A Brief Reflection on Airports and Life


I am bleary-eyed at the Orlando airport. There’s a reason why the infamous “they” tell you to get to the airport early – long security lines extended far into the lounge area. We sighed as we inched our way through, a bright green electronic sign informing us that the process would take 35 to 45 minutes. 

Earlier we dropped off a rental car. As I handed the gentleman the keys, he asked me if I was Parisienne. I smiled “no” pause “but is that a compliment?”  “Oh yes!” He replied. My children laugh at me as the glow of an early morning compliment radiates off my 57 year old non-Parisienne skin. 

And then we trudge our sleepy way to security. Unfortunately, the compliment did nothing for a bad hip, so my ego has been kept in check. 

A busy, international airport is an odd way to end a family funeral. You go from familiar to anonymous; from engaged in conversation to people-watching; from significant to one more passenger in an enormous travel machine.

Yet somehow it works. It’s a bridge between worlds, and I am not expected to communicate on this bridge. I simply cross it. 

Death and funerals are a pause in life’s paragraph. A pause before continuing into more sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. They are an important pause, sometimes changing the rest of the story. Many resolutions based on the brevity of life have happened at the death of a loved one. 

Many would voice sadness over this – the question of why it takes something as permanent as death to make us pause and reflect. I think it is a gift. We are usually far too busy with the ordinary to realize that perhaps change is in order. But then, in the middle of the ordinary, the everyday chores stop so that we can remember a life, and in remembering reflect on our own. 

So in this airport moment between worlds, I stop. I pause. I pray. 

I thank God for the gift of life, and the gift of death – the circle of a broken world on a journey to redemption. 

The moment passes, the flight is ready to board. We are on our way home. 

Moving Manifesto

Note: This essay is from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging available here.

April is the time when it hits many people that their reality is changing and a move is inevitable. This post is dedicated to all those who will be moving in the next 3 months.

  • Be ruthless – check
  • Don’t go into memory mode – check
  • Keep on telling yourself  “it’s just a ___________(fill in the blank), I don’t need to feel that attached to it”- check
  • Bite back your tears – check
  • Remind yourself that your life is exciting, that others should be as lucky as you – check
  • Try not to listen when friends begin talking about an event that is coming in the future, after you’re gone – check
  • Tell your kids numerous times that they will get to have a ‘new room’ and ‘new friends’ where you’re going “Isn’t that so exciting?!” – check

This is the Moving Manifesto. As days fill with parties and packing, numerous goodbyes, short tempers, unexpected tears in public and private places, we who have traveled this road many times must remember this manifesto. We are comrades of sorts, travelling a path not everybody travels, loyal to each other and to change, unable to explain to people that though we cry now, we really wouldn’t trade our lives. But we need to express those deep feelings of loss and grief in order to do what we do, and do it well.

We go into auto-mode once it becomes inevitable that the packing must be done. Until then, there is a part of us that pretends life will always be as it is ‘right now’. Occasionally doing things like purchasing items for our current reality, almost as a talisman against what’s coming, or a nesting despite knowing that very soon the nest will be knocked from the tree and it will take a while to rebuild. We are well aware that some of our current relationships will survive the move, and others won’t – everybody doesn’t have the capacity to withstand distance and change in friendship. We won’t hold that against people in any way, but part of the manifesto is that we are allowed to feel sad.

We are well aware that some of our current relationships will survive the move, and others won’t – everybody doesn’t have the capacity to withstand distance and change in friendship.

And all too soon, that final party will come. We will be the life of that party as we retell stories with our old friends. We won’t admit to ourselves that they were not part of our lives 3, 4, or 5 years before – because that would give in to the idea that it’s ok that we are moving, and right now it’s not ok.

As the day arrives, the manifesto becomes more important for part of this process is frustration with our current situation. If we can be mad at ‘right now’ our future looks much easier and brighter. So everything that can possibly go wrong often does just that. The moving truck doesn’t have a permit, the moving people break your favorite clock, your best friend has an emergency and is not there to help, your other friends show up like Jobs friends, telling you everything you’re doing wrong, and your kids? They realize this is a reality, suddenly recognizing they are displaced people, and the tears are unstoppable. Hours later, final goodbyes are said with sinking a feeling in your chest, and a catch in your voice. As you drive away – you don’t look back. You fear you will, like Lot’s wife in the Biblical account, turn to stone and you don’t want that.

