More Strange Habits I Picked Up Overseas

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?

What I Learned: Culture Shock is Like Rock Climbing

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (there is one more scheduled post coming up and then, unless I hear from you, the series will close, but if you have an essay in the future that you feel might be a good fit, feel free to contact me).

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Heidi Thulin, writing from Kenya about culture shock and rock climbing in her first year in Africa.


I stood in the shade of a gigantic cliff at Hell’s Gate National Park, a harness strapped around my waist and my fingers fidgeting nervously with my hair. We had come to do some filming for an outdoorsman ministry, and after we’d conducted interviews and gathered several hours of B-roll, they said we could give rock climbing a try.

The borrowed climbing shoes felt foreign on my feet, and I bounced lightly on my toes while my belayer secured knots and gave me a quiet pep talk. I had never climbed a real cliff before, only a cement rock wall speckled with color-coded handholds. And that was ten years ago.

I was pretty nervous–but the excited kind–and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t conquer this rock.

Raising my hands above my head, I felt the smoothness and the roughness of the red-brown rock and lifted my foot into a crack. Then my other foot, push, then hand navigation, pull. Straining one part of my body at a time. And slowly, I rose above the crowd.

About halfway up, I got stuck. The rocks all around me felt too smooth, my arms felt too weak, and I was too quick to call down and say I was done. “No, you’re not,” my belayer called back. “You’re almost there! You’re at the hardest part, but you’ll soon pass it.”

I suppressed a panicked laugh and pressed myself against the cliff. It felt cold on my skin and the distance above me looked daunting. I shifted my weight, my foot slipped, I gasped. But the rope supported me. Up until that moment, I hadn’t truly believed I could trust in that rope, but now I knew I was not alone and that I could finish the climb.



Taking a deep breath, I grappled around for a handhold and slipped with my feet until it rested on a small ledge. Below me, people cheered. I had only six feet to go. With renewed vigor and a triumphant smile, I scurried up the rest of the rock and dangled restfully from my rope. My arms hurt in new places, but my heart was beating happily. I did it!

I looked down then and was shocked by the distance I’d traveled. My small husband gazed up at me, smiled, and took a photo. My belayer gave me a thumbs-up and said, “Now I will let you come down.”


My husband and I are more than halfway through our first term in Nairobi, Kenya, and in some ways, this leg of the journey is harder than the first. On some occasions, I’ve had to physically leave the house to prevent me from packing up all our belonging and booking the next flight back to the States. But God taught me a special lesson that day I conquered the rock wall. A lesson that I desperately needed to learn.

Culture shock is like rock climbing. You need take the journey one handhold and foothold at a time. You require encouragement from those with a different perspective. You develop new problem-solving skills and stretch your already-sore muscles. But if you trust in the rope that holds you up, you’ll find relief and smiles at the top of the cliff and, with slight disbelief, you’ll look down and realize just how far you’ve come.

Therefore, I can do this overseas life. Even when I’m confused and don’t know how to move forward, even when my heart (and stomach) hurts in uncommon ways, even when I want to give up. I have the hope that, one day, I will look back at this time of struggle and unpleasantness and be surprised (and maybe impressed) by my progress. I will see how God gave me the strength for each small step and how each of those small steps turned into a grand journey.

By the end, I will be a new person, a person transformed and strong, and I will celebrate my journey with a smile.


heidi thulinHeidi Thulin is a staff writer for an On-Field Media team in Kenya. She and her videographer husband work in Nairobi. They’ve greatly enjoyed traveling together, tossing ideas around with their creative team, and catching glimpses of the everyday lives and work of their fellow expatriates. She loves her Saturday mornings filled with a good book, a cup of hot chai (with plenty of sugar), and the company of her Kenyan mutt.


What I Learned: Friendships with Cambodians Come with Asterisks

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Allison Jane Smith, writing about the early struggles and joys in developing cross-cultural relationships with Cambodians.


I’ve lived in Cambodia for over eight months, in a small city called Battambang. It feels even smaller than it is when you’re limited to interacting with other expats and the Cambodians who speak English.

