Expat Thoughts

Home/Expat Thoughts

11 Ways Running is Like Learning a Foreign Language

Two accomplishments I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Actually two: French and Somali. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some things in common. Here are eleven ways that running is like learning a foreign language, in my case, Somali.

running and language

1. Its hard.

I thought I was going to die during my first mile-long run in Djibouti and I was already in relatively good shape from doing aerobics. At the end I put my hands on my knees and gasped. “People do this, like, for fun?!” Same with studying Somali. It was hard, required obscene amounts of time and strenuous effort.

2. Progress is slow and steady.

I added a few minutes to my runs each week and built endurance. A 5k turned into a 10k, turned into a half marathon, turned into three full marathons. But that took years. A grunted sentence in Somali, “Me like rice” turned into grammatically correct, multi-faceted sentences that include cultural knowledge as well as vocab, “I like rice that has been cooked on holidays and dyed pink and blue, with roasted lamb and hot sauce.”

3. There are pitfalls along the way.

Injuries, tripping over stones in the desert, getting lost while running in a new city. Mistakes in language usage that leaves one saying, “Do you want my husband?” instead of, “This is my husband.”

4. They change the way you see the world.

I now notice runners everywhere, I notice shoes. A guest leaves a pair of Asics by the door and I know she is a runner. I even know they are Asics. I see the world in terms of running trails and get to know new places while on my feet. Learning Somali has taught me new things about history and justice, camels and color and saying ‘Thank you,’ or not.

5.  They open up new communities.

I didn’t know people existed who use the word “bonk” in normal conversation or who eat Gu on purpose or who think nothing is wasted about four hours spent running solo or who don’t seem to want all their toenails. Not only have I met these people, I’ve become one of them. I didn’t know people who laughed back in their throat like Somalis or who could memorize entire poems and stories simply by listening or who would sweep and mop my house when I come back from time in the US simply because they cared about me. Now I call those people friends.

6. They are never done.

I can cross off a run for the day but I am never done being a runner. It is who I am now. I will never be fluent in Somali. I am now a Somali-language-learner.

7. They make you do embarrassing things.

Running in the hottest country in the world makes me sweat in unmentionable places. On the run things like farts, spit and other bodily fluids have been, um, encountered. Certain stories remain on the trail. Learning a language also brings up embarrassments. Giving speeches in broken Somali, being featured on YouTube under the title, “White Woman Speaks Somali!”, language mistakes (see #3).

8. They make you feel proud.

Not in a boastful, arrogant way. But they make you feel like you have accomplished something hard, worthwhile, satisfying. A marathon. The first novel read in the new language.

9. They draw strange looks from people.

Once at the end of a run in the hot season, a child saw me and was so frightened he tried to crawl onto the back of my guard, who was praying at the time. The kid screamed, “help me! help me!” When I asked the guard who the kid was he said, “I never met him before in my life.” When I speak Somali sometimes people have physically fallen to the ground in shock. Other times they simply stare. That happens a lot while I run, too.

10. They make muscles ache and make the muscles stronger.

My legs will never be the same. I’m no Paula Radcliffe but I think I’ve got some calf muscle that wasn’t there a decade ago. Don’t mess with my calves. Don’t mess with my uvula, either. Or whatever it is in my throat making those kh, q, c noises. The first few months speaking Somali made the back of my throat ache like my legs ached the first few weeks running.

11. They require support.

I needed the people who cheered me on during the marathons and other races, needed to see their faces and hear their cheers, needed to grab the Gu or the water bottle. I am so thankful they were there at the end, sometimes to literally catch me, that they were there while I trained. Biking alongside, taking care of the kids. I’ll never forget the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for me at my front door when I got home from my first marathon, a surprise gift from my sister who lived states and states away. Learning language requires similar support, cheerleaders, encouragers, motivators. Maybe some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie deliveries. People who notice the minutest increments of progress and who honor that.

Runners? Language learners?

Anything else the two have in common?

Travel Shame

I’m going to list my own travel shames and then I’m going to cast a whole lot of shame-blame. Won’t this be fun?

Here’s me when I fly

I pick my nose. All those painful crusty boogers? They have got to go. I use a Kleenex but I gotta get them out.

If there is gas, it will be passed. Sorry. Doesn’t happen often. Helps save time in the bathroom (see below: don’t take too long in the bathroom).

I pack too much in my carry-on bag sometimes. Not every time, but often it is way too heavy. Books. I’m an author and a reader. Its all books.

