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.

home1

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.

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