The Confused Expat

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog post on liminality, or the state of one’s identity being suspended due to a certain situation, such as during war or when one gets married. When someone’s surrounding so drastically change, it becomes unclear what is truly part of that person’s identity and what just based on the situation becomes unclear. When I read this, it reminded me of some of the changes that occur when one moves to another country, or even after moving back home again. Expats frequently go through that liminal state.

This is still me, just upside down.

This is still me, just upside down.

When I first arrived in Morocco, I went to an orientation meeting where we discussed how our identities will stay the same or change in a new environment, and how we can accept that in order to adapt to life in Casablanca. I remember telling my partner during group time that part of the reason why I like living abroad is that it helps me think more carefully about who I actually am. Now that I’m at the end of a full year in Casa, I definitely have thought a lot about my identity, but I’m not entirely sure that it’s become clearer!

Using chopsticks for the first time might make you think that you don't really know how to eat, after a lifetime of thinking that you do.

Using chopsticks for the first time might make you think that you don’t really know how to eat, after a lifetime of thinking that you do.

There are some things about a person that will always be true. For me, I know that I am quiet, that I like to read and to run, and that I prefer having one very close friend to having many friends.

Some things, though, change just slightly depending on my situation. In the U.S., I went to a top university, I didn’t wear extremely revealing clothing, and I spoke English with every one of my friends. In Morocco, no one has heard of my university, the knee-length skirts that I consider to be modest draw a lot of looks, and I speak another language on a daily basis.

And then there are the details that totally change when you enter a new situation. I was once a vegetarian, but now eat meat nearly every day. I never studied education or worked with children, and now am a teacher. I once had never been out of my country, and now live outside of it.

I like hiking anywhere in the world.

I like hiking anywhere in the world.

As time goes on, identity starts to take on aspects that depend on your environment. Who I’ve become this year is slightly different than who I was when I left, but at the base I am still the same person. My coworkers and I will be returning to the U.S. for the summer in the coming days and weeks, and we’re bound to feel that loss of identity all over again when we realize that we may no longer quite fit into what we consider to be our homes. But no matter what, I’m going to take a good book with me and go for a lot of runs.

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The Heart Grows Fonder

Up until a few months ago, I wasn’t sure if I would be visiting the U.S. this summer.  I was fine with staying here, and didn’t feel at all homesick.  But then I found out that I would have a vacation in August, and began to plan a trip to Chicago for a month.  Once that was on the horizon, I suddenly started thinking of all the things I was excited to do at home.  Go biking, eat real peanut butter, read the New York Times in print….  Then a few weeks ago, I decided to spend two whole months in Chicago instead of just one this summer so that I could do an internship, which seems to be the best option in terms of my career and of how my schedule works out.  Just two days ago, I bought my plane ticket to leave on June 27th.  Now that I have the ticket in my hands, I keep thinking of things I want to do not in Chicago, but in Casablanca.  Can you believe, there’s even an Indian restaurant here I haven’t been to yet?  I’d better start a list!
At least I made it to the top of the Twin Center before going home for the summer!  Casa's skyline rivals that of Chicago.

At least I made it to the top of the Twin Center before going home for the summer! Casa’s skyline rivals that of Chicago.

I think it will be helpful to spend time at home, to do an internship that I’m excited about, and to have time to reflect on my freshman year of life before going back to the next year.  I’m not worried that I’ve made any poor decisions, but I am confused at how little sense my emotions seem to make in this situation.  I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder…even if it’s just the thought of an absence that’s doing it for me!

Not Just a Port in the Storm

 

 

 

Last Saturday, my boyfriend and I had a party for International Women’s Day, although it was a week after the holiday.  But little did our guests know, it was actually just an excuse for another kind of party…

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“I like Eleanor, so I’m going to give her this pink box.”

 

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“See, our shirts are even the same color.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…an engagement!

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Being engaged means you never have to cut a piece of cake by yourself.

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If it weren’t for my fiancé, I wouldn’t have any matching jewelry (among other things).

The wedding is not going to be very soon (more than a year from now), but I am enjoying the status of being engaged.  It’s more serious than just having a boyfriend, but holds the promise of a party in the future!

Shhhhh!!

As a teacher of both kindergarteners and adults, I see both ends of the spectrum of students.  Here in Morocco, both ages of students tend to be quite talkative, since speaking a lot is acceptable in Moroccan culture.  For my different classes, the effect of this cultural practice is totally different because I tend to want the adult language students to talk but the kindergarteners to be quieter.  When I am teaching adult ESL, being with a group of people from very talkative cultures makes my job easy because I never have to encourage students.  With my young students, I’m also glad to hear them practicing English, but feel like I have to repeat myself millions of times every day…they just never stop talking!

