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.

On Soft Landings and Waiting

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.

What a time they have, these two

housed as they are in the same body.

Mary Oliver

We arrived yesterday on a flight from Doha, Qatar. It was a long flight full of people and movies. We were greeted so well by our dear friends – friends who have walked us through several centuries of joys, sorrows, moves, and changes. They are our people. They brought a truck to transport our many and heavy bags. They fixed dinner and gave us Moscow Mules as we waited. They took us on a walk and they stocked our fridge with food. They are our soft landing after a long six weeks of up and down emotions and decision-making.

I woke to unfiltered sunshine bathing our cottage in light and joy. A bird outside sang an endless song of contentment, begging me to do the same. The joy and grief that have been entwined in my body for weeks have reached a pinnacle – so much joy at being back, joy of Rockport, joy of reunited friendships, joy of return. And so much grief – grief of missing our friends, grief at being away from our beloved Kathy, grief at missing the call to prayer and the Kurdish sun, grief that the Middle East – where my body and soul feel connected in indescribable ways is again no longer home. The poem I quoted at the top of the page is my heart and I am grateful to a friend for reminding me of it.

I wrote this on social media, and I rewrite it here – more as a reminder to me than anything else.


It’s been a long journey. From the time we heard about the edict from the ministry of finance, to the fight to stay, to the realization that we had to leave, to the bag packing and apartment cleaning, to the getting rid of stuff, to the trip to Turkey, to the inevitable trip back to Kurdistan, to the hours of movie watching in a plane, to the hugs of dear friends on arrival at Boston’s Logan Airport, to the full truck of our luggage, to walking in the front door of our beloved cottage in Rockport. ⠀

We took a risk when we bought this cottage 11 years ago, and every year we look at each other and say “It was worth the risk!” Never have I felt this more than today, as I wake up. ⠀

The sun shines in and it is perfectly quiet. A bird outside is joyfully responding to its surroundings. Our favorite books and pieces of home surround us, and dear friends have given us a soft place to land. ⠀

There is pain – it is inevitable when you say goodbye. There is anger and a desire for revenge for a situation poorly handled. There is the sting of unemployment in a culture where your identity comes from what you do. But those will be put on the table and dealt with in time and through counsel and prayer. ⠀

Right now there is sunshine and peace, and a bird whose joy is contagious. ⠀

All is well as I wait.


A few years ago I wrote about waiting in an essay that ended up in my first book. In this new season of waiting, I reread the words and I rest.

Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in and orchestrates our plans, our movements.We may never know the reason for the waiting. It may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity.

For waiting is nothing new to the work of God. In waiting we join hundreds of others who waited before us. Joseph, sold into slavery, waited years to be able to say the words “You meant it to harm me, but God used it for good.” Abraham and Sarah, waited for so many years to have a child that Sarah laughed cynically at the idea. Noah waited aboard a boat full of antsy animals, with no land in sight. Those are only a few in a long list of ‘waiters’

And so I wait in Rockport thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love. Giving thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable, a God who knows all about waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.”

The Goers and the Stayers

We arrived at Logan Airport at 6:30 in the evening after an 18 hour day of flying. We were tired and bleary-eyed, but also excited. We got through immigration in record time and then waited with other weary travelers for our luggage.

Four pieces later we were on our way to pick up a rental car.

The road to our friends home never felt so long. It had been too long and now we were almost there.

We turned the corner onto Essex Street in Hamilton and drove up the dark road. We could not see the beginning signs of spring, even though we knew they were there. We also knew that just ahead was the home of a couple who have walked through life with us for many years.

A few minutes later we had arrived. There in front of us was an unassuming Cape Cod style house with a yellow garage. This was the house where a friendship had flourished for many years. A house that had hosted more hours of talk and laughter than we could possibly count. This house spelled comfort in some of my darkest days and provided refuge from many a New England snow storm.

But what is a house without the people who make it a home? Our friends have stayed as we have gone. They have continually offered shelter and friendship to our wandering feet. They are the roots to our wings and the solid wisdom to our sometimes too restless souls.

They are our stayers and I could not love them more.

The goers need the stayers. The travelers need the port. The ones who pack up and leave for far off places desperately need the ones who wait for them, encourage them, love them, and welcome them back. This couple does that for us and I am so grateful. They have been in our lives for 23 years and they will continue to be our people until our lives on this earth are over. If you are a traveler, find your people and never, ever forget how precious they are.

If you are a goer, find a stayer. If you are a stayer, find a goer. We need each other more than we know.

Someday I will be a stayer, and I will remember how much the goers need me.

On Longing

Longing. What is it? How would you describe this word? Not the dictionary definition, but your own heart definition?

A couple of weeks ago I asked folks how they would define “longing” on the Communicating Across Boundaries Facebook page. Your responses did not disappoint. The thing that made them so significant to me is that I know some of the stories behind these responses. I know the ones with chronic illness who fight against pain and don’t complain, longing for a day when that pain may go. I know the ones who have lost a son or daughter and carry that cruel act against the natural order of life in their hearts. I know the ones who have said too many goodbyes, the ones who have experienced significant loss of place and people. So as you read these, know that they come from hearts and lives of those who have suffered but continue to live. And to you who read this, may you feel hope in our shared experiences of longing.

