What Did You Leave Behind? A Post for the TCK

We’ve been asked where we are from.

We’ve been asked if it’s good to be ‘home.’ 

We’ve been asked what ‘it’ was like ‘over there.’

But have you ever been asked what you left behind? 

I haven’t. Ever. I don’t think my kids have ever been asked either.

But it’s such a good question. Because maybe, just maybe, if we can be honest about what we left behind, we can press forward to what we have now, press forward to what is ahead. So today, I’m asking you. No matter when you left, whether it be two months ago, a year ago, or ten to twenty years – what did you leave behind?

Nina Sichel in a post written for the Morning Zen says this at the end of it:

“Kathleen Gilbert has researched grief among TCKs, and writes, ‘Losses that are not successfully resolved in childhood have an increased likelihood of recurring in adulthood… For TCKs, questions about who they are, what they are, where they are from, what and who they can trust are examples of existential losses with which they must cope. And the way in which they process these losses will change, or may even wait until long after their childhood.’


So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her. Ask her where she’s lived. Ask her what she’s left behind. Open doors. And just listen. Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn. She has a story — many stories. And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.”

So what did you leave behind? May we share, and in sharing, be heard, be healed, be whole.

Blogger’s note: I would love to use some of your responses in a future piece called “The Things We Left Behind.” Would you share and be willing to have your words shared again?

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54 thoughts on “What Did You Leave Behind? A Post for the TCK

  1. Sun and sea and sand, cool tropical breezes, fresh picked fruit from the trees in the yard, and fresh caught fish,
    But also, currently living five miles from Ferguson, I miss the ‘colour blindness’ where nobody is discriminated against simply because of their skin pigmentation – where skin colour is merely a means of identification, like blond hair or blue eyes.

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  2. Ah, Marilyn, this question has haunted me! In many ways, I *personally* feel what I left behind was a past full of people who didn’t understand and accept me. I don’t mourn leaving that behind! But when I think about my mom, who, as I’ve mentioned before, was beyond happy in military culture, I think that question could nearly break her heart. And by that I mean, I wonder if a person can die of a broken heart. I don’t think I could ask her that question, it would hurt too much. I think about this a lot. Then, sometimes I don’t think about, because I get too panicky about all her losses.

    I remember another post you wrote about a TCK raising TCKs. You said “we didn’t name the losses; we didn’t think there were any.” That whole “not naming the losses” has also stuck with me, haunting me, over the past month or so since I read it. We didn’t name the losses when we entered civilian life. We couldn’t. And my mom lost so much. Prestige, honor, and respect as an Officer’s Wife. Only to enter the “real world” without any honor at all. Just a nobody. Civilians don’t care about rank. I think about the financial security we had in the Army that evaporated upon entering civilian life. I think about the greater purpose in being a member of the Armed Services. I think about the community inherent in being an Army Wife. Deep, close, automatic, and unquestioned.

    So many losses, and it’s been so many years. More than 20 of them. How do you even begin picking up the pieces?? I think of Frodo, returning from Mordor. “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back? There are some things time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep that have taken hold.”

    So I mourn, often, and not for myself. And I mourn for the almost-no-hope of healing I have. I mourn the years lost to grief unnamed, and the diminishing years still available for finding healing and closure. It is very hard to be apart from my Mom now, with newer insights into my childhood journey because of my adult one, but feeling powerless to help heal.

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    1. I so get your mom. Different circumstances but same feelings. I love, love what you shared on Frodo! You offer me the best quotes – how do you remember them?!
      As I read your comment, I was also struck by the word ‘mourn.’ I love that word. It is so descriptive of what we need to do. Mourning feels so healing. So much more I want to say, but I’ll leave it there and continue the conversation on email!

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  3. My husband and I taught in several international schools. Our children were fortunate enough to attend and receive a fabulous education. We left behind a tremendous community of teachers, a great support system and an unspoken understanding of our nomadic lifestyle. While all is good ‘at home’, there is a lack of understanding of what we experienced, and even though our friends from ‘home’ travel extensively, they never will ‘get it’, never will grasp what we left behind while living abroad.

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    1. It’s a hard realization isn’t it? That need to accept that others will never grasp what was left. Because the idea that you even left in the first place is a puzzle to so many. Why would you leave? Why would you go? Those questions are asked so often, and I want to respond – Why did I come back? Thanks so much for sharing and entering the conversation.

