So, You Want to go Back ‘Home’?

There come’s a time in the lives of most adult third culture kids, many expats, as well as immigrants and refugees when they want to go ‘home.’ Sometimes it’s after a short time of living away; other times it’s after years, but always it comes with a sense of great anticipation coupled with a strong shot of fear.

What is it like to go back home? How does it feel? How should I prepare? 

There is no stock answer to this, but perspectives from adult third culture kids who have gone back to visit can help.

I’m addressing this today, but I’m also opening it up to others. I would love to compile a set of essays with the common theme of “Going Home”. Do you write? Do you draw? Are you a poet? Think about contributing to a collection of “Going Home” essays and visual pieces! Send any ideas or contributions to communicatingblog@gmail.com.

The familiar and the new

When I stepped off the plane in Pakistan, it was all so sweetly familiar. My heart broke with the beauty of familiarity. This is the place I knew and loved, the familiar smell of chapatis and curry; the beautiful sound of the call to prayer; the sounds of childhood through Urdu and Sindhi speakers; the heat and beauty of bright fuchsia Bougainvillea – all of it was so sweetly beautiful.

But as we were driving from the airport and rounded a corner, I suddenly saw the newness of everything. New buildings, roads, bridges, and restaurants.  And then the new things that were not pretty. There was a massive garbage pile of bright pastel colored plastic bags and my heart sank with the sadness of waste marring what used to be empty land and palm trees.

It was the familiar and the new, such a visual representation of the paradox of being a third culture kid; the conflict of replacing the old memories with new experiences.

Be prepared to hate that you are “just visiting”

When you have lived in a place, it is incredibly difficult to “just visit”. It doesn’t feel right at any level. I wrote about this a few years ago here. We were visiting Cairo when I first remember this question.

It was in Cairo that we had watched three of our five children take their first steps.
It was in Cairo where our youngest two were born, three years apart. It was our community in this city that had loved us and cared for us through pregnancies and sickness; through post-delivery chaos and family crises; and through packing up and leaving when the time came. The apartment we lived in still had markings of our children’s measurements on the doorpost. We had seen these just a day before while with our friends.

Cairo had been home for a long time and it broke our hearts to leave. We said goodbye to all those things we loved so deeply. Rides in huge, wooden boats called feluccas on the Nile River; Egyptian lentils (Kosherie) with the spicy tomato sauce and crispy fried onions to top it off; friendships that had been forged through hours of talking and doing life together; a church that was one of a kind with people from all over the world.

So when the woman asked me the question I didn’t know what to say. A lump came into my throat and I willed myself to hold back the tears.

The words ‘Visit’ and ‘Live’ are worlds apart. Visit means stranger, tourist, one who goes and stays in a place for a “short time.” The dictionary definition is clear on this.
It goes on to add “for purposes of sociability, business, politeness, curiousity…”

By contrast, the word live means “to dwell, to stay as a permanent resident.”

The reality is that I no longer live in either Cairo or Pakistan (or Chicago or Phoenix). I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That is my legal address. I do not have permission to live or work in either of those countries, and at times it hurts.

While in a sense we are going ‘home’, in another sense we are just visiting. We have changed, as have the places that we love so dearly. My daughter once wrote that we belong to these lands where we lived, but they do not belong to us. Again, it’s being comfortable with paradox, with living between.

Understand that you may revisit feelings of grief and loss

When an adult third culture kid or expat suddenly finds himself or herself a stranger, a visitor in a land they once claimed, the grief is acute and necessary. There is no way around but through and trying to avoid the reality is not helpful.

The grief that washed over me in Cairo the first time I returned was deep and I wanted to bury myself in it. I wanted to be able to grieve with abandon, to cry the tears I had wanted to cry since leaving two years prior. I wanted to cry tears that would water the dusty ground that surrounded me, ground that had not seen water for a long time. But I couldn’t. 

Because indulging in the grief I felt at that moment would have taken me away from the place that I loved, the people who I loved.

The loss and grief that would come over me in waves when I visited Pakistan to work in flood relief was equally strong. But those times were woven into so many precious times of joy and belly aching laughter; times of reconnecting and hearing stories from people I had not seen for years. I willed the grief away so I would not waste the present time.

Don’t waste your present visit by dwelling on grief from your past. The grief has to come, it needs to come, but enjoy each moment, because that visit will be over all too soon. And the visit from the present may help heal some of the grief from the past.

Take the experience and weave it into the rest of your story

This is your story! Claim that story, map your journey, embrace the in between. We are so incredibly lucky to have these complex stories. No, we don’t always feel lucky, but with so much of the world facing displacement, we understand where others cannot. We can give empathy while others are silent in confusion. In the words of Anna Badkhen: “This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” We can be the people who take our feelings of displacement and use them to build bridges, use them to connect to others who are displaced, to find our voice in a world where people are lonely for connection.

Going back is a critical part of your story. Embrace it, don’t waste it, Because this I know, and I know it well: More difficult than a visit would have been no visit at all, far harder than facing my current reality would have been dreaming of the past in a country far removed and never getting to experience my beloved places again.

