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10 years ago. Spring 2003. I was teaching at the University of Nouakchott. That year, I was the only American, the only Westerner, on campus, although I was later joined by a Canadian woman (Hi Louise!) and an American couple. I stood out, on the campus and in the city in general. A blonde American, wearing long skirts and heeled sandals, with 3 young children usually in tow–I was always surprised when taxi drivers remembered me, but in hindsight I was perhaps a bit clueless.
We’d discussed it, of course, between us as a family and with other expatriates during our weekly beach trips. Friends from Norway, England, Switzerland, and Oregon tended to be on one side (against), while the majority of the Americans tended to be for the potential invasion. I officially decided I thought it was a bad idea. I wanted to state that, so that I could avoid later saying, “I knew it at the time” and everyone else saying, “No you didn’t!” But it wasn’t all that clear-cut. We got our news very second-hand then. Not everyone even had a satellite dish. We personally had an antenna on the roof, often blown off by the hot desert winds. We got two stations: Mauritanian television (MTV) and a German station that broadcast everything twice, once in German and once in English. Our internet connection was usually non-existent, and we used to do something called “flash sessions” to get our email, since connection was over $4/minute. (This was only 10 years ago but I feel kind of like grandma telling the kids how she used to take a horse and buggy to school).
At the French school, another American family reported a case of bullying over nationalities. Their son was thrown up against a wall and threatened. It was for this reason we discussed it with our kids, although they had no problems, not then at that school.
At the University, there were signs of unrest. Once as I was leaving after a class, I saw a large group of young men waving the Iraqi flag and forming up a protest. They were gathering in the middle of a road down which I normally walked to catch a taxi. I turned and went the other way before they saw me, feeling that was wisdom. One of my students told me, “Listen, if your country invades Iraq, don’t come to class. If something happens and you’re already here, don’t worry. We’ll protect you. But it’s best if you don’t come.” The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.
We did invade, of course. The administration instantly declared a “Spring Holiday” and cancelled classes for a month. By the time I returned, somewhat warily, things were calm again on the streets of Nouakchott, after demonstrators had burned tires (why does that make a statement? it’s never made sense to me) and had some fun smashing a few random items.
I didn’t know then that 10 years after, I’d be back in Oregon, living in the green and grey again after those years in the heat and dryness and the days of blowing sand, comfortable again in jeans and boots. I didn’t know that my days would be spent with those whose lives began to be torn apart on that day, filled with death and destruction, loss of limbs, loss of daughters, husbands, aunts and cousins, best friends from childhood. The stories haunt me now; the woman running down the street carrying her toddler and realizing that the child had been shot and killed and what she was carrying was a corpse; the man betrayed by a colleague and kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, riddled with bullets that left him paralyzed from the waist down; the children caught in cross-fire between 2 opposing armies and one panicking and running, running, into the street towards home and perceived safety while her agonized friend watched her die. These are stories of war, and are probably typical, although I don’t think they ever should be.
Why did they happen and what was accomplished? That is the question that I and apparently most of the media are asking. All week I have seen and heard news stories, many of them of the “where are they now?” variety. All of the stories are sad, although some of them have found some degree of closure. All carry terrible scars, mostly internal, psychological–whether they participated as American soldier or Iraqi civilian. My Iraqi friends are stoic, filled with black humor. I read of an appalling suicide rate amongst soldiers who survived the combat. And in the end, the why isn’t perhaps the most important part, but the how and where do we go now? I pray it is towards hope and healing, although there’s little in the history of this planet to inspire me.
A few weeks ago, I was making lunch. I took up a roma tomato to slice, and noticed it had a bad spot at one end. I cut off about a third, cut 3 or 4 slices, and had an equal amount left. I tossed the bad bit in the trash and then realized I’d accidentally thrown the good bit away. It was sitting right on top of the trash can, atop a pile of perfectly clean papers that Donn had cleaned out of his car and should have put in the recycling. So I rescued it. I heard a sort of strangled sound and looked up to see two of Elliot’s friends, two teenaged boys, staring at me in abject horror. “You just took food out of the trash can?” one of them almost whispered.
I was gentle. I didn’t mock them (to their faces). I didn’t tell them about people who dumpster dive. Instead, I washed off the offending bit, just to appease them, although they were definitely unappeased, even when I ate it myself so they wouldn’t have to worry about getting it served to them. I explained, but to no avail. Apparently if their mothers threw away a perfectly good third of a tomato by mistake, there it would lie, undisturbed, even if it landed in a nest of clean receipts from gas stations.
