The Last Week – A Graduation Story for the TCK

It is the last week of June and graduation season for this year will soon be behind us.  In any culture, graduations are milestones and rites of passage. They are filled with excitement and butterfly stomachs, a clear sense of accomplishment and an expectation for what might lie ahead. But for the third culture kid, there are significant differences between their experience and the experience of their peers in their passport countries. While some of the excitement and accomplishment might be the same, there is far more going on behind the scenes. We are not only leaving a school – we are leaving a home, a community, and a country. While most kids can go back home without a reason, the third culture kid cannot. The third culture kid does not only say goodbye to a school, they say goodbye to a life. Graduation for the TCK is a type of deportation.

Today I’ve included my graduation story and, in doing so, I hope I hear some of yours.


The last week of my senior year we passed yearbooks around, struggling to write what our hearts were feeling with cheap pens next to black and white photographs. I reserved the best spaces for best friends and boyfriends, and retreated to quiet spaces to read their words. When I would re-read them in the future my heart would ache with longing.

The week was a flurry of activity –concerts, awards ceremonies, dinners, and free time of lounging with our friends on picnic tables outside of the school. But amidst the flurry, we knew that this was all ending, and nothing could stop it. The week culminated on a clear, starry summer night as ten of us walked slowly, one by one, down the aisle of the school auditorium.

I knew every feature by heart. I had invited Jesus into my heart in this auditorium –several times. I sang in choir here, played piano for school concerts, giggled with friends, held a boy’s hand, practiced cheerleading. It was this auditorium where we read our mail and watched basketball games. I had been in plays on this stage, playing the part of Toinette in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid. This was where we had practiced Our Town for hours before heading to Kabul and the famous Kabul Coup. This was the center of our school, and its high ceiling and huge stone walls held the memories of a million events.

Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” echoed off the old walls of the building, saying to all those present: Here they are! It’s their turn –their turn to graduate, their honor, the class of 1978. We had been to many graduations before, but this was ours. There were speeches, piano duets, and singing.

As I sat on stage, I looked out at my community. I looked out and saw people who had written on my life. I saw my parents and my youngest brother. I saw my adopted aunts and uncles, my teachers and my mentors. I saw my friends and those who would come after me. In that moment, I saw only the good. The hard memories were not a part of this event, they weren’t invited. The ceremony ended and our names were called individually. We stepped forward to receive diplomas with wild applause.

The magnitude of what I was leaving was not completely lost to me that night. Even in the midst of the goodbyes, I felt my throat catch. But as I look back I am overwhelmed by it. We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew. For the rest of our lives we would struggle to answer the question, “Where are you from?” We would rage at those who attacked our adopted country, even as we raged at Pakistan herself. Some of us would be accused of crying “every time a cow died in Pakistan.” Others stoically moved forward, silent about the impact of being raised in another world.

As for me, I went back that night to the cottage where we had set up our home for the past few weeks of summer. Suitcases and bags sat on beds and chairs throughout the cottage. It was beginning to echo with the empty place we would leave behind, and it smelled musty and damp, the effects of monsoon season already begun. Crying had to wait, there was still packing to do. But how do you pack up a life? I stayed up to gather the remainder of my possessions, putting them into an old green suitcase, and finally fell asleep to the sounds of monsoon rain on the tin roof.

The next day I would leave Pakistan and never sleep in this house again, never walk up the hill to catch the school bus. The final chapter of life as a child in Pakistan had ended. I was the baby turtle, making its way slowly to the sea. No one could do it for me. In order to survive and thrive, I had to do it by myself.


Find this and other stories in Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s JourneyWorlds Apart v2

Graduation Gifts for Your TCK

graduation

Every where I look I see graduations. Cambridge and Boston are alive with the activity and color of students who have finished their college or graduate school education. From the bright red gowns of Boston University to the maroon gowns of Harvard, you can’t escape this season. And neither can your third culture kid who may be far away from the landscape of Harvard and Cambridge.

You have watched this young one grow from doing the toddler waddle to confidently crossing the globe alone. And now they are graduating. They are leaving the tight expat or missionary community that has loved them well and they are moving on to college and another life. What do you get them? How do you express what you feel as you say goodbye? Besides writing them a note – which is the best idea possible – here are some tangible gifts for your TCK.

