hello, transition.

We leave in 3 weeks for our Home Assignment in the US. Which means we are currently living in this oddly unsettling emotional limbo land. We are trying to prepare for a summer of presentations and talks, living out of our suitcases and never staying in one bed too long, dealing with culture shock and big emotions about life in America and Lebanon… while at the same time trying to make sure that SH’s summer program, gymnastics, the library, and everything else will continue to run smoothly while we are gone.

Which leaves no emotional energy for the present. And once again, I was surprised by it.

Transition sometimes feels like you are watching your life from above

We’ve learned that at the end of our Home Assignments, when we are preparing to come back to Lebanon, we need to carve out space where we can emotionally disconnect and gear our minds up for our return. The best way we’ve found to do this is to not have our last stop in the US be one where family lives. We stay alone where no one is offended or hurt when we turn inwards and sit in the stage of transition for a few days.

But we haven’t figured out a way to do that on the front end. I don’t know if it’s possible or even if it’s healthy. But for the next few weeks, I’ll do my best to lean in. End of year shows, birthday parties, exam preparation, devotions, coffee with friends… lean in, Nicolette, lean in. But, iza ma am 3jbik, please show some grace!

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

First of all, I’m not going to try to answer this question in a blog post, nor am I going to argue the answer in Facebook comments… just wanted to get that out of the way.

This year in the Sunday School class that Caleb and I are leading, we’ve been tackling what we are calling “controversial topics”… the format has been mostly discussion based – with different people presenting different views on a topic and then allowing the class to discuss. One of the main goals of the class is to show that there is a wide range of opinions/beliefs on these topics within the Church and that we can disagree and still fellowship with one another. We’ve also strived to model disagreement in a way that is loving and gracious. It’s helped that on most of the topics we discuss, Caleb and I disagree, and clearly we still love each other.

It’s been fun.

The question “do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” was our most popular topic by far. We all learned a lot, had great discussion, and even though the class was split on how to answer the question, we left with a greater understanding of the others’ views.

Again, I’m not going to try to answer the question in a blog post. But I did want to share some really interesting (to me at least!) info on how different groups answer this question.

Before we started the series, I took an informal poll on my Facebook and in a few Whatsapp groups. Obviously it’s not scientific, and my husband who is buried in PhD work would have a lot to say I’m sure about what crap research it is, but I found the results quite telling.

It was a simple survey with only 3 questions – religious affiliation, location and a yes or no answer to the main question.

I differentiated between practicing and non-practicing Muslims and Christians, because here in Lebanon, one’s religion is intrinsically tied up in identity. So, whether or not a person practices or believes, he will likely still identify as Muslim or Christian.

83% of those who either practice another religion or don’t practice or identify with any religion said that YES, Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

All but one Muslim, whether practicing or not, inside or outside of the MENA region, also answered YES.

At first this surprised me, but as I did some more research and reading of the Qur’an, I realized that several times this question is clearly answered, that Islam is a continuation or fulfillment of the Christian faith. The Bible is considered a Holy Book (albeit corrupt), so it would make sense for Muslims to answer the question in the affirmative.

100% of non-practicing Christians answered YES.

Now among those who self identify as practicing Christians there was a lot more disagreement. Location also seemed to make a difference in how one would answer the question.

Within Lebanon and the MENA region as a whole, practicing Christians were split nearly 50/50. (To be precise, 51% answered YES, 49% answered NO.)

Outside of Lebanon/MENA, 74% of practicing Christians answered NO. This was by far the highest percentage of NO answers. I suspect but can’t be sure, that most of those answering from outside the region are in the US.

Caleb would warn me about making any kinds of conclusions from a Facebook poll. But like I said before, we pretty much disagree on everything, so here I go.

I won’t call them conclusions though, just interesting observations:
– Practicing Christians in the Middle East seem to be struggling the most with this question – or at least there is the most diversity in answers.
– Practicing Christians in the West is the ONLY group that leaned strongly towards a NO answer.

Interesting, no?

Stupid Americans

Stupid Americans

We didn’t have a car for our first two years in Beirut, which I would highly recommend for language learning… I have rarely met a taxi driver who isn’t chatty, and it’s a great way to practice your new language skills.