The other day, I had to buy a new mop. I was looking at those Swisher mops and wondering if they were any good. I asked the girl working at Target. “Yeah it works great. I used to have one, but I didn’t like it,” she told me. When I asked why, she said, “After you mop the floor, you have to take off the towel, and you have to touch it, and it’s really gross.”
I know you’re thinking, but these are young people, who have never raised children, changed diapers, dealt with toddlers who have no concept of trying to make it to the bathroom before anything unfortunate happens. And you are right. But I think this is symptomatic of something larger. I wrote once, years ago now, about a time I saw a mother who wouldn’t let her daughter drink from a drinking fountain because it was “dirty.” Even before I lived overseas I wasn’t too uptight, but living in the desert definitely stretched me, to where I am more worried about wasting food than I am about possible germs that might be on perfectly clean paper. Years of drinking three rounds of sweet mint tea from tiny glasses that aren’t washed between rounds, only rinsed, or shaking hands with children who live in tents with no running water and very little daily hygiene, changes your perspective. The concept of double-dipping just isn’t going to gross out the person who’s bought fly-covered meat with the hoof still attached from an outdoor vendor who’s sitting in the baking sun, or taken a large bite out of a sandwich only to find half a locust baked into it. (I’m still grossed out by goat intestines though, just so you know)
That said, there are times when even I want to whisper in a strangled voice, “Please tell me you didn’t just do that.” There was the time I watched L dressing a salad. She sprinkled on lemon juice and olive oil and salt, then plunged her unwashed hands in to mix it. (No problems) Then she lifted out a strip of lettuce, touched it to her tongue, nodded, and dropped it back in the bowl.
Two weeks ago, I was visiting L and her 2 year-old niece, an adorable child with enormous eyes and a head of tangled curls. The child had a cold, complete with husky voice and nasty cough. We were sitting in L’s room, eating Doritos from the enormous stack she keeps underneath her bed, when the toddler pointed to a bright shiny pink lip gloss. “She loves it,” explained L, applying it to the child’s lips. The child then pointed at me, and before I could stop her, L had put the same lip gloss on me. I didn’t say anything, but in my head I was staring at her in abject horror. I knew I was going down, and sure enough a few days later I woke up croaky myself. That was also the visit where the child wanted gum so L just gave her half of what she already had in her mouth. Ew.
But I sometimes have a hard time straddling the two worlds. It’s not uncommon for my Iraqi friends to eat from a serving bowl with the same spoon they are using for their own private plates. I don’t care–I’ve had years of training–but the scary thing is that I may be getting too relaxed. Surely it’s only a matter of time before I move from grossing out the sensitive teens to grossing out my friends, to where I forget and plunge my own personal spoon into the guacamole, and double and triple dip my chips.
(I made a Mauritanian dish the other night and we all ate on the floor, with our hands, for old times’ sake)
So where do you fall on the germaphobe scale? Do you freak out if other people double-dip, or take a drink from your glass? Or does it require something more like sharing lip gloss with a 2 year old to bother you? Have I ever grossed you out?
During our time at the beach, I mostly took a break from the news, although I did hear about the Iraqi woman bludgeoned to death in California, which had me worried about all my Iraqi friends worrying about it. It was nice, though, to take a few days off from photos of starving people (Mauritania et al) and tanks rolling through neighbourhoods and indiscriminately killing all (Syria). I do realize how blessed I am that I can opt out of these horrors; for those living in such a world, no such breaks are possible.
However, as I read the Hunger Games books (I’ve finished the second one, Catching Fire, and am now reading the 3rd, Mockingjay. Yaay, I’m on my computer again and can do links), pictures from the news kept appearing in my head, as I read of bombs destroying buildings and targeting hospitals, and the desperate poverty of the districts. I recently read an interview with author Susanne Collins, and she said the idea for the trilogy came to her as she switched TV channels and saw images of the Iraq war just after watching reality TV. As I read, I can’t help making comparisons to actual war, actual starvation, and actual privilege. It’s sobering. I read about the decadence of the Capitol, where at parties, people drink ipecac so that they can vomit and eat more. I couldn’t help but compare life in America, where people spend billions on their pets every year, to the family that lived opposite our house in Mauritania, in a tent, and took my kids’ torn and stained clothes and broken toys and were not just gracious, but thrilled.
