Where Expatriates Belong
By Rachel Pieh Jones
Next, in our What is Family? blog series. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.
My kids are the ones who bring the weird snack to school. The other kids have pain au chocolate (if they are French) or half a baguette with Smiling Cow cheese spread in the middle (if they are Djiboutian). Mine are the ones with homemade granola or banana bread. Nothing wrong with homemade granola or banana bread, but that’s not what the other kids are eating. The food sets them apart. As does their underwear. In swimming class other kids leave thick, single-colored cotton underpants in a heap on the floor. Mine leave Thomas the Tank Engine or Dora the Explorer thin cotton panties in a heap. The smells of home we carry on our clothes and my accent when communicating with the teacher or other parents mark my family. Other. Different. Foreign. Alien, even. We are the ones who don’t quite fit in. We are an expatriate family.
I thought this awkwardness would disappear when we spent one year in Minnesota, the land of our passports and tax-payments and home-ownership. But in Minnesota my family was the one wishing Somali cashiers at Target, “Eid Mubarak.” At school my kids were the Americans who didn’t know what to do in the cafeteria at lunchtime, the kids who thought people played baseball on Thanksgiving, the kids who wobbled on skates and tumbled on skis and who complained of the cold weather when it was 75 degrees. Here, I had the right accent and provided the right school snacks but I didn’t understand the grading system and spent hours and hours and hours perusing the shelves at the grocery store, searching for those snacks, half in awe and half in shock. After a decade abroad, we didn’t quite fit in here either.
When we don’t fit, we forge our own path. My kids didn’t know how to navigate the cafeteria but our twin teenagers have traveled internationally through three countries on their own. We might have strange accents but we can retreat into private family conversations in French or in Somali or English, depending on where we are. We might eat strange food but have learned to be comfortable no matter the strangeness of our underwear.
We don’t exactly fit in Somalia, Kenya, or Djibouti, though we have spent many years in these places and they are now the holders of our memories, the shapers of our present, and the backdrop against which we will always judge our futures. We don’t exactly fit in Minnesota, though four of the five of us were born there, we (loosely) cheer for the Vikings, and we care more about cheese and fresh water lakes than most expats.
Sometimes I sense a disconnect between my husband and I and our children. Tom and I know how to ice skate, enjoy wool socks, know just how long to let marshmallows smolder in hot chocolate. We know how to rake leaves and roll snowballs and what oofdah means. Because Minnesota raised us and our memories are woven through with the smells and seasons of the Midwest, fresh mown grass and wormy streets after a spring rain. My children’s childhoods sound like bicycle horns announcing the morning’s arrival of fresh baguettes. It smells like salty sea air. Their memories will be forever shaped by this place that is home to them in a way it will never be home to their parents. Sometimes I grieve this. I feel a loss, a loneliness, a separation. Other times I see the wild, extravagant gift of it, this widening of world views, the open-handed reception with which our children respond.
And so we make the conscious choice to receive this expat life as a gift. Like baguettes, my husband and I receive the gift as a current reality but my children receive it as the warm crusty bread they will forever love best because it is the bread they loved as children and it will remind them of learning to ride bikes and green wooden bread carts and dodging goats and football (soccer) in the street.
We are each unique and my children are shaping their own spaces, designing their own memories. In the details these memories look almost nothing like my own of growing up in suburban Minneapolis. But in grand, foundational ways, the ways of curiosity, love, creativity, faith, I am giving them what I received. A family to belong to, a family to come out from.
Everyone in our family eats funny food and wears funny underwear and speaks with funny accents. These funny things that separate us from the world bridge the gap and drive us toward each other, where we do fit. We are an expat family and we belong in the in-between spaces we each carve out, the five of us nestled against one another.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.
To read all of the essays in this series click here.