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!


barnes and noble

amazon logo

books a million


This piece was first published here

Photo by Jason Philbrick

Home is Not an Answer to a Question

img_4877

“Home is not an answer to a question. It is my grandmother’s front porch where I first saw how dark the night was supposed to be. It is the swimming pool in our first apartment complex in Portland where I learned to see without looking, underwater with my eyes closed like the mermaid I knew I was. It is the spot where my sister is buried. It is Eagle Creek where the salmon spawn and then die, using their last reserve of energy to protect their eggs. The journey home is arduous. Surviving costs something. Returning costs something more.”

So where’s home? The dreaded ambiguity of the question shouts at me even when the person’s voice is calm and friendly. Writer Jamila Osman says that she always answers the question with her voice raised in a question at the end. In her words, the “last syllable lifts its head in desire.”

I do the same, as if I am looking to the person I am talking with to affirm the answer. That’s what happens when you’ve lived in over 29 houses on three continents. You answer the question with a question mark.

Just as the “where are you from” question brings out feelings of ambiguity and confusion, so does the “where is home” question.

As I read Osman’s words, I think about what my own words would be. I craft them, because just writing them down helps to change that last syllable from a question mark to a definitive answer.

Home is not an answer to a question. It is the dusty roads and Bougainvillea laden home in Pakistan. It is the winding road taking me to my boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range. It is the sound of a train, and vendors shouting “Chai, Chai, Garam Chai!” It is the busy streets of Cairo and the memories of a fifth floor walk up flat, the sounds of men yelling that they have molasses for sale on the street below. It is the sunsets in Phoenix that evoke the deepest longing and the deepest joy. It is the color and stories of Central Square in Cambridge and our porch on Newton Street with the smell of homemade bread drifting from the kitchen. It is the vibrant colors of icons and the beautiful chants from Divine Liturgy. Each place has stories and memories of home.

I realize in writing that I no longer mind the question. I no longer hate the ambiguity. Instead I realize that it is a gift. The syllable of desire has changed to a syllable of hope.


Note: Just as the “I’m from” story can be helpful in our narrative so can writing down what home is to you. If you choose to do this, I would love to publish some of them. Please contact me through the comments or a private message at communicatingblog(at)gmail(dot)com.

About a Book….aka Kill Those Darlings!

Worlds apart promo

Some of you may remember a big announcement last year. It was about a book. A book that I was so excited about. I talked about it on the blog and on social media sites. I had a book reading and signing. But something just wasn’t right.

That book, that precious book where I let my childhood memories in all their vulnerability out into the world, did not sell. Meanwhile, my previous book kept on selling.

I couldn’t figure it out. It was so defeating and so depressing. I had been writing that book for eight years. What happened? Why was it so poorly received? I didn’t talk to anyone about it, because when you love writing and you want people to receive your words….well you don’t talk about the hard stuff.

Right after the book came out I had major surgery. While I had hoped to spend my recuperating days writing, instead I ended up just healing. It was the hardest and most humbling work I’ve ever done, and it was a fulltime job. Soon after that, I realized that my dad was entering into his final illness. I needed to spend as much time as I was able with my mom and dad, which is never enough time. He died in October, and soon after that, some of the stuff you never talk about on a blog happened.

And the book got lost in all of the stuff that was happening. But I would still think about this book. Why on earth did I write it? What did I expect? Dear friends from Pakistan were writing me regularly telling me they would never read the book. It was just too hard for them. So what was it for anyway?

I realized I hadn’t written it for them. I had written it for a far more general audience, but the book didn’t reflect that. I also realized some things about writing. Just as an artist puts their heart and soul into their art, we who write put our heart and soul into our words. We craft and recraft sentences. We look for meaning behind things that happen to us and we invite others into those events, hoping they too will find meaning. As Joan Didion says: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live….We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices….” 

Writing helped me to understand more about how important stories are to our understanding of others and ourselves. I thought more specifically about the third culture kid’s journey, the stories behind the arrivals and departures, the narrative that captured the sweetness of hello and the bitterness of goodbye.*

In the middle of all these life events, I did a book reading.  It was there that one of my friends asked me about the title. She said it so graciously, but I took the words to heart. “What about the title?” she asked. “Why did you choose to call it that?”

My friend is Israeli and Jewish – in other words, we come from different countries and different faiths, but she loved the book. Her words took root in my heart.

It was in early winter that Doorlight Publications reached out to me. They wanted to reprint the book. It wasn’t selling well. What did I think about retitling the book and adding a foreword as well as a section that would take the reader from reading about my story to writing about their own journey?

There is a phrase in the writing world that talks about killing your darlings. In other words, the things that you hold onto the most in writing sometimes need to be killed off, taken out, severed from the body of the book.

The title was my darling. I so wanted ‘Pakistan’ to be in the title. And it seemed to make sense that I would put faith in it. But it narrowed the focus of the book too much. The book was my journey through my developmental years in Pakistan and included so much more than Pakistan and faith. Would I be willing to kill my darling?

I would, and I did.

Just last week the book was re-released under the title Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey. I love it. I love the cover. I love the foreword by Rachel Pieh Jones, who is writing her own book to be released in 2019 by Plough Publishing. I love the ‘Mapping Your TCK Journey’ at the end, followed by book resources.

And I’m excited for this new start. You don’t always get another chance with a book, but I did with this one.

So would you give it a chance? Would you consider buying the book? I would love it if you did!

I would love to have you purchase the book! It’s on sale through Amazon and available wherever books are sold.

*Page 184 Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey


barnes and noble

amazon logo

books a million


Notable Quotes from Families in Global Transition

No pathology

We are just back from an amazing trip to visit our son in Thessaloniki, Greece, followed by a conference called Families in Global Transition that encouraged and inspired us.

My heart and brain are full. Being able to be with our son, see his surroundings, meet his friends and absorb the beauty of Thessaloniki was a gift. At one point we stood in a monastery courtyard on a hilltop overlooking the city. A peacock was in front of us, his feathers fanned in a display of turquoise glory, and I thought “I can’t believe I get to be here!” It was a moment of sheer awe and grateful delight.

We left Greece to attend the conference in The Hague, and our world quickly changed from the sun and beauty of Thessaloniki to the busy conference schedule. But this conference is like none other. It is a group of people from all over the world, their stories as varied as their nationalities and ethnicities. We talked for hours and heard fun stories, frustrating stories, and difficult stories of belonging and living where you don’t feel you belong. The conference ended with a panel discussion from millennial third culture kids, a chance to hear from those emerging voices.

I’ve gathered some quotes for you here to give you a taste of the wisdom and beauty of the conference. Some are verbatim, and some I paraphrased as I was trying to write at the same time as listening as intently as I could. Please know this is a fraction of what transpired at the conference, but it captures at least a bit of the atmosphere.

