Finding My Way Across Continents
“My Gutsy Story®” Kathy Gamble
I was born in Burma and grew up on five continents. When I was 18, I went to college in the US, my passport country. It was very difficult for me. I was used to adjusting to new places and blending in but this time it was different. I looked and talked like an American but I had no knowledge of popular culture or how to identify with my fellow classmates.
My roommate had never been out of her home state except to go to college. She spent her time telling wild high school stories. I thought since she was telling her stories, I could tell mine. That was a mistake. “I learned to drink beer at the Hofbrouhous in Munich. I skied at St Moritz. I walked around the Parthenon and Knossos.” Of course she could not process my stories and said I was a liar. She told everybody I was a liar. I was ostracized and if I tried to speak to any of the “group”, I was ignored. I thought there was something wrong with me. I could not understand why they were so strange and closed minded.
I was very naive about the US. I had been in multicultural environments my entire life. I knew there were bigoted people but I didn’t understand how it was manifested in society at large. One day I went to lunch in the cafeteria and I saw a long empty table and I thought ‘I’ll sit there and then maybe I’ll meet some new people’. Well, as the lunch progressed people sat around me but they were all black and none of them would speak to me. The next day I commented on it to somebody and they told me that whites are not “allowed” to sit at that table. It is for the black girls only. I thought they were kidding. But they weren’t. It was too bad because they surely had a very different experience from mine and I probably could have learned some things from them about their perspective of America.
Halfway through my freshman year an old friend from high school showed up for a visit and as soon as I saw him I knew everything was going to be all right. He knew exactly what I was talking about and assured me I was not a crazy stupid idiot. Eventually I made other friends and things turned out okay. However, I stopped telling my story. To this day, I don’t volunteer anything about myself unless I know the other person’s story first. Then I usually adapt mine to theirs in a way they can relate to it.
Twenty years later I ended up in Moscow, Russia. My husband was a Russian American who grew up speaking Russian at home and had relatives in Moscow and St Petersburg. He moved there in the 1990’s and decided to open his own business. I moved to Moscow not knowing much about it and not knowing the language at all. I landed there with no support system. I was on my own. My husband was working most of the time or out with his Russian buddies.
I was horribly unhappy at first but what I ended up doing, and what saved me, were two things. I cooked and I wrote. I made everything from scratch. I often could not find what I was looking for so I improvised. I poured over cookbooks. My husband was always dragging people home for dinner – mostly Russians who were happy to eat anything I fed them. I think I fed half of Moscow. I was fearless. Everybody was a potential guinea pig. And then by a weird twist of fate I became the editor of the American Women’s Organization newsletter.
In the end it all came together and I edited, designed and produced the AWO Moscow cookbook. By that time I was an old hand and everybody knew me. I was satisfied and I was content. I had carved out my new persona.
All those years growing up in places like Mexico and Nigeria taught me to have inner strength and to be creative. We never had all the things we needed or wanted but we found ways to get around that. If Christmas Trees were not available, we made one out of paper or cards or cloth. We always made each other’s birthday cards. We rarely had TV so we read, or played cards, or listened to music. When we lived in Lagos I went to boarding school, so I didn’t have any friends to hang out with but there were always new things to see and experience and learn from all around me. I never felt lonely or bored.
We became such a tight family unit that it didn’t really matter. I think that is why I had such a hard time in the beginning in Moscow and in college. I didn’t have the support system people need in those situations. Whether it is an old friend or a family member or a new friend who “gets” you, as long as there is somebody telling you, ‘No, you haven’t lost your mind’, it really helps. But when there was no support system, I was able to find something I really loved to do and enjoyed the ride. An open and curious mind always helps.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Expat Alien was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.
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SONIA MARSH SAYS: Kathy, your story shows that travel makes us more open, and accepting of others. Your statement, “To this day, I don’t volunteer anything about myself unless I know the other person’s story first. Then I usually adapt mine to theirs in a way they can relate to,” is a clear signal that in order to be “accepted” we have to try to “fit in.” This is something that applies to expats all over the world. Thank you for sharing your insightful story.
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