Despite this, you survive.

Two days and hours of jet lag later you’re in your new location, figuring out how to make it a home. It all feels like a whirlwind and dream – neighbors or other expatriates have looked curiously at your family, trying to assess your kids ages, and one conversation has already felt promising.

Time to bring out “Settling and Surviving: The Arrival Manifesto”.

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Traveling Mercies

When I was a kid there was a prayer we prayed every time we set out on a trip, which was often. My childhood was marked by travel and transition so you can know that we prayed this prayer frequently. Every trip was prefaced with a prayer that included a little request for “traveling mercies”.

Two weeks ago I was on my way to Thailand. As I buckled my seatbelt, and ensured my seat back was in its upright position and my tray table was closed and locked, my carry-on stowed under the seat in front of me, this prayer came to me. The words, “traveling mercies”, surfaced in my prayer. I smiled at the habituated prayer that had come to me from the faraway places of my mind but then I began to muse about its meaning.

Certainly this is a prayer for safety. It’s a prayer for protection. Travel has its risks. I think it might also be a plea for ease. Heaven knows travel can be rigorous and exhausting.

In the Dallas airport, on my first brief lay over, I met three Bangladeshis in the magazine kiosk who spoke Hindi. I sat next to a Pakistani woman explaining to her husband, left behind and suddenly hungry, how to make chicken curry in the pressure cooker. I watched two little girls playing with each other, in and out and around their daddy’s legs. In Houston across the darkened departure lounge I caught sight of a little girl’s mime show for her parents when she thought no one else was watching. Sitting just across from me two bedraggled parents kept trying to hide their toddler’s pacifier. The dad, with a wink at me, slid it behind his back to his wife, and then quietly explained that they didn’t want him to fall asleep until they were on board. I smiled understandably. The little person was agitated and outspoken about it! He fussed and fretted. He wanted his pacifier. When the dad left to use the restroom, the mom sheepishly smiled at me, pulled it out from her bag and I got another conspiratorial wink. That time I burst out laughing.

A well-wishing text message from a friend, a kind word from a fellow passenger as we went through security, a timely bus to take me to the next terminal, a good cup of coffee, a bird flying through the terminal to the delight of passengers old and young, a pleasant seatmate, earplugs, a kind flight attendant these are all mercies. When a connection is made, luggage is found, your debit card works; when you happen upon mango sticky rice in the airport food court, when you find the bus that promises to take you south to Dolphin Bay, when you manage to sleep some, when there’s someone to meet you with a taxi at the other end—these are all undeserved delights. This is the stuff of traveling mercies.

Today we are embarking on a collective journey. The destination is unknown. We’re being told that we’re heading in one direction, but I for one, don’t trust the man in the cockpit. There aren’t enough seat belts to go around. I’m nervous and more than a little anxious. Not all the passengers understand the situation. There is bickering and battling in the economy seats. Business class and First Class have seemingly inserted their earplugs and put on their eye patches. Those seated in emergency exit rows don’t know what they’re doing, some of them have admitted such but they’re still being asked to sit there. Already I’m feeling nauseous from motion sickness and really we haven’t started moving yet. Turbulence is ahead. It’s going to be a long flight.

I woke up this morning in a dense fog. It was dark outside and I wondered if the sun would shine today. Knowing the trip ahead, I breathed in and out, and prayed for traveling mercies.

Lord, protect us, deliver us, bring us safely to the other side. We ask humbly for traveling mercies. Let us see you at work. Give us eyes to recognize the little gifts.

Help us to bravely stand up for those whose travel documents are in question.

Give us grace to serve our fellow passengers. Help us to be nice to each other. Grant us strength to do all the good we can en route.

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breath. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination.

But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.

Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Oh Canada

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Today I’m boarding a plane and going home. While the Canada Goose is turning her beak to the south, I’m turning mine to the north. I’m off to Canada!

