Race Reckoning and a White Third Culture Kid

The reckoning is how we walk into our story; the rumble is where we own it. The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

Like many of you, I have thought a lot in these past weeks about race and racism. Also like many of you I have posted, reacted, posted again, thought again, reacted again, and finally stopped to catch my breath. It’s only as I’ve stopped to catch my breath and pray that I have felt a measure of peace in moving forward.

As I look at the purpose of Communicating Across Boundaries, it is not surprising that there have been many posts by myself and others around racism, immigrants, refugees, and loving the one who is other. It is the “what”at the heart of what I do. It is the “why” at the heart of what I believe, for if a gospel cannot transform me and our world from the inside out, what good is it? Why does it matter?

This time I post with even more care than usual. We have a huge portion of the population of the United States who are in pain over injustice and racism. It is a callous person indeed that doesn’t recognize this and respond with deep love and care.

As a third culture kid growing up in the developing world, I had my own unconscious privilege to reckon with, and once made aware, to answer for. This privilege took different forms. From thinking “they” weren’t as smart as me to happily enjoying a life that would have been far more difficult if I had been born a different color or had a different passport.

A reckoning is, by dictionary definition, a “settling of accounts.” So what does that mean for me, as a privileged, little white girl growing up in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin? What does that mean to someone who is a guest in a country that had a recent history of colonization by the British Empire? For me, this primarily means being honest.

It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences. I walked through the world with different skin on, and skin made a huge difference.

As I moved on to writing Worlds Apart, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land where colonization ended only 13 years before I was born.

To give context, a delightful activity for me as a child was “high tea” at a hotel near my boarding school. During the summer months, my mom would take us to a hotel that served mini pastries and savory snacks on three-tiered China platters. Tea was served in a pot and each of us had a separate pot of tea. There were waiters dressed in turbans and starched white coats, attentive to every need. They treated me like the princess I thought I was. I loved it so much. It was later that I realized there was another side to my experience.

There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Children grow up to be adults, and as an adult I’ve had to take responsibility for learning and growing in areas where I had a lot of pride and a lot of ignorance. That pride and ignorance led to wrong thinking and distorted theology.

Recently, I’ve focused more on the listening part of learning. My friend Caroline is one of the people I listen to. We became friends one cold, snowy evening as my husband and I made our way into a large room in New Hampshire for a church retreat. Caroline and her husband were helping to register us. It was pretty much love and friendhsip at first meeting. Caroline and I share a third culture kid background. She is ethnically South Asian, raised in several places in the world and a brilliant speaker and thinker. She said this in a sermon given in Wheaton, Illinois this past weekend:

Be on guard against cheap diversity! Cheap diversity settles for representation, cheap diversity is satisfied when the room looks colorful, Be on guard against cheap diversity. Representation is satisfied with people being present, justice says “I care about this person inside this room and outside of it.”  Justice says “We see and do not stand for the way that our society and our culture upholds oppression and racial violence.” Justice says “I won’t quit until all are seen as image bearers.” The kingdom cares about life and shalom and flourishing here and now. If one of us is in pain or grieving, we ALL are in pain and grieving. If one is experiencing injustice, then all are experiencing injustice.”

Caroline Lancaster

She then gives action steps to her listeners. With her permission I am sharing them here:

  • Get in proximity: how can you be in community or learn from a community different than your own?
  • What are your spheres of power or influence? How are you bearing the fruit of justice in those spaces? How can you distribute power, access, money, etc. to steward power and influence well?
  • Educate yourself about injustice in both your passport country and your host country. Don’t walk through the world oblivious.
  • If you are a Christian, choose a passage or a verse that anchors you in God’s heart for justice. Memorize it and meditate on it daily.

I will be on this long journey in the right direction for the rest of my life. Why? Because this is a journey directly related to who I am as a Christian. God cares about oppression. God cares about justice. God cares about hurting communities. God cares about color – he cared enough to create us in different skin tones with different hair textures.