That’s one of the appealing things about Battambang; its small size makes it easy to get to know everyone else.

Yet that doesn’t mean it’s easy to establish a diverse group of friends that includes Cambodians.

About a month ago I had a housewarming party in my new apartment, which overlooks a soccer pitch. We opened beers, ordered pizza and watched the game.

There were people from around the world: Australia, England, France, New Zealand, Ecuador, America, and yes, Cambodia.

The foreigners came and stayed till eleven, twelve, two. The Cambodians stayed until nine or ten. One had promised his uncle he would be home by nine, another had to get up early for university the next day, and another didn’t want to be locked out of the pagoda where he lives.

They were gone before many of the foreigners, blessed with the carefree schedules that accompany lives free of responsibilities, had even arrived.

It’s hard to even get us at a party together, much less to navigate the language and cultural barriers that exist when we’re in the same room.

Being a single, twenty-something Canadian woman means my life is drastically different from the lives of Cambodians, and these differences get in the way of genuine friendships, the kind that come easily with Australians or Americans.


Over time, I’ve learned friendships with Cambodians come with asterisks.

I’ve got friends* where:

*we only interact during the day, usually at their place of work, because they are women. Women my age are usually married and have families, but regardless of marital status are expected to be home by 8pm.

*I don’t feel I can share the problems in my life, as they are dealing with serious issues. A while ago, a friend was considering taking on a second job that pays 75 cents an hour so he could find another $30 to pay a bill; another friend is now responsible for his younger siblings, essentially becoming a father; another cares for her children while her husband is away working for three weeks every month.

*I have to be careful about how friendly I am and what I say, so as not to give men the impression I am interested when I am not. (To be fair to Cambodians, this can be an issue with men regardless of nationality.)

*certain subjects are off-topic because the cultural gap is so wide. We are not necessarily coming from the same perspective on core political concepts, like democracy, nor on social issues like prostitution or gender equality.

*we can only engage on a superficial level because their English isn’t great and neither is my Khmer. However, a Cambodian friend recently commented I know many of the bad words, so I do know how to insult people.

Yet while friendships with Cambodians are different from friendships with other foreigners, and can have limitations, they are still deeply gratifying.

Cambodian friends have taken me to their home villages, where I’ve met their families and high school friends. They’ve explained political and social undercurrents I didn’t understand. When I was in a moto accident last year, Cambodian friends delivered meals and first aid supplies.

Last week, I grabbed a coffee at my regular cafe before leaving Battambang for a week. Some Cambodian friends were there. They complimented my new clothes, asked about my plans for the week, and teased my poor Khmer.

Before I left, a suitcase in one hand and coffee in the other, a friend gave me a hug. Our conversations are inevitably exercises in jumbled miscommunication, but I always enjoy them. “I will miss you,” she said.

“I’ll miss you too,” I said, and it was true.

Though my friendships with Cambodians are accompanied by asterisks, my life would be emptier without them.

Allison Jane Smith is a Canadian writer and communications professional. She is the Editor-in-Chief of and a contributor to Beacon. Her work has been published in Killing the Buddha, Matador, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia, where she drinks a lot of coconut water and even more iced coffee. For more Allison, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.

Painting Pictures: Living With The Empty Spaces


*lots of goodies today: go read this post by Marilyn Gardner at Communicating Across Boundaries: Thoughts on Reentry from a Third Culture Kid. Good stuff. You’ll probably need to bookmark it. It is long but worth storing up for later.

*especially relevant to readers and writers of this series: check out The Worlds Within site and read their guidelines for submissions by ATCKs and TCKs for an upcoming anthology. Looks like an amazing opportunity! Deadline for submissions is March 2014.

Today’s Painting Pictures post is by Heather Caliri, another SheLoves writing friend who encourages me to say ‘yes,’ to take risks, to expose my soul on the page. I can testify that the warmth, insight, and courage in these words are a true reflection of the creative and talented woman I am coming to know. As a long-term expatriate reading the words of a 6-month perspective, I appreciate the way she is able to humbly illuminate many of my own struggles and processes.

