Two Countries, Two Churches, One Wrong

June 29, 2015

When I started writing this blog post a few months ago, I had no idea that this topic would once again be at the forefront of our nation's conscience. That once again unspeakable evil would occur in the basement of a church. That this post would not merely be an anecdote comparing the histories of two countries I had the privilege to live in, but that it would have to shine a light on all the work still ahead of us in these countries today.

It began with a volleyball tournament. In April this year, Sunshine and I were headed to Birmingham, Alabama, where her volleyball team was going to compete in the regional championship.

We arrived on a Friday evening, and I was a bit miffed when finding out that we wouldn't play our first match until 2 PM the next day. Coulda saved the money for that hotel room and driven out in the morning, was my first thought. So I started thinking out loud: "What could one do in Birmingham on a Saturday morning?"

The answer, coming from an almost-teenage girl, totally surprised me: "We could go to 16th Street Baptist Church," said Sunshine without a second's hesitation. "We were just talking about that in Social Studies."

I could claim that as one who was tortured, yes tortured as a child by parents dragging me through one unspeakably boring church after another - Renaissance, Gothic, Roman, you name it; Europe is full of them! - I hadn't wanted to bring up a church visit to a 12-year old. But in truth, I simply hadn't thought about it.

It was my child who reminded me that there was living history all around us.

So we spent the morning touring 16th Street Baptist Church and surroundings under a sparkling blue sky.

Sunshine was particularly taken by the memorial to the four girls who died in the horrific bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Addie Mae Collins. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Carol Denise McNair. I in turn was particularly taken by the image of my girl mingling with the dead girls, not much younger than herself at the time they were killed, playful children with the same dreams and aspirations shared by kids the world over.

Even as inanimate statues, the police dogs make you cast a wary eye in their direction. One shudders at the thought of their hot breath and teeth inches from one's face, barely restrained by threatening policemen.

The church itself was closed to visitors, but you can tour the basement, so that's what we did. There is also a museum across the street, but we had to leave before it opened. Our visit only took about an hour, at most, and was soon eclipsed by the sound of loud shouts, bouncing balls, and squeaky sneakers meeting gym floor during two long days of volleyball. (Note: Sunshine's team came in last.)

Only weeks later did it occur to me that I had once visited another church that was just as deeply intertwined with the struggle for freedom and equality.

On a tour through the township of Soweto near Johannesburg almost exactly five years ago, we had visited Regina Mundi Church. In it, you can still see bullet holes from June 16, 1976, when during the Soweto Uprising student demonstrators who fled into the church were shot at by police. While no one died in the church itself, 175 protesters were killed that day, including Hector Pieterson, whose picture made news around the world and to whom a memorial not far from the church is dedicated.

It is actually the anguished face of Mbuyisa Makhubo that we remember from this picture. He is the
one carrying the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson after he was shot. 

Regina Mundi was built in 1964, less than a year after the Birmingham church bombing. At
that time, 16th Street Baptist Church was already 92 years old. 
Iconic picture of the "Black Madonna" in Regina Mundi Church in Soweto

Two different countries. Two different continents even. Two different churches, one young, one old, one Catholic, and one Baptist. Two civil rights struggles.

But one wrong.

When you live in South Africa, history seems to be a lot closer. It seems only yesterday that Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and that he was overwhelmingly elected as the first president of a free South Africa. It seems as if South Africa trailed much behind the United States in terms of civil rights. That apartheid was so obviously wrong over there, while we had come to our senses such a long time ago over here.

But of course that's not true. If anyone thought the American civil rights chapter is closed, then what started with Michael Brown's shooting and the ensuing protests in Ferguson almost a year ago reminds us all that there is much left to be done. Last week's cold-blooded shooting of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, 52 years after the Birmingham church bombing, was an unspeakable act of evil. Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lee Lance. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Clementa C. Pinckney. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson. Wonderful people with the same dreams and aspirations shared by people the world over.

There is much left to be done, but there is also a lot of hope.

"We have a deep appreciation of history. We haven't always had a deep appreciation of each other's history," President Obama said in his eulogy of Clementa Pinckney. Aside from the awesome symbolism of an African-American president singing Amazing Grace at this eulogy, aside from the almost unanimous shock and outrage in Charleston and beyond that seems to have brought the country together in some ways, I think this idea of how we look at history is what gives me hope. My daughter wanting to see history, and not for one second looking at it as "their" history but simply as our common history, should bode well for the future - both in South Africa and these our United States.

My daughter Sunshine, then 12, on the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church


Up next: What Sunshine wrote about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
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When is the Best Time to be an Expat, Revisited

June 25, 2015

Almost four years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled When is the Best Time to be an Expat?

I was prompted to revisit that topic by a recent reader comment. This reader was herself moving frequently for her job, and was glad to hear how adaptive most expat children typically are, as she didn't have any of her own yet. Her worry, I'm sure, was that once she did have children, her career might have to be put on hold, because by then surely she could no longer continue her nomadic lifestyle.

