Sometimes it takes being back in the United States to see the ways I’ve been changed by living overseas. Here are some new things I’ve come to learn about myself, for better or worse.
(Here is the original post: 15 Strange Habits I Developed Overseas)
A slightly obsessive attraction to anything brightly colored. I made the kids drive around Djibouti with me and photographed them beside every shade of container we saw – pink, green, rust, blue, yellow…They were really excited about it. Or maybe not.
Tucking my dress into my underwear. Its all the rage. At least in Djibouti in the summer.
Not saying please or thank you. Why should I thank you? Everything comes from Allah and I will thank him, thank you very much.
Elbowing my way to the front of the line. How else do you get to the front?
Writing my restaurant order on a piece of paper. Why do we make waiters and waitresses remember everything in the US?
Checking both side mirrors of the car and looking over my shoulders while turning, fully expecting a car, donkey cart, or goat to run into me on either side.
Forgetting the need to schedule coffee dates or play dates or any kind of meeting weeks or months in advance and the need to actually make that meeting before just showing up at someone’s door or suggesting that they just swing right on by.
Honking the car horn. When our horn broke I refused to drive until it got fixed, too dangerous. In the US an accidental beep can be interpreted as road rage and responded to with fury.
Asking if something listed in the menu is actually available. I once went to a brand new restaurant in Djibouti. The menu had beautiful photos of fried chicken, juicy burgers, grilled fish, french fries, spaghetti. Preemptively the employee said everything on the menu was available. So when I asked for fried chicken, she said, “Except that.” I asked for a cheeseburger. “And that,” she said. I asked for the fish. “And that,” she said. I asked what was available. “Spaghetti,” she said. I ordered spaghetti.
Moving maybe a little too much for midwestern evangelicals while singing during church. And I restrain myself. But if our little church community sang some of the songs I’ve sung since being in the US, they would blow the roof off the building and there would be dancing until kingdom come.
Sleeping opposite my husband. By that I mean his feet are at the head of the bed and his head is at the foot while my feet are at the foot of the bed and my head is at the head. This is because of the fan situation. He prefers it on his face but fans on my face while I sleep make my hair tickle my nose and so I prefer the fan to blow at my feet. Somehow this has transferred and even here in Minnesota, without a fan, we have our feet all up in each other’s faces. Gross, but it works.
Noticing the slant in showers. I doubt that many Americans comment to their hosts on the fantasticness of their shower drains. But when we stayed in Somaliland, I was super impressed with the construction of our host’s showers. They actually slanted toward the drain. Like, intentionally. Like, so that the water would run down the drain instead of pooling in corners and needing to be helped toward the drain. This was worth commenting on. This applies to all manner of construction like the evenness of stairs or when tiles match or when doors shut and door frames fit into their space without warping or leaving spaces.
Snooping through cupboards and shelves. The best way to find out what is new, useful, trendy, and can be shipped to the Horn of Africa, or what is available in the market and can be purchased in the Horn of Africa, is to open cupboards and exam the contents of bathroom shelves, book shelves, kitchen counters. I find myself automatically eyeing these things in people’s homes now, all over the world.
I know there are more and I know you have more, too.
What are some of the strange habits you developed overseas?
Made me laugh again Rachel! Especially about the slant in the showers.
So so true- here are some others
– Eating with my hands or dipping bread with everything
– Thinking that shopping for new clothes equates going to the open air market and going through piles of used clothes from developed countries!
Love this: “I was super impressed with the construction of our host’s showers… This applies to all manner of construction like the evenness of stairs or when tiles match or when doors shut and door frames fit into their space without warping or leaving spaces.” Yes. What joy can be produced by drawers that easily slide in and out!
In the United States I don’t feel that my whites are white enough when I’ve simply washed and bleached them in a machine. They must be sprinkled with powdered bleach, wet with a modest amount of water, then set in the sun to soak. And don’t forget the rinse in indigo dye!
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve lived in the developing world but I still spit out water that gets in my mouth in the shower or after brushing my teeth. Kind of boring but that’s one that still sticks with me and is completely instinctual now. And the shoes off at the door. Always. Thankfully here in AK nobody wears their shoes in the house so I haven’t had to give that up. 🙂
Your list is great. Have you actually written down your order at a restaurant in MN and given it to the waiter? What was their reaction???
I started to at Old Chicago and my husband stopped me. We had a good laugh. So technically it didn’t make it all the way into the waiter’s hand. But I’ve also written down what the whole family wants and just read off it.
Hahaha! the slant in the showers and uneven steps! Totally! And Melissa ^^^ we drive my m-i-l crazy with our shoes-off-at-the-door habit. All of us just cringe when we walk across her lovely creamy carpet in our shoes! 😀 Takes a while to get used hurrying to the bedroom so we can kick them off.
