A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!

Work

We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.

Miscellaneous

Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

We are in Athens, mere steps away from the Acropolis that sits high above the city inviting people of every tribe and nation to come and walk its ancient paths. It is the height of privilege to be here and I am deeply mindful of this.

And though Athens has its magic that I could write many words about, it’s not what I’m choosing to write about today. Instead, I want to write about an extravagant friend.

Her name is Betsy and on Christmas Eve, she died.

She died at home, surrounded by her family – her big beautiful family – a husband of over 40 years, children, and grandchildren. After God and coffee, Betsy loved family, but she also invited many into that family. I was one of those people.

I met Betsy when I was 29 years old. My husband and I had arrived in Cairo with our three small children a few weeks before. I was desperate for friendship. We limped our way through the first few weeks and then on the same day both of us had encouraging breakthroughs in unexpected offers of friendship – his through a man named Fred Perry, mine through Betsy. When we look back on this time, it was these two friendships that were the starting point in helping us unpack our bags and hang our hearts in Cairo.

I was emotionally and spiritually lonely. As I sat with my three kids in my fifth floor walk-up apartment one morning, loneliness flooded over me and tears quickly followed. I reached for the community newspaper, lovingly called the Maadi Messenger. In between the “I am Fatima. I wash kids and clothes” and “Learn Arabic quickly!” ads was a section on community activities. There, under community Bible studies, was the name Betsy McDermott and a friendly “Call if you’re interested in joining a Bible study.” I resolutely picked up the phone, checked to make sure the neighbors were not on it as it was a party line, and dialed the number. The next minute Betsy’s unforgettable “Mcdermott Home! Betsy speaking” came from the receiver. It was a voice from Heaven. I paused and then launched in to a halting introduction.

We talked for 45 minutes and by the end of that call I had a Bible study, a best friend, and a wise mentor. Just minutes before we hung up that day, Betsy said “You sound so familiar! Are you sure we haven’t met before?” We figured out that we had mutual friends in two missionary families who had lived in Karachi and knew both of us. We had indeed met! We met when I was in junior high and she was in high school. She was in a singing group in high school with our mutual friend “Auntie Grace” Pittman. It sealed the friendship in ways I could never have expected. She understood the third culture kid piece that I didn’t even know was a word.

With that commonality, I was invited into Betsy’s world of friendship, and what an amazing world it was! It was a world where coffee and hospitality were like oxygen. They were followed by laughter, listening, deep theological discussions, and always long talks about family. It was through this world that I met Martha, Karen, Marian, Christine, and a long list of others who had been invited in and were feasting at the table of friendship.

Betsy’s home became my sanctuary. At Betsy’s house, everything was better.

Expatriate friendships come with an asterisk, and that asterisk is a reminder that all friendships end with goodbye. If you can survive the goodbye, there’s a chance that the friendship will survive the ocean chasms that separate continents. The first was a partial goodbye. Though not separated by an ocean, we were separated by a bustling city of 15 million as we moved to a different part of Cairo. I grieved not being able to drop in on a whim. It was my two-year-old who took on the grief. I remember one day saying goodbye to Betsy as I hopped into a taxi to head from Betsy’s house to mine. Stefanie looked out the window at Betsy and burst into tears. She took in all her mama’s emotions and instead of having a lump stuck in her throat as I did, she grieved in big, gulping two-year-old sobs. I can still see Betsy’s startled face through the grimy taxi window as she waved goodbye.

Two years later, Betsy moved from Cairo to London and the chasm of people became an chasm of water. Although our across the city move two years earlier was difficult, this was now a different country, different time zone, and different life. I didn’t know if I would make it. But the friendship survived, and Betsy’s home in London became my yearly friendship and therapy session. Along with that, we kept in touch through letters, visits during the summer when we were both in the United States, and phone calls. When I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant just before Christmas in 1995, I had told no one. I got off the plane in London after Christmas and burst into tears with Betsy. She hugged me tight. “You’re so lucky!” she said – and in that moment, I began to believe it.

We left Cairo in 1996, but the yearly trips to London continued as I faced the most difficult adjustment I had ever made within a small town in Massachusetts. Soon after, her oldest child began university in Boston and I got to briefly see her on her periodic trips to visit him. In 1999, Betsy moved to Rochester, New York – just 15 minutes away from where my brother lived. Her home there continued to be a place of peace and grace for my life. I was struggling with many, many things – but at Betsy’s house I had a temporary respite. I could relax in her hospitable embrace.

It was in 2003 when we began to see less of each other. Our family moved to Phoenix, her kids began moving away, and trips that included each other were less frequent. Periodically we would reconnect, and it was always as though I was the only person in the world who existed. Our friendship continued with the competition of adult kids, aging parents, and grandchildren. We were now lucky to grab coffee once a year. At this point, I knew she had breast cancer but she was doing well. Each time I saw her she seemed to become more beautiful and more resilient.

Betsy was a third culture kid. She had been through coups, wars, and earthquakes. She had her appendix taken out by an undercover CIA operative, had evacuated countries, and raised her own kids around the globe. She was as comfortable at a fancy dinner party as she was in a slum in Cairo. The stamps in her passport had more stories than a book could contain.

With this as her background, it’s no wonder that her heart was the size of the globe and filled with people that represented that globe. I got to be one of them and even though her heart was heavily populated, when you were with her you thought you were the only one.

More than that, Betsy had a deep relationship with God that affected everyone around her. “Scarcity” was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She radiated the joy of being alive. Betsy was extraordinary.

I wish I could get together one more time to tell her how much I love her, how she met me in my tears and my weakness and gave me strength to move forward. I wish I could thank her for the coffee and friendship, both served so well. I wish I could hug her and hear her laughter and voice one more time. I wish I could thank her for her extraordinary generosity.

