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!

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.



Years ago I was reflecting on culture shock, and reverse culture shock, and reverse reverse culture shock with some other expat women who have been doing this whole back and forth between cultures much longer than we have.  One gave some excellent advice that I have found so helpful.  She recommended making a list of everything that shocks you – whether it’s about your passport country or the country you live in – and looking over that list before you travel to remind yourself of what was difficult.

I found that super helpful because a big part of culture shock is the… shock.  It’s the things you don’t expect, the feelings that come out of nowhere with seemingly no explanation, that cause such a feeling of dissonance.

I remember the last time we were in the US, driving was such a strange feeling.  I felt oddly claustrophobic.  It makes no sense, really.  I rarely drive in Beirut, and the hours I’ve spent in a car in the US far outweigh the amount of time I’ve spent driving in Lebanon.  But Lebanese driving has become my new default, and it’s jarring to feel uncomfortable driving here in America.  But by reminding myself of how weird it feels before my feet even touch American soil, it has been less of a shock this time around.

Another new default I find myself fighting is the tendency to… to put it plainly… hoard.  When I see black beans (for a reasonable price!) at a supermarket in Lebanon, I buy them.  All of them.  As in, every single can there is.  Because we love black beans and just because there are six jars on the shelf one week doesn’t guarantee that they will be there the next week, or the six months to follow.

this is… not Beirut

So you can imagine what walking through Target is like.  It is so hard to reset the default of “oh, I see it, I am gonna need it eventually, I should buy it right now.”  It’s especially hard when things are so so so cheap here.  Like baby wipes for $1.97, vs. the $8 I would pay for the exact same wipes in Beirut.  In the almost month that we’ve been here, I’ve only been in to Target once, and basically I put my hands on the side of my head like blinders so I wouldn’t see the kids clothes or household items.  I’m sure my mom really enjoyed that shopping trip, haha!

Luka’s dream come true

That’s not to say we don’t go back with three times as many bags as we came with.  I keep a running list of things all year that we either can’t get in Beirut or that are so much cheaper here that it makes sense to stock up when we can.  Shoes for the kids, clothing in the next size up for Luka and Isla, toothpaste and mascara are all things that we can get so much cheaper here.  I want to be wise with our resources and if I can save money by buying things here, I want to do that.  I know it seems a little ridiculous to save space in my bag for 3 years’ worth of mascara, but it’s even more ridiculous to pay $20 a tube in Beirut when it’s only $5.47 here.  This is when Amazon becomes my best friend, because I don’t have to actually walk through the store and see all the things I didn’t know I needed… or you may in fact see me on next month’s episode of Hoarders.


Perspectives on safety

Perspectives on safety

I was at a play place a few weeks ago chatting with another mom about our summer plans.  She made an off-hand comment about how play places like the one we were in made her nervous and how nice it must be to spend the summer in a safe place like America.

At that particular moment, I couldn’t see any of my three kids, including my one year old.  They were all climbing or bouncing or playing somewhere in the jungle gym in front of us.  In America, I would NEVER let my children out of my sight.

One of the conversations we will be having soon with our girls is how to interact (or more appropriately NOT interact) with strangers when we travel.

Random man kissing your child on the cheek and giving her a piece of candy in Beirut?  An everyday, socially acceptable occurrence.

Random man kissing your child on the cheek and giving her a piece of candy in America?  Call the police.

This guy?  Total stranger.
This guy? Total stranger.

When we are back in the States, one of the most common questions we get asked is about safety.  These days I very rarely feel unsafe in Beirut.  The last time we were in America, we took the kids to see a movie.  The theater was empty except for another family and about halfway through the movie, two teenage boys came in and sat down in the front row.  My heart began to race and immediately I started thinking about what to do if they started shooting at us.  My brain was telling me that they were probably just bored and theater hopping, but my pulse was telling me a different story.  After about five minutes, they left giggling and it hit me like a wall of bricks.  In that moment I felt more scared for my safety in America then I do in Beirut.

