Telling Them Their Story

Telling Them Their Story

By Rachel Pieh Jones


The twins were three years old when I got the phone call that changed our lives. My husband was at work, out of cell phone range. I don’t remember what the twins were doing. Maybe playing Duplos, maybe gathering limes from the tree out front, maybe chasing the neighbor’s sheep around the yard.

The result of the phone call: we fled the country. My husband rushed home from work, I threw a few items into a small bag, and we sped away from life as we had known it in Somaliland.

In the thirty minutes I had to pack, I walked the twins through the house. They chose their absolute necessities: a yellow fleece blankie and a pink fleece blankie. They chose a couple of books and a toy or two. They said goodbye to the rest: the dollhouse dad had built, their pink and blue mosquito nets, the pictures they had painted with home-made finger paint.

As we drove out of the village in northern Somaliland, I guided the kids through more goodbyes, this time to people: Goodbye Hala, goodbye Deeqa, goodbye Halimo, goodbye Geedi.

The kids had no idea what was going on and thought it was funny to say goodbye to toys and clothes and to people they couldn’t see. They thought it was a game, like ‘see who can pick up the most train tracks the quickest.’ See who can pack a suitcase the quickest. See who can drive over unpaved roads in a mad dash for the airport the quickest. It never crossed their minds to be afraid and that is one of the many things I’m thankful for.

They didn’t ask why we were doing these things, not until later.

Three days later I sat in the bathroom with my daughter. She was crying.

“I want to go home,” she said. “I want to play with Hala. When can I see her again?”

I started crying, too. “We can’t go home, honey,” I said. “And I don’t know if you will ever see Hala again.”*

I held her for a while, on the floor in a guesthouse in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. We didn’t belong in Ethiopia but we couldn’t go back to Somaliland and we weren’t ready to return to the US yet.

“Mommy,” she said, “what happened?”

What happened? How do you tell a three-year old what happened?

“Bad guys did bad things and so we had to leave,” I said. That became our answer. We told her brother the same thing. They heard it, mostly understood it, and forgot about it. I thought.

A few months later in the US I put the kids in the church nursery. When I went to pick them up, the teacher called me aside. She looked uncomfortable.

“Um, your kids told a story during class today,” she said. “They told us they used to live in Somalia but bad guys did bad things and so you had to leave.”

Her voice held the assumption that they were lying but also a question. What kind of 3-year-old comes up with a story like that?

“That’s the truth,” I said.

And that was the end of it. We moved on, physically and emotionally. We have now lived in neighboring Djibouti for over ten years.

About two months ago at lunch my husband and I were talking about a person who had been killed in Somaliland, one of the murders that sparked our sudden flight, and one of the twins said, “Who?”

With that one word, I realized that they had never heard more than ‘bad guys did bad things.’ They still didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know their own story.

I started to tell them about those weeks, back in 2003 in Somaliland. Lunch stretched into an hour, then longer. We talked about the people who had been shot and killed just weeks before we arrived, about how the start of the Iraq war affected our safety, about the woman who had been killed in our village. I told them about hiding out in a hospital for seven days, trying to keep toddlers entertained with no toys, clean with no change of clothes, and fed with no cooking supplies. I told them about the couple shot through the windows of their house, teachers like my husband, like Daddy. That last phone call, the scramble to pack, the goodbyes they thought were a game, crying in the bathroom in Ethiopia. I told them all the names, all the horrible things, all the things we still don’t know, like who shot the woman in our village and why.

I told them the things they didn’t remember or never fully knew. I put words and images to the blurriness of their memories. They asked questions and we followed each random trail to the fullest conclusion we could.

They were fascinated and I was fascinated by their fascination. It was a story of adventure and danger, of survival, of grief and loss, of starting fresh, of creating, losing, then rebuilding a sense of home, of old friends lost and new friends made. It was the story of their past, of what had brought them to this moment in Djibouti. But it was also the story of their present and of all those years in between.

Telling them the story that they couldn’t remember but which belonged to them was like cracking open a space in their self-identity and pouring in the backstory. This is where you came from, this is what brought you to this here and to this now. This is what we once feared and grieved and how we moved forward. This is your story, this is who we are.

