In Praise of Third-World Houseguests

They lend a whole new perspective to the holidays.

We were lucky enough to have exotic visitors over Christmas break—two of my daughter’s roommates, one from college, one from grad school, both from Kenya. Basil is from the capital city of Nairobi; Susan is from a tiny village. But they’re from the same tribe, and they were both far from home at Christmastime. So we shuffled the stockings on the mantel and pulled out the sleeping bags.

The first thing you learn when you have Third World houseguests is that the term “Third World” has fallen out of favor. I’m supposed to say “developing nation” or “less developed nation.” After a few days with Marcy’s Third World friends, I would say they’re far more developed than most American young people I know. They slid seamlessly into the complicated cotillion of family traditions—huge Christmas Eve party in Philly, less huge Christmas dinner at my brother’s in Princeton that we’re told will be served at four o’clock but is inevitably delayed until at least seven p.m., by which time we’re all starved. They evinced infallible good cheer through long car rides and dozens of introductions; they patiently answered prosecutor-style questions from my lawyer brother-in-law. They even enjoyed the annual Christmas carol sing-along accompanied by my sister and her two kids, who play cello and violins. At least, they said they did. There was some discussion as to whether this was because the musicians are becoming more accomplished or because Basil and Susan are so damned polite.

Another thing you learn when you have Third World houseguests is that they’re not going to judge you by how clean your kitchen floor is. This, my daughter tells me, is because they don’t have kitchen floors in their houses—or, rather, that their kitchen floors are made of dirt. I found this enormously liberating. So long as I was letting the kitchen floor go, I figured I could stop obsessing about the bathrooms and the living room rug as well. This allowed me to focus on preparing food, which Basil and Susan were deeply appreciative of. In Kenya at Christmas, they told me, they would have meat, probably goat, which is a special treat. They would not have chocolate truffles, crumb cake, pecan pie, caramels, assorted chocolates and 12 different kinds of Christmas cookies, as we did on Christmas Eve—after a meal of roast filet of beef, sea bass, salmon and Swedish meatballs. And those were just the entrées and desserts.

When Basil was growing up, he and his brothers would have gotten a new soccer ball or perhaps an item of clothing from Father Christmas. That’s it. Sum total. I was glad he and Susan were visiting now that my kids are grown, and not in the years of awful excess that marked their younger Christmases, with mountains of Barbies and Legos and K’Nex sets and American Girl dolls under the tree. I don’t know why it was so important to me then to give them so much stuff, especially since most of it has long since been forgotten or thrown away. It was a rare Christmas morning that didn’t end in tears of disappointment or frustration for one or both of them back then. It’s weird that we grow up to remember childhood Christmases fondly, considering that for years and years we wake up and realize: “What? No pony again?”

In Kenya, Basil and Susan agreed, holidays are about family—immediate and extended—more than about shopping and wrapping and baking and sending cards and making lists and rushing out on Thanksgiving Day to find bargains at Walmart. Even after several years in America, they’re still perplexed by our materialism, by the way we waste resources and acquire things we don’t need. They travel lightly; they live out of backpacks and suitcases. They know they’re lucky to be here, for now, but they feel a deep responsibility to use the educations they’re acquiring to benefit the nation they left behind. I hope my kids will develop to be more like that in years to come.