This is a good time for me to once again reflect on the topic of moving with children, because we've reached another milestone: In a few months, our oldest  - Zax, you will remember him from this blog and from my Kilimanjaro climb - will be starting university. Right here in the United States, only a few hours from where we live, although as perpetual movers we are not sure how long we will be this close to each other.

Making the decision about where to go to university wasn't as difficult for Zax as it might be for other 18-year olds. A friend once asked him why he didn't want to look at more campuses, and he said this: "We've moved so much already, and I always ended up pretty happy wherever it was, so I'm pretty sure I'll be happy at the next place too." Prompted by our urging, he applied to a good number of universities and got into almost all of them, but in the end chose the first one he was accepted into (and, we parents were happy to note, also the most affordable one).

Perhaps for him, the most thrilling part about going to university, any university, is knowing that he will get to stay there for four years in a row.

So, when is a good time to be an expat, and do we harm our children in some way by perpetually dragging them around the world?

In my first try, the blog post mentioned above, I came to the conclusion that the best time is now, whenever that is for you. Seize the opportunity when it arises. Go explore the world, and it will be good for your family. Our son's example, who seems to be comfortable in his skin now that he is leaving home, seems to confirm that a lifetime of moves has been good, or at least not harmful.

However, I don't want to belittle the heartbreak that comes with a life of moves. We've had plenty of it, and as the kids get older, the heartbreak seems to become deeper, and grudges about "making us move" linger longer. When your teenager tells you he/she is "tired of starting at the bottom once again," it is not easy to brush off. Having done it before and having gotten through it with a tougher skin and perhaps even happier doesn't inoculate you against future heartbreak. Inflicting this on my children, again and again, is the guilt I carry around with me as a parent.

The older your kids are, the harder it is to tell them what to do, and that includes moving. But it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Evading what seems hard is not a good recipe for life, and moving away from all that you know, perhaps even to an entirely new country, might be the greatest opportunity you can give your children (and yourself).

The truth is, there is no way to know what's best. In the end you can't "make" your kids happy anyway. They write their own life story from a much earlier age than we might think. We are just there to accompany them on the great journey of childhood and adolescence. We keep them from getting hurt when they don't know any better, we cheer them on along the way, and we nag them about way too many things because we can't help ourselves. But they are never a "product" that we "created," even if that is the most fervent wish of every helicopter mom out there.

In the words of J.K. Rowling, who has written many wise words, there is an expiration date on blaming your parents. Our kids might not get that memo, but there is! So, expat (and all) parents out there: stop berating yourself, stop racking your brain about what to do, and - in the words of another wise woman in one of my favorite songs - enjoy the ride!
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Born Procrastinator, Part II

June 22, 2015

(This is Part Two of the nailbiter "Will Zax finish his German online class in time before graduation?" Click here for part one.)

It is now mid-April 2015. German 303 is nowhere near finished and it is about a month until graduation. The thing is, we've been told you can under no circumstances graduate and participate in the ceremony if you don't have all your credits in place. German 303 is his one missing credit. The irony is that even High School German I, something he could have done in his sleep - learning to say "Guten Tag" and "Wo ist das Hofbräuhaus" most likely - would have technically fulfilled the requirement. But no, he is enrolled in the most demanding German class to be found this side of the Atlantic, or so it seems to me.

By now (and I have patiently outlined this in mathematical format once again) Zax needs to be at a pace of 2-3 exercises a day to stay on track. Painstakingly, answers about reflexive personal pronouns in the third person singular are scribbled and uploaded to BYU headquarters. This stuff is not only time-consuming, it is hard! I am German by birth, but I am beginning to agree with Mark Twain who famously said he'd rather decline two drinks than a German adjective. In the interest of getting this thing checked off my mental list, I've offered to help with corrections.

May rolls around. Zax is almost done, he says. "Take a look at the final exam," I say, "just so you know how that works."

How it works is that you can't just take that online, as I naively expected. No sir, you have to have the paperwork sent to a proctor who is authorized to supervise exams for BYU. His high school counselor assures us she can be the proctor, having done it many times before. "Have them Fedex it to me," she adds. "We don't want to lose any more time!"

No kidding! But it also turns out the final exam can't be requested until every module is finished and the oral exam has been taken. Zax goes online to request an oral exam date within the next three days while he finishes up the last exercises. The day before, the instructor reschedules. Another three days go by before Zax can take the oral exam. Another two days until it is graded, late on a Friday night. Too late to now request the written exam before the weekend.

At this point I try really really hard to bite my tongue so as not to say "I told you so, this is precisely why I advised for a three-week buffer, to allow for such contingencies." I almost succeed.

Monday rolls around. 5 days until graduation. Are you getting sweaty palms just by proxy? We go online to request the final exam. Except it can't be sent to the high school counselor because she's not on the list of proctors. What? Why the hell do they have a faulty list? Several phone calls later the reason is found. "You're taking a university level class," Zax is told. "Your proctor needs to be a teacher at a university, not a high school."

