Get up, stand up

There’s this thought that I saw first out of the corner of my mind’s eye that has now grown to the point that it’s drawn itself up directly in front of me. I have to crane my neck to see past it. I’m getting a bit of a crick, so I’ve decided to look it in the eye and stare it down.

I’ve let myself go. Not in the sense that my inimitably blunt brother once suggested, but in a more degrading way: I’ve let myself become dependant. I’ve gotten used to being afraid, and I'm living small as a result.

This is absolutely not the me I tell myself I am, or the one I want to be. Hopefully it’s not how others identify me, but it may only be that they haven’t looked from the right angle.

Like anything, it’s come on slowly. Each creeping notch was justifiable, or at least justified. I was pregnant, so there was no sense looking for work when my contract ran out. My husband found work in a small town I’d never heard of in a country whose language I don’t speak, so I was stranded on a sofa without anywhere to go or anyone to go with. We have no car, little need and no funds for one. With a baby in the house I wasn‘t often out of it. But her world is growing now, and it’s time mine did too.

I’m in language school. There’s a car in our future. I’ve been offered a little bit of work, and recently saw a position advertised that I might just apply for – though I doubt my language skills are developed enough for the workplace. But the trouble is not the tick-list, it’s the mentality.

Imagine for a moment that you couldn’t call your telecom company about your account, couldn’t determine what was in a can if the contents weren’t depicted on the label, had to sit for hours in driver’s ed classes where the visuals were the only comprehensible part, just so you could pay a large sum to defend a driver’s licence you’d had longer than your classmates had been out of diapers. Imagine you woke up one day with all your memories and skills intact but found you were suddenly deaf and illiterate.

That is the fate of a new immigrant.

The danger is in allowing these practical incapacities and dependencies to spill over into your self-concept. The challenge is in finding ways to remain who you think you are, when all the old tactics are removed. The lesson is that the woman in mismatched floral prints cleaning the grocery store at 10pm; the one whose school-aged child translates brochures for her in the doctor’s waiting room; the one who left her homeland years ago for reasons that seem obvious but who is still not integrated into her new society (because it’s unbelievably hard and there were always other things to do first and now it seems too late) is me.

The line between migration upheaval and primiparous upheaval is admittedly rather completely blurred in my case. No matter how I turn it, I've never found a way to disentangle those two events or their effects. Regardless, until I figure out how to be me in this context I’m going to keep driving my husband nuts as I try to improve any and all other aspects of our family life to fill the hole left by the loss of my personal one.

If you’ve got tips, suggestions, experiences or encouraging words, please share! Community-seeking is the driving aim of this blog; without feedback I’m just another crazy lady talking to herself in tongues.


  1. Hey Lauren.

    While I cannot possibly totally relate, I have definitely experienced that level of helplessness-so-why-bother feeling when in a foreign place where you don't speak the language. When I am/ was on my own I get around that... you just have to figure out how to deal with whatever situation even without understanding a word of the local language... but that tendency to let someone else deal with it (a colleague or partner usually) is so easy to fall into when they're available on a regular basis. After all, it's easier for him, it's not as frustrating for him, he can do it more quickly, why should I struggle? Even as an extremely independent woman, I find myself doing that and even sometimes getting frustrated when he doesn't offer to do it for me (why should I have to ask, doesn't he know how hard it is for me, how incapable it makes me feel to try and fail?)

    It is exacerbated when you're also in a period of change or upheaval (I'm thinking about the last two years when I was "between jobs" rather suddenly, and a new one just wasn't materializing very quickly and the consultancies were just not that interesting or numerous) when you can fall into the dangerous cycle of it all. I know that's not the same as what you went (are going) through, but with similarities albeit less severe.

    I can't say that I have any tips... I hopefully moved somewhat past this type of situation by taking radical steps (not that they were done deliberately to solve this issue for me) - changing countries (even though it meant turning my relationship into a long-distance one) and starting to actively look for consulting assignments (which has been picking up very nicely).

    I do know that when I'm back in Addis I am more willing to try and deal with something myself, or at least trying to decide where that line is instead of getting upset that he isn't taking care of everything for me. After all, there's a fine line between dependency and the simple fact that your partner does speak the local language and doing things is much easier for him, or at least much easier with his help and that's ok, that's part of being in a relationship.

    The question of how to be yourself is a tough one. "Get a hobby" sounds so flip, but it's not meant to be. I envy those who are artistic - things that don't require language or local context or even braving the outside world all the time (but can involve all three as they are comfortable). Apply for the job - don't worry about your language skills, they'll improve in context - and what you lack in language skills you bring with international experience that other applicants, more qualified perhaps in the language, might lack. I know our confidence in ourselves shouldn't be tied so strongly to being "productive" in a work environment, but sadly it often is - I know mine definitely improved when the work situation did.