When we moved, we gave them our faded cushions and broken water heater (they wanted it for a table) and basically doubled their possessions. They used to knock on our door and ask for a bucket of water–their allotment for the day.
The Hunger Games are also a reflection on reality TV, and how it can desensitize viewers. I have a memory nagging at me, from a comic strip. I think it was Bloom County, back in the 80s, and they’re watching TV and can’t figure out if it’s a movie or the news, and someone says, “Please tell me if I should be enjoying this!” At the movie the other night, the mostly-teen audience applauded one of the killings, and I could understand it–the girl was horrible, about to kill Katniss and mocking her too. But still. Elliot started to join in the applause and I stopped him.
One thing I loved about the books is they show the toll that participating in something like that would have on you, even if you won, if you survived and were “the victor.” I actually ended up loving the books, which I didn’t anticipate. But they leave you thinking about them, about implications, about how reality TV and violent movies affect how we view the world, about how we’re all connected as people, about violence in general and the different justifications used to allow it.
So Elliot wrote a short essay. He’s entered to win some sort of scholarship, and the first round is basically a popularity contest. It doesn’t make sense to me. If I was going to give $5000 to help some kid go to college, and I assigned them an essay topic of “The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned in my Life,” I wouldn’t make winning dependent on getting other people to “like” your essay. But what do I know? I don’t give away $5000 scholarships either.
His essay isn’t really all that connected to the topic of this post, but it is, a bit, in a way. Anyway, it’s short, only one paragraph. There are a few typos, but give him a break. Please go vote for him. Just click this link.
Long-time readers already know that Ilsa, my daughter, is what’s known as an avid reader. She devours books, gulps them down whole, like a puppy being fed chunks of steak. I can’t remember when she first read “The Hunger Games” trilogy but I think it was when we first came back to the US from Morocco, when she was 13.
Ilsa’s version of packing for a two-day trip
I didn’t read them. I realized early on that the only way to keep up with her was to read a lot of kids’ books, and just between you and me, I don’t want to read a lot of kids’ books. Some kids’ books, sure. But I have neither time nor inclination to read “Twilight,” for example, although I read the first one, so that I could warn her off modeling herself on a young woman with an unhealthy boy-crazy obsession, and also so that I, too, could count my favorite vampire as purple and sparkling.
Although I already did…
When Ilsa knew that they were making a movie of the Hunger Games, she obsessed, along with most other people who share her age, gender and nationality. She showed me the trailer umpteen times. She showed me pictures of the actors. She realized that the movie would release a mere 3 weeks after her birthday and early on began begging to go on opening night, as a birthday present.
A couple of weeks ago, she said if we were going we had to buy tickets right then. Shows were selling out. I was skeptical, but I agreed. We’d already had the dread “you’re not coming with me are you mom?” discussion. I had pointed out that if I didn’t go, she couldn’t go, unless she could find another adult that I knew and trusted to drive her home at 3 a.m. I offered to not sit with her, instead to sit behind her and enjoy the movie in the manner in which I chose, which may or may not include making kissy noises, and saying “I love you Ilsa” in the quiet moments.
But I couldn’t go to the movie without having read the book, my kids told me. They sat me down and handed me the book. Like I said, I’d avoided reading it. I knew the basic premise, and I found that really depressing. I really do not get the current fascination for dystopian fiction. How is bathing their minds in it going to affect the future of these kids? Will they be more open to totalitarianism, viewing it as inevitable or more alert and guarded against it?
So I finally read it. It’s good. I can see why it’s garnered all the fuss. I found the violence as disturbing as I’d expected to, true, but I kind of fell for the character of Katniss, the protagonist. She’s this scrappy, tough girl, who’s been solely responsible for feeding and caring for her mother and younger sister since her father died. This is a poor family in a poor district. She’s been so wounded that she’s closed herself up tight, and she’s so busy just surviving that she never stops to notice what other people think of her. When Peeta, her fellow “tribute,” expresses his feelings for her, she doesn’t believe him, but assumes he’s only doing it to gain the crowd’s favor. Her life has had so little genuine kindness that she has a hard time recognizing it.