*in the intervening years, through a photo I posted alongside an article about Somaliland, we have come into contact again with my daughter’s friend. Yet another thing I am so thankful for.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Raising Brits

Raising Brits


I was born a Southern belle, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and spent virtually the whole of my childhood a Yankee in Great Neck, New York. Today I live in Glasgow, Scotland of all places, an honorary Brit, and a large ocean away from where I once called home. I first moved to the UK for graduate school, because I was an anglophile. I loved the sarcasm, the scones, the double decker buses, the very idea of Britishness; I wanted to wrap myself in it, like a fine Burberry scarf, for as long as I possibly could. Though I clutched a one-way ticket in my hand as I boarded that Virgin Atlantic plane almost fifteen years ago, in my heart of hearts I didn’t know I would end up settling here. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to raise children in a country different from the one in which I was raised myself.

Now I think about it often. Many of my closest friends live in America and many of them have children. To what extent, I wonder, are our varying experiences of motherhood shaped by the fact that my kids say “biscuit” while theirs say “cookie”? These are the four ways in which it is most obvious to me that my children are growing up British:

They have accents

Accents are only accents if they sound different from the way you speak yourself. And let me tell you: my kids don’t sound a thing like me. It was strange in the beginning, very strange, especially with my first child. I did what the experts say and I talked to him, incessantly. Enunciating as I pointed out the “lorries” (trucks) in his first-word books, unleashing a steady stream of chatter as I changed his “nappy” (diaper) or pushed him in the “pram” (stroller). But when he started talking back, I didn’t hear in his sweet baby voice traces of my own dulcet Long Island tones. No, what I heard instead was the Queen.

My son, it turned out, spoke with a perfect English accent. “Do you want a bath, Oliver?” I would ask (where bath was pronounced with a short “a” as in “apple”). “Yes, Mummy, I’m ready for my baaahth,” he would reply (where bath was pronounced with a soft, yawning “a” as in “father”). His accent was clipped and slightly nasal and a good deal posher than his dad’s. Once he was at school, however, and peer pressure began to work its magic, he came to sound increasingly Scottish, as does my second son. My youngest children, who have revelled since birth in a nanny with a lilting brogue like Merida from Brave, sound as Scottish as Scottish can be. The wee lassie and laddie can even roll their “r”s.

They have other points of cultural reference

America has made a big impression on the popular culture here, no doubt about it, but Britishness itself is still as strong and distinct as a well-steeped cup of Earl Grey. The “telly,” the food, the sport. Where I was plonked down in front of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, my kids have been immersed from the time they were tiny in the wonders of the BBC, with its psychedelic In the Night Garden and its possibly more psychedelic Doctor Who. At the table, their palates have been molded by fish and chips and bangers and mash, by shepherd’s pie and sticky toffee pudding. It is rather amazing to me that, at eight and six years old, my sons have yet to experience the taste sensation of a Snow Cone or a Twinkie or Jell-O pudding for that matter.

And then there’s football. It’s hard to overstate the extent to which football (soccer) is the UK’s national pastime, the significance it holds both socially and culturally. The season runs from August to May, so for the majority of the year my boys are cheering their teams on, to the exclusion of all other sports. The newest Arsenal “kit” or Rangers “strip” (uniform) is the birthday present par excellence. Even the little ones are kicking a ball around as soon as their bandy toddler legs can sustain them upright. There are no basketball games for these kids, no baseball games or Little League. No peanuts and cracker jacks and root, root, root for the home team. If they were to play anything with a bat, it would be cricket, a game the rules of which I still don’t fully understand.

Their elementary school experience is different

It’s called primary school, first of all, not elementary school. And, in Scotland, “grades” are known as “years” and numbered like this: P1, P2, P3, etc. The children have uniforms, even at the public schools (which we call  “state” schools or “comprehensives”) so there is very little agonizing over what to wear. I used to be skeptical about school uniforms, the mundanity of them, the lack of individuality; as a mother, I couldn’t embrace them more. What are you wearing today, kid? The same grey slacks and polo shirt I wore yesterday! School feels quite contained here from the parent’s point of view. There is no cascade of events for which to take time off from work, no birthday cupcakes to bake, perfectly or imperfectly, and share with the whole class.