Journals 

Books

  • Finding Home – a set of essays in an e-book compiled by writer Rachel Pieh Jones. These are written by either third culture kids or their parents and address a number of areas that are pertinent to the TCK.
  • The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, This is a delightful read that looks at the “pleasure of anticipation, allure of the exotic, and the value of noticing everything!”
  • Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging – this was my first book, and I really do believe it will resonate with many TCKs. If it doesn’t, I promise you your money back!
  • Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey – my second book and personal story. I’ve included a quote at the end of this post from the book! “We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew.”
  • Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing up Overseas in the 21st Century by Tanya Crossman – Tanya’s book is an excellent read and must have on your TCKs book shelf. Through interviews with over 250 third culture kids she gathers themes and thoughts on belonging, transition, home, and more.
  • Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition: Growing up Among Worlds  by Ruth Van Reken et al. In this 3rd Edition emphasis is on the modern TCK and addressing the impact of technology, cultural complexity, diversity & inclusion and transitions.
  • The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition by Tina Quick. This is a guide book to help TCKs understand what takes place in re-entry and/or transition and gives them the tools and strategies they need to not only survive but to thrive in the adjustment. This is the first book written to and for students who have been living outside their “passport” countries but are either returning “home” or transitioning on to another host country for college/university. It addresses the common issues students face when they are making the double transition of not only adjusting to a new life stage but to a cultural change as well.
  • Stuff Every Graduate Should Know by Alyssa Favreau. This is not TCK specific, but looks like a great guide to have on hand for life beyond high school.

I am a Triangle Merchandise – The I am a Triangle community is an amazing community of folks from all over the world. It was founded by Naomi Hathaway who has become a dear friend. The I am a Triangle Swag Shop is great for gifts for the global nomad. Mugs, T-shirts, Bags, and Multilingual Hoodies are just a few of the great gifts available.

Phone Charging Passport Holder – I love this! From the command “Just Go!” to the practicality of having the phone charger, this is a great gift for the one who has traveled the world and may worry they will feel stuck.

Plane Ticket or Airline Gift Card – Sounds expensive right? It is and you probably can’t do it, but even for a domestic flight, that TCK will welcome the chance to get on a plane and fly to visit a friend.

Gift Card or Assortment of Gift Cards  –  Target, Forever 21, H & M, Primark, or Amazon. Personalize them by putting each one into a separate envelope using the labels – Dorm, Clothes, Miscellaneous Stuff, Books, Fun.

Visa or American Express Gift Card – I prefer American Express as there is no expiration date and they are amazing at reimbursing lost cards. The trick is to register them, so take that extra step and register the card for them. That way they won’t have to keep track of it.

Map of the World – With gift-ready packaging, this scratch-off map gives a concrete visual for the TCK to remember their previous journeys and look forward to more. Available here and here

Money, Money, Money – I had no idea how much I would need money. As cards were stuffed into my hand in the midst of tearful hugs I didn’t know how life-saving the gifts of cash would be. I still remember a few months later when strapped for cash I pulled out an envelope, and opened it with a grateful “God bless Auntie Connie for this money!”


Exerpt from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Graduation Night: 

The magnitude of what I was leaving was not completely lost to me that night. Even in the midst of the goodbyes, I felt my throat catch. But as I look back I am overwhelmed by it. We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew. For the rest of our lives we would struggle to answer the question, “Where are you from?” We would rage at those who attacked our adopted country, even as we raged at Pakistan herself. Some of us would be accused of crying “every time a cow died in Pakistan.” Others stoically moved forward, silent about the impact of being raised in another world.

As for me, I went back that night to the cottage where we had set up our home for the past few weeks of summer. Suitcases and bags sat on beds and chairs throughout the cottage. It was beginning to echo with the empty place we would leave behind, and it smelled musty and damp, the effects of monsoon season already begun. Crying had to wait, there was still packing to do. But how do you pack up a life? I stayed up to gather the remainder of my possessions, putting them into an old green suitcase, and finally fell asleep to the sounds of monsoon rain on the tin roof.

The next day I would leave Pakistan and never sleep in this house again, never walk up the hill to catch the school bus. The final chapter of life as a child in Pakistan had ended. I was the baby turtle, making its way slowly to the sea. No one could do it for me. In order to survive and thrive, I had to do it by myself.