We had tickets for the 12:30 a.m. showing last night. We left at 11, picked up Ilsa’s friend Sarah and arrived at the theatre at 11:30, an entire hour before the film was supposed to start. I felt this was far too early but as it turned out, the kids were right. The lines were already down the block. Even though we had our tickets, we had to wait to get in. Portland is having the wackiest March ever–we’ve had more snow this month than the previous two winters put together. The kids had their first and only snow day (well, two-hour delay) on March 22nd, that morning. So temperatures were in the 30s as we joined the end of a very long line, where we stood for an hour.
I have never done this before. I miss cultural phenomena; I don’t line up for iPads or text American Idol. I don’t even twitter. So this was kind of fun for me. It was mostly a drag though. I was actually sick yesterday, spent the day in bed, was rocking a really good headache as we stood there in the cold, slowly losing the feeling in our extremities. They kept us out there until 12:20, when they finally let us in. The show was supposed to be sold out, but there were only a few people sitting in the front section, and although the back 2/3rds was crowded, we had no problem finding seats.
So I’ve never gone to a movie with a crowd of teens before. It was pretty fun. Everyone came to this movie with an opinion. There were cheers for Peeta’s first appearance and for Gale’s. Everyone clapped and cheered at the first kiss. People yelled and applauded and it was alternately fun and annoying. The movie was intense and well done, although I felt they lost some of the nuances that made me like Katniss so much in the book. I didn’t hate it though; in fact, there was a part I thought was better than the book. I’m not saying in case you don’t want it spoiled, although frankly I doubt I have any readers that care all that much. Seriously, it’s a good movie. Intense.
Elliot and I left the theatre immediately afterwards then waited just outside for seemingly hours for everyone else to come out–they waited till the end of the credits. I saw a lot of home made Hunger Games t-shirts, including some boys who were on Team Katniss. I’m glad she has her own team! By the time we took Sarah home and got ourselves home, made coffee for the morning, and got to bed, it was 4 a.m. I made the teens go to school the following day. Elliot claims to feel good about his IB Chemistry exam but we’ll see.
While I was sitting in the theatre at 12:30 waiting for the movie to start, my friend texted me: “You’re such a cool mom!” I wrote back: “There’s a slim line between cool and stupid.” “Slim is good,” she replied.
I am reading a fascinating book which posits that we would all be better off if we had hookworms in our guts. Somehow, this would help prevent, or at least reduce the occurrence of, such diseases as diabetes, allergies, and Crohn’s Disease. In The Wild Life of Our Bodies, author Rob Dunn looks at how we’ve gotten rid of bacteria both harmful and helpful without distinction, and makes the case for some people who have introduced worms into their super-clean and sterilized American intestines, often with good results.
I am thinking about this as I watch Leah, an Iraqi girl, make a salad. Her mother has already cut lettuce in strips and added finely-cut cucumber and tomato, then drizzled it with olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of salt. Leah plunges her unwashed hands into the salad bowl to mix it. Then she touches a bit of lettuce to her tongue to taste the dressing. It’s okay, so she drops the lettuce back in to the bowl with the rest of the salad.
When I invited M and W over to try Mexican food for the first time, they ate guacamole with the serving spoon then put it back in the bowl. Their daughter takes the sugar spoon, takes a big bite, and puts it back in the sugar. I don’t throw it away later.
This is far beyond the double-dipping which is so decried at American parties. And it happens at every meal. Dishes are served in medium sized bowls, placed every 2 or 3 people, and you just take your spoon and dip it in the nearest bowl of yogurt or lamb/okra stew or hummous, take a bite, and then use the same spoon to take a bite of something else. No problems!
Fortunately I have lived overseas so this amuses me more than bothers me. In Mauritania, meals were served in a large common platter, and we all gathered round and scooped up the rice and meat with our hands or a bit of bread. When tea was served, you always had to have three rounds. It was the height of rudeness to leave after having had only one or two cups. The cups were always rinsed in between rounds, but the same water might be used between all 3 rounds, and certainly there was no soap involved.
I have written before on my view that America has become too regulated, in our attempt to control anything bad that could possibly happen to any of us, ever. (Click on these links; I really liked those posts) It’s strange to watch people fussing over small things like their kids (gasp!) sharing a coke, between a brother and sister; it feels false, like a silly thing to worry about when some people have real problems.
So, you are thinking, I am probably in total agreement with The Wild Life of Our Bodies? Um, no. Not entirely, although I should mention I am barely halfway through the book yet. (Do you read nonfiction more slowly than fiction? I do.) The problem is that I have had worms, and giardia, and other intestinal visitors, and they did not make me healthier. They made me miserable, albeit a bit thinner. And while it is true that none of us have allergies or Crohn’s, I have a friend who raised her son in the dirt-laden sands of Nouakchott and he nonetheless developed severe nut allergies.