I can’t do any of those things. But I can learn from her. I can learn more about what it is to open my heart and my home to people, not afraid that the love or coffee will run out, not worrying that there is not enough to go around.

I learned so many things from this friendship. I learned that faith is a journey and that to question doesn’t take away a rock solid foundation. I learned that loving people is costly – it cost Betsy to love, but she did it and made it look effortless. I learned that hospitality opens up our world and our hearts grow larger.

I didn’t know that Betsy was so near the end. To Betsy, suffering was matter of fact. At my dad’s funeral over a year ago, I asked her about her breast cancer returning. She looked at me “Everyone has something” she said. She didn’t have a mental scale that she kept, weighing her suffering compared to others. She welcomed it with grace, and in doing so had room to comfort others. It was after Thanksgiving that I learned she had stopped treatment and was in palliative care. It hit me hard. I had just welcomed a new grandson into the world and found out that my father-in-law had died. The contrast between life and death felt tender and raw; the veil that separates these two so thin.

For Betsy, that veil was lifted on Christmas Eve when a host of angels welcomed her into the arms of a God who is above all extravagant – extravagant with grace, hospitality, and love; a God who never acts from scarcity but from an abundant well of goodness.

And so I grieve. I grieve not having a last coffee with her. I grieve not having a last hug. I grieve not having a last heart talk. I grieve that I will never again hear her voice or listen to her laugh.

I want to hug my friends and family a little tighter and open my door a little wider, I want to love out of abundance, not out of scarcity.

And so Betsy, I thank you. You lived and loved extravagantly and without hesitation. May I learn to do the same.

Like the Seasons….

normalized departure

Like seasons and birthdays, our comings and goings were a normal part of our lives. When we reached adulthood, we would meet others who had never moved and we would be amazed. On the surface, we felt arrogant – “look at us, we’ve been everywhere” was our silent thought that shouted loudly in our attitudes.

But just below the surface, we longed for weekly family dinners and shopping trips with moms or sisters; for fights that were resolved because they had to be; and for tight family units that stuck together through the years.

While we were roaming the globe collecting stories through the stamps on our passports, others were creating homes and building lives. Each choice came with both joys and challenges.

When your identity is semi-rooted in movement, then you face a crisis when you stay put, when you plant roots, when you’re ‘stable.’

And then if we did settle down, we felt the guilt of stability and wondered how our lives had become so predictable and so mundane. We made the mistake of equating stability with stagnancy.

Stability – strong, secure, safe, steady, firm. Those are adjectives with substance. They mean something. They are foundational to living well. Stability can be present in a life of movement or in a life where you are rooted in one place. Stability is not about where you live, it’s about how you live.*

And in all this, the seasons still came and left, and in between we continued to live.  


*from the Guilt of Stability

Quote on photograph from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Saturday Travel Quote – Keep Your Suitcase Packed!

Today’s travel quote is from Bettie Addleton – my dear friend and a dear family friend. Bettie’s quote personifies her life of travel and adventure. You can read more about Bettie here. 

suitcase with quote

How about you? Do you have a travel quote to share? Have at it in the comments!

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/luggage-suitcase-shoes-tie-travel-22901/ word art Marilyn R. Gardner

You Take Yourself With You (And Other Things About Living Overseas)

Airport Check-in

Readers, I’m posting at A Life Overseas today about what does and doesn’t happen when you get on that plane to go overseas.

Here is a preview of a longer version where you can then head over to A Life Overseas to read the rest. 

I’ll never forget the day the call came from the American University in Cairo. It was a Sunday morning and my husband had left for church with our three children. With three kids under four years old, we had our hands full. I had worked the night shift as a nurse and arrived back to the house in time to eat breakfast, hug them, and send them on their way.

I then began the difficult task of getting to sleep. We were in a period of great uncertainty. My husband’s job as an English Teacher had ended at Jacksonville University and the job that we thought we would be going to in Saudi Arabia had fallen through.  My faith was at a low, my body exhausted.

As I lay on my bed, half-asleep, half-awake in the warmth of that August morning, the phone rang. It was an administrator from the American University in Cairo. I don’t remember much about that phone call but the final words she said to me were these: “Tell your husband that his future at the American University in Cairo looks very promising”

Sleep would not come that day. I could hardly wait for my husband to get home. We had dreamed of going to Cairo while dating and the dream had only become stronger. The year in Jacksonville had been difficult – a time of healing, waiting, repentance. And now we were watching miracles unfold to get us to the Middle East.

Two weeks after that phone call we were in Cairo with our youth, our passion, and our three little ones.

And that’s when it got hard. Because there are some important things that we didn’t realize when we were on one side of the pond – the side where churches applauded us and raised prayers on our behalf; the side where Christian fellowship was easy to find and when I was tired I could open up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Here are some of the things I learned as I moved forward in my new life, creating a home and longing to serve. Read the rest http://www.alifeoverseas.com/you-take-yourself-with-you-and-other-important-things-about-living-overseas/

How Two Weddings Spell Belonging

In three weeks time we have attended two weddings. This has not happened to us since we were engaged and seemed to be attending weddings every other weekend.

The first was the Friday evening following Memorial Day. It was a lovely event. Two people, both coming from difficult past relationships who have experienced deep healing and restoration came together, united in marriage.

And we were honored to be invited.

In fact, I was so surprised I had to read the invitation three times. I knew the wedding would be small, I knew it was a second marriage, I knew that family and friends who had known them far longer would be invited. So when our invitation came I was surprised and more than a little pleased.

They invited US.

