Coats too Big, Shoes too Small – Shopping as an Immigrant

“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.

*(Numbers 11 verse 5)

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14 thoughts on “Coats too Big, Shoes too Small – Shopping as an Immigrant

  1. An excellent post, and I can identify with the disorientation of “coming back” to what really is a whole new country. I have to admit that I took “Coats Too Big – Shoes Too Small” in another sense. Growing up in Aramco compounds Saudi Arabia in the fifties and sixties, I was very used to clothes that were too big or too small. The “Women’s Exchange” thrift shop was the only place to obtain Western children’s clothing between our biennial vacation. When I shot up six inches in seventh grade, I had a lot of trousers that looked like pedal-pushers.

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    1. Love this comment and relaying your experience from the Aramco compound! I get that – we too had an exchange of sorts….a “barrel” where clothes from the well-meaning and totally clueless would arrive and we would get our pick….So I totally relate with the 6 inch short trousers. The residual affects of me related to this are a complete insecurity around fashion until recently! Great reminder and fuel for another blog post called “An Ode to the Well meaning and the Clueless”

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  2. Marilyn…. you articulate so clearly the feelings that seem so disjointed and confused. The junk I accumulated that first year back from garage sales alone… things we didn’t need or hardly want…but the “deal” was so impossible to pass up and I thought we might not have what we really needed and this “thing” might just do –in a pinch! Thank you…. I read your stuff, more often than not, with tears in my throat and in my eyes. Thank you again and again. with love,
    Robynn

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  3. Marilyn,
    Thanks for this post, is seems like one of those easily missed, and yet large issues for the immigrants involved. Given that more and more people we know here in Arizona are working in some way with immigrant and especially refugee groups, I imagine that at some point we might get involved as well. This will be an important issue to keep in mind. Thanks again!!

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    1. Esteban – thanks so much for reading. I think the immigrant experience is a difficult one to communicate for fear people will think it is complaining. At the heart of all of this, immigrants desperately want this country to work out, but find the cultural disconnect difficult to navigate at points and of course there is always the problem that it is easy for people to take limited language ability to mean limited intellectual ability! You guys are in the perfect place to get involved, you’re also the perfect people. Thanks again.

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  4. After reading your post I am amazed that I never thought about the struggles “new” Americans have when coming to our country. However, with all due respect, there are poor people, born here, who have similar struggles with “coats to big and shoes to small” simply because they must wear hand-me-downs. I’m sure it is not the same.
    Thank you for raising the level of awareness to this problem.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I totally agree regarding the poor – separate but important issue. I think the topic is more about adjustment and not knowing how to shop, something that seems so basic in a place where we feel at home, but can be overwhelming in a place where we don’t know the rules or what to expect and the prices often take us by surprise. Not ever living in winter, but knowing that you needed to buy things to keep you warm etc. There is another post that I did that explains the paralysis a bit better called Paralysis in the Cereal aisle. In my case I’m an invisible immigrant, carrying a passport from the US but a background of being raised and living in different countries. Really appreciate your caring enough to comment so thanks again.

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