I am floating on my back in the ocean. (You can tell this is a dream, because in real life I’m a pretty poor swimmer.) I close my eyes for a few minutes, and when I wake up, the current has carried me somewhere I do not recognise. The shore is wading depth away, so I get out and look around and try to think of how to get home. The uber app won’t work on my phone but there’s a concierge nearby so I ask her for instructions to take a bus. The answers she gives me don’t match my questions. Something is being lost in translation even though we are both speaking English. At that point, I realise I have Callum with me. Not only do I need to get myself through (out of?) this situation, but I have to keep him safe and care for him too.
These are the kinds of dreams I am having each night. They change in detail – sometimes I am in an apartment building and can’t find the way out, or a crowd of people who are not telling the truth – but the basic details are the same: of feeling lost, confused, and responsible for my kids who are even more vulnerable.
These dreams are about life in Australia, not life in Tanzania.
There’s an old story about missionaries feeling overwhelmed at the cereal aisle at the supermarket – the sheer choice of options after having just one or two for so long. For me it’s been the milk aisle. It’s not really the variety of full cream, low fat, A2, etc. that stresses me. I could just make a decision, or we could try a different one each time. But I have this nagging feeling that there’s something I’m supposed to know about milk. Didn’t I see something about not buying Coles and Woollies milk because they were exploiting farmers? Is that still a thing?
The stress for me lies less in being confronted with the wealth of Australia, and more with the nagging suspicion that I don’t understand this world anymore.
For over 6 years in Tanzania, we have seen things that made us uncomfortable, and we have chosen to delay our judgement, and to tolerate that space of ambiguity. We are acutely aware that however much we understand Tanzanian headspace and culture, it will never be ours.
And yet, here we are in our own culture, and it is no longer ours either.
This week I found myself criticising something to a friend who got defensive, and I realised she had every right to be. I have been back in Australia only 4 weeks. There are surface issues which I might easily be able to spot, but there are other less obvious forces that exist at a deeper level which take longer to see and even longer to understand. The buying milk conundrum exists in a thousand ways elsewhere. All those skills that I have been practising for 6 years I now also need in my home culture.
There’s another one we practise in Tanzania as well: self-compassion in a cross-cultural context. We need it when we make cultural blunders (or realise something we’ve been blundering in for years!) or when we are tired of not belonging. Self-compassion helps us to not get bogged down in self-recriminations, and to treat ourselves gently when we are weary. It’s what I need to pick up and apply in Australia too, except I am not so used to applying it in this space.
Somewhere along the line, being foreigners in Tanzania became our normal. We know how to do that. What’s new to us is being in Australia, and we find ourselves kind of like foreigners here too. I’m slowly realising that Australia is not necessarily the place to refresh and recharge for another 3 years on location. It’s just a different place to keep living cross-culturally, and to keep practising that self-compassion.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.