“Now I can see what American culture is and I miss it terribly.”
by Lauren Blagui
I am a white American female, and I have found myself in a situation I never dreamed I’d be in: I married a Muslim, moved to his native country of Tunisia, and had my first baby there. As a little girl envisioning getting married and having kids, I never imagined I’d be living in a third world country in North Africa and having to adjust to major cultural differences while pregnant and then caring for my new daughter.
My husband had been planning on moving back to Tunisia when I met him, so I knew that was part of the deal going in, and I was open to the idea. As we became more serious fairly quickly, the prospect of moving became more of a reality in my life. A year in, we decided I should go to Tunisia to check it out, meet his family, and see if it was really something I could consider.
I spent three weeks in Tunisia and I had a blast. His family couldn’t have been nicer. I still wasn’t sure I’d love living there, but I was willing to try, especially as I knew my husband really had his heart set on coming home to his wonderful family.
A year later, we took a leap of faith, and moved to Tunisia. Part of the big move was giving up our rented apartment, selling our cars and enduring the enormous stress that comes with uprooting oneself, but with the added element of moving to another country! Knowing that we did not have a home, job, or car to come back to in America was a terrifying feeling. I had lived there my whole life, and now I was starting over in a foreign land where I didn’t speak the language. Immediately, everything negative stood out to me. My ethnocentrism was undeniable. I simply found America to be better in every sense, and I quickly realized that visiting a place is entirely different from moving there permanently.
I was blessed with a healthy pregnancy and an easy delivery (post-epidural, of course). I delivered at a private hospital in town, so most of my nurses spoke English, thankfully. I still encountered major cultural differences, though. For example, they believe spending skin-to-skin time after the baby is born will stress out the baby. I begged for that special bonding time, but they only placed her butt-up on my stomach while they cut the cord, then carried her all the way out of the room upside down, which alarmed me.
A few minutes later, my husband came to me and asked if I’d packed any soap or towels for her. I told him no, the doctor only told me to bring her clothes. Apparently they didn’t have any soap or towels to bathe her with. I had packed three outfits for my new baby, and when they first brought her to me, they had dressed her in all three outfits at once, even though it was 90 degrees outside! They have such a fear of babies being cold, but I was more worried about her overheating, so as soon as I was left alone, I undressed her and did skin-to-skin.
I half-jokingly refer to myself as a “spoiled-rotten American” because we really don’t know how good we have it until we’re put in a situation like this. I knew it would be challenging and I’d have to get used to living without certain luxuries, but it has been a real test. Occasionally the town turns off the water to work on the pipes, usually not for more than a day. But once we went without running water for 5 days with no warning. The toilet was disgusting, the dishes piled up, and going that long without a shower was unpleasant. Another major problem with living here is there is no heat in the wintertime and it gets cold. We have to wear lots of layers with coats, hats, scarves, and gloves at home all the time.
Another thing that bothers me is the pollution. Everyone litters! Trashcans aren’t readily available in most areas, and there is trash everywhere already, so my guess is that people figure—why not? The motorbikes smell strongly of exhaust so it is not pleasant to roll your window down. Almost everyone smokes, everywhere. It’s difficult to avoid it. Coming from southern California, where it is illegal to smoke indoors, this was a huge adjustment, especially while pregnant and then with a new baby.
On the bright side, we live in a farming community. People always give us food from their farms, such as fresh eggs, milk, cheese, fruit, or almonds. And I’ve learned how to save and reuse almost everything. The amount of trash we produce here is a fraction of what it was in the states, partly because all of our food is made fresh at home.
I never noticed American culture until I left. I’ve always envied other countries for having beautiful, colorful traditions of celebrations and folklore. But now I can see what American culture is and I miss it terribly. There are no occasions for costumes or decorations here, which is what I love most about Halloween and Christmas, for example. Here, they don’t seem to find many reasons to celebrate, except weddings-—they are a big deal, but the music is uncomfortably loud so I don’t enjoy them.
Before my daughter was born, I would get depressed sometimes, especially when I would see the abuse and neglect of animals. My husband isn’t religious so Islam doesn’t affect our daily lives. However, the country follows the teachings of the prophet Mohammed and his disciples, and it is taught that dogs are dirty so they are not to be touched. Dogs are either stray/wild (the better option for them) or tied to a tree their entire lives and fed only bread. It is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever witnessed, and it contributes to my feelings of not fitting in here, as I feel like the only one who cares about dogs here.
However, children here are beloved by everyone. It is the “village raises the child” type of setting. I’ll just be standing somewhere in public, and some stranger will come up, kiss my baby, and walk away. I’ve been given non-stop unsolicited advice ever since she was born, most of it I disagree with completely.
For example, I was told that four months is a good age to start potty training (this from a woman who never had children). I’ve been told that letting my child chew on a chicken bone with meat on it starting at four months is good for teething. And everyone in the world–even strangers–are so fearful of her getting cold when we leave the house, even if it’s hot out. People panic if they see her in a grocery store. They expect me to wrap her in a wool blanket or not to take her out at all.
But I have figured out that the advice they give, while forceful and insistent, is out of love, and they see it as a gift they are passing to me, as it was given to them by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts down many generations.
I came here with the promise of a strong, supportive family nearby who would help us care for our children. This society is organized for large families. We have property here–an olive farm–and we have big dreams of making a sweet little family business out of it. When the whole family gets together and I see the children helping to prepare food, that is how I’d like to see my children grow up-—not playing video games, but helping around the house, helping at the farm, and playing outside–using their imaginations like my generation and previous generations.
While I have faced many challenges in adjusting to my new life in Tunisia, I try to focus on the positive. It’s interesting how you can get used to something unfamiliar if you just relax and go with the flow. I practice yoga on a daily basis, which helps me get through some moments of discomfort or frustration.
Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” Since I moved to Tunisia, I’ve noticed how easy it is to judge the way others live. So now I try to be respectful and open to everything I may learn from my new life here in North Africa. I definitely feel that I am becoming a stronger person because of this experience!
Lauren Blagui grew up in southern California and went to college in Wisconsin as a History Major. She lived in Los Angeles, California for ten years and worked as a website editor and nanny, then moved to Tunisia with her new husband and is a new mother. She currently writes for MomTricks.com and teaches English to Chinese students online.
Did you find this post insightful or interesting? Have you ever lived in another country? Leave your Comments below and Share this article with all your friends & fans!
Be sure to join Darrah’s Insider Club, my weekly e-newsletter! Sign up below!