We look at the university list. There are five in the Nashville are. Zax, to his credit, does not hesitate. He picks up the phone (yeah, I know, this must have KILLED him, right?).

"Yes, hey... I was wondering, would you be able to proctor an exam for me?"

I'm sitting next to him on the sofa, listening in.

"Yes, sure," says the lady on the other end. "Sometime this summer?"

"Uhm no," says Zax, undeterred, "can you do it tomorrow?"

[Pause for five minutes of nonstop laughter.]

Then: "You are serious, aren't you?"

Zax: "Uhm, yes, that would be great."

"Okay, I'll do it Wednesday. Come in at 8 am."

I allow myself a minor victory dance. It seems like we are on track - barely. The exam is overnighted to Belmont University. We track it online and see that it gets there Tuesday at 9 am, as expected. Wednesday morning at 7 am, Zax is lacing his shoes to drive in for his exam. I go play tennis. I come back two hours later and he still sits on the staircase. I almost explode. "She called me and said she didn't have the exam," he informs me. "She told me to wait until she calls again."

"So what, you're just going to sit there?" I demand. Yes, it turns out, that is precisely what he's going to do. He will not under any circumstance call her to hurry her along.

I call there anyway. I call the university's mail room. They check their incoming mail. Oh yes, they have received the Fedex package, just forgotten to deliver it on campus. Whew! They carry it to the proctor lady's office. I call that office. The lady is at lunch and cannot be reached. She finally does call back at 1 pm, exam in hand. Zax takes off. Big Breath. One step closer.

I manage to get the lady on the phone while Zax is sitting the exam. She doesn't seem to be too serious about her proctoring duty as she isn't even in the same room with him. But what she IS serious about is not letting him take the finished exam with him to deliver it back to Fedex. I beg and plead with her to not let it go back to that mail room to be sitting there another extra day that we don't have. She agrees to let ME pick up the exam and take it to Fedex this evening. Not sure why she trusts me more than him. Can't she see I'd commit murder at this point to get this to BYU? But anyway, another Big Breath.

The exam is long. It takes three hours. It is after 5 pm by the time we roll into Fedex, precious package in hand. We have until 8 pm for next day delivery, so no problem. I say a silent prayer to Fred Smith and his brilliant business plan.

Holding the precious cargo on my lap

The next day is Thursday. Two days until graduation. We begin calling BYU at 10 am when we see that the package has been delivered. We put in a rush request for grading. Zax hasn't heard back from his instructor in a week, another cause or concern. His direct line seems to be disconnected. We call the 800 number again to complain. Oh no, that's not who will grade your exam. That's just a TA. Final exams are graded by the actual professor.

My heart plummets. A professor? Not just some graduate student who might have pity on a fellow student? The chances, after all this, seem slim.

Thursday ends, no grade.

Friday passes by, hour by painful hour. They hold a practice graduation at school. My son is given his seating assignment. The counselor must be sticking her neck out for him. I begin to hope again. But 28 phone calls later, we still have no news. The final exam entry is still staring at us from the website with a big glaring blank where the checkmark should be. It only counts for 10% of the grade, but it needs a passing grade of 60%. It feels like Zax's whole future is riding on that one little checkmark.

We go out to dinner, my husband and I. Zax goes to a friend's house. He is either unconcerned, or he is pretending to be unconcerned, because anything else would be a concession to my year-long nagging.

We come home from dinner. I check my emails one last time. Lo and behold, there is an email from BYU: The exam has been graded, just in the nick of time at 6:34 pm the night before graduation and just how Zax had predicted, and he has not only passed the class but has gotten an A- in it. The counselor cannot be reached at such a late hour.

We all file into the big auditorium (ironically, at Belmont University) Saturday morning, waiting with bated breath to first see if Zax marches in with his classmates, and then later if his name is called. While we stand there, I catch the counselor's eye who is standing with the teachers cheering on her charges. I give her the thumbs up. She makes the sign of the cross. We both exhale one long breath.

It is over. He's done it again. And has probably learned nothing from it. "I knew I'd finish it in time," he will say for years to come. And he is not wrong.

On to the celebration!

By the way, above right is the guy I must next nag to complete HIS German online class. 

But we have one entire year to do it in. Plenty of time to procrastinate...
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Born Procrastinator, Part I

June 15, 2015

A family of six comes with all types.

I have a husband and a daughter who are superb planners. When confronted with a deadline three months away, they have the ability to instantly backtrack a project start date that makes allowances for events like hurricanes, tsunamis, and as yet unprecedented breakdowns in infrastructure.

I also have a son who is a procrastinator. When confronted with a deadline three months away, he has the ability to instantly determine the last possible start date by weighing the likelihoods of any such events as mentioned above and, also being a math whiz, calculating their expected value. He is usually right on the spot with a few seconds to spare.

To get an idea, let me tell you about German 303.

German 303 was the online language class he had to take as a senior to fulfill his language requirement for graduation. Expat life had stripped him of the necessary two years of a foreign language. Or, rather, the foreign language American school authorities saw fit to recognize. Somehow neither Zulu nor Afrikaans made the cut.

