15 Strange Habits I Picked Up Overseas

by Rachel Pieh Jones on August 16, 2019

Living abroad changes a person. Here are some examples.

No shoes in the house. People in Minnesota tell me to make myself at home and leave my shoes on. I struggle. I want to take them off. In Djibouti there could be goat/camel/sheep/human poop on those shoes, or road kill juice, or simply a lot of dirt. Plus, a house without a pile of shoes at the front door is a lonely house.

Kissy-face or tilted chin or tongue sticking out. Instead of using a ‘pointer’ finger to indicate a direction or to point something out, I use ‘pointer’ lips and ‘pointer’ tongue and ‘pointer’ chin.

Cupping my hand to call someone. Waggling one finger is how you call a dog. I hold my hand out, palm down, and bring all four fingers toward the fleshy part of my palm.

Farmer-blowing in the street (only while running though!) and spitting. Gross. Sorry. But yeah, I do it.

Kissing cheeks and no hugs. I used to view the French-style cheek kisses as inherently sexual. Now I much prefer them to full-frontal hugs. Which is more invasive: Brushing cheeks together while making juicy smooching noises or full body contact and squeezing? I still haven’t figured out how many kisses, who to kiss and when, but I still prefer it.

Inhaling. I inhale often, and sharply. It means something like, uh-uh, or I’m listening.

On-and-off showers. I turn off the water while shampooing, shaving, sudsing and then turn it back on to rinse. Off again. On again. This isn’t because of temperature issues exclusively (we onlyhave too cold, except when we onlyhave too hot). Showers are not designed to keep water inside a contained space. A shower means the entire bathroom gets doused so to minimalize the pool-effect, I turn the water on and off. Also, we have limited amounts of water, so doing this ensures we can also wash dishes, do laundry, and that others will get showers.

Insha Allah. When talking about the future I feel incomplete if I don’t add something like insha Allah. God willing. Hopefully. As far as I can tell. Maybe, maybe not.

Using the optative. May you be healthy! May God heal you! May you not hit that donkey cart! May you lower the price! Strangely, in Somali, this is sufficient. But when I use it in English, hand motions accompany the words, salute-like, and I feel like I’m sending the person I’m speaking to off into battle. I didn’t even know what an optative was until I started studying Somali but now I find it wonderfully useful.

Layers. The hotter it gets, the more clothes I wear. This is because sweat is ugly and makes me feel uncomfortably exposed. So I wear one or two or three layers that soak up the sweat while the outer layer still looks fresh.

No public displays of affection. My husband and I rarely hold hands and when we do, it is awkward and limp. We only recently started kissing in the airport upon arrival or departure and then a chaste peck on the cheek with a shoulder pat.

Irregular toilet flushing. If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown, flush it down. Sometimes flush toilet paper, sometimes put toilet paper in the garbage, sometimes hide toilet paper under the nearest rock. I promise not to do that while visiting your home. Unless you live in certain locations, then you just never know.

Sleeping in the middle of the day. Lovely.

Bizarre exclamations and hand gestures. Ish! Hoh. Waryaa. Sow ma aha? Donc. Quoi? Pour quoi pas? Wiggling my earlobe or poking the side of my nose, all tacked onto the end of otherwise normal English sentences.

Twirling conversations. Americans don’t tend to face each other while talking, but stand shoulder to shoulder. This feels strange and cold so I turn to face them, possibly step closer, may even make physical contact. They then rotate slightly, back away, and flinch. I respond again. All this is subconscious, but it inevitably means we turn in full circles while talking.

I could go on…we’ve been abroad a long time now and I think I’m starting to lose touch of what is American and what isn’t.

Have you noticed any of your own strange habits? 


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