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  4. Oh Marilyn, what a complicated question!
    The first thing I think of is that I left behind the best explination of me, my dorm (which has apparently been turned into classrooms… I cried when I found out they tore out the closest we had all etched our names into each time we lived in that room).
    But in more measurable terms, I left behind perfect beach weather, pickup soccer games, fresh fruits, that edge of everyday danger, my street smarts (I feel so illequipped for culture here). I left behind human contact, all those expected “besitos” and hugs where you come out of church smelling like cologne and perfume with lipstick smudges on your face. I left behind the need for community because there was no other way to survive.

    Reading all these other comments is like a corporate mourning and I can feel the weight of all our losses, and yet I found some pretty good things here (read: husband). And I’m starting to find that there are places where community and contact and even fresh fruit can be found.

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    1. Love this so much Maia! I think you’ve described this conversation really well “corporate mourning” – so good. And to me that is the best way to mourn. It reminds me of my Saudade post where so many people entered the conversation and it was SO good to hear the collective grief but also the collective wisdom. And yes to things here….I would never have found the Rockport ocean :)

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  5. I lived many years in foreign countries as a young adult & now I’m living my life in the midwest, never wandering too far from home. When I was overseas, I had left behind the ease of life – everything being easy because I was a competent, capable adult & knew how to do things. I left behind my competence as a person, my sense of humor – just didn’t translate! But I gained the sense of adventure & challenge of a daily life that was hard – I look back on it & think it was so much fun just trying to manage daily life. People treated me with such tenderness & kindness – I was like a child – not knowing so many things, speaking a second language so simply – I felt so loved & cared for & protected by the people around me.

    When I returned “home”, I lost that adventure & challenge. I’m expected to be competent & able to fend for myself. I can be funny again – in some ways I’ve regained my personality & my adulthood. But I rarely talk about my time overseas – so few people are interested or even understand. My experience overseas often feels like a chasm with people here when I’d rather build bridges with people. I’m so thankful that a cross-cultural experience is a part of my history that can’t be taken from me even if I rarely talk about it.

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    1. When we worked with students in Egypt, we would tell them to be prepared for someone to say to them on return: “How was Egypt? In 2 minutes or less….” And it actually happened to several of them. I think your description of a chasm is perfect. And crossing that chasm is hard.

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  6. I left behind a life and a lifestyle that needs so much explaining for anyone who has never been there…I left behind beautiful people who are more generous and more hospitable and more friendly than any other culture I know. I left behind a people who know incredible adversity and also amazing joy in the midst of so many challenges. I left behind warm sunshine everyday and scary but oh so welcome tropical rainstorms. I miss the mangoes, fresh boiled peanuts, the colourful cloth, the rhythm of jembes, the deep blue sky, swimming pool water that was warm enough! Most of all I left behind deep, caring relationships from my earliest childhood playmates to my colleagues in ministry as an adult, people whose hearts beat for the same things my heat beats for. Oh and one more thing, I left behind a people who think other people are so important that they stand there for 5 minutes when they say hi to you every morning, asking you everything from if you passed the night peacefully to how each member of your family is doing.

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    1. Oh the mangoes…eating mangoes under a ceiling fan. I too miss the relational aspects of the places I left behind. The short, curt greeting that is perfectly normal for the culture I now live leaves me a little estranged still. Thanks Laurie – can I ask where you ate your mangoes?? Instead of asking people where they are from, maybe we can get creative!

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  7. My 4 kids are TCK’s. When we moved back the US after living abroad for 13 years I left my children’s childhood behind. Not just the childhood toys but the childhood home and childhood friends. And since one of my children stayed in country I also left one of my children. It makes me cry.

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    1. This made me cry. One of the essays in my book is called “Packing up Childhood.” I talk about going through our basement and the strong emotions associated with sorting a life in boxes. I so get this and I thank you for sharing.

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  8. I hate this question….. It’s been simmering in me all week….. I hate it for the grief it stirs up, I hate it for the introspection and longings that it awakens. How can we begin to name all the things we left behind? I left Robynn behind.

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    1. Robynn, I only know you from your posts on here, but I like you! You have such a gift of putting things into words that really resonate. I almost cried just reading your comment! I also love and hate the question in equal measure. “I hate it for the grief it stirs up, I hate it for the introspection and longings that it awakens.” probably says it better than I ever could. And I love it for how it validates those same feelings (which are there anyway). Maybe the gains don’t outweigh the losses true. But neither do the losses nullify the gains. Thankfully they are both equally true, even though I often struggle to get my heart around that…

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    2. Robynn, your comment brought out my grief and my longings. After all these years, I thought I had finally adapted to my ‘passport country’. I guess I never really have.