When my kids started to read, they called letters by their sounds (“mmm”) and not their names (“em”), a system the Brits refer to buoyantly as “Jolly Phonics.” When they learned to spell, I watched them insert “u” s into innocent words like “colour” and swap “s”s for “z”s in unsuspecting verbs like “realise.” And when they study history, the history of America, insofar as it will be touched upon at all, will be treated as a foreign subject. They won’t suffer through state capital tests, like I did, or recite the Gettysburg Address. Rather we will sit together at the kitchen table, constructing mnemonic devices by which to remember the names and order of the British monarchs.

Rain is a way of life for them

At our latitude it gets dark during the winter at about 4pm, the sun only having risen seven or eight hours earlier. Scotland doesn’t see much snow, the temperature rarely dips below freezing, but we make up for it with rain. “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.” It is a favorite ditty in the nursery schools: if there is one thing you can count on in this country it is that the rain will always come again. As a parent, you find ways to cope. You buy heavy waterproof jackets for the cold months and lighter waterproof jackets for the handful of other months. Hoods are a necessity, because you can’t push a pram and balance an umbrella at the same time. And even if you could, the wind, your endlessly whistling companion, would blow it inside out like a buttercup.

You take the babies out for walks, even when it’s wet, the pram sheathed in plastic. You learn to read the sky, its nuances of grey, and to predict when the first drops will give way to mist and when to downpour. You shuttle the toddlers weekly to indoor playgrounds or “soft plays,” of which necessity has made you spoiled for choice. The chronically puddled ground means wellie boots are a year-round staple of the wardrobe. And when the long winter ends and whatever approximation of spring or summer takes its place, your children treat the sun, which has the audacity to herald morning before 5am, as the villain of the piece. “It’s too bright, Mum, it’s too hot.” For of course nobody here has air conditioning.

Worst Parent Chaperone

Worst Parent Chaperone

By Rachel Pieh Jones

expatriate parent chaperone1

Lucy pulls a note from her backpack and hands it to me.

“Crap.” I crumple the note and throw it in the garbage. Then I pull it out and sign my name on the parent chaperone line.

“You don’t have to be a parent chaperone,” my husband says.

Right. I work from home, I’m available. Moms know it, teachers know it, our kids know it. I could stay home and stay sane and our kids will talk it out with therapists in the future. My mom moved me to Africa and then wouldn’t even go to the animal refuge with my class.

Or I can spend the day refusing to compare booger sizes, picking crumbs out of my hair, passing around squares of toilet paper because the bathrooms at the school in Djibouti are rarely well-stocked, and remembering why I am a writer not a teacher.

“You’re a writer? You work from home? Great, when we need a parent chaperone, we’ll send you a note.”

As a parent chaperone of elementary school events I do solemnly promise that I will find a kid if he gets lost, I will poke the eyes out of any would-be kidnappers, and I will do my best to keep the kids from dying. Beyond this, I can’t promise much.

I can promise that I will show up wearing the wrong clothes. No one told me that sports day means the kids come in shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes but that the French moms come in short skirts, heeled sandals, and jewelry. The Djiboutian moms come in silk dresses, flowing scarves, and jewelry. I come in running pants, a University of Minnesota t-shirt, tennis shoes, and a sloppy ponytail.

I can promise I won’t understand the instructions. Madame Barbara described my station and I couldn’t imagine how first graders were going to accomplish the high jump with hula hoops and bouncing balls.

“High toss,” she said slowly in French and then demonstrated, throwing a ball in the general direction of an elevated hula hoop.

I can promise the kids who come through my station will score well because I will make up for their failure to understand my instructions by giving them all top points. While other kids are following intricate mazes on balance beams and tossing beanbags at a specified number of tin cans, my kids throw the ball high. I set the hoops aside and they just throw the darn ball high. I will clap (none of the other mothers clap) and chase after the balls myself because I don’t know how to say ‘go get it’ in French and when I try, the kids stare at me with blank faces, some with their fingers in their noses.