Notable Quotes:

“Equip them so that rather than blend in, they can, with humility and a touch of class, stand out”Sean Ghazi, Saturday Keynote Speaker


“If you see your parents deal with their stuff, you’ll have permission to deal with your stuff.” Solid advice for parents from millennial third culture kids.


“Name the emotion. Connect with the emotion (what does it feel like?). Choose what to do with that emotion.” Loubelle Butalid, Millennial forum


“A story is not complete until it is told; until it is heard; and until it is understood. So don’t listen just to respond – listen to understand.” Megan Norton, facilitator at Millennial forum


“We leave deposits of ourselves all over the world, and we pick them up when we return to those countries.” Sean Ghazi, Keynote Speaker


“Buying a piece of air to call my own is a big step. It’s nice actually” Kira Miller Fabregat, Millennial forum


“Everyone is feeling excluded, so our responsibility is to hold a conversation so everyone can have a voice.” Millennial forum


“Don’t leave home without a sense of humor! Culture shock is not fatal!” Robin Pascoe, first day Keynote Speaker


“It helped when my mom told me I was a TCK. I could pull it out when I needed it.” Kira Miller Fabregat, Millennial forum


“Parents of TCKs – It’s so important that you allow your children to dream their own dreams!” – Sean Ghazi, Keynote Speaker


“Our differences do not need to be barriers to connecting.” from Lightning Session


“Reconstruct your narrative – adapt your story in order to relate to your new space.” Michael Pollock, concurrent session


“But what I love most (about FIGT) is the sense of community….we are from so many different places, but we belong together.” Ruth Van Reken, Keynote Speaker


“Figure out who you are and then, go out and change the world!” Robin Pascoe, Keynote Speaker


And the one that hit me the hardest….

“In boarding school I thought I was the only one who cried when the lights went out. Finding out others cried too is life changing” Ruth Van Reken – Keynote Speaker


There are so many more rich, beautiful quotes, but this gives you a taste of the amazing voices at the conference. It also reminds me that we need to share our words, tell our stories, because when we do we find community and connection. Indeed, in our increasingly divided world, we can’t afford not to.


Note-wherever possible I have attributed the quote to the correct person, but there are a few that I jotted down so quickly that I forgot who it was. I apologize for that oversight!

Now Available and on sale today! Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey “…a must read for those wanting to build bridges.” Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, American University, Washington, D.C. 

Portions of this book were previously released under Passages Through Pakistan.

I Hate Saying Goodbye

It’s a sunny day in Thessaloniki. The sky is indescribably blue and Mount Olympus is in full view, the snow capping its peak like marshmallow fluff. From far away snow is so pretty!

I got up early, knowing that I didn’t want to be rushed, instead opting for a leisurely coffee and pastries.

We came here four all-too-short days ago. Our son has made his home here and we saw the city through his eyes and his wonderful balance of rest and visiting churches and other sites. Yesterday the city stretched in front of us with a perfect view from a monastery on the hill near the old city walls. A peacock strut around – turquoise beauty with a lot of pride. Other than me, he wasn’t getting any attention from females but it didn’t stop him from parading. Some things are just too pretty for their own good.

During our time here there was rest and coffee and visiting, followed by more rest and coffee and visiting. The pace of Greece is so welcome after Boston, with its unrelenting schedule and cold weather.

Last night we met with a group of our son’s friends, eating foods with all the flavors and drinking sweet Greek wine. Our throats were sore from the laughter and trying to shout our conversations above the noise of two other large groups and musicians singing popular Greek songs. A small opening of space was enough to get some Greek dancing going and my legs ache even as I smile with the recent memory.

But today has come, and with the sunny skies comes a goodbye. Three weeks ago I said goodbye to my mom in New York. Two weeks ago I said goodbye to our son in Los Angeles. One week ago I said goodbye to our daughter and grandson in Chicago. Today it is saying goodbye to our son in Thessaloniki.

I hate saying goodbye. I especially hate saying goodbye to my kids. I hate it. I write words and talk a good talk about all this but when it comes down to the awful truth, saying goodbye hurts the heart more than any of us can possibly describe. We can philosophize, or be practical, or spiritualize the idea of goodbyes, but it doesn’t take away that we are created for relationships, created for family. We are impermanent people created for permanence.

I’d love to offer beautiful words about goodbyes and honoring them, but right now, I think I just need to put it out there: I hate saying goodbye to my kids and those others whom I love.

Yeah – I really hate it.

You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” Frederick Buechner

An East-West Conversation

sign-1254874_1920

“So – your parents chose your husband for you.” 

The women speaking to me was not posing a question; she was making a statement. I took a breath, not sure of how to respond. No, my parents did not choose my husband. Cliff and I met in Chicago and realized after a short time that we wanted to share our lives together. We traveled to Pakistan where he could meet my parents and ask my father for his blessing. He did this on his first night in Pakistan, a country he had never visited, after going into the crowded bazaar with my father. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, I was fully at home in Pakistan and it was deeply satisfying to be back in the country introducing the one who I loved to my parents.

As I think back on the trip and the engagement, I realize how brave Cliff was; how willing he was to move into unknown territory and conquer it. Just days later we celebrated our munganee (engagement) in my parents’ yard in Shikarpur, Pakistan with Sunni, Shia, and Ahmediyya Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. There we served hot, spicy samosas and pakoras and sweet gulab jamuns and barfi. Fragrant garlands of roses and sparkly garlands of money were placed around our necks as we celebrated with a community that had hospitably welcomed my family and the entire missionary community.  It was a celebration to remember.

But I didn’t know how to relay all this to the conservative Muslim woman with whom I was speaking. We shared many similarities – but in this area, our experiences were different.

For as long as I can remember, I have analyzed and thought about both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love, marriage, and friendship. I have often felt the West displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the East, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life.

An Uncommon Correspondence is a book that is described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy, and Love”. Anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries would not only appreciate, but also inhale this book. I found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, an adult third culture kid, also a professor, who lives and works in England. The correspondence spans one year — from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations, and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered. She sees the broken pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets. In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to greatly appreciate some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stressed no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies, and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it as I would to a person.  It gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen, and felt.

When my friend asked me about who chose my husband, I hadn’t yet read this book. In retrospect I see many similarities between her experience with an arranged marriage and mine. Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey, that Cliff ask for my parents’ blessing, and that we recognize family as central to surviving and thriving in a marriage. It was also important to recognize that part of the way we show love is through commitment and sticking with a person through the awful and the beautiful.

But since that time, I’ve continued to ask these questions: Can we find a better way? Can we develop an approach to love, marriage, and intimacy that transcends both cultures? Because though my heart bends East, I think we can learn from each other.