Here are some things that continue to be a part of my long journey:

  1. Confession – I had to begin with asking God to heal my thoughts and my eyesight. It was and still is hard, but in searching my soul I have realized that this sin is against God and fellow man.
  2. Learn to recognize and confess my own bias. None of us is without bias and our bias comes from many things. But we can be crippled into wrong belief when we don’t recognize and confess it.
  3. Develop real friendships with those who don’t physically look like we do. We walk through the world with skin on. That skin is perceived differently depending on its color. I walk through the world as a white woman. I have many friends who walk through the world as Arabic speaking, Kurdish speaking, and Urdu speaking brown women and men. I have other friends who walk through the world as black, English speaking women and men. Jesus himself walked through the world as an Aramaic-speaking brown man. Tamika in a recent post on Taking Route says this about color “If you say you don’t see color, then it means there is something about me that you can’t acknowledge.” Developing real friendships and relationships with people that don’t look like us challenges us and changes us.
  4. Always, whether in leadership or as a follower, have a posture of humility and willingness to learn from people who look different than we do.
  5. Be prepared for that leadership to look different – leadership is culturally based and may feel uncomfortable for a while.
  6. Read and listen and learn. Let me say that again: Read and listen and learn. Then read and listen and learn again.
  7. We will get it wrong. Our proverbial old habits die slowly and often painfully, but if we remain open to correction and change, to true repentance when we hurt others, to not letting pride block us, we will continue to move forward.

In my journey I’m learning more about empathy and standing beside – not in front of – people. Most of all, I’m learning that this is critical to my faith and my belief that we are all made in the Image of God.

This is my long and important reckoning.


Note: Other voices that I’ve been listening to include:  Fellowship of St. Moses the Black, Osheta Moore, Black Coffee with White Friends, Caroline Lancaster, Eugene ChoArchbishop Sebastia TheodosiosElias Chacour, and Ramez Attalah.  They each offer different perspectives based on where they are from and where they live. I have been continually humbled as I hear and read perspectives outside of my own sphere.

[Picture Credit: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/children-road-distant-supportive-1149671/

The Earned Fact of the Third Culture Kid

I first heard the term “earned fact” from Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As an immersive journalist, she talks about being able to write, not because she saw something, or read something, but because she lived something. In order to write the book, Boo immersed herself in the lives of people in a slum in Mumbai. Daily, she went to the slum, sat with people, recorded stories, observed, and asked questions. She did this for three years. When she wrote about the slum, she described the people, the smells, the garbage and even the air as one who had experienced this world.

But the book itself is not the focus of this blog post. Instead, I am interested in this idea of “earned fact” and how it relates to the third culture kid conversation. I’m interested because many of the third culture kids I know, myself included, become weary of feeling like we have to somehow justify our experience through education or research. The reality is that we have something that education and research can never give anyone – we have earned fact. We have lived something extraordinary and our words and stories come from that place.

Our earned fact often begins at birth, where the first words we hear are not from our mother tongue. Instead, they are words said over us by a midwife, nurse, or doctor who speak Urdu, Tagalog, or any other of a number of languages. We don’t come into our lives as third culture kids with already formed world views. Instead, our world views are formed by living between. Our identity is shaped through interacting with our parents and their dominant culture and the dominant culture surrounding us. Research on identity formation does not apply in the same way. Instead, we move back and forth as little people whose identity is being forged and shaped between two, often conflicting, cultures. “A British child taking toddling steps on foreign soil or speaking his or her first words in Chinese with an amah (nanny) has no idea of what it means to be human yet, let alone “British.” He or she simply responds to what is happening in the moment” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001).

The earned fact continues through childhoods lived on the edge and in between, picnicking in places that are far from our passport countries and participating in events that don’t make sense to peers in our passport countries. What is normal to us is considered ‘exotic’ by some, ‘extraordinary’ by others; ‘reckless’ by more than a handful. In the words of Liz Rice, in her memoir Rituals of Separation, one thousand things begin to separate us from the people we are related to by blood or by legal definition.

From the moment my life in Korea started, one thousand things began to separate me from the people of my bloodline and the country of my passport. My umbilical cord of identity stretched out to the city and the people in front of me.

“Closing one life door had opened up another. I was becoming part of a new family, not bound by blood or nationality, but created out of calling and circumstance, and the simple fact of what happens when a little girl’s parents decide to make a home in a new land.

Nothing about that life or my identity felt particularly remarkable until I came to the U.S. Nothing about my place in-between cultures and communities, between fundamentally different ways of understanding the world, seemed like something I needed to reconcile until the day we left Korea behind. I only look back now and try to analyze this time, to pick it apart, to understand the people and places that were forming me, to remember the ways of those who were teaching me how to greet and grieve.”