The ache that lives somewhere between the fossa jugularis sternalis and the solar plexus. It both hurts and comforts – like Chopin’s Nocturnes (see below). It needs no solving – as it cannot be “fixed” from the outside. Only the soul can move things in such a way that longing gets released – either into sadness or into action. – Eva Laszlo-Herbert

I am reading a great book right now, Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life by Phileena Heuertz. She has an entire chapter titled “Longing” and here is one of the ways she describes it: “Longings are like growing pains in that their origins can be difficult to trace, and yet they give indication of something deep and profound, something immediately true of us. In that respect, noting our longings and looking more deeply into them can function as a sort of ‘thin space’, in which God pierces our desires and then redeems them with a more devout understanding for how we can live in relationship to God, one another and all creation”. – Dana Miller Baker

At times it feels like a dull ache and at times it feels like a stab in the gut. It is a soul hunger that is ever present. It is both hope and despair. – Joyce Lind Terres

Longing is feeling the distance between where you are and where you want to be – a place, a time, a person, a community, a stage of life, a depth of relationship, or even a version of yourself. – Tanya Crossman

A feeling of being distant…but yearning to be close to something or someone that makes you feel like your most authentic, truly alive, living your purpose self. – April

At the moment I would describe it as an unquenchable ache in the very fibre of my being that sucks the joy out of life. I find it hard to pinpoint where longing ends and grief begins as longing is such a large part of grief. It physically hurts to think about how much Im longing for five more minutes with my mum. – Jo Hoyle

Yearning can be animated or subdued. I sense ‘longing’ as something that might be initially inexplicable because it is “subconscious” in nature, and under the radar of our overly expressed emotions. – Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

A yearning…perhaps for something or someone lost to you, or for something you are working to accomplish. – Betsy Merrill

It’s a reaching with every fiber of your being… – Laurinda McLean

A deep desire for something someplace or someone that doesn’t go away. It is always there consciously, and or sub-consciously. The desire is more than just in your head, it’s in your soul and deep in your bones. To put it in the words of the Psalms, it’s in your innermost being. – Susan Haglund

Missing something so badly it hurts inside. – Laura Keenan

SaudadeLinda Janssen & Annelies Kanis

What do they mean by Saudade? I’ve written a lot about this word, as have others who have lived mobile lives. It’s a Portuguese word that originated in the 13th century by Portuguese diaspora who longed for the places and people they had left behind. 

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

I’m so grateful to those of you who shared these soul-deep responses. What about those who are reading? How would you define longing? Please share through the comments, and thank you – as always – for the gift that you give in reading and being a part of this online space. I will never take it for granted.

A Life Overseas – Capable of Complexity

I’m at A Life Overseas talking about needing to be capable of complexity when we talk about the TCK experience!

I loved growing up overseas. I loved that I knew how to traverse the globe at a young age, that I grew up on curry and hot pakoras, that I could see some of the highest mountains in the world from the grounds of my boarding school. I loved the colorful stamps in my passport – the story of my life in a legal document; the feel of excitement when a plane took off; the visceral sense of home when I was surrounded by palm trees and minarets echoing a mournful call to prayer. I loved it.

And…..

Ah! That word “and”! That freeing, amazing change agent! And it was also hard. I struggled with belonging, with connecting to place. I experienced long nights where tears of homesickness and grief were shed, with only God and a bunk bed as witnesses. I sat uncountable times in rooms full of people enveloped in a bubble of longing, with the words from Ijeoma echoing through my brain: “too foreign for here, too foreign for there – never enough for both”.

It takes many missionary kids years to accept that their experience was a complicated, beautiful package of good and hard. Owning the hard feels like a betrayal. And might I say, there is nothing that makes an MK/TCK bristle like a condescending adult looking at you and automatically saying “Wow – that must have been really hard. You must be glad to be back in [insert country].” I remember standing up as straight as my five foot three frame could make me and saying, with daggers in my voice and eyes, “I loved my childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” My voice said “Just try me, lady, and I’ll throw that macaroni casserole in your condescending face!”

Okay – that’s harsh. But I was a teenager, and to be told what my life must be was simply unbearable.

For years, all I could do was claim the positive. I was like the Joel Osteen Missionary Kid, except that my teeth weren’t as bright and shiny as his. My childhood was perfect, thank you very much, and don’t even start with the negative.

The problem is that of course, it wasn’t. There was the good and there was the hard. Trying to be fair to both those things felt like an impossibility, so I stuck with the good.

Here’s the thing: When we talk about the MK/TCK experience we have got to be capable of complexityI’ll say that again: we have to be capable of complexity. As Tanya Crossman points out so well in her book Misunderstood, the third culture kid narrative is a perspective and not a one-size-fits-all single story. Each TCK story contains things that are deeply painful and other things that are incredibly unique and joy-filled.

