“When Cesar modeled his new coat, my father nodded his approval and remarked that my brother would surely grow into it. It would surely help him survive his first American winter. Alas, the opposite proved to be true. The coat was so large it shielded him far less effectively than one his own size. It was as if, marooned in America, we had lost our perspective, our sense of proportion…” from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado 2007
Who of us that have made our homes in different countries do not relate with this poignant picture of a family, struggling to figure out how to live, shop, and survive in new territory?
Our first winter in New England after living in Cairo and Islamabad was painfully cold as two of my sons walked around in jackets 3 sizes too large. “But they were on sale!” I exclaimed to my husband, completely overwhelmed with the task of clothing a family of seven for winter. Gone were the Cairo winters where it rarely reached freezing, where honeysuckle and magnolias came out in early February lining the streets with a color and fragrance that dramatically indicated spring was upon us.
Not only were the coats too large, the BOGO (buy one, get one half off) Payless Shoes filled our entryway with only one problem. The shoes and boots bought in the midst of culture shock were too small – the tightness causing blisters on the uncomplaining feet of kids who were completely flexible and thought this was normal.
I tried to explain some of this recently at a workshop on ‘Culture & Healthcare’, the words to articulate failing to come. How could I find words to describe how badly we wanted this new country to work for us? How silently desperate we felt, not wanting to seem as outsiders or ‘other’ but failing so miserably at the minor tasks in life that the larger tasks were pushed hopelessly aside, our angst obvious.
The more I failed, the more defeated I became. I sensed I could never make this work and like the Israelites who wandered in the Sinai wilderness I had the unspoken memory of “the fish I ate in Egypt at no cost!” * ‘Take me back to Egypt where I belong’ was my silent prayer.
Years after those first traumas, I found Lucette Lagnado’s poignant portrayal of her family’s journey from Cairo to the United States. I felt like I was going to bed with my friends every night as I read chapter after chapter, not wanting the book to end. The pictures that she created with words were a salve, a precious ointment, soothing my memories and the hidden wounds I had sustained during those first years of arrival to the United States. They mirrored our journey and experience despite being of a different time and the move to the United States being for different reasons.
Just as Lucette’s family left Egypt with 26 suitcases, so did our family consolidate our years of living as a family in Cairo down to 26 suitcases and the backpacks on our shoulders. Just as they felt lost, displaced and without context in their new world, so did we.
The shopping experience was merely a symbol of the far greater adjustment to a country whose lifestyle, beliefs, and values would create in us a conflict and discomfort akin to the cold from a coat too large, or blisters from shoes too small; our consolation and solace coming from those who understood – whether in person or through a book.