Far be it from me not to give credit where credit is due: This post was inspired by Susie's post, "On Being Normal," over at Susie's Big Adventure.
Familiarity is a strange thing. I have commented to my husband, back when we were long-distance daters, how strange traveling often made me feel. When I was out West, attending school, my life there was familiar and normal. When I traveled to the East Coast to visit him, it was as if my normal life was a dream, and all that existed was my life with him. When I returned to school, everything felt familiar yet strange, as if I didn't belong there, for a day or two, until I settled back into my life. I hadn't thought of those feelings of blended familiarity and unfamiliarity, normality and strangeness, for years . . . at least not until my recent trip home to the United States.
I expected to feel a little strange when I left the airport on my way to my mother-in-law's home. After all, we'd been traveling for around 23 hours, with only an hour or two of sleep on the plane. But by the next day, I anticipated that I'd be back to normal, other than jet lag. Imagine my surprise when "normal" just didn't happen! At first, it seemed fine--when Jeff and I went to Target the day after our arrival, I commented gleefully that I hadn't even noticed the woman wearing shorts and a spaghetti-strap shirt, until I noticed that I didn't get angry at the sight of her. (When I see Westerners dressed that revealingly here, it makes me angry, because it contributes to the perception that all Westerners are immodest, easy, and disrespectful of the culture, thereby making life a little more difficult for all expats.) We cruised around Target, oohing and aahing over the variety of merchandise available, the attractive presentation of said merchandise, and the orderly way that people moved their shopping carts while following commonly accepted "rules of the road."
But as time went on, I noticed more and more how things just didn't feel normal to me. It was little things. Jeff and I gloated over how well-behaved drivers were--but every time I saw the cars all lined up in their lanes at the stop light, I had a momentary thought of how strange they looked. Didn't they understand that, in a four- or five-lane road, they could fit an additional two or three cars at the line? And why were they just sitting there anyway, when no one was coming on the other road? It seemed such a waste for them to sit there, waiting patiently, even when there was no oncoming traffic. It just didn't seem right. And the single-family homes were so big, with so much yard around them. I have no problem with large homes and big
I should have expected that normal, everyday life in America would feel different to me after almost a year in Egypt. My first clue came before I even left, when I was deciding what clothing to take with me. I never even considered taking my short-sleeved shirts, other than the ones I use while exercising (I had good intentions to exercise while on the trip, although it didn't happen). I just feel more comfortable now when I'm more covered than that. I prefer loose shirts with 3/4-length or long sleeves, and if the shirt itself is long, too, so much the better. A year ago, as soon as the weather heated up, I'd pull out my sleeveless shirts and wear them until it got cold again. Now, it just feels too revealing to wear anything that hits significantly above the elbow. So the only clothing I wanted to wear in the United States was clothing that I would wear publicly in Egypt. That should have been a clue!
Most of my behavior while at home didn't reflect these unreal feelings of disconnectedness from my own culture. Usually it was just internal reflections and feelings of strangeness. There were some questions about my clothing, especially when, on a hot day, I would wear one of the shirts I bought at the Khan el Khalili. These tunics are long, long-sleeved, loose, and very comfortable in all weather conditions, even in the heat. On one such day, my sister took one look at me and said, "What are you wearing?" She didn't believe me when I told her how comfortable it was. I think she even doubted my sister-in-law, who was wearing one that she had received for her birthday and who defended the comfort and coolness of the shirt. But other than my clothing choices, I don't think there was much evidence that any of my perceptions had changed . . . until, of course, I was introduced to two men.
I first was introduced to the husband of one of my high school roommates. It had been years since I had seen Tina; I had attended her wedding but not the reception, so I hadn't met her husband at all. We arranged to meet them at a restaurant to catch up. I hugged Tina enthusiastically, but when she introduced her husband, I'm pretty sure I didn't even shake his hand. I smiled, I greeted him, I made eye contact but not a whole lot of it, and I did not approach him or extend my hand. I think at the end of our meal, when everyone was saying good-bye, we may have exchanged hugs; I'm not certain. But when I first met him, my instinct was to treat him like I treat Egyptian men who I meet for the first time: Be polite, be pleasant and to some degree friendly, but above all, be distant. Don't touch them; don't allow them to touch you.
Something similar happened when I met one of my husband's male friends. We were introduced, and he stuck his hand out for a handshake. Common enough in America. But it felt so strange and unexpected to me! I think I responded quickly enough to mask it, but my first reaction was surprise. It felt like I just stood there and stared at his hand for a moment, not comprehending that I was supposed to reach out and take it, although no one behaved as if I had acted strangely.
So it was the little things. Overall, I was fine. I certainly felt comfortable shopping in the many malls we visited (although there was a distinct difference in how I treated the male and female sales attendants), dining at our favorite restaurants, hanging out in the home in which I grew up, visiting my husband's family, seeing old friends . . . but I wouldn't wear short sleeves, my instinct was to maintain distance between myself and any men with whom I wasn't already familiar, and the traffic and the houses, stores, and other buildings just seemed . . . strange, too spread out, not as crowded as would have been "normal" to me.
I didn't drive while I was home--mostly due to exhaustion from jet lag and a busy schedule--but now I'm wishing that I had. Would I have driven like I used to, like the other Americans? Or would my husband have had to remind me where I was? Would I have been more confident than I used to be? I consider myself a mediocre driver, and I always was nervous in traffic. Here, it doesn't bother me, because the habits that made me a not-so-great driver in the States fit right in here. So would I have been confident, even too confident, or would my old caution have returned? I guess I'll have to wait until next year to find out.
Now that I've returned to Egypt, things feel strange again. At first, on the way home from the airport, I looked out the window and felt the difference from the only other time I've made that trip. The buildings, the dust, the children playing, even the pickup trucks piled cab-high with stuff--they were all familiar and comforting. The traffic that had me squeezing Jeff's hand in fear last time didn't raise an eyebrow this time.
But then I got to the compound, and I greeted the guard in English. He responded in Arabic, because that's our usual language of interaction, at least for common greetings and phrases that I know. I responded appropriately in Arabic, but . . . I had first spoken to him in English. It's been months since I did that. The next day, as I drove to the commissary, I felt reckless. I drove the same way I always do, for the most part--there was that big bus that I bullied out of my way, which is still not all that common for me. But I felt reckless just driving down the wide, mostly empty street, because I ignored lanes while swerving to avoid potholes, slow drivers, and inattentive pedestrians. I got a little nervous when I approached a busy intersection--those intersections haven't bothered me for a long time. And everything just seemed so loud and so dirty!
My time in the States hasn't completely undone the progress I had made in adapting to life in Egypt, but there definitely is some ground that will have to be regained. I mostly expected that. But what I still can't get over is how strange it felt to be back home. And this is after having been gone for not even a full year! What will it be like next year, I wonder? What will it be like--what will I be like--if we make the Department of State and various overseas postings our life for the next 20 years? It's a daunting thought . . . but I am an adventurer at heart, so I must admit to looking forward to answering that very question.