The thing is, there will always be something. We have beat the odds overall as a civilization has developed; we are safer and live longer, in general, than at any other time in history. But this world is still broken, imperfect. We are not going to win. We’re still mortal, and just because we’ve beaten the flu and the measles, it’s not surprising that we are now at higher risk from allergies or autism. Even if we ingest hook-worms and that helps, we’re still at risk of a car accident, or random freak tsunami. The world is ultimately not controllable.
So I’m all for not fearing a few germs. I enjoy eating with my Iraqi friends and sharing all our colds and coughs with each other. I would even posit that I’m healthier than a lot of people, in spite of not currently having any parasites that I’m aware of. But I’m under no illusions. We’re not the ones in control.
I am with my new Moroccan friend and we go into an Apple store. She wants to buy an iPhone to take back to Morocco with her. Donn and I saw them for sale when we lived in Morocco, in the medina, but they were expensive and we never really looked into them. It makes sense that if you want one, you get it here if you have the chance.
My friend speaks English well, but with an accent. She is dressed in what I describe as modern Arab woman—modest, but Western clothing, in a certain specific style. I think you can tell she is foreign, but maybe my eyes are sharper to this than most.
A young man comes up to ask if he can help us. She tells him she is interested in a phone and asks what she will need to do to use it when she gets back. “You change the code, yes?” she says.
“What?” he says.
“The code? Is that the right word? You change it?” she explains. She is obviously sincere, honestly seeking information.
The man’s face flushes right up to the roots of his short, messy blonde hair. “If you are talking about jailbreaking and codebreaking, we don’t do that of course!” he says loudly. “If you are talking about BREAKING THE LAW we don’t do that!”
I notice my friend’s face flushing as well. She looks distressed. I step in. “She lives overseas,” I explain. “She can’t buy a plan.”
“She HAS to buy a plan,” the young man practically shouts as us. He is obviously very offended. “The only way for her to use the phone is to buy a plan. But you’ll pay HUNDREDS in roaming charges,” he tells her, turning to her again with a withering glare.
After that, she just wants to leave the store. She is humiliated. She has been shouted at for asking an innocent question. Later, in Best Buy, I talk to the guy selling phones and he explains to me the Apple salesman’s reaction. Apparently it is illegal to buy/sell/use iPhones overseas. (Never mind that Apple has an excessively overpriced store in downtown Rabat, which I wish I’d remembered before now. I would have brought it up to that guy). “You can break the code though; I’ve done it on mine,” he offers, pulling the phone out of his pocket. “It’s not illegal anymore.” “Jailbreaking” isn’t either, I learn from Wikipedia later (after first learning what it is), although it voids Apple’s warranty, and understandably they’re not too thrilled about it.
My friend is too traumatized to look at cell phones anymore though. I do my best to cheer and comfort her, and I hope she ends up forgetting it.
As humans, we assume that other humans have basically the same code of right and wrong as we do. Oh sure, they may choose to live by different standards, but they know in their heart that they’re making bad choices. Right? When we see them breaking what we KNOW is right, we get angry.
I had this explained to me by someone during our first years in Mauritania. It helped me understand why I got angry when I saw men peeing by the roadside, not even really hiding it. I was angry because it offended something I saw as absolute, basic. You don’t openly urinate where innocent passersby might see what should be hidden. I have the right to walk to my children’s school without seeing this. I didn’t though. And the guys I kept walking past obviously subscribed to a different point of view, like, it’s better than wetting your pants. After all, this wasn’t a place with public toilets.
I understood why the young salesman was offended. He assumed that it is illegal in Morocco to break the code, that my friend knew that and wanted to do it anyway, and was asking openly, blatantly, shamelessly, for his help.
But I also knew my friend had no idea. I don’t know if it’s even illegal in Morocco to break the code and use an iPhone; I suspect it is not. This is a place where pirated DVDs are sold openly, and indeed there is no place that sells non-pirated DVDs. You can’t just buy them on Amazon either, as Amazon detects you are in Morocco and refuses to complete your order, just in case you’re not who you say you are.
