Making Your House Abroad a Home

by Rachel Pieh Jones on February 14, 2016

We rent. We buy used furniture or inherit ancient hand me downs. Our houses are not built straight so the hallway rug runs crookedly along the floorboards and the screen doors don’t fit into the door frames and the bathroom doors don’t quite close tightly. Our sinks and showers don’t drain well and we use our hand to push all the water slightly uphill, toward the drain. Our faucets wobble and our electrical outlets dangle out of the walls like spiders. There are strange chunks hacked out of the cement inside the house and the walls in the bedroom are the color of melted makeup.

We’re expats. Like I said, we rent.


Still, the houses or apartments or duplexes, are ours, for a time. We sigh and start to unpack. We have been transplanted into someone else’s taste and wear and tear and we will bend the space within these walls to make it our own.

There are two main ways for an expatriate family to accomplish this:

Take what you get

Make what you want

Take what you get expats move into a house with melted-makeup-colored paint and leave it that way. They find duplexes with huge dirt yards and instead of laying tile or planting a garden, their kids hose down and scrub off the mud at the door after playing outside. They take a decade to hang family photos on the wall.

Make what you want expats take a house and create something beautiful. They think of ideas like blocks of fogged glass and artfully displayed local handicrafts. Their entry ways are more than heaps of mismatched shoes overflowing from a basket but include benches and shoe racks and wall hangings.

I am a take what you get. After basic functionality, a sense of normalcy and safety has been established, I will let houses linger in half-finished states. We screen, to protect against malaria. We make sure toilets either flush or have water buckets nearby. We put shelves in the kitchen. We talk about painting. We talk about painting some more. We did take ten years to hang up family photos, though I was so happy when we finally did and hopefully future homes won’t take so long. (we have now been in a new house for 2 months and conversations about hanging family photos haven’t even begun. We’ll get there…)

Both kinds of expats turn rentals, sometimes disastrous rentals, into homes and this is nothing short of miraculous. We do this so we and our families will have a refuge to return to at the end of days filled with rich but exhausting cross cultural interactions.

Whether we take what we get or we make what we want, our homes are where we wear American clothes (if we are American), eat food treasures brought over in luggage and hidden in the back corners of cupboards, play epic Settlers of Catan games, sing and dance to our favorite songs from the 80s (if we have favorite songs from the 80s), celebrate our holidays, and maintain the routine and traditions that make our families our families.

But our homes are also where we invite in the cross-cultural world we live in. We hang Somali daggers on the walls (eventually) and Arabic-scroll cloths decorate the hallway. We cook isku dhex karis and laxoox. But even more importantly, we invite in the people we meet. They bring their language, aromas, folk tales, religious beliefs, values, and they are welcome in our homes.

So no matter which kind of expatriate you are, in this early part of 2016, my hope for you is that this will be a year where your house feels ever more like a home.

Which kind of expatriate home-builder are you?

***I really admire make what you want expats. I’m thinking of hiring one of these to do my decorating for me.

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • We are hoping the same way too. We are packing and getting ready to move somewhere near the capital of the Philippines (we’re in one of the islands right now). However, we don’t have a house yet, hopefully we’ll find one and live with whatever we get on that home to make it our own…

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I hope that for you, too! We’ve recently moved and this new place suits us so well, I’m incredibly thankful. Hope you are able to find that and/or make it yours.

  • Lorinda

    After renovating enough to make it not scary and then getting kicked out because the house looked good enough to sell, or having the rent raised because, “It’s so much nicer now!”, my husband refuses to do more than what is absolutely necessary. We are “Take what we get.” I dream about being a “Make what I want”, but I know it’s not happening.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Aw that is so frustrating! One day, maybe, you’ll be able to make what you want. I hope so.

  • Jeanne Elder Smith

    Rachel In Germany you get a empty house/apartment. You have to install EVERYTHING (except the bathroom) So kitchen, floors, everything!! It is good in some ways and bad in some ways..

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yowsers! That sounds super stressful to me but I guess you learn the city or shops pretty quickly. And plumbing and your spouse…But maybe some people would really love the challenge and the work of it. I love that diversity.

  • I’m definitely a make-what-you-want… but it’s slow going for sure! We’re getting ready to move into a smaller rental and I’m already hopeful and daydreaming about how to make it ours because it’s considerably smaller and (therefore) seems much less daunting to decorate and make our own! 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      It does take time and I’m always so impressed with the individual touches people come up with.

  • ELH

    Rachel – I so appreciate pitch-perfect tone you managed in this post! It is so easy to veer towards a smidgen of disdain for how the ‘other’ chooses to decorate – or not. Home is home regardless of which of the 2 ‘camps’ we tend towards. We can so easily say either: “Why don’t they CARE? Put in a little effort!” or “Why does she try and transplant an American home to country X? Can’t they be happy with simplicity and fit into the local culture a little more and get on with more important things?” Very nice work!

    In my past (as a single development worker), I’ve been “take what you get” but now that I have a family I wonder if I’d be more “make what you want.”

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks! I’ve had to battle criticism in my heart, I have really learned that there is so much value in both and I am in no position to judge. My family just moved into a house with a yard and we’re learning how much fun it is to make the yard what we want, it is the first time we’ve been able to do that. We are loving it.

  • Kaylee Kelm

    I would say we’re a mix between the two. Photos and art on the walls are important in the first week but then things go unattended for months after if they aren’t done right away. It’s amazing how much more comfortable I feel and “at home” we are as a family when we make little changes to the places we live. Right before leaving on home assignment my husband and father-in-law remodeled the kitchen in our home. Crazy time to do it then but it worked and we’ll be returning to that house. I’m so much more excited to return to a “leaky” house with dirt pouring through the cracks, cockroaches, and uneven wooden floors knowing that that kitchen is waiting for me.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      What an amazing gift – those kinds of things like the kitchen can balance the others so well.

  • Priscilla

    I love decorating a home to look like it fits in its surroundings. The process of working on it (sometimes slowly) brings lots of joy and living in it brings a level of peace and stability that helps me concentrate on difficult (and everyday) ministry tasks – I am a “make what you want.” However, I have dear friends from both “camps” and I salute all those who can “take what you get.” It is a strength and a gift! I appreciate this blog entry because while this might seem like a small thing, it can produce a lot of dissonance between colleagues. Overseas ministry brings many different styles and personalities together. Time spent identifying and discussing the differences helps us understand and appreciate one another and brings us together!

  • Jocelyn Walmsley Jelsma

    My make what you want friends have helped me SO much. We are decorated. That being said, our guest bathroom’s toilet has the top ceramic cover (covering the water tank) held together by masking tape and it’s been like that since we moved in here 7 years ago. I also admire the make what you want expats…and am so thankful for all their ideas. Enjoy putting up those family photos!

  • Sonia Daily

    We’ve lived in 3 countries and one of my first expat friends in England had brought a lot of her “from home” decor with her – in order to create a familiar oasis for her kids. I decided to copy this idea when we moved to China – brought enough from home to make our living room look like our last home in Tennessee – pictures on the wall, Polish pottery dishes we ate on, a few knick-knacks, etc. We even painted the walls the same color. It was a place to be American in the chaos of China outside our door. My kids laugh now because my home in Michigan has so many Asian treasures and accents – mixed in with those from Europe of course!

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Funny you should talk about rental houses when in the last week and a half our kitchen sink drain has been dripping nasty water all over the place (until my husband fixed it last night) and two times one of our bathroom drains exploded all over the bathroom. Both really disgusting experiences and make me grumpy about the lack of engineering and infrastructure here! Those are just two examples, electricity is also an issue. So yes, sometimes it feels like you don’t start with much!

    But we are still sort of a “take what you get” family. We do the repairs to make it liveable, but don’t do much decorating. Our idea of decorating is putting family pictures on the walls. They are everywhere, without frames because that was too much space in the suitcases. But they remind us of our family outings and the special family memories all 6 of us share. Family pictures are precious to us! And essential in making a house a home. 🙂 We don’t need much else — although when I’m in a “make what you want” house, I think oooooooooooo how pretty!!! But I can’t make my house look like that; I haven’t the skills, nor the inclination. Still, our house is most certainly our home here.