We let him take German II as a junior. Yes, German, his mother tongue, our concession to the role we played in putting him into that predicament. German I would have been too agonizing, but the trouble with German II was that there was no German III on offer from our school the next year.

Of all the ways he could have gotten the required German III credit, he chose German 303 as an independent study course at Brigham Young University, the highest possible university level German class in the program, if not the country.

So far, so good. The paperwork was signed in July 2014, the school year started in August, he was given an extra study hall period dedicated for this independent study course, and the deadline was graduation day - May 23, 2015. Nine long months to finish, eight modules plus one final exam, which came out to be about one module per month. If you wanted to look at it that way.

The hurdle between my son and this beautiful college campus: German 303

Except Zax didn't want to look at it that way. He saw it as a lot of time stretching out in front of him with an extra hour every day to watch YouTube videos during his independent study period at school. What he heard loud and clear was "independent." What he chose to ignore was "study." This would be a really loooooong blog post if I was going to repeat all the conversations we had about his German class, but they all pretty much went like:

Me: "Have you worked on your German homework yet?"
Him: "I've started, yes."
Me: "So how far have you gotten?"
Him: "I've read the introduction."

Sometime in October he attempted (at my urging of course) the first task of the first module (eight tasks to each module). It was hard. It took a lot of time. Each module had him go through a long list of grammar exercises, then read a bunch of German newspapers and watch a lot of German TV, he had to analyze those articles and newscasts and commentate them, and then he had to write his own article on a similar topic and produce his own podcast, in the end tying it all together in his very own newspaper (he called it the "Hintertupfinger Anzeiger" - he's not without a sense of humor). It was a tall task even for someone fluent in German like him. Even I struggled with the grammar at times, never having learned any rules of my native language.

Christmas break came and went, with a few more feeble forays into module two. By now the conversation was more to the tune of:

Me: "How far are you with your German class?"
Him: "I'm working on module three."
Me: "Oh great, so you've uploaded one and two?"
Him: "No, not yet, I still have to finish some parts of those."

I know I know, this makes me sound like the mother of a sixth grader. Not that I ever had to ask those questions of my 6th grade girls, mind you. In my defense, by early 2015 I had gotten some tentative inquiries from his high school counselor, wondering what the status was. I'm sure she knew him well enough to double check. I felt a sense of duty to report back with some semblance of progress.

When spring break approached, I saw fit to bring some mathematical calculations to my aid. He likes math, this would speak to him, loud and clear.

"Let's say you need to be finished by April 30," I said, "to leave some extra time for grading and paperwork. By my calculations that puts you on pace for one of those modules each week, about one task from each module per day."

Easy peasy, you'd think, but oh no, my procrastinator son knew better. He had a date in mind, graduation on May 23, 2015, and he was going to be finished by then. Plenty of time to get started for real!

More time passed, and the pace was far from one module per week. But conceding that time was indeed getting a bit tight, Zax quit his lifeguarding job. He started sitting down every night to work on his German. Which was great, except it was a lot more work than he thought, and he also had AP exams to deal with at the same time. Ever so slowly, he uploaded his finished work to BYU, and immediately the graduate assistant assigned to him would grade it.

By the end of April there was still a lot of unfinished and ungraded work sitting in his file.

"Don't worry," Zax said. "I'll be finished before graduation."

His counselor emailed me. I could detect a slight note of panic in her prose.

"Don't worry," he told the counselor when I sent him to talk to her, "I've got it under control."

- End of Part I -

Will he finish the German class in time? Stay tuned...

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Give Me Another Mountain! (And a Cause)

June 11, 2015

I may have managed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but one thing I didn't manage to do was use my climb to raise money and awareness for a good cause. If you've read my book, Kilimanjaro Diaries, you'll know that I made light of the fact that all Kili climbs seem to attract people yearning to do good, and that I seemed to be the lone exception.

I didn't need a cause. I just wanted to get out of cooking duties for a week.

But it's really no laughing matter and I have the utmost respect for people who DO find a good cause for their own mountain climb, especially if such a climb takes them far out of their comfort zone.

I'd like you to meet such an aspiring climber. Elyse Hood, a mother of twin boys and also my friend and tennis partner (who can out-lob you any day!), has decided that she'd like to set an example for her children and do something she's never done before, in order to help oppressed and enslaved women and children.

Elyse will soon set sail for Europe to hike the French Alps as part of Freedom Climb. My thoughts (and a good chunk of my Kili equipment) will travel with her as she puts one foot in front of the other, wondering if she'll endure until the next camp, and whether a clean toilet - any toilet - might be awaiting her there. She is almost halfway to reaching her fundraising goal - an impressive number - and appreciates any support you might be able to give (there is a donation link a the bottom). But chiefly she'd like to tell you about the cause that has become so dear to her heart:

I am climbing in the 2015 Freedom Climb Summer Haute to raise funds for women and children who are oppressed, enslaved, exploited, and trafficked. The funds I am raising go to provide vital services to women and children through Operation Mobilization’s Freedom Climb projects around the world. These projects help to break the cycles of poverty, shame, slavery, and despair through prevention, rescue, rehabilitation and development.