The book  and my many conversations through the years challenge me to think deeper and wider about love and friendship across oceans and cultures. As Margaret says in the introduction, hearing a different perspective can be disturbing, but it can also be profoundly liberating.

Amphibians, Chameleons, and Cross Cultural Kids

“But those people who are fishes out of water were often the most vibrant ones in the room. I’ve begun to recognize a social type, the Amphibians — people who can thrive in radically different environments.” David Brooks “The Rise of the Amphibians”

In a recent article in the New York Times, David Brooks writes about interviewing millennials. In all of the interviews he conducted there seemed to emerge a certain type of millennial, one that he calls the “amphibian”. According to him, these amphibians look beyond surface labels and across cultural identities. They seek to understand those who think differently. Their goal is not necessarily to agree, but to find common ground in disagreement.

As I was reading I realized that this is the concept of the cross cultural kid or CCK that Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock talk about in the 3rd edition of the TCK book.

Cross cultural kids don’t necessarily grow up in a different country. Rather, they are often raised in a subculture of their passport country. So it could be the southern kid who moves to the East coast and navigates the north-south cultural tension. Or it could be the kid from Navajo nation who is daily bussed to a school off the reservation in a suburban area. It could also be a kid who is raised in a faith-based subculture and homeschooled but navigates cultural differences between her home and life in a non faith-based university. There are many examples of kids who grow up understanding and navigating cultural differences. To be sure, third culture kids are a strong subset of cross cultural kids, and the literature and research on them is invaluable, but they aren’t the only ones who navigate cultural differences.

Cross cultural kids naturally seek to see beyond divisive labels. They seek common ground and try to understand the other side, no matter what that side is. They understand that each of us has a story, and that those stories have shaped us.

They are often called chameleons and accused of not knowing who they are. But knowing who you are and obnoxiously making sure your values and views are the loudest in the room are vastly different. Living and navigating effectively across cultures takes cultural humility and the ability to listen well, something that cross cultural kids have to learn early in life.

Cross cultural kids can be active negotiators – taking both sides of a story and finding space for agreement. It can be a lonely space, but it’s a vital one.

As I think about our world today, I feel tired. The level of incivility in Western societies and the amount of cyber bullying by grown ups is appalling. If you disagree with someone who is conservative, you’re quickly termed a liberal. If you disagree with someone who is liberal, you are emphatically called intolerant. I know- because I’ve been called both. We are desperately in need of of amphibians, chameleons, and cross cultural kids. Without them, we’re in deep trouble.

“The Amphibians’ lives teach us that backgrounds are more complicated than simple class- or race-conflict stories. Their lives demonstrate that society is not a battlefield but a jungle with unexpected connections and migrations. Their lives teach that what matters is what you do with your background, the viewpoints you construct by combining viewpoints. Their lives are examples of the power of love to slice through tribal identity.”

The Rise of the Amphibians

Hanging Our Hearts Around the Globe

broken-1739185_1920

Through all the travel and all the moves, I’ve hung my heart a lot of places around the globe. But none is so special as Pakistan.

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever.”

Over the weekend we visited Pakistani friends in San Diego who are very dear to us. Rehan was my husband’s best friend during college. The friendship continued strong through marriage, kids, and now adult kids. We don’t see them often enough, but when we do it is non stop talking, eating the best Pakistani food in the world, and laughing hard. The conversation moves from one topic to the next without a gap. We interrupt each other, go off topic, and we’re loud.

It is always delightful, and this time was even more so.

Beyond the blue skies, Palm trees, and ocean was a house alive with warmth and hospitality. I didn’t want to leave. My heart was so full! Full of friendship and Pakistan; memories and curry. But too soon the visit was over and I’m now sitting back in Boston, in a house that feels cold, with a heart that aches with the leaving.

When you’ve lived across the globe, you end up sharing your heart with a lot of people. Each one of them holds a small piece that makes up the whole, rather like a mosaic with bits of colored tile that an artist fits together to create a beautiful piece.

But when you’ve left your heart in so many places, it’s also hard to come home, especially when home feels cold and lonely. Edward Said talks about exile and the “unhealable rift” between humans and their native places. My native place was Pakistan, a place far from the one marked as legal on my passport. So when I experience these times of connection, no matter how short, that unhealable rift is filled with the salve of understanding.

That’s what I feel right now as I sit on my couch. A lonely cat is cuddled as close as possible to me, willing me to never leave again. I know how she feels. I hate leaving those I love. I hate the loneliness I feel when I walk in to a cold house in a place where I have to work so hard to belong. My heart is a dead weight, my sighs fill up the silence.

Frederick Buechner says this about loss “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” I read it, but right now I’m not sure I believe it.

The thing with feelings is that they can change in an instant. So I sit with a heavy heart filled with memories of those I’ve loved around the globe. Some gone, some still present but far away. These feelings will pass, my heart will feel lighter, my memory bank fuller.

But right now, I sit, holding on to archived memories to give me strength.


* Edward Said ‘Reflections on Exile’

No Better Place Than This…

“Third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, foreigners.”

“We find each other in unlikely spaces. In the shared experience of other, we find belonging and rest, whether in a short ride to an airport or a long-distance phone conversation. These moments of connection seem to come at the right time, sustaining us until the next encounter, preventing us from falling into an abyss of self-pity and isolation.” (p. 181 of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging)

I got together with a fellow immigrant (she – a real one, me – an invisible one) the other day. Talking together was easy and natural. Oh there were plenty of missed cues, and ‘what do you mean by that?” questions, but the ease with which we communicate across those boundaries are what was so refreshing.

We were at home in the shared experience of being outsiders. We are the ones who don’t completely fit into our surroundings, but work to live well despite the poor fit. The gift of shared experience lasted for a couple of hours, and then it was time to be on our way. We left the coffee shop, bound more tightly together by our vast global network of people, places, events, and memories. We left with more stories that link us to each other and to the world.

As I walked back to my apartment, a cold rain was falling. Slush and rain puddles crept through my boots, but somehow it didn’t matter. I thought about friendship and contentment, and how long it sometimes takes to accept our reality.

It has taken me a long time to live effectively in my passport country. For so long I looked and wished for a better place. Slowly, I’ve given up a dream idea that there is a better place than right here, right now. I no longer live with unrealistic expectations and frustrations with those around me (at least not most of the time!) Instead, I’ve realized there is no better place. Right here, right now – wherever that is for any of us – is the best place.

There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven…

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

And in the “no better place than this” I will continue to meet strangers and soulmates, fellow immigrants and those who have lived here forever. I will connect immediately with some and tentatively with others, because that’s life.

And in all of this, I will learn more about loving and keeping place, and in doing so, join it to Heaven.

Normalizing Departure

train-2663056_1280

“…but we also knew what it was like to feel temporary, to keep your eye on the clock, to normalise the inevitability of departure so completely that you didn’t think about it, even though you always thought about it.”