I can promise that I will gag when they pull their fingers out of their noses and shove their goopy treasure into their mouths. I will cringe while helping kids turn their backward pants around. I like kids well enough but struggle to deal with the boogers and backward pants of strangers’ children, of children who don’t understand me when I suggest they get a Kleenex, that maybe they need a belt.

I can promise that I don’t know the French sing-a-long bus songs and that I will stare out the window while the other moms lead rousing musical sessions. I might join in with my lips pointing in all the wrong directions as I attempt to form French vowels while simultaneously mimicking hand gestures. If you are my unfortunate seatmate, the last kid to board the bus and who gets stuck with the foreigner, duck and cover your head for safety lest you get a finger in the ear.

I can promise that when we go to the animal refuge your child will be disappointed if she finds herself in my group. Monsieur Suleiman’s group will find all the animals in their guidebooks, discarded shed snake skins, rare birds, and rocks with crystals embedded inside. My group will find the deer-like animals and will spend half our time figuring out which word corresponds to this animal. The kids can’t all read yet and I don’t know the word for deer (cerf). Monsieur Suleiman’s kids will bring home the crystal-embedded rocks as souvenirs. Mine bring home mosquito bites and ants in their socks.

I can promise that I would be such a fun parent chaperone in my native Minnesota. This is any easy thing to promise because I am not in Minnesota.

I can promise that at the end of sports day I will find Lucy in tears because her running skirt is on backwards. Where is this child’s mother?

And I can promise that upon reaching home I will collapse on the couch, mumble a brief prayer of thanks for elementary school teachers, and sleep all afternoon.

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.

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When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

When All the Other Moms Still Have Babies

By Rachel Pieh Jones
A young American mom in Djibouti said her husband recently asked what she wanted and she looked at him, all crazy.

“What do I want? I don’t know what I want. I only know what the baby wants. Do I have wants? Do I get to have wants?”

Maybe not now, I thought. But one day, you will.

I didn’t say it out loud, though. The words, the sentiment, the experiential knowledge would age me, make me appear condescending and unsympathetic to this mom’s current loss of autonomy.

I wanted to talk about how when that day came she still wouldn’t know what she wanted and that it would take her months of floundering through guilt, feeling selfish, and being daunted by the sheer number of options to settle into what she wanted, who she might be, when she no longer had a baby or toddler.

That conversation didn’t belong in this conversation because I was talking with three women who still had babies and would most likely have more babies in the future. That was a conversation they weren’t going to have for another decade, give or take. By that point, I would be ready to talk about colleges and careers.

Next the conversation turned to stories of post-delivery mishaps (bladder control issues and emotional roller coasters, anyone?), questions of learning to navigate Djibouti Town with babies in tow, mutually-exchanged offers of hosting play dates, and about how taking photos on a monthly basis of children holding numbers or stuffed animals seemed far too overwhelming at this stage in life, how they were lucky to get their teeth brushed by the end of the day.

My own birth stories have dust on them, the photos (print, not digital) from the day I delivered the twins are practically yellowed and curling around the edges. Pulling them out from thirteen and eight years ago in an attempt to relate felt like dredging through history books. Thirteen years ago? That was before digital cameras were in every home, or phone. Eight years ago when my youngest (and last) was born was before Pinterest.

I am no longer woken by crying babies at ungodly hours. Instead I do it to myself, setting the alarm for 5:45 so I can squeeze in a six-mile run before my third-grader rolls out of bed to fix herself breakfast. I leave the house without diapers, snacks, or rattling toys. I no longer lock the bathroom door for five seconds of privacy.

I didn’t have much to offer these moms and listened with the fully alert brain and stain-free shirt of a woman no longer claiming Goodnight Moon is literature, no longer leaking fluid at nipple level. Their stories were delightful and hilarious, their loneliness and love for their families palatable.

I wasn’t that much older than these moms, two years older than the other mother of twins. I simply started having babies young. So young that when my youngest graduates from high school I could, in theory, still get pregnant.

On the other side of the room in which this conversation took place were more parents, of the gray-haired variety. They weren’t talking about kids or parenting, they were watching a recent home video someone brought back from Mogadishu, the streets calm and peaceful as life flowed back into the Somali capital after decades of violence.