He made an assumption about her, that she had been exposed to the same standards as he had, that she had been taught as he had. He was wrong. I don’t even fault him. I think we all do this, in daily life. I know I’ve done it plenty of times. But as someone who has crossed cultures and now works to help others cross into my own home culture, it made me a little sad. It’s easy to assume. It’s harder to really look and listen, especially when you think you see just another customer, just another foreigner wanting to cheat you.
(note: In case it’s not clear, this happened the night that they all came for dinner. It needed its own post though)
I was thinking of George Macdonald’s fairy tale “The Light Princess” the other day. The entire story is a pun about the two meanings of lightness; the princess floats and laughs, and only learns to sink and walk the earth when she experiences sadness, heaviness of spirit, for the first time.
The twins are gaining weight too. I see it in their eyes, in how they walk. Abel in particular has studied two very heavy issues in school this year; slavery and the Holocaust. He’s reading a horrific autobiography, written by a Polish man who survived 5 different death camps, heard about his father’s brutal murder from an eyewitness he met in one of those camps. The man is still alive and lives locally; he’s supposed to visit the class at the end of this unit. Abel is very excited about this.
It’s not that it’s new to them, this weight of the world we live in. They had picture books of Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman (I know; sounds horrible to me too, but they were very well done). They have grown up in a country where, walking out the door in the morning, they were confronted by a large family living in a tent, no electricity or running water. The family used to ring our doorbell and present us with an enormous bucket, which we would fill from our tap, and then watch them lug it across the open sandy space separating our tiled and shaded home from their ragged-edge living quarters. The twins had Mauritanian friends from school whose families still had slaves, although they were euphemistically called “sisters” and “brothers.” We would visit and watch the dark-skinned “sister” hanging out the laundry and bringing us drinks while the lighter-skinned “sister” took Ilsa to her room to play. I don’t know how much of this they realized at the time, however.
The twins have experienced two deaths of people close to them; one the father of their friends who was shot in the street, one a woman they called “aunt” who taught them French, who was brutally murdered by a man whom, up until that time, they had called “uncle.” On top of that, they lost their grandmother, my mother, 18 months ago. They have said multiple goodbyes to friends and places, experienced civil unrest and a parent struggling with depression. These things have added gravitas, weight, to their lives. But I watched them tuck these things away with the resilience of childhood. Events may shape our lives and characters, but sometimes they are buried deep.
Part of maturing is realizing that these things happen to everyone, around the world. Knowing that people are dying in Brazilian landslides and Haitian cholera, that your good friend is missing a week of school because there is rioting near his home in Tunis, that a friend’s 17 year-old sister just lost all her hair to chemotherapy. Wondering how the family continues to cope without their father; it’s been a year and a half now.
Of course I want my children to be aware of the suffering that goes on in the world, to be sympathetic and concerned and do what they can to help. Being able to articulate your own experiences helps with this, I think, and that comes with age. Being aware of others is part of why we chose to raise them overseas. We wanted them to have a broader view of the world. (There’s a partial answer for those of you who asked why we moved initially. I have not forgotten those questions. I’m just saving them up for when I can’t think of anything else to write about)
But it’s interesting to watch them, in this transition from childhood to adolescence, young adulthood. They’re 13 ½. Maybe it’s just the accumulated weight, and their age is coincidence, but I think that it’s more, that it’s burgeoning maturity, adding weight to their eyes, to their knowledge of the world.
I really don’t want to eat a plateful of salty, greasy fried eggs with my hands at 10:00 in the morning, not that long after I had a bowl of healthy cereal and a large cup of really strong coffee (black). But I do. I dig in, tearing off bits of thin wheat flatbread and segments of American cheese (known in our house as plastic cheese, because of both its wrapping and flavour). I sip at sweet black tea, a tiny glass brimming with hot tea with about 4 teaspoons of sugar stirred in. It is so over-the-top that I start an instant sugar headache.
I’m not losing any weight these days.
What I am doing is working with an organization that assists newly arrived Iraqi refugees. Who knew there were so many of them in the Portland area? Within about 3 miles of my house, there are over 30 families in various stages of culture shock, possession of the English language, and basic, overall adjustment. And I need to respect them, and their culture. I am helping them and they are returning the favor as best they can, by feeding me. I am their guest, so they must feed me. I know the rules, unspoken but binding, and so I eat eggs and cheese even though I’m not in the least bit hungry.