The climbers are voices for the voiceless; for those unable to declare freedom in their lives and climb out of circumstances on their own. This is what motivates me as I consider my own life of freedom and opportunity relative to those who are served by Operation Mobilization services.

30 million people are enslaved today
80% are women and children
the average age a child is forced into prostitution in the US is 12-14 years old

Richard and I took Jack and James down to visit family in South Florida for Spring Break. While we were there, my brother and sister-in-law invited us to their family church for a fun Saturday evening Chili cook off. The women at Advent Lutheran in Boca Raton shared stories of their recent Freedom Climb to Mount Kilimanjaro!

I was so impressed! My first reaction was, ¨I would love to do that but, I can't . . . I have the boys, they will be out of school for the summer, we are so busy. . .¨

My new friend, Debbie, and I discussed the fact that she had to leave her family and kids for her climb. Her kids were proud that she didn't just preach about helping others, she did it!! When I asked my boys what they thought of Mommy going to climb a mountain for 8 days to help women and children, they said, ¨that would be awesome, we would be proud of you helping kids.¨

So . . . guess what I'm doing???

Each climber pays their own expenses and we are additionally challenged to raise $16,000 for Operation Mobilization.

I know that everyone has a cause that is near and dear to their heart. I promise to make sure your gifts are well spent and that I share the journey with you.

Will you help? Any contribution, no matter how large or small, is valuable.

You may donate by clicking here.

Thank you in advance for your support, prayers and donations!

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”
-- Proverbs 31: 8-9 NLT

Blessings, Elyse Hood

If you like Elyse's quest, please visit her personal Freedom Climb page featuring the latest updates about her preparations. I'm sure she'd like to hear your encouraging words via the email address provided. If you're able to make a donation, you'll find a convenient "donate now" button on the upper right hand side.

But enough talk - just give us a mountain!

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Top 30 Things I Miss About South Africa

June 8, 2015

It's hard to limit this list to something manageable, but here are the things I remember most fondly from our time in South Africa, in no particular order:

  1. Hadedas
  2. Gas station attendants
  3. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika
  4. Cape Town
  5. Highveld thunderstorms
  6. Jacarandas
  7. Woolworth's
  8. Weaver birds
  9. The awesome weather
  10. Cape gooseberries
  11. Founder's Day celebrations
  12. Wine tastings in Franschhoek
  13. Lekker and Kak
  14. Safaris
  15. Street vendors
  16. The Dainfern shit pipe
  17. Sundowners
  18. Eskom (ok, NOT! I just threw that one in to see if you were still paying attention)
  19. Domestic help
  20. Cricket
  21. Avocadoes as main food staples
  22. Yes, Johannesburg
  23. The view of the Magaliesberg from Northcliff Hill
  24. School uniforms
  25. People named Lucky, Innocent, and Pretty
  26. Namibia (ok, technically not in South Africa, but you get my point)
  27. Singing and dancing
  28. Being an expat wife
  29. Lion porn
  30. The African sky

And now, before we get all teary-eyed, here the list of Top Things I DON'T Miss About South Africa as an instant antidote to sentimentalism.

What's on YOUR list?


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June 4, 2015

I have lately seen a lot of soul-searching within the expat community about the world "trailing spouse." It's slightly less loaded than "expat wife" - you know, the one in high heels, cocktail glass in freshly-manicured hands, hanging out poolside with other similarly spoiled women complaining about the domestic help - but it still leaves an unpleasant taste behind. Of sheep-like creatures following their spouses meekly around the world without an agenda of their own.

Trailing: A Memoir speaks exactly to that image. Some might find it depressing, but I found it thought-provoking and inspiring. It really cuts down to the essence of so many expat stories. Whatever you call yourself, this is what a lot of us have been and still are, with all its benefits and pitfalls.

In a nutshell, Trailing is the story of Kristin Louise Duncombe, who as a young wife in the late 1990s gave up plans of her own professional life to follow her husband, a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctor, to East Africa - first Kenya and then Uganda. For anyone who has followed a spouse to an overseas assignment and put their own career on hold, or even gave up on it altogether, this story will likely ring very true. It doesn't matter where you've been posted to - although, having lived in Africa as a trailing spouse myself, it was particularly vivid for me. The issues so grippingly woven into Trailing - of losing your identity, not knowing your purpose in life, and dealing with an evolving relationship that by necessity gets refashioned in every new place you live - will speak to anyone who has hitched their wagon to someone else's ambition. If you've made it your main purpose in life to stay home and raise a family while lending support to a spouse who is the main breadwinner and whom you therefore follow from assignment to assignment, no questions asked, you will find something of yourself in Kristin's saga.