I could cross the room to join the conversation surrounding the video but somehow crossing the room felt too monumental. It would communicate that I was moving over, away from the babies and nap schedules and Fisher Price toys, stepping aside to let a new generation of moms fill in that space with their exhaustion and the exhilarating first steps that marked their days.

But these moms were my age peers, or as close as peers come in the small expatriate circle in Djibouti. These are the women who know how to use Twitter (though they lack the time) and who would listen to Mumford and Sons if the toddlers weren’t blasting The Wiggles. Or whatever toddlers listen to now.

Among parents the age-gap is often more related to the ages of our children than to our own biological age so if I want to be with women my own age and not sound like an old, boring been-there, done-that, know-it-all, I need to embrace the newness of their stories and not drag my ancient ones down from the attic.

If my husband asked me in that moment what I wanted, I would have said, “This. I want to listen to a new generation of moms.”

I know what I want now and it is to have brushed teeth, a clean shirt, and adult conversation while guarding the treasure these moms will learn. The baby stage was hard and beautiful. The elementary school stage is hard and beautiful. I’m assuming the teenage stage will be hard and beautiful.

I would have said, “What I want is to be the adult human face a mom looks at and doesn’t need to wipe and to be the empathetic ears a mom speaks to without using a sing-song voice.”

I earned my dusty stories, years ago. And I told them. Now is my turn to listen.

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.

Am I a Bad Mother or Did Africa Run Out of Shoes?

Am I a Bad Mother or Did Africa Run Out of Shoes?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

shoes1I saw a scruffy boy at the Nairobi airport and wondered, where is that kid’s mother? His hair stuck up in all directions, uncombed and unwashed. He wore blue jeans with holes in the knees so wide the bottom half and the top half of the jeans were barely still connected. His red sweatshirt had a hole in the neck, both armpits, and the cuffs were shredded to strings. His shoes. I think they used to be shoes. Now, they were merely a see-through blue upper attached by shoelaces at the ankle to a rubber bottom that was filled with holes. His dirty socks poked through the holes and the soles flipped around his feet like flip-flops that flopped in the front instead of in back.

He’s not really motherless but he sure looked like it. His name is Henry and he’s my son.

He loves those shoes and jeans, that sweatshirt. He refused for months to get rid of them and refused to duct tape them (duct tape fixes run in the family).

But we were now in Minnesota and it was a below-zero-almost-every-day kind of December. Henry could not wear those shoes or jeans anymore. Grandma had already purchased new jeans; it was up to me to buy him new shoes.

We went to the mall, every expatriate’s favorite first place to go upon re-entry (oh wait, it isn’t?), and marched to the shoe store. I pulled a pair off the shelf. While Henry tried them on the store employee came to help us.

“How do they fit?” I asked.

“They’re a little tight,” Henry said.

“Anything is going to be tight after those.” I pointed at the old pair and the employee noticed, for the first time, the pile of rags and recognized them as used-to-be-shoes.

“Holy crap!” he said. “Are those your old shoes?” He started laughing so hard he drew the attention of the other staff. He picked up the shoes (a brave move if ever there was one, maybe he hadn’t seen Henry’s socks yet) and held them aloft.

“Guys, check this out.” The soles hung loose, his fingers slid ‘in and out of the upper part of the shoe. “Dude.” That was in a whisper. “Do you think Adidas has ever seen a pair of their shoes like this? Dude.”

Then he looked at me and I could see in his eyes admiration for Henry and (I’m sure I totally imagined this) condemnation of me. What kind of mother lets her son run around in such horrid clothing? Not only run around in these rags but wear them on airplanes and to the mall? Obviously, his eyes said (or rather my heart saw), a bad kind of mother.

“Why have you waited so long to buy new shoes?” he asked.

“We live in Africa,” I said.

I hate that I said it like that, like it was an excuse, like shoeless children are to be expected if they live in Africa, so I tried to fix it.

“Not that Africa doesn’t have shoes.” Now I was defending a continent.

“They have plenty of shoes.” Now I was lumping an entire continent into a word ‘they.’

