When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…

by Rachel Pieh Jones on April 17, 2013

When you start to pick your nose in public, you might be too cheap for Kleenex. Or you might live in a really dry, dusty place and need to dig that one out before it makes you bleed. Or you might be overdue for a break.

When you (if a native English speaker) start to say things like, “There is no being upsetness in playing video games,” and think that is perfectly good English, you might be a really bad English teacher. Or you might be dizzy and dehydrated from the rising summer temperatures. Or you might be overdue for a break.

when this starts to look like a darn good beach shade…

How do you know when your time to step out of the host culture has come? I knew it when I would catch a side glimpse of myself in a mirror and only then, notice that my shoulders hunched forward, only then, realize I was too exhausted to even walk upright.

Living overseas is expanding and exhilarating and inspiring. And draining. At least for some. Our daughter asked why we were going to Minnesota for a year in 2011 and I said, “Daddy is working on his PhD and mommy needs a break from Djibouti.” She said, “Why? What do you need a break from?” To her this sounded like, “Mommy needs a break from life.”

And that’s what furlough, R ‘n R, can feel like, which is probably why a lot of expats shun the notion until they are walking like one hundred-year old women, shuffling around like the hunchback Jesus healed, eyes on the dirt and the dirty feet and not looking up into the face of our Healer. But that’s not true. Time away from the host country is not a break from life. It’s a break from specific things about expat life that strain.

Everyone encounters stress, another excuse for expats to forgo the rest time. Why should we remove ourselves from our work and friends and expat home life when others aren’t allowed that option? Because expat stress isn’t just the stress of a job or of a difficult relationship. Expat stress affects every single aspect of our lives from seemingly minor things like clothes and food to deep things like how we practice our faith and how often we relocate. The stresses strike at our sense of identity and are often far beyond our ability to control, let alone comprehend.

*holidays away from family

*speaking multiple foreign languages all day, every day

*excessive heat or cold or dust


*the stress of never fully comprehending the surroundings

*inability to make quick, confident choices

*lack of spiritual fellowship, input, and accountability

*lack of vocational training or development

The list could go on as long as there are expats

Furloughs are not a break from life because life continues, we take living with us. On either side of the ocean there will still be meetings and proposal-writing, diapers and school lunches, laundry and car repairs, relationships and labor. But for a brief time, there will also be green grass to roll in and Grandma’s caramel rolls for Christmas breakfast. There will be the intrinsic knowledge of how to dress, how much things should cost, how to respond when your kid is bullied at school. You will know exactly, without a second thought, how to stand in a line at the store, how to speak English, and how you like your coffee.

sometimes you need to step away

I’m not saying that assimilation is wrong, it’s good. It’s important to learn how to elbow your way to the counter at the corner store, if that’s how your host country does it. Important to learn how to farmer blow inside restaurants, if that’s how your host country does it. It is important to appreciate and use idioms and grammar in the local language.

But there are times when the stresses of the stripping, of behaving chameleon-like, become too heavy and we start to lose ourselves, lose focus, lose energy, lose any joy in the work or the friendships, even lose faith. And then it is time for that break, probably past time for that break. Then, it is time to remember how, in your passport culture, to appropriately deal with those pesky nose boogers.


Do you pick your nose in public? Just kidding.

Real questions: How do you know it is time for a break? Have you ever over-stayed?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                        Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

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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.
  • Marla Taviano

    I was actually picking my nose when I pulled up this post in my Google Reader! It’s like you read my mind. 🙂

    • Haha! And you made me snort orange juice out my nose in the hotel where I’m on-line. No not really. But you did make me laugh!

    • Shari M

      So funny Marla! I don’t pick my nose in public, I still blow my nose when needed. I was teaching a kindergarten class and my nose was running, so I blew it. Not a loud honking or anything. The sweet gentle giggling of 5 year olds was so cute. I realized that day that I had never seen a Khmer person blow their nose. I can’t help but chuckle at times when I think how Khmer people pick their noses openly, but hold one hand over their mouths while using a toothpick so you do not see. hahahahaha

  • our “code” is mining for emeralds. seriously, i have to teach my kids not to pick their noses in public after having been in local schools, since the teachers teach with their fingers in their nose up to the second knuckle…

    frankly, i’m IN over-stay mode right now, but when you’ve got kids in school, sometimes you must choose to hang on for a bit more before making an escape. we’ve had an inordinately stressful three years on several fronts and originally had planned for one more year before home assignment. i’ve only left the city once since arriving three years ago and for this wide open spaces gal, i’m feeling claustrophobic. that’s actually a pretty good summary of how i know i need a break – i feel claustrophobic and suffocated (not so much physically, but mentally and emotionally) by just about anything and everything. assimilation sails out the window and all the things i love about this culture become annoying, i assume the worst for every situation and those impressions don’t leave after a few good nights of sleep.

