I had two experiences at Emma’s preschool today which gave both a reminder that I don’t really belong, and a sense of belonging.
Thursdays at preschool is swim day. The teachers set up a large inflatable pool and the kids can swim for about two hours.
They are always generous with Hannah participating in special things, and they have invited me to bring Hannah for the swim time each week. Today Hannah and Emma were the only two kids to really spend much time in the pool because the water was a bit on the cold side. I convinced Emma to get back in the pool, after she had changed into her play clothes, and that if she spent a couple minutes in the water, she would get used to it. It worked, and the two girls played for about half an hour while I looked on.
At one point, a young woman came out from the classroom and was watching the girls as well. I started talking to her as I had seen her at the preschool in the morning, but I didn’t recognize her. That morning I heard her ask one of the teachers about Emma and Hannah, whether they were foreigners or not. I answered yes in Arabic. When she came outside I asked her if she was new working here or what exactly she was doing here, and she told me she was with her sister and nephew as it was his first day at preschool. The whole time we talked she kind of looked at me with a look of incredulity and amazement. She asked a typical question, “Do you like Egypt? Is it nice?” I answered in the affirmative. “But isn’t it crowded?” she asked, implying it really wasn’t so nice. “Yes, it’s crowded, but the people are good. We like your culture and the Arab people and your language.” She was taking this all in, but I could just see the wheels of her head spinning as I was not fitting her stereotype of an American living in Egypt. It was a short conversation over all and one I have had many times, but the interesting part was watching her trying to figure me out. Really I hope I am not too hard to figure out. I am an American, living in Egypt with my family and looking to live life to the fullest here and participate in the culture as much as I can. I must speak the language in order to do this, and my children need to as well. But even as we try to participate fully, we are still “outsiders” who don’t really fit in, try as we might.
Just a couple minutes later I had a short conversation with another woman who was sitting in the coffee area, just a few feet from the pool. She had been watching the girls too, and apparently had seen us before because she asked about Layla, who wasn’t even with me this time. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember seeing her before, but I guess being foreigners we stick out and are easy to remember. Anyway, she was asking about the girls, and each of her questions was in English, but each of my answers was in Arabic. Sometimes that is a game we play. We are eager to speak Arabic with Egyptians, and so if they speak to us in English, we try to insist on speaking Arabic. We have learned that in whatever language you begin a relationship this is the language in which it will continue. So, she persisted in English and I persisted in Arabic. Again, it was a short conversation.
I went inside and gathered Emma’s things, as both girls had exited the pool and changed by this time, and then we left for home. But as we left, this woman stopped me and asked how I was getting home. I told her we would take a taxi. She immediately offered to drive us home and accompanied us out the gate. I didn’t think twice about accepting her offer, as I felt perfectly safe with her and didn’t think it strange for her to offer. This is part of the Egyptian culture to be so generous with their time and resources. Not only did she drive us to our home, but when Emma pointed out a ball in her trunk, she gave it to Emma as a gift. Generous people, and something I hope I am learning as I live among them. Thanks to a stranger for giving me a small sense of belonging today.