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Feeling lost in the milk aisle (and other places)

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.

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

8 replies

  1. Well written Tamie (as always). I can relate to what you are saying as although only away in South Korea and then Romania for a short tine of service, compared to your 6 years away. I too had heard of the cereal isle conundrum and yes I experience it, not in the milk isle (although I too living back here for over a decade now get overwhelmed by the ever expanding choices. Missionary training talks of 3rd culture kids but it relates to us adults too. Such as taking my shoes off when I enter a house and then realising nobody else has taken theirs off.
    Prayers are with you bur I fear you will not be back long enough to truly assimilate back in but I am not sure one who has ever spent a significant time living and working overseas ever fully does. I think what happens is like 3rd culture kids we make our own way of a mix between our birth culture and our chosen culture. God Bless and prayers are with you always.

    1. Sorry for the numerous mistakes, see as I tell my students should never publish your 1st draft 🤨😏😉

  2. The timing on this is really interesting as I prepare to travel to Adelaide for the first time after moving away 2 years ago. During our time living there, when I travelled for a weekend trip ‘home’ it was from Adelaide to Sydney and all my little favourite spots crammed in to the itinerary were Sydney spots.

    But now, Sydney is not home and Adelaide is not home, and I keep finding myself having this sense of vague confusion as I plan my trip that I don’t know where I am going. We fly from Sydney but have to travel there first, I keep mixing up in my mind which airport is which, which friends I’m going to see, which places and food i’m looking forward to.

    That sense of being a foreigner in a familiar place is really strong for me at the moment too, for me it’s not the milk aisle but navigating public transport changes which seems to make me feel all disjointed somehow.

    I am so looking forward to seeing you and comparing notes, and sharing a bit of compassion xoxo

  3. Yes, Tamie! and I see this is resonating with different people in all kinds of ways.
    Coming ‘back’ to Australia became always an ongoing journey for me in needing to use the same learned skills of cultural analysis, trying to work out where people were at and how to connect with them there, in the same way that we did so in the ME.
    To belong well in more than one place means to not belong fully in any one of them (that 150% person, so there’s always a part that can’t fit).
    Living in the discomfort that (as Brigitta said), our children, and other 3rd space people live with.
    I think of it sometimes in terms of becoming living icons / signs of the ‘strangers and foreigners on earth’ looking for our real homeland, for all those called to that journey.

  4. Thanks for this Tamie. I’m curious to know how much of this feeling came in your first home assignment and now as you compare first home assignment to second, whether this feeling has only increased or was the same as before or some other option?

    1. Great question Craig! And highly relevant to your own upcoming experiences. It is way stronger this time. On our first home assignment, we were quite shocked by realising how different we were, like how our parenting had been influenced by living in Tanzania. But we also felt a sense of relief and familiarity being in Australia, and excitement at getting to do things we’d missed. This time, another 3 years on, and 6+ years since we lived in Australia, we are more practiced at doing transition, but the world we are coming back to feels a lot more foreign.

      1. Yeah, very highly relevant. So in first home assignment you felt foreign in Australia in some ways, but this second time that sense or feeling has grown stronger?

        I feel like it has taken 3 years for us to get used to Cambodia, but when we go back, while I may feel a little different there will be that relief of coming ‘home’. But I can imagine that after another 3 years of getting better at living in Cambodia with that same time away from Australia, the tables may turn in a similar way to what you have described. Australia would thus be a little less of a relief to be around and Cambodia may be a bit more of a relief (in terms of knowing how to do life). And where we find this relief dislodges our sense of what it means to have Australia as ‘our home’ — looking for the real homeland as Isabel said above.

  5. Yes, the things last time were more surface, or tangible perhaps. This time little sense of relief, just disorientation, harder to define but more painful.

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