The Language of Transition

Cairo View 2 Sarah Groves quote

“I do want to make sure we have a language for transition and crossing cultures and homesickness and living in a state of between-ness. I did not have that growing up and have found the TCK vocabulary helpful as an adult.” Elizabeth Trotter as quoted from A Life Overseas

Like Elizabeth, I did not grow up with a language of transition. My husband, who, much like Elizabeth, grew up as a military kid, did not have a language of transition either. Whether you buy into the term third culture kid or not, whether you use the term cross-cultural kid or not, it strikes me that having a language of transition is critically important.

Though I’m still in process when it comes to a language of transition, I want to use this space to write about what I think it means.

The language of transition means know the importance of goodbyes. We honor the goodbyes. That may look different for every member of the family, and that’s where it gets tricky. Honoring the goodbyes means we won’t make our kids get rid of all their treasures. Yes, I get the problem of space. But that stuffed lamb means more to your little girl than you can possibly understand during the chaos of moving. The doll house? Do NOT give it away! I repeat: Do Not! Honoring the goodbyes means making space for different members of your family to grieve their “lasts.” Their last trip to that favorite restaurant; the last trip to school, to church, to the playground. Honoring the goodbyes means making sure that final meal is with people you love deeply.

The language of transition means knowing the word “Saudade.” That 12th Century word from Portugal, thought up by the diaspora who longed for the soil of Portugal, but had no vocabulary, no language of transition to express it.

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

These 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. It also means we know how to “kill the saudade;” how to find ways to contain the longing so it doesn’t destroy us. Finding the restaurants or the people who know the world that we came from, getting together for an evening of food and talk. Killing the saudade is a sweet and necessary activity in transition.

The language of transition includes building a RAFT. Knowing the importance of reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination. This was an acronym developed by Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock in a chapter of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among World. The entire chapter is devoted to transition and dealing with leaving one place and starting in a new one. It is a constructive and practical look at leaving well, at closure, at saying our goodbyes in peace. You can read a summary of what it means to build a RAFT here.

The language of transition means having a vocabulary for cross-cultural adjustment. For a child, much of the art of crossing cultures is learned from the parents. So if the parents are struggling and resisting the host culture, the kids will pick that up and internalize it. The language of transition means that as adults we will educate ourselves on culture shock and cultural adjustment and work to pass that on to our kids. It’s a verb, not a noun. It takes action on our part. Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines from a poem come to mind as I write this:

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

While that may seem like a harsh ending to a life, the meaning could not be clearer. Cross-cultural adjustment is imperative and having words and understanding of it is part of the language of transition. I would also add that cultural humility is a necessary ingredient to the work of cross-cultural adjustment.

Finally, the language of transition means  learning to understand the idea of living between worlds. “Every good story has a conflict. Never being fully part of any world is ours. This is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing. We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between. This is our conflict and the heart of our story.”* Learning to be comfortable in the space between is part of the language of transition.

Like learning any language, the language of transition is not mastered overnight. Rather, it takes time, effort, laughter, and tears. We make mistakes, we get up, and we move on. But developing a vocabulary of transition is an important step along the way.

*From Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

18 thoughts on “The Language of Transition

  1. Great thoughts! It is imperative for parents to prepare their kids. I guess none of our parents knew that and you can’t always blame them. But since I know now, I try to implement these steps. Transition is not only cross-cultural but also into new jobs, lifestyles, cities…like I’ve done for the last few months. I also wrote about it in case you’re interested:


  2. I love the idea of only being truly comfortable in the space between. I definitely feel that – that as good as it feels to get comfortable in a given world, I always get a little restless when I get comfortable… so I can never really be.


  3. So that’s what it is. I feel this kind dissonance all the time. Having lived significant parts of my life in differing cultures, I am physically pulled back to them at any moment. There is no language for me, just the sucking pain of loss.


    1. There is so much loss, isn’t there? I think one of the things that helps is finding others that get the dissonance and realizing there is space for that. Thank you for reading and please know that you are not alone.


  4. I always love reading what you write ~ and the perspective you offer.

    Rereading Elizabeth’s quote – I’ve got some in that adult TCK stage for whom language is helpful, especially as they reflect on “where they’ve been” to help them try and figure out who they are becoming and where they want to be. I’ve got littles who are preoccupied with learning French – a literal language. While TCK language helps me and others working with them – so benefits them in a sense… Often, they can’t even begin to put a finger on what they are feeling and they get frustrated when someone else tries to help/tell them. I don’t sense that they want or need language as much as they want and need someone. Presence is much more important for the younger end of the spectrum…

    Does that match with what you see?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I think you are right on with this. Much like our presence being the most important part of any sort of crisis care, and our words being less so.


    2. I completely agree, Richelle, especially for littles. I’m not sure we even use the phrase “TCK” with my little ones. They still get sad and miss Grandma quite often. So I sit with them and hug them and tell them how much I love them and that I miss Grandma too and that I know they love Grandma so much, and that Grandma loves them so much, so very very much, and then we look at photo albums together. So no special TCK vocabulary, just presence. But isn’t that part of what grief is, staying present when everything in you wants to run away from the pain, whether it’s yours or someone else’s?


    1. I echo this! There has been, and continues to be, excellent work done on this. Despite the work that others have now done, there is still that important piece of moving the work from theory to practice; from head to heart.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Marilyn, you’ve described the multiple facets of the language of transition so perfectly! Thanks so much! The only thing that came to my mind and that would maybe fit is a series of songs that I associate with many RAFT’s I’ve built, transitions I’ve lived and goodbyes I’ve said. – I have a list of songs that I will listen to during these times and that make me actually enjoy this in-between-ness and the “neither here nor there”.

    Liked by 1 person

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