This is the point where I explain to readers that we have moved so much that we haven’t been invited to many weddings. You have to know people a while to get invited to important events like weddings and funerals. You need to be a part of their community, a part of their lives. This couple considered us a part of that group, the group that belonged.

The second was an invitation to the wedding of a couple who attend our Parish – our first Orthodox wedding. Again, it was an amazing feeling of belonging. “Have you been to an Orthodox wedding before?” We were asked. And no – we hadn’t. “You’ll love it! They’re beautiful!”

Two invitations. Two weddings. Two events that signified we are not strangers, we are not outsiders, we belong.

What spells belonging? What things happen physically and emotionally that tell us we belong?

This is a huge question for the one who moves, the one who’s heart is set on pilgrimage. The stories of far away are fun and exciting — you wouldn’t give them up for the world, but when you sit at home on a Friday night, knowing there is no one you are able to invite over, no one to be spontaneous with, the stories feel flat and unimportant. Stories, after all, need an audience to live.

But it can take a lot to belong. As a third culture kid and then a third culture kid living as an expatriate, belonging seemed easier. Expat communities are filled with comings and goings – if you don’t connect quickly the year will be half over and you realize many are packing up for their next assignment. Because of this, connections happened and deepened quickly. Despite not having legal documentation of citizenship, belonging was not an issue.

Physically I believe there can be a visceral sense of belonging. For me that occurs whenever I’m placed among palm trees and warmth, more so if the palm trees and warmth include a mosque nearby. I know others who feel at home the minute they touch down at Logan Airport in Boston, still more that love the seasons – crisp fall, cold winter, colorful spring, and hot summer.

Emotionally? Though I know it includes attitude, willingness to accept where I am, adaptability and more, I’ve found it’s not just about my own willingness to adjust and put myself out of my comfort zone. (One could argue that as a newcomer, I’ve already put myself out of my comfort zone, and that in spades.) It’s also about others being willing to accept the outsider, to extend belonging and community to the newcomer.

What do you think? What spells belonging to you? Is it weddings? Friendships? Or just plain time?

And in closing, thank you Lisa & David, Tabitha & Elijah – for extending an invitation to belong.

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How Two Weddings Spell Belonging – The first Wedding and the photo booth – Friends who have extended an invitation to belong.

The Aerogramme/Aerogram

English: 1967 US aerogram issued to accommodat...

This week I received a letter written on a blue aerogram! I hadn’t seen one of those in years and it pleased me immensely to hold it, to slice open the side and the two ends, to read it, to flip-up the bottom and read the back side.

So many memories came rushing back in that moment. So many letters in so many mailboxes.

The aerogram, although no longer sold in US Post Offices, has a rich history. It was first introduced in Iraq in 1933 by Major Grumbley of the Royal Engineers. That original aerogram,weighing less than 2/10 of an ounce, was preprinted with the likeness of Faisal I of Iraq on thin grey paper. The aerogram didn’t gain popularity until the middle of the Second World War, however, when airmail service started up between Britain and the Middle East. It was a private and inexpensive way to send letters back and forth. The US didn’t issue an aerogram until April 1947. Twenty-five different designs, with increasing postage costs, were issued until they stopped printing them in 2006. David Failor, Postal Service executive director of stamp services at that time stated by way of explanation, “Demand for these has been next to nothing for the past five years.” People send emails to their globally scattered friends, I suppose. Or perhaps they skype them.

Long gone are the days when the nearly weightless blue aerogram was used to convey love and affection, news of births and deaths and family.

For the me the aerogram has significant sentimental value. I remember receiving letters from home when I first went to boarding school at age nine. One of the “aunties” would appear at tea time to distribute the mail. She’d call out the names of the fortunate few. I distinctly remember the swell of hope that my name would be called. I remember the pains of sadness when it wasn’t. More often than not my name was called though. My mom sweetly wrote us most every day. Often she used a small domestic Pakistani aerogram to convey little pieces of news from home. She’d tell of her and dad’s deep love for us. She’d tell stories of life on the Thal Desert, her life in a courtyard surrounded by tall walls.

Later on in junior and senior high school our mail from home was put in a mailbox down in the “Big School”. There was a box for each grade and so now we could see who got mail and who didn’t. Casually looking through the few letters in hopes that one of them had your name on it conjured up the same little girl feelings but now there was the mildly applied pressure to pretend you didn’t really care much. Friends that had moved on from boarding school wrote too. Amy Jo, my loyal best friend from fourth grade on wrote regularly and often after their family moved back to the US and then relocated to the UK. She routinely wrote on a blue aerogram form. I still have most of the letters she wrote. They are tied together with ribbon in a box in our basement.

When I left the safe space of boarding school for the broader world of college and Canada I found myself often in the post office. My world might have profoundly changed, my self deeply shaken but I knew the post office and her mistress. Everyday I’d check for mail. Sometimes two or three times a day. Hoping. Longing. Needing some reassurance that the world I had left wasn’t imaginary, needing to know I wasn’t completely going insane, needing to know I was missed. Those letters kept me tethered. Mom and Dad wrote, there were a few teachers who wrote (Ann and Stephen, Marie, Phil and Ruth), there were friends that wrote, classmates, my dorm mother Deb.

Years later, when Lowell I courted through the precarious marriage of the Canadian and the Indian postal systems, the aerograms revealed the man I came to love and to cherish. Each aerogram he wrote under the ceiling fans of a lonely India settled into my heart. I read and reread them. I studied his pensmanship. I tried to read between what he had written and what he might have meant. I looked for humour and affection. Those aerograms might have survived international air travel but they quickly became worn from overuse! We still have all those letters, our courtship by correspondence, safely ensconced in plastic page protectors and stored in a three-inch binder at the back of our closet.

Our years in India saw the great change of communication march before us like a momentous Republic Day parade.