I am sitting in a spotless but mostly empty apartment. This family has only beds, one couch, a table and some mismatched chairs to their names, yet every day that carpet is vacuumed when I arrive. The 13 year old son goes out in a t-shirt, and his father tells me he’s always hot—the truth is he doesn’t have a coat yet. The 12 year old daughter wears sandals through the sodden puddles of a bitter November day.
I have been helping them get their kids registered in school, a process made more complicated by the fact that they don’t speak English or French, and my Arabic is minimal and from a completely different part of the world. The first day, we registered the 15 year old and the 13 year old at a middle school, but the next day the school phones me and asks to set up an appointment with an interpreter; they are going to put the 15 year old in high school, and move the 12 year old up to middle school. When I tell the children this, they get incredulous grins. “Me…high school?” says the boy. When I say yes, he gives me a huge smile then asks again, just to make sure he got it right.
So on Wednesday, we all set off—6 kids, 2 parents, and me—and arrived only 20 minutes late for our appointment, which I considered a job well done.
Now I’m going to back up a minute. You might remember how, here and here, and kind of here, I was sort of griping about the American schools. I haven’t become their biggest fan, but I’m definitely doing better. I was impressed, at parent-teacher conferences several weeks ago, how well the teachers actually knew my kids, and how much they are doing to push them in the right direction. (Sorry, my diction is off. I meant “how much they are encouraging them to reach their full potential.” Now wouldn’t that sound better on a website?)
But this meeting. There’s the refugee family and the interpreter and me and the counselor and ESL coordinator, all in a windowless room with brightly-coloured posters and industrial table and chairs. The counselor starts off. He gestures widely. “Please tell them,” he says to the interpreter, “how very happy we are that they are here. We hope they will feel welcome. They are safe here. We want to help each of them succeed at learning and becoming who they want to be.”
The whole meeting has this tone. It comes out that the children haven’t really ever gone to school, except the 15 year old who only went to grades 1 and 2. With the war, it just wasn’t safe. The parents were worried about roadside bombs, shootings, kidnappings, and kept their kids home. Every night their sleep was disturbed. Every day the father was threatened because he worked security for an American company.
The interpreter is an Arabic woman who lived in France for several years, and you can tell from her outlook. “So they know nothing,” she tells the counselor, somewhat dismissively. “They can’t even read and write in Arabic. They will have to start at the beginning.” I suppress a tiny grin at this. I know my cultures a bit, and this way of expressing things reflects her background perfectly. I suppress another grin as the school counselor tells the kids, “It will be overwhelming at first but don’t worry—soon you’ll get it and we will make it as fun as possible.” I doubt that “having fun at school” is a concept they’ve been introduced to before.
Throughout the whole (long) meeting, the school expresses hope, that learning can happen and that it can be fun. The kids are all given new backpacks stuffed with school supplies, and the 6 year old just freezes onto her backpack, too overwhelmed to even smile. “Does she like it?” asks the school secretary, and I assure her. I doubt this child has ever had anything like this pink Disney princess backpack to call her own before, much less the brand-new packs of crayons and pencils inside it.
Everyone is welcoming and reassuring. It can’t be easy, taking in older children who don’t read or write English and don’t know math or science or history and hoping to get them through high school in a semi-timely manner, but you wouldn’t know it from how they smile, how they effuse, how they make comments like “You can just tell they are bright kids.” They have researched their files to find other students who speak Arabic, who can help the kids adjust. They are pulling in all the resources they can to help with ESL and math tutoring and everything that will be needed.
And in my cantankerous grumpy old heart, I’m glad. Oh sure, one can complain at the excess of self-esteem classes, and I do and will continue to do so. But the belief that each child can succeed is going to go a long way with this family.
Ilsa has done the following class work in the 4 first days of school: written a paper on herself for English class, done a collage on herself for Social Studies, written 3 things about herself on an index card for “extension” class. (which is sort of like Study Hall, only more formal) Abel has brought home syllabus after syllabus for me to sign. “Congratulations!” they say at the top. “You made it to 8th Grade!” They all let us know that no hate speech of any kind, no sexual harassment, will be tolerated. None of them tell us what books the children will be reading, or what topics they will be studying.
Elliot shows me something for his Spanish class. It lists the books he will need (provided by the school—in Morocco and Mauritania, we had to buy our own, so this is nice!), suggests a few things, like a dictionary, and says to always bring your P.R.I.D.E. to class! I forget what the letters stand for…good things, like Respect and Individualism—no wait Integrity!—and Excellence and stuff like that. Don’t forget! It says.