It was six years ago when my mom told me that from age 6 through age 18 I never slept in the same bed more than three months at a time. I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but I do remember the moment she told me. It was like all the fuzzy fog of self accusation that had enveloped me suddenly changed into clear and complete understanding.

It always felt like it was my fault that I didn’t feel like I belonged. If only I tried harder. If only I reached out more. If only I wasn’t so sensitive.

If only….

But with my mom’s revelation, the “if only” suddenly became a “no wonder!” complete with all the emphasis an exclamation mark can give.

No wonder I always felt temporary.

No wonder I got restless every few months, rearranging furniture, changing pictures on the wall, looking for a new job.

No wonder I thought I could feel my inner scream of rebellion when people around me were unwilling to face change.

Our life as third culture kids had rhythms of movement. You never questioned those rhythms, they were like the seasons of the year, and you don’t question seasons of the year. Instead, you meet them and embrace them. Then, just when you’ve grown tired and have had enough of winter, you see the burst of spring through forsythia and daffodils poking through old, grey snow.

Like the seasons, arrivals and departures were normalized. We came, we left, and in between we lived. Our resilience was amazing but along the way we didn’t always face the grief that had collected, didn’t always realize that there were some coping mechanisms that would need to be confronted, things that prevented us from fully engaging in life and people around us.

Deepak Unnikrishnan, an Abu Dhabi based writer, recently wrote an article called “Abu Dhabi: the city where citizenship is not an option.” Other than airport layovers on the way to Pakistan, I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi, yet it’s been a long time since I read an article that so completely described the third culture kid experience; the normalization of movement that others find so difficult to relate to.

Like me, Deepak grew up in a place that was not his ‘passport’ country. There are no long-term options for citizenship in the United Arab Emirates, and so children like Deepak, who then become adults, know that at some point they will leave. They had to have a reason to stay.

“…at 20, with the help of a loan from my parents, I found myself leaving for the US. I don’t recall having a conversation with anyone about how I felt. My parents, like others of their generation, normalised departure. But they didn’t tell us what to do with the memories, or how to archive them.”

Deepak questions the words that are available to those of us who are trained to leave our homes behind. “Expatriate isn’t right. Neither is migrant. And guest worker just feels cold, almost euphemistic” he says.

As I think about this I realize why I continue to hold on to the identity and importance of the term “third culture kid”. Because that is the identity I believe the author is looking for. It is we who are trained to leave our homes behind. It is we who know we won’t stay, we who know we can’t stay. It is we whose memories matter so deeply, whose memories need to be archived so that we can hold on to pieces of place. It is we who continue to embrace this identity, even as we move into more permanent seasons and places in our lives.

As kids we are involuntary transients; as adults sometimes the easiest path to take is to become voluntary transients, procreating involuntary transients along the way. We continue patterns of normalizing arrivals and departures; understanding the sweetness of arrivals and the bitterness of goodbyes. We are expert packers and planners, holding our arrival and departure manifestos in our hearts and heads.

But sometimes, we need to plant our feet solidly into the soil around us and stay a little longer. Sometimes we need to realize it’s okay to write our names in the land of our passport countries, even as we hold on to archived memories to give us strength.

“For most of us, being raised as foreigners meant our stay in [insert country] was free of permanence. For some, a temporary stay meant a year or two; for others, time dragged on indefinitely, but always, always, the time would come to say goodbye. Our parents may have chosen to remain, but we would leave. We were raised to be different, we were raised knowing we wouldn’t stay, knowing that as soon as we finished school we would leave and probably not come back.” Nina Sichel in Unrooted Childhoods

A Life Overseas – “But they aren’t as smart as I am”….

map-2591759_1280

As a public health nurse working with underserved communities in Massachusetts in cancer prevention, I’ve been greatly challenged as we look at racism and inequality in communities that we serve. We are doing this because the evidence of health disparities in non-white communities is overwhelming. One of the ways to begin to address this is by seeing our programs and communities through the lens of racial equity, looking at why, historically, these communities have had worse health outcomes. Studies show that much of this is a result of prejudice and bias on the part of health care professionals; some of it conscious, but much of it unconscious.

It is hard, hard work. Like looking into a mirror and seeing the flaws on my skin, I come face to face with my own prejudices and my own wrong beliefs. I have continually had to confront my deep need for forgiveness and healing.

In every area of life, racism, prejudice, and bias exist – and that includes missions. We are an incomplete body when all we see is white leadership; when our missions conferences are overwhelmingly led by speakers who look like we do. We are a crippled group if we are only led by those who look like us, think like us, and act like us. And we are desperately in need of grace and forgiveness if we think this is okay.

In writing about racism and prejudice, I must first acknowledge my own inadequacy in talking about these things; there are far better and wiser voices, but in obedience I’m opening the door to a conversation that I pray will lead to something good. I also must admit that it is not an easy conversation to have, but it is too important to avoid.

I grew up as a privileged, little white girl in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin. 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.

As I moved on to writing Passages Through Pakistan, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land that had been colonized not many years before I came into the world.

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.”*

When I went back overseas, I was no longer a child. As an adult I had to confront some of my ugly and just plain wrong thoughts. Among them were these subtle, and deeply dangerous thoughts….


Read the rest here at A Life Overseas. 

On East and West (and In Between!)

stereotypes

A few months ago I was invited to do an interview with Orthodox Christian Network. The interview was with Father Chris Metropulos, President of Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts.

I was invited to respond to several questions about growing up in Pakistan, about living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, but mostly about some of the differences between East and West, and what building bridges might look like. Any of you who have read Communicating Across Boundaries know that this is the whole reason I began writing, so it was a gift to be able to communicate some of that verbally.

I’ve included a link to the audio of the interview, but I also wanted to write down some of what I prepared in writing to prompt me when responding on air. Building bridges, reaching across ethnic, racial, and other divides, communicating across the boundaries that divide us – these are the things that make my heart beat faster and harder. These are the things that motivate me to get up in the morning. I’d love you to listen to the interview (even if I might perhaps maybe definitely hate the sound of my voice in the audio) but if you don’t have time, here are the written responses to some of the questions that were asked


Raised in a missionary family, Marilyn Gardner spent her childhood and adolescence in Pakistan and raised her five children in Pakistan and Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works as a public health nurse with underserved immigrant communities. Marilyn is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and blogs at Communicating Across Boundaries and A Life Overseas. Her new book Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey will be released in March of this year.

What can you tell us about your book that will help us understand each other better and your journey of faith?

Worlds Apart is about 3 things that are interwoven – being a third culture kid (which essentially means being someone who was raised in a country outside of their passport country for their developmental years), Pakistan, and faith. At the beginning, it was going to be just about living between worlds, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that the other consistent thread through the book is faith.

