Guest Posting at A Life Overseas – “This is My Fate”

Readers – I’m over at A Life Overseas today! I hope you’ll come join me as I write about cultural humility and what we do when we offend in a country where we are guests.

Here is an excerpt:

“This is My Fate” – A Lesson in Cultural Humility

As soon as the angry words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I was speaking to Rehmet, the woman who helped me care for my kids and my home.

She was a Punjabi woman, uneducated, illiterate, with a smile that stretched across a beautiful, weathered face and a personality as big as her smile.

We were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and Rehmet had come into my life by way of her husband who had done some handiwork for us around the house. She had five children and lived in a slum on the outskirts of the city. She was tireless in her energy and her talking. At one point I despaired to my mom that I couldn’t understand her. “She speaks so quickly!” I wailed. “My Urdu can’t keep up”. My mom began to laugh – “Don’t worry” she said. “She’s actually speaking Punjabi”.

We had slowly developed a relationship that went far beyond employee/employer. I considered her my friend. We would sit down with tea, communicating with my limited Urdu and her fluent Punjabi. We would mate socks together, cook, scrub vegetables, and rearrange furniture. She loved my kids, and I thought I loved her.

But there we were. A Pakistani woman and an American woman side by side, me letting my tongue loose. She had ruined some clothes by bleaching them and I was angry. After all, if this had happened in the United States I would voice disapproval over the mistake and demand my money back……Read more here.

Part 2 – Re-entry: Reconstructing our lives

In Part I, we discussed how the development of an individual identity, a sense of belonging with one’s peers, and close personal relationships are normal developmental tasks faced by every young adult.

Why then did it knock me off my bearings?

It’s because we face these during the major life transition of re-entry. The cultural changes we face may include a loss of status, a sense of marginality, a loss of friends and perhaps family, and often a loss of purpose and meaning. And the novel ideas, values, people and customs we encounter upon re-entry create a tension between our host and home cultures.

Culture shock

They require a transformation of our approach to the world – a reconstruction of our lives, which emerges as an additional developmental task, one uncommon among our peers. This layering of stressors and life tasks can throw us off balance, and can magnify the anxiety we feel when exploring typical early-adult tasks.

The first couple of years upon return to the U.S., I felt a definite “culture shock.” I had been a blonde among Japanese and all of a sudden I was a blonde among other blondes who all looked like me and I felt lost in the crowd – I wished I looked different because I knew I was different. On the other hand, I also wanted to belong but found that there were many conversational topics that I knew nothing about… and also attitudes/customs that I was unfamiliar with… On one hand I felt “older & wiser” than my college peers, and on the other hand felt inexperienced in life as an American 18 – 20 year old. ~ Re-entered TCK, 31 years of age

It is very difficult to even begin to try to explain what a bicultural upbringing is really like and how it can tear at the very foundations of your life… The whole pace of life and values seemed to be totally reversed… I was neither American nor Indian and I felt like it, an outsider in both worlds… I wish I could explain my anguish to you, but I can’t on paper. ~Re-entered TCK, 28 years of age

During re-entry, most of us maneuver the external demands of our new worlds well. It’s the inner tensions related to our life reconstructions that take some time to work through. It’s wise to not be overly pre-occupied by these tensions; instead, compassionately allowing ourselves time to once more find our bearings. It takes time.

I don’t think people realize how different you are after living overseas. Another country becomes “home” and then you are thrown back int your real “home” and it isn’t really home anymore… After a while it became a lot easier and I finally felt like I belonged… I hardly ever talk about living overseas… ~Re-entered TCK, 20 years of age

When I came back [to my home country], I was very much like a naïve immigrant who thought the streets would be paved with gold; I had a very idealistic idea of what to expect… But when the shock of reality had worn off, …I pretty much accepted things which confronted me… yet to this day, I still feel a part from the world around me… I feel very lucky for having lived overseas and if I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t want it to be any different than the way it has been. ~Re-entered TCK, 33 years of age

While having simultaneous life stressors can take a toll and leave us vulnerable, studies show that they also give us opportunities to build coping skills and personal strengths. Negative emotions can also be appropriate and helpful if they ground us in reality (e.g. loss of close friends and family) and move us forward to constructive action (e.g. seek out new friends).