These are some scenarios from their past life:
- When Ilsa was in first grade, her teacher told the class they had to write their names on all their papers. Ilsa forgot one day. It was obvious that the paper was hers, since it was the only one without a name, but the teacher tore it up in front of the class and dropped it in the trash. Ilsa never forgot to write her name after that. (Aside: she was an excellent teacher and adored Ilsa.)
- Last year, Ilsa had a teacher that told them, “You’re the worst class in the school! I won’t tell people I teach you because you embarrass me!” Ilsa just rolled her eyes. “That teacher is so mean!” she told me.
- Abel had to do a dictation. He got about 70-80% of it right. But the teacher took a full mark (out of 20; French schools grade over 20) for every little accent mark, and gave him a 0. Others have told me it’s not uncommon to get a test grade of 3 or 4 over 20, even if you participate in class every day and are on time and have a good attitude.
In spite of these supposedly soul-shattering moments, my children do not, as of yet, suffer from low self esteem. They’re normal, healthy. They will chatter (nonstop!) at you if you give them half a chance, tell you about their new schools, or which games they like or books they’ve read. Ilsa entered a writing contest and expected to win, although she didn’t. She’s not crushed though. We talked about it, and she knew it was always a strong possibility. It’s true they’ve gotten plenty of positive affirmation, a lot of it from their teachers, but I don’t think I’ve prepared them for the barrage they’re getting now.
I can’t help but worry a little. One thing I know: the more you look at yourself, the worse you will feel about yourself. I learned as a teen that staring at myself in a mirror, looking for flaws to fix, only plunged me into depression. I still always leave hair salons subdued from having to stare at myself in a mirror for half an hour. Is my nose really that big? Shouldn’t I be done with zits by now? And low self-esteem is really just a flip side of high self-esteem—either way you think about yourself an inordinate amount of time. Either way you’re not a lot of fun to be with.
I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker a couple of years ago. A child runs into a house carrying an enormous trophy, bigger than himself. “We lost!” he announces.
I suppose I’m getting to the age where it’s normal to worry about the next generation. I’m sure they’ll all be fine, all these little narcissists. I’m sure they won’t be narcissists, and that I’m just cranky and crochety and still in reverse culture shock. But I can’t help wondering if we haven’t swung the pendulum too far, and if all this emphasis on feeling good about yourself might end up having the opposite effect.
My friend Nancy, aka Wacky Mommy, is one of the main reasons I have this blog. We’ve known each other since we were student writers at the college newspaper, and I was drawn to this tall redhead with the hearty laugh and the larger-than-life personality. I haven’t kept in touch with many people, but I’m really glad we’re still friends.
Last time she tagged me in a meme it was 2007. We were living in Nouakchott and I used her meme to announce that we were moving, first a year in the US, then on to Morocco.
When we moved to Morocco, I got a lot of comments asking how long we were going to stay in Morocco. This surprised me. We were moving here for real; we were going to be here for at least 6 years, probably more. The kids would finish high school here and then we’d re-evaluate, decide whether or not we’d stay, but we probably would.
This is a case of the best laid plans of mice and men ganging aft agley, as it were. Or to put it another way, I am yet another victim of the Great Global Financial Crisis. Poor me.
So, without further ado, here is the meme. 7 Things About Me.
- I am a nomad, but I don’t want to be one any more.
- I move far too often. I could use some stability in my life.
- I hate packing.
- The other day we were at the Chellah with the inlaws. I stood there under the blue sky and light winds and looked across the expanse of wildflowers and ruins and I felt angry and unhappy and completely at odds with my surroundings. I like it here a lot. I don’t want to leave. This is my hardest move—every other time, I’ve been excited, ready for something new. This time I’m not. I stood there and stared out at a silver olive tree with a spiky palm tree behind it, swaying in the breeze, and listened to the incessant cawing of the egrets and creaking sound the storks make, and I realized: If I was here on holiday, for only three weeks, I would be ecstatic. Instead I am stressed and miserable because I only have another three weeks. Live in the moment, I told myself sternly, and set myself to enjoy the golden afternoon, the pleasant sea breezes, the spiky palm and the creaking storks and the ruins that speak in an unknown tongue of ages past.
- It worked. At least for the rest of the day.
- We’re going back to Oregon.
- But I don’t know how long we’ll stay. I get itchy feet. I hope to still be a nomad.
* title of Wacky Mommy’s post. Ironic, no?