Early on we relied on those blue letters for comfort and the assurance of prayers. After the aerogram marched past, the faxes came and went. No sooner had they moved on then we watched, to our great astonishment, the entrance of email, slowly at first, but quickly gaining momentum. Letters and packages still came. Blue aerograms still came, in the wrong spot in the parade line, but always an absolute delight to receive! Cell phones and international texting joined the procession. The internet,with speed and information and Facebook, still marches on but we left India before that line swept past us.

The aerogram yet speaks to me of nostalgia and a collection of sweet serendipitous memories. This letter from my friend, who maybe only lives three miles away, contains more than just the bits and pieces of news she wrote. Her letter speaks to me of the past.

With her one letter, a whole rush of forgotten letters have arrived. My mailbox is full! Thank you Tammy!

Bruising Seasons – Reblog from A Life Overseas

All the world feels bruised today. We have rain coming down making sure all the garbage of the city is mushed under foot. A gum wrapper here, a cigarette butt there, dirt of a city everywhere.

And in the United States, Oklahoma is grieving while so many grieve with her. The hardest of hearts must melt with the stories of small children drowning at an elementary school. The softest of hearts may question a God of love during this time as news report after report tell of loss and death.

Sometimes you don’t have the words yourself and you choose to use the words of others. Today I am sending you to read the words of a mom and goodbyes, for though the grief has not the severity of death, it still bruises, still hurts.

Bruising Seasons. – here is an excerpt from this beautiful article.

It’s a bruising feeling. Deflating and depleting. And I want to say, to the men who tell us the kids have passed the visa checks and are out of sight, to our guard when we return from the airport, to the woman who taps on our window and asks for water, to my husband, can you let me be bruised for a little while?

There’s a bruised reed in Isaiah 42:3 and God does not order it to stand upright. He does not force it into a strong pose. He does not cut it down. He does not stomp on it or grind it into the dirt. He doesn’t laugh at it and he doesn’t demand it try really hard to be unbruised, or to turn away and mask the bruise.

He makes a promise. His Servant will not break it. A bruised reed he will not break…….Read the entire article here.

Those words I choose to remember this day: “A bruised reed he will not break…”

IMG_4857
Sindh region of Pakistan where bruised reeds are plenty

What about you? You can’t go through life for long without experiencing a bruising season. What help do you look for when bruised? 

Taper, Trim & Snip – A Journey Around the World Through Haircuts

English: Most cosmetology and beauty school pr...

Today’s post By Robynn was originally published in 2011. Today we offer it to you again as there are far more readers than Communicating Across Boundaries had at that time – Enjoy! 

One of my ridiculous claims to fame is that I’ve had my hair cut in 9 countries. It may seem a silly thing to say at a dinner party or over coffee with a friend, yet remembering those nine countries keeps me connected to my story while at the same time holding out hope for a trim in a tenth country somewhere, sometime!

Pakistan

Growing up in Pakistan meant many childhood haircuts. The ones where I’d sit on the edge of a charpai (rope bed) in our courtyard so mom could cut my bangs, or perch on one stool on top of another outside Utopia house in the summer with the wide expansive views of the Himalayas and my chin tucked into my chest so the back of my hair could be trimmed by Auntie Carol. Then there were the boarding school haircuts in dorm rooms—some quickly and surreptitiously done by friends by the light of flashlight, others by dorm mothers with proper plastic sheets and the hair cutting tools to taper, trim, and snip!

Canada

Returning to Canada for college meant inexpensive haircuts for a dollar downstairs outside the student lounge by college girls anxious to earn extra pocket-money. After graduating and moving to the big city I could afford a haircut by Blair at Blessings and Co –a stylish, extravagant salon with warm lighting and classical music in the background.

Mexico

One Christmas my cousins and I travelled down to visit my aunt and uncle who were staying in Southern California. On Christmas day all 5 of us descended on friends wintering in Yuma, AZ in their RV. Vera cooked up a turkey in her miniature oven and prepared the fixings on her tiny stove. We ate Christmas dinner around the picnic table outside. On Boxing Day we decided to cross over into Mexico. I had needed a haircut so why not in Mexico? The back alley beauty parlour proudly boasted 4 women in floral aprons all sitting around gossiping in Spanish with nothing to do. They were thrilled for the business and for the distraction. “Haircut?” I enquired. Off they prattled an excited affirmative. They decked me out in a green sheet and started in. “Taper?” one asked. “Yes, taper it up in the back but then keep the longer layers in the front. Don’t cut my bangs! Cut it short over the ears.” I made my wishes known. “Taper?” she repeated, it was apparently the only English hair word she knew. She kept saying it as she cut and primmed and pranced all over my head, “Taper?…. taper?… taper?…” I kept smiling and nodding, “Sure!”

India

Lowell and I eventually married and moved to India. After a futile attempt to grow my hair so as to look more like my neighbors, one of my most notorious haircuts involved a four star hotel in Delhi, a friendly beautician, an excellent haircut and, at no extra charge, a terrible case of head lice! There was another memorable haircut from a friend who had a beauty parlour in her home. When I got home, Lowell, who isn’t particularly observant about things like hair, asked, “Is it supposed to do that in the back?” My sweet friend had hacked a chunk of hair out of my style. It took several months to grow it out!

England

One year as we were headed back to the US for meetings, I emailed ahead to ask my friend Dianne in New Jersey to please make me an appointment for a haircut immediately after we arrived and before the meetings began. Our route had us going through Kuwait City. There we encountered technical difficulties and were put up in an airport hotel for 24 hours. Next stop was London. Because we had missed our ongoing connection we were once again graciously given a room at The Edwardian Airport Hotel –the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in—for another 24 hours. Knowing I had missed my appointment in NJ, I walked down to the lobby of the hotel and discovered one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had at one of the highest prices I’ve ever paid!

