The Unknown Traveler, Unknown Mother

When I travel with kids, even teenage kids, I am a mother. All mom. People see us and they think, “Mother and children.” We sit on the ground and play Spot It. We split burgers at airport restaurants. We take turns watching the stuff so the others can pee. We fill out each other’s immigration papers. We fight over window seats and try to snatch the single half of a strawberry from each other’s plane food plates. We reminisce about our worst flights ever and we pester each other by constantly asking what time is it and what time is the next flight.

We are a unit and we interact the way we always do – playing, sharing, serving, arguing, invading, bothering.

No matter what my purpose might be for traveling or what my day job is or what I’m wearing/eating/doing, when I am seen in public with my children, I am a member of that group and a mother in the eyes of everyone around me.

What about when I travel alone? No kids, no games, but at the very basest: no familiar interactions. Maybe business travelers are used to this, maybe people who travel without kids a lot are comfortable in this space. To me, it feels dangerous.

Maybe that is why so many affairs take place on the road. Why we shouldn’t make life-altering decisions while traveling.

We are unknown. We can be anyone. Do anything. No one will know. No one will report back home. No one has expectations. There is more time for reflection, to be internal. There is no tradition. There is no safety net.

Who am I now? Who am I when no one is telling me who to be based on who I am in terms of them?

Being a traveling expat means have many experiences of being unknown. Not alone, unknown. Alone is not a word that belongs to travelers in airports but unknown is one of their words. Being unknown here makes me feel nervous at first. I don’t know what I’ll do. Will I be the rude, pushy traveler? Will I eat an entire chocolate fudge sundae? Will I stare at people and judge them? Will I barge into other people’s conversations, desperate for some kind of interaction to remind me of who I was so I will know who to be?

Is this what mothers feel when children graduate and move out of the house? Now who am I? I think might be. We have spent our lives responding to others, meeting their needs before our own, bending our wants, schedules, pocketbooks around their goals. We cook the food they prefer, watch the movies they stream. What would we eat if we had our choice and only our choice? What would we watch if no one else provided input? Do we even know anymore? How can we know? How can we recognize our own tastes and rekindle our own desires?

I think it is a bumpy road and I’m starting to lurch my way down it. We remember ourselves before children and now, as we emerge, like the unknown traveler spewed from an airplane out into a new city, into a world that bares little resemblance to the one we exited decades ago. Now what? Now who?

I don’t think I’m the type who dances on tables or who runs naked 5k races (yes, those are a thing). I am pretty sure I’m the type who smiles at babies, secretly thankful I’m not traveling with one anymore. But beyond these, and other, obvious traits, what else? Am I curious? Am I brave? Am I compassionate and interested and adventurous? Do I hunker down or do I engage? What do I order at restaurants? What time do I go to bed? Am I frugal or do I splurge?

I don’t travel alone very often but my kids are growing up. The older two will graduate in 9 months. Who will I be?

I guess we will see.



We Have No Keys. Again.

Today’s post is a guest post by Jennifer Deibel, writing about roots and rootlessness and the expatriate life. I’m thankful for her willingness to share her words with Djibouti Jones readers. Be sure to check out her website (link below) after enjoying this piece.

Vienna Keys

We looked at each other across the airplane aisle and sighed.

We had all the important things for yet another overseas move, right? Luggage? Check! Snacks? Check! Important documents? Check!

We had everything we needed and yet something was missing. As I dug in my purse for a tissue and he absently patted his pockets we realized:

We have no keys!

We hadn’t lost them. They hadn’t been stolen. We simply had no house, no car, and no safety deposit boxes for which to carry keys.

Suddenly, instead of an airplane taxiing down the runway, we were on a raft drifting on open waters without an anchor.

It’s a strange thing to have no physical ties to the world. It’s a love-hate kind of thing for me in the whole expat experience. Sometimes I think I was in the wrong line of work, what with my type-A, predictability-loving heart and all. However, through the uncertainty and untetheredness of it all, I learned so much about who I am and what I can handle. And through the process, and over ten years of this lifestyle, we’ve learned a few things.

Not having an anchor can be disorienting.

Without a house or car to tie us down it can be easy to lack a sense of purpose and direction. When you feel tossed about by the winds of culture and circumstance it can set your head spinning and stomach churning. It’s a strange thing to not have one place to point to and say, “This is home.” Yet for my family, and me – and many expats – that is our normal.

