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

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


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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