Thailand

There was a haircut in Huahin, Thailand. Actually there were two. The first one, where the hair cutter (again) chopped off a little too much resulting in a hole on the side of my head. This was directly followed by another where a fellow traveler and tourist made a brave attempt at correcting it with a towel over my shoulders and a pair of nail scissors in the hotel lobby!

United Arab Emirates

A trip to the UAE to visit friends resulted in a luxurious experience in a posh beauty parlour. The Arab women, free from their black robes and public restraints, were chatty and outgoing. The latest fashions were uncovered, beautiful black hair was let loose. There was a vibrant intimacy in the air. Nails were painted, unwanted hair was waxed off arms and legs, faces were massaged with fragrant creams and oils, eye brows were shaped with dancing threads and of course hair was washed, cut and coiffed. It felt to me like I had entered a strange new mysterious world. It was a sensual and sizzling place. And I had my hair cut there!

Nepal

Kathmandu provided me a haircut at a funny little roadside parlour. The walls were covered in laminated pictures of lovely Chinese women with modern hairdos and Bollywood movie stars. The hair cut was inconsequential but I remember my senses being blasted with poignant incense burning, the garish vermillion paste and grains of rice on the forehead of my hair cutter and loud raucous blaring of those same Bollywood stars blasting their tunes.

Years ago a group came from Kansas to visit some others in Varanasi, the city in North India where we lived. When I heard that one of the visitors was a hair stylist I begged for a haircut! Judy popped by our house and there in the middle of our dining room on the banks of the Ganges river she cut my hair, another friend’s hair, and our girls’ hair. It was such a treat: a good haircut right in our own home.

United States

Now that we’re in Kansas that same Judy cuts my hair monthly. Coming from my world, it seems shamefully extravagant to have a good haircut that frequently. I pop over to her house and she cuts my hair in a room tucked off her dining room. Judy previously worked in a high-end salon and now works out of her home. She massages my scalp with a conditioner that smells expensive: all coconut and pineapple lather. She massages my soul as we talk about significant things: marriage, and grace and God. When the cut is done, she styles and spritzes and sprays and pretends that I’m a wealthy client.

Pakistan, Canada, Mexico, the UAE, England, Thailand, Nepal, India and of course here in the US… mine is a story punctuated by interesting haircuts in far off corners of the world. I wonder if and when the 10th country will be added to the list. On occasion I regret the places I’ve been where I failed to get my haircut! Even as I settle into the Midwest, my soul and my hair long for an adventure somewhere in a far off corner of the world sometime soon!

Where have you had your hair cut? Would love to hear through the comments? 

What Would You Take?

When we first arrived in Egypt years ago, we had a shipment of goods that we were allotted by the university. At the time we didn’t have that many possessions so it was not too difficult to decide what to bring. In fact, we would have packed more, we just didn’t have enough to fill the space, nor did we have money to buy more stuff to fill the space.

As would be expected after we packed the necessities like clothes and baby stuff, we packed things that we love, that represent who we are and what we care about. So there were a lot of books, and a fair number of decorative pieces (think candle holders, table cloths, vases….pretty stuff) and photo albums – always the photo albums. Our downstairs neighbors brought none of that. Instead they filled their shipment with ski equipment.

Ski equipment in the desert.

Yup.

We were surprised as well. They loved skiing and decided that during their breaks from school and work they would head to Switzerland and Austria and take up the slopes. It was their choice to fill their luggage allotment with boots and poles and skis.

We would never in a million years have brought ski equipment. And that’s the point – they brought what they wanted, and we brought what we wanted. We were all uprooting our lives and had limited options for what we would take, we all had to decide.

We brought what was important to us. 

Those of us who have uprooted our lives, whether it be domestically or internationally know the process of weeding out, of sifting through and setting aside that which is the most important. You have to be brutal, you have to guard yourself and go into a “I’m not going to think, I’m not going to feel” mode.

How much more does a refugee experience this as they pack only fragments of a life lost and head out into a world unknown? 

“If you had to quickly flee both your home and country, what one possession would you make sure you take with you?

This is the subject of a photo essay I recently looked through. The pictures are poignant and telling. Unlike our neighbors and us, these are people who don’t have shipments, they have the clothes on their backs and most probably one small bag, a bag that has to be manageable for a long journey.

So what would you take? As the photo essay shows, for many in the world this is not a hypothetical question. It’s real.

The title of the essay is “The Most Important Thing”. So what is your most important thing? What would you take? 

Take a look at Portraits of Refugees Posing With Their Most Valuable Possessions and think about the question for a minute. It’s a sobering exercise. And then think about sharing in the comments – I would love to hear from you. 

Pakistan - Displaced people returning to villages after losing much when their homes flooded.
Pakistan – Displaced people returning to villages with all their earthly possessions.

Part I ~ Re – Entry: Oh the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I have wanted to write some essays on the re-entry process for a long time. It is a topic of critical importance in the world of the TCK, expat, missionary, and global nomad. I’m grateful that this week while I’m in Istanbul I have the privilege of posting a 3-part series on re-entry written by Joy Salmon, a fellow TCK from Pakistan who has done extensive work in this area. In this first post, Joy does a great job of putting our early adult experiences with re-entry into the context of development. I’d appreciate your feedback on this three-part series on Reentry by Joy Salmon. You can find out more about Joy at the end of the post, but for now take a look at Part 1. 

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What story have you told yourself about re-entering your home culture?

The stories we tell ourselves and others matter.  They shape our lives.  Our stories not only describe us, they also define us – they even give meaning to our lives.  They’re useful, in that they make sense of our experiences and events that happen to us.  In doing so, they influence our thoughts, feelings and life paths.

