culture shock

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What is Normal?

Quick link: The Normal Fallacy

I’m at A Life Overseas today, writing about the lie we have chosen to believe that there is such a thing as ‘normal.’

You see something a certain way for long enough and it starts to feel normal. You see something long enough and Nelson Mandela starts to look like a Grinch. But…


I stopped believing in ‘normal’ a long time ago and I can pinpoint the moment when the loss of that belief crystalized for me. I was in Minnesota, sitting in a hot tub at my parents’ home. Friends and family were eating brats and hot dogs, playing raucous games of spoons, enjoying the view of the lake and grass and oak trees. Someone asked me, “What is different about your life in Djibouti from life here?”

I froze.

Uh…hot tub? Brats? Hot dog? Spoon games? Lakes? Grass? Oak trees? Family? Where should I start?

What is different? Nothing. My kids go to school, I grocery shop, I pray, I cook, I visit friends, my husband and I go for walks.

What is different? Everything. My kids go to French school and now boarding school. I shop at three stores, the market, the bread delivery man, the dukaan across the street, and the vegetable stall down the block. I pray for people I never would have known before, challenges I never could have fathomed before. I cook everything from bread to barbecue sauce from scratch. I visit friends and speak multiple different languages, sometimes while wearing a headscarf or abaya. My husband and I go for walks but we don’t touch and we dodge goats, camels, and kids who want to follow us.

This all feels normal now…

Click here to read the rest of The Normal Fallacy.

Culture Shock, Jet Lag, and Heart Lag

heart lag welcome backQuick link: Jet Lag and Heart Lag

Come join me at A Life Overseas today for a discussion about the intersection of jet lag and culture shock, something I’ve decided we should call heart lag. I’m always shocked at how shocked I am when I travel to Minnesota or to Djibouti, it goes both ways. I think it is because my heart needs time to catch up, just like my body needs time. In this blog post I write about four factors that contribute to this lag.

It used to upset me but I’m coming to think of it as a chance to see these two words with fresh eyes. The fog of heart lag only tends to last two to three days and in those days I usually come up with some of my freshest observations and descriptions. Then I settle in, get comfortable, and things don’t seem so unusual anymore. The fact that everyone stands in line and stays in line and apologizes if they lightly brush up against you in Minnesota? The fact that in Djibouti I can pull up on the wrong side of the road to a vendor, wind my window down, and order my fruits and veggies for the week and that the vendor and I know each other’s names? Shocking for a few days, then normal and not even interesting any more. Until I travel again.

Click here to read Jet Lag and Heart Lag.

Culture Shock in Pictures: Bathrooms

Back by popular demand, I’ll continue off and on to post photos reflecting culture shock. Today’s topic is bathrooms. Oh yes, let’s look at photos of bathrooms. (caution, this post contains words and images some might find offensive.)

In America the majority of toilets are sit-‘n-shits.

floral bathroom

There are a few port-a-potties (clean, contained, sheltered from the elements and peeping toms, and stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer).

porta potty

There are also outhouses, essentially port-a-potties built from wood and without the hand sanitizer. And there are open fields, bushes, lakes, and patches of grass where, if you live in rural areas and are a five-year old boy or younger, are perfectly good places near which you might drop your pants and water the grass. I know because I’m related to boys who have done this and I’ve seen them do it.


In America, toilets flush for you, sometimes while you are still sitting on them. Water, soap, paper towels or dryers, all are turned on for you. Sometimes there are plastic sheets to put over the seat, sometimes there are little boxes on the doors so you can open the door without touching it.

