Saturday, September 26, 2015

why ex-pats are sometimes cranky

 The first day I got back to the village, my husband and I had words. The kind of words that you might be a little embarrassed to have your neighbors overhear. It’s just that I walked into our home and pretty quickly decided that it was, by my definition, filthy. Jeremy had come back to Zambia before the girls and I to do two things: run a conference and clean our house, so I felt completely justified in asking, “WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THESE PAST FIVE WEEKS?” (and, yes, I asked it in a tone worthy of the caps lock.) “I’ve been cleaning,” he replied, with much greater grace. “HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?” I continued. “IT LOOKS LIKE A BARN IN HERE.” The husbands apt reply: “You only think it’s dirty because you just came back from America.”

A few days later we went into the immigration office to add Leonie to the work permit. We sat, for over an hour, watching three officers play on their phones and do nothing immigration related in general while one man slowly (understatement) made copies for us and looked at our passports and wrote our names on a cardstock folder with a sharpie and went from this office to that doing who knows what. After the first hour of waiting for ??? we were ushered into the accountants office which we considered good progress, except that the officer in that room was not in a hurry either and was stapling and fiddling and rearranging papers in a file marked Cheng, which I’m sure was very important except that Mr. Cheng was not in the building so far as I could tell. When both children were bored to actual tears, and we had been in the office for an additional hour and a half, Jeremy could see me shifting our innocent baby dramatically from one hip to another with a slight pursing of my lips and a few heavy sighs for dramatic effect. “Calm down,” my wiser half mouthed to me. “But its not right,” I mouthed back. “Let it go,” he said with a wink.

Her face : My emotions.
I had a few “wink wink” replies in my own arsenal but I kept them to myself and after losing only one more hour of our lives to that office, we finally left. “You’ve gotta leave America,” Jeremy urged on the car ride home.

I knew he was right. I worked on my processing and my attitude for the next few days. It’s just dirt. It’s just a line. It’s just a stare. It’s just a little slow. It’s just… It’s just… It’s not America, but that’s OK.

It only took three weeks before I felt like I had truly arrived. The test of achievement came after a 13 hour trip up from Lusaka with our new volunteers. In the course of said trip, we blew a radiator hose AND picked up a nail which blew our tire AND survived an attempted car jacking on Lusaka’s infamous Lamumba Road. (true story.) And you know what? Cool as a cucumber, I was. And then we walked into the door to our house and got smacked in the eyeballs with chaos. All of our cabinet doors were flung open and contents pulled out so that our cat could sniff out our rats – which she obviously had done, leaving a blood trail and a few heads on the rug as proof. A noticeable inch of dirt (dust is too wimpy a word for this cake-layer) had settled, coating all of the surfaces with muck. And the chicken given to Leonie as a ‘welcome to the world’ present had decided to use the cat door to get into our house and had been roosting on our dining room table coating it pretty heavily with crusty white poo.

Leonie's chicken. After her last stunt I expect she'll soon be dinner.
I sorta glanced at our shell shocked volunteers who we were inviting to sleep in our barn-of-a-house with us and I noticed the familiar face – the one I had worn not long ago as I too tried to readjust to the totally different set of expectations that is village life.

Freshies be like, "whaaa???"
This is the occupational hazard of the ex-pat life; in the traveling back and forth between two worlds, just as soon as you get used to one "home," you get uprooted and have to go through a painstaking process of reorientation before you can be comfortable in the next. That which calls for litigation in one world is merely par for the course in the next and until you decode the new normal, chances are good your responses will be less than temperate. The near constant self-talk involved in deciding what to get worked up about is a brain drain so much so that it makes mature adults lash out like three year olds. Overreaction usually is prompted by something innocuous like the guy who cuts in front of you in the grocery store because he only has a loaf of bread and you have a full cart. He’s all innocent and like, why the face, lady? But your pre frontal cortex is quite literally a hot mess and you therefore come across to the world as straight up cranky.

It just takes time. It takes time to love the nighttime drumming that keeps you awake, but eventually you’ll incorporate the beat into your dreams. It takes time to  appreciate being kept waiting in offices, but eventually you’ll keep a journal and pen on hand for those found minutes of rest. It takes time stop craving high speed internet, but eventually the detox will kick in and you’ll embrace the art of being present.  

Learning to follow the leader, even when it's hard, is critical to success.
I’m getting there. America made me soft in some ways and hard in others and I’m firming up and letting go in different ways once again. I no longer care whether my chaco tan is a result of sun or dirt. I only wash the girls’ faces twice a day instead of sixteen. I invite the guy with the single loaf of bread cut in front of me. I saunter, not speed walk. I embrace the awkward silence instead of spewing twaddle.

Eccentric, as per her calling
All ex-pats tend to be a little eccentric. It’s what brought us over here and its what keeps us here for more than a weekend. But we’re not all cranky. I swear. We’re merely human and as creatures of habit, it takes us time to get in the groove. But once we’re there – turn up the 80’s pop music and get ready. We shall dance. Un-crankily and Together.

un-cranky, together

Friday, September 4, 2015

a thousand reasons to worry and one trump reason not to

We left our passport country a week ago now, and I still don’t think our stomachs, or our hearts have come down out of the clouds. Everything you imagined to be true abut flying with two littles on three back to back international flights totaling 21 hours in the sky and 33 hours of total travel time – you were probably right. It was… something. 

we were a spectacle going through the airports. the baby at the back got a few double takes
Leonie did great because everything she needs for peace and happiness is attached to my body. The rest of us had to dig deep and seriously woman-up lest we fall apart. Poor Bronwyn, empty from exhaustion and full of sorrow for having parted with Grandma, she wavered back and forth between excitement over escalator rides and extreme mourning over that which she had left behind. Every hour or so, she would break into a drawn out wail, exclaiming loudly enough for the whole plane to hear, “I miss Grandma! I want to go back to Grandma’s house!” We kept shoving gummies and other forms of distraction in front of her to try to keep the peace for everyone. As we waited in the heinous security line in London, she found herself trapped in yet another episode of misery and just cried out over and over, “I can’t handle it, mom! I can’t handle it!” I know baby, I’m not really handling it either, I’m just concealing it better than you are.