My parents were Baptist missionaries in the country of Pakistan. They arrived in Pakistan not many years after Pakistan’s birth as a nation and thus, separation from India. They raised five children in Pakistan.  Faith was ever-present in our home through prayer, devotions, and decision-making; but it wasn’t only in our home. Equally strong faith with all around us. The call to prayer sounded five times a day, mosques were on every corner, faith was alive and well, despite different truth claims. My childhood experience with faith set the stage for later moving into the Orthodox Church.

In his poem The Ballad Of East and West, Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” What is your experience of living in the East and West? Do you see yourself and your work as a meeting place, a juncture perhaps?*

Kipling does have a great way with words, particularly when talking about East and West.

There is a cartoon that I believe captures the divide between East and West. It’s a cartoon of a fully veiled woman on the left, and a blonde woman in a bikini on the right with sunglasses on. Each of them have bubbles over their heads. The bubble over the blonde’s head is “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated society!” The veiled woman also has a bubble over her head:  “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated society” This cartoon is so accurate in showing the dangerous stereotypes that are made about both east and west. The problem of course with stereotypes, is that they put people in boxes and don’t let them out.

One of my favorite authors says this about stereotypes. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” As I speak and write, I am more and more aware of the complexity of human thought and experience, as well as the multiple perspectives that can be seen across almost any subject.  I’ve witnessed stereotypes on both sides of the globe, but the more resources we have at our disposal for learning about difference, the more culpable we are if we continue to perpetuate those stereotypes instead of confronting them for what they are.

In the last few years, my work has become a meeting place of sorts, as I have been able to do a lot of work as a public health nurse around cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community in greater Boston. This has been a gift and a connecting point between my past and my present.  But our home in Cambridge was a meeting place way before my work became one. At a recent Thanksgiving meal, our home was full of people from many different countries, and as I observed a Syrian and an Israeli communicating over tea and pie, I had a deep feeling of gratitude that our home in the United States could be a juncture for people from different places, backgrounds, and faiths to meet.

In all that I do both professionally and personally, I believe with all my heart that how we view the one who is other is an important conversation, and I love having those conversations.  The conversations come out in my writing and in my interactions with people from around the world who have made Boston and Cambridge their home.

What made you write Worlds Apart? Is this a visceral reaction to the current political climate?

I began to write Worlds Apart way before this current climate. The first bits of it were written about 8 years ago, and I remember reading a couple of them to my oldest daughter Annie, who is an excellent writer by her own right. It was Annie who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to start a blog and gave me excellent tips. So I began blogging, but in between blogging I would go back to this idea of writing a memoir about my life in Pakistan. So the fact that it has taken this long to become a book feels providential. I can’t think of a better year for this book to be released so I am thrilled.

Your love for Pakistan and its culture is something that anyone who has lived in these parts of the world can relate to, and yet there is much to be desired, that it is hard for someone who have never lived there to comprehend. As you are beautifully positioned between worlds how can you help us understand what makes us uncomfortable? Is it our way of perceiving, our own fears that prevent us from connecting?

There is a French philosopher who says the first spontaneous reaction in regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us.  Therein, I believe, is your answer. Which is why I think the Holy Scriptures are so full of verses about welcoming the stranger.

When we moved to the United States, I remember having our kids’ friends over for dinner. Often they would see foods they had never seen, much less eaten at our table. Their automatic first reaction to seeing this ‘strange’ food was immediate and strong: “Uuuuhhh! What’s that??” They would  look at a dish of spinach curry and immediately assume that this food was not as good as what they were used to. It is the French philosopher’s quote in action.  I believe strongly  that this is the very first, unfiltered version around the world when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger. Yet, more and more, encountering the stranger is part of our daily life. 

Sometimes the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable and fearful. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

But I believe with all my heart that the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different than we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The Bible is not ambiguous in its commands.

Ronald Rohlheiser is a an author who has written profoundly about ‘otherness’ in a book called Sacred Fire. He says this:

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269) 

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things. 

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

On Fear: I think safety has become something of an idol in the Western world. And I think many make too many decisions based on this. We are slaves to the images and stories we hear on the media, and if we’ve never met someone from Pakistan, or from Syria, or from Afghanistan, or Iraq or Iran, then our default is to cling to what we do know. And what we do know is fear-based. It tells a story of terrorism and Islam and chaos. Our faith must transcend this. We must ask ourselves the question “Does God really love me more than the rest of the world?” I think if we’re honest we think he does. We think we’re his favorites. But there’s no qualifying line in John 3:16. It says “For God SO loved the world.” Not for God so loved Russia. Or For God so loved Greece. Or for God so loved the United States.  It’s “the world” and I believe it’s important that we examine our hearts around who we consider to be God’s favorites.

Finally as a child of a missionary family from Pakistan, you have continued to work in the Middle East, bringing aid and working with the refugees. It seems you are in some way continuing the calling of your parents, would you agree?

You know, for a missionary kid, the word ‘calling’ is loaded. I wrote one time about  “calling” and asked the question if it’s in our DNA.  I believe that any Christian has one primary call – and that is to God and his church. Beyond that, there are all kinds of creative ways that we exercise our faith. What I do believe is that I have had wonderful, and often unique, opportunities both internationally and in the United States to interact with people who don’t share the same faith, culture, or truth claims that I do. I am grateful that I have had the opportunities to move forward in relationship with many of these people. I don’t know if that’s calling, but it is responding to opportunities that I have been invited into.

What would you wish to see happening as a result of the publication of your book?

Obviously, I would love it if people read it and the journey of faith resonates with them. I would love for the book to bring honor to Pakistan and the minority Christian community there. I would love for it to be a book that is a bridge-builder, for people who would never pick up a book about Pakistan to pick it up. But I can’t count on any of this. I just know that in God’s incredible grace, he allowed me to begin writing and gave me words that were well-received by others. And so ultimately, I want this to bring honor to God.

If there is purpose to our lives, what would that be?

I think if every day we know God a little more than the day before and translate that into loving people a fraction more every day, then that’s enough. And that really is possible. I guess if pressed,  I want my gravestone to say “She loved God and she loved people.”


*When I sent the audio link to my brothers, my brother Stan responded with this important caveat:

BTW, the quote from Kipling often (usually?) omits the last lines at the end of the poem: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat. But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”  Kipling has very often been accused of being a bigoted colonialist. In fact, when read fully, Kipling is exactly the opposite and gives dignity to every character except those on all sides who are indeed the bigots.