 Living with the Empty Spaces

Before we left for a six-month sabbatical in Buenos Aires, everyone agreed on one thing.

“Kids are resilient,” everyone said. “Throw them with Argentine kids for five minutes and they’ll playing together. Your kids will be fine.”

And my kids were fine, and they are resilient. But did my kids dive into a new culture without any hesitation, just because they are kids?

Um, not so much.

Our apartment in Buenos Aires was a few blocks from two great parks, each complete with swing sets, sand to dig in, and kids of all sizes.

“No,” they’d say.

I’d bribe them with promises of riding the carousel.

But once we were there, one or the other would stare, angrily, at kids who tried to speak to them.

Sometimes one would stomp over to me. “Mama, that girl tried to speak to me in Spanish.”

I’d sigh.

They would perk up immediately if they heard anyone speaking in English, going over and chatting, making friends. And then go back to silence if the other expats left.

And after six months abroad, our grand experiment in growing semi-third-culture kids was not the success I’d hoped for.

They’d gotten used to staying up until ten, drinking sweetened yerba mate, and scrambling aboard fast-moving buses. But they learned approximately four Spanish words, and have no desire to learn more.

I wanted immersion, and instead we’d dipped in our toes.

bs as playground

Looking back on the experience, I think all my sunny overconfidence came down to this: I forgot that deeply entering into another culture requires facing a loss of the same magnitude. You must strip away old cultural assumptions. You must experience alienation from friends and family back home. You must live for a while with the empty space that’s left.

And you must wait, aching, for that emptiness to be filled with new things.

I lived in Buenos Aires for a year in college, and in that short time, I felt loss and experienced filling. I know, at least a little, what a blessing it is.

And how extraordinarily hard it is before you start getting filled.

I am not sorry to have gone through the grief, alienation, and pain that brought me to a place of connection and love.

But I found it hard to ask my children to do the same.

I homeschooled them instead of enrolling them in local schools. I didn’t force them to go to the park when they didn’t want to. I found them friends that understood some English. I found English-language TV for their downtime. I created a little haven of the US in our apartment. I did all this even knowing the prize that waited on the other end. I hesitated to require them to experience the loss.

I still wonder if I did the right thing.

We chose to go for a short period of time; I wasn’t sure if we’d reach the richness in only six months, no matter how deeply we immersed ourselves. And coming to a new country embedded in your family means you’re shielded more from grief and sadness, isolation and frustration. Perhaps no matter what I required of my kids, six months wouldn’t have left them anywhere closer to immersion.

And yet–

I returned home with a sense of loss myself. Because honestly, our family may not attempt to live abroad together again. And I wish, very much, that my kids could have experienced the loss and the gain, all mixed up together.

I’m realizing that as hard as it is experience pain myself, it is harder to watch someone else go through it. It is hard to allow the grieving and bewilderment that comes when bedrocks of your kids’ identity—culture, language, place—are shaken.

It required a resolve and strength of character that I wasn’t prepared for.

Knowing that, and being surrounded by my home culture again, I am trying to cultivate that resolve on a smaller scale. I’m trying to look into any of the doors to other cultures open to us here, and continue trying to usher my kids through them, even if it’s not always comfortable.

To have friends that don’t share our faith, so that phrases like, “The one true God,” have to be taken out and examined.

To attend events not in our native tongue, so that we know what it is to sing a song where the very cadence of syllables feels exhilarating and strange.

To model creating relationships across cultures, even if my kids complain that they feel left out when I speak Spanish.

I’m seeing that encountering other cultures as a family still requires us all to be shaken, resolute, and awake, in the way of any spiritual practice. It requires awareness. It takes time. And no matter how rewarding and right it is, it doesn’t come naturally.

h bio picHeather Caliri is a writer and mom from San Diego. Two years ago, she started saying little yeses to faith, art and life. The results were life-changing. Get her free e-book, Dancing Back to Jesus: Post-pefectionist Faith in Five Easy Verbs ( on her blog, A Little Yes (

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