Siblings and the Third Culture Kid Journey

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

Recently I was thinking about an event in my childhood. It took place at the time of the Indo-Pak war – the war of independence for East Pakistan, the outcome being East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh.

As I remember, it coincided with a mono epidemic at our boarding school, where many of us were sent home early to recover from what used to be known as the “kissing” disease.

My parents were living in the city of Larkana in Southern Pakistan at the time, and we were the only expat family, the only English speaking family in the area. It created a unique family dynamic, one where we relied heavily on each other without even realizing it.

My brothers decided to build a trench in our front yard, a worthy act that could hardly have saved us from Indian bombs falling but was, nevertheless, a creative outlet. When finished, they proudly invited my parents and me to take a look. We were duly impressed, although secretly I remember thinking it didn’t look like it could survive an air raid. I’m not sure why I wasn’t involved in digging the trench, but knowing the princess that I was and continue to be, it was wise that I was on the sidelines – ever appreciative but not getting my hands dirty.

And so it went, my siblings and me. They were the ones that traveled with me through the same places and situations of our between worlds life. Home leaves, where we went through the painful process of trying to adjust to our passport country and the strangeness of New England for a short year before packing our bags to head back overseas; winters in the dusty, Bougainvillea laden homes in the Sindh region of Pakistan; long Punjabi church services listening to Miss Mall lead singing with her powerful bass voice; boarding school and the ups and downs of being away from home; camping in Kaghan valley with the monsoon season ensuring everything was damp; eating curry by the side of the road during family trips; falling asleep to the sounds of ocean waves hitting the sand during our yearly week at the beach; and so much more that went into our sibling journey.

The situations changed, but the main characters were always the same. Ed. Stan. Tom. Marilyn. Dan.

Until they weren’t. Until the actors, one by one, left the scene and it was finally left to me and my younger brother to continue the play. A few years later I would be the one to leave the stage and my brother would continue on his own. What used to be a chaotic and ever-stimulating conversation among siblings changed to a silent monologue, different for each of us.

If the time and sounds of childhood are marked by our siblings, then perhaps it is even more so for the third culture kid. The daily events, the arguing, the all out fights, but overall the undying loyalty to place and to each other that connects our memories.

“Remember that time in Greece when we ate cherries at the outdoor cafe?” “Remember that time in Japan when I fell into the fish pond outside the hotel?” “Remember the time in Murree when we were on the mountain during that storm and thought we would get struck by lightning?” “Remember picnics by the canal?” “Remember leaving for the beach in the wee hours of the morning, landrover packed tight with stuff?” “Remember baby turtles and Hawkes Bay?”

Remember? Remember? Remember?

We were named and claimed as members of a family, marked by faith and place. In life’s journey, we knew that siblings mattered; sometimes they were all we had.

In losing one of our siblings, we have lost not just a person, but a piece of place, a voice of our memories logged deep in our souls. We have lost a place at the sibling table as represented by Stan.

A friend recently captured this well in a comment written to me about a photograph:

I see in the photo and hear in the words that loss of places in a person too…the sibling. One of the precious few who embody all those places and things collected from those times, and in so doing, they are our truth-sayers about that unique snapshot of those two years here and three years there.

Jody Tangredi

Siblings – those ones who represent the places we lived and the events that went with them. The ones who we will always have with us until they are no longer here.

A friend of mine wrote this article for Thrive Global. “Covid-19: The Third Side of the Coin – Hope, grief, and complexity in times of the Coronavirus“. It is an excellent, nuanced article that I found to be hopeful and encouraging during this time.

5 thoughts on “Siblings and the Third Culture Kid Journey

  1. I am sorry for your loss! I have realised that a big part of the grief I feel about my only sister’s death is that she was the one I share so many memories with. Without her to share them, sometimes it just seems like they’re gone.

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  2. I can so relate to this. Ethiopia during the revolution in 197f4, everyone in our boarding school armed to the teeth with switchblades, sharpened rattail combs, thick clubs, whatever we could find, because we didn’t know if the Ethiopians would come over the fences and attack us in the middle of the day or night. It nearly happened one night, and the whole school was taken to the tunnels under the main building. My brother and I found each other and we stood back to back, willing to defend each other, if needed. Fortunately, the men in our school were able to talk the mob down and send them away (I’m quite sure there were angels involved in this, too). Stuff like that builds a bond.

    I could relate to the Remember When. We still do it to this day and laugh; sometimes we cry, but mostly we laugh. As we grow older, we share things we didn’t know about each other, things we kept secret while our parents were alive. We talked about how much it hurt to leave “our country” when we had to flee to the States, something we never said, because we didn’t want our parents to feel bad. Yeah, we protected our parents.

    I wouldn’t trade being an MK/TCK for anything, but there are sometimes my childhood makes me stop and catch my breath, the beauty, the joy, the terror, the grief of losing my homeland, all mixing together. I was so blessed.

    Thank you for sharing your story here.

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  3. thank you, Marilyn. So sweet about siblings. My two wonderful sisters are gone – one killed in an automobile accident, and the other died from Louie Body Disease. My brother, the oldest of all of us, served his country with high honor in the Marines during WW2. He died of a heart attack. Actually everyone is gone – except for one other cousin who I rarely see. Sometimes I just want to go the phone and talked to my older sister, Faith. She lived about 20 miles from us and I talked to her almost every day. Her husband died and she had such a struggle living alone and finally God took her by the hand and said, “You’re never going to be lonely again. But your sister will be. ” I miss her so much. Sometimes I find myself heading toward the phone to talk to her.

    I am so glad your sweet Mom still has her one daughter to love and be loved by. She has her boys – minus one – but there’s nothing like a daughter. I am so thankful during this “whatever it is” is over, but so thankful that Janet and Jo have taken good care of me. Joann’ lives about l0 minutes away – she decided I shouldn’t be living alone during this time, so just moved over here. Janet comes a few times a week. I am so thankful.

    I wish we could all meet again for a Pak Reunion. But that isn’t possible. But I know that each of us have special burdens and we can all share them. Thanks again for your lovely tribute to siblings.

    In His love,

    Gracie Pittman – 93 years old as of this morning

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    1. I’m so happy to hear from you Auntie Grace! Thank you for this lovely, lovely comment and Happy Birthday to you! Much love to you – also – I love your daughters! xoxox

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