Born to Belong

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“When you’ve spent your whole life as a cultural chameleon, you end up not knowing what color you were when you started, who you might have been had you been from someplace, what it feels like to belong fully to a people, a tribe, a neighborhood, a city.” from Rachel Hicks in “To My Adult TCK Self: I See You”

In The Weight of Glory, in a chapter based on a lecture called “The Inner Ring”, C.S. Lewis takes a profound look at belonging, specifically at our desire to belong.

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”(Lewis)

The Inner Ring is that elusive place of belonging that is just beyond our reach, just past our grasp. Because once we have reached that inner ring and we begin to settle and think we’ve finally found a place to belong, we realize there is a ring beyond that —and once we’ve gotten to that ring, there’s a ring beyond that still. It is a never-ending quest.

I write about this in Between Worlds, but just writing about something doesn’t take it away. This struggle to belong is human, hard, and never-ending.

We are born to belong. 

A number of years ago, my husband was dropping off my son at a birthday party. Another kid from the class was in the car as he and my son had worked on a class project that morning. When my husband made the plan to drive him home, it made sense that he would combine the trips. We assumed that the birthday party would just have a couple of kids at it. When they arrived at the house where the birthday party was being held, a huge crowd of boys descended on the car welcoming our son. In fact, it appeared the entire class had been invited except for the boy in our car. The boy was crushed. We unwittingly participated in a kid realizing he had been left out, realizing he was not invited to that particular inner ring. It was completely accidental, but it still happened.

If we’re honest we will admit that we all know what it feels like. The stomach-knotting knowledge that we weren’t invited, that we don’t belong. Our first memories of being left out can be as simple, yet painful, as not being invited to a birthday party or as complicated as becoming a part of a blended family, where suddenly we realize the family we thought we belonged to no longer exists. The desire to belong and the feelings that arise when we realize we don’t are part of the human dilemma.

In elementary school that inner ring and quest to belong is the group of girls that excludes us. They are a part of Something Special and we don’t belong. It’s that group in middle school that get together every Friday night and we’re not invited, that group in high school that bears the name and reputation ‘cool’ and no matter how hard we try, we do not know cool. Though we would like it to stop there, it often continues. It’s college, then young adulthood, then work and getting into that inner, secure, exclusive place. It’s church and those people who are in that inner circle, the circle that seems so godly and confident, the one that we wish we belonged to. And yet when we get close, there’s something beyond that circle, just out of our grasp.

We constantly look to that place of belonging, the inner ring that seems so secure, that tells us we have ‘arrived, yet it continually eludes us.

Third culture kids can find this particularly difficult as they straddle many worlds and places. Each place has its own inner ring, each group its own rules. We don’t belong to our passport countries; nor do we fully belong to those other countries where we leave pieces of our lives. Keeping parts of ourselves hidden becomes a necessity because explaining is too difficult.

And yet, it is such a gift. To be able to know what it is to be other in our world of massive displacement is nothing less than a gift. A strange gift perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. The only way to break this cycle of the inner ring is to embrace the gift of not belonging. This echoes Lewis’ response to the “Inner Ring” dilemma. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we may still find ourselves on the outside, but it will no longer be a burden, we will no longer wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it inside. Instead we will find a place, sometimes in the most unlikely of circles.

I have slowly come to this place. I don’t even really know when I first realized that I was no longer striving to be part of the inner ring and I wish it had not taken so long. Somehow the quest to belong, that burden on my back since boarding school days of popular groups and cliques, has slowly but steadily been broken. In some mysterious and completely inexplicable way, I belong.

To be sure there are days when I find myself wandering back to the place of inner rings and the quest to belong. But as I begin to try to worm my way into those rings, something always stops me. I remember what it was to strive so hard that I lost my way. I remember that knowing what it is to not belong brings understanding and eyes to see the one at the edges, the one on the margins who sits in the shadows, aching to belong. A voice inside reminds me that my identity is in something so much bigger and greater than any inner ring. It’s in the knowledge that I am loved by God, created to reflect his glory until all inner rings have faded and time stretches into eternity. 

Belonging….doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. – Brené Brown in Daring Greatly

Thinking of a graduation gift for TCKs? Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey may be a good option! Worlds Apart v2

So, You Want to go Back ‘Home’?

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

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

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

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

The familiar and the new

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

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

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

Be prepared to hate that you are “just visiting”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understand that you may revisit feelings of grief and loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey


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


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

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

Like the Seasons….

normalized departure

Like seasons and birthdays, our comings and goings were a normal part of our lives. When we reached adulthood, we would meet others who had never moved and we would be amazed. On the surface, we felt arrogant – “look at us, we’ve been everywhere” was our silent thought that shouted loudly in our attitudes.