Liz Rice in Rituals of Separation

This earned fact is not easily described. When I talk about negotiating across cultural differences, I don’t just have a theoretical understanding. I have experiences that began when I was very young. When I speak on culturally responsive care, and understanding the impact of culture on all aspects of life, it is part of my bones. I have sat on the sidelines of many conversations or discussions on culture. Because I have fair skin, and my features resemble many in the area where I live, it’s assumed that I have only lived here, that my experience does not include anything beyond the borders of Massachusetts. It’s a hard and discouraging assumption to fight. I have a notebook of things that have been said to me that dismiss my invisible experience – invisible until I tell stories that go beyond my skin color and show a life lived in places and cultures far different than the one where I now reside.

There is a skepticism of the term “Third Culture Kid.” Third culture adults don’t necessarily like it, and third culture kids don’t buy into it. It separates them. It is irritating and divisive. I hear that and I respect the sentiment behind it. We have enough in the world to divide us into the next millenium and beyond. But for some of us, this term has encouraged us to connect. It has given us a foundation from which to engage. It has given us hope that we are not alone.

Because here’s the thing – There was a time when we didn’t have a name. When we were forever told to pull up our boot straps and get on with life.

There was a time when we thought we were the only ones, traveling solo in our passport countries, not knowing how to put words to our longings, how to verbalize our pain.

There was a time when reentry seminars were non-existent and it was assumed that we would arrive in our passport countries without incident, when folks said to us “Aren’t you glad to be back home” and we nodded assent, but a part of us shriveled inside. We would assimilate and no one would ever know that part of us that shaped and molded us from birth.

There was a time when we over spiritualized and downplayed ‘place’ and ‘home’, convincing ourselves that since our real home was in Heaven, earth really didn’t matter too much. But ah….when we got to Heaven, that would all change. Except that we were young and Heaven seemed oh so far away.

There was a time when we failed to understand that throughout history, God has used place.

There was a time when we laughed at the thought that we had losses, we brushed away any grief. “That’s ridiculous” we sniffed! Other’s have far more losses. Others are far worse off. But then we faced one too many moves and in the back of our minds the whisper of losses began to shout.*

So, to those that don’t need the term “Third Culture Kid” – I hear you and I honor and respect that. But to those of us who do feel like the term has helped? Make no mistake that we, that you, have an earned fact and some of that earned fact can be represented in the phrase “Third Culture Kid” or “Third Culture Adult.”

As my friend Robynn so beautifully states, we are from this third culture, this nebulous nomadic space. Whether we are 13 or 50, we have these common traits and can proudly own our earned fact. And we can, if we choose, use the term Third Culture Kid or Adult Third Culture Kid. It’s our choice.


*Excerpt from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

Eid Celebrations & Memories

عيد مبارك

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.

Today is Eid al Fitr and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations. I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up.

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand.We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Slow and steady, make it through this pain.I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed and I glance at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. Laboring to bring a baby into the world has changed any outward focus to inward. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I will no longer hear the call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge in what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays when you are far away from family thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and my day is made.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.” The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him“Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

I am 59 and living in the small city of Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I have just learned that we have to leave Kurdistan at the end of June and my heart hurts. I am angry. Angry at the government and angry at the university. I’m also sick with a bad cold and feeling the misery of self-pity. We hear an unexpected knock on the door in the evening. It is our friend Rania and her brother. They have come with beautiful homemade sweets and this hospitality and generosity make me weep. No wonder I don’t want to leave this place I’ve grown to love.

And today? Today I am in Rockport, Massachusetts – in a place I love though far from other places I’ve called home.

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, Kurdistan, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift.

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.

Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway. 

My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane. 

A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon. 

Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive.

We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages. 

In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges. 

I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?

And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.

We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.

So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.

It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.

The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

Author’s Note: in my faith tradition, we are going into Holy Week with Palm Sunday this Sunday. Because I write for A Life Overseas which is a largely Protestant group, I have posted this today.

A Life Overseas – Living Borrowed Lives

“A Syrian painter recently told me that we all have a map in our bodies, composed of the places we have lived, that we are constantly in the process of redrawing. A street from our childhood might be traversed by a train car in which we once fell in love. A garden from a year in London might yield, unexpectedly, a rose from the graveside of our grandmother. This map not only marks who we are but informs the way in which we encounter the world. The painter, a refugee originally from Damascus, was busily sketching the buildings of Istanbul, trying to move his map forward to the new country he now called home.” Stephanie Saldaña as quoted in Plough Magazine

I am writing my map in the other direction. I am trying to remember who I am.

