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
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!
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.
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!
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.
Originally written for our May 2016 Picture of the Month email update
Living between two worlds is exactly what the month leading up to Home Assignment feels like. There is so much to do to prepare for a summer in the US – buying plane tickets, hotel and rental car reservations, taking prayer card pictures, preparing presentations, getting Luka onto a one nap schedule, because c’mon, who has time for two naps, and the list goes on and on.
But of course we can’t only focus on our summer. Ministry is still happening. Safe Haven girls need to be taught, papers from class at ABTS need to be graded, Sunday School curriculum is still being written, sweet refugee children are eagerly awaiting their weekly music class.
There is also all the work needing to be done in order for us to be gone for three months. Preparing games, crafts and homework for the Safe Haven summer program, arranging for someone else to teach a capstone course at ABTS, getting the house ready for guests to use this summer.
Add to that all the end of year craziness, a bazillion birthday parties, science fairs, final exams, end of year shows… I know you all can relate!
Oh yeah, there are also three children, who for some odd reason keep needing to be fed! :)
It’s a lot. We are busy. Sometimes I look at my calendar and can’t decide if I should cry or laugh. But to be honest, we can do busy like this for a limited time. We are actually pretty good at busy.
What surprises me every time we get to this stage of Home Assignment prep is how hard it is emotionally. We were at a birthday party last weekend, and when I took the picture above, I was laughing at my crazy little girl in her fancy dress at the top of the tree, while all the little boys stood shouting at her from the ground to come down! It’s not safe! You will fall!
But as I looked at the picture later, it represents so much of what life feels like in this transitional stage. Even though we are only leaving for the summer, it’s different than a family vacation. It’s a big transition for us all. And in preparation for the changes, I find myself disconnecting emotionally. While normally a birthday party is a great time to connect and get to know other parents better, I kinda just want to climb that tree and sit and watch from afar.
It’s a normal part of this life… the back and forth, never really fitting in anymore, but it still surprised me when I realized it was happening again. So I fight it, I force myself to stay engaged, to live in the present, and to leave well… knowing that it’s going to be a whole long summer of transitioning between hellos and good-byes. I’m reminded of when Jesus was on His way to heal the sick little girl, but was stopped by the woman who needed His help. He stopped. He engaged. He gave that woman all of his attention even though a little girl on her death bed was waiting for him. It’s a great challenge to all of us… to focus on what or who is in front of us, no matter what our to do list looks like.
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.
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.
When I was in elementary school, my family lived in Europe for three years. We had full and happy lives there and were largely unconnected to what was going on in the States. Of course we worked hard at keeping in touch with family and close friends, some of whom came to visit while we were there. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night so that I could talk to my best friend on my birthday. And my mom and a friend of hers exchanged audio tape recordings of themselves talking to each other.
But culturally, we were totally disconnected. Back then, new movies took months if not years to show where we were living. We missed out on a lot of the fads and popular music, clothes and TV shows.
Things are so different now. Life is so much more global. With facebook, blogs and news online (even celebrity gossip sites) we can stay as much or as littley (I just made that word up and I kind of like it) connected as we choose. In some ways, being more connected helps us out immensely when we visit the States. We don’t have to guess at how many kids our friends have now, because we’ve watched them grow up on facebook. We can actually participate somewhat intelligently in discussions about current events. It’s nice.
But there was one thing that really surprised us this year. The smart phone.
Smart phones are actually everywhere here. Well, not in our house, but it does seem like everyone has one.
But 3G/4G are both relatively new in Lebanon, and from what I understand, the connection isn’t very good. Google maps is nearly useless here, as directions are given using landmarks instead of street names. And even if you just use internet with Wi-fi, you never know when the electricity (thus the internet) will be out or the internet will live up to its fame as the second slowest in the world.
Smart phones in the States however are on their way to becoming necessary – at least that’s how it seemed to us this summer. I had a friend coming to one of our open houses who sent me an email on her way for directions. Well, I wasn’t sitting at my computer so I didn’t even see the email until well after the open house was over.
We were driving all over California and instead of our normal ‘look up all the directions online and use a pen and paper to draw maps,’ we just borrowed my mom’s iPhone and used her GPS.
Went to lunch with our pastor, who used some app on his phone to get free chips and salsa.
Part of it was lots of fun. GPS is something I’ve been needing since I started driving. (Many of you have heard the story of the first time I got lost in Arizona. I called my husband, told him what street I was on, and he asked me which direction I was going. Straight? How in the world am I supposed to know if I’m headed east or west? His next question to help me find my way? “Where is the sun right now?” Ummm, okay. One time I got lost driving home from school in Ohio. So I followed a car with a Georgia license plate figuring North Carolina is on the way to Georgia….)
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, some aspects of the technology were lots of fun. My new best friend GPS, taking a picture and posting it to facebook the very second it happened, Netflix for those days I was stuck alone in a hotel room with my sleeping children. We were tempted to actually get a smart phone ourselves (until we saw the prices!)
But overall, it bugged me. I hated the feeling of having to be connected at all times. That someone would email me and expect me to read and respond right away.
Don’t get me wrong. Being connected is good. I love being connected. But sometimes having the ability to disconnect is also a really, really good thing.
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!?
So we headed down to DTS (the school where Caleb and I met) today to hang out with some friends.
There are a few statues on campus depicting different scenes from the Bible. We sent Isla over to one to see if she could figure out who it was. She immediately guessed it was Mary and as Caleb was going through the story of Mary going into the tomb and finding that Jesus’ body was gone…. well, let’s just say Isla was a little confused and really nervous.
Turns out our sweet child… who just finished reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with her Daddy… thought that it was actually the REAL Mary. Turned to stone by the White Witch.
Clearly we don’t see many statues in our day to day life. Good grief!