Not having an anchor can be freeing.

When you don’t have anything tying you down to a particular location or situation, suddenly the opportunities can be endless and it’s terribly exciting! Suddenly the page is blank, ready for you to write a new chapter of your story. Ironically, this has been the hardest lesson of all for me. As a Christian, I like to believe that my security is placed solely in the Christ I follow. The ugly truth of it is, though, I all too often place too much stock in the physical things of this world – a house; a job; a place; certain people. However, the freedom found in the absence of those things is like a tail wind to the airplane of my faith. I have no choice but to let those tangible things fall from my fingers, spread my arms wide and trust the Wind to carry me safely to the next place.

Your “anchor” may be different from mine.

For us, realizing we had no keys was a defining, freeing, slightly anxious time. Maybe you have your house and car, but something else that gave you a sense of anchoring has been removed from your life.

When a relationship, job, home or other facet of our lives is suddenly removed, it can leave us foundering a bit, just like that raft in the sea, searching for purpose and meaning.

However, as a follower of Jesus, my purpose is to continually be transformed by God to be more and more like Christ. God then uses His plans for me to accomplish that purpose.

When I realize that God’s purpose for me is the same in all circumstances, that very truth anchors me in times of uncertainty and disorientation.

Have you had to let go of any “keys” lately? Does your faith influence how you deal with those situations?

Jen DeibelJennifer is your typical gal walking out her faith, loving her man, raising 3 kids and working. After 10 years in Europe, the next adventure for her family awaits right here in the United States. She has been married to the love of her life, Seth, since 2000 and is extremely blessed to be mom to two delightful girls, and one hilarious little boy. She has a deep interest in creative family worship, marriage enrichment, and the art of figuring out unfamiliar grocery stores in foreign languages. Jennifer passionately loves the Lord, her family, music, dance, writing and chocolate – though quite honestly not always in that order. She believes this world needs more women who stick together, so let’s connect and walk this road side by side! You can find Jennifer at This Gal’s Journey, on FacebookTwitter and  Instagram.

10 Things Successful Expats Do

After 12 years as an expatriate in Somalia, Kenya, and primarily Djibouti, I have seen expatriates come and go, thrive and struggle, engage in the community and hunker down behind high walls. Over time I have noticed some patterns, things that thriving expats tend to do, or not do. Could be here, could be in other countries.

Successful Expat

They don’t complain. Djibouti is one of the hottest, driest countries on the planet. Temperatures can soar over 120 degrees in the summer and less than six inches of rain falls per year. With 60% unemployment, poverty is rampant. Garbage has almost no place to go and lies in heaping, smoking piles in the center of neighborhoods.

This list simply shows that there is plenty to complain about in Djibouti. However. There is plenty to complain about in every country. What marks the successful expat in Djibouti is that they don’t complain. Not because they don’t see the challenging aspects but because they make a conscious choice to focus on something else. They see the mountain peaks over the piles of garbage. They see the generosity of a community helping each other survive and thrive.

They learn a little language. Doesn’t have to be a lot. But why not learn some greetings, some leave takings, how are you, what’s your name…? It simply shows respect and interest in the local environment, a willingness to invest some time and energy and an acknowledgement that this expat is open to being a foreigner, open to new experiences.

They aren’t easily intimidated by the unknown. This is evident by their willingness to learn a few words in the local language. It is also evident by their willingness to ask questions and cultivate curiosity. They aren’t afraid of the market or the bus or the food they don’t recognize.

They work hard and do their jobs well. Successful expats aren’t tourists. They understand their role in the community, whether it is as a businessperson or as a development worker (and development workers have taken the time to understand what is actually needed/desired before imposing their own ideas), and they strive to do this work in ways that make sense in the local context.

They stop working and enjoy the country. Successful expats are able to act like tourists from time to time. They vacation in country and enjoy exploring the place in which they have landed.

They adapt and adopt local customs. They wave a local flag on independence day or develop a craving for baguettes directly related to the honking of the breadman’s horn when he turns down their street. They learn to eat with their right hand only and appreciate the ability to drive on either side of the street or to stop right outside the rotisserie chicken stand, not get out of the car, and purchase the chicken. Kind of like a drive-thru but with a conversation with the chicken man that includes inquiring after his twins and his health and his work.