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  9. I left behind my home. I was born and raised there. I left behind numerous missionary aunties and uncles. The mountains and the fresh smell of the pine trees after the rain. Curry and chai. I left behind not having to explain why I do certain things the way that I do because that was how everyone did it!

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  10. Marilyn, I most often think of you as I met you “in the other place” and not in Boston. Funny! But I think you’re pretty awesome in both places!!

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    1. Ah Karin – such great memories of you and your love of beauty and ability to make a home in Cairo. Plus – you left me the legacy of Busina! She became like my best friend. So many funny stories of Busina. Love her. Wish we could see each other and catch up! And thank you for your words.

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  11. What I left behind?
    We moved so many times, I left something different each time. I left friendships I’d had for years, and replaced them with one-year or maybe two-year-long relationships. I left behind my entire identity as a dairy farmers’ kid, and all the routine and structure that went with that. I traded in the freedom of going anywhere on our 100 acre farm to having to stay within a locked compound, and to have a guy escort me everywhere. But there were great things there too: All my friends and classmates would hang out every evening by the gym, taking motorcycle rides around the base, playing huge games of capture the flag, and volleyball tournaments. Anytime you wanted to hang out, there would always be a friend around! I miss having a central way and place to connect, and can feel so isolated in the States. We would switch between languages as we spoke, just for fun, since we all understood. Coming back to the States, I lost the most in depth social circle I’d had in years (we lived together for all of THREE years!), and traded it in for new starts… again. To speak in that language is no longer “fun,” but pretentious, showing off, or not adjusting. It’s like hacking off a piece of my identity again.
    I left behind three brothers and sisters, two nieces, and my grandparents. Somewhere along the line, I developed that sense of restlessness… that ‘gypsy’ spirit, and even though it tears my heart out every time, I’m still leaving behind those friends and family every two years. Somewhere in there, I misplaced my ability to grow deep roots and to be content with ‘normal’ American life.

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    1. I had to have a guy escort me everywhere until I was 18! I got to Chicago for college and thought I would die. I was supposed to go everywhere by myself!! How would I do that?? I love your insight on being considered pretentious when you speak the language of your adopted country. This whole pretentious thing is huge. My daughter was considered ‘pretentious’ when she told people she got chicken pox on the plane from Greece to Turkey (true story) I was considered pretentious when I told people my favorite restaurant was a Turkish restaurant in Boston…it’s ludicrous to have to hide your life for fear of being pretentious. Especially when you’re just a kid. Thank you so much for coming to this space and sharing.

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  12. I left behind…
    Family dynamics/roles (i.e. seeing both parents often and partially homeschooling to now both parents working and attending public school…there we did so much together, here our lives are more individualistic)
    Belonging and/or being identified with
    Photography
    A lifestyle…for so many years, there was the lifestyle of change. friends would come/go, I would come and go…there was always a trip or change soon ahead, etc. Now there is this sense of “you’re done with that life and will now stay put.”
    Having a place and being competent/’meaningful’ (it’s coming here, but it’s a whole new start)
    Friends who had become more like family
    A way of doing church/worship
    sharing a history with others….here there is no “remember that time???” or there is, but I’m not apart…
    Mountains, beach, urban life, my dog, things that fed my 5 senses that are not found here, belongings (games, clothing, my collections, instruments…), cultural customs, climate….

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    1. Shared history….this is so true. Our shared history is like a puzzle with pieces scattered all over the globe and very few pieces right beside us. I remember a couple of years ago saying to my husband “We can’t keep friendships! There is no one we’ve known longer than x number of years.” but then we thought about it and realize we have so many long term friends, just very few right around us. Thank you for sharing.

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  13. Great question. No one has ever asked and I don’t think I have ever shared until recently. I shut the door to my life before returning to the US. Only recently have I opened it again. Boy, I was not ready to go back. Very emotional. Unfortunately I don’t have anyone to help me while I deal with all of these emotions. I decided to write as I put the pieces of me back together with who I am today.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing – I think so many of us shut the doors. Initially that seems so much easier. And then the monsters of grief and loss come knocking and grow louder the more we ignore them. Have you read Pollock & VanReken’s book? Also – writing has helped me exponentially. I’d love to hear more about how it is helping you.

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  14. Love this post – I was just thinking today about those who are exiled from their home countries and can never go back, and how sad that was, and I realized that sometimes we can’t really go back to what we had in the various countries where we’ve lived.