It’s a weird thing.  And I blame the media almost entirely for it.  What stories do you read in the news about Beirut?  Bombs and violent protests, right?  And what are we hearing right now from America?  Rapists in the bathrooms and child traffickers in Target.  Seriously.  I’ve spent two thirds of my life living in the USA, and yet there is a small part of me, in the deep deep recesses of my mind that is actually nervous about taking my kids there.

It goes back to what I’ve blogged about before – that what is known is more comfortable, it feels more safe, it’s easier to relate to.  I can’t even begin to describe what a strange feeling it is to realize that in so many ways Beirut is becoming more “known” to me than the US.  I felt this in a way when I moved back to America after living overseas for a few years when I was young.  I didn’t know what clothes were cool, what bands teenagers my age were listening to, what TV shows were popular.

But this – where I feel “safe” –  hits at a deeper, more primal level.  It throws me off.  It shakes up my thoughts on my identity.   But in the midst of all the inner turmoil, I can’t help but be thankful for a God who is always there, even in a scary place like… America.

More on re-entry, culture shock, and lack thereof

More on re-entry, culture shock, and lack thereof

I was prepared to go through culture shock when we got back to Beirut a few weeks ago.  It hit us like a ton of bricks the last time we returned from Home Assignment.  (I blogged about it and got some awesome responses and ideas here and here for anyone interested!)

But surprisingly, the transition has been pretty smooth.  I think several things contributed to this… we were really ready to be back.  We missed our home, our work, our routine.  There was also the added uncertainty – due to the political situation – of when exactly we’d be able to return, so when we did land and collapse into our own beds, there was a great sigh of relief.  (Followed by hours of lying in said bed wide awake, willing myself and my children to ‘just go to sleep!’ but that’s for another post!)

And then there were the chicken pox.  Did I mention that I thought both girls got the chicken pox just days after we arrived?  Yeah, that was fun.  I am not actually sure if it was a super mild case of them or another virus, but either way, we were stuck in the house for five days until I was sure they weren’t contagious.  That may have mitigated the culture shock because I wasn’t really interacting with culture… just my jet-lagged, itchy kids and the four walls of my house.

Strangely enough, in many ways, Beirut culture is becoming more automatic for me.  Life in America is certainly easier.  But I was realizing this over the summer – I was never actually a parent in the States.  I know how to be a parent here in Lebanon (although many of my Lebanese friends might beg to differ…)  But parenting in the States threw me for a loop sometimes.  Do I actually have to keep my kids in my line of sight every second at the playground (is there a kidnapper hiding behind the slide??)?  What do I do with the dirty diaper I have to change when we are visiting a friend’s home?  Are my children expected to sit at the table the entire time we are eating at a restaurant, or is it appropriate for them to wander and explore a bit?  These things might seem silly to those of you who have parented in just one culture, but I know those of you raising TCKs will totally get me.

Those things are automatic for me here in Beirut.  I know how my kids are expected to behave.  Not that they always do, or even that we have the same expectations of them that the culture does, but at least we know what is expected.  So in that regard, we are more comfortable here.  That feels really strange to say.  And this blog post took a totally different direction than I expected it to when I started writing, so now I have no idea how to end it.

So, how about a picture of Isla’s first day of school?


She was pretty excited.  And I was too.  Until I realized that I just took my toddler’s playmate away and effectively washed down the drain any chance of getting anything done during the day!  :)  How’s that for a conclusion to a post that wasn’t really about culture shock!?

A child’s culture shock

A child’s culture shock

There’s no question that reverse culture shock is a real thing.  We experienced it in the minutes we got off the plane in Denver and were overwhelmed with how friendly people were – talking, smiling, asking questions… it felt weird and suspicious and strangely annoying.  Because we are aware of the phenomenon of feeling a bit out of place in our home culture, we are able to talk through and laugh about it when we feel so rushed because the waitress brings us our check before we’ve even finished eating or I how I felt strangely claustrophobic the first time I got behind the wheel and drove a car.

