The “Glass House” phenomenon, they call it. We are all familiar with it. As strangers in a foreign country, we are a novelty. People want to touch us, talk to us, hold our babies, feel our hair, take pictures with us. They want to watch how we do things. Clothing, cooking, cleaning, child training – it’s all under the microscope. And after they finish laughing at how we do it differently, they usually feel the obligation to teach us the right way to do it.
We’ve experienced this feeling of being a local novelty in so many ways.
Sometimes it’s a blessing – there are always plenty of people who are glad to give us advice, tell us where to find something, or show us how to do something if we need help. There are always arms willing to take my baby if I need a break. There are always neighbors offering to do my cleaning, or my laundry, or my cooking, if I ever need to hire more household help. But other times it’s frustrating and annoying – and sometimes quite stressful.
When three people are telling me what to do, but none of them actually understand the objective I’m trying to accomplish, it is stressful to deal with all the unwanted help. When a stranger in a public place gets pushy about taking my crying baby, or disappears with him in the crowd of a busy market, I just want them all to leave us alone. What’s worse is when we get the feeling that the neighbors, or the local vendors, or even our hired help, are really more interested in the benefit they can get from their connection to the white man, than they are in genuinely helping us and being our friend. Those are the days we really wish our glass house was made of reflective, one-way glass so that no one could see inside.
The feeling of always being watched causes us to second-guess ourselves. Am I being culturally sensitive? Was what I just said appropriate? What are they thinking about the fact that we’re eating American food again? Do they notice that we spend more money on one month’s internet data than they make in a month? I feel insecure, defensive, and most of all, just annoyed that we’re being watched so closely. Annoyed that every detail of our life suddenly matters to everyone around us, and I can’t do anything about it.
My husband and I have joked before that we live in a zoo. Of course, any household with two small boys, three dogs, a cat, and countless wild lizards just feels like a zoo. Add to that the fact that we have two acres of beautifully landscaped yard (okay, it will be beautifully landscaped when I’m done with it, anyway) suggestive of a tropical botanical garden, and what more do you need?
Well, the sightseers, of course – which we have, in the form of neighbors and door to door vendors who seem to take every opportunity to look around our yard and try to peer in our windows. That’s what we’re actually referring to when we joke about being a zoo exhibit. It seems sometimes like our neighbors must be saying, “Let’s go see what the strange white man is doing today!” And one day it was confirmed as never before . . .
I was cooking lunch in the late morning when I noticed about 10-12 school students come in our gate. I went to tell my husband, who usually deals with people at the gate when he’s home, but he was on the phone. So I turned off the stove burner and went out to see what they needed. It turns out it was actually a teacher and his 8th grade class. They were studying “tourism” in social studies and needed a place to tour.
This teacher, resplendent in his sweater vest and shiny black dress shoes, looked us in the eye and with a straight face explained that since there were no other local tourist sights, he brought his class to our house to experience what tourism was like!!! I managed to keep a straight face, as did my husband who joined me on the veranda. After asking them a few more questions, my husband very graciously took them around the yard, showing them our patio flower garden and the boys’ tree house. After about fifteen minutes they left. If we ever doubted it before, that day showed us that we truly do live in a zoo. I think it’s time to start charging admission!
On that day, the attitudes were so blatant and the situation so strange that it was just funny. We spent the next hour laughing and joking about it, and it will go down in history as one of our favorite cross-cultural moments. But it’s not always so funny, not always so easy to accept this glass-house lifestyle. I find myself wanting to get away, to run and hide, to lock the gate and stay inside so no one knows we’re home.
I know I need to focus on the blessings, the opportunities, and the amusing side of it all. But I also need to set some boundaries to take a breath from the stress and pressure. This is something I’m still learning how to do – and something that seems difficult to do when it feels like there isn’t anywhere to go to truly get away from it.
What about you? What have your “glass house” experiences been? How do you deal with the stress of it all?