    • Same here – we really did have to teach the kids not to.

      We don’t always have the option to leave right when the break is needed, that’s true. Family, work, $, any number of things. Sorry you haven’t left the city except once in three years! I think your last line is a really important thing to be aware of – when the annoyances starts to linger and you lose the ability to see see the things you love in a good light.

      Praying you get loads of outdoor, refreshing, cooler time during the break.

  • Tanja

    We are on break right now, and it was way overdue. But even “on break” in our passport country, there are so many things to take care of, all the doctor’s appointments we can’t do in the field, the Talk with the church council, running to stores to purchase all the items we need to bring back, almost stressing out so we can see friends and family and catch up in the short time we have on vacation…. it is exhausting! But… like Rachel points out. It’s a kind of exhausting that I can handle. Because I don’t have to worry about wearing the “wrong” clothes or the intense heat or the lack of nutritious food to feed my kids while I do all those other “to dos”. Here, I just do them, because I am like a fish IN water… this is my native element. There is food in my parents’ fridge, it is varied, nutritious and safe, and I don’t worry that the kids didn’t get what they needed to grow today.

    But I really miss just being able to rest. No church appointments. No Talks. No stress. Just sayin’…

    • I hear you Tanja. That’s what I mean by taking life with. I have had some people say, “You’re so luck that you get to take a break from everything once in a while.” I try not to laugh as I’m picturing the lists running through my mind of all the things to do, appointments…But I AM glad that I get to wear blue jeans and not break into a sweat on little errands. Hope you can find a chance to get that rest.

  • Are you kidding, really? in the tribal culture where I first lived, picking your nose wasn’t bad manners. Everyone didn’t. And I’ve never broken the habbit. 😛

    • This is great stuff. Who knew?! So what you’re saying is, I’m not the only one… :O)

  • Dave Lewis

    Love your list of expat stressors, Rachel. My son grew up picking his nose in public (that’s how our host culture did it). That was a stressor for his parents back in our home culture 🙂 Would to God that every missionary-sending church, every missionary supporter, understood this message and REQUIRED their missionaries to take a break periodically.

  • Bayta Schwarz

    I find this gets even more complicated when “home” is no longer a place that offers much familiarity, because you have been gone for so long. It is wonderful to be with family and close friends, but the cultural cues are gone and much of normal life is actually more stressful than in your host country. At the same time, it is so important to find places where you can rest, switch off and recharge those batteries! And to admit that they need recharging!

    • That’s true. There were things I struggled with back in MN that I needed trusted friends to help me walk through and figure out. I think that’s been one of the big things that’s helped my family transition back and forth – having people I can be totally clueless with and they won’t laugh (or maybe they will if I pick my nose) but will help and love.

    • Ali W.

      I agree, Bayta, after 12 years in Asia, “home” is less familiar. Prices, habits, and common situations cause me more stress because I either have forgotten or am encountering situations I’ve never dealt with. Sending our kids to school for the first time in Texas really stretched me as I negotiated learning how to navigate that relationship.

  • Hope

    I do pick my nose in public, actually. And maybe the fact that I’m willing to admit that in a public forum means I REALLY need a break from +100 temps, dust, power cuts, ect. And maybe it means that I’m crazy enough to be the kind of person that signed up for this AND picks her nose. I know I need a break. I met the Lord today with hot, frustrated tears. We’re getting that break soon. This post came at exactly the right time. Made me smile, lightened my mood. Thank you, as usual, Rachel.

    • Great, great, great. I confess I’ve done it too. This is so fun, feel like I’m getting to know people on a whole new level with that little bit of info. Glad you are getting your break soon.

  • Rebecca Sinclair

    I had to laugh at the “nose picking” because that is a part of our expat culture here in Cameroon as well. Trying to teach the kids not to pick their nose in public, when they see the music leader do it comfortably in front of the entire church on Sunday, is always a challenge! Some people would have me feel guilty for wanting (or needing) a break/furlough. One particular pastor I know said it is unnecessary to take furloughs anymore with the advancement of technology. But, you broke down all the reasons why it is necessary. Thanks for the great post!

    • What a relief to know that it isn’t just me and our culture! So many funny things that I’ve had to teach my kids when heading back to the US. It would be interesting to hear of some other ones from around the world. Waiting in line would be one, or stopping at the green light…

      • We have had to remind our children that American kids don’t pee outside.

        • Linda Rees McCoy

          We’ve never lived anywhere else, but I have to remind my grandsons (who live in the country without close neighbors) that we don’t pee outside “in town”!