They are authentic and maintain their own customs. They still celebrate their own independence day. They still eat turkey (if they can find one and if they are American) on Thanksgiving. They don’t pretend to be someone they aren’t but they don’t pretend that they still live in their passport country. They are expert chameleons and even enjoy this ability to transform multiple times in a single day.

They develop friendships with the local community. Maybe the breadman, maybe the chicken man, maybe the neighbor of the cashier or the fellow jogger or the coworker. These people usher the expat into the local context and deepen the expat’s understanding of it.

They develop friendships with the expat community. The expat community is a great resource (turkeys?!) and can be a fascinating mix of people from all over the world. There are stories, unique perspectives, same-aged children who understand what it is like to be a Third Culture Kid, and people who share your passion for American football or obscure novels.

They have an adventurous spirit, even if they have to force it. I don’t think I have a naturally adventurous spirit and often have to force it. But I certainly married an adventurous spirit and since that makes living abroad so much more interesting, I go with it. Try that strange food, use that language that feels so awkward on your tongue, go to the local wedding, climb down into the volcano.

There are so many possible suggestions for how to thrive while living abroad. These are just a few things I have observed and experienced and been stretched into.

The Bookshelf: Expatriate Books

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Some expatriate reads this week. Two helpful books, two memoirs, and two novels.

The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide: A light-hearted but authoritative manual for anyone accompanying their partner on an overseas assignment. By Clara Wiggins

This book is the most practical book I have read for handling a transition into a life abroad. Clara is a seasoned expatriate and a Third Culture Kid herself but she doesn’t rely on solely her own experiences. The book is peppered with wisdom and insight and tips from (mostly) women across the globe. She includes chapters on moving with pets, same-sex expatriate couples, leaving in a crisis, building friendships and much, much more. Each chapter ends with checklists or bullet-points to remember and extensive lists of further resources. Clara’s voice is down-to-earth throughout and the anecdotes she uses to illustrate her points fit perfectly. This is a book I wish I had when we first moved overseas (especially because I’m the kind of dork who loves checklists!) You can click through here, the ad on the sidebar, or find Clara at Expat Partner Survival. Also I received a complimentary copy of this book but the views are my own.

Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World
by Robin Pascoe

I first read this book a couple of years ago and found it a useful addendum to Third Culture Kids. Robin brings the discussion of raising kids abroad into the internet age and addresses things like increasing pressure on families to engage with people everywhere they have lived and left. It brings a freshness and another perspective to the book that so many of us have come to love and rely on.



The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Marten Troost

There are loads of expatriate memoirs out there and I love many of them. This was simply the one I noticed again first on my bookshelf. Probably because of the title, which honestly has little to do with the content but is sort of the king click-bait of book titles. I really enjoyed this book. Could be his descriptions of the heat and the sleepy, droopy small island life. Or the image burned into my mind of his first swim in the seemingly paradise-like water, only to find himself surrounded by floating baby diapers. And their dark and goopy contents.

For a light-hearted look at a small place (I can appreciate living in this kind of smallness), this book was fun. A good summer read, perhaps.

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

A book about Paris by Adam Gopnik? Yes, please! Part memoir and part reflections on Paris as a city, this is a beautiful book. He talks about why French man can’t throw (soccer, ahem, football), Parisian cuisine, French customer service and an unfortunate toaster encounter, his attempts at joining a fitness club, and raising his child abroad, taking him to the carousal in the park on the weekends.

You can finish this book and feel a little more cultured and a little more understood. One of my all-time favorite expat quotes is from this book:

“There is also the odd knowledge, at once comforting and scary, that whatever is going on outside, you are without a predisposed opinion on it, that you have had a kind of operation, removing your instant reflexive sides-taking instinct…And the slightly amused, removed feeling always breaks down as you realize that you really don’t want to be so lofty and Olympian—or rather, that being lofty and Olympian carries within it, by tradition and precedent, the habit of wishing you could be down there in the plain, taking sides. Even the gods, actually looking down from Olympus in amusement, kept hurtling down to get laid or slug somebody.”

Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo

I’ve read this a few times and contrary to what the title might imply, it is not a religious book though one of the characters has a (twisted) faith motivation. The focus is Sudan and it covers a wide variety of characters and situations. The first time it took me a while to get into it but soon I couldn’t put it down and after reading it, I was driven to find out about the real-life characters and the situation in Sudan. One of the most fascinating characters is (I think) loosely based on an actual woman. She comes to Sudan with religious fervor and ideas and winds up married to a local rebel leader and becomes completely absorbed by the culture and the conflict. I still have her final scene ringing in my mind. You’ll have to read it to have the same scene burned into your memory. Well worth it.


Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

I bought this at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Sheraton has pretty limited book selection at the little kiosk but I love book shopping in African bookstores. They sell my kinds of books, like this one. Books about the places I’ve been and the people I’ve known. If you can’t find me in Nairobi someday, I’m no doubt buried in the stacks at the Yaya Center. Sweetness in the Belly crosses between Ethiopia and Europe. It is evocative and intense and beautiful and I like that it offers this perspective of living abroad – not just the westerner moving east but the easterner moving west, or the southerner moving north.

What I’m Reading This Week

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans (listening)

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by Bill O’Reilly (listening)


*post includes affiliate links

Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (please, let’s be clear that this is not an ex-patriot. please). Lately, this has come into question. Quite a few people have forwarded, shared on Facebook, or tweeted to me an article picked up by The Guardian: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? One person left a comment on my last piece for Brain Child (The Expatriate at the Parent Teacher Association Meeting). She said she wondered why I thought I was an expatriate. She seemed to think I was wrong to use that word.

expat or immigrant

I confess that I hadn’t given this much thought. Is my use of the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated the word and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? As it came to my attention more and more I decided it was time to think about it. There are two levels (at least) to this. One is the dictionary definition level. The other is the experiential level.

So, I looked up the official dictionary definitions and found this at the Global Coach Center:

According to Miriam-Webster:

  • the word “Expatriate” is actually a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land”.
  • the word “Immigrant” is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence”.

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction that sets them apart.  Immigrants have an intention to stay – whereas for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

Turns out immigrants can be expatriates but expatriates are not necessarily immigrants. According to Google an expat is someone living outside their native country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and also a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

By definition then, I am an expatriate. I don’t intend to stay in Djibouti for my entire life and since that is very clear, I can’t claim the immigrant term.

Now, that is in the dictionary. Frankly, I was at first surprised at the fury with which the article is written. It kind of seems like a rant and I’ve heard at least one person refer to it as total bullshit. I’m still willing to address the issue because I think it brings up something really important and complicated. But I was surprised because I looked at my experience:

My first thoughts took me to the most diverse place I know well – the protestant church I attend here in Djibouti. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. Myself, I’ve passed the decade point. I never thought of any of the others, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passport and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

I had never considered that skin color or country of origin had anything to do with what we call ourselves.  There are white immigrants in Djibouti. There are black expatriates.

But that is just my experience and I’m learning that in different parts of the world, this is very different. I was helped by Hana Omar who commented on my FB page that in Europe there does seem to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And that is where this article in the Guardian is coming from – experience, which for the author, clearly included racism and hurtful interactions.

In raising this topic among others, it is clear there are related words that are much more racially charged (the following examples come from the comment thread on my FB page for this Guardian article). Words like migrant worker, which seems to apply exclusively to non-white people even though they are technically expatriates. Or in some places Foreign Domestic Workers who are also technically expatriates but that word isn’t applied to them. In Texas, the guys on the oil rigs are expats but the gas station employee, also in the US on a work visa, isn’t. One person mentioned that this could be because status (and the words used to convey that status) is affected by the terms of employment and his comment stuck with me because these examples turn the focus of the conversation from race to wealth and class, also problematic but not necessarily racist.

But expatriate and immigrant? Both words are beautiful and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts.  And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Two things. One, I can confidently say I’m an expatriate. And two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. What?! That’s right, always and ever back to getting to know people. Listening, asking questions, hearing where they came from and where they are going and not jumping to conclusions based on previous experience or expectations or skin color or job title.

So while it is rather easy to simply answer the question based on the dictionary, it is much harder to dive into these areas of race and class and assumption. I stand by my belief that I’m an expatriate and I feel comfortable using it without feeling like doing so labels me racist or elitist but I’m thankful for this conversation. It help me analyze and consider the experiences of others and it challenge me to examine how I make assumptions based on externals.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant? Racist? Elitist?

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