Couches. In the bathroom. And decorations. In the bathroom. This is, to a Djiboutian, absurd. As is the fact that we have a magazine rack in the bathroom at our house. Imagine! Djiboutian bathrooms are often dark, damp, and the home of jinn, or mischievous devils. They are not places to linger or beautify.

reading on toilet

In Djibouti we also have many sit-‘n-shits though they are a bit different. In homes there is no guarantee of toilet paper (what do you think your hand is for?) or hand sanitizer (just wipe with the left, eat and greet with the right). In restaurants there is no guarantee of toilet seats or running water (or paper or soap). In the airport there is no guarantee of a door (or paper, soap, seats, or running water). In the hospital there is no guarantee of privacy (I have carried my urine in a clear plastic cup, sloshing, past other patients, after using the toilet with no soap, paper, or running water).

bathroom bankoule1

In Djibouti we also have squatty potties. These are similar to port-a-potties minus the throne, toilet paper, water, sanitizer, and sometimes minus the walls and roof.

squatty potty

And we have the side of the road. Before races or simply whenever the need arises.

bathroom team1

I would guess, conservatively, that I see a man urinating in places like this at least twice a week

bathroom road2

Culture shock comes in when that American toilet flushes on me while I’m still on it and when the hot water flows down the drain in the shower. When our kids were younger and if we had time during layovers, we had to visit every single bathroom we passed, to see if they all had magic toilets and sinks and paper towel dispensers. We’ve also had to work with our family on when to flush and when not to flush and what to do with toilet paper. Some toilets can’t handle paper. In Djibouti we follow the general phrase:

If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown, flush it down.

That doesn’t fly when visiting guests in America.

I’ll leave you with this image, from Denmark so not American, but clearly something that, if encountered after being in Djibouti, would absolutely induce culture shock.


How do you experience culture shock in bathrooms?

Culture Shock in Pictures: Grocery Shopping

 Culture Shock in Pictures: Clothing

Culture Shock in Pictures: Scenery

Culture Shock in Pictures: Time

*porta potty image via Wikipedia

*floral bathroom image via Flickr

*outhouse image via Wikipedia

*lip urinal image via Wikipedia

*reading on toilet image via Flickr

Culture Shock in Pictures: Time

For the last topic in the week of culture shock through images, I thought I’d try to represent the different values placed on time.

Start Times


In Minnesota if something starts at 12:35, it will start at 12:35. In Djibouti if something starts at 12:35, it will start when people arrive and when someone decides now might be a good time to maybe start thinking about potentially getting things moving eventually. People will get there when they get there.

djibouti time


In Minnesota people are so busy that we schedule ‘meetings’ to hang out with friends, weeks in advance. It took me a while to get used to writing down my friends’ names on the calendar rather than simply dropping by their houses, though I see the many good reasons for it. Also, in Minnesota we feel like we are supposed to be busy all the time.


Busy is almost seen as a virtue and our minds and bodies struggle to keep up. When we go back home, we struggle to slow down.

slow down1


In Minnesota you can shop ’til you drop or eat out at any time or pump gas around the clock. Twenty-four hours a day.

24 hours

In Djibouti business shuts down in the middle of the day so people can go home and eat, rest, chew khat. In the summer, sometimes, you can only fill up the car with gas in the ‘cooler’ morning or evening hours when the pumps work.


That said, Minnesota does allow for some wonderfully quiet, peaceful hours fishing, walking, and enjoying people at parks and lakes and barbecues in the summertime.


And people work hard in Djibouti during the hours they do work and when they do have jobs (60% unemployment, I believe).


How do you experience culture shock in relation to time?

Culture Shock in Pictures: Grocery Shopping

 Culture Shock in Pictures: Clothing

Culture Shock in Pictures: Scenery

*image via Wikipedia

*image via Flickr

*image via Flickr



Culture Shock in Pictures: Scenery

And again, in our week of culture shock through pictures…scenery

What do I see when I look out the window in Minnesota or in Djibouti?

The city



The running trail

minnesota2 djibouti6

The water



The swing


djibouti4Do I even need to say it? I love it all and feel at home in it all. And sometimes I hate it all and feel like an alien everywhere. Somehow, for better and for worse, this is my life and these are my places and the images are the ones I will always cherish as part of me, foundational and formative and true and mine.

How do you experience culture shock in terms of your scenery?

 Culture Shock in Pictures: Clothing

Culture Shock in Pictures: Grocery Shopping

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