Canada is where my story started. There’s a warm and weird nostalgia that comes over me when I think about Canada and all things Canadian: Coffee Crisp chocolate bars, Shreddies cereal, Swedish fish, Tim Hortons coffee and donuts, Canadian Tire, London Drugs, Cheez Whiz, Nanaimo bars, Nuts and Bolts, Aero chocolate, homo milk, Beaver Tails, poutine, ordering French fries with a side of gravy, Kraft Dinner, the loonie and the twoonie, the Canadian flag, klicks.

I suppose my attachment to the Great White North is a little suspect. I’ve really only lived 15 of my 46 years there. But Canada served as a pivot place for my childhood. Although we left when I was 8 years old, Canada was where we always went back to. Canada housed my grandparents, most of our aunts and uncles, our cousins. Canada was the place of my parent’s childhoods, their stories, their romance and marriage.

Later, when mom and dad were back from Pakistan, Lowell and I would marry in a tiny church in a small town on the vast Canadian prairies. We honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies between Banff and Lake Louise. Come to think of it, those months leading up to our wedding was really the last time I lived in Canada. We’ve been married 22 years ago. That’s a very long time ago.

Although I self-identify as Canadian, and have a Canadian passport to prove it, I’m quite likely the most unCanadian Canadian you’ll ever meet. My connections are weak at best, based largely on sentiment and maple syrup. I know very little about Canadian history or folklore. Canadian politics still perplex me on occasion. I’m hardly fluent in the Canadian vernacular. My vowels are now too relaxed, my consonants too indistinct, my syllables too lazy. When I talk no one suspects that I’m from north of the 49th parallel.

I know it makes no sense but I suppose this is the crux of the TCK tale. There’s no accounting for how and when the heart feels momentarily at home. The math doesn’t make sense. Only 1/3 of my life has been lived in the True North strong and free. On the other hand I’ve lived 22 years in Pakistan and India. Only nine years have been spent here among the sunflowers in Kansas.

And yet Canada still represents something to my soul that really defies logic. For reasons I can’t explain there’s a part of me that still sighs with relief when I enter her borders. I exhale and relax just a little bit more when I arrive. This time tomorrow morning I’ll be sipping tea at my parent’s dining room table. I’ll take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ll set down my foreignness for a bit. I’ll be among my people and somehow that brings me a measure of consolation.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.

Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.

How dear to us thy broad domain,

From East to Western sea.

Thou land of hope for all who toil!

Thou True North, strong and free!

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies

May stalwart sons, and gentle maidens rise,

To keep thee steadfast through the years

From East to Western sea.

Our own beloved native land!

Our True North, strong and free!

 

Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer,

Hold our Dominion in thy loving care;

Help us to find, O God, in thee

A lasting, rich reward,

As waiting for the better Day,

We ever stand on guard.

Here’s to the Lonely Ones 


Here’s to the lonely ones, sitting at airports on Sunday nights.

Here’s to the tired ones, weary of travel and goodbyes, idly eating granola bars and sipping coffee from styrofoam cups.

Here’s to the mom, traveling with kids, weary of meeting the needs of little ones who are out of their habitat.

Here’s to the students, in that weird space between childhood and adulthood, carrying Apple computers purchased from graduation money.

Here’s to the immigrant family,  a long way from home, juggling as much hand luggage as possible as they wearily look at an airport monitor flickering out their flight delay in white digital letters.

Here’s to the grandparents heading home after visiting with a future generation of sweet and soft baby smell. A new generation who doesn’t yet know they exist, but will miss them long after they are gone.

Here’s to the third culure kid – who has said far too many goodbyes. Here’s to the refugee who carries their pain in their body. Here’s to the expat who is moving on to their next post with the fresh memories of their last home like an open grave receiving a coffin.

Here’s to Arabic and Hindi; Swahili and French; German and English; Chinese and Spanish; Portuguese and Farsi – and every other language of the heart that at times must be hidden in new places and spaces, but in the airport is completely at home.

Here’s to the singles and the couples; the black and the white; the discouraged and the lonely; the arguing one and the laughing one —  with more in common in life’s journey than any of us can possibly know.

