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It’s described as a unique word with no equivalent in English. It’s origin is Portuguese and it was first used in the 13th Century. It is a longing, a melancholy, a desire for what was. It is “Saudade”.

Many immigrants and refugees search for words that adequately describe the peculiar longing for what they left behind. Not the war and evil that is a relief to escape, but the land, the people, the food – all that encompasses that which is home. Doctors and nurses working with large populations of immigrants and refugees often simply put it down as “depression”.

A health center I know desperately tried to find out through a survey what percentage of their immigrant and refugee patients had depression. The survey was unsuccessful. It did not reflect the narrative that these health care providers were hearing from patients.

One day a woman from Haiti said to them, “Have you ever thought about asking patients if they are homesick.” They looked at her in surprise. No, they had not. With a simple change of a word, they felt they were better able to get to the heart of the feeling. But is it depression? Depression is defined as a “severe despondency and dejection, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy.” That is not what immigrants are describing.

What they describe are feelings so deep that you can scarcely give words to them. Your throat catches. You experience an intense, but wordless, longing and desire. How do I know this? Because I have experienced it, first hand. What we long to describe is Saudade.

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

Many know that they will never go back to the place where they feel most at home. They realistically accept this, but not without saudade. A Portuguese friend of mine recently told me about her father. He is in his nineties and came to the United States with a large family over fifty years ago. A year ago, he went back to Portugal for what everyone thought would be a short trip. Now over a year later, he is still there. All the years he was in the United States, he experienced saudade. He has returned so he no longer has to experience this intense longing; he is back in a place where he is viscerally at home, in a land that he loves.

Third culture kids often struggle to give voice to their longing. Well aware that they are not from the country or countries where they were raised, they still have all the connections and feelings that represent home. When trying to voice these, others look on with glazed eyes. Just recently, someone said to me, “But you’re not an immigrant! You’re American!” The tone was accusing. It was meant to be. What was unsaid was, “Give it a rest! We know you grew up overseas. Big deal. You’re American and you’re living in America.”

Ah, yes… but I have saudade. I have that longing for something that “does not and cannot exist.” I know that it cannot be. And on my good days, it is well hidden under the culture and costume of which I am now living. But on my more difficult days, it struggles to find voice only to find that explaining is too difficult. Finding the word gives voice to these longings.

I have often been looked at with impatience. “Third culture kids are not that different!” says the skeptic. “We all have times of longing,” but I would argue, gently, that our experience is different. We are neither of one world nor the other, but between. Our earliest memories are shaped by sights, sounds, and smells that we now experience only in brief travels or through movies and television. All of those physical elements that shaped our early forays into this world are of another world. And so we experience saudade. And the simple discovery of a word gives meaning to those feelings, and can validate and heal. 

This essay is published in Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging © Doorlight Publications, July 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this essay may be reproduced without express permission from the author and publisher.

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It’s funny how the simple act of discovering a word that gives meaning to those feelings can validate and heal. That is what I believe “Saudade” can do for the third culture kid.

Between WorldsFor more reading on Third Culture Kids make sure to purchase the book Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging available July 1, 2014 from Amazon.

Be sure to read the outstanding comments below from others who live between worlds.