NOTE: This piece has been edited to reflect the new title and re-release of Passages through Pakistan to Worlds Apart:A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Audio Interview: On Understanding the Differences Between East and West – Marilyn Gardner

 

Christmas on Beacon Hill

img_3706
Photo Credit: Suzana Alves

Just a short walk from my workplace is Beacon Hill, a historic Boston neighborhood with narrow brick streets, antique gas-lit lamps, and row houses. Beacon Hill is beautiful and quintessentially Boston. Visitors from around the world walk through the streets, finally making their way back to the red-bricked Freedom Trail that winds through the city and highlights famous places and events.

At Christmas time, Beacon Hill is a local favorite where twinkling white lights beckon and classy green wreaths with gigantic red bows adorn doorways. Beacon Hill is an expensive area of the city to live, but there is no cost to walk through it and dream. It represents a fairy tale sort of Christmas and leaves one with starry-eyed longing for a past that never was.

My childhood was lived on the other side of the world from Beacon Hill and yet, one of my favorite childhood Christmas stories was a story from Childcraft called “Christmas on Beacon Hill”. I remember only vague details of snow, lampposts casting shadows on streets, large bay windows in a Beacon Hill home, and a little boy named Benjy. In the story, I think he wore knickers.

My mom would read us the story as we lounged on couches and chairs in the southern area of Pakistan, where our reality was worlds apart from the story’s setting.

We had sunny Christmases with Poinsettia blooming bright in the winter desert. The sounds of ox carts and camels replaced any sleigh bells and instead of church bells we had the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our Christmas trees were sharp Palm fronds stuck into a clay container, homemade and heirloom ornaments hanging precariously on the dusty palms. Christmas carols would play from an old cassette tape or a turntable in the corner; songs that we knew by heart, even if our surroundings had no white winter wonderland. Even if white Christmases were only in our dreams.

On Christmas eve, carolers from the local church would come at midnight and the strong voices of people joyously belting out Joy to the World in Urdu still stays in my memory.

Despite this, when we would sit down with hot cocoa at the end of the day and listen to my mom reading, I was drawn to this faraway place called Beacon Hill, where brownstone brick houses sat side by side, and snow fell on Christmas day.

My mom’s words brought me in to a distant world, covering me like a thick blanket with longing for something I had never known. She knew about Beacon Hill and snow sparkling on sunny, winter mornings. She knew about sleigh bells and bay windows, about Christmas holly and snowmen. There must have been times when New England winter memories held deep, unspeakable longing. She passed on these treasures through reading, through the tone of her voice, through her love for place.

Some traditions are not portable, and to try to replicate them will only frustrate and cause more longing. Other traditions can be transported across oceans and cities. Mom discovered that reading is a portable tradition. Reading can bring us into worlds and places that we have never seen. We walk on streets we have never traveled; we enter doorways of houses where we have never laid our heads; we laugh with people who don’t exist. Sometimes we even grow up to live in places that we only knew in books.

It is now many years later and every day I walk close to Beacon Hill, close to those row houses with their beautiful wreaths on the doors. And at Christmas time I think about that story read to me so many years ago, and I miss that brown desert world where Poinsettia bloomed bright. I miss that home a world away where a mom from New England raised five kids to live between.

”I’m not from here…wherever ‘here’ is.”

Not from here

I’m from the edges of the map
the edges of the Pacific

I’m from the edges of the room
the outside looking in

I’m from Southeast Asia
unless you mean my nationality

I’m from the U.S.
unless you mean where my heart is

I’m not from here
wherever “here” is

by Cindy Montgomery Wyneken


A few months ago. I was with a group of global nomads and the “I’m From” poem exercise came up as an activity to do with students, third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, expats and all those who live between. We talked about using words to explore the complexity of our journey. These “I’m From” poems become mini memoirs telling a part of our story that otherwise remains hidden.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, holidays were the times when I struggled the most. The “Who am I?” and “Where am I from?” questions became much more acute.  I’m not in the same place anymore, but I remember well what it was to be in that space.

If you are around third culture kids, global nomads, or cross-cultural kids during this holiday season, it may be good to be aware that this is not an easy season for those struggling with identity. The families and communities that we create when we are away from our passport countries are close and unique, borne of mutual need and shared understanding. Our extended biological families do not always have the same intense connections. Auntie Anne may be wonderful and warm, but may not have much understanding of where the third culture kid is coming from both physically and ideologically.

These “I’m From” poems are a window into the world of those who may look like you on the outside, but have had a vastly different life experience because of where they were raised. These poems express in writing what can be so hard to articulate verbally.


If you are one who opens your home to these kids and adults, Taylor Murray at the blog A Life Overseas has some suggestions of questions to ask that may help you communicate and connect.  She divides the questions into “Church-Lobby Questions” and “Coffee Shop Questions”.  Taylor says this about connecting with third culture kids:

Most MKs/TCKs are asked hundreds of questions during their families’ home assignments. Ironically, many of us leave our passport countries feeling unknown. In all honesty, we usually don’t answer questions well. Our fumbling answers can create distance.  Many times we feel as though these questions are asked politely, without time or desire to listen to our answers. In order to avoid awkwardness or unintentional hurt, TCKs can detach and dispel memorized responses.

This makes it difficult for those who truly want to connect. Have you ever longed to know a TCK, but don’t know how to reach his or her heart?  Have you sensed that we struggle to respond to your questions, but don’t know what else to ask? As an MK/TCK, I’ve learned that certain questions can unlock the heart.**

These questions can be a way to bridge gaps of understanding and help connect the third culture kid to others in the room.

I have my own favorite questions adapted from Taylor’s piece:

  1. What is one of the funniest things that happened to you in your host country?
  2. Where do you feel most at home?
  3. What are some impressions that people from your host country have of your passport country?
  4. Can you tell me a bit about the political situation in your host country?
  5. What have some of the biggest surprises been about living in your passport country? Challenges?
  6. What are some of the things you had to leave behind?

*Recently, the “I’m From” poem that Adelaide Bliss wrote three years ago resurfaced on the blog. A new reader found it and, inspired, wrote her own “I’m From” poem.

**I have changed Taylor’s response to include TCK, not just MK (Missionary Kid).

 

Death, Loss, and TCK Grief

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, but securely anchored. As I stood there, a scarf wrapped around my neck shielding me from a chill wind, I thought about the last couple of weeks.

Loss is a curious thing. You lose someone, and suddenly all the unrelated losses in your life seem to merge together and attack you like a virus. Grief is similar. When you open your heart to grief instead of pushing it to the back of your heart until a convenient time, you open yourself to other seemingly non-related grief.

Many of you know that I recently lost my dad. As I’ve allowed myself to feel, I have opened the door to memories of other times of grieving and other grief patterns that are seemingly unrelated.

But grief is grief, and loss is loss. They connect together like a dot to dot child’s book, creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.

