It was New Year’s Eve and I found myself freezing on a bus with no heat in a sub-degree midwestern winter. I was about to turn 20 years old. I had come to the United States from Pakistan at 18 and was in the middle of my college years.
The trip had originated in Altoona, Pennsylvania. I had never visited Altoona before, but Deb, my former dorm parent and one of my favorite people in the world was there for a home leave from Pakistan and I would have gone anywhere to visit her. In this case the anywhere was Altoona.
The visit was a taste of home to my tired TCK bones. We talked and laughed for hours and Deb’s mom and dad welcomed me into their home like I was one of their own. The visit ended too quickly and with a tearful goodbye, I caught a ride with some other college students back to Chicago. I didn’t know any of them and within five minutes of being in the car, I wished I was far away from my current circumstances.
I was cold. I was lonely. I was displaced.
I felt I would never adjust to this country where I held legal citizenship; the country whose emblem was on my passport.
In the middle of my misery and a snowstorm, the car full of college students broke down. That’s when two of us, myself and a mutual friend of Deb’s called Markie, decided to head out on our own. We took off to a local bus station and caught the next bus to Chicago.
The bus broke down in the middle of the night. Markie and I ended up inside the Greyhound bus station looking at each other. We would be rerouted to a new bus but we would be arriving in the wee hours of the morning in Chicago and had no way of getting to our respective dormitories. But I was a third culture kid and if there was one thing I knew it was that ‘my people’ would pick me up no matter where I was, who I was with, and what time it was.
So I made a phone call at the one pay phone in the bus stop. After one ring, one of my TCK friends picked up. All of my friends were together celebrating, and to my surprise, my brother was there as well. They recognized my voice immediately. I briefly relayed what was going on, that a car had broken down, that I was getting to Chicago before dawn. Could they help? Of course! Of course they would pick us up. Of course they would deliver us wherever we needed to go.
They had my back. There was no question as to whether they would help me. They would be there, they would take care of me. These were my people and my people would not leave me stranded at a bus stop.
I hung up the phone and let Markie know. The look on her face was one of complete surprise. I didn’t think about this until years later when Deb told me that Markie couldn’t believe that people would drop everything they were doing and come help with no strings attached. She was shocked.
This was a loyalty that went way beyond blood. It was a loyalty borne out of shared circumstances and close community. It was a loyalty created from place, connection, and understanding.
Markie was the first person who helped me to understand that everyone didn’t share this same sense of community. I realized that many in the western world had grown up in nuclear families where you didn’t let people know your needs, where you struggled through trials and frustrations and no one on the outside was part of the solution. I learned that everyone didn’t share this sense of community and loyalty, that it wasn’t common to share your needs with other people.
I was beginning to learn the mantra “do by self” that two-year-olds created and adults perfected. This self- sufficiency that was a hallmark of American culture seemed to me a recipe for disaster. Because if there was one thing I knew about this new land where I found mysef it was this: I would not make it on my own.
Third culture kid loyalty and community have served me well through the years. So well that I feel acutely the times when it’s not present. I find it easy to express my insecurities and what I need with third culture kids. I don’t have to pretend that it’s all easy, and that I have my act together. I also find that when I express those same things to non third culture kids I am sometimes seen as weak and needy. When high value is placed on self-sufficiency, the one who is honest about their needs is not admired.
I have not been stranded on a bus for many years, but I have had many other times when I needed help and my people came to the rescue. This is one of the gifts I have received as a third culture kid.
The joys and struggles of we who were raised between worlds are intertwined. For every struggle is a corresponding joy, for every tear – a memory that brings laughter. Some of our memories sit like open graves and we stare into them, unwilling to cover them just yet. “Let me fall into these memories just one more time, then I will get up and move forward.”
So we fall and we rise up stronger.
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