I recently read a book called All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung. Though born of a Korean family, Nicole was adopted as a baby by a white family. The book is her story of coming to terms with her adoption and ultimately finding her birth family. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story about belonging, about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our reality, about the stories that families tell to make sense of their family narrative. At one point, the author says this:

Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.*

Though my circumstances were not those of an adoptee, this paragraph made a deep impact on me when I read it. How many of us as third culture kids, as missionary kids, had our own family lore that we believed? How many of us believed that we must trust our parents’ sacrifice, and wrongly believed that we must not let them, or anyone else, know when things were hard?

In my own journey I have found that the things that I found difficult were also difficult for my parents. I have come to know more fully some of the stories that I only knew partially. I have come to realize that saying something is hard does not mean that it was not good.

Read the rest at A Life Overseas by clicking here.

Goodbye 250

I get on the bus and swipe my Charlie Card, my ticket to discounted rides for the last ten and a half years. The bus driver nods as I say hello. There is room to sit down, but I stand. Central Square is a 12-minute walk from my house, but the bus is a wonderful back up when I’m running late. Or when it’s hot. Or when it’s cold. Or just because it’s there and it’s morning, and in the morning I’m a slow mover.

As I step to the side to hold onto a bar, I see that my bus friend is there. Bus friends are those special people that become a part of you and that cynics tell you are not your real friends, but you know better. This particular ‘friend’  works at Simmons College and we have seen each other a couple of days a week ever since I moved to Cambridge. We exchange greetings and I compliment her on a new hair cut. She laughs. It’s not the cut she says – it’s the glasses. “Ever since I got new glasses I’ve had compliments on my hair!” I laugh and say whatever it is, it’s a good look. We older women need each other. We know that our youth is gone. We know that our bodies and our faces bear the marks of life, sometimes well-lived, and sometimes just lived. We know that worship and attention go to the young, and so whatever we can give to each other, we give with abandon.

I get off at Central Square and walk down the steps to the subway. I do all these things without even thinking. They are second nature. I am now the person that strangers in the city approach – I earned the right to belong without even knowing I had earned it.

The subway ride is short. I know every station before we even get there. I know the pictures that form the tiles at Kendall/MIT. I know the coming out of the darkness and into the light of Charles MGH, the Charles River – beautiful, no matter the season. I know the sailboats on the river, their sails identifying the schools or organizations to whom they belong. I know the view of Boston from the subway. The subway moves on, going underground again to stop at Park Street. I get off and make my way up the stairs, into the light of Boston Common.

Park Street church, with its church bells that ring every day at noon, stands solid in front of me. Suffolk University School of Law is just down Tremont Street on the right. The gold-domed Statehouse stands tall up the hill to my left.

An ambulance bears down on the street, disrupting the early morning calm, as if reminding all of us that this is a city, and cities are never really still.

I begin to walk up Tremont Street, realizing that this city has become a part of me without me even realizing it. The beauty of the city with its walkability, its green spaces and its old charm is a part of me. The ugly of the city with some of its past abuses is now in my conscience. The good that I have been honored to be a part of through my job, watching community health centers and hospitals work with those most in need, is on my shoulders and in my body.  I know the names of some of the homeless. I know people who serve at the restaurants around me. I know the doormen at the Omni Parker Hotel. My husband would tell you that I know the manager of TJ Maxx, but I would quickly refute him.

From Tremont, I turn right at the Omni Parker, famous for Parker House Rolls and Boston Cream Pie, and continue down School Street, soon turning left onto Washington Street. I stop in front of the revolving doors of 250 Washington Street and take in the moment. I look at it hard. I entered these doors to work, first as consultant and then as full-time employee, in April of 2008. I have never stayed at a workplace for so long. Until this job, I never had to work through staying when the work gets mundane. I never had to work through bureaucracy and the patience it produces. I never fought so hard for programs to serve communities that I love as I did in this job. I never had the honor of working with community members who fight every day for their communities to get what they need. I have never laughed so hard or so much with colleagues. I have never shared myself the way I have with these colleagues, many who are now friends. I have never fought so hard, worked so hard, or felt so much joy with the results as I have these past ten years. It has been hard work and it has been such a privilege. I leave knowing what it is to quietly and persistently fight for what you love. We have been able to do work in the foreign-born Muslim community that I never thought possible. We now have a 5-year grant with a focus on women’s health in the Asian, Black, and foreign-born Muslim communities. I’ve learned the joy and strength that comes from fighting hard to serve those you love.

Somehow along the way during these ten years I have become a part of something bigger than myself and I have become from somewhere. It happened without a fight or a big bang. Instead, daily putting one step in front of the other I became a part of this city and her people, and she became a part of me.

And today is my last work day. The last day that I sit in my cubicle, answer emails from my official email account, and answer the phone in my official capacity. Soon I will leave Boston and Cambridge. A plane will take me thousands of miles away to a small apartment on the other side of the world. I will leave a place I love to go to a place I have begun to love. Who is so fortunate? I ask myself this question every day. 

And when people ask me where I’m from, I will say with some pride, and no hesitation “I’m from Boston.” Those are sweet words indeed.