I found myself growing hot with frustration.

I tried to back up. “Let me explain. Both of you grew up here. You’ve lived in the towns where you now live since you were born. It means you know the rules; you ‘get’ how to do things, how things work. Those of us who move here? We don’t know these things”

I felt like I was speaking to children. The conversation began as I was telling some colleagues about our friends who just moved here for a year after living in Japan, Australia, and most recently, Romania. Their youngest daughter went to her first day of school yesterday.

“So?” was the reaction I got “Big deal.”

It was.

This was her first day of school in America. Ever. She’s in high school and she’s never attended school in the United States. Added to the equation is that this is a part of the country where people don’t move a lot. You meet many people who have lived here all their lives. Those of us who haven’t are the exception, not the rule. Both kids and school administrators are not used to having new comers. There is an assumption that everyone knows the rules, everyone knows how to fill out the forms, find out specifics, work the system.

So it was a huge, big, fat deal.

And to have to explain this felt more than frustrating. Everything seems easy when you know how to do it. But as Robynn said in a previous post, sometimes the “easy” is impossible.

So I tried to put the situation into a different context. “Imagine if you came with me to Pakistan and I wanted you to get something in the bazaar, or I wanted you to go sign in with the police. Would you know how to do it?” Silence “What if I said ‘but it’s so easy! everyone knows how to do that!'” I think I made my point.

I found myself yet again the outsider trying to defend other outsiders. It’s a role I have played often, but it still surprises me that people don’t understand. We become so comfortable with our normal that we consider it normal for everyone else.

It’s fall now and schools across the country have begun the school year. Elementary, high school, college, graduate school – it all begins in September. And there are a lot of outsiders, a lot of people who don’t have a clue where they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to get there.

They may not know that you are expected to wait in line in the United States or that in America the expectation is that you follow traffic laws. They may not understand that you don’t walk through a “drive” through to get your meal; they might be shocked at our public displays of affection to our pets and our partners; they probably don’t know that bargaining isn’t common – you don’t negotiate the price. And initially they won’t even know where to get the basics – eggs, bread, milk, and fruit.

We can step into these scenarios and be that person who makes life a little easier for the outsider, a little less daunting, a little more manageable. That person who reaches out and understands that some of these things really are big deals. The person that helps make the easy possible.

Do you remember what it was like to be an outsider? How did that work for you? Who was the person who came alongside you and walked you through the rules, the do’s and don’ts of life in another place? 

30 thoughts on “Outsiders

  1. Finding this site has been a God sent point of sanity! I live in a community that assumes so much about me, and it’s nice to have a place that feels like “home” where I’m not the outsider explaining myself all the time (even after 20+ years). There are things about all of us that a molded and shaped by our up-bringing that cant be changed, and for me I often find people trying to change my view (their right/wrong, black/white thinking), where I dont see an issue, it just is what it is. I dont need to take sides.
    The comments about new places- that is often for me the biggest struggle. Figuring out the “rules”. I’d been living in Australia for nearly 20 years before someone explained that a general invite “we’re having a party, you should come” is an invitation (but don’t expect to be looked out for or introduced, you fend for yourself), which is the total opposite to how I was brought up. Invites were specific, intentional and you looked after you guest. The result of this is I went to social gatherings and felt like I had turned up uninvited and shouldn’t be there, so would leave very early. I still hate the ‘fend for yourself’ attitude that prevails in the Australian community.


  2. Sometimes moving back home after a life overseas can be the most challenging move of all. When you talk like a native, people do assume you know how things work. When my eldest started university in the States, she was not invited to the international student orientation, despite obviously graduating from an overseas high school. I asked about that when we arrived and the orientation folks told me that the passport is all that matters. They are given a list of students not based on where they’ve been living but what passport they carry. I suggested that students would settle in better if given the full orientation and the lady I was talking to agreed and said she would look into it. Two years on, my younger daughter was accepted to the very same school. I’ll let you guess if anything had changed. :) Fortunately, she had her big sister there to help out.


    1. Oh your first point is so true and also brings up the issue “is it really ‘home'” ! When we moved to the US and began life here I couldn’t adjust. There were these points where I would sit on the couch when the sun was coming in a certain way and mourn. Added to that was the fact that I looked like most people around me – their was disbelief that there could be such a disconnect between what I looked like and what I knew! I used to laugh with a Chinese American friend – she knew all the rules – she’d been born and raised here, never left the country, but she was given an allowance to not know the rules because of the way she looked! Too funny – or maybe not….
      Thanks so much for reading and sharing the story about your daughters – and so glad she has her sister.


      1. You bring up a good point! Both of my daughters list Kuala Lumpur as their hometown on their Facebook profiles. It is the place they both feel most connected to, of all of the places they have lived. It occurs to me that I probably shouldn’t use the term home for them when talking about the United States. I have always told them that home is where we are together so that could be anywhere.