For me, the kiss-kiss that we do here when greeting a friend was hard not to do when we were in the US last time. It is so weird to shake hands with a woman! 😀 In our previous two cultures, I rarely shook hands with anyone, and it always felt so awkward in the US, when men would stick out their hands at me to shake. 😀
So funny. I too, am from Minneapolis and enjoy your blog. In the 80’s when our kids were young, we lived in Belfast, N. Ireland. When we moved back to MSP, every car that backfired or firecracker made me panic and think it was a bomb. When I walked into Target and opened my purse for someone to rifle through (an employee was standing by the door), he looked at me strange and I was so embarrassed. I was looking for the woman’s line to frisk me when I entered the cinema at Southdale.
Now, I live in Switzerland and going back to the states is so strange. I bring my own slippers to people’s homes like the Swiss do. The Swiss say, ‘why do you want to bring outdoor dirt into your home?) They have a point. I kiss the cheeks three time when greeting people. I say German or Italian greetings and JaJa and Sí for yes and Nie (Swiss German) for no. (I lived in the German part first and now the Italian part.) I shake my head at all the pot holes and bad roads in MN. Shops open on Sundays and 24 hours open, boggles my mind. The choices and large packaging in US grocery stores astounds me and I have trouble making a choice. Opinion news TV (left and right) and TV ads (especially drug commercials) shock me. I am always on time (there are clocks and bells everywhere in Zürich) and I think it is rude to be late. (We have Africans at our church and they come two hours late to a meeting and it is over when they arrive-they have learned how to adjust in Switzerland). The cell phone reception is so poor in the US. My daughter had to tell me what the crunch noise was (dropped call) on my US iPhone. I had never had that happen to me in Switzerland. Even the Gottard tunnel, longest in Europe is equipped with cell phone reception. The ‘house rule’ in apartments in Switzerland felt so restrictive when we first moved here and now I like the orderliness that the rules produce. It is all about being considerate to your neighbor, ie- no showers or running water after 10pm, depending on how old and soundproof your building was. One of my friends’ house rules said, men had to sit to urinate after 10pm! We live in a great soundproof building so never had to deal with that! I find most of the US messy, chaotic and wasteful when I visit. I bet that is hard for you to believe after living in Africa! We’re moving to Los Angeles next year to retire. I have only lived in Minnesota, N. Ireland and Switzerland. Do you think I am going to have a difficult adjustment? Youbetcha!
It’s not unusual to find plastic resealable bags washed and stuck onto my tile backsplash in the kitchen. They were precious commodities overseas.
My children see no usefulness in an umbrella or a rain parka. You get wet during rainy season and dry out during the hot season. This does not translate well to mid-Atlantic winter weather, and more than one well-meaning church friend has clucked in disapproval.
I generally enjoy your blogs on the things you are learning/have learned about yourself, your faith, your family. My reaction to this was different. To be honest, in this one you sound more like too many other N. Americans who use just such examples of difference to show “our” superiority. While I’m sure that wasn’t the intention, highlighting things like warped door frames, slanted shower heads, taking pictures of people’s colorful homes, daily menus that really aren’t, felt rather snarky.
I, too, have lived several years in other countries (in C. and S. America). And most of these sorts of lists are what I hear from short term workers or missionaries as they highlight everything they see is wrong with the people and the cultures as they talk about how “things got the way they are” or how they can “help them fix” things. Or — they are things you may hear from long-term expats when they are in a group together reminiscing or venting during various stages of culture shock. While I somewhat understand the need to do this amongst ourselves at some time or another during our acculturation periods (I heard people from different parts of Africa do this about the US while here in missionary training) posting in a blog like this came off as poking fun to me.
Again, from what I’ve read in the blog previously I realize that wasn’t your intent but feel that folks who haven’t lived elsewhere, many of whom already believe that everything N. American is superior, will use your list as confirmation of such.
I appreciate your honest Grace, thanks for taking the time to express this. I can see how it could be read as snarky or judgmental, like you said, that isn’t my intent but your words are a good check to my spirit. Always the first few days in either country through me for a wild loop.
Not that Rachel needs any defending here, but I’d like to give my take on Grace’s point… I appreciate the thought behind it, because as someone who lived in Ethiopia for several years I, too, have very little tolerance for expats (short- or long-term) who make snarky comments about the developing countries where they live. But there is a big difference between laughing about things that can be a bit exasperating (like being assured that everything on the menu is available when it turns out there’s only spaghetti, or doors that don’t fit their frames), and being disrespectful toward the culture (for instance, but if one were to take these examples and make generalizations about lying local servers or inept local craftsmen). I see Rachel as doing the former, not in a snarky way but in the way someone talks about the imperfect place that feels like home to them. Laughing and ordering the spaghetti, and being appreciative of good craftsmanship/engineering, seems to me like exactly the way to live respectfully and authentically in a country that if very different from the one where one grew up.