I get anxious. I try not to let it show and I sincerely think it is decreasing, finally. Anxious about making my connections, or about being on time for the very first flight. This means I am an early-arriver at the airport. I hate the stress of rushing. I also get anxious about finding a space for my roller-bag. I think this is because of Kenya. Anything you check runs a high, very high risk of being stolen. I do not trust the employees to leave my stuff alone. They won’t. They don’t. Experience speaking here. I get anxious about using the bathroom so I dehydrate myself. For this, I blame small, sketchy airlines and their terrifyingly filthy bathrooms. Anxious about getting hungry (ever since cancer my hunger is always a hangry and it gets scary, fast) so I bring way too much food in my bag.

No talking. I sit down and plug in, even if there’s nothing playing in my earbuds. I know soon the plane will get really loud and it will be hard to hear, I know I’m exhausted, or will be soon, and I’ve been looking forward to this long haul flight as a chance to finish a book or two. Exception, and perhaps lesson learned, the one time I did chat with the woman next to me, we hit it off so well that we got coffee a few week later, in Minnesota, and we’re still in touch. (shout out to Cathy P!)

And here’s my tips to avoid your own travel shame. (Though part of me feels like: as long as we are civil to others, kind and externally patient, a little nose-picking and farting shame aren’t so bad. We’re traveling. We’re exhausted and stinky and can’t remember what country we’re in, we don’t need to be classy or composed. Maybe that’s just me. If you run into me on an airplane, I will not be my best self.)

Don’t

Judge parents of young children. They aren’t pinching them to make them cry. They didn’t give them speed to make them hyper. They also would like to sleep in peace and eat without spilling. They are more tired than you and carry the burden of loving the crying child while also carrying the burden of judgment and guilt. They are generally doing a really good job and getting small children across the planet is a serious accomplishment. If you have the chance, tell them they are doing a good job, even if the baby cried the whole flight and the toddlers block the aisle with a temper tantrum. They deserve medals, not rude stares.

Take too long in the bathroom. I don’t know what some people do in there. Well, okay, I can imagine what they are doing and we can all smell it when they come out. But if it is at all possible, do the big ones before or after your flight. I know it isn’t always possible. I know traveler’s diarrhea is a real thing. But if you can help it, hold it. You know its been a while when the passengers start making smirky eyes at each other. Well, you don’t know that, because you’re in there doing your thing, but rest assured, we’re out here making smirky eyes at each other.

Change into pajamas. I don’t know, I guess you can, if you want. But do you need to? Do you really need to change clothes (see: don’t take too long in the bathroom) in order to get a horrible sleep? It feels weird, like we’re strangers sharing a king-size bed in a hotel or something.

Overflow your carry-ons. Totally, totally overfill them. Fill them, fill them! But hide it, hide it. Pretend that 2-ton carry-on is lightweight. This is to spare yourself the judgment others might cast upon you, who probably have just as much in their carry-ons, they just packed it better. Don’t have three plastic bags stacked on top of your carry on, a backpack, and a pillow the size of a toddler. Okay, again to be honest, go ahead, have all that stuff. I don’t really care, but you will get some snarky looks and side comments behind your back. Who cares, we’re all strangers. You do you.

Barefeet. Stocking feet, questionable. Bare? Gross. I’m telling this to my very own precious and gross family, so there’s that. Seriously. There is never a good reason to go into a public bathroom in bare feet and I dare say it is problematic even in socks. Have you ever looked, I mean really looked at the floor in an airplane bathroom? Have you thought about what is likely down there? Plus, your feet stink. I know mine do after hours and hours on a plane. If you don’t have stinky feet and if you put your shoes back on to go to the bathroom, fine, take ‘em off while in your seat.

Snore. Not only is this loud and sounds painful, it reminds the rest of us that you are soundly asleep while we toss and turn. How do people manage to fall asleep so deeply on planes that they actually snore? On our most recent epic flight which took 72 hours, I slept maybe 4 hours. My husband thought I was going to lose it and I nearly did, and then he started snoring.

Take out your frustration or anger on the airline employees who are not the ones who broke your plane, lost your luggage, and do not have stinky bare feet. They are doing the best they can.

Lastly,

Don’t listen to me.

Do what you need to do to get through the flights as happily as you can. Its hard and you’re about to land and experience culture shock. Brace yourself. Pick, fart, stink, snore, overpack, and just get there in one piece.

What are some of your best travel tips?

 

When Things Crash and Stories from the Horn

Don’t let me hold your phone, drive your car, or borrow your computer. Don’t ask me for tech help on your blog, newsletter, Facebook account, or anything else.

I have been run into twice in the past few months by motorcycles. They literally ran right into the car. Once on the driver’s side and once on the passenger side.

Both times the motorcycle driver was at fault, like going the direction on the road, passing on the wrong side, not using turn signals, multiple witnesses all agreeing with them being at fault, all kinds of at fault. I will not publicly go into all manner of not okay-ness in how I was held to blame.