    For me, I recently tried to find my old village on Google Earth (to settle a family debate on how far we walked to school) and I couldn’t find ANYTHING that I recognized at all. But I have great memories of looking for chunks of obsidian on the way to school (we found some pretty impressive pieces) and swimming in the cooling pool next to the power plant in that same village.

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    1. I love that you wanted to settle a family debate. Is that code for ‘argument?’ I think about exile a lot as well. The refugee in particular, especially as we are seeing the populations of refugees and internally displaced people grow daily. I do take comfort in all the Biblical texts on exile and displacement. Somehow knowing that this has been part of history and it’s one of the ways that faith grows is a comfort to me. SO good to see you here Hillary xoxox

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  15. I mentioned on your facebook page that this post made me think of all the times I’ve left activities and hobbies behind that I was never able to take up again with the same spirit as I had in the location I started them. Running in Nigeria, ballet in the Congo, swimming in Virginia, art in Pakistan, interior decor in England, jewelry making and glass fusing in Idaho, and now leaving Seattle, I will hopefully be leaving behind home improvement projects for good! (Not a hobby I really wanted to take up in the first place.) Thankfully, throughout my life, I’ve always enjoyed writing wherever I go. I hope to continue that and enlarge on it in a big way with this next move. With every move, doors close and new doors open. The one thing that’s been consistent for me is change.

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    1. Wow – this is so poignant to me! And I get it. For me it’s often right when I feel like I have found a place, I more and it all changes. And it’s happened so often that I now get restless as soon as I feel like I’ve found some sort of place which is bizarre. How are plans shaping up??

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      1. I do the same, Marilyn. I’ve felt more at home in the Seattle area than almost anywhere else over the past few years, yet here I am, getting ready to leave again. Plans are shaping up. We hope to head to SE Asia some time this summer.

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  16. What did I leave behind? It’s a good question, one I think I have needed to ask myself even more than I have needed to be asked by others. When I first came “home”, I would have told you that I left everything behind. I left all of my immediate family, every close friend I had ever made, my house and my stuff and my culture…it truly felt like everything. But it wasn’t, and I have learned that now. The biggest things I lost, I think, are the intangible ones. I lost the benefit of being bi-lingual. I lost the knowledge of how things around me worked and the understanding of the motives behind the actions and words of the people around me. I lost my sense of knowing who I was and how I fit into the world.

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    1. “I lost my sense of knowing who I was and how I fit into the world.” so well said Hannah. And something I think a lot of us have felt. So it’s learning who we are in a whole new way. Thank you.

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  17. What an amazing question! I feel bad for not having asked it of people more often, at least not in so many words. I now wish I had.

    This question has particular resonance right now because just a few days ago, I had one of those conversations with someone who clearly had no idea I might have left anything behind. No idea how deeply that other place is part of my heart and soul. And always will be. And I’m not even a TCK!

    So what did I leave behind?

    Well, aside from obvious (like relationships), there is the place and context where I first learned to live like an adult. Where I first signed a rental agreement, dealt with gas and electricity companies, owned a car, etc.

    Community in a way I’ve not known since (or before, for that matter).

    A culture that helped facets of my personality flourish that had never done so before, that had been lying dormant “at home”.

    And so much more.

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    1. Oh I love this – and you are so right – this is for the Third culture adult as well the third culture kid. Your last two resonate deeply with me. Those are the two I miss the most. As I said to someone “I like myself better in the other place….”

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  18. The opportunity for my kids to have a close relationship with their grandparents and biological cousins.
    Since I’m still in my country of service, I mention the things from my passport country. I feel badly sometimes that my kids don’t have a close connection and relationship with their family – but just because they lived there doesn’t mean they would have had that. And God is bigger than all that. He has given my kids amazing friends and ‘family’ all over Europe and the world.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing Jill. I love the way you work through this as well – recognizing that even had you been in your passport country it is no guarantee. So many times I think I have this unrealistic view of what would have transpired in my adopted country – yet there are no guarantees. We are where we are supposed to be.

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  19. Friends at boarding schools, watching siblings grow up, lush rain forest, speaking Spanish fluently, tightly knit m’ry community, life pared down to the basics, international travel alone by the age of 15, road trips thru Central America lasting for up to two weeks, jeeps and muddy roads, friends — again and again, through several countries, and later continents, always friends and family, leaving them behind as I flew off somewhere else…

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