Here’s to my fellow travelers, sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights in the chaos of modern day travel. May you have safe journeys and traveling mercies.  May God keep you in the palm of his hand and may you know his grace.

A Short Correspondence on the Issue of Feeling Trapped

Dear Robynn,

I enjoyed your “Friday’s with Robynn” post (A Hidden Pearl. January 29,2016). It really resonated with me, so thank you for posting it. It was very thought provoking for me.

Earlier this year I experienced a very similar feeling to the one you had having returned from Thailand. My friends and I arrived back from India on January 5th. But my first day of work felt so meaningless. I sat behind my desk and stared at my computer thinking, “who care’s about organizing this stuff….!?!” It felt so pointless and so mundane. And it took me a long time to get back into the swing of things and be motivated again.

It brings back fears I have of being trapped and not being able to move and travel or something. But at the same time I wonder what is it that I hope to find overseas that I cannot find here? Being in India this Christmas was fantastic, but it showed me that even if I was to move back it would not be the same as all the memories I cherish and the experiences I wish to recreate there. As a TCK am I cursed to always be discontent where I am living? Am I always going to be trying to re-establish what I lost? It scares me.

I found that book you lent me very challenging; The Wisdom of Stability, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I love the idea of building that strong community with the people around me and knowing a place and its people intimately, but putting down roots and making that decision that this is where I will live and work and help to build the Lord’s kingdom is terrifying.

Thinking of the Pearl of Great Price is comforting in the midst of all this going on in my head and in my heart. Jesus is here in America just as much as He is in India and Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter. I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment. I need to move away from this idea that I will find peace in any country of this world and move toward knowing I will find peace in the One who created this world.

I think its high time I started to search for this Pearl! And like you said, that hunt for Him will never disappoint!

Dear Young Third Culture Adult,

Thank you again for reading what I write! And thanks for so honestly interacting with it too. I love your heart.

I can so relate to the fears you’ve articulated. I still fear being stuck more than anything. Sometimes when I think about the decision we made to stay here in Kansas I feel a sense of panic begin to creep up from my toes. The idea that we are trapped here, in this house, in this city, in this country freaks me out. I have to constantly present my heart to Jesus asking for daily grace and new mercies.

I think I probably told you this story already…but when my husband Lowell and I decided to buy the little blue house on Colorado Street I resisted. I was anxious to move out of the trailer court only because I really wanted a basement here in Tornado Town. But the idea of BUYING felt so permanent and so forever and so stocks and barrels like. I felt claustrophobic. It stirred up anxiety in me. After we had put our signature on hundreds of papers, initialed countless more and signed our souls over to the bank Lowell and I went out for lunch. Most couples, I imagine, celebrate the purchase of their first home. For me it was a bittersweet time. I cried, wet, salty tears. I’ll never forget Lowell’s response. He put his hand across the table and gently took up my shaky hand. He looked me in the eyes and said what I longed to hear. This doesn’t mean anything. We are not stuck here. If Jesus calls us to Mongolia tomorrow we’ll sell the house. This is not a big deal. There was such reassurance in those words. I felt such relief.

You are not trapped. You are not stuck. I think the enemy of our souls piggybacks on this issue for the Adult TCK. He wants you to think you are stuck. He wants you to feel that a life in your passport country is a purposeless life. Whatever he can do to undermine your sense of worth and calling and purpose He will do. He comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus comes to give us life abundant—“a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)

Returning from Thailand in January was difficult at first. But then out of the blue I started reading a book about prayer. It struck me that our purpose is sure in Christ. We are here for the Kingdom of God. We are here for His Glory. We are here to make Jesus famous. Those things have not changed—no matter where we live. But our enemy likes to erode our sense of who we are. He likes to confuse. He steals our purpose. He makes us feel like we have nothing to offer, that we are meant to live somewhere else. It’s the same argument he used in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The enemy tries to tell us that God is cheating us, that God knows we thrive somewhere else but he’s stuck us here forever to rot away.

