Moving Manifesto

Note: This essay is from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging available here.

April is the time when it hits many people that their reality is changing and a move is inevitable. This post is dedicated to all those who will be moving in the next 3 months.

  • Be ruthless – check
  • Don’t go into memory mode – check
  • Keep on telling yourself  “it’s just a ___________(fill in the blank), I don’t need to feel that attached to it”- check
  • Bite back your tears – check
  • Remind yourself that your life is exciting, that others should be as lucky as you – check
  • Try not to listen when friends begin talking about an event that is coming in the future, after you’re gone – check
  • Tell your kids numerous times that they will get to have a ‘new room’ and ‘new friends’ where you’re going “Isn’t that so exciting?!” – check

This is the Moving Manifesto. As days fill with parties and packing, numerous goodbyes, short tempers, unexpected tears in public and private places, we who have traveled this road many times must remember this manifesto. We are comrades of sorts, travelling a path not everybody travels, loyal to each other and to change, unable to explain to people that though we cry now, we really wouldn’t trade our lives. But we need to express those deep feelings of loss and grief in order to do what we do, and do it well.

We go into auto-mode once it becomes inevitable that the packing must be done. Until then, there is a part of us that pretends life will always be as it is ‘right now’. Occasionally doing things like purchasing items for our current reality, almost as a talisman against what’s coming, or a nesting despite knowing that very soon the nest will be knocked from the tree and it will take a while to rebuild. We are well aware that some of our current relationships will survive the move, and others won’t – everybody doesn’t have the capacity to withstand distance and change in friendship. We won’t hold that against people in any way, but part of the manifesto is that we are allowed to feel sad.

We are well aware that some of our current relationships will survive the move, and others won’t – everybody doesn’t have the capacity to withstand distance and change in friendship.

And all too soon, that final party will come. We will be the life of that party as we retell stories with our old friends. We won’t admit to ourselves that they were not part of our lives 3, 4, or 5 years before – because that would give in to the idea that it’s ok that we are moving, and right now it’s not ok.

As the day arrives, the manifesto becomes more important for part of this process is frustration with our current situation. If we can be mad at ‘right now’ our future looks much easier and brighter. So everything that can possibly go wrong often does just that. The moving truck doesn’t have a permit, the moving people break your favorite clock, your best friend has an emergency and is not there to help, your other friends show up like Jobs friends, telling you everything you’re doing wrong, and your kids? They realize this is a reality, suddenly recognizing they are displaced people, and the tears are unstoppable. Hours later, final goodbyes are said with sinking a feeling in your chest, and a catch in your voice. As you drive away – you don’t look back. You fear you will, like Lot’s wife in the Biblical account, turn to stone and you don’t want that.

Despite this, you survive.

Two days and hours of jet lag later you’re in your new location, figuring out how to make it a home. It all feels like a whirlwind and dream – neighbors or other expatriates have looked curiously at your family, trying to assess your kids ages, and one conversation has already felt promising.

Time to bring out “Settling and Surviving: The Arrival Manifesto”.

Related Articles:

The Gift of the In Between 

I get up early to write. The early morning sky is grey, not even a hint of sunlight. A mix of snow and rain is in the forecast. 

I get up early to write; instead I find myself reading. Reading a poignant essay; an essay made of maps and grief, lost things and home. It’s been a long time since I have read an essay that is so powerful in its imagery. 

The author is someone who also knows what it is to live between; live between far away and close by, between here and there. 

All week I have been thinking of the “in between.” After a time of connection and being my best self I am back where I struggle. I want to be able to say with confidence that this struggle is a thing of the past, that I have outgrown it like the denim overalls I wore in my youth. I can go for months where these feelings lie dormant, sleeping contentedly under busy activity and conversation. 

But in those moments of return from places where I feel a sense of belonging, they wake, insomniac in their intensity. 

It is in the inside space I have created, a space for books and flowers, white lights and God, that I pour out my heart in admission of my loneliness and disconnect. It is in this space where I am free to admit that living between, as joyous as it often is, has its sadness and loss. 

What I have learned is that I am not alone in the in between.

There are millions who understand this space, millions of refugees, immigrants, expatriates, and nomads who daily speak and live this language.  The thought comes to me that those who don’t know the in between will need to learn the language of displacement or else find themselves unable to communicate to many in our world. 

It is in the language of displacement, the language of elsewhere where empathy lies, where one person reaches out to another and says “I understand”. 

This knowing what it is to live between is a hard gift, a severe mercy. For it is in the in between that I find God. 

__________________

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.*

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

Passages Through Pakistan is available! Take a look and read the reviews. 

On Being Local – A Guest Post

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I’m delighted to welcome Michael Pollock to my blog today! Michael is a fellow ATCK, but he’s also a friend and someone who “gets” this journey. Read more about Michael at the end of the post.  

ON BEING LOCAL

I was fascinated by Taiye Selassi’s Ted talk, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local”, which, if you’ve seen it, isn’t really about belligerence over a question of origin, as many commenters seemed to think. Taiye spoke eloquently and passionately about the challenge of highly mobile people to nail down the truth of our origins and belonging; in a sense, the places we own and that own us back.

