At Home Abroad

For Mawrters adapting to new environments, what they carry with them helps them cope.
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When Kim Hibsch ’01 relocated to Riyadh for her husband’s job, she focused her anxiety by managing their three young children’s transition. “I vacuum-packed toys and carted so many picture books that a TSA agent complimented my [literary] taste,” she says. Making a home in Saudi Arabia was, in some ways, straightforward: signing up her older kids for school and sports, repainting beige walls brighter colors, improvising American holidays, wearing an abaya over her yoga pants and Crush the Patriarchy T-shirt. Though living in a Western compound buffers her experience of Saudi culture, raising kids among families from 60 countries requires her to deliberately articulate her values and priorities within an international array of parenting styles.

Moving also made Hibsch the family archivist, curating community in two places. “I created binders of our old lives in Arlington [Virginia]—friends, places, and activities we loved,” she says, an effort that eases her kids into the U.S. during summer visits. “They won’t remember much of it. But 10 years from now, I want them to feel that they were loved in this place where they were born.”

“It’s easier to go from place to place when you realize we’re only here for a short time.”

“In art history, you either go big or go home,” says Manjula Dias-Hargarter ’92, who took a crash course in Latin to earn her Ph.D. prerequisite in Germany and defended her dissertation auf Deutsch. Class Notes news like this could drive a reader to despair or, like a Mawrter, back to school. But as she hastens to explain, her life in her husband’s Hamburg hometown—working as a German-to-English translator and teacher while raising two bilingual children—is an adaptive response to a radically changed career landscape.

“My generation thought the Baby Boomers would retire and leave all these professor jobs,” she says. In fact, although more women and minorities teach in universities today than when she graduated, most positions they fill are part-time and adjunct, not tenure track.

“Man makes plans, and God laughs,” Dias-Hargarter says. Luckily, she loves the intellectual challenge of translating, which allows her to communicate with a wider audience than a college classroom could fit. In her varied career curating exhibits, giving museum tours, and translating art history and architecture texts, the through-line is her interest in art.

“Because I was born in America and emigrated to India, I couldn’t own being Indian or American,” says Veena Siddharth ’84, whose parents’ immigration story (moving back and forth between India and the U.S., as the law required) shaped her own. “I gravitated to a world where everyone is from somewhere else, where the prism of multiple points of view is an asset.”

A World Bank assignment to Chile was the turning point in her career in international development and human rights. As the only under-40, non-native Spanish-speaking woman on her team, she received a surprising advantage from her outsider status. “The women pulled me in, out of curiosity,” she says, opening the door to an exchange of personal questions, while her colleagues were sidelined.

On a recent trip to India, Siddharth says, “I was knocked over by how happy I was to be there. But I’ve felt that way in every place I’ve lived. Home is about relationships.”  

Gail Diamond ’82 gave Israel three years when she moved there 17 years ago. Despite working in the Jewish community, she was a newcomer to Israeli culture, in which extended families live in close proximity and friendships made in youth last for life. A late-life parent, gay with a partner from Trinidad, religious but not Orthodox, she is a multiple minority. Raised by an immigrant, she knew her children would grow suited to their native environment, while she became “this strange creature: not totally of the place you live in but never of the place you come from.”

Now, says Diamond, “I’m so networked here, and my expectations of community have changed.” Referencing population density in the Judean Hills, a WhatsApp community of favor-trading, and the freedom her children enjoy in a neighborhood of familiar faces, she says, “Home is where my children are at home.”

Her pole star is her synagogue. Having transitioned from rabbinic service into translating and editing to make time for two teenagers and elderly parents in the U.S., she works to preserve the community she helped build. Citing her favorite Bible verse (1 Chronicles 29:15), she says, “We’re all strangers and sojourners. It’s easier to go from place to place when you realize we’re only here for a short time.”

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Shikha Prashad ’09: As a diplomat’s daughter, moving to a new country every few years was a fact of life and quickly became normal to me. I was lucky to attend international schools, where it was easier to connect with others and find friends with similar experiences. Diversity was the norm, and so there was an implicit understanding that everyone had their unique story and identity. I had friends from all over the world with similar upbringings; we understood that while we looked different, had different accents, spoke different languages at home, and celebrated different holidays, we had a lot in common. Understanding this from a young age, and having stability at home, helped me cope with the constant moving. By the end of high school, I had lived in five countries and was preparing to move to my sixth to attend Bryn Mawr, this time without my family. Bryn Mawr’s diversity, openness, and acceptance of every student’s unique story felt familiar, eased the transition, and helped me create a home in the U.S.

Allyson Bailey ’84: When I decided to do my Masters in England (and then stayed on to get married), I didn’t think I’d have any problems. After all, I speak the language and I spent plenty of time watching British TV on PBS, so I ought to be right at home!

However, what I found was that it was quite disorienting to be somewhere that was in some ways so familiar, but then to keep coming up against little things that weren’t what I expected. I was fine with everyone driving on the other side of the road, but it took me by surprise to find that spinach was considered an exotic vegetable in the supermarket (it isn’t now!)  or that hamburger meat was called “mince.”

The problem with assumptions is that we don’t even know we’re making them, and once your defaults are set you forget that they are just one set of assumptions, not some sort of universal rules. It sounds like a cliché, but I have found the best way to adjust to an unfamiliar situation is to start from scratch, assume you have to learn everything, and just be pleased if you find there’s something you already know.

Rachel Savage ’97/’98: Growing up, family vacations were not exotic and involved travel by car and/or staying with relatives—and so it was a dream come true when Bryn Mawr paid for me to attend the World Universities Debating Championships in Cork, Ireland in December, 1995.  On that trip, I was bitten by the travel bug and began to think about living overseas after graduation. I applied for scholarships, and was fortunate enough to be awarded a British Marshall Scholarship to study at the University of Edinburgh.

The fall of 1997 was my first experience of living as an adult—and I was doing it in a foreign country! Although I lived in a university hall of residence that year, we had to be much more self-sufficient than in dorms at Bryn Mawr. I still vividly remember the experience of wanting to light the Sabbath candles in my room, but not knowing what kind of a shop to buy them in. Eventually, I realized that a newsagent selling cigarettes would probably have what I needed. But I felt a long way from home.

Over 20 years later, I live permanently in the UK, and it now feels like home. The U.S. feels like a foreign country when I visit, even though the internet has made it much easier to stay connected than when I first moved abroad.