Even now that we have a car, I still use public transportation fairly often, and the conversations never cease to amuse me. I can only think of once when I was really uncomfortable with the way a conversation went – this particular driver was insistent that I take his phone number and call him if I ever met a blonde woman who would be interested in marrying him. Not because he cares about looks, he was quick to mention multiple times, but because he had a dream when he was young that he would have a blonde child, and so he’s certain his blonde wife is out there somewhere, he just needs help meeting her.

Most conversations revolve around religion, politics and whether the taxi driver should try to immigrate to the US. It’s rare to meet a driver who doesn’t have a relative in the States (“my brother’s wife’s sister is in Dearborn!”), and with the economic situation in Lebanon, many are looking outside of the country to give their children a fighting chance at a good future.

So we talk about the struggles of living cross culturally, what makes life in America easier, and whether Los Angeles or Michigan would be a better place for them to live. More often than not, I’m dispelling myths and combating stereotypes about life in America, and I can’t count the number of times the phrase “every country has it’s beauty and it’s issues” comes rolling off my tongue.

no offense, Michigan, but yeah, NO.

Recently I had an especially chatty driver. We talked a lot about his Italian girlfriend and his mom’s opinion of her and her cooking, why I felt it was important to have a conversation with the children tapping on our window trying to sell us toilet paper, and how superhero movies were definitely the best genre of film ever created. This guy was a real movie buff, which also clearly made him an expert on life in America. So he’d tell me about how it is in the States, I would gently correct or agree, and the conversation moved on to his service in the army.

And then, out of nowhere, he lobbed this one my direction. “Apologies for the strong language, but Americans are pretty stupid.”


“Again, no offense at all, but Americans are pretty dumb. I mean, why, if you live in Tornado Alley, would you build a house out of wood?!? Look at this building,” he continued, pointing to a large concrete structure covered in glass windows, “if a tornado hit this, yes, the glass would break, but at least it would still be standing! But no! In America, you guys are like, ‘yes, my brother and mom both died in a tornado, but we are going to rebuild our house with wood!’ See! Stupid Americans! No offense of course.”

And for the first time in my life, a taxi driver rendered me completely speechless. Thanks, Bill Paxton.

Sorry kids, it’s not your best life

Sorry kids, it’s not your best life

A common caption for pictures on my Instagram feed is something along the lines of “she’s living her best life” accompanied by an adorable shot of a toddler cuddling her puppy or a little boy with an infectious grin covered head to toe in mud.

(NOT our dog)

Sometimes I can just smile at the cuteness, but other times I get a churning in my gut – a mix of envy, guilt and the ever lurking fear that the choices we’ve made for how we live our lives will somehow ruin our children.

If I was creating the perfect childhood for my kids, it would involve living close to family and having a clean, safe outside space to play in. There would be lots of opportunities to try out different sports and instruments and activities, and school would be fun. They’d have access to services when they were struggling with speech or reading, and a gaggle of neighborhood friends to shoot hoops with in the driveway. The air they were breathing would be clean and they wouldn’t catch salmonella from playing at the beach (or taking a shower – jury is still out on where that nasty bug came from.)

enjoying the green grass of Arizona!

Everyone tells you about the benefits of raising children overseas, and I love that my kids are growing up multilingual. I love that they are exposed to different cultures and the close bonds they have with one another because of our “never quite fitting in anywhere” lifestyle.

I don’t love when my kid comes home crying because some girls filled her desk and backpack and books with glitter… because she won her class math competition and they have to bring her down a notch because she’s a foreigner.

Are my kids “living their best life?” I can confidently answer that with a resounding no. Don’t get me wrong. They are happy. They have friends, they enjoy the activities they are involved in, they are doing well in school. But looking at it from a physical, emotional or psychological perspective, no, it’s not their best life. And yes, I often feel sad and sometimes guilty for this. We knew we would be making sacrifices on our kids’ behalf when we chose this life, but that doesn’t make it any easier when your children are bawling their eyes out because they miss their family or because apparently white people are ugly.

But all this begs the question: is that our primary responsibility as parents? To give our kids their best life?

When our kids were younger and they’d pine for life in America after a fun summer there, we could easily remind them that summertime anywhere is more fun. But as they are getting older, the reality of what they are missing out on is becoming clearer to them. So we let them talk about it. We grieve with them the loss of the life they think they’d enjoy having.