        On an it’s-a-small-world note, I have been reading through your posts to discover that you are in Cairo, as am I. And one of your commenters – and apparently friends – is a lovely lady named Marty who just happens to sit in my small group at Bible study every Monday. Funny that a blogger all the way around the world in Brazil should introduce me to you. :)



      2. Mourning – This is a neccessity. I hope more parents realise that when they move their kids “home” that they will need time to mourn, and that it is a valid loss.


    2. Stacy – I can’t believe you’re in Cairo! I’m actually (and unfortunately) not there anymore but my daughter has been living there the last 3 years and so I’ve been 3 times to see her. Marty remains one of my close friends! I love that you live there and know her! Check out the post “Marty’s Balcony”.


  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I just ran across this blog post and had to share. Many of us become jaded after living in a new country for a few years and forget just how difficult it is for newcomers. Here’s a nice little reminder to reach out to those who have just arrived and are struggling with the basics :)


  4. I was recently back in the US student teaching at a high school. An exchange student from Prague arrived and I was horrified that the school didn’t do much to help him adjust. The poor boy didn’t speak much English and constantly looked lost. Being a student teacher, I didn’t want to step on any toes and take charge, but I finally stepped in on his second day and assigned a very responsible student to “adopt” the exchange student for a week. I explained to him that even the most basic things were difficult for the exchange student and asked him to show the exchange student EVERYTHING like finding the cafeteria, how to get lunch, how to open his locker, how to catch the bus at the end of the day, and where every single bathroom in the school was. Although it was a small school and many of the students and staff had been overseas as the school sponsored an international trip at the end of each year, I don’t think anyone in the school really had a clue just how daunting this experience was for him. There were on their home turf and everything made sense to them. Like you said, everything seems easy when you know how to do it!


    1. Isn’t it interesting that in an age of tolerance and diversity, no thought is given to the practical side of this – as if tolerance and diversity are just ideological as opposed to needing the practical tools to work within the diversity. Love this story and love that you shared it on Communicating Across Boundaries. All the more admirable is that you were a student teacher….one has to wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t encouraged the mentoring relationship. I think what people don’t realize is that if we are willing to show people how to do things, walk with them in their first couple of weeks, very soon they’ll be branching out on their own happily and confidently. Thanks again for sharing.


  5. Many years ago, we were new to Mombasa, Kenya and it took a very long time for anyone to reach out to us and help. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone as I did those first few months. Since that time, my husband and I have purposely reached out to “outsiders”, knowing how it feels. However, your post hits home right now as we are on home assignment and our girls are struggling in school. We thought they knew a lot about being at “home” but almost everyday we get a new story–some funny, some sad–about how they didn’t know what to expect or how to do something. It’s hard to watch, but I know I cannot go and give each teacher a lesson in how to help outsiders. I just listen and pray…and cry sometimes.


    1. Thinking of you Kathy as you cope with the hard as well as the good of home leave – I remember writing to a friend “Home leaves…you love ’em, you hate ’em, you can’t live without ’em!” I remember saying to my mom when I was young – It’s your home mom! It’s not my home!” I’m sure it hurt her but I was speaking from the pain of missing Pakistan. Do your daughters journal? That’s something I wish I had done. It’s all about the “everything is easy when you know how to do it” but impossible when you don’t. Thanks so much for sharing.


  6. This post brought back so many memories of the Laotian family who lived with us over thirty years ago! They arrived in January at night with the clothes on their backs, flip flops, coats issued by the refugee camp, picture books that told them all Americans are good and a Lao/English English/Lao dictionary. There were no Asian markets – we wandered the streets of Chintown peering into stores trying to help them find something that tasted like home. We learned to enjoy many new dishes, but never really took to the pigs feet boiling in brown sauce with hard boiled eggs in the morning! We had to explain it really was ok to swim in the lake – there are no crocodiles here, and the trees were not all dead – the leaves will come back in the next season. For the second family who came, perhaps the biggest challenge was in the midst of a very difficult labor, explaining to a husband that mom and baby will die if they don’t do a Cesarian …. this was not in the dictionary.


    1. Chris – I love this story! I’d like to use it in a post sometime if you’d be ok with that. It is such a picture of being that person who makes a difference and learning some fun stuff in the process. I think I may feel the same about the “gravied pigs feet and eggs” that you speak of! I want to ask if you are still in touch with this family? Thanks so much for sharing this great illustration and story.


  7. I put this blog post on my Facebook page. One of my friends, who raised her children in South America and North Africa before returning to America, commented “My son’s first day ever in school in America..the teacher asked me if he was retarded because he didn’t know what morning work, cafeteria count, binder check, and other “school terms were”. The repercussions of this intolerance we are still dealing with today.”