Identity and belonging is not a simple or straightforward issue if you have moved multiple times throughout your life.  The issues are layered in complexity if those moves were also cross cultural as well as geographic. My own back-story includes 7
different towns/cities and 4 states in the US, a mission station in Kenya and the city of Tianjin in China. That’s not counting places I lived and invested for less than a year. And my story is simple compared to many.

Identity and belonging is not simple

Military, diplomatic, missionary and international NGO, education and business families all understand this well. Our ‘place’ memories are mosaics; the ‘people’ we belong to are scattered, though often inter-connected; and various possessions are strewn along our trail of travel the way American pioneers dumped European furniture to lighten their wagons. Personally, I still wonder who now rides my green Giant mountain bike that I left behind in Tianjin.

Taiye thinks being ‘from’ a country, which is a political idea, doesn’t make sense as the lines are arbitrary and can change.  She raised the point of politics and origin/belonging when she suggested that the question “Where are you from?” can also have overtones of power.  Being ‘from’ Germany, Britain, Japan and the US connote more power, while ‘from’ Brazil, Philippines, Liberia, connotes less power and some countries like China and Russia are more ambiguous. I think there is also a ‘social currency’ factor in which some places are more exotic and recognizable and some simply unknown to the person asking.  To an American, being from Thailand rather than Vietnam or Equatorial Guinea will have a whole set of different images and assumptions.  When your ‘from’ includes a list, how do you know where to start? (If you can’t place EG on a map, that helps prove my point.)

Taiye spoke of being ‘multi-local’ and gave three categories to help determine where that might be.

  1. First is rituals: Where do you prepare meals and eat, say your prayers, visit regularly, do your work?  Those are key routines of our lives.
  2. Second is relationships: Where are you currently connected to people in a regular and consistent way, who do you connect with weekly, where do you meet people regularly?
  3. The third category asks what restrictions you have: What keeps you from being in a certain place over another, such as passports, and what keeps you from feeling part of a community such as racism or mistrust of outsiders.

The three question grid helps determine where you are local and whether you are multi-local, as increasingly many people are.

So when our group of 15 third culture kids (TCKs) and adult TCKs (ATCKs) gathered in early March on the shore of Lake Michigan for a retreat, I asked them to share where they were local.
To warm things up, I shared how I had just come from a funeral service in a community in New Jersey, US, that I had not been in for 40 years. And yet I met person after person who had been part of my childhood there and who welcomed me and shared memories of my family and me. I felt a deep warmth, but do not have regular relationships or ongoing rituals there, so by Taiye’s equation, nice, but doesn’t count.

I asked them to share where they were local.

As our group began to share, an interesting thing happened, people spoke of cities and villages in China, Tanzania, Turkey, Jordan, Uganda, Bolivia, Nigeria and then they began to speak of houses. ‘ My grandmother’s house in Minnesota’ said one, and many agreed. ‘The guest house in Nairobi’ said another and stories were passed around by those who were familiar with its antiquated colonial regimen.

Encouraged, someone went further, more compact, ‘I feel local in the car, on the road between Colorado and Ohio’ and eyes lit up around the table. I laughed because an Australian mom in Wuhan, China had once told me that her children told her the only thing she must not sell, EVER, was their old Volvo with the leather seats. Never. It was the only consistent item in their Australian memory vault.

Then an admission, “I feel local and comfortable around certain pieces of furniture, because I used to have a strong link to my grandparent’s house, but they moved…I love their couch!” And a question, “Does anyone else feel this way?” And yes, there were many heads nodding and even some eyes glistening.

The turns came to my daughter, the youngest of the group, who shyly listed a couple of places on her storyline and then paused. “I also feel local in airports.  Any airport, really.”

Boom. “YES” went up around the table in agreement and laughter, and more stories.

We had left the thoughtful three R’s from Taiye behind, it seemed. What could a car, an old couch, and airports have to do with our rituals, relationships and restrictions?

Much, it seems. If I am in motion between stable points, I might feel multi-local, yes? But what if my stable points are not stable at all. What if my schoolmates from childhood all leave for various points of the compass? What if the community I grew up in is bombed or burned out or no one I know lives there and so it no longer exists as a welcoming lighthouse? What happens when that ‘one dependable summer visit house’ with all those treasured memories is sold? It seems that some global nomads struggle feeling local at all. Why is that?

Where are our regular relationships, our connections? All over the map, and still in motion. It might depend on the week, on the season. We track them with social media and when they disappear for a while, we look in familiar places for them to resurface.  We load into the car with the members of our tribe that we can gather and we stop in and visit the ones we can reasonably reach on the way to and from our destination.

Where do we hold our rituals? We try to carry them with us but we also recreate them as needed.  We find the old couch in our grandparents’ new house and snuggle in for cocoa and movies.  We run our fingers over the antique Chinese cabinet or the Masai stool and say our prayers with old friends.

And our restrictions?  Perhaps we find the most freedom in airports, those interstitial worlds where people are coming from everywhere to anywhere and our own possibilities are only held back by the encryption on our e-ticket. We might know that we can’t get to all of those familiar places and warm relationships because of limits in time, money and visas but we are Just. This. Close. Right through that gate.