It often has been a lonely road full of difficult decisions. But I feel I am a more creative individual than those around me because of it. Though I found it difficult to adjust to my new life in the States, I wouldn’t trade my years overseas for anything. I can see things from different perspectives, understand the world around me more and enjoy life a little more than those around me. ~Re-entered TCK, 22 years of age

The first couple of years, I had a hard time. I was lucky I found an interest to keep me going, setting goals, etc. I met nice people who were interested in the same things. ~Re-entered TCK, 23 years of age

I found that I questioned my sanity a few times because I felt about things differently. As soon as I was able to say to myself, “I just had a different experience and that is why I am different,” then I was able to feel comfortable with other people. ~Re-entered TCK, 22 years of age

What coping skills and personal strengths are/will be part of your life story based on your time abroad and/or re-entry experiences?

In Part 3, we’ll discuss what a life well-lived looks like, and how we might go about reconstructing it.

Re-post: Bright Pink Razais

Before Fridays with Robynn began, Robynn did a piece that I loved. I’m reposting today as Communicating Across Boundaries has so many new followers that have not seen this amazing piece. Enjoy Bright Pink Razais.


We have two little girls that began their childhoods in India. Just before we brought them to the US they received bright pink razais for their birthdays. Each razai was bordered with a red, black and quite pink block print. They were gloriously Indian. They were cozy and comforting and warm. The girls loved those blankets.

The razais covered their beds those last months in India. They were the last things packed in to the suitcases for the long journey into their new world. They were the first things unpacked in our new home here in Kansas. The pink bulky comforters were immediately spread on their new bunk beds on top of the pale bedspreads  provided by generous women from our church. In a way the razais represented the identity of these little girls.

The razais said” We are Indian. We are bright, we are alive and we are not from here. We are different.”

Traditionally a razai is a thick cotton stuffed comforter. A large brightly patterned cloth bag is blown full of white fluffy cotton. That stuffed balloon is sewn shut, trampled down and harnessed with stitches and knots to keep the wild, wind-blown cotton in place. These blankets, to the uninformed might seem like carpets. They are heavy and immovable. During the winter in the villages, when the goats are tethered and the water buffalo are fed, families circle around a metal brazier filled with hot coals. A thick razai covers the coal plate and everyone’s toes and knees and arms. And under the light of a lantern and the weight of a razai stories are told, rumours fabricated, news exchanged. The razais serve a limited purpose each year. The temperatures drop surprisingly low in the desert. But the winters are short and the razais are locked into large aluminum trunks for the long summers. Modern razais are filled with polyester. They’re much lighter in weight, easier to wash, easier to roll and to store. But the colours are still as vibrant and the purpose is still the same.

Over these last 4 years since our return to North America the girl’s beloved razais have served as tents, as sleeping bags, as magic carpets, as reading companions, as dear friends. Although now our girls have picked more subtle bed covers, the hot pink razais remain among the blankets. Our older daughter prefers to have her Target-purchased, light pink and pale green floral bedspread on top of her razai. It’s still there, but not as visible as it once was. She still pulls it up to her chin at night, sees it, smiles and reaches for the bedspread.

Our younger little girl, however, vacillates between her two options. Some days the bright Indian blanket is on top, other days her lavender and mauve striped comforter rises to the surface. She’s our child that struggles to remember India. And it grieves her. I can see it on her face. The razai for her assures her that her birth place is a vibrant part of who she is. She snuggles up under that reassurance with stuffed elephants and tigers to keep her company. Some mornings the American cover is kicked off. On other days the pink razai is balled up at her feet and her only covering is her newer, softer bed spread.

I pulled the pink razais out of the wash machine yesterday morning and tears flooded my face. It comforts me to have bed-clothes from Asia enveloping my girls as they sleep. Somehow the connection to my own Pakistani childhood is strengthened. These heavy, bright, seemingly silly blankets keep me warm and remembering in the cold blast of a place I still struggle to settle into and embrace.

Bloggers Note: Just a reminder that Fridays posts are written by Robynn Bliss (née Allyn), a fellow Third-Culture-Kid and invisible immigrant. A Canadian who grew up in Pakistan, she married an American and then lived in India for many years. She has entered into the western hemisphere and now lives in Kansas with her husband Lowell, and three children Connor, Adelaide and Bronwynn. She is as bright, alive and colorful as her writing.