    Just a few thoughts.

  2. Melissa, thank you for your reply. I didn't realise our situations had such similarities.

    My husband also does not imagine that I might appreciate being saved from the struggle and emarrassment of trying and failing - since he has been an expat himself, I am interested to know how this can be, and how to get some of that imperviousness myself.

    I do think working has a lot to do with everything. If I appear to be deaf and dumb but can retreat to my area of expertise and make myself useful, I can demonstrate my worth to society. That's very psychologically protective. Without this, or when my work has mutated into the world's second oldest profession and the only one everyone can criticize and no one has the expertise to judge the worth of, being percieved as deaf and dumb can easily become a judgement of personal value rather than of language proficiency.

    I wonder if this isn't a large contributor to the loss of professional confidence reported by so many women returning to the workforce after baby breaks.

    Thanks again for commenting; I really appreciate your openness and the ideas you've added to the conversation.

  3. This is an awesome post. I am wondering if you applied?
    It is amazing how quickly I can become "helpless." When I live alone - I love power tools. When I live with my husband, I am happy that I know the name of each tool so I can get it for him if he needs to fix something for me. Why is this?
    Also, I recently posted about how exhausted I am just "learning" to keep my kids alive everyday. This feeling bleeds into me thinking I don't want to learn another damn thing, ever.
    I have found in the past when I am getting really dependent on my husband, taking a trip on my own makes me feel like a competent grown- up again. Of course the opportunities for that have decreased dramatically with the addition of the second child in our family. But maybe it is a potential solution for you.
    Oh, and the language thing, you are brave, brave, brave as our all the immigrants around the world. It is amazing to me that the average human (white-bread American?) doesn't recognize that bravery.
    I have no sol

  4. I did apply, and was told the position had been taken by a local. Not in a mean or dodgy way, just a 'too slow you missed it' kind of way. That was my local continuing education unit, regarding a conversational English course - not that I have 10 second's training in teaching English. More recently I enquired generally at an international development thinktank closer to my husband's home town, and received a very prompt and very reassuring reply. Funny that the one I want wants me, and the one I'd make do with feels similarly.

    I had a few weeks at home in June and the confidence of conducting business over the phone, zipping out to run errands, interacting with officials, all that: edifying. Mundane, but reassuring to witness myself being competent at the mundane.

    I've been wondering about that late-night grocery store cleaner today. What does her family/village/other community know about her that her new community doesn't? Can she sing? Peel an apple in one strip? Was she a great help to her mother or worry to her father? Stepping away from those identifiers can be liberating, but how much of ourselves do we lose with them? When the big stuff is gone - profession, family ties - the value of the little stuff to let us feel seen and known, grows. That's not something I knew before I left the known.

  5. I like the comment about power tools - it is really similar - stuff you can do on your own when you're on your own, but when someone who might be able to do it more easily (drill a hole, speak the language, etc) is there we become "helpless". I wonder if men ever experience this? Lauren, I wonder if your hubby doesn't see it if it's because (1)he's not been in that "rely on someone else" sort of expat life OR if (see previous sentence) he's never experienced it because he's a guy?

    Taking a trip is a great idea - as was moving on my part. But now I'm heading back to Addis planning to split my off time between the US and Addis a little more evenly - and will try to figure out a balance between keeping my independence and letting him take care of some things because it is easier for him.

  6. Well, Lauren, you and I could talk for hours. I just wrote a long comment and then lost it all. I'll quickly try and recap.

    I admire you enormously for being willing to make the transition to a foreign language country. I think that must make the change 10x harder.

    Even when the language barrier doesn't exist, it is amazing what is expected of the traveling spouse, our transitions are expected to be seamelss. Heck, *I* expected it to be seamless. It wasn't until an uncharacteristic hysterical breakdown on the slopes while learning to ski, that I finally admitted I was in over my head.

    Transporting to a new culture is like being transported back in time to being 16 again. You have to relearn skills that you have been undertaking for years in your homeland - opening a bank account, learning to drive, fighting the authorities (who speak worse English than you do) for a piece of paper that will allow you to do the most basic of things - humiliating and exhausting. Humbling. Even with a good, open minded attitude it gets wearisome.

    Add to that a relationship with someone who is living on their home turf - who now as an authority and power base, you simply are unable to match - and you have a tricky relationships dynamic to manage. And one that doesn't go away, maybe never until a seismic change in the relationship occurs to change the power base.

    Well, that wasn't a quick recap, was it? Like I said I think you and I could talk for hours. I'm not sure how big our club is. I certainly haven't come across too many on my travels.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Alison! I *hate* it when comments get eaten; I've heard a few people have had problems commenting on my blog, but never worked out what the problem was.
    We should start a club. Membership free, unless you count adrenal damamge ;)

  8. Ah yes, the adrenal damage...Know all about that. ;-)