When I returned to the U.S. after graduating from high school at a boarding school in Pakistan, I was filled with excitement to be entering the next phase of my life – college, independence, adulthood.  My dad had taught me how to open a bank account and write a check.  My sister was waiting with open arms and a summer job.  Family friends opened their home and moved me into my college dorm.  What more could one want?  I was prepared and connected.

But life happens.  My sister moved away.   I no longer was a known and valued entity.  Nor were the people and world around me.  Even those who were “like me” (re-entered TCKs from other countries) seemed “not like me.”

I told some not-like-me people stories about Pakistan that were really stories aboutcharpoy my fear that they were not liking me and my misguided attempts to still be okay.  One time, I said my miniature souvenir charpoy (a wooden framed, jute twine bed), which was 1/6 the actual size, was an exact replica of the beds Pakistanis slept on.  I explained that the beds were small so there would be enough space for the many beds needed for large families who lived in one-room homes.

I cringe to admit that I laughed at their naiveté when I realized they believed me.

In time, I grew to hide my story from other not-like-me people because I wanted to avoid long explanations, disinterest or their not liking me by virtue of my differences.  But it leaked out.  One time, in a team-building exercise, we were asked to name a favorite farm animal that hadn’t yet been named.  By the time it was my turn, farm animals typically found in the western world had been named, so I named a camel – to the bewilderment and amusement of other participants.

My misguided efforts to build myself up and hide out were based on the story I told myself that went something like this:  You’re different.  You don’t fit in.  So there’s something wrong with you.

ReentryWhile there was a kernel of truth in my story, i.e. I did have different life experiences, my decision about what that meant took me down a path of incongruities:  I set myself apart from others, while doing all I could to become the poster child for middle America.

What if I had known that my like me vs. not like me and my liking me vs. not liking me struggles were expected and typical parts of the story of everyone my age?  That internal crises and emotional upheavals were inextricably linked to exploring possibilities, to discovering and committing to a strong sense of me, to becoming confident in my identity while still being able to connect with my peers.   That the process of exploring and growing in the ability to have close, trusting relationships that are mutually caring and beneficial is often messy.  That I was like my peers in these normal developmental tasks for young adults.

Perhaps I had some personal vulnerabilities that predisposed me to make these developmental tasks into internal struggles.  And perhaps defining them as “struggles” changed their meaning – one that spoke more of an agonizing battle than a natural growth process.

What if I had embraced these seemingly adverse events as normal experiences for my stage in life.  What if I had realized that these feelings and struggles were:

  • Temporary
  • Ones that nearly everyone experiences at this phase of life
  • Ones that would be naturally resolved with time and effort, some new skills and strategies, and a little help from my friends and mentors

More specifically, what if I had known that almost all young adults feel uncertain of their belonging, and that these feelings wane with time.  How might I have responded differently?

What story will you tell yourself – and others – about your re-entry to your home culture?  If you’d like to explore this, here’s one way:

  1. Grab a pen and paper and describe in writing how your experiences are similar to my late-blooming realizations mentioned above.  Let your thoughts and feelings flow, without worrying about writing style.
  2. Turn your writing into a paragraph or two you could share with others.
  3. Would you be willing to share your paragraph below as a way to help the transition of future re-entering TCKs?

In Part 2, we’ll look at how the cultural transition of re-entry adds a development task – reconstructing our lives.

BIO

Joy SalmonJoy L. Salmon is a former TCK.  She lived in Pakistan for most of her youth.   Her dissertation research was on the early-adult experiences of third-culture kids (TCKs) who returned to the USA upon graduation from high school overseas.  She is a licensed psychologist, with a Ph.D. In Counseling Psychology & Human Systems, and the founder of workwiselearning.com.

Living Well Where You Don’t Belong

Today’s post is by Joann Pittman. Joann is a childhood friend who I’ve reconnected with in the past year. As a woman who has lived her entire life cross-culturally, Joanne is gifted at helping others learn to live effectively across cultures. You can read her full bio at the end, but for now enjoy this post on “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong”.

I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

Below are eight tips for living well where you don’t belong.

  1. Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to Dictionary.com, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”
  2. Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have done things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.
  3. View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form an assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.
  5. View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.
  6. Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.
  7. Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.
  8. Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips do you have to add? Would love to hear some in the comments section. 

Joann Pittman is a consultant, trainer, researcher, and writer who helps people prepare for and navigate the challenges of cross-cultural living. She has lived in China since 1984, working as an English teacher, Chinese language program director, English language program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has done extensive study and research in Chinese language, history, and contemporary society, and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. She is the author of Survival Chinese Lessons. You can read Joann’s blog Outside-In at joannpittman.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The Power of the Narrative

It is the function of Art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.~ Anais Nin

While living internationally, we rarely went a day without having a story to tell that demonstrated our clumsy negotiations in a country where we were guests. Whether it was wrong translations on birth certificates, getting completely lost in a city of millions, or using the wrong word when communicating, there was always a story. At parties a game favorite was Two Truths and a Lie. While many in the United States may have played this, the responses are totally different when you live overseas. Responses such as “My maid of honor was a Nigerian gentleman”I had dinner with Yasser Arafat’s brother” “My appendix were taken out by a CIA operative” “I grew up with the Ambassador to Mongolia” and more are just a few of the interesting responses that are given. Contrast that to the first time I played this game in Massachusetts where the most exciting response was “I’ve been to Connecticut” (that was the lie…)

A few years ago my husband was talking to a friend from college years. This friend had come to the US from Iran for university and has since made his home here. He was relaying a story of his cousin coming to the US from Iran. She arrived in Michigan for a brief visit before moving on to Toronto. For three days, he said, they listened to her stories and laughed. At the end of three days, she turned to them and said “What are your stories? Tell me your stories?” My husband’s friend and his wife looked at her blankly. “We don’t have stories.” “How can you not have stories? Of course you have stories!” They explained to her that they really didn’t. Life was efficient and rarely brought surprises. They had no stories to tell. She was aghast.