So we might envy Taiye, just a little, with three places where her rituals, relationships and restrictions hold her in their warmth and familiarity.

And many of us continue to work to build our localness where we are, with what we have, and deep down, we long with all our heart and soul to be truly local somewhere.

Michael Pollock is  the founding director of Daraja, a TCK care and development initiative. He is a certified teacher and coach and holds a Masters in Education from Loyola University.  The founding Head of Cambridge School in Baltimore, he also spent nine years in China as school principal and founder of Odyssey, a TCK leadership formation organization. He and his wife raised three TCKs in China and returned to the US in 2012. They currently call Muskegon, MI ‘home’.


www.daraja.us 
www.facebook.com/darajatck

Full Heart at #FIGT17NL 


I’m sitting in bed in a modern hotel room in  The Hague – that famous city known for tribunals and the Peace Palace. 

There is much I could write about this city from the small amount of time I’ve been here, but it is nothing compared to what I could write about the people and new friendships budding at Families in Global Transition. 

From sun up until way beyond sundown  my heart has been full – of laughter, of reconnecting, of amazing conversations and new connections. But most of all, full of the best sort of belonging. 

When you move a lot, you pack up your life along with your material goods. And when you pack up a life, you also pack your heart. After awhile you stop looking for belonging. It’s not because you are cynical – it’s because you recognize that belonging shifts a bit with each move and there are places and people where you will always feel more of a sense of belonging than others. So when you find yourself in a room full of kindred spirits, you catch your breath. “Is this quite real?” “If I close my eyes, will I find it’s my imagination?” 

My favorite moment of the day came in mid afternoon, when in a crowded room I ended up with a Pakistani adult third culture kid living in Dubai, and a Dutch adult third culture kid raised in Pakistan. In the middle of a crowded room two people I had never met were immediate friends through country and experience.  It was more than amazing – it was pure joy. 

In a television show called “Friday Night Lights” a high school football coach works to make his football team the best they can be. Before every game, this group of teenagers, who come from many different family situations, gather for one purpose: to play their absolute best, to play with their hearts. The captain of the team leads them in what becomes a resounding cry in the show. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. 

And that is how I feel tonight. 

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.

Note: check out Mariam’s blog: And Then We Moved To… – it’s great! 

Finding Your Niche at #FIGT17NL

In 2014, I hosted a blog series called “Finding Your Niche: Using a Multicultural Past to Create a Meaningful Present.” The result was a set of essays from adult third culture kids, each different and each exploring what it was to find a niche as an adult. Writers talked about the jobs and communities they had found that complemented their multicultural past.

The series ended up being the inspiration for a panel discussion that will be held during the Families in Global Transition Conference in The Hague this March. I am excited to be facilitating this panel, featuring other adult third culture kids who will speak to the journey, joys, and challenges of finding a niche that connects their multicultural past to a meaningful present.

If you are an expat, a global nomad, a third culture kid, an adult third culture kid, or someone who loves and works with all of the above, then this is the conference for you! It’s not too late to register for FIGT17NL! Just click here and it will take you to the registration page. You will be so glad you came!

In the meantime, I am reposting one of the submissions from the series. Cindy Brandt has written for Communicating Across Boundaries before and I’m so happy to welcome her again with this repost of her essay for the “Finding Your Niche” series.

*****

TCKs and “finding your niche” seems to be an oxymoron.

 After all, we are TCKs, Third Culture Kids, as in, they couldn’t fit us in any category so they created an extra option just to throw us all in there.

 We are the miscellaneous crowd. We are the ones who can thoroughly enjoy the company of whoever it is we keep during the day, but when the sun sets, we look in the mirror and see a different color skin, or go home to speak a different language; we don’t ever fully belong anywhere. No matter which group of people we are with, there always seems to be a slice of insider information we can’t access. We scramble to uncover that knowledge, but feels a bit like flailing awkwardly at the fringes of each particular culture.

 I am reminded of my favorite children’s book, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees. It’s a story of a giraffe named Gerald,

“whose neck was long and slim. His knees were awfully crooked and his legs were rather thin.” 

Each year at the Africa Jungle Dance, he freezes at the thought of dancing in front of his peers with his gangly limbs. Like Gerald, TCKs know intimately the feeling of crippling self-consciousness, and the fear of being found out we are not really one of them.

Of course, there are ways that TCKs are just like other people. We go through normal developmental phases in which we discover our own likes and dislikes; our skills and assets. We have different passions and desire to live into them. It’s just challenging to simultaneously walk this journey of self discovery while skittering on the outskirts of cultural worlds. It’s too difficult to hear the true calling inside of us over the noise of banging cymbals keeping us away from the mainstream.

In order to find our niche, we must cut through the noise and stop being led by fears of exclusion. TCKs are rich with benefits. We make the best spouses, friends, neighbors, and employees by bringing our dynamic stories and a myriad of experiences. We are strong from having endured difficult life transitions, yet sensitive from having been conditioned by a diversity of worldview. We are flexible from years of shifting from one culture to another, yet firm in our convictions having learned to hold on to core values while physically moving to and from. We are not either/or, we are both/and. We may not belong one hundred percent; but we can be one hundred percent present when we show up.

