Strangers in our own country

“I want to take off on the bikes again,” Davy said as he climbed into the car after school this afternoon.  “I miss the bikes.”  ((sigh))

It’s been five weeks since we arrived in Boise – about the longest period of time we’ve stayed anywhere for the past three years. Our bodies and minds are telling us it’s time to move on.

We are enjoying Boise in many ways. We’re loving swimming at the YMCA and getting involved with clubs. The boys are enjoying their math/science classes at school and will go on their first Boy Scout campout this weekend. Boise is a great place and we’re thrilled to be here.

But it’s also hard.  We are still in a temporary apartment trying to buy a small house. We’re still camped on the floor and don’t have our ‘stuff’ to make it home. We’re trying to process the past three years and make sense of all the emotions and feelings and lessons learned.

Even so, I was surprised when Davy mentioned today that he wants to take off – I figured we still had a month or two before that hit.

In many ways, my sons are more like ESL (English as a Second Language) than native English speakers. When our friend, Rachel, asked Daryl to put a book in her living room, Daryl asked, “Which room is the living room?” The idea of “PE clothes” was a foreign concept and they simply couldn’t figure out what their teacher was referring to. Life in the US is confusing, but our brains are telling us it shouldn’t be – we are, after all, native Americans.

I remember talking with Ethiopians who had recently moved back to their home country after many years abroad when we lived there. While I, as a foreigner, had help finding a house and getting lights and water hooked up, they were on their own.  Local people knew we had no clue how to do anything. They expected Ethiopians moving back ‘home’ to be able to do everything – they were, after all, Ethiopians.

But really – they were American or British more than Ethiopian.  Sure, they spoke the local language, but that’s where the similarities ended. They didn’t know their way around Addis Ababa any better than we did.  They didn’t have any better idea of how to rent a house and turn on the electricity and water than we foreigners.

They all talked about how hard it was to be Ethiopian, but not be Ethiopian.

Now, I feel like we are American, but not American. We’ve lived and traveled in other countries way more than we’ve lived in our own. We’re flexible and adaptable and willing to learn – but it’s hard when we’re expected to know our way around.  And many times, we don’t even know the right questions to ask.

We’re making progress, and those incidents are becoming more rare – but we still get tripped up by them from time to time. We’ll be going about our daily life and *bang* we stumble and fall on something so simple another American wouldn’t even notice.

I wonder how long it’ll take before we’re truly feeling comfortable here? How long will it take before we no longer feel like strangers in our own country?

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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14 Responses to Strangers in our own country

  1. Miss Britt May 10, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

    Wow. I wouldn’t have even thought about the difference between getting help as a foreigner and being left to fend for yourself as a “native.”

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  2. CanCan May 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    I have been an expat for 10 years and I definitely can view my home culture objectively (and confusedly). I see it as a gift but it does make one question one’s belongingness. Maybe getting some Third Culture Kid literature would help you help your kids transition.

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  3. Jessica May 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

    I’ve not been anywhere near the situation you’re in, but on a small scale I can relate to having an adjustment period to returning to America. My husband can relate even more, having been an missionary kid in west africa growing up.

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  4. Rain May 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    If it’s any consolation (and with apologies to Bill Bryson), I feel like a stranger here myself (for slightly different reasons. But, the longest I’ve been away is 6 months 5 years ago (eek, has it really been 5 years …sigh). Anyway, I have a sense of what you are saying based on our rough transition back in 2006 after a relatively short time. Thinking of you all!

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  5. Ted Nelson May 11, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    I am not at all surprised to see this post. In fact, I could have written it myself about your family without even knowing you. Every concluded adventure has this adjustment period.

    I have had this discussion with many other travelers, but it is a period rarely written about because it is not as exciting as the actual trip itself.

    I think the period of adjustment will take as l0ng as you want it to. If you are committed to staying in Boise then you will adjust to the new life. If not then a new adventure will arise in the near future.

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  6. Christi May 11, 2011 at 3:03 am #

    Don’t put so much pressure on yourselves. You only notice the difficulties more because you expect yourself to know better. But why should you? If someone laughs because they think it’s insane not to know which room in the living room, don’t let that upset you. It just means that they can’t relate to your life any better than you can to theirs. If you can navigate a foreign country, you’ll figure out the States. And maybe next time you can pick up Davy on the tandem instead of in the car. =)

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  7. Kristina Carpenter May 11, 2011 at 4:17 am #

    We know what you’re going through. We were gone three years on our small sailboat with our two daughters. We arrived home when they were 12 and 13 years old. They would come home from school saying that they’re wasting six hours of their lives in school. The other students didn’t listen to the teachers and they were lucky if they got three hours of real learning. Wayne and I had our problems adjusting as well. Two years later, after building another boat, we took off on another three year voyage.

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  8. Harry & Ivana May 11, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    The good thing is that you will feel similar (not) at home in the rest of the world, so re-re-locating will be relatively easy :)

    The living room is the space outside the house…

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  9. Peter Ratcliffe May 11, 2011 at 7:15 am #

    There is wonderful opportunity in not feeling at home when you’re home. You have the choice of adopting each part of life or the culture that eventually becomes your family way, or choosing a part from another culture in place of one you don’t wish to adopt. Build yourselves into a mosaic of the best thing you most like.

    Most of our lives we’re taught or choose to follow what’s deemed normal and simply accept the way things are, your children know there are indeed many different ways to be perfectly happy.

    Don’t let peer pressure or society pressure wear that out of you, feel free to be different.

    Why be normal?

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  10. Sarah May 11, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    I really enjoyed hearing of your journey on the road, and also your journey as it continues now. As a Brit living here in the US for many years I can completely understand the confussion and weirdness about being home but not home. Culture moves on in our absence and it’s an odd feeling when your roots don’t quite mesh with yourself anymore.

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  11. rhythm_blues May 11, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    I remember how strange it felt, after a year in Asia, to come back to the U.S. and be able to understand every word of every conversation around us, everything on the TV or radio, everything in print form around us, etc. It was sensory overload!

    It was really discomforting for the first few weeks, less so over the next few months, and eventually not at all.

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  12. Gillian May 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    I just stumbled across your blog and am in love. My boyfriend and I are considering a job in Addis Ababa and I would love to hear more about your teaching experience there. How many years did you teach there? Did you continue teaching English overseas after your children were born? I am looking forward to reading older posts. So inspiring!

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  13. John Vogel May 17, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    I hope you go Gillian! Ethiopia is a lovely place – we loved our seven years there. We were working at the American school – where the kids of diplomats from all over the world went to school. We were not teaching English, but teaching regular school.

    We left Ethiopia when the boys were nearly 5 and moved to work in an American school in Taiwan, then moved on to Malaysia before finally moving back to the USA.

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