And then we try to teach them why we sacrifice so much. And ultimately it comes down to obedience. We felt like God called us to this life, and so we obeyed. It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, it’s not always comfortable. My hope is that this is a truth we can pass on to our kids… that striving for our best life is less about the perfect environment and endless opportunities and comfortable relationships and more about just being obedient

It doesn’t mean I don’t ache with and for them when they are struggling because of this choice that we’ve made. The feelings of guilt are very real. But I have to believe that our obedience will bring blessing… even if that blessing doesn’t come in the form of the puppy my middle child desperately wants to have.

The 4th language

The 4th language

Lebanon is no doubt a multilingual society. In a lot of ways, it’s different from other countries with multiple official languages because there is not much separation between them. It’s not uncommon at all to hear two or three languages used by the same person in the same sentence. It goes against everything you’ve ever read about language learning (in children especially), makes learning to speak Arabic difficult, and I have my theories on how it effects a child’s overall language development and communication skills, but that’s for another post.

I love that my children are surrounded by and exposed to so many languages. English is for sure their first and strongest language. They also speak Lebanese Arabic (with varying degrees of success), and learn formal Arabic and French in school. The girls have recently discovered that French is a secret language they can use in our house when they don’t want Mom or Dad to understand. This makes me both proud and absolutely livid when they start whispering to one other, plotting away in French… usually when I’m in the middle of a lecture or meting out some (well-deserved, of course) punishment.

But then we have their 4th language. We first noticed it a few months after Isla started school way back when… but thought that she was just mimicking her friends while retelling us a story that happened during her day. But, no. We have now decided that this is a full on language, that we (at first begrudginly, but now lovingly) call “School English.”

because apparently you can’t share whatsapp voice messages… so a video of it playing will have to do

I discovered to my horror that this is how Isla talks to everyone at school – friends and teachers and janitors – when we went to an open house and she raised her hand to answer a question. At first we tried to correct it, but then realized that she was communicating in a way that she felt she would be best understood… thick accent, wonky grammar and all. So we’ve embraced it now as our children’s newest language. It’s amazing to see how fluidly they can all three switch between English and school English, depending on who they are talking to. Even Luka, who is only a few months into his first year of school, is getting a good grasp on it.

Curious if this is more pronounced because of our context… where our kids are spending the majority of their school day being taught their first language by non-native speakers… or if it’s a pretty typical TCK trait?

How to save a life

How to save a life

Not a week goes by that I don’t get a message from a friend on Facebook or Whatsapp pleading for blood.

Can you imagine the immense pressure this would put you under? You are in need of surgery, but before you can have it, you need to find enough family and friends with your blood type to donate any blood you might possibly need during your surgery.

I have a friend whose brother needed weekly blood transfusions to help him fight an infection. But he had a very rare blood type, and he’d often miss his transfusions because his family couldn’t collect enough blood on time.

A few years ago, whenever a post would be going around social media asking for blood, someone else would mention an organization you could call who would help you collect the blood you needed.

Donner Sang Compter holds regular blood drives to help stock hospitals with blood in the hopes that patient’s families won’t be forced to collect their own, and at the same time manages a country-wide database of blood donors in order to match donors with those in need. Once you sign up, you receive alerts whenever there is a need for your particular blood type at a hospital in your neighborhood.

Of course, you can always go to your local hospital and give a general donation. If enough of us do this, we could eliminate the need for friends and family to scramble to collect at what is likely one of the most difficult times of their lives. Do be aware that different hospitals have different eligibility requirements, so if you get rejected from one, don’t stop trying! (Some friends and I went to donate once at an American hospital, and they weren’t allowed because they were from the UK. They had no problem, however, donating in a French hospital!)

I remember very clearly the first blood drive I ever participated in. I was 17 and the statistics are still seared into my memory – that just one donation – 30 minutes of your time plus maybe a little dizziness (or if you are me, passing out a few times) – can save the life of up to three people. I know it’s hard in the busy-ness of life to carve out time to go to the hospital every few months to donate, but at the very least, get your name and blood type into DSC’s database so that you can be contacted when your blood is needed most!