Home(sick) For the Holidays

You cannot predict it. It’s invisible. The symptoms are not obvious like a cold, a fever, a stomach-ache. It comes on swiftly and unexpectedly, overwhelms immediately. It’s the inability to control, the surprise with which it comes, and the intense pain that comes with it.

“It” is homesickness. Physical symptoms do come later – inability to concentrate, dry mouth, feeling of being close to tears all the time, not sleeping well. But initially it is invisible.

I think that’s why the Angels from the Rooftops post resonated with so many readers of Communicating Across Boundaries. Many of you know what it’s like to be homesick during the holidays. My mom’s story of loneliness and vulnerability in a strange place put into words what so many of us have felt.

For me it always happened on Christmas Eve. Suddenly our normal expat life and activities in Cairo were not enough. We needed family. Like aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, cousins — the people who aren’t allowed to not like you. The ones that stick to us with family glue whether we like it or not.

As our young family left the candle-light Christmas Eve service a catch in the throat would get us. Suddenly we didn’t seem like enough for each other. It felt like we were too small, too fragile, unable to make it on our own.

Christmas day was alive with activity and an annual open house at my friend20121216-084606.jpg Betsy’s house – open to so many of us who were without family. There we would talk and eat, help put together their mandatory Christmas puzzle, and sip the only spiked eggnog in the country of Egypt. Christmas day never felt lonely or alone — it was Christmas Eve.

Even as I write this I know there are those of you whose throats are catching and tears welling up, tears that you try to push back into your tear ducts.

While everyone else is home for the holidays, you are homesick.

You can just taste your sister’s mulled wine; hear your mom’s voice; picture the scene in a living room. It’s you who are making a home in other parts of the world, creating wonder in a foreign land. This post is for you.

My friend Martha has lived overseas for many years and understands the joys and challenges that come with the expatriate life. She writes this and I offer it to you:

It was Christmas 1981 and we were missionaries with CCC; I was pregnant with Jeremy and horribly ill with constant morning sickness and facing the holiday knowing that it would be three years before we would see our families again. We didn’t have a car yet (we were using a staff member’s motorcycle), had lived without electricity in our maisonette for weeks. there was a bittersweetness as Mark and I made aluminum foil decorations and tried to find humble gifts to buy each other in Nairobi. Then how happy we were when a staff family invited us over to spend Christmas Day with them with a turkey dinner and a day of great food, playing games and talking. I felt like I had been transported back to America and to family. I felt God’s mercy that day and the hope of joy and his love.

May you – you who are homesick, fighting back tears, not sure what this season will hold, feel God’s mercy, the hope of joy, and His all-sufficient, never-ending, constantly surprising love.

Gingerbread Houses and Potbellied Pigs

RosieI am delighted to feature a Guest Post from Rosie Hilton today. Rosie was raised on the island of Tasmania, off the coast of Australia and has lived much of her adult life on another island (Whidbey) in the Pacific Northwest, and many other places in between including three years in Saudi Arabia.  Her two island life is chronicled in “Tales from Two Islands” ( – musings and observations about life, travel, adventure and the human (and pig!) connections that happen in our ever-smaller world. I hope you enjoy this post and wander over to her blog to take a look!


Christmas in Australia is quite different than in the northern Hemisphere.  When I was a kid I loved that it came at the beginning of the summer so when the excitement of the holiday season died down you still had the whole summer vacation to look forward to, plus the summer weather meant you could actually ride the bike you may have received!

With 7 siblings and no extended family, we had to create our own Christmas traditions that included singing carols around the piano, Christmas crackers and party hats, big lunches of fresh green salads and cold ham and special local “pinkeye potatoes“, family photos, and a softball game at the local football oval.  This all happened after going to church to sing and listen to the choir, but then “sneaking” out (as only a family of 9 can do) before the sermon.

The one time we stayed it was about people who only go to church on special occasions!