When we dart from one place to another, distracted by finding a place to belong, we miss investing the whole of ourselves in any one single space. In order to find our niche, we must bravely claim the life we’re in and start acting like we have already arrived. We don’t apologize for being different, instead, we bring our divergent ideas to sharpen the existing ones. We don’t dismiss monoculturals around us, instead we listen and learn from them, insistent upon building meaningful relationships. We vehemently find common ground until the fears and lies and insecurities of being excluded melt away by shared passion.

Gerald the giraffe was booed off the dance floor competition because he listened to the voices telling him there is no way he can dance. He retreated into a quiet clearing, lamenting his situation beneath the gleaming moon, when a small cricket coaxed him to cut through the noises of the jungle and listen to the music only he can hear. Slowly, he began moving his body to the rhythm of that music and by the end of the story, every animal stood in awe of his beautiful movements.

We don’t have to flail awkwardly on cultural perimeters. We need not continuously seek approval for being the unique persons we are. We can walk confidently onto the dance floor, clothed in the many colors of our background, take a deep breath, and just begin to dance.

It’s like what Gerald learns by the end of the story:

“We all can dance, if we find music that we love.”

You can find Cindy at http://cindywords.com/

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Observations and Thoughts on the Third Culture Kid Perspective 

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I just returned from a two-week trip to Cairo, Egypt where I was invited to speak at five different schools, to five different parent groups, and be a speaker at a youth retreat. I found the research specific literature to be invaluable in assisting me in my talks.

Here are some of my observations from the talks and what I heard from parents and kids:

Differences between parent and kid experience: We know that kids and parents experience the world through different eyes. Tanya Crossman’s recent research that has now been published in a book called Misunderstood is a wonderful resource in talking about these differences. Her points of difference are mainly around identity, connection, and choice. In identity, Tanya writes that children are shaped, and adults are influenced. If you think about a potter creating something, as she is shaping the clay she can turn it into whatever she wants. It can be a bowl, a vase, a container. Once it is shaped, it can’t be changed. It can however be put different places and look different according to where it has been placed. That to me is an excellent visual picture of Tanya’s point. In connection Tanya points out that the kid sees themself primarily as a resident while the parent sees themselves as a visitor. The adult comes in with a “comprehensive connection” to place. Those are two totally different connections and to expect a child to have the same connection and allegiance to their passport country as the parent is not realistic or wise. Lastly, a kid does not have power to choose – nor should they. But that should be taken into account when we think about the difference in experience. Also, parents should not be surprised by their children’s future life choices based on their own choice to raise their kids overseas. For a parent who has raised their kids overseas to make the statement: “I wish you would settle down!” is uniquely unfair. I will be writing more about this as I process it myself.

Recording vs. interpreting an event. Children are excellent recorders of events but not necessarily good interpreters. They will remember what happened really well, but they won’t know why it happened. The strongest example I have heard on this comes from counseling of children after 9/11 in the United States. A child who lost his father would be counseled. The conversation might go like this:

Adult: Can you tell me what happened that day? The day your dad died?

Child: Well, we were late because I didn’t tie my shoes.

Adult: Can you tell me more about that?

Child: Well, Daddy asked me to tie my shoes, but I didn’t obey him. And so then we were late and then Daddy died.

So the child remember that morning as vividly as the day it happened, but they have an interpretation that holds a huge burden. Imagine being 6 years old and thinking that because you didn’t tie your shoes, the twin towers fell and your dad died? So many children can remember things about their families, about conversations, about the what – but they don’t know the why. So it is with third culture kids. They remember that they weren’t doing well in school and that then the family had to leave Dubai. They correlate the two incorrectly, bearing the burden for a family having to leave a country that the whole family loved. This is a critically important concept to understand in any kind of parenting, but add a whole other dimension when location and moving are involved.

Middle schoolers and life story. Dr. Rachel Cason has developed an excellent tool for this age group called Life Story using the image of a boat. The idea is to look at what people see (the sail); what anchors us (the anchor); and what needs to be strengthened because it takes the most beating (the hull). It is an excellent image and I found that it worked well as a concrete visual picture. You can reach out to Rachel here for more information on this tool. 

Children are our achilles heel. To hurt a parent, hurt their children. They are the gap in our well-oiled and cared for armor of self-protection. We would far rather go through pain, illness, rejection, goodbyes, cross continent and ocean moves, and more than watch our children go through them. Yet it is so important that we grow in ways that we don’t try to protect them with soft padding, but instead offer them a good foundation and a strong sense of place even when geographic location moves. Guilt does not help, but comfort before consolation does help. Trying to force connections on our kids that they can’t possibly understand is not helpful, but bringing in traditions and stories from our own lives connects them to a bigger story that anchors them.

Different ages = Different stages. At times during this trip I wished I was only speaking to high school seniors or students in their first year of university. Different ages respond completely differently to the term third culture kid and to the researched profile of the TCK. Middle schoolers responded well to the Life Story exercise that Rachel Cason developed, but other things like grief do not necessarily have the same relevance. They need talks and exercises that are concrete and relatable. Seniors in high school on the other hand are beginning to realize that their world will indeed turn upside down – and with that turn, they are beginning to grasp for resources and are thinking about their future destinations.