As a very quiet person, having to talk all day is completely exhausting.  For my first few months of working as a teacher, I felt like I always had such a strong desire to just be alone.  I was worried that this was a sign that I was on the brink of becoming depressed.  But then one night, as I was staying up later than my roommate so that I could have a couple hours of alone time (thankfully she goes to sleep pretty early!), I found some articles on introversion on the internet that explained what might be going on.  If you believe what you read on the internet, which I do, then you can read about how extroverts recharge themselves by talking and processing what is going on by sharing it with others.  Introverts, on the other hand, process within themselves, and need to spend a certain amount of time alone so that they can recharge their minds and emotions.  Perhaps the fact that I don’t have this time is part of what is tiring me out.  When I was a student, I slept about an hour less than I do now, exercised a bit more, spent more time working or focused, and was constantly a little bit worried about things like impending finals, my thesis, graduating, and finding a job.  However, I did a lot of these things alone.  I spent long hours in libraries and coffee shops, with the freedom to occasionally let my mind wander.  Of course, there were times when being a student was very lonely, but I never found it to be exhausting.  I think that may have been because I had so much more time to process things in my own introverted way.

I also recently came across this TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4 This talk summarizes Susan Cain’s argument in her book Quiet, that our society is set up for extroverts to succeed, and often neglects even the most intelligent introverts.  Offices and classrooms are set up so that those who talk the most do the best, even if they are not putting thought into their work.  She writes that introverts tend to be very thoughtful and observant, but don’t like to share those observations with large groups of people.  Her idea is that introverts should be confident in their style of interaction and should play to their strengths by expressing themselves in writing or in small groups instead of pretending to be extroverts, or feeling like there is something wrong with their disposition.

For while I’m a teacher, there’s not much I can do about how exhausting I find my job to be.  But perhaps I can find ways to get around this by being aware that quiet is something I need, even if others don’t.  And when it comes to sharing my ideas, I know I’m not going to feel comfortable saying them to a crowded staff room or big bible study group, especially if I don’t know each person who is there.  I know I should push myself occasionally to step out of my introverted nature and to share, but I can also use my own ways to express myself.  For example, I’ll keep writing on this blog, a nice quiet and thoughtful way to share what I’ve been thinking.  Because according to Susan Cain,  “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.” 
Sometimes we can express ourselves using big machinery.

Sometimes we can shine while using big machinery.

An Ordinary American

“The thought of becoming an ordinary American again scares me. We expatriates don’t like to admit it, but being foreign makes us feel special.”

Pamela Druckerman, An American Neurotic in Paris: The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/opinion/druckerman-an-american-neurotic-in-paris.html?_r=1&

One of the things I really like about living in Morocco is that I feel that I like myself better when I’m here.  I like that I am more thoughtful about my surroundings, my relationships, and my place in society.  I like having frequent opportunities to speak other languages, and I like meeting people who have backgrounds different from my own.  I like hearing about other peoples’ experiences and explaining my own path to where I am now.  I like that I can meet other Americans and realize that we have things in common, but also that we have a lot of differences.
America.

America.

It’s true, though, that when we are abroad we are in many ways extraordinary, which definitely does lend a feeling of being a little bit special.  Here are some things that make the life of an expat feel remarkable.
  • Nearly every day, at least one man tells me that I am beautiful/a princess/the love of his life/a spice girl.
  • Going shopping is much more exciting.  The foods are slightly different, and it’s fun to use new brands or even just to have packaging of American brands that are written partly in Arabic.  When I find something that I have missed, even if it’s something small (like decaf black tea) it’s really exciting.
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  • Nobody forgets who I am.  A neighbor of mine whom I had never seen before helped me replace my gas, and he knew exactly which apartment I live in.  I’m easy to remember when I’m the only foreigner.
  • If you don’t fit in, you can just chalk it up to culture.  If you don’t fit in to your neighborhood, it’s because you’re the only foreigners.  Unlike in America, where we would rarely claim to not fit in based on where we are from since everyone is from a different place anyway.
  • Most people back in the US think of Morocco as an exotic and mystical land.  I don’t think there is much awareness of Morocco among Americans, so whenever I said I was going to live in Casablanca, I could tell people were imagining me having cocktails with Humphrey Bogart every Saturday night.

    The Rick's Café in Casablanca is actually just a restaurant for tourists - the movie was filmed in a studio in the US!