Her story is basically one of doubt and marital struggle: Did I make the right decision in moving here? What will I do with the rest of my life? Who is this man I fell in love with and who is now so absorbed with his career that I barely ever see him? Can we still make our marriage work? But not only that, it is also a fast-paced read, interlaced with anecdotes of the tireless and impressive work done by MSF, a harrowing carjacking, and the culture of East Africa. Personally, I would have loved to see more of the latter as this only came through in short glimpses - the housekeeper Mama Florence and her natural remedies, tales of witchcraft, even the culture within USAID, a world entirely its own.

It's not that my experience has been anything like the author's. I absolutely loved every minute of the three years our family spent in Africa. We all embraced the lifestyle, had many friends, and were spared any traumatic carjackings. Kristin, by comparison, was not very open-minded towards her new home, was too readily spooked, and might have made things much easier by being less self-absorbed, at least that was my impression. But then again she was only in her twenties and newly-married. In any case, even if you feel like you might not have made the same choices in Kristin's situation, her story still speaks powerfully to anyone who's ever doubted their own choices regarding career, marriage, and child-rearing.

You don't even have to move abroad to wonder where your life has led you and whether you've become what you wanted to be. And while it seems so much easier for someone else to turn their life around and find true purpose and happiness, the truth is that it is never too late for us to do the same.

Maybe "trailing" is a bad word. Maybe each one of us, before ever deciding to "trail" someone, should think long and hard about what that will mean for the rest of our lives.

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Crime, Oscar Pistorius, World War II Bombers: Topics for South African Readers

May 31, 2015

Every now and then, I glance over the search terms people use to find Joburg Expat:

Clearly, a lot of people landing in my domain have already heard of my blog and use its name as a search term, which is kind of flattering. Others are finding me because, apparently, they are tired of purchasing their clothes hangers from a street vendor and would prefer a no-hassle online retailer starting with "A" to conveniently ship them right to their doorstep.

What I've written about Amazon and Starbucks in South Africa (or, more correctly, the lack thereof), South African schools, and, curiously, weaver birds, ranks definitely among the most-read content of my blog. Seeing such a list, at first glance, confirms you in your belief that these are the topics you should write about most often, because clearly they are leading your future readers to you.

At least that's what I used to think, until my son urged me to read a book about mathematics he had just read and loved, How Not to Be Wrong (read my Goodreads review here). I was captivated from the first page, which takes you right back to World War II, a favorite topic of mine. A brilliant mathematician and Jew named Abraham Wald, forced to leave the University of Vienna and emigrate to the United States at the outset of the war, was tasked by the American government to apply his statistical knowledge to the problem of the vulnerability of allied bombers to enemy fire. Bomber losses were heavy and everyone agreed more armor needed to be added as protection, but as it made the aircraft heavier, it needed to be applied strategically to those areas of the plane most in need of protection.

Returning airplanes had been studied extensively and the heavy concentration of bullet holes all over the fuselage suggested that more armor on the fuselage was the way to go. Not so, said Wald, in a sort of breakthrough event for statistics. The armor needed to go where the bullet holes WEREN'T. What he had hit upon was the so-called "survivor effect." In only counting the surviving planes, they weren't counting all the bullet holes, and certainly not the ones that mattered. Since all the planes with a bullet-riddled fuselage seemed to have returned just fine, one needed to count the absent planes, i.e. the ones that DIDN'T return. Further analysis confirmed what Wald knew to be true: bullet holes in the engine were the deadliest ones. Clearly, that's where more armor was needed! Seems obvious in hindsight, but it was groundbreaking then, and it saved real lives.

I love this story, and I love that I found a way of writing about it. In a way, looking at which search keywords have led people to my blog is skewed by the selfsame survivor effect. If I want to attract a wider readership, I will have to look at the search terms NOT leading people to my blog. The ones that AREN'T on the above list.

I can readily think of one: "Crime." Who doesn't think "South Africa" and immediately has the word "crime" enter his brain, together with grisly images of people held up at gunpoint, coupled perhaps with brutal police beatings and mobs throwing burning tires around fellow humans in a xenophobic frenzy?

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to tell the world what a dangerous place South Africa is. Plenty of folks already do that. Rather, I want people who have read this elsewhere to come to my blog for some perspective on it. People, who like me will take a second look and hopefully see the full picture, THEN decide whether they could see themselves and their families living there.

What else should I be writing about? For readers already IN South Africa, there is an easy way to find out. I consulted Google Trends and learned that I should write about

Oscar Pistorius,
South African National Elections,
Julius Malema,
how to whatsapp,
what is bigamy,
what is neknomination,

not necessarily in this order.

Please excuse me now so I can read about what the hell neknomination ist.

On someone else's blog.
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Expat Joys - Sensible Sex Education

May 25, 2015

The beauty of expat life is that you get to see an alternate universe. You get to see how life might have panned out at home, if only people weren't so bound to tradition.

Sure, in some cases the alternative might be worse. It might send you running right back home where everything is "better," but more often than not the opposite seems to be true: We like what we see abroad and wonder why it's not done this way at home.