I recruited a little Italian girl in Heathrow for some play therapy
I kept telling myself that it would all be over soon, and sure enough, we did make it to Zambia. Jeremy worked some of his magic and got himself in the back door to be able to meet us on the immigration side and help us collect our bags. I offloaded the eldest onto daddy and focused on the still happy babe who was the only one who had properly eaten and slept for the last two days.

We commenced the 10 hour drive to “home.” Are we nearly there yet? Bronwyn asked for the 927th time since leaving NY. Catching her staring intently out the window, I asked Bronwyn what she was looking at, to which she answered, “I’m looking for my friends, mom.” I was so excited to get her home and back in the playful arms of those who had cared for her so well throughout her first two years.

As we turned off the pavement onto our dirt road, we all prepped her, “We’re almost there, girl! Just half a kilometer left!” We pulled into our yard and switched off the engine, video camera in hand and ready to capture whatever cuteness that was about to ensue. I don’t know what Bronwyn’s expectations were for our homecoming, but the adults had clearly set the bar too high. I expected Bronwyn to run back to her friends with hugs and laughter, pick up her shovel and dig things, grab a ball and have a grand ole time. I expected to sigh with relief that finally we were getting back to normal, that my girl would find her place in the world again. Instead, my sweet three year old clutched my leg with a death grip and for the first time in over a year asked to be picked up. The fear in her eyes was unmistakable and it was clear that she didn’t know what was going on. “Is this my house?” she asked. We escaped the crowd to go look at her bed and her toys, to say hi to her kitties and to get reacquainted with the environment. I had to lure her outside. Everyone wanted to shake her hand, in the way she once knew so well, and yet now she just pulled back, unwilling to extend a hand to anyone. “Mommy, why do they all know my name?” she asked. Because they know and love you baby, and somewhere inside of you, I know you know them. I put a ball in her hand and gave her a gentle shove. She tossed it at no one in particular and ran back to my leg. We tried again, and this time she threw it back and forth a few times before retreating once more. “I don’t know what any of them are saying, mom” she stated. I know baby, they are speaking Bemba, and soon you will too.

all the friends on one side, and winnie by herself on the other. it was painfully awkward.
I had foolishly thought it would all come back to her, that she would remember immediately and pick up where she left off. That night I watched her crash from exhaustion in the new-to-her house, in the new-to-her village and I just sobbed. With our best intentions we were bringing her back to what we considered the greatest place on earth. Now it felt more like we had an amnesia patient on her hands, and I had no idea how to help her cope. The next few days proved similarly difficult. “Mommy, there’s a lady out there who keeps trying to pick me up.” Yes baby, that’s Bana Chiti, and you used to love her more than you loved me. She carried you everywhere and I know she has missed you.

this girl. her happiness in all situations is healing
Despite all of our explanations, the blank stares and revealing questions are a constant. It’s all gone – like it never happened, and I find myself in a near panic wondering whether she’ll ever get it back. Everything that made this place perfect for a child her age – all of those things are now sources of anxiety for her. She doesn’t know what to do with herself. She keeps face planting on uneven bush paths. She asks for macaroni and cheese for every meal. She keeps wiping the dirt off her pants. Too scared to interact with the kids from whom she was once inseparable, she now asks only to go to the farm to play with her dog.

daddy is a shelter in more ways than one
I have found myself this past week trembling with worry – what have we done? Will she pick up this language again? Will she make friends again? Will she regain her confidence? Will she be ok? Will I? I’ve fallen asleep atop a tear-soaked pillow each night this week, and that only after silently preaching at myself for a long while.

It will be ok.
He sees.
He cares.
He is able.
It will be ok.

This is my refrain and I repeat it over and over until I release my fears and my babies into His hands until the next wave of worry washes over me.

It will be ok.
He sees.
He cares.
He is able.

None of the current scenario looks particularly hopeful. Nothing I imagined to be good for my girl is coming to pass and my deep love for her is therefore matched by the depths of my concern for her and her happiness.

My logical side tells me that this is only a season, though I have no reassurances as to how long this season will last. I am drawn to hold her hand all the moments of all the days, though I am fighting that urge and challenging her to try and engage. She has learned a whopping two words of the local language and has made one friend. I’m choosing to call these baby steps victories even though I’ve melted into tears each time an insensitive child has barked at her to stop speaking English.

It will be ok.
He sees.
He cares.
He is able.

I know my fears are legitimate. I have observed how many third culture kids devolve into anxious, isolated, awkward, resentful beings. I know that my reasons to worry will continue to beat me up and I’ll have to continue to preach them down. But the trump reason for not worrying remains: Him. The One who took us back to the sates, who knew when we would get pregnant, who knew how long we would be away from Zambia, who called us back here, He knew how it would all play out, and planned it that way: He sees, He cares, He is able.

all manner of things will be well
It's three reasons in One, a holy trinity of security and confidence.

When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay...

Sing it with me, will you? My girl is struggling and therefore so am I, and I share this without reserve because there is something about living abroad that calls for above average vulnerability and the rallying of the troops. We’re battling on – with love and patience, and legos and gummies. Thanks, bush baby community, for standing with us.