When meeting someone of a different culture for the first time, there are definitely certain concepts that won’t translate. When we were introduced to our host family that we would be living with for the next three weeks, there were more than a few of these incidents that occurred.
We were in the car driving back from an outing around the city, and the family that now included two extra people was trying to cram into a 5-person car. While Sidi Driss (our host dad) and Grandma sat in the front, the rest of us tried to Tetris ourselves into the car. We ended up having four of us in the back seat, and our little ghti (sister) in the trunk. I had about half a butt-cheek on the seat, and was mostly just leaning on everyone else in order to not end up on the floor.
On the way back home, Lalla Salima (our host mum) asked if I was alright, and I told her I was used to being stuck in the smallest seat. My years of cross-country roadtrips and 4-hour drives to the cottage had prepared me well. She then asked if I had any siblings, due to my familiarity with being squished, and here the confusion started.
From a North American perspective, I have a fairly normal 21st century family structure: mum, dad, step-mum, and two step-siblings. However, this was a difficult concept to explain in a country where divorce due to irreconcilable differences was only put into law in 2004. After some back-and-forth in broken Darija (Moroccan Colloquial Arabic) and rusty French, where the concept of half-siblings was raised and dismissed, I thought I had come up with the winning explanation: “There was my mum and my dad, and they had me. There was also my step-mum and her husband, and they had two kids. Then my mum and my dad split up, while my step-mum and her husband split up as well. Later, my step-mum and my dad got married, so long answer short, I’m an only child but I have siblings.”
She nodded knowingly, and I was excited that this cultural difference had been smoothly navigated without accusations of bastardry or ill will towards either of my parents or myself. I turn back around to take in the scenery of Rabat at night, and then feel a tap on my shoulder. Lalla has another question, and as I hear it I realize the last 10 minutes of discussion were going to necessitate a much longer discourse on the concept of divorce.
“So, your mum and your dad… They still live together, right?”