In my last blog post, I put together a list of such "Expat Joys," all those little things that you wouldn't have thought of before as being particularly enjoyable, but which now that you've moved to a new life in a new country, have come to mean a lot to you. Those kinds of things that you might be surprised to miss a lot after you've returned to your home country.

And wouldn't you know, just as I hit "publish" on that collection, I thought of another expat joy: sensible sex education.

You might not consider this a joy at all. Who relishes tackling the hairy - no pun intended - topics of adolescence with their kids? Having to stand your ground while squirming under a united front of eye-rolling and exasperated groaning from the teenage contingent in your family?

But that is precisely the point. Back home in the United States, this was such a big to-do on my parenting list of unwanted chores. Because you didn't expect the school to put forth any meaningful discussion of changes to the human body, let alone contraceptive methods - we lived in Kansas, after all! - you knew that bringing your kids up to speed would fall squarely onto you. And if you started too early - which most experts agree is probably the best time - you faced the real threat of irate parents at your door who couldn't BELIEVE that your child passed on their newly-won knowledge about how babies are made to their own pure and innocent offspring. How COULD you spill the beans!!! Here their kids were all on a path of abstinence well into their twenties, and you had to screw it up by painting an oh-so-luring picture of sexual bliss, by proxy of your child's recounting, that of course NOW they're going to want to try it out first chance they get.

So you might imagine I was pleasantly surprised that in South Africa, our school took on a leading role of enlightenment. As part of the Life Orientation curriculum, a compulsory class at most schools taken all the way until matric, an external coach of some sort was brought in for an extended talk with the boys and girls. I believe it started in 4th grade, but I could be wrong, it might have been 5th. But not only that, the same coach was also booked for several sold-out nights at the school auditorium to enlighten us PARENTS about the secrets to sex education.

At first, being a good American, I sat there squirming in my seat. The woman standing on the stage was using embarrassing words! She called things by their name! But once I got over my initial shock to hear such frank talk in the same halls we were normally treated to soaring sermons from the headmaster, I began to pay attention. Soon we were informed about stuff I'd never even heard about, in an effort to bring us up to speed with what our kids might be discussing or ask us about. Surely not my kids though, who will smell potentially embarrassing talks from a mile away and steer clear before they can become entangled, much like they have a sixth sense about when to disappear from the kitchen and poke their nose in a book lest they get roped into unloading the dishwasher.

Kudos to South African schools for being much more sensible about sex education than their American counterparts - at least in the states we'd lived in.

We might not like it, but our kids ARE going to grow up. They ARE going to find out about the facts of life one way or another, so why not be a part of how they achieve this? I'm not saying we should shirk our duties and let the school do the unpleasant parts so that we can sit back and relax. But the school being involved early on makes it so much easier to start the talks you need to have at home. Your 4th grader coming home and telling you about his day is much more prone to share and have additional questions than that same kid by the time he's in 7th grade. If you've ever met a 7th grader, you will know that he will roll his eyes about EVERYTHING, let alone you interrupting his video game with the words: "We need to talk about the Birds and the Bees."

About those birds and bees: Another thing South Africa has going for it is that you don't have to resort to birds and bees at all. It's much more compelling with, say, lions. Watch for yourself.
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Top Ten (Small) Joys of Expat Life

May 18, 2015

As frustrating as it can be to move households across continents, to navigate the incomprehensible currents of the Department of Home Affairs to obtain your visa, or to find out that "just now" means "perhaps in three weeks" at best, there are also many happy sides to expat life, if you only choose to open your eyes to them.

And I don't mean the obvious biggies. As a typical expat of the corporate world, you might have negotiated a generous package of expat perks - a gas guzzling car you neither had to pay for nor have to fill up with gas on your own dollar, a beautiful house your company is paying the rent for, domestic help if you're lucky enough to live in a part of the world where it's affordable, a tax accountant, an elite school for your kids.

What I mean are the small and often overlooked things any expat can enjoy, no matter which circumstance might have landed him abroad. Over the course of writing this blog, I came to think of them as my "Expat Joys" and started tagging certain blog posts with that label. But in hindsight I feel that they weren't particularly unique to South Africa. Each expat, I think, should have a similar list.

This picture and accompanying blogpost about starting my day in South Africa prompted the creation
of the Expat Joys series. It may strike you as bizarre, but few things make me pine for South Africa
 as much as this picture does.

So here, for the first time, I've put my Expat Joys all together in one list to read at your leisure. Maybe in bits and pieces to savor occasionally with your morning tea, or to pull out on the darkest days when needed most. Or to binge-read them all at once for one giant expat love fest!

  1. The Awesome People
    No doubt it's the people in a country who make or break your expat success story, and South Africans, as I've written in many places on this blog, are a pretty awesome bunch. But I'd wager that no matter where you go, the people of that country are what give it its special charm. You might have to define charm in very different ways to make it be true, but I promise you that finding delight in your hosts is the best ticket to a joyful expat life.