About 11 years ago in Phoenix, we sold our house. The house was not that special in terms of its design and build, but there was something about it that grabbed my heart. There was something about the large yard that swept out to the open sky, nothing but the Gila River Indian Reservation behind us. There were sunsets every night that bathed the sky with unimaginable colors – red, fuchsia, orange, yellow, chartreuse – and so many that I couldn’t possibly name them. An archway at the back of the yard led to a seating area and a bee-hive shaped fireplace. We could sit for hours in that area, just talking, listening to one of our kids play guitar, relaxing under the desert sky.

I would sit with morning coffee on the patio watching humming birds, marveling at the energy that their tiny bodies could produce.

While the sale of the house was still pending, we had some work being done. I would go over to the house while contractors worked their magic to repair and update doors, floors, and counters.

At this point, we were moved in to our new house – a lovely home less than two miles away. There was no logical reason to feel sad, no logical reason to grieve.

But sitting in that house under a whirring fan, listening to the rhythmic hammer of skilled workmen; sitting on the patio and looking out to the desert plants, I began to grieve in a way that I had never grieved before. Seemingly unrelated events and losses of people attached themselves to this thing called grief. It could have become a monster that controlled me, but instead, in that desert home, where citrus trees and Bougainvillea brought brilliant color to dusty brown, I let it go.

I grieved like I’ve never grieved before.

I grieved leaving home and going to boarding for the first time. I grieved saying goodbye to best friends. I grieved the end of first love, a childhood grief made more poignant by the unresolved grief before. I grieved leaving Pakistan, with an ache in my throat and stomach, with tears caught in that place where they can’t be released. I grieved leaving Egypt, my ‘adult love.’ And added to that grief, I grieved the loss of the Middle East studies program my husband had sweated blood to begin. I grieved the realization that I may never live overseas again, an ache in my bones.

And in that house in Phoenix, that nothing-special-track-home with its beautiful yard, all these griefs flowed together, wave upon wave, memory upon memory, feeling upon feeling, stirred up and churned up like a dust storm that must run its course. And when the storm has passed, dust leaves behind its grit and its taste on every surface.

I don’t know why it surfaced at that time in that way. It seemed to make no sense. Perhaps I was allowing myself to grieve in a way that I had previously been unable. I’ll never know. I stopped trying to analyze. I let the grief flow. Like allowing nausea to run its course without interference from pills and cures, I found that with the grief came comfort. No human caught my tears. No flesh and blood comforted me, only God, in the sounds of a whirring fan and in words committed to memory:

Oh my God you search and you know me,

you know when I sit, you know where I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar…

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.*

Then the work was over. The house sold. It belonged to someone else. Too soon, I thought. I had more griefs to name, more sadness to resolve.

According to the conventional wisdom, third culture kids suffer from unresolved grief. Hidden grief, the experts say, is a significant struggle for us. I don’t know. I have done no research. I only have my own experience.

But I did find, alone in an empty track home, solace in naming my grief, and comfort in verses that had rooted their way into my heart. And God, whispering comfort in the sound of a whirring fan, met me.**

The grief and loss dots are connecting again with my dad’s death. The picture is bigger than his death, it encompasses far more loss. But I’m not afraid to face it, because the monster created by unresolved grief is far worse than grieving.  And next to the grief is life in all its joy and sadness, waiting to be lived.

In the words of Frederick Buechner: ”

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”


*Psalm 139

**Short excerpt from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

Masala Dhaba Memories


Sights, sounds, and smells can transport us to places we love in mere seconds.  I hear the Call to Prayer and suddenly I am in Pakistan, walking the dusty streets of Shikarpur. I smell curry and shut my eyes – I could swear I am at the Marhaba in Murree. But I’m not, I’m in Central Square, the fragrant smells of the Indian restaurant wafting across the street luring me back to my childhood and begging me to enter. 

The imagination is a wonderful, terrible thing. 

In the novel Anything Considered Peter Mayle takes his character back in time through his sense of smell:

Memories often return through the nose. As he inhaled the odor of sanctity, a blend of ancient dust, mildewed prayer books, and crumbling stone, Bennett was taken back instantly and vividly to his school days.”

Last night I refilled my masala dhaba, My masala dhaba is a spice box that my husband gave me seven years ago. It was one of the loveliest Christmas presents that I have ever received. Yesterday, as I took spices out of their boxes and bags and put them into my masala dhaba, I was like the character in Mayle’s book: vividly transported back to my childhood.  

I wrote the piece below after I had received the gift and I offer it today – a tribute to spice, color, and memories. 


For years I have kept my Pakistani spices in a large Tupperware bowl with a red lid. The kind that you use to bring the gargantuan pasta salad (that no one will eat) to a potluck dinner. The lid is sticky with the years that the bowl has held spices and (sometimes) dust. Christmas 2010 I received a proper spice box as a gift. Not a western spice rack, but a genuine masala dhaba (spice box) of stainless steel.

Yesterday, while making a chicken curry, I transferred the spices from the Tupperware to the masala dhaba. It was like someone had told me I had won the lottery. I can’t stop looking at it.

It is shiny and beautiful, full of the colors of Pakistan – yellow/orange turmeric, red pepper, black pepper, red/orange masala spice, light brown coriander, darker brown garam masala, and to add a Middle Eastern flare – green/brown zahtar.

The spices sit like contented children in a circle, satisfied in their round stainless steel bowls. A small spice spoon pokes out of the bright orange-yellow turmeric in the center. The lid is see-through so the colors are visible even as the spices keep fresh. It is magnificent.

These are the things I love about where I was raised. The simplicity of colorful spices, the feel of a dupatta over my shoulders as I wear a colorful, silk shalwar kameez; the smell of curry cooking, and anticipation of hot naan and samosas to come; the glitter of bright-colored bangles in a shop at the local bazaar. 

I love being able to duplicate these small things even as I look outside and hear the sounds of my current reality. Sounds that make me feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as she realizes she is not in Kansas anymore. 


Living Between Worlds

tck journey 2

ReadersThird Culture Kids 3rd Edition Growing up Among Worlds came out yesterday! I couldn’t be happier about this new edition and the emphasis on today’s TCK that includes information on technology, cultural complexity, and more information for educators and those that work with TCKs. In honor of this new release I am reposting a piece that I wrote three years ago for A Life Overseas. Enjoy and take a look at the new edition of what we term the TCK “Bible”.


For as long as I can remember I have lived between worlds.

My first memories of life are from a rooftop in the southern area of Pakistan. The high, flat roof surrounded by walls was a perfect place to keep cool when the hot months came in early May. We slept on rope beds covered in mosquito netting able to feel an almost cool breeze after sundown.

Mosques surrounded our house on all four sides, their minarets stately and tall against the desert sky. While on the inside prayer times and Bibles sustained us, on the outside we were minorities in a Muslim world where the call to prayer echoed out over the city five times a day and ordered the lives of all those around us.

