Life in a Glass House

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?

Photo Credit: seier+seier via Compfight cc


  1. Nicole August 21, 2014

    Yes!  This is so true!  As another West Africa “tourist attraction”, mom of 4 kids and wife to a very nationally connected and social husband- being on display constantly can be exhausting.  Thank you for putting into words what we face every day.

    1. Melissa Toews August 21, 2014

      Yes, exhausting!  It’s something that has exhausted me for the last three years, but somehow it wasn’t clear enough to articulate until after our “zoo” experience. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth August 21, 2014

    “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.” Yes! In our first year, we tried to keep some potted plants alive (but often forgot to water them). One day my husband was watering the plants, and our neighbor asked, “Jonny, do you know how to water plants?” My husband replied, “Apparently not,” while she proceeded to show him the Cambodian way to water plants: splash the water all over the leaves in a fru-fru manner. (We water plants the American way, pouring water into the soil only.) We still laugh about when we didn’t know how to water plants the “right” way.

    1. Melissa Toews August 21, 2014

      Classic story!  There really is only ONE right way to water plants, you know! 🙂

  3. M'Lynn August 21, 2014

    I have never thought of it as living in a glass house. Yes, that makes perfect sense. No wonder when I think of one day if I ever live back in America I would want huge windows in my house in the country. I’m used to others being able so “see in.”

    My glass house moments are many, and most of the time I can find humor in them. Sometimes, not so much. Once, as my family and I sat on a park bench, we gathered a crowd of 15 or so onlookers who wanted to watch my son eat a blueberry muffin. They were all taking his photo and enjoying the show, so I got out my video camera and filmed from my angle. Definitely a “zoo” experience.

    1. Melissa Toews August 21, 2014

      I like this way of coping – I’ll have to remember the camera next time!

    1. Melissa Toews August 21, 2014

      Thank you for sharing from your blog. I like the reality show idea.  If you have to live in a glass house, might as well put it on TV, right? 🙂

  4. Lacy August 21, 2014

    Yes! Beautifully written and perfectly evocative of my experience living in Cape Town. Everyone was watching. Sometimes I felt like I was in one giant game of Simon Says. Thanks for putting this feeling into words.

    1. Melissa Toews August 21, 2014

      “one giant game of Simon Says” – yes!  A perfect way to describe this!

  5. Amy Young August 21, 2014

    Melissa, thanks so much for sharing! Who knew when you were visited as a tourist attraction how this experience would be used to help so many :)!  (Well, we know WHO, but you know what I mean, wink!)

    1. Melissa Toews August 21, 2014

      So true, Amy!  I love how God works. 🙂

  6. Angie August 21, 2014

    I can relate well to this story. Thanks for posting. When my son was little we went to a zoo in a town near us and we were the only ones looking at the animals…. Everyone else was looking at US, especially my son, and we had a crowd surrounding us the entire time! Truly we were more interesting than any of the animals at zoo that day. Ha.

  7. Kendra September 2, 2014

    Melissa! Imagine finding you here!

    Although my life is much different than yours in many ways, I have had a small taste of the fishbowl effect even here in the States. All I can say is, hugs, girl. Really and truly. And may God give you the wisdom to know when to take a break and the grace to live with joy when you can’t. “To be an [overseas worker] is not easy!” 😉

    I wish I could have a good, long catch-up with you, but in the absence of that, I’ll send up a little extra whisper for you. Love you!

    1. Melissa Toews September 3, 2014

      Good to hear from you, Kendra!  It’s been a long time!

  8. Kate September 3, 2014

    This is so true. I work in The Cook Islands in the Pacific and we live on an island with only 10000 people on it. Gossip flies through this place so fast! I actually tell this to people who arrive as volunteers, that we live in a glass house. Not only because they want to tell us how to do things but they talk about EVERYTHING. The next minute i’m getting a phone call because one of our staff walked across the road the wrong way…. So thank you for your article, great to hear we are not the only ones… 🙂

    1. Melissa Toews September 3, 2014

      Yes, you are not the only ones! 🙂

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