I don’t think they are things that are wrong, just things that are different. I have had to learn to push in line, too. I don’t think it’s rude, and it’s not done in anger. It’s just another way of doing things that we have to get used to. 🙂
hand washing foil & ziplock bags to reuse again, then clothesclipping to dry since i don’t have a tile wall to stick it to, some nights, everyone just eating right out of the serving bowl, prefering pringles to any other chip because that was all we could get for a very long time, just about having a panic attack any time i pass (or they pass me) a truck on the highway at high speeds because in my heart, i’m convinced they’ll drive like the truck drivers in w africa, snapping the chicken bones before making a third bone broth to freeze…
how about greeting the shop assistant with more than just “hello” at the til/checkout. I remembered that was inappropriate last time I was in the UK and the queue behind me was sighing and tutting as I asked about the previous night’s sleep, the family etc etc!
I totally get the not saying thank you for getting something, but saying thank you when I mean “no.” For example: a nice fella at church says, “would you like a doughnut?” and I say “thank you” and walk away in the opposite direction, leaving him puzzled and with an extra doughnut in hand.
The drawers in my new kitchen! We went to IKEA to pick out a kitchen a few months back, and I was totally overwhelmed by all the available options. Even though I really wanted the kitchen, I kept putting off choosing the details, because it was so hard for me to have to choose between so much. Where I lived in W. Africa, we never had the option of aquiring drawers or cupboard fronts. Only open shelves. Now I have drawers that self-close when I fail to properly shut them. It’s amazing!
I also feel thankful every time I lock at the inmense fridge I got second-hand for a fraction of what it had cost initially. It runs on electricity, so there’s no need to light a fire under it every 14 days. And it seals all the way around the door. No condensation water running on my kitchen floor.
Thanks for a funny blog post, Rachel, that allowed me to smile in recognition a lot.
Speaking French to waiters. Trust me, it’s a good way to get dirty looks in an American restaurant where people think you’re showing off.
Waiting till the banks and shops reopen after lunch…oh right! They didn’t close for lunch. Right? I am still not sure.
Having to think where you are before you write the date (is it 7/25 or 25/7?) or know which floor to press on the elevator (ground floor = 1 in the US but not Europe or North Africa)
And so many more! Loved this post 🙂
After returning from Dakar, Senegal, I ran a couple of red lights before I realized I had to stop for them in the US. I, too, would not have driven a car without a working horn. That’s more important than brakes! I always prayed before driving anywhere. Not a bad habit to keep.
I had some things too, that I didn’t realize I did until I got back into the US for awhile! Like wanting to shake everyone’s hands with entrances/exits into a room. I love the way things are more relational (here in Congo) but I also appreciate the quicker pace in the US. And while in Spain recently, I was doing just fine speaking to a shop worker in English until some ladies behind me were speaking in French. Then I replied to the shop worker in French and got a strange look. So confusing to remember which language you are using. Some days I feel like I can’t even speak English!
Love this, Rachel! I snoop through people’s cabinets, too, and ask lots of annoying questions about trends I’ve missed.
Please keep humor in your blogs. It is much appreciated and educates your readers to what it is like to live outside your passport country. I love your insights, your humor and ability to see poignancy in every day events in your life. Keep it up. Your blog was not about poking fun, it was about observations about the two cultures you have to negotiate in your life.
Thanks Susan, for writing this. Really encouraging, I appreciate it!
Thought you would like this. Relates to whatever country we ex-pats are living in, developed or undeveloped. It is such an interesting, education life, living outside your passport country.
These are awesome, and oh-so-relatable as I sit on my first furlough after living in Tanzania 🙂
We lived in SE Asia for 6 years. I learned to force feed visitors, since they would never say “yes” to food or drink. You must just bring it no matter what they say. I hated it the first time I had to push into the buffet line (at church!!), but no one else thought anything of it. It took awhile to adjust to helpful sales people in the US. Where I lived, if you asked a sales person for help, they looked at you in disgust (you had interrupted their boredom) and answered unfailingly, “No idea.”
I loved having all children call me Auntie, everyone handshaking instead of hugging ( I really don’t like to hug EVERYONE), the sincere respect and appreciation of so many things taken for granted here in the US. It was a priceless and blessed experience for me and my family we would not trade for anything.
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