    1. Tiffany – thank you so much for sharing this. My heart lost a little piece with this story. I experienced a very similar situation coming to the United States from Cairo and enrolling 3 children into a Small school where they were the only new comers. Thinking of your friend.


  8. Marilyn, this topic reminded me of Patty’s first day in 8th grade here in Indiana. Everyone assembled and were reminded of general “rules,” one of which was, “There is to be no necking in the hallways.”
    Patty raised her innocent hand, “What’s necking?”


    1. Hahaha! Best story!! I am sure she has never forgotten…and the teachers as well as students must have wondered what planet she had arrived from! Maylene had a story where someone asked where she got her purse…to which she replied “Pakistan” the woman paused a moment and then said “is that out of state?”

      Marilyn Gardner Sent from my iPhone


  9. I remember the first time I went into a grocery store here in the States. I was asked “Paper or plastic?”. I stood there: deer in headlights. “Pardon me?” The impatient response “Paper or plastic?!?!”. Finally, I said “Is cash ok?”


    1. Oooooohhhhhhh! This belongs in a book for sure! I want to laugh and cry at the same time. I remember someone yelling at me for stealing because I was sampling the grapes in the produce section. And of course we all know the infamous cereal aisle where we begin to sob…..


  10. Ah, endless memories of being the outsider here! And yet, no matter where I go, I get asked for directions. How ironic. And the funny thing is, even if I don’t have a clue where I am, I always try to help the person asking to figure out where we are.

    I am acutely aware of being the outsider, even in my own country. I remember coming back to the US for college after growing up globally. My poor roommates. They thought I was hopeless. I didn’t know how to do anything, how to take a bus here, how to work the laundry machines, how to find major landmarks. When they joked about the latest TV show, or talked about pop music, I didn’t have a clue. And my fashion sense? Please. I had just returned from Pakistan, and here I was in a school full of girls wearing Halston dresses and Dior perfumes. Ah, that was a rough year.


    1. This made me laugh – me too! (get asked for directions I mean) which is so humorous because turn me around twice and I am lost. But can’t count the number of times I’ve stood on street corners trying to help people find their way. And yes – fashion….that has been a tough one for me. Having daughters has helped! They have improved my fashion sense ten fold. Here’s to being outsiders and living to tell the stories as well as relive without a sense of shame and embarrassment. Thanks Jenni – as I said, it’s like we are living parallel lives!


  11. i recently was in holland and had a day on my own without anything to do, no dutch, and no money so i went walking. stepping into shops i had no idea what i was looking at, and seeing arab and other “foreign” people on the street, going places with a sense of purpose, it was a small shock to realize they knew a lot more about how to live there than i, a westerner did.

    the other thing this made me think of is the girl who arrived recently and is currently living with us had to see a doctor, so we told her how to get there and how much it would cost. she looked at us blankly.

    we said, “just go down to the midan on the corner, there are lots of taxis there — it should cost about LE 5.”

    blank look, beginning to look concerned.

    we said, “it’s very easy to find, just across from the metro station and the big mosque on rd. 9. everyone knows it.”

    was that tears i saw forming in her eyes?

    click…oh yes, she’s never been here or anywhere outside of her farm in texas. her first ever flight on a plane was to cairo, egypt!

    “would you like me to take you?”

    relief flooded her face!

    as we went i realized how much arabic i was speaking, how i recognized the different denominations of money i could easily use, the correct tone of voice to use with the receptionist, the tricky shortcut home…i felt like a heel.

    even though i’ve been new so many times in so many countries, i’d still forgotten how it felt…sorry megan.


    1. I love that you shared this story! It brought tears to my eyes remembering those first days in Cairo, the emergency room with Joel, not knowing what to do….Thanks so much for sharing – and also so glad Megan has you. You were willing to see through her eyes. Your story reminded me of working at a community health center, it was time for me to go home and as I walked across the parking lot a woman from Pakistan came up to me sobbing “Please help me” They said they called me and because I didn’t call back they canceled my appointment! My little girl is so sick…” we were able to get her seen but it was yet another reminder of not knowing the rules.


  12. It is probably because they don’t move a lot that they do not understand the problems. Here in Czech where they have opened the doors to tourists and students who wish to study different subjects in English in the Universities, it is way different. We find helpful people everywhere who understand our dilemma. Considering that very few people speak English and we cant really communicate but somehow manage to get things done, is saying a lot for the people here.
    I can understand how bewildering things are, when we went to live in India it was a nightmare in the beginning. It gets better of course but there I was so totally on my own finally did everything myself and figured it all out but there were moments when I just wanted to sit down and cry in frustration.


    1. I love this tribute to Czech! This phrase “We find helpful people everywhere who understand our dilemma” – that’s it! It’s as simple and as hard as wearing someone else’s shoes for awhile. Thanks Pari!


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