How can you not have stories?

She left soon after and settled with her family in Toronto. A couple of years later another relative from Iran visited her in Toronto. For three days they listened to her stories. And then she turned to them, in the same way that they had turned to our friend and the same question was asked “Now tell me your stories!”. They were blank. They had no stories.

While I know that there are stories in this part of the world, I completely get the response of having no stories in comparison to our lives overseas. The best stories are ones that involve people. People are what make life infinitely interesting. In cultures that are more relationship oriented, there are more opportunities for interaction, whether positive or negative. When human interaction is limited by our high value of individualism and efficiency we can lose some of what makes a good story.

But I think it’s more than that. I think that the power of the narrative, the story, needs to be revived in our country. We hang ourselves on sound bites and 140 characters and we have lost the ability to concentrate on stories that are longer than a blog post. How often can the tweet of 140 characters make you feel and cry, rejoice and laugh, rage and empathize. Stories do. Narratives of life lived and our response to how it was lived. There is a power in stories – a power in the telling, and a power through the listening.

So bring on the stories – tell your story! Think about the life you’ve lived and what your story offers others.  I guarantee it will be worth the telling.

Taper, Trim and Snip: Nine Countries, Nine Haircuts!

Today is a guest post from Robynn Bliss. Robynn has written other posts and beautifully articulates the complexity of living between worlds as it relates to normal life events. In this post she takes us on a journey through something common to women and men everywhere, haircuts!

One of my ridiculous claims to fame is that I’ve had my hair cut in 9 countries. It may seem a silly thing to say at a dinner party or over coffee with a friend, yet remembering those nine countries keeps me connected to my story while at the same time holding out hope for a trim in a tenth country somewhere, sometime!

Pakistan

Growing up in Pakistan meant many childhood haircuts. The ones where I’d sit on the edge of a charpai (rope bed) in our courtyard so mom could cut my bangs, or perch on one stool on top of another outside Utopia house in the summer with the wide expansive views of the Himalayas and my chin tucked into my chest so the back of my hair could be trimmed by Auntie Carol. Then there were the boarding school haircuts in dorm rooms—some quickly and surreptitiously done by friends by the light of flashlight, others by dorm mothers with proper plastic sheets and the hair cutting tools to taper, trim, and snip!

Canada

Returning to Canada for college meant inexpensive haircuts for a dollar downstairs outside the student lounge by college girls anxious to earn extra pocket-money. After graduating and moving to the big city I could afford a haircut by Blair at Blessings and Co –a stylish, extravagant salon with warm lighting and classical music in the background.

Mexico

One Christmas my cousins and I travelled down to visit my aunt and uncle who were staying in Southern California. On Christmas day all 5 of us descended on friends wintering in Yuma, AZ in their RV. Vera cooked up a turkey in her miniature oven and prepared the fixings on her tiny stove. We ate Christmas dinner around the picnic table outside. On Boxing Day we decided to cross over into Mexico. I had needed a haircut so why not in Mexico? The back alley beauty parlour proudly boasted 4 women in floral aprons all sitting around gossiping in Spanish with nothing to do. They were thrilled for the business and for the distraction. “Haircut?” I enquired. Off they prattled an excited affirmative. They decked me out in a green sheet and started in. “Taper?” one asked. “Yes, taper it up in the back but then keep the longer layers in the front. Don’t cut my bangs! Cut it short over the ears.” I made my wishes known. “Taper?” she repeated, it was apparently the only English hair word she knew. She kept saying it as she cut and primmed and pranced all over my head, “Taper?…. taper?… taper?…” I kept smiling and nodding, “Sure!”

India

Lowell and I eventually married and moved to India. After a futile attempt to grow my hair so as to look more like my neighbors, one of my most notorious haircuts involved a four star hotel in Delhi, a friendly beautician, an excellent haircut and, at no extra charge, a terrible case of head lice! There was another memorable haircut from a friend who had a beauty parlour in her home. When I got home, Lowell, who isn’t particularly observant about things like hair, asked, “Is it supposed to do that in the back?” My sweet friend had hacked a chunk of hair out of my style. It took several months to grow it out!

England

One year as we were headed back to the US for meetings, I emailed ahead to ask my friend Dianne in New Jersey to please make me an appointment for a haircut immediately after we arrived and before the meetings began. Our route had us going through Kuwait City. There we encountered technical difficulties and were put up in an airport hotel for 24 hours. Next stop was London. Because we had missed our ongoing connection we were once again graciously given a room at The Edwardian Airport Hotel –the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in—for another 24 hours. Knowing I had missed my appointment in NJ, I walked down to the lobby of the hotel and discovered one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had at one of the highest prices I’ve ever paid!

Thailand

There was a haircut in Huahin, Thailand. Actually there were two. The first one, where the hair cutter (again) chopped off a little too much resulting in a hole on the side of my head. This was directly followed by another where a fellow traveler and tourist made a brave attempt at correcting it with a towel over my shoulders and a pair of nail scissors in the hotel lobby!

United Arab Emirates

A trip to the UAE to visit friends resulted in a luxurious experience in a posh beauty parlour. The Arab women, free from their black robes and public restraints, were chatty and outgoing. The latest fashions were uncovered, beautiful black hair was let loose. There was a vibrant intimacy in the air. Nails were painted, unwanted hair was waxed off arms and legs, faces were massaged with fragrant creams and oils, eye brows were shaped with dancing threads and of course hair was washed, cut and coiffed. It felt to me like I had entered a strange new mysterious world. It was a sensual and sizzling place. And I had my hair cut there!