But our girls don’t get it.  They just know things are different and strange.  They don’t have the ability to process the experience the way we do, and to make things even harder, Lebanon is their normal.  Caleb and I are coming back to the place we have spent most of our lives, but for them it is the complete opposite.  This is Ruby’s first time in the States and Isla has spent a total of about 4 months of her entire life in America.

Sometimes the things they notice are funny.  Isla heard a neighbor’s garage door open and thought it was a bear.  She wonders why all the houses here are “so small” because they aren’t nearly as tall as our building in Beirut.  They both are soooo sick of driving in the car – Ruby actually grabs onto the side of the car door to try to keep herself out of the carseat.

Isla hated her first church service because she didn’t know any of the songs because they were in English.  She was upset about the second church we visited because she went straight to Sunday School and missed the songs in ‘big church.’  She meets new friends and then is crushed when my answer to when we will see them again is “maybe when you are six.”

Life as a TCK is full of loss, and even though we are only here for a summer, we can tell Isla especially is feeling that, though she can’t quite process and verbalize it.  She did tell us yesterday that she really wanted to go home to our house in Lebanon.  She misses her Rapunzel dress, her princess hair and her friends from school.

We’re trying to talk through things a lot to help her process.  She is having loads of fun, but at the same time, we can really see her struggling with the adjustments this time around.

One of the untalked about benefits of life as a TCK…. when you go to about the lamest parade ever, it’s still super exciting because until about 10 minutes before it started, you didn’t even know what a parade was!!!

(and for the record, we had lots of fun with our friends… even though the parade was a bit cheesy! :))

Isla in America

Isla in America

I love looking at America through Isla’s eyes.  So much is new and fun.

I missed the Isla in May post… yeah, we had a few things on our plate last month!  Isla in June is coming soon, but I wanted to write a bit about the fun things Isla is discovering in the good ole US of A.

Dogs.  Isla is obsessed with dogs.  Every dog she saw in Colorado, which was a lot of dogs, she would walk up to, show it her shoes and say, “nice!”  Not quite sure why she thought dogs would be interested in her shoes, but even the dog statue in Old Navy got to see her nice shoes.

Cereal.  This child loves her some cereal.  No more Corn Flakes, baby!  Isla has also eaten her weight in blueberries.  And, since we’ve been in Texas: beans and rice.  I think she’s had beans the past four days in a row.  Baked beans, black beans, white rice, Mexican rice, yellow rice.  She’ll throw the brisket, the enchiladas, the hot dog to the side to eat beans and rice.

Not all is fun.  Isla has discovered some new fears.  Ants.  Grass.  Ceiling fans.  Haha, the first time she saw a ceiling fan, she froze, ducked, and would not take another step until she figured out a way to walk without walking under it!

She’s having a ball playing outside… in parks, at the lake, even just walking on the sidewalk and finding rocks and flowers.

Isla hates the car.  Hates. the. car.  We get close to the car, and she starts crying, “all done, red car, all done!”  But she loves loves loves airplanes, buses and trains.  She’s so cute in the airport, “More big ameya (airplane)!  Oh boy!  Big ameya!  Up up up!!  Fwying!  Ameya!”

We’re discovering the joy(?) of commercialization… Elmo diapers!  Dora cereal (I don’t even know how she knows who Dora is…).  Oh, and “Woody Daddy.”  Isla found a Woody toy while we were staying at WorldVenture, and she and Caleb have been watching Toy Story clips on YouTube.  She can pretty much describe the whole scene that she’s watched.

New friends and lots of good-byes.  Isla is having so much fun meeting new friends… especially kids and dogs.  She’s also a great MK… as soon as I start packing my bag, she makes her rounds of the room, giving everyone hugs and telling them bye-bye!

(all my pics of Isla revolve around food, haha  Oh, America!)

So, it’s only been three weeks and I can’t wait to see what else Isla discovers over the next three months…