Stephanie Saldaña

I curl up on the couch, reading an old letter from a friend. We were friends during our Cairo days years ago. We saw each other regularly, went to Bible Studies together, had coffee dates, traded ideas on how to adapt recipes with substitutions. How to make a cranberry-orange salad with no cranberries? What is the right proportion of molasses to sugar to create a brown sugar substitute? We arranged play dates and talked to each other about our family members who were far away.

I’m lost in memories as I read her letter. I left Cairo years ago. She left much later, but we both left. A good description of our lives as expatriates is that we lived borrowed lives. The maps of our lives have had to be redrawn as the places have changed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about borrowed lives as I continue to face my own transition. I thought about this recently as I heard about someone who had to leave her adopted country. She did not want, much less plan, to leave. But like my own story in Iraq, governmental decisions sometimes dictate the time when our borrowed lives end.

In the past few months I have heard of over 25 families having to unexpectedly leave their adopted countries. Just now, as I opened my email, I read yet another story of a family unexpectedly repatriated.

These are hard, hard stories. Each story has different details but the common thread is that it is not their choice. Their choice, indeed my choice, would be to stay. They have forged relationships and created homes in places far from their passport countries. Sometimes they have lived for years in a place, only to arrive at an airport and be refused entry.

Admitting our expat lives are borrowed is a difficult thing to do. We often fight this, imagining perhaps that we have more control over our lives than we actually do. But with admission comes great, great freedom.

As I thought more about our borrowed lives, I realized that we can apply some of the same principles of borrowing things to our borrowed lives.

A borrowed life may be borrowed, but it is still a life. When I borrowed my neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, it may have been my neighbor’s but it was still a vacuum cleaner, and actually a far better one than I had ever owned! And what do we do in life? We live – we don’t fear what might happen. God doesn’t give us grace for our imagination, he gives us grace for what actually happens. We plant gardens and hang up pictures. We buy furniture and we create homes. We make friends and we find coffee shops. We seek the welfare of the cities where we live. Our life may be borrowed, but it’s still a life.

We respect and care well for the things we borrow. We know we don’t own them and some day we will need to return them, so we take good care of these things. We treat them with respect. This same principle applies to our expat lives. We treat these lives with the respect they deserve. It’s an honor to be invited as a guest into another country or home – yet often we act like they are the people lucky to have us. We may come with specific skills, but we are not God’s gift to any country or place. God is the gift, not us. God has been at work in places far before we arrived, he will continue to be at work once we leave, so we treat our borrowed lives as the gifts that they are.

We borrow things we need. The reality is that we need this expat life more than we admit. We have come to rely on the rhythms, though they be difficult. We reach a level of comfort living between and we don’t want to lose that. We are also often more comfortable with our economic status in our adopted countries. Often our residence comes with a government stipend that we would never have in our home countries. Other times, the currency of our passport countries yields a good return on exchange, putting us into places where we don’t have to worry about money in the same way. The cost of living in Kurdistan for my husband and I was a fraction of what our current Boston life costs us. Yes, there were hard things about living in Kurdistan – but I think we needed Kurdistan far more than Kurdistan needed us. I’m still trying to process that one.

Sometimes borrowed things get lost or damaged. The mature person will admit this and make proper restitution. So it is with our borrowed lives – sometimes we don’t treat them with care. Sometimes we take relationships for granted. Sometimes we assume our lives hold greater value simply because of the color of our skin or our passport. While this is rarely an open admission, this attitude subtly works its way into our work and relationships. Confession, repentance, and restitution are the only healthy ways forward.

Everyone has a borrowed life, we are just more aware of this fact. Here’s the truth – every breath, every step, every word – it’s all borrowed. We have been given this life for such a time as this, but none of us – whether expat or not – know when this life will be over. Job loss, health loss, death – all of these things are part of our journey. The worker or expat can be in a much healthier position to realize this than many of their peers in their passport countries.

The question remains, what happens when I lose my borrowed life? How do I move forward? How do we move forward? We grieve. We cry. We pray. We praise. We redraw our maps with the One who created us. We continue our borrowed life in another place, trusting that one day this will all make sense.

A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

“What is it, to Live Between?”

There was a giant chasm between worlds, a chasm separated by more than an ocean. It was a chasm of culture and food and people and faith, and I was suspended somewhere in the middle of the chasm.