Nepal

Kathmandu provided me a haircut at a funny little roadside parlour. The walls were covered in laminated pictures of lovely Chinese women with modern hairdos and Bollywood movie stars. The hair cut was inconsequential but I remember my senses being blasted with poignant incense burning, the garish vermillion paste and grains of rice on the forehead of my hair cutter and loud raucous blaring of those same Bollywood stars blasting their tunes.

Years ago a group came from Kansas to visit some others in Varanasi, the city in North India where we lived. When I heard that one of the visitors was a hair stylist I begged for a haircut! Judy popped by our house and there in the middle of our dining room on the banks of the Ganges river she cut my hair, another friend’s hair, and our girls’ hair. It was such a treat: a good haircut right in our own home.

United States

Now that we’re in Kansas that same Judy cuts my hair monthly. Coming from my world, it seems shamefully extravagant to have a good haircut that frequently. I pop over to her house and she cuts my hair in a room tucked off her dining room. Judy previously worked in a high-end salon and now works out of her home. She massages my scalp with a conditioner that smells expensive: all coconut and pineapple lather. She massages my soul as we talk about significant things: marriage, and grace and God. When the cut is done, she styles and spritzes and sprays and pretends that I’m a wealthy client.

Pakistan, Canada, Mexico, the UAE, England, Thailand, Nepal, India and of course here in the US… mine is a story punctuated by interesting haircuts in far off corners of the world. I wonder if and when the 10th country will be added to the list. On occasion I regret the places I’ve been where I failed to get my haircut! Even as I settle into the Midwest, my soul and my hair long for an adventure somewhere in a far off corner of the world sometime soon!

Homesickness in Reverse

A post on WordPress Freshly Pressed had a simple title: “On Homesickness”. It was posted on a successful blog called “Miss Expatria: The Internet’s Leading Enabler of Travel Addiction”. The blog is witty and informative written from the perspective of an American who is now living abroad.

As someone who spent my life in boarding school, miles from home (followed by college in a different country that was even more miles from home ) this would seem like the perfect post for me to love. And indeed her opening lines were powerful, speaking to the intense pain of homesickness and likening it to weeds in Rome that when grabbed without gloves cause intense pain. She says this:

” During those two minutes you’re running to wash your hands and then you’re washing your hands and you can’t think of anything else except the blinding pain. And then the pain subsides and it’s hard to remember how badly it hurt.

This is what homesickness feels like, except the blinding pain is inside you so there’s no washing it out; you’ve got to ride it out until it subsides. And when you’re fully ensconced in a life that’s thousands of miles from the aforementioned home, you pray it does subside because the alternative – a tailspin into abject unhappiness followed by the crash of an enormous life change – is unthinkable. In the meantime, your existence is pulled apart as you go through your life here while your heart and soul are there.” from Miss Expatria, June 28th, 2011

And  I loved that part. But what I found extraordinary is that I could not relate with the home she missed. Simply put, she missed America. It makes complete sense. She was raised in America and took up expatriate life as an adult. The comments on the post were evidence that she spoke to the heart of those who were homesick for the United States.  She speaks of her “Achilles heel of homesickness” as New York, her particular place of longing.

The worlds that I navigate and people I know get homesick. But their Achilles heel of homesickness is in reverse. It is for India or Pakistan; the Dominican Republic or Guatemala, Brazil or Portugal. It’s New York City or Boston or Chicago where they feel the homesickness.

When I’m homesick I long for the smells, sights and sounds of either Pakistan or Egypt. I wake up thinking that I heard the Call to Prayer and suddenly realize that this is impossible. The closest mosque is in Roxbury, several miles from my home, and because of a noise ordinance there is no way even neighbors of the mosque will hear the sound. I shut my eyes on the T and feel the rhythm of the Khyber Pass Train, winding it’s way from the Sindh region to Rawalpindi station with stops along the way for passengers and chai. I smell jasmine and immediately I am on the banks of the Nile River, a vendor attempting to sell me garlands as I laughingly refuse, only to be cajoled into the purchase minutes later. I eat a curry and am transported to the Marhaba restaurant where curry and chapattis are served and you don’t have to pay for more sauce or more chapattis. I cry as I realize how rusty my language skills are and long to be back where I am using them daily. I hear about a flood or a revolution and instead of thinking “Wow, I’m glad I’m not there!” I rush to my computer and click on Orbitz or Travelocity, or even better,Vayama, trying to find cheap tickets that will take me closer to the disaster.

But while the places,events, sights, and sounds are different, I recognize that the core feeling is the same. It’s the inability to control, the surprise with which it comes, and the intense pain that Miss Expatria talks about. Her words that “It’s always a big freaking surprise. There’s no predicting it, which means there’s no avoiding it.” are absolutely true. And that is why I, and so many I know, are caught in the center of a crowded  supermarket or a train station with tears running down our cheeks unable to explain to the (sometimes) concerned observers what is going on or articulate the depth of pain that we feel.

Although her blog is amazing, I will never fully relate to Miss Expatria. It’s Amina, the woman who left a comment for me last night who represents more of my heart. She says: “I left Pakistan about three years ago for University and there are days when I’m so homesick I can hardly breathe. Today was one of those days…As I read through your postChai, Chai, Garam Chai’, I felt I could almost breathe the crisp air of the Northern Areas and smell the smell of a good cup of tea.”

It is also why I write this blog. To put into words some of the places, the people, and the events that I miss during those moments of homesickness so I can continue to function effectively right where I am.