Sometimes, Djibouti wins.

I downloaded an update on my phone and it never worked again. Go to the Apple store, says the internet. I say, “The nearest Apple store is off the continent.

The water proof bag I used to carry items wasn’t actually water proof. Not for me. For so many others, yes. Me? Not this time.

My website crashed.

My computer crashed.

I ruined my newsletter list.

I can fix it. We can fix it. The technician and mechanic can fix it.

But what a headache. Aren’t all these things supposed to make life easier?

I’ll tell you what was easier: not having a phone because it broke. No pressure to take photos – just memorize the moment, just experience the moment. No pressure to respond to messages. No need to post updates.

Still.

Writers gotta internet. Or something like that.

And nowadays, writers gotta newsletter.

This is what is drilled into us everywhere I go online. Build your email list. Facebook and Instagram could crash or close (like they did on July 3 this year – anyone else have image issues? I swear I had nothing to do with that). Don’t let someone else have control of your work.

And I’ve discovered that I really love working on my newsletter and building that email list. People don’t comment on blogs that much anymore and Facebook and Twitter sorta overwhelm me. But in my newsletter, I get to be myself without blabbing it all over the internet. And I get to respond, one on one, to comments and questions and feedback.

I get to work on essays that in the past I would have tried to pitch to magazines but now I love keeping them just my newsletter.

Here are some of the wide-ranging recent topics:

  • How love in dating is different to love in marriage
  • Female genital mutilation from the voices of Djiboutian women
  • The story of a man who lived with a bullet in his head for 18 years and what happened when it came out
  • The next one will be about the cheek kissing greeting. Ever wonder if people accidentally kiss on the lips? I don’t know about people, but I do know about me

I curate stories from the Horn of Africa and Somali news from all over the world. I love doing this – keeping myself and readers up to date on what’s happening in the places we care about, super cool stories about the new superfood: camel’s milk or about Somali yoga lessons on the beach in Mogadishu or about the apparent new Cold War between China and the US taking place in Djibouti, about disastrous White Savior problems in Uganda…

I give loads of book recommendations, including Kindle Deals for the best books, usually under $3.00.

And we do this silly thing where I take quotes from famous people from Gandhi to Oprah to Mr. Rogers and replace the word “struggle” with the word “snuggle.” Because we could all use a little more snuggle in our lives these days.

Its kind of like letting people see the things I love to talk about. Like if we sat down over coffee, I would probably ask you what great book you’re reading. Or what fascinating story has gripped you lately? Or do you have any idea how to untangle the mess or how to celebrate the successes in the Horn lately?

Last week, I switched email providers because I wanted to be better able to provide great content and meet the needs of readers.

Alas.

Remember how nothing was working?

That didn’t work either.

I feel like an idiot. I probably am one. Or didn’t read the instructions well enough, though I felt certain I did. I don’t know.

In any case, a lot of people’s emails fell through the cracks. Like a lot, a lot.

And if you don’t want to read Stories from the Horn anymore and your email fell through – no worries! I’m glad you hung around for a while and you’re welcome back any time, but you are also totally free to head out in other reading directions.

If you do subscribe and still want to, Aweber has assured me, they have solved the problem. So hang tight, some of you have contacted me and I will make sure you’re all added in correctly. I’m so sorry for the hassle and confusion.

If you have never subscribed but are intrigued by what is on offer, I’d love to have you join in. Its totally free, I will never sell or give out your email address. You’ll get a free download: 25 Things You Need to Know but No One Will Tell You about Moving Abroad (and a bonus, secret free download too, once you confirm.)

And if you do subscribe and hit reply to the email when it comes into your inbox, to send me a message or ask a question, I promise to respond. I read every single email and (so far) am able to respond to them all. It might take a day or two, but I love hearing what drew you to Stories from the Horn or ideas on what you’d like to hear more about from me, suggestions on how I can serve you better, or just a “hi!”

Here’s a link for signing up, if you haven’t already seen it posted like, everywhere, on the blog.

Do you have a newsletter? I’d love to check it out.

Send me your link or include it in the comments.

10 Essential Expatriate Travel Skills

I recently met a woman who heard I have lived in the Horn of Africa for sixteen years WITHOUT AMAZON PRIME. She figured that was probably the hardest thing about those sixteen years. If she only knew…

Being sans immediate doorstep delivery of all the things does not constitute suffering in my worldview. That said, it does make expatriate life a bit more challenging and requires a bit more creativity. There are some important skills to develop. When prodigious amounts of travel are required to see your children, attend a wedding or funeral, pick up your life-saving medications, purchase new running shoes, or simply get a break in an English-speaking country, there are some important skills to develop. When navigating two worlds, there are some important skills to develop.