  • Delana Davis

    Wow thank you. My husband I are feeling a little guilty about how much we are looking forward for some time back this summer, and it was so refreshing to read your blog. I appreciate it.

  • Debbie

    We have our first furlough in August. I am apprehensive about it. Love the thought of going but hate leaving the ministry here even if it is for a short time.

  • Brenda

    I’m in the process of booking our tickets for home leave now and was feeling guilty when thinking about what 4 round trip tickets from Tanzania to the States is costing my organization, even though our expat policies provide for and encourage the annual leave. This post helped to validate the importance of the leave for my family and for my ability to continue serving the organization in ways that will pay dividends much more valuable than the cost of the plane tickets.

    • It is expensive but we’re learning that you can’t really put a price on that time with family or the time away and the ability that gives to come back fresh and able to see things with different eyes. Blessings as you go!

      • Linda Funke

        Brenda, I’m in Tanzania too. In Mwadui, near Shinyanga. Where are you?

  • Some missionaries on another blog were just discussing recently how furloughs are necessary but many pastors don’t see why. Good explanations! Thank you! We are due for a furlough – leaving in June from Uganda back to the USA and we are sure ready!! Nose picking here, too, is a natural thing, and one time when I was talking with a man he just sat there with his finger in his nose! Funny. We’ve been teaching and reminding our children how they cannot call people “fat” back in the States because it’s not a compliment there, how you don’t say the water is finished or over, but it’s all gone, and trying to prepare them for what it will be like in a “real” school. Another sign you are ready – everyone keeps getting sick! It’s hard to keep focused on our work here this last couple of months…

  • Debbie

    I’m an MK from France. While we didn’t experience the third world culture life that many missionaries live, we experienced the loneliness, the lack of seeing progress in the ministry because of a very spiritually cold country, and various other things. While furloughs brought a certain refreshment for my parents, the America they would come back to was so different from the one they had left. The longer they live in France, the more awkward things are for them when they come back (which is only about every 5 years). We always laughed when the French people would refer to furlough as a vacation. By the end of our furlough, my parents were always looking forward to getting some rest and getting back to normal life. Several months of traveling, sleeping in different places all the time, eating at restaurants (since so few people invite missionaries into their homes for meals now), and being at different churches for almost every service, was very tiring. For me, as the MK, coming back to America was where I experienced all those expat kinds of things. I’ve been back for almost 14 years now (almost as long as I lived in France), and yet I still sometimes feel very out of place.

    • You mentioned that Americans don’t invite others to eat in their homes. I just hosted a couple who are working abroad and visiting the States. They were quite specific on their food choices. I ordered take out as a compromise as I thought eating at home is more personal. However, many people in the States are spoiled – it’s hard to fix meals that will satisfy everyone – the vegan, the vegetarian, the gluten-free person, the one who wants a dozen raw oysters (I live near the ocean), etc. My friends wanted expensive seafood that I didn’t have the time or equipment to fix properly. Yes, eating out is tiring but I have found since I moved back to the US that US people don’t appreciate home cooking very much.

  • I feel guilty asking for a break but I agree with you that they are needed and healthy. Little grassroots orgs don’t have systems to give breaks so it can require asking for one … if you’re working for people that never ever take a break taking one yourself gets to be odd. BUT — so what! I say take care of you and yours and know when enough is enough. Great post.

  • Tanya

    In China, many taxi drivers (and some other men) grow their pinky nails out VERY long. This long nail becomes a tool for nose and ear picking. Which is frequently done quite casually in front of, well, anyone. I haven’t followed suit, but have got to the point where it makes sense to me!

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  • Shari M

    I have only been in Cambodia for 2 years and have had to return to the states twice already for different reasons. Frankly, while I understand how it all works, I struggle to fit in. It all feels so foreign, so lavish. On my last trip “home” I was totally comfortable wearing the 3 black Tees, hoodie, and two pairs of jeans daily. Which was made possible by the incredible machines in the closet allowing me to wash and DRY my clothes as often as I needed.

  • Jocelyn Walmsley Jelsma

    Beautifully written… Thanks! I think we might need a break soon!:)

  • This is perfection. Seriously. The Nose-picking – every.where. So hard to train a four year old to not do it when he sees grown people doing it all over the place, in the middle of conversation, at the dinner table, walking down the street. It’s his ‘normal’. I take my cues from the mirror too – and I’m about at the hundred-year-old-lady stance. I’m past my time, after nearly two years in Tanzania, I love it here, but I’m ready for our break. Thanks for voicing the things I don’t have the energy to put words to! 🙂

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