It’s changed the way I’m praying. I’m now asking God to protect my sense of purpose. I’m asking him to give me a divine satisfaction with the space he has for me. I’m asking for contentment and joy. And then I’m asking for protection over that satisfaction, over that contentment, over that sense of purpose. Understanding my sense of purpose as something the enemy is opposed to is a new thought for me but I’m trying this out and seeing Jesus victorious in it. To be honest, and this is surprising me even as I write it, I haven’t thought much about my purpose for the last couple of months since I started to pray that way. I think Jesus really is protecting that….declaring it off limits to the enemy of my soul who has tortured me there for so very many years.

Resist the guilt my friend. You wrote, “I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment.”  What might feel like guilt is really an invitation. Jesus is inviting you into deeper places of stability and affection and contentment. He longs for you to find those things in him…

We are so in this together. I wish I could tell you that these things go away. I’m afraid this is your opportunity to find Jesus faithful for many years to come. This is your place of need. This is your thorn in the flesh. But I can also say with great rigor that Jesus WILL BE faithful at every turn. I’ve battled these things over and over again. I can see how Jesus has used this in my story to push me deeper into Who He Is! My faith has grown. I’ve learned that in this suffering He has been kind to me.

 

Unsettled.

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The I’m From post that Robynn’s daughter wrote so long ago continues to inspire people. I love this piece called Unsettled. It speaks my heart. Take a look and peruse Emily Greene’s blog. 
Enjoy!

I am from

generations of pioneers. I follow trails made by

unsettled hearts

seeking more.

I am from

dusty shoes lined up at the door,

woven rugs hung on the walls,

and tables laden with bread and tea

Emily Greene

This post is a response to “I’m From…” found at Communicating.Across.Boundaries. Originally written on my personal blog under maiden name Emily Harris. 

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Thoughts on Sharing our Stories

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“Perhaps the greatest danger of our global community is that the person in LA thinks he knows Cambodia because he’s seen The Killing Fields on-screen, and the newcomer from Cambodia thinks he knows LA because he’s seen City of Angels on video.”
― Pico Iyer

At a dinner party years ago, our host, a man from England, was waxing wise about China. His wife – a no nonsense French woman looked at him at one point, shook her head and said “Nigel, who made you the expert on China?” Nigel did not miss a second to respond “I read Tai-Pan.” He was referring to the book by noted author James Clavell.

We all laughed, but the reality is more serious. The person who has spent ten days on a cruise ship and has visited nine ports in those ten days is hardly an expert on every country where they have stopped. And yet, they sometimes claim to be. The person who has gone on a short term mission or volunteer trip needs to be really careful of the quick judgments that they make of the country they visit and the people in that country.

I’m as guilty as anyone. It’s really easy to make broad assessments of places and people based on a limited view and a single story. My entire life has been a learning process of how to communicate what I have experienced, and be fair and wise within that communication.

At the same time, when we travel and when we live in places, we do experience the world through a different lens, and we do want to communicate that. That is not wrong. It’s not wrong of us to want to share our stories. Perhaps what this is about is not our stories, but the way we share our stories.

This summer, we will once again see many from western countries take trips to other parts of the world. These trips have different names. Sometimes they are called “Short term missions.” Other times they are called “Vision Trips.” Still others call them “Voluntourism.”

I’m not here to say these are wrong. I think we have to be really careful about telling people they can’t go to other parts of the world. My husband started a semester abroad program in Egypt years ago that is still going strong. It has moved from Egypt to Bethlehem to Jordan, but it still exists. Everyone of the students who went on that program would say it was life changing. And I believe them. I watched these students grow and change during their three months in the Middle East.

I do think there are some ways to do these trips that are better than others. Presenting them as trips where a rich, white Westerner is going to help a poor, brown person is not healthy or wise. But I think there are ways to do these trips well and with humility.

No matter how and where these trips take place, people who go on them will come back with stories. And that’s what I want to talk about. Sharing our stories.

What if we began our stories by recognizing our limitations? By saying “This is what I saw and experienced. This could be quite different from what others have experienced.” or “I only know what I know, I only saw what I saw, but that is what I would like to communicate to you today.”

It’s not fair to tell people they aren’t allowed to tell stories because they only went someplace for a ten-day trip. That ten-day trip had a deep impact on how they view the world, and the decisions that they will make in the future. Neither is it fair to demand that someone spend a lifetime in a place before they are allowed to make an assessment, or write a view point. But it is fair to ask people to have humility when they tell their stories. It is fair to ask people not to speak from an authoritative place. 

