Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Wonderful Man

Jeff's birthday is just around the corner.

Last year, we were apart on his birthday, because Jeff was on a work-related trip. Ditto for the year before that. This year ... sometime in early January, Jeff told me about a couple of work trips he'd need to take in March and April. "Okay," I said. "Alexa and I will be fine. But you're not going to be gone on your birthday for the third year in a row, are you?"

Fate is laughing at me. We carefully arranged for Jeff's trips to be before and after, but not during, his birthday. For the first time in three years, Jeff will be home for his birthday. For the first time in three years, I will not. I won't be there to bake or buy a cake, to give him his gift, or even to kiss him good morning. But despite my physical absence, I hope for him to know--in his head and in his heart--that I'm with him in spirit, that I respect and love him, and that I am profoundly grateful and proud to be the wife of such a wonderful man.

My wonderful man is a devoted husband. He constantly tells me and shows me that he loves me. From buying little (and not-so-little) gifts "just because" to seeing to my safety when I refuse to do so myself, Jeff makes it clear that with him, I am loved, and I am safe physically and psychologically.

My wonderful man is a loving father. Alexa never will have reason to doubt that she is the apple of her father's eye. In the short time that she has been with us, I have watched with joy and bemusement as she has wrapped her father securely around her little finger. From playing peek-a-boo to changing beyond-dirty diapers with nary a complaint, Jeff quietly demonstrates day in and day out that he loves his daughter more than life itself and that he is devoted to her well-being.

My wonderful man is a diligent provider. He works long hours when necessary to provide the money our family needs. He works under good circumstances and, like now, under less than ideal circumstances. Like everyone, he has times when he just doesn't want to do it, but he always pushes through in order to provide the best service he can at work and to provide for our needs at home. He curbs his own desires in order to ensure that our future needs are met, spending far less today than he could in order to provide for our future as well as our present.

My wonderful man is a good friend, not just to me, but to others. I have watched him maintain relationships that I and many others would have written off, because he sees the good person hidden beneath the thorns. He is a good judge of character, too--I've watched thorns recede to show the world what my husband was able to discern years ago. Through the good times and through the bad times, Jeff is a supportive and dedicated friend.

My wonderful man is a person of integrity. I shared before how his principled stand first attracted my attention. Jeff consistently thinks through the morality of his decisions before he takes action. He was one of the first people I ever heard support copyright law when file sharing services like Napster became popular. Even today, as we look at buying new phones for use overseas (therefore needing unlocked ones), he pointed out how buying jail broken phones is, in effect, stealing from the mobile company that subsidized the phone's purchase in anticipation of future revenues. As a result, we will spend significantly more money in order to buy factory-unlocked phones, but we will be behaving with integrity in the purchase. Jeff wouldn't have it any other way--he will provide for his family, and he will not be wasteful, but he also will not cheat anyone else along the way.

My wonderful man is a person of compassion. He ensures that we give, over and above our tithe, directly to people and organizations that assist the less fortunate. He buys the little packs of Kleenex from Cairo's street children. He gives to beggars on the metro. When I approached him with a request to purchase supplies for the impoverished children of Kentucky--who routinely lose 15 lb over the summer because of the absence of free school lunches, which provide most of their nutrition during the rest of the year--he told me to double the amount I'd hoped to spend. He suggested that we donate to special projects at our church in the wake of the revolution. I know that when he becomes aware of a need, we soon will be looking through our budget, finding a little here and a little there, so that we can help meet that need.

My wonderful man is a man of faith. His strong Christian faith guides him in all of these other areas. His faith informs his beliefs and his actions in every aspect of his life, from his politics to his work to his family life and more. He is a shining example of a man defined and molded by his faith in Jesus Christ.

My wonderful man. All I hoped for in a husband. All I dreamed of in a father for my child(ren). The role model I pray my daughter will look to when she one day chooses a husband and father for her children.

Happy birthday to my wonderful man.

I love you, Jeff.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Third Culture

Part of a Skype chat exchange between me and a friend who left Egypt last summer and spent some time in the U.S. before moving overseas again:

Friend: Do you have some moms and babies you can get together with where you are?
Deborah: Nope, not really. Probably could if I made the effort but that feels like settling in here and this isn't home anymore.
Friend: I understand. When we are in US for our breaks, I never seem to put forth much effort into 'hanging out' with other women or going to their parties....  they all look at you funny anyway, like you are some sort of alien being that does not belong....
Deborah: The ladies at church are supportive and sympathetic but ... at a Greek restaurant the other day, they thought the pastor was insane for eating goat. Goat! That's pretty tame ... we just don't relate.
Friend: Hahaha, goat?  Who'da thunk it?? And yes, it is pretty tame... how big is the church?
Deborah: It wasn't even that they didn't want to eat it, but how vocally disgusted they were ... very small, just over 100 on a good service
Friend: Sounds like the one we went to while in US.
Deborah: It's a good church, with good people. It's just that the small-town South doesn't understand wanting anything different ... is it possible for an adult to become a "third culture kid" after just a couple of years overseas?
Friend: Oh yes!  You adjusted well.  You jumped in with both feet.  It's the ones who do not participate in the culture, whether that is with other ex-pats or with locals, that do not become that tck..... It's much better when one is adventurous...