When you grow up between worlds the research on identity formation does not apply in quite the same way. Instead, you move back and forth as one 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).

 There is now documented research that identifies some of the strengths and weaknesses that are part of growing up between worlds.

Here are some of the strengths that the third culture kid develops through living between worlds:

Cross-cultural skills

From their early years, third culture kids interact and enjoy ‘difference.’  They often take on various characteristics from the cultures where they have lived. They don’t see difference as good or bad – just different. This gives them a huge advantage in our global world. To be able to interact across cultural values and differences is a gift that is inherent to who they are.

Adaptability

Third culture kids show amazing ability to adapt across cultures. They are as comfortable in a crowded bazaar in a large city in Asia as they are in a pub in England. They blend with seeming ease into whatever setting they are thrown into – as long as it is outside their passport country!

Maturity

Often third culture kids are seen as more mature than their counterparts in their passport countries. They easily interact with adults two and three times their age and can see things from a more mature perspective.

Global view of the world

The worldview of the third culture kid is broad and wide. They often look around a room and think – “am I the only one who sees things this way?” People, governments, cultures, and countries all over the world have shaped them and it is impossible for them to have a one-dimensional worldview.

 Flexibility

The third culture kid has learned how to be flexible and adjust their behavior to fit the situation. This flexibility can be a tremendous gift, particularly in rapidly changing situations.

Bridge-builders

Third culture kids are natural bridge builders. They are often able to see both sides of a situation and help to negotiate a successful outcome or interaction. This is an invaluable skill set and they often look for jobs that will allow them to function in this role.

With every strength comes a weakness and the successful third culture kid learns to recognize their weaknesses.

Some of those include: 

Insecurity

There can be profound feelings of insecurity related to one’s passport culture. The sense of not belonging can come in unexpected places and spaces and result in precarious footing – like you’re on a cliff and one step in the wrong direction could send you hurtling into a place where you will get badly injured. Food, dress, cultural do’s and don’ts can all feel foreign, and with that cause a distrust of one’s ability to navigate

Unresolved grief and loss           

Dave Pollock articulated the profound grief and loss piece of a third culture upbringing in this statement: “Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.”There is so much more to say about this, but just know that this grief is real, the losses are real, and with real grief and loss comes the need for real healing.

Arrogance

Arrogance is often insecurity by another name. When the third culture kid feels ‘other’ they resort to coping mechanisms. This can come off as profound arrogance and result in exactly the opposite of what they really want – cause further alienation and feelings of being ‘other’ when what is longed for is connection and understanding.This can turn into a vicious cycle for the TCK and needs to be addressed for what it is – a deep insecurity with who they are within the context of their passport culture.

Difficulty planting roots

When your roots are everywhere, they can feel like they are nowhere. When the third culture kid tries to transition from a global background to a life of less movement it can be unsettling. As much as they may say they want roots, the tug of the airport, the feel of the airplane, the sense of hopeful expectation that comes from travel has been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember. Releasing this and exchanging it for roots is a huge step, and not one that is made easily.

While this is in no way an exhaustive list, it is a good start to recognizing strengths and weaknesses. When we name something, we have more power over it. When I name insecurity, I can address it for what it is. When I admit to grief and loss, I can begin to heal.

So how can you help your third culture kid as they live between worlds? The one you love more than life itself, the one who you’ve heard crying into the night, even as you face your own losses? Much has been written on this and there are some excellent resources available. But here are a couple of thoughts that have recently come up in conversation with other third culture kids. 

Here is what helped me – perhaps it will help the kids you know who are living between worlds. 

Name the losses

Naming the losses, identifying those things they long and grieve for legitimizes their grief. They no longer have to keep these feelings bottled up, dismissing them as unimportant. Naming their losses helps them face and deal with those losses. Naming them begins the important process of healing. Naming the losses can feel disloyal for a third culture kid, particularly if they have a good relationship with their parents. They don’t want to appear ungrateful or hurt their mom and dad. Because of this, it is often best done with a neutral person, one who will not feel hurt by this process.

Express feelings of restlessness

The third culture kid needs to be able to express their restlessness without parents or other loved ones becoming defensive and telling them how lucky they are to be where they are, to have the background they have had. The TCK experience is best captured by the word “Saudade”a Portuguese word that has no English equivalent. It is an indolent wistfulness for what no longer exists.  “Killing the Saudade” (Another Portuguese phrase) happens when they can get together with like-minded friends and express their restlessness, talk about home or the last place they lived, eat familiar foods, and reconnect with those from their past. Killing the saudade really works. It is an effective tool to address the restlessness and move forward in the places where we are planted.

Journal life events

Some of the fears of the third culture kid is that they will forget; that these places that hold such a big part of their heart and soul will be relegated to distant memories, and soon be gone. Journaling these events, even if they happened long ago, helps to remind the TCK of the gift of a global upbringing. Journaling can help the TCK process thoughts and memories.

Tell their story

As parents, it is easy for us to want to tell the story – but our kids have a story as well, and it is vital that they learn to tell it, that they own their story. If we are the ones hijacking the story, they never learn to take hold of it as their own. Part of their story is connecting their multicultural past to a meaningful present. We can’t do it for them, but we can encourage them along the way, encourage them to develop their own voices, separate from those of parents and siblings, remind them of who they are through their story. When they learn to tell their stories, they are better able to hear the stories of others, to recognize that everyone has a story. 

It is these things that have led me to tell my own story, to write, to reflect, to describe – “my memory may be biased, or relayed in a way that my mom would say ‘that’s not quite the way it happened,’ but it is inalienably mine.”*

“In Exodus God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember their story, to remember their beginning, to remember who they are. Later, exiled in Babylon, unable to return home, they were to remember their stories – stories of wonder and deliverance, of the power of God and His provision. They were to remember their beginnings.” from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging, July 1st, 2014 Doorlight Publications.


Books on Third Culture Kids:

  • Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition Growing Up Among Worlds “Growing up as a TCK has been a gift and has significantly shaped my life and work. As I interact with world leaders one day and with those living in refugee camps the next, I continually draw upon my experience of living among different cultures. I am delighted to see the lessons learned from the traditional TCK experience live on in this new edition of ‘Third Culture Kids’.”―Scott Gration, Maj Gen, USAF (Ret), President Obama’s Special Envoy to Sudan
  • Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. The book is a set of essays on living between and is divided into 7 sections: Home, Identity, Belonging, Airports, Grief & Loss, Culture Clash, and Goodbyes set the stage for individual essays within each section.
  • Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey. A personal journey on Pakistan, belonging, and faith that may resonate with others who have lived between.

My prayer is that somehow, by the grace of God, these books will resonate with others who are living a life between worlds,  so that others can remember their story and know it was worth it.

*From Kebabs in Jalalabad in Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging