Our Gangly, Spread-Out Tribe (and why we need it)

Malcolm Gladwell gave a name to the desire we have to locate our ‘people,’ those who are like us in some way, those with whom we feel an affinity.  He calls this the urge to find our tribe.  He explains that our tribe can be the people we live with or those with whom we share a deep connection.  Once we’ve discovered and connected with these people we feel better about the world–happier, safer, more understood.

Our tribe can be, and probably is, made up of people who share our interests.  For those of us who are people of faith we find something of a ready-made tribe in our houses of worship.  We share similar outlooks with the people we find there–on life, on the nature of reality, on God.  Even in church, though, there are no guarantees.  There are plenty of lonely people in the pews on Sunday mornings.

Our tribe can be our family members.  In some sense, it always is.  I’m blessed with a close-knit family.  They’re supportive in good times and bad.  My two sisters are the people I call most often.  I used to give little thought to the idea of finding a tribe because I assumed it was my biological family.  In many ways it is.  And yet…

After my husband and I moved overseas we felt like we found it.  We found our tribe.  They were young and old, they had large families, and were couples with no kids.  They were from Mississippi and New Mexico.  They were doing well with the local language.  They were completely inept.

They were missionaries.

They understood the joys of care packages full of beef jerky and Starburst candies.  They knew why those of us in certain countries couldn’t be on Facebook in the Fall to witness the advent of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Lattes–again.  They commiserated with us about airports where the electricity goes out and people spit on the floor.  They laughed with us as we swapped stories about second (or third, or fourth) language gaffes.  They understood that you can meet a person in a strange country who remembers a certain park in a city near the one you grew up in and that, as a result, that person can become your friend for life.

We came back to the States, a tangled mess of grief and relief.  I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I felt deep loss, the loss of our tribe who were going on without us.  That feeling hasn’t gone away completely.  But God is good and, ever so slowly, he’s helping us to gather our tribe again on this side of the ocean.  We’re adding them one by one.  We can tell them a mile off.  It’s something about how they order food and talk to the waiters.  Or how they look a person in the eye and want to know their story.  It’s how their eyes fill up with tears for people they remember, how their hearts are shaped like continents.

Our tribe is spread out now.  It’s right here and way over there.  But we have one.  And slowly I’m feeling happier, safer and more understood.

Who’s in your tribe?

India at the Mall

Since the kids are at day camp from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m. every day this week, my sister and I are taking advantage of the free and easy life.  We drink coffee and browse in stores that kids don’t like.  We finish sentences and only stop for bathroom breaks when we need them.

Today we went to the local mall.  I’ve been back in town for around 10 weeks now and until today I had not stepped foot in the mall.  My immediate impressions as I stepped through the big glass doors were 1) people should wear more clothes and 2) American malls smell like the yummiest perfumes mixed with pizza.

Of course all the stores had changed since I’d been there three years ago, except for Sears (how does that place doggedly survive?) and Old Navy.  There were kiosks run by foreigners who didn’t bother to ask me if I wanted a special hand massage/lotion demonstration.  I think they could see the answer in my eyes.  Old people were walking with their thick, sensible shoes and fanny packs.  A Mennonite woman changed an infant’s diaper on one of the empty benches by the jewelry store.

My sister and I walked and talked, trying to count the time as both shopping and exercise (what we call ‘not sitting’).  Sucking in my abs, I passed a well-lit store and glanced at the framed photos of Bollywood stars lining the walls.  Wait, Bollywood stars?  Like a tourist I stopped and stared.

“I know those women,”  I sputtered to my sister.  “I mean, I don’t know them, know them.  But I’ve seen their movies.  This store has got to be Indian.”

And it was.  It was a little spa whose specialty is threading, a process of facial/eyebrow hair removal.  The woman running it was deliciously Indian.  White women were sitting in recliners, getting their eyebrows done.  I had to press down a lump in my throat and resist the urge to run in and say, Hi-you-don’t-know-me-but-I-feel-like-I-know-you-because-I-lived-in-your-country to the lady at the front deskI wanted to blurt stupid things like, I wear kurtas and love rice and dhal, and hey! say something to me in Hindi

But I didn’t because, the thing is, I’ve already done that to the Indians who work at the Subway restaurant by our house.  And somehow I ended up giving out my cell number…