“The Only Way to Go, is to Go Back”


About two months ago I wrote this piece, and for some strange reason it disappeared. I’ve rewritten it and added to it so decided to post it again. I would love to hear what your experience is in “going back”. 


We were always on our way. Rolling up our sleeves
Ever moving forward

In the tracks where we lived our simple lives
Kept our blinders on
Eyes to the horizon

I know I’m no doctor but I know
You can’t live in the past
But the only way to go is to go back

So we hold to who we are*

I dreamt I went back … and all I could do was cry, because I loved it so much and missed it.**

These words, penned by a friend, capture the feelings of many adult third culture kids. Though it has often been years since we have actually lived in our adopted homes, when our guard goes down and sleep comes upon us, the memories return. In our dreams we go back.

To go back, or to not go back – this is a question that many adult third culture kids face beginning in their late twenties; somtimes continuing until their capacity to travel erases the question and along with that – the dream.

…sometimes going back is the only way to move forward

I think about this and the wistful longing for a life we loved, wistful longing for something that no longer exists. I remember words that I wrote five years ago:

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.” On my good days, this longing 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. 

But even with ‘saudade’, the question remains: Do I go back? Do I return to a place that may disappoint? Do I return, only to face longing and pain all over again?

Each one of us has to decide whether it is worth it, but it is my experience that sometimes going back is the only way to move forward.

“Somalis call those of us who return to visit ‘dhaqan-celis’. It is a story in two parts: dhaqan means culture; celis is a return. We are a roving tribe of wanderers, scattered siblings, lost youth, reluctant expatriates, victims of impossible and auspicious circumstances. Everyone looks at us like we are lost. They ask us what we have come to find. We have no answers.

A body always returns to the place that shaped it.

A body always returns to its ghosts.”***

Six and a half years ago I had the opportunity to return to Pakistan. Pakistan had been ravaged by floods, and when I saw my childhood home underwater, something in me broke. In what can only be described as a God-ordained series of unexpected events, my sister-in-law and I ended up on a plane to Pakistan to work with internally displaced people. I begin my new book by going back.

In that moment my life made sense. I could see my childhood in Pakistan, years of disconnect in the United States, life as an adult back in Pakistan and then in Egypt, and finally my return to the United States as a stranger, an alien who had to learn to live, learn to belong.

Like Thornton Wilder’s Emily, I was poised above the earth looking down at myself, my life in full. Suspended above the earth looking down at the scene, it all fit. The puzzle was complete. Like Emily, I got to go back:

I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by. Good-by, Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?*

This was my story, a story written by the master storyteller, the author of life. Suddenly it all made sense. All the pain, all the joy, all the tears, and all the laughter, all of it. It all had meaning like I had never imagined. God himself orchestrated the journey I had traveled since birth. I was in awe and wordlessly gave thanks.

Something changed for me during that trip. I returned a different person. No longer did I feel the angst, the longing for the right to return. No longer did I want to live in the past, instead, going back was the way I moved forward.

As I write this, the words and melody of the song I quoted above float through my mind:

You can’t live in the past. But the only way to go, is to go back.

The only way for me to move forward, and still hold on to who I am, was to go back.

You can purchase Passages Through Pakistan here.

*”Go Back” by Darlingside – my favorite new band!
**Cecily Paterson

***A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home by Jamila Osman

3 thoughts on ““The Only Way to Go, is to Go Back”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts here, Marilyn!
    I agree even though it took me a while to learn that. When we returned from Uganda in 2002 I went to re-entry camp and they told us to go back after a year. I hadn’t really said goodbye to my home and we had left kind of abruptly, so I thought I could never go back. I had the chance to go back after graduating from high school, but I hesitated. What if things were different now? What if I couldn’t find home there anymore? So I decided to go to South Africa. Coming back from there nearly killed me, I was so homesick and returned to South Africa after a year in Germany. And it was painful. Things had changed, the people and things I had loved the most were no longer there. The things I had hated before annoyed me about five minutes after I got there. Still, this experience was healing for me. It helped me to move on. Yes, I still have saudade, I still miss who I was at that specific time and place, but I don’t miss everything. I long for certain people and things, but I don’t want to escape there all the time.
    To this day, I haven’t gone back to Uganda, but I feel I should sometime soon.

    Oh, and I started reading “Passages to Pakistan” – about half way through. It’s personal, touching, beautiful. Thank you for sharing your life with us!


    1. Your words echo so much of my journey. When you write “I still miss who I was at that specific time and place…” That is what it has been for me. Sometimes I feel I am so much better of a person when I am not in my passport country and I don’t quite know what to do with that. I find it interesting that at reentry camp they told you to go back. I see a huge difference between those of us who went back and those who didn’t. There is an unresolved something that is deeper than grief for those who have not gone back, like empty graves waiting for memories to be resolved. I have to think about this more, but I do see it. Would love your thoughts on that.


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