Overall, it is better when one is adventurous. It makes life overseas rich and rewarding. I wasn't even that adventurous, really. I spent a lot of time in the embassy bubble. If I have any regrets about my time in Egypt, it's that I wasn't adventurous enough. I didn't spend enough time with locals. I didn't learn enough of the language. I didn't immerse myself in the culture fully enough. But if I had done those things ... the adjustment now would be even harder than it is.

You see, when you live overseas, you have a choice to make.

You can hang on to the culture of your home country. You can hang out only with other Americans, in my case. Cook and eat only familiar foods (at least to the extent possible). Refuse to adapt your clothing and behavior to the local culture. This choice makes it harder to function in the new country. Expats who make this choice often hate being overseas; they constantly compare the new country to their home country, and they find the new country lacking in almost every respect. During my time in Egypt, I learned quickly to identify those expats who had made this choice and to avoid them as much as possible. They were toxic to my emotional state. Too much time with them left me depressed and dissatisfied with life in Egypt, at least until I recognized the mindset and instead got angry at those who seemed determined to poison everyone around them.

The other extreme is to "go native." Spend as much time as possible with local citizens. Shun all but local foods. Dress and behave so much like a native that you can't be told apart from a distance. Become fluent in the local language and look down on anyone who doesn't speak it. I don't have any experience with expats who make this choice--to my knowledge, they either shun other expats or live in areas where there are no other expats to shun. It seems to me that this choice would lead to the easiest life overseas once you've gone native, although the process of getting there would be long and difficult.

The third option, the one most often chosen, I think, is to strike a balance. The precise balance varies from person to person, but the goal is to adapt as much as necessary to facilitate and enjoy life overseas while not losing touch with the home culture either. Learn the language and use it, but don't stress about speaking it just like a native speaker. Adapt your clothing and behavior to show respect for the local culture, but don't try to turn yourself into a local. Be open to new experiences. Make friends with other expats and with locals, to the extent that language skills and the culture allow. (My few Egyptian friends are women who are fluent in English, for example; it wouldn't be appropriate to have male friends, and my Arabic isn't good enough for small talk, much less real conversation that doesn't center around driving directions or price haggling.) Adopt a blend of both cultures in order to function as well as possible in each.

As you can guess, I chose the third option. For me, the balance was tilted heavily toward American culture, as it often is for foreign service families who know they won't be in any one place for more than a few years. As I mentioned earlier, my balance may have been tilted a little too heavily toward American culture. But no matter where the balance is, the experience of overseas life, the experience of a culture not your own--even if your experience of it is limited--changes you. Children who grow up as expats have a unique culture that they experience as their native culture--it isn't their home country's culture, or their host country's culture, but a mix of the two. These children are known as third culture kids, trans cultural kids, or tck's.

Third culture kids often feel most at home with each other, even if their native languages, religions, and home--or "passport"--countries differ. The culture to which they often have the hardest time adapting is the culture of their own country. They often can move without too much difficulty among other cultures, but they just don't fit in once they move "home." I suspect that's because the kids at "home" have been exposed to all sorts of subtle cultural influences that the third culture kids missed. The third culture kids also just aren't used to a situation where their classmates' experiences are so homogeneous--where's the kid with a stronger Asian influence, or a stronger African influence? What do you mean, everyone claims Christianity, and almost everyone is Protestant? Where are the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Orthodox Christians? How is it possible to believe that this is the only way to live--haven't you seen anything different? No, I guess you haven't, since everyone here lives similarly.

If all goes as Jeff and I hope, we will be raising at least one third culture kid. I pray that we will have wisdom in that endeavor, and that our daughter--as well as any other children we may have--will adapt readily to her unique culture and to American culture when that time comes, keeping the best of her various cultural influences and discarding the rest. But in order to raise her to do that, I also need to figure out my own place, my own culture.

I grew up in a small town in the American South. Those years shaped me, and I will never--nor do I wish to--escape those influences. My time in other parts of the U.S. caused subtle changes in my personality and outlook. But my time in Egypt--brief though it was--has changed me more than I think even I realize. There are some surface changes, some deep changes, and--I suspect--some fundamental changes to the core of my personality, or at least the beginnings of fundamental changes. But at this point, if I so chose, I could slip back into the culture of my growing-up years with only slight modifications.

Of course I'm choosing not to. I enjoy my expat life, and I'm looking forward to raising my third culture kid. But there are costs, and there will be costs to Alexa in the future. In order to help her later, I have to continue to work my way through my own adjustments now. The one I'm most noticing: the faint but ever-present feeling that this place just isn't home anymore, that I don't quite fit in, and that I shouldn't settle in.

If you're interested in how truly third culture kids fare after being suddenly repatriated, as in the current evacuation, here are a couple of news articles about their experiences.