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.
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.
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