  2. The Head Massage
    In which I prove that enjoying expat life is a matter of perspective. That instead of bemoaning all you've lost, you're much better off looking at all you've gained. And the head massage is a HUGE gain, trust me. Except what's a head massage to me in South Africa might be shopping at to you in the USA. The trick is finding as many "head massages" as possible.

  3. The Beautiful Artwork
    An ode to the beautiful pieces of art you get to amass during most any expat assignment. They will always have special meaning to you ("remember when we haggled over that statue from the street vendor while our car was being towed?"), and they will move on with you to the next assignment no matter where, serving as reminders of the stations of your life even as they reside in new zip codes every few years.

  4. The Gas Station Attendant
    Forgive me, I realize that title sounds a bit, well, saucy. No, I'm not suggesting an inappropriate affair with your gas station attendant (although, who knows, maybe that has actually been someone's expat joy before). I'm talking about the rather mundane joy - instead of getting out of your car and manhandling that unwieldy hose - of just sitting there and smiling and having the whole nasty business of filling the tank done for you. Granted, this might not be true in every country. I personally know that in Germany, for instance, you get the opposite effect, the one at the supermarket checkout where you break out in cold sweats because you can't pack your own bags fast enough to escape the cashier's (and other customers') withering stares... The lesson there is: When in Germany, don't look for any expat joys at the hands of checkout clerks, or any clerks for that matter. They do have good sausage though... and the bread will make up for any perceived and real expat slights, I promise you!

  5. The Netball Perspective
    The title of the original post is the much more mundane "Variety and Life Skills" but I changed it here to go with a certain pattern for titles stolen from Robert Ludlum. What I mean with it is the fact that you may be forced to learn a new skill as an expat (here, I give you netball as exhibit 1), and that you may be annoyed at first that you can't pursue your OLD skill you were much more skillful at, but that in time you will come to appreciate the wisdom of learning new stuff and adapting quickly. Turning expat hassles into expat joys is just a matter of perspective, which kind of takes us right back to the head massage.

  6. The Corner Shop
    When I was a child, my mother would sometimes send me to the corner shop about 10 minutes from our house to buy a last-minute ingredient for her. All I had to do was cross the street, make my way through a nursery full of adventures (like litters of newborn kittens I could spend hours with), skip down a few stairs, and voila, there was the shop of Herr and Frau Schaal. I always came home with the cola-flavored gummies from the clear plastic bin at the cash register, purchased at 5 Pfennig a piece with the change my mom let me keep. (Actually, it was mostly my dad who sent me and the change was from purchasing his cigarettes for him.) In Germany, this kind of shop was called a "Tante-Emma-Laden" or "Aunt Emma's Shop." Of course I never really appreciated the existence of that shop, in fact looked down my nose a little bit as it was incredibly old-fashioned, including the proprietress with her wizened old face. But now that I've lived in the United States half my life where we have megastores it takes a week to push your cart through and that possess absolutely zero charm, I've come to pine for the Aunt Emma's Shops of my youth. And wouldn't you know it, a lot of foreign countries have them. 15 minutes in and out, tops, and you can always go back because they're right next to your house. Heaven!

  7. The Prevailing Common Sense
    There is a place common sense prevails?, you will ask. Yes, there is. Particularly often in the countries we consider "less developed."  Where you actually get to use your head to make decisions, where you don't have to ask for permission for every little step you might take, but where you might be eaten by a lion if you do something stupid.

  8. The Sun God
    Year-round sunshine was my Number One expat joy in South Africa, bar none. I suppose not every country has that going for itself, but the weather definitely plays a huge role in your well-being as an expat. It also helps mitigate other expat factors that might not exactly make the "joy" list. Trust me, when your internet has been down for a week, and each time you call the provider you get disconnected after listening to horrible on-hold music for an hour after punching in your 10-digit phone number 15 times, it's so much easier NOT to pull out your hair when you can just go outside and work on your tan while dangling your feet in the pool. If your expat assignment is in Norway - or, you guessed it, Germany! - then strike this entire bullet.

  9. The Juicy Mango
    I came to love not just mangoes but also papaya, cape gooseberries, and avocados while in South Africa. There is something about their fruit. I think it has to do with everything pretty much being home grown, meaning it's always incredibly fresh when in season and then not available at all other times of the year. This makes the experience so much more intense. It's like getting out certain toys for your kids only once a year, and they devour them like they've never seen them before. Getting to know and savoring the fresh fruit and other delicacies of a certain country certainly ranks right up there in the expat joy department. Although I wouldn't go as far as calling the Durian we got acquainted with in Singapore a joy, expat or otherwise. If you've been to Singapore, you'll know what I mean. If you haven't, just imagine the stinkiest cheese ever and cross that with a little bit of a rotten egg smell, and bingo, you've got your Durian.

  10. The Unannounced Playdate
    This one has to do with people popping by your house unannounced, bringing a brood of children with them to raid your fridge and run around the yard screeching, and yet somehow I've managed to construct this into an expat joy, and one of my favorite ones at that - read and see for yourself.

I'd love to hear from you! What are your biggest joys of expat life?
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