    The Rick’s Café in Casablanca is actually just a restaurant for tourists – the movie was filmed in a studio in the US!

  • You have to think more about what it means to be you.  For example, being American means eating turkey on Thanksgiving.  But I’ve only ever eaten Thanksgiving turkey twice, both times in Morocco and so now associate that tradition with Morocco.  So I am like other Americans in celebrating Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean that I have had exactly the same experience as everyone else.
My first American thanksgiving

My first American thanksgiving

I’m not sure when I’ll be okay with being an ordinary American again.  There are a lot of things I’d miss about Morocco, but I’ll admit that I would also miss that feeling of being a little bit special!

Homesickness

Last week, I was looking through the photos on my computer in order to find one to use for my last blog entry.  I stumbled upon a series of photos from my second year of college of my friends, beautiful fall weather, and us smiling big smiles.  A wave of homesickness washed over me.  But when I thought about it, I realized that what I missed when I saw that photo wasn’t “home,” but just one situation I have really fond memories of.  I do love fall weather, the smell of the wind in the pine trees in the Midwest, and leaves changing colors.  I did have really good friends that year, though I haven’t kept in touch with all of them.  I also really liked the life of the student, where I could mostly make my own schedule.  But I wouldn’t say I really miss any of those things (except for maybe not having to wake up at 5:30am), and even if I were looking at that same photo in Chicago, I would still have felt that longing for the time that it was taken.
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The majestic halls and skyscrapers of Chicago, from above and below
Living in Casablanca just feels like life to me, not life away from home.  I have good friends here, I have a good job, I exercise regularly, and I cook the foods that I like to cook.  I have something to do every weekend, and have people to talk to about anything I’m worried about.  So when I feel sad, its not necessarily homesickness; rather, it’s just sadness with the idea that everything could be perfect somewhere else, particularly somewhere where my mom would cook me dinner.
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This is my mom.  Isn’t she pretty?  She’s smart, too.
Last week when I was sick I called my mom and told her, “I’m home sick!”  Which she heard as “I’m homesick!”  But I know that even when I have problems here, going home wouldn’t solve them, it would just be an escape.  I’ve thought about this a lot lately because some of my colleagues have mentioned being homesick.  They express a desire to be elsewhere, not always home (although trips back home for the holidays are drawing near for some).  It’s too bad that not everyone loves living in the country that I chose to live in (twice!), and that they haven’t discovered things to love about this place yet.  But living abroad is hard, and sometimes the things that might have been clear at our “home” might not be clear elsewhere.  Some day, we’ll look back on photos of sunny Morocco and feel a wave of “homesickness,” longing for the days we spent here!
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Awwww.

A Day in the Life

Perhaps after several weeks or months of reading my blog, you are beginning to want a more exact picture of my fabulous expat life. So here’s my daily schedule, and you can decide for yourself how fabulous you think it is.

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If we can go diving without water, do you think we could be fabulous without being expats?

The first thing I do each morning is drink Nescafe. Instant coffee may be uncool in the U.S., but I have to admit that I love it. It’s usually my main reason for getting out of bed in the morning (it’s getting harder and harder now that it’s nearly winter.). At 6:45am, I head to the bus to go to the school, at which point it is often still dark and the streets are only populated by men who went to the dawn prayer (I bet you they’re on their way back to bed). I teach from 7:15am until 3:30pm, though since I work with kids, a lot of that time is spent assisting my students as they eat, play, go to and from gym class, and hit each other with blocks (oh wait, we don’t do that….)

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This is what I see as I leave school every day (although it’s not usually this sunny at 5pm….)

At 3:30, I sometimes teach English to parents of children at the school, which is always a lot of fun.  And not just because the adults never hit each other; they also have really interesting stories, and I enjoy listening to them and thinking about how to help them improve their English. I get home between 5:00pm and 6:00pm, and usually prepare dinner right when I get home. And it is usually delicious, due to my cooking prowess.

Three nights a week I have French class for two hours, but I’m hoping to start going to French bible study soon in lieu of classes. I’m thinking that will be more efficient since I’ll get French immersion plus life guidance at the same time. Or rather, if I want the guidance, I’ll have to work really hard to understand the French! When I’m not in French class, I invent new foods (I’m too cool for recipes), use Skype, read, watch movies with friends, and work on my dear blog.

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This isn’t actually the church I go to, but it’s pretty cool anyway.

So there you have it!  What about you, fellow expats?  What are your daily lives like?  How does your host country affect your daily schedule? Are you able to continue doing the activities you enjoy?  What new activities have you found?