“So – Is that out of state?” And Other Questions We Navigate

by Marilyn on June 8, 2018

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I felt my face grow hot. I was in a small town shopping at a smaller store when a well-meaning woman stopped and asked me about the purse I had with me.

“That’s a beautiful purse” she said brightly. “May I ask you where you got it?

Oh” I said, a smile lighting up my face “I got it in Pakistan.”

Long pause.

“So – is that out of state?”

Red-faced and flustered I managed to breathe out the words, sort of the way a mythical dragon breathes out fire “Yes”.

I thought of all the things I wanted to say:

“Yes – it borders Connecticut”

“You’ve not heard of it? It’s just a town away.” 

“Yes – it’s in Canada.” 

Instead I took a deep breath, smiled and said again “Yes, indeed it is.”

Growing up as a third culture kid in the seventies was an interesting time. The world was not as global as it is now, and communities in the United States were as isolated as the oceans and cultures that divide the country from the rest of the world. I never thought I was that different then my counterparts growing up in the West, but then I met them. The differences were profound. Cultural and linguistic to be sure, but for a teenager the huge chasm was fashion. Inevitably we would arrive in the United States after being away for four years with no television, no magazines, no beacons of Western fashion like, oh you know, Sears and J.C. Penneys. And there was something else – we also always seemed to arrive in the United States on Saturday night.

Do you know what that meant? That meant that the next day was Sunday. Guess what missionary parents like to do on Sunday? You got it! Go to church!

So off we would go in our outdated clothes, and I would flush a deep scarlet and try to pretend that my mini dress was a maxi or vice versa. Fashion was a nightmare. One time the nightmare took on greater terror as a photographer was shooting pictures at a large church outside of Chicago. I vaguely remember him capturing me on film on the front steps of that church. Ayaiyaiyaiyai!

Pop culture was another chasm. Grease was lighting up the screen with “Look at me! I’m Sandra D”. The only movies I had ever seen were The Sound of Music and To Sir with Love.

And then there were more questions….!

“Do they wear clothes there?”

“Tell me about the huts!”

“Pakistan…. does that border Brazil?”

“Oh – I think I’ve heard of that country before! It’s in Europe, right?

The funny thing is, that was the seventies, Has it changed? Despite the fact that many of our passport countries have excellent education systems and a plethora of media outlets as well as ways to communicate electronically, it doesn’t mean knowledge of the world has improved.

Consider this video where Jay Leno interviewed American teenagers.

It’s easy to slip into arrogance when it comes to some of these conversations, to shake our heads in exasperation. The reality is that there is a lot of privilege in this life, and there is also a lot of insecurity when we are faced with a culture that we are not as familiar with (our passport culture), The result is that we might wear our geographical and linguistic knowledge with a bit of pride. Sometimes it’s all we feel we have.

But that is for a more serious conversation. Today I want to go Jay Leno on you and invite you to tell your stories – what are some of the questions you’ve been asked, and how have you responded?

Expats, global nomads, TCKs, Adult TCKs – I know you know these conversations. From “So where are you from?” to “Do they wear clothes there?” to “Tell me about the natives!” we have all experienced ‘those’ questions and statements; the ones that simultaneously make us shake our heads in despair even as we grin thinking of how we’ll frame the story later on to those of our tribe.

So have at it! What are the best and worst questions you’ve been asked or things people have said to you about your life overseas? Invite your kids into this conversation – it’s something you can share together.

Share either on the Facebook page of A Life Overseas or in the comments below.

And, as always, thank you for being a part of this community!

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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