“The Story is not over; the journey continues….Somedays it feels as though it is still just beginning.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey


I realize I have always belonged everywhere at once: on the road; in liminal spaces…I have always belonged at the beginning of the world, and where it seems to end, where the sky meets the sea, where the sea meets the land, on a plane when the two become indistinguishable from one another and you can no longer tell if you are going home or leaving it.*


Remember to submit any contributions to communicatingblog@gmail.com. Deadline is June 15. 

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

6 thoughts on “So, You Want to go Back ‘Home’?

  1. I have not gone “home” again, even though I want to. Call me weird, but Ethiopia now is not the Ethiopia I knew as a kid. It no longer has Haile Selassie in it (he was imprisoned before I left); it was ruled for 14 years by a monstrous dictator, and has since had a series of presidents, some better than others.

    That’s the politics. Do they matter? Yes, because each head of government (they are not always leaders, they just rule the nation) changes things in the lives of the people under them.

    Ethiopia is more educated now, women have more freedoms, and their contributions to society are being noted. However, it’s still Ethiopia, still Africa. Freedom is relative, not like ours here; yet when I look at the freedoms we said we had in the US as a child and what we have now, I sometimes wonder if freedom isn’t relative here, too. More politics, sorry.

    But back to home. Ethiopia, itself, is different. Our compounds were taken over, the houses now disused and crumbling, or have other people in them. The work my parents did is changed. How? I don’t know, and that’s something I’d love to go see. My mother was a nurse in a hospital down country. The hospital is still there and I’d like to see the changes. In Addis Ababa, the whole city had changed, with a ring road and major urban sprawl. Yet some things, like a herd of sheep being driven to the market, and donkeys carrying barrels of water or oil, have not changed. But my school has changed, grown up, become all modern. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I hate it, but I understand; it has to grow and change, and I’m glad for that. When I think of Ethiopia, I remember red dirt, bahar zaf (eucalyptus trees), smoke, and a myriad other smells. I wrote an article in Simroots called “This Country Smells Funny,” about coming to the States as a thirteen year old and being greeted by American smells. Sometimes, when I’m not paying attention, my brain triggers a smell or a sound and I’m right back in Ethiopia. When I realize my body sits in a house on the Oregon Coast, I wrestle with the grief again.

    I recognize I can’t go “home” because home is not what it was. I was torn from my home because of the revolution and we had to go quickly. I expected we’d go back and we just never did. I finally grieved that a few years ago, and somehow, it still grieves me today, but not as much. Maybe it’s because I live on the Oregon Coast, my first stomping grounds after I was adopted, the one place that if I have a “home,” this is it. We love it here, we are content. We’ve talked about going to Ethiopia to visit, to explore, but I hesitate. I don’t want the comparisons, don’t want that grief. Maybe it’s okay not to go back, to just have the lovely (and sometimes not so lovely) memories of my first thirteen years. My hesitation is mixed up with fear, some of it irrational, from the time of the Derg, the revolution. It’s not like that anymore, and I know that rationally; we’d probably be perfectly safe. All these conflicting feelings: obviously I’m not quite ready to go back. I’m content with that.

    I don’t always understand this country, it will never be truly home, because I’ll always be mostly Ethiopian in my heart. I’ve learned to straddle the two worlds inside me, to make me a (mostly) comfortable whole. And one of these days I’ll go back to complete the circle where I started.

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  2. I subscribe to your posts and treasure the well-expressed thoughts and emotions that you share. I am not a TCK, but definitely relate to many of the themes that you write about. Growing up, my family moved frequently- from Washington, to Idaho, to Iowa, to Washington, to Arizona, and back to Washington. Each of these locations also had several moves, so I was constantly the ‘new kid’. Two different elementary grades I went to three different schools. My father wasn’t military, just restless, so we didn’t have the support system and identity that military families have. These experiences definitely shaped my adult self, both positively and negatively. I married at 18 to a 19 year old Bible college student, was a mother at 19, and then a pastor’s wife by 20. My goal was that my children would grow up with the roots that I yearned for. We were blessed – 17 years in Oregon, 5 in Idaho, then 23 in Alaska. In the context of ministry, we also traveled extensively all over the world to our mission partners. Sometimes it seems my ‘heartstrings’ are stretched to the breaking point! We retired 3 years ago to Georgia (yeah, right! I know, a left-coaster in Georgia!?). So, once again, I found myself the ‘new kid’ in a foreign culture. Alaska is its own culture enough that there were definitely elements of living ‘overseas’ and I find myself longing for the vistas, the food, the spirit of the people, and its unique identity. Our kids and grandkids had the blessing of roots, but their response has been to take wing. So, now we have family scattered literally from one end of the country to another and the grandchildren spreading their wings to even more places. I find myself both dreading and longing to go back ‘home’ to places we ministered to long enough to put down roots, but the few times we have ‘visited’ it has been difficult. The themes of ‘home’ and ’visiting’ are complicated and emotionally loaded. When my father died ten years ago and I wrestled with the conflicting emotions and tried to understand what drove his restless heart, this passage brought some understanding – All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16 Ironically, the older I get the more I feel this restless spirit in me. I think that all of us are wired to long for ‘home’, but ultimately ‘home’ is not here. Blessings on you and thank you for sharing your vulnerabilities and your heart. Deanna Holsinger

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