  • Miriam

    Thanks for a great post! I just moved into a new house a few days ago, one that I can hopefully stay in longer than 6 months… I’ve moved so often in the last number of years, and in many places didn’t stay long enough, to make it what I want.
    I’m more ‘take what you get’ while dreaming of making my new home ‘what I want’… For me that wouldn’t mean a copy of a home in the west, but giving it my own touch while using local style, but enough to make it a place where I feel comfortable and can relax. Today I bought material for new sitting cushions to replace the awfully-colored handed-down ones that I had. Such a nice feeling!
    So let’s see how long it’ll take to make it what I want… (and how long I can live here!)

  • Martha Wagar Wright

    Another great, thought-provoking post! I have lived all my life as a taker of what I got, after growing up in a picture-perfect suburban home in the US. From sketchy student apartments in formerly grand Victorian mansions in West Philadelphia, to damp, cold stone houses in N. Ireland, to the ‘boys’ quarters’ on a hospital compound in Eritrea, now to the house my husband built from the ground up in Uganda. Of course everything can be improved on. The only friendly request I would make to those who dream for what they want is – please be merciful to the one they expect to make it that way for them! Whether it’s members of your own family doing the work or your organisation’s maintenance personnel, remember their lives may consist largely of dealing with constant frustration, a 10-hour drive to the hardware store, and feeling like they’re personally responsible for their teammates’ happiness on the field. It sounds like many of the folks who have posted here have great suggestions for making what they get into what they want. Thanks, friends!

  • We’re a combination of both, plus a trip to Ikea expats, which I think is the modi-operandi for most of us Western European transplants. 🙂 And then it’s a sell-trade-loan agreement within the community for those that come, stay, or leave. I love that I can see bits in my home that have come from friends who are no longer here, and I’m excited to one day pass on to the next family if we ever heave to leave. But I absolutely have to hang photos on the wall… or else I’m just staying in someone else’s blank canvas.

  • Heidi

    I’m a take what you get, who’s been blessed to live with numerous make you want ladies. I love the idea of changes, but always lack the creative energy to carry the project to completion.

  • Lily A

    Some of both, but I think more of a make-what-you-want. Depends how much time and energy I have. I remember my first school year teaching in China, where I was paid all in cash, I scheduled my plane ticket to the US for a week after classes ended so I could collect that last payment (and hey my parents were travelling too so they wouldn’t be back in the US till then anyway). I spent that week doing so many projects I’d been wanting to do for my apartment all year, that I hardly wanted to leave when it was time to go – it finally looked like “my” home!

  • This book is one I picked up in my church in Beijing’s bookstore about 5 moves ago…. it changed my ideas about making a house a home. I loved it.

  • Sherri

    I wanted to share this article to my wall, but I felt I could not do it in the right spirit right now. This is a current struggle for me. I desire to be thankful for all HE provides. We live on a compound run by our org so our housing is org owned. Thankfully my husband is the compound fix it guy. So leaky sinks, broken toilets, etc are already his job. We moved to our new location five months ago. We are in a house that has already had at least five other ‘persons/families’ living in this house before we moved in. Each family with our org. Each family left their ‘donation’ to the house. Some items are a blessing. Some not so much! So we sort through drawers and closets for what we want and don’t want. We are thankful for the furniture we have been given. Truthfully, most is nicer than we have had before. But some is not our taste. So making a house into a home when you have no idea how long God’s call will be to be in a certain area is a struggle. How to be thankful for what you have when those around you (we are in Africa) have so little. How to be thankful when the water runs out and yet your realize your neighbors haul all their water. We have a well and a water storage tank so runign water most of the time. Frustrated when the generator is not on when you realize your neighbors have no generator at all. It is a struggle I am working through! And yes Rachel, my husband is painting. It is theropy for him. He likes white ceilings.

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