“Its just that Henry goes to boarding school.” Now I’m an extra bad mother and ‘Africa’ is so bad I have to send Henry elsewhere.

“I mean, we live in Djibouti.” Now I’m talking about booties.

The employee had most likely made no judgment on my parenting and probably hadn’t caught my ridiculous: ‘we live in Africa so I can’t buy my son new shoes’ comment and I was now inundating him with meaningless information. He just wanted to laugh about shoes, not get a lecture on shoes in Africa, where is Djibouti, or why we chose boarding school.

But he was politely looking at me, nodding. I had a choice and how I communicated with this young man would either confirm the general idea that Africa has no shoes or would condemn me as a terrible, lazy mother. Who was going to take the fall here? Me? Or Africa?

I could easily have played into what so many Americans think about Africa. It is a single monolith, it is entirely poor, people don’t have shoes or clothes or food or jobs or creativity or … basically a continent filled with lack.

I could have said something foolish like, “Africa doesn’t have good shoes.” Then Africa would bear the blame for not being of sufficient quality, not me. I would be the brave mother who dared raise a son in such trying circumstances. I would be a hero. I could even suggest we donate this pair of trash shoes to ‘Africa.’ Maybe they need them. If they aren’t good enough for my son, maybe they are good enough for an African’s son.

Or. I could tell the truth.

I could say that I had made the cheap, lazy mothering choice. I just didn’t buy him shoes. That is exactly what I said.

Then I dragged this poor salesman into a monologue about how I shouldn’t have oversimplified my answer and how Africa is a continent made up of a multitude of diverse nations, each with lots of shoes, and yes there are some people on the massive continent who don’t have shoes (personally, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own shoes. I know plenty who don’t own beautiful shoes or quality shoes or multiple pairs of shoes) but that isn’t because Africa doesn’t have shoes, and how I feel sad about my kids being at boarding school, but not guilty, and how parents of teenagers face the unique challenge of clothing them well, made even more unique in our case by distance.

We bought the first pair of shoes Henry tried on and he wore them out of the store, the old ones in the box (to be burned later).

I don’t want to go into that long and awkward of a conversation often and learned my lesson that day. I need to be careful how I represent this continent and this nation, even in off-the-cuff remarks. I have had the unique opportunity to learn some things and have a responsibility to honor that knowledge. I don’t need to lecture, lectures won’t make much difference, I’m sure the salesman tuned me out back at “Holy crap!”

But may I never make the conceited choice of masking my parenting weaknesses behind living in the developing world, may I never make the selfish choice of blaming my failure to do something for my family on my expatriate status. May I never choose to say ‘Africa has run out of shoes’ so that I will look like a better mother. And maybe, if I learn to speak more wisely and accurately, I can help begin a small trickle of change. Maybe people will begin to see Africa not as a continent of lack but of beauty and strength and power and growth.

I think the salesman was glad to see us go.

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.

Candy From Strangers

Candy From Strangers

By Kristen Drybread

CristoI figured my three-year old daughter would develop new habits and passions when we moved to Brazil, but I never imagined that her first love would become window-shopping. Back in New York City, Gabriella loved to spend Thursday afternoons at the library, Saturday mornings at the Museum of Natural History, Monday evenings at kiddie yoga. Almost as soon as we arrived in São Paulo, her favorite hangout became the local shopping mall.  Her preference for roaming the halls of a shopping complex filled with upscale retailers catering to twenty-somethings with a passion for hot pants was disturbing enough.  What made it almost intolerable to me was the fact that every time we came home from the mall Gabriella suffered a tummy ache, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Then, one evening I noticed her take a handful of gummy bears from a jar on a bookstore counter and pop them into her mouth. Suddenly, everything became clear. My daughter had been doing the unthinkable: taking candy from strangers.

At our local mall, music and booksellers dole out fruity taffies to intrepid children completing the journey to cash register at the back of the store. Jewelry shops generally keep a bowl of sugarcoated gumdrops somewhere near the front door.  And lingerie boutiques seem keen on issuing foil-wrapped chocolates to children holding tightly onto Mommy’s hand—hence, the steady stream of prepubescent boys begging their mothers to try on a new bra.  Yet, a parent need not set foot inside a single store in order for her child to collect enough candy to fill several piñatas. Sales associates frequently leave their stores to hand lollipops to youthful passersby.