Some stories are more complicated than others. I love how Tanya Crossman frames the third culture kid research she has done as a perspective rather than a person. There were stories I heard in Cairo that were really complicated. Kids with five different passports and seven different moves by the time they were 14 years old. This differs significantly from my own experience which was really just two countries – the United States and Pakistan – and one passport. These complicated stories don’t have easy answers and the story these kids are experiencing is not the same as mine. It is important to keep in mind the danger of a single story. At every session with parents I spoke about the danger of a single story and used the wonderful quote from Chimamanda Adiche “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” This quote set the stage for all of my talks. There is no single story in the TCK narrative. Rather, there is a perspective that can strengthen and connect the individual to a bigger story, one person at at time. 

The third culture kid is alive and well and we continue to need more research and more stories. I am more convinced than ever before of the need for more stories, more research, and more voices in this conversation. In 2013, the Guardian wrote an article stating that there are over 230 million expatriates all over the world. That number is only growing. Over 3 million people recently viewed a “Where are you from?” meme that I put on the ALOS (A Life Overseas) Facebook page. There are over 8 thousand comments and 14 thousand shares. This is proof of both the complexity and the scope of the third culture kid and global nomad conversation.

It was a gift to be a part of the conversations I had this past week and I will be processing for some time. In the meantime, I am so grateful for the Ruth Van Reken, Tanya Crossman, Rachel Cason, Lois Bushong and so many others whose work I rely on heavily as I continue to learn.

I salute them and so many more of you who continue to make this conversation a priority.

Song of Homesickness

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“There are many more sushi bars in Santa Barbara than I ever see in Kyoto, and my friends are all talking there of giving things up, going back to the country, finding a self that my Japanese neighbors have never had a chance to lose.

It’s a song of homesickness they’re singing silently, perhaps, and sometimes it seems to rhyme with the songs of longing, or restlessness that surround me on the far side of the globe.” Pico Iyer

***

When I’m homesick, I long for the smells, sights and sounds of Pakistan or the Middle East.

When I’m homesick, I long for the rhythm of the trains of my childhood. I shut my eyes on the subway and pretend I’m on the Khyber Pass Train, winding it’s way from the Sindh region to Rawalpindi station with stops along the way for passengers and chai. I smell jasmine and immediately I am on the banks of the Nile River, a vendor attempting to sell me garlands as I laughingly refuse, only to be cajoled into the purchase minutes later. I eat a curry and am transported to the Marhaba restaurant where curry and chapattis are served and you don’t have to pay for more sauce or more chapattis. I cry as I realize how rusty my language skills are and long to be back where I am using them daily.

When I’m homesick, I hear about a flood or a revolution and instead of thinking “Wow, I’m glad I’m not there,” I rush to my computer trying to find cheap tickets that will take me closer to the disaster.

When I’m homesick, I sit at my desk, lost in memory, saudade gripping my heart. When I’m homesick, it’s never for places in the United States. It’s always for places far away, across oceans and continents. It comes with the surprise and might of an earthquake – unpredictable and initially paralyzing. I stumble along, ever between two worlds, never quite enough for either.

I have not been homesick for a long time, but yesterday afternoon, in an Indian store on a hot summer day, my heart felt a distant yearning and I knew what was coming. I knew that it was homesickness. Or rather, saudade – that yearning for what no longer exists. The smell of samosa frying, the pungent aroma of a myriad of colorful spices, and a store owner who was chatting in Hindi on the phone were the sounds and smells of a world I left behind.

But then, as quickly as the feelings came, they left.  I found myself alone and slightly disoriented, at home only in my yearning in the midst of a crowd on a busy, city street.

***

I wake up thinking that I heard the call to prayer and suddenly realize that this is impossible. The closest mosque is several miles from my home, and because of a noise ordinance there is no way even neighbors of the mosque will hear the sound. I sigh, and, for a moment, allow the pieces of my memory to come together, giving into a longing that is always lurking in the background.

I resolutely get up, my heart filled with profound gratitude. Gratitude that I have been able to live in, and experience, places that grab my heart and won’t let it go. 

***

“I exist where I am, always between communities, always between places. I’ve found home in the yearning.” – @i_saleem

Always Too Foreign

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On Mother’s Day, my youngest son enters the house. “Today is a good day to read Between Worlds” he says.

I look at him puzzled. “Why’s that?” The answer comes quickly: “Because I’m your son.”

For better or for worse, we who have lived between pass on the in between to our children. We who are “always too foreign” give birth or adopt children who will absorb this, and cry out in their own pain.

So I go looking for expressions of between, and I don’t have to look far. I find a brilliant Nigerian poet, and after two poems I know she is my favorite.  I offer them to you who live between. You – the foreigner. You – the one who absorbed your parents’ in between.

At the embassy,

they never warned us that some days, 

America will feel so lonely,

we will gather our mother tongue,

hastily swallowing words that reminds us of home to keep warm.

******

i have a special place in my heart for children who calmly translate for their parents. so proud of how they switch their tongue, carrying two languages in their mouth without ever feeling like their parents are a burden. bless your hearts.