If you already live abroad, you know of what I speak. If you don’t, but are planning to move, here’s some skills to start developing now.

travel skills

  1. Packing the right amount of peanut butter. How long will you be away from peanut butter? How many children do you have? How lazy are you when it comes to dinner (if you’re anything like me, the answer is: very)? If you’re packing a load of this liquid gold, here’s an easy link to order it. Via Amazon. Because why not just buy the 80 ouncer?
  2. Knowing exactly what 50.0 pounds feels like. Airline staff will be impressed and you won’t have to literally spread your underwear all over the airport floor in front of everyone, re-shuffling.
  3. Accurately guessing what style and size shoes your toddler/tween/teenager will wear eighteen months from now.
  4. Purchasing the right running shoes to get through the next 2,500 miles. My go-to’s lately are Brooks Ghost and Altra trail shoes, nice and wide for my toes, and great for off-road.
  5. Sitting nearly upright for fifteen hours at a time without losing your mind.
  6. Walking off those fifteen hours in preparation for another 8-10 before doing it again, while in a cramped airport lugging carry-ons, purses, computer bags, backpacks, diaper bags, strollers, and 1-3 zombie children.
  7. Filling out visa and immigration paperwork with one hand, the paper balanced on soft-sided luggage which is balanced on top of your thigh which is leaning against the metal bars that hold up those red ropes, so that you can stand in line while filling it out instead of getting stuck at the back of a group of not-from-around-here tourists, while hollering at your children and passing out Cheerios, while holding your pee and ordering everyone else in the family to hold their pee because you are NOT going to the back of the line.
  8. Peeing from any level of squat regardless of the availability of toilet paper or hand sanitizer or bathroom stall doors or bathrooms.
  9. Calling two countries home.
  10. Knowing that ‘home’ has multiple meanings.

What have been some of your essential skills?

*image via Flickr

*contains affiliate links to things you can order on AMAZON PRIME!

Save

About the Sexual Abuse of Third Culture Kids, Resources and Way Too Many Links

(trigger warning: sexual abuse and mental illness)

A few weeks ago a report came out updating and filling in holes regarding the ongoing sexual abuse of kids at a school run by New Tribes.

Marilyn Gardner wrote a prayer of repentance at A Life Overseas. As a TCK who went to boarding school at a young age, Marilyn has a special tenderness and insight into what this kind of abuse did to those kids.

The Southern Baptist convention has been rocked by accusations of rampant abuse. Protestants cannot and dare not point fingers at the Catholic church or priests. This article is long and devastating. And the Southern Baptist convention has responded, finally.

Just in the past six months, I know three TCKs who lost the battle with mental illness. I’m not saying mental illness and abuse necessarily go together, but that there is a lot of brokenness and grief that isn’t often addressed well in the world of expatriates. TCKs face this in unique ways, sometimes by nature of living in the home of their abuser at boarding school, sometimes leaving a country before resolution has been found, sometimes having no safe place or safe person to tell. There are so many goodbyes, so many losses, so many fears and insecurities. There is so much vulnerability and hunger for belonging.

Books and Resources about abuse and Third Culture Kids

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. A novel, yet it rings deeply true on many levels. The person who loaned this to me almost two decades ago said, “If you go to Africa, don’t you dare live like this.” I like to think we haven’t. There is so much to wrestle with here.

Between Worlds, by Marilyn Gardner, about her experiences growing up in Pakistan and boarding school. Also, Worlds Apart, which digs deeper and goes into vulnerable places. I love her words.

Rachel Cason’s site: Explore Life Story

Amy Young lists 8 resources for expats walking through darkness at A Life Overseas.

Finding Home, Third Culture Kids in the World, especially the essay by Sezin Koehler

Letters Never Sent, by Ruth Van Reken

Misunderstood, by Tanya Crossman

The Story Women Need to Tell, about sexual harassment. We need to lead our kids in conversations about harassment and abuse, so they will know their stories are safe to tell and that they are not alone.

The Trouble with Third Culture Kids, by Nina Sichel Nina also has an article in this incredible book, Writing Out of Limbo, about growing up abroad.

Noggy Boggy writes candidly about his experience with mental illness and life as a TCK.

Time Doesn’t Heal Assault if Victims are Silenced

12 Resources for Churches (and others) to Prevent Sexual Assault

How to Really Talk about Mental Illness

(Thanks to Sarah Bessey for the last three links)

Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere : Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile by Lois Bushong

I know I’ve covered a ton of material and provided an overwhelming amount of links. Everything from sexual abuse in the church to among Third Culture Kids to mental illness.

Maybe it is too much to be actually useful.

Maybe one link to serve one person. In that case, I’m content.

Be blessed, be healed.

*includes affiliate links

Go to Top