When I married an American and moved to the USA there were times when my heart ached for a Tasmanian family Christmas.  For several years I yearned for those old traditions, but as my kids got older I came to cherish our little family of five and our quiet, peaceful Christmases at home, with no other family dynamics.   And when we started our annual Christmas carolling party at our home on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, the mild ache of not having my sisters and my brothers’ wives to sing the descant in “O Come all ye Faithful’ was mitigated by having a local musical genius from New Zealand playing the piano just like my father did, as well as knowing the Downunder version of “Away in a Manger’.

One day when the kids were quite young I read about a great gingerbread recipe in the Seattle Times and so began my very favourite tradition that endures to this day.  I make a huge gingerbread house, complete with windows made of Jolly Ranchers (as much I love and prefer Australian “lollies” I’ve yet to find ones that melt perfectly to make beautiful stained glass windows).

The only rule is that everyone gets to do their own thing with their part of the house and no one is allowed to complain.  That includes comments about the gummy bears on the roof with toothpick spears sticking out of them, courtesy of our son.  Last year’s had an “occupy the North Pole” igloo, thanks to our oldest daughter and, from our other daughter, perfectly laid out flowers around the windows of what inevitably (and ironically) is a church every year, since we discovered the stained glass windows.

Isabel - Pot Bellied PigAfter several days or weeks of eating the gingerbread house till it becomes a sad wreck that looks like a survivor of a bomb attack, the part I used to enjoy the most was feeding the remains to my beloved pot-belly pig Isabel. 

She was appreciative in a way that only a 300 lb pig can be, and when we moved back to Australia I wanted her to know that we were carrying on the tradition and hadn’t forgotten her.  So, even though she can’t be with us when we make the house, I now have a new tradition – I pack up a huge doubled bagged heap of the remains and present them to her every summer when we return to our property.  She is always very pleased to see me when I come back, even though she is loved and cared for by the people who rent our house, but she is even more pleased to see the gift that I carry 7,000 miles in my luggage to let her know that I miss her.

A Dwelling Place Secure

My parents are moving. At 84 and 86 they are once again packing up their bags, lives, and their hearts and heading for a new place, a new space.

They have done this many times before – the routine is not new. But that struggle of change versus permanence is written all over this move. They are leaving a community they love, they are leaving an area that has become home.

Watching this move is part comedy, part tragedy.

My mom comes up to me whispering “Your father wants to keep that!” Her eyes roll and I giggle. My dad hears the giggle and comes in and we try to hide “that”.

Or my dad looks at the casserole dishes and pans on the kitchen counter and says in a barely audible voice “Boy, we have a lot of kitchen stuff! Do you think we need all that?” He shakes his head and goes off to rescue an efficiency light bulb from my mom’s give away pile.

I take a banana out of an old tin dish that has a floral pattern with a bird in the center. It’s a pretty dish but I need to ask “Do you want to keep this”. She pauses “You know! That belonged to Ralph’s mother – Ralph – what do you think?” Big Mistake. “Oh if it belonged to my mother we keep it.” “Ralph, we’re the kind that would be on the Antique Road Show and they would interview us and we would have to say ‘Yes, we brought this old thing but we found out it’s worth…..Nothing!'” She shakes her head in disgust.

I love these two people. So. Dearly.

When I asked my mom how many times she had moved she said “Oh I don’t know! I would have to sit down and count!” They have ‘set their hearts on pilgrimage and they go from strength to strength’; whether it be a small town in Massachusetts or a small city in Pakistan, the strength is the same.

And I don’t have to ask the secret of their strength. It’s in the index cards taped on the refrigerator or sitting by the bedside. It’s in the prayers that are prayed each morning and evening. It’s in the decisions they make from big to small. Their secret will never make it to Oprah – it’s far too big and good.

Their secret is in the Psalms and Proverbs, Genesis and Revelation, in the Alpha and Omega.

A tea cup sits empty by my mom’s bedside, a yellow index card full of writing beside it. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise;you perceive my thoughts from afar.You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”

The verse is written in my mom’s familiar handwriting and sits at the top of a stack of cards an inch high. Each one is filled with verses, written evidence of her strength.

Though they are surrounded by boxes and tensions come and go, their foundation is rock-solid and depends not on the contents of the boxes, nor where those boxes ultimately land. Their dwelling place is secure, secure and strong as the words written on cards placed at the bedside.



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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