*****

So, here you are

too foreign for home

too foreign for here.

never enough for both.

“Diaspora Blues” by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Note: You can buy Ijeoma’s book of poetry here. 

“I Knew Flags, I didn’t Know Allegiance”

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Last month, I found my son Micah’s college essay. I was sorting through some papers in a desperate attempt to find a medical document. As often happens when you begin sorting, you find papers and letters from long ago and you end up lost in a past time and place.

Micah’s essay focused on our first year in the United States. He was eight going on nine , a free-spirited active boy who had spent his entire life in Cairo, Egypt. The essay was a window into his memories, a window into the way his memories differed from mine. He talked about his first day at an American school, how he did not take his precious baseball hat off, because he didn’t know that this was a sign of respect to the flag and the pledge.  He wrote about being made fun of because he didn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance. “I knew flags,” he said “but I didn’t know allegiance.”

He described the contrast between his small, one-room school house in Cairo and the seemingly huge elementary school where he was the new kid. In reality, the school was small by American standards, but to Micah and his siblings, it was huge.

Mostly he wrote about the solace that he found in a pond in back of our house that year. We rented a ranch-style house, nothing special. It had four small bedrooms and a bright orange kitchen that the advertisement had described as “large and country.” It sat just off a busy street in a small, New England town. A wooden jungle gym in the back was perfect for a family with five children. We were used to renting apartments in a large city – this house, while not large, had both the jungle gym and land in the back with a stream that widened into a small pond in the woods.

The year that we returned was chaotic and filled with transition and grief. After carefully preparing for months, everything that could go wrong did. We arrived in Massachusetts tired and wounded.

It was at the pond where adventure abounded and joy could not be squelched. “At the pond I could be anything I wanted to be.” he said. “One day I could be a pirate sailing the Seven Seas, the next an explorer discovering a new land.” Every day, whether rain or sun, whether cold or hot, my children played in and around that pond. It was a place that was safe from the do’s and don’ts of adults, open to all the possibilities that a child needs to grow. The pond brought extraordinary comfort and escape from family and parental turmoil by providing room for imagination and adventure.

The expat parent and the third culture kid have vastly different memories of the same events. Children see events through the lens of childhood; they don’t know everything that goes into a decision or a move.  Parents decide what and how to communicate. Children are left with half the details and in their minds they fill in the rest of the story. They interpret events through the often limited details they know and it can be many years later that they understand the entire story. Children are excellent recorders of events, but not always reliable interpreters. In the words of my son, they “know flags, but they don’t know allegiance.”

Until I read the essay, I didn’t realize the significance of the pond. I didn’t know that this small body of water, secluded from the world of transition, was a place of imagination and solace. The year that my son looks back on as full of possibility, I remember as incredibly difficult. Unbeknownst to me, a pond and children were creating their own alternate memories that would serve them well through the years, well enough to make a difficult transition bearable. A pond became a balm and comfort, nature doing what it does so well – providing healing and fostering resilience.

The Frozen Sadness of Ambiguous Loss

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When my parents first went to Pakistan, they traveled by boat. They would embark on the journey at New York Harbor, heading to the balcony of the ship so that they could see those they loved, family members and friends, for as long as possible. They would wave goodbye for as long as they could, until finally, land and their loved ones disappeared. I think about this and my throat catches, an ache rising to the surface. Mom and Dad were a young couple and family was critically important to them. They left that family and it cost them.

I would grow up to wave goodbye to Mom and Dad, not from a ship, but from a busy airport gate. I would turn around and wave, finally realizing that leaving was inevitable and I had to keep going. And I in turn have had some of these same experiences with my children. Travel and living between worlds is in our blood, woven through our DNA. But there are losses along the way.

Last week, as I was looking up something for work, I came upon a phrase that is new to me. The phrase is “frozen sadness” or “frozen grief.” The phrase comes from what is described as a “newly identified type of loss.” The researcher, Pauline Boss, introduced the concept in 1999.

In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief,confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict. While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment, but its cause is not always a weak psyche. In the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

I read that ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed to mourn, you are expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Boss and others identify some of the characteristics of ambiguous loss as these:

*Ambiguous loss is unclear loss.
* Ambiguous loss is traumatic loss.
* Ambiguous loss is a relational disorder.
* Ambiguous loss is externally caused (e.g., illness, war), not by individual pathology.
* Ambiguous loss is an uncanny loss—confusing and incomprehensible.

I move on and find out there are two types of ambiguous loss: One is that the person/place/family is physically absent, but psychologically present, in that they may reappear. This can be loss from divorce, moving, boarding school, migration. The other is that the person is physically present, but the core of who they are is absent. Examples of this are people with dementia or alzheimers.

Culturally, the Western World places high value on closure, high value on solutions to problems. Traditional grief counseling would encourage closure and resolution of grief. This is where ambiguous loss differs, there is no closure. Instead, the goal is to become comfortable with paradox.