To Brazilian retailers, distributing sweets to children is not a clever ploy intended to cajole thrifty parents into loosening their purse strings.  In fact, moms and dads are intentionally left out of the exchange. We’d been strolling the halls of Shopping Eldorado regularly for more than a month before I realized that Gabriella wasn’t really interested in looking at Pucca clocks or Hello Kitty socks. She was there to trick-or-treat.

I tried to put a stop to Gabriella’s candy grabbing by telling her the bookstore had likely set the bowl of gummy bears out for special event. “Honey, I don’t think that candy is there for just anyone to take,” I said. “You need to ask first.”

“She can eat,” and employee struggling to speak English cut in. “Children need candy. It helps them to grow sweet.”

No. It helps them develop cavities and to grow obese—I wanted to say. Instead, I told him, in Portuguese, “She’s already sweet.”

“Then she’s Brazilian,” he said. “Children from abroad rarely are.”

What did he mean?

I immediately remembered my daughter’s last trip to a New York City playground. A thin, tow-headed boy sat on a bench clutching an extra-large package of Oreos.  He kicked a girl who directly asked for a cookie and stuck his tongue out at a boy who implored for a bite with his large sad eyes. “They’re mine,” he screamed when his mother suggested he had more than enough to share.  A kid like that wouldn’t be content with a handful of gummy bears. But what about his peers? The only kid in Manhattan I knew who wouldn’t snatch as many candies from a jar as she could possibly hold was a former classmate of my daughter’s who had been born in France; she was the only child I’d ever seen divide a piece of candy with Gabriella rather than insist that my daughter find an adult who could give her a chocolate bar of her own.

True: I could take my daughter to any children’s play emporium in the United States and she wouldn’t, against my wishes, be plied with peanut brittle and bonbons. Most American parents ask a mother’s permission before handing her child a treat—even if it’s a quartered organic grape. Before moving to São Paulo, I mostly saw this as a sign of respectful parenting: surely our collective hesitance to share snacks indexed an appreciation for the dietary preferences of our fellow parents and the desire to protect unknown children from potential allergens.  But now I wonder if our reluctance to even offer treats to the children of others is responsible for the fact that children in the United States rarely seem to know how to share. I don’t remember seeing a four-year-old Manhattanite spontaneously doling out animal crackers—or even lending out her pink bouncy ball—without the express insistence of a guardian.

Brazilians, pint-sized ones included, don’t think twice about giving unknown children gifts—especially sweets. No matter how vigilant I am about policing Gabriella’s sugar intake, in São Paulo she will have, at minimum, two or three treats a day. If I pause to pay my bus fair, the old lady sitting behind us will have shoved a few M&Ms into Gabriella’s palm. If I reach for my cell phone, the man at the newsstand we’re walking past will have unwrapped a lollipop for her. If I look both ways before crossing the street, the kid in the stroller on our right will have given Gabriella a handful of Skittles.

Everyone here knows that candy, caramel corn, and cotton candy are to be shared. Sweets aren’t really for eating; they’re for creating community and teaching children the importance of generosity.  Why else would a package contain twenty cookies instead of two?

Now that Gabriella has learned from her Brazilian peers that the candy she’s given at the mall is not to be gobbled up at once or hoarded for a midnight snack, our shopping trips are free of bellyaches and sugar-induced nightmares.  What’s more, Gabriella actually ends up eating very little candy at all. It seems she’d rather enjoy one red gum drop and divide the remainder of the package with other tiny shoppers than stockpile candies while sitting in her stroller, alone.

Though I haven’t fully lost my impulse to say, “No thank you,” when a stranger asks if she can give Gabriella a cookie, I must admit that learning to share candy with strangers has made my daughter a whole lot sweeter.

 Kristen Drybread is a cultural anthropologist and freelance writer who lives in São Paulo with her two magical daughters.   

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Where Expatriates Belong

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.

rachel jones family2My 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.