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

When I began writing, I never set out to write about living between. I found however that it was impossible. When you have lived between for so long, of course it will come out in your writing. If we are are going to be honest writers, our earned fact and lived experience can’t help but make its way onto the page. And in sharing this lived experience, I’ve found others – whether writers or readers – who share this earned fact of living between.

I recently posed a question to some of those writers and readers. I asked them to describe what it was for them to live between worlds. The answers didn’t surprise me, but they did encourage me and offer insight that I needed. They made me feel like I was not alone.

To you who this day may be feeling alone, read what some others have said, and know that we are on this journey together.


It’s a Privilege…

It’s a rare and precious privilege for us to be able to live ‘between’ worlds, but I think that the price we pay is to forever surrender the option of utterly belonging – completely and without question – in a single place ever again. I think it’s a price most of us would willingly pay if asked in advance, but it’s often unanticipated. (Thinking a lot about ‘belonging’ today as I spend my first birthday in a new country just 6 days after arrival – my husband’s at work and I’ve not had a chance to build a new community yet. So thankful this isn’t my first international move and I can see past the fog of these early days to the inevitable lovely ones to come!) – Carolyn

It’s Exhausting…

“I find that in living between worlds I am forever focused on fitting in wherever I am, I have to struggle to define who I am anymore. As I age, I find I tire of this constant dance between cultures and tongues and I finally start to use and be thankful for my mother tongue English more, embrace my sloppier American way of dressing and eat my heart food of dahl bhat at least once a week – no matter what anyone says.” – Lizzy

It’s Lonely….

“Honestly, it’s lonely. People in your host country don’t understand what you have come from, your culture etc and people at home don’t understand where you are and your new life, And living between the two, is lonely. Not saying life is bad and lonely etc. I feel so privileged to live where we do, and I love my home country a lot and miss it, but living between the two worlds – it can be lonely.” – Ally

It’s the Best and It’s the Worst!

“Sometimes its the best of both worlds, sometimes the worst of both. And for the worst bit, I uses to try to explain it but I don’t anymore.” – Katherine

It’s Missing Pieces of My Heart…

Never having all the pieces of my heart in one place. Always feeling like a piece was missing. – Chrissy

I Feel Foreign Where I Don’t Look Strange

“I feel at home where I look like a stranger and I feel foreign where I don’t look strange – am homesick no matter where. And on top of that – grateful for the privilege to be where and who I am” – Jutta

It’s Like Being an Amphibian…

“It feels like, you’re an amphibian. You feel like you belong in those two worlds.” – Adella

It takes Humility and Humor….

“Visiting and having friends between worlds is exciting and wonderful if you can constantly remember to have humility and humor. Working between worlds is a lot harder and requires the same ingredients plus very careful, intentional, and polite communication about absolutely everything.” – Julie

Only Happy on an Airplane…

“I was told as a young missionary that missionaries are only really happy on an airplane.  I don’t think that’s true any more, but there’s an element of anticipation in the “in between” where you’re so looking forward to those elements and people that you have been missing that you forget about all the things you’ll miss.” – Marianne

What it Takes from us in Roots, It Gives Back in Perspective….

“If a life of change has taught me nothing else, it is the truth of impermanence. How Things are now is not necessarily how things will be later. Which is a huge lesson to learn as well. Maybe what this lifestyle takes from us in roots, it gives back in perspective, just as you say- the seeing of both sides.”- Carolyn

It’s Surreal…

“The first day between places- when you have been at both places and still feel exhausted from travel, is surreal.” – Amy

It’s a Narrative, Not One Point in Time

“Our story of living between is not one point in time. Though you may meet us at one point in time, our lives are bigger than that. You may meet us at a point of sadness, of disconnect – and you assume that is who we are. That living between has made us sad. But that’s only one point of a much bigger story. Our stories are narratives of living between. The points of sadness and disconnect, of not belonging and feeling other are not the whole narrative. There’s the points of understanding displacement, of the incredible joy of discovery, the points of growing empathy from young ages, of taking that empathy and discovering that it is foundational to bridge-building, to seeing both sides. And then that glorious gift of travel that makes us feel alive, stirs us out of complacency, and ushers us into the broader world.”

It’s a narrative of privilege, of discovery, of joy, of empathy, and yes…. of loneliness. Marilyn

What are your descriptions of living between? I would love to hear them.