Journalist Dan Kois and his wife, attorney Alia Smith, felt that their busy, comfortable existence in North Arlington was stifling true connections with their young daughters. So they did what some Washington parents only dream of: They moved far away. Then they moved again. And again. It wasn’t quite a case of saying goodbye to their professional lives. Kois, an editor at Slate, made a project of exploring what living in other cultures—in this case, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Kansas—could teach them about becoming closer. The result is his heartwarming memoir, How to Be a Family.
You’ve indulged in one of the big middle-class fantasies: chucking it all and traveling around the world. Did your friends and coworkers hate you for it?
The impression I got, and maybe our friends were just kinder than most, was that they were happy for us that we were going on this adventure and curious to find out what we would learn—and only occasionally threatened to murder us if we didn’t come back.
You lived in each place for three months. How good a view do you feel you got?
I had a lot of time to report and think and talk to people. But there are definitely 10 million things that I absolutely don’t understand or got wrong. I have not walked away from these experiences being an encyclopedic expert on, like, Tico life in Costa Rica.
In the book, you note that Americans visiting and retiring in Costa Rica hasn’t really helped a lot of locals.
Yeah. The fantasy that we talked about [before the trip] doesn’t allow for a lot of room to think about whether you belong in the place that you’re fantasizing about or the harm that you do by indulging in that fantasy.
The Netherlands gave you some trouble. Your daughters’ “bilingual” school was mostly in Dutch.
I describe it in the book as basically being the absolute perfect society if you grew up there. But it’s somewhat uniquely difficult to assimilate into.
You write that the “hyper-competent parenting culture” of North Arlington made you miserable. Would you ever live somewhere farther out? May-be not Kansas, but Leesburg or Frederick?
Probably someplace further away than Leesburg. If they picked up New Zealand tomorrow and just plopped it off the coast of North Carolina, we would be out of here.
Kois and Hanna Rosin will discuss his new book at Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, on Friday, September 20, at 8 PM.
This article appears in the September 2019 issue of Washingtonian.