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


  1. Bethany, I'm so grateful for your honesty and perspective. Keep it coming, as raw and cranky as it is.
    And tell Jeremy that I'm proud of him for loving you so patiently. He should keep that up, too.

    We pray for you every Sunday night at bed-time (and often in the days in between as I walk by your photo on our fridge). Keep walking slowly... the way Jesus walked.

  2. Bethany. ...this blog really made me realize my frustration in trying to live in two places. I wastill praying about it this morning, trying to figure out what was bothering me. Reading this made me realize it is the process of adjusting. I need to let the process happen and not be do pushy. God is working and I need to let Him