But just below the surface, we longed for weekly family dinners and shopping trips with moms or sisters; for fights that were resolved because they had to be; and for tight family units that stuck together through the years.

While we were roaming the globe collecting stories through the stamps on our passports, others were creating homes and building lives. Each choice came with both joys and challenges.

When your identity is semi-rooted in movement, then you face a crisis when you stay put, when you plant roots, when you’re ‘stable.’

And then if we did settle down, we felt the guilt of stability and wondered how our lives had become so predictable and so mundane. We made the mistake of equating stability with stagnancy.

Stability – strong, secure, safe, steady, firm. Those are adjectives with substance. They mean something. They are foundational to living well. Stability can be present in a life of movement or in a life where you are rooted in one place. Stability is not about where you live, it’s about how you live.*

And in all this, the seasons still came and left, and in between we continued to live.  


*from the Guilt of Stability

Quote on photograph from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Memories of Home

Chai Chai Garam Chai

Murree Christian School
P.O. Jhika Gali,
Murree Hills,
Pakistan

I can picture the scene as if it was yesterday.  I am lying on the top bunk in my dormitory. The louvered windows allow a mountain breeze to come through and the sun shines brightly through pine trees.  It is springtime in Murree and I am seven years old.  In the distance I hear the sound of musical scales in major and minor keys being played on old pianos, slightly tinny and out of tune. The players are disciplined, but clearly young with limited skills. Pungent smells waft through windows from the large kitchen two floors below alerting me that today our lunch will be curry and rice. The sounds of Urdu, Punjabi, and English meld together, a kaleidoscope of diversity unrealized until I am older. As the memory returns, I close my eyes and I am completely content.

Two distinct places come to mind when I think of the place and concept of ‘home.’ The first is that of several different cities where my parents lived in Pakistan during my childhood. The second place is the more constant: My boarding school near the town of Jhika Gali, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan range of mountains in the country of Pakistan.

…it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love…

My memories are strong of the place that shaped me, that formed me into who I am today. I was six years old when I first went to boarding school. I could barely tie my shoelaces; much less navigate the sometimes cruel environment of an institutional setting. But it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love.

For three months at a time, I would share a bedroom with seven roommates supervised by a housemother struggling to meet the needs of 20 to 30 little children. Children, who needed to eat, brush their teeth, bathe, dress, study, and sleep. Along with the practical needs were the emotional and spiritual needs. These are the unseen needs that satisfy the deepest of human longings; namely love and belonging. It was a seemingly impossible task, but we would not know this until much later in our lives.

The first night away from home, I was always exhausted and sleep came quickly. I woke early in the morning, disoriented and unsure of where I was. When I remembered, the blur and taste of hot, salty tears clouded my vision and lingered on my tongue. I dared not show my tears; it was not safe. We were all small, all facing separation and loss, all experiencing the first of many times of homesickness. We were surrounded by others as young as we were, by others with the same tears and fears, the same deep sense of loss.

No one heard or saw my tears; instead, they fell silently, invisibly.  Soon others would wake, and happy chatter would overshadow the sad. We were already a family of sorts, complete with the aunts and uncles who served as our dorm parents. But each time I entered boarding school, the early morning scene would repeat itself, from the time I was six until the day I graduated from high school.

A cold, metal-framed bunk bed and the living God were my only witnesses. The one captured my tears, the other comforted them.In that tiny, private bunk bed space my first fervent prayers for comfort went up to an unseen God in a Heaven that seemed far away, and I experienced his comfort and presence. It was in a bunk bed that this unseen God responded, an invisible hand reaching out to comfort a little girl far from her parents who held fast to a stuffed animal.

My boarding school years are long past and, like many others who grew up globally, many places in the world have become home for a time.  Indeed, for me a recurring life-theme has been on place and home. But those early memories of boarding school still evoke in me tears and a deep sense of gratitude.  There have been many places where my faith grew, where I met the big and hard questions of life. One of those places was surely a boarding school bunk bed, an icon of sorts, a solid witness to a faith that is written on my heart by God’s hand.


Worlds Apart v2Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey is now available wherever they sell books!


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This piece was first published here

Photo by Jason Philbrick