At this point, it comes to me: this is it! This is the grief of the adult third culture kid. This is what we are talking about. At one point, we longed to express our grief, but felt foolish. What was there to grieve? We loved the unique experiences that defined our childhood. Plus, our experiences were years ago. We have a different life, we have moved forward. But in more honest moments, we realized there was grief, but it was hidden. We realized that being able to see the people and places we loved, even if it was just one more time, would be a gift. But we also realized that sometimes that is not possible. We can’t go back to what was. Perhaps we then recognized that closure would be impossible.  Instead, we would learn to be okay with ambiguity, be at peace with paradox.

And somehow along the way, being at peace with paradox happens. We rediscover who we are, we become confident within that paradox, and we grow to love living between.

“Any third culture kid who lives effectively in her passport country has a moment of truth when she realizes it’s okay to live here; it’s okay to adjust; it’s okay, even if she never feels fully at home, to feel a level of comfort in who she is in her passport country. To adapt doesn’t mean settling for second best. To adapt is to use the gifts she developed through her childhood in order to transcend cultures and to find her niche in both worlds.” Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

*Pauline Boss on ambiguous loss

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

“I wouldn’t give it up for a moment!”

Airport Happy Place

….and other things we wouldn’t give up! [With thanks to Michele Phoenix.]

I love playing the game “Two truths and a lie.”  It’s a get-to-know-you game, designed so that strangers can begin feeling comfortable with each other. The premise is that you tell a group three things about yourself. Two of them have to be true, but one of them is false. The group has to then decide which one is false. With a group of people who have never left their home towns, you get quite a few “I love my pets” “I love my kids” “I went on vacation to Vermont” (of course, the lie is that they didn’t go on vacation to Vermont, they haven’t left the state.) But if you play this game with others, the results are extraordinary. From a CIA operative taking out someone’s appendix to being in a Bollywood movie, you find out extraordinary things about people.

Third culture kids, whether they be from the military, business, diplomatic, or mission sector, are by far the best at this game. They can take their life experiences, experiences that haven’t all been easy, and tell their stories without being accused of boasting. They can pick the best parts of their lives and share them.

It’s this game I thought about when I saw the video below.  Michele Phoenix asked adult third culture kids (in this case, adult kids of missionary parents) what they liked best about growing up between worlds. She then had younger kids recite their answers. The result is a fun two-minute video. It’s like someone took all the answers to two truths and a lie and put them together in video form.

The wealth of experiences mentioned in this short video is something to celebrate.While Communicating Across Boundaries has a broader audience than missionary kids, any TCK, adult TCK or cross cultural kid could love this. After you watch it, feel free to tell us some of your experiences in the comment section.

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For a look at the survey that Michele Phoenix did on adult missionary kids, take a look here. 

A Life Overseas – To the Displaced and the Exiled

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Readers – I am at A Life Overseas today sharing an essay from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. I hope you’ll join me!

To the Displaced and the Exiled

I get it.

You sit in a crowd of people and you feel your mouth go dry, the bite you just took from your scone chokes your throat. How can you be this lonely in a crowd of people? How is it possible that your passport country feels so alien?

You were excited to return, there were many things you were sick of in your adopted country. You were tired of the dirt. You had enough of the chaos. You had to boil water one time too many and you had forgotten to soak the vegetables in iodine solution resulting in a visiting guest getting dysentery.

Your household help, who you love, was complaining and asking for more money and you simultaneously felt angry and guilty. You have so much. She has so little. But it’s not that simple.

And you were feeling so alien in your other world. The last few weeks have been chaotic and hot. So many people to see, so many projects to finish, children to prepare, suitcases to pack. You could hardly wait to go to a coffee shop and order coffee in your own language, not tripping over verbs and adjectives. You read an article on burn out and knew immediately that the article described you.

But as you look around , you let out a soul-deep sigh. You pictured all this so differently. You thought it would be so good, such a rest, such a time of peace.

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas! 

Some Thoughts From Adult TCKs to Those Who Raise Them – Part 2

A year and a half ago I put out a request to a group of adult TCKs asking what advice or thoughts they might have for the parents of TCKs. The response was excellent and informative. Responders ranged from 25 to 60 and everything in between.

I have been asked ever since then to do a part two to that post. This time, I put the question out to several different groups, mostly people I have never met. There is diversity in age range, countries represented, and in the occupations of the Adult TCKs parents.  In a couple of cases I edited the quote, just because of length, but mostly these are raw and unfiltered actual quotes, either written or spoken, from Adult TCKs.

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“Home” is something different for parents of a TCK and the TCK. In some internationally living families, every family member has another place or feeling they call “home”. The sooner parents accept and recognize this, the sooner they will be able to help their children and support them during the most challenging periods of their lives.

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I think the most important thing for me is to let the TCK experience things on their own terms without imposing the parents’ views on them about different cultures and places. For me it was extremely disorienting to move to my passport country only to find out that I did not find it nearly as amazing as my parents did. Conversely, the place where I grew up was a location where my parents experienced a lot of heartache and so we rarely share memories of it. My parents did a lot of things right in raising TCKs, but it would have been so helpful if I had felt the freedom to legitimately disagree with them on what felt like home and what felt foreign, especially in my early adult years.

