The Normal Fallacy

The Normal Fallacy

I stopped believing in ‘normal’ a long time ago and I can pinpoint the moment when the loss of that belief crystalized for me. I was in Minnesota, sitting in a hot tub at my parents’ home. Friends and family were eating brats and hot dogs, playing raucous games of spoons, enjoying the view of the lake and grass and oak trees. Someone asked me, “What is different about your life in Djibouti from life here?”

I froze.

Uh…hot tub? Brats? Hot dog? Spoon games? Lakes? Grass? Oak trees? Family? Where should I start?

What is different? Nothing. My kids go to school, I grocery shop, I pray, I cook, I visit friends, my husband and I go for walks.

What is different? Everything. My kids go to French school and now boarding school. I shop at three stores, the market, the bread delivery man, the dukaan across the street, and the vegetable stall down the block. I pray for people I never would have known before, challenges I never could have fathomed before. I cook everything from bread to barbecue sauce from scratch. I visit friends and speak multiple different languages, sometimes while wearing a headscarf or abaya. My husband and I go for walks but we don’t touch and we dodge goats, camels, and kids who want to follow us.

This all feels normal now.

It wouldn’t feel normal to a freshly-arrived person.

Minnesota sort of feels normal but also doesn’t in any way feel normal. It feels like a nostalgic normal.

Looking at my Djibouti life from a Minnesotan perspective, this is what I conclude:

  1. It is not normal to go into a grocery store, rip open a box of ice cream bars, and only purchase one.
  2. It is not normal to turn left from the right hand lane.
  3. It is not normal to pick worms out of flour.
  4. It is not normal to kill tweny-seven cockroaches in one morning in one room.
  5. It is not normal for white laundry to come out clean but gray, because of the water.
  6. It is not normal to say, “I feel cold,” and “What a beautiful day,” when the sky is thick with clouds and the temperature drops to 95.
  7. It is not normal to eat lunch as a family every single day and to almost never eat dinner as a family.
  8. It is not normal to hear “Je vais au suuqa pour eegayaa les shiids” or to say it, and to totally understand it. (This is what we call Fromali – a French-Somali hybrid that people often slip into here).
  9. It is not normal for candles to melt when they are not near a flame.
  10. It is not normal to buy baguettes from a green wooden cart.

Oh wait a second. These things are entirely normal. They are my normal. They just aren’t your normal. They didn’t used to be my normal but they were always somebody’s normal.

So I decided, normal is a fallacy.

Normal is a lie we’ve chosen to believe because then we can judge and categorize and feel good (or bad) about ourselves. We can feel comfortable or uncomfortable, like we fit in or are completely out of place. Standards of living, clothing styles, church service preferences, driving habits, interpersonal interactions…the list could go on and on of all the things we categorize as normal when they are done the way we are used to them being done.

But the thing is, this list of 10 things I wrote? Those are all ‘normal.’ They always have been, probably always will be, for thousands and thousands of people. One of the first things that needs to go when expatriates face the culture stripping shock of moving abroad is an insistence that things be ‘normal.’

How do we do that? First, toss the word. Then, open yourself to new ways of doing life. Don’t expect things, life, people to be the way you are used to. Create a space for your own normal and your family’s own normal but recognize that this normal is limited to you and your family. Be flexible to see, welcome, and celebrate another person’s normal.

Do you think normal is a fallacy? What are some new ‘normals’ in your expat life that you hadn’t anticipated?

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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