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 Remember that tcks tend to breed tcks and that once you have sowed the seeds of the sojourner, the eternal wanderer, then be prepared when you grow old to live apart from your kids and grandkids.

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Treat your kids as well as you do the rest of the world

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Give your kids permission to share their problems. Let them know that the work of the gospel will not fall apart if their needs are considered.

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Moving overseas as an adult and moving overseas as a kid are not the same. It shapes you differently, in your mind, your heart. I know sometimes its people trying to relate, but saying that it’s the same can be hurtful too. Let your kids be tourists sometimes, and let them be kids too. Even when they act really grown up, they need time and space to just be “normal” kids.
Give them people to whom or opportunities where they can ask the “dumb” questions. How are we supposed to act? Why do we do that? What is that? Nothing causes stress like not knowing those things you think you are SUPPOSED to just know.

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Don’t put the weight of “representing God well” etc on their shoulders…let them be kids.

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Be prepared for your children to have different national loyalties than you do.

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ALL TCK parents should read up on TCKness! I returned to England aged 20 after 6 years and 2 countries…My parents and brother had moved to yet another country. No one in my extended family had lived overseas. No one I met through college or otherwise had either. No one ever suggested I treat my passport country as another new country where I needed to learn how everything worked. It was assumed I would know because I was ‘home.’
My re-entry was so painful I hid my TCKness away from myself as well as others and lived a somewhat crippled life….Mine, I know, is a fairly extreme example of how unrecognised and unsupported TCKness can affect someone. Life wasn’t all bad before but I’m sure it would have been a lot happier if I’d been more prepared for the reverse culture shock of returning to my passport country, been able to stay in contact with friends overseas and parents who were at least aware of potential problems.

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Give your child hard copies of photos and help them create a treasure box of mementos. A picture, a blanket, a couple keepsakes. These become precious tangible reminders of their life, little pieces of home. Then, in each new place, set up their bedroom filled with treasures first so that they have a sanctuary of familiarity in all the new. I still do this whenever I move into a new place.

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When you move a lot your nuclear family becomes “home.” My parents gave us a safe place to be together and encouraged us BE in the culture and create relationships. We cried all together as a family when it was time to go. I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned to love and open my heart to people even for a short period of time. It opens me up for sadness, but the relationship is worth it every time.

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In my late 30’s, a packet in the mail delivered the surprise gift of letters I had written my parents during grades 8-12 at the Alliance Academy in Quito (and my sister received hers as well). All these years later, the detail in those written conversations carries the health history of our siblings back in Lima, and the names of friends with whom we shared extraordinary experiences and trips.Combined with yearbooks, these are the archives of our memories… a treasure we never anticipated would be saved. In a modern era of emails and social media, it still matters to create a form of “hard copy” that can be “read” in any country, any decade. It’s a gift beyond price.

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Allow us to remember. Don’t try to deny memories, don’t be afraid that our memories will make us discontent. Rather, remember that there is strength in remembering. 

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Quote from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging 

“The losses felt by those of us raised in a country that was different from that indicated on our passports can be heavy. To be sure, the gains are also real: the way we look at the world, the wonder of travel, our love of passports and places, our wish to defend parts of the world that we feel are misunderstood by those around us.

But along with these come profound losses of people and place. For many of us, the only thing we feel we have left are our memories. We cannot go back to the place that was home. Either it does not exist, will not let us in, or danger and cost prohibit a casual trip to indulge the times of homesickness. In its place is memory. Our memories may be biased, or relayed in a way that would make our mothers say, ‘That’s not quite the way it happened,’ but it is inalienably ours.”

Graphic from The Culture Blend

It’s a Monday, and I’m traveling. I’ve been in San Diego since Thursday night, enjoying Palm trees, incredible sunsets, and the ocean. Best of all, I’m free from the tyranny of the undone and urgent. I think you know what I mean. 

Getting away gives perspective and peace and I’ve needed both. 

Because I’m traveling, I’m posting a graphic on transition that is an excellent description of the life of the expat wanderer. It comes from a blog called The Culture Blend.  The blogger, Jerry, is gifted at articulating some of the paradoxes of living cross culturally and giving practical ways to live and thrive in this journey. Enjoy this graphic and take a look at some other pieces on his blog! 

Along with the graphic, I’ve included an excerpt from the full piece.  

 

Where I live people come and go . . . a lot. That’s the part that they don’t put in the brochure when you move abroad . . .

“Adventure of a lifetime — Explore exotic lands! Learn new languages! Say goodbye to 20% of your friends every summer and random others throughout the year!” 

Sign here. 

It is a big painful part of the expat experience though. Transition that is. Not the expected ones like “culture shock”, bumbling language mistakes and system conversions. We saw those coming from a mile away (1.60934 kilometers). We read books and blogs about those. Some of us even went to seminars and conferences about how to “transition well”. There is no small bit of attention paid to the beginning phases of life as a foreigner. There is also a growing bit of attention surrounding the ending phases — leaving well, saying goodbye, repatriating, reverse culture shock and so on.

Not knocking that since . . . you know . . . I wouldn’t have a job without it.

BUT . . .

Here’s the kicker: As long as you live abroad — TRANSITION NEVER STOPS.

Read the entire post here!