So if you are traveling this summer to volunteer or visit, here are a couple of guidelines for sharing your story.

  1. At the beginning, verbalize your limitations. This can be done in several different ways. “Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I want to say at the beginning, that this is my story. Others could have completely different experiences. In no way do I mean to stereotype, and if I fall into that, please forgive me. I may share general information, but I will let you know that it is general.” or “I’m honored to be asked to share what I did this summer. As I share, please know that I saw only a small window of what goes on every day. I want to be faithful in sharing what I saw, but honest in what I don’t know.”
  2. In all things, cultural humility. We don’t know everything about our own culture, let alone someone elses. It is critically important to have an attitude of cultural humility as we go, and as we come back. Cultural humility always puts us in a posture of learning.
  3. Be careful of hyperbole. Anyone who knows me and my husband, know that we love a good story. And some stories are made to be embellished. But we don’t embellish at the expense of others. The stories we embellish are about us.
  4. Watch your use of the word “all.” When we begin to use the words “All refugees do such and such…” or “All South Africans believe this …” or “All Iraqis….” then we are on dangerous ground. We can say many (if it’s true). I can say “Many Americans have an individualistic world view.” That statement is true. But changing the “many” to “all” doesn’t give any room for deviation.
  5. Remember, no one is a single story. I have said this so many times in this space that readers are probably tired. But I won’t stop. No one is a single story. Chimamanda Adichie’s famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” should be required viewing. With 10 million views and counting, many people have already seen it. “The problem with stereotypes,” she says “is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” 
  6. Share what you learned about yourself. The more willing you are to be honest and real, the more your story will resonate. Be willing to share mistakes you made and how you learned from them. Be honest about your pride, your self-consciousness, and your tendency to be egocentric. Give a story about how those things were challenged. The more vulnerable you are willing to be, the more others will see themselves in your story and learn.

Stories are important. When we stop listening and telling stories, we will stop being human. We walk in our stories every day and sharing them with others is important. If we share them well, everyone benefits.

What would you add that would help us tell our stories with integrity and honesty? 

The Language of Transition

 

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“I do want to make sure we have a language for transition and crossing cultures and homesickness and living in a state of between-ness. I did not have that growing up and have found the TCK vocabulary helpful as an adult.” Elizabeth Trotter as quoted from A Life Overseas

Like Elizabeth, I did not grow up with a language of transition. My husband, who, much like Elizabeth, grew up as a military kid, did not have a language of transition either. Whether you buy into the term third culture kid or not, whether you use the term cross-cultural kid or not, it strikes me that having a language of transition is critically important.

Though I’m still in process when it comes to a language of transition, I want to use this space to write about what I think it means.

The language of transition means know the importance of goodbyes. We honor the goodbyes. That may look different for every member of the family, and that’s where it gets tricky. Honoring the goodbyes means we won’t make our kids get rid of all their treasures. Yes, I get the problem of space. But that stuffed lamb means more to your little girl than you can possibly understand during the chaos of moving. The doll house? Do NOT give it away! I repeat: Do Not! Honoring the goodbyes means making space for different members of your family to grieve their “lasts.” Their last trip to that favorite restaurant; the last trip to school, to church, to the playground. Honoring the goodbyes means making sure that final meal is with people you love deeply.

The language of transition means knowing the word “Saudade.” That 12th Century word from Portugal, thought up by the diaspora who longed for the soil of Portugal, but had no vocabulary, no language of transition to express it.

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

These are feelings so deep that you can scarcely give words to them. Your throat catches. You experience an intense, but wordless, longing and desire. How do I know this? Because I have experienced it, first hand. What we long to describe is Saudade. It also means we know how to “kill the saudade;” how to find ways to contain the longing so it doesn’t destroy us. Finding the restaurants or the people who know the world that we came from, getting together for an evening of food and talk. Killing the saudade is a sweet and necessary activity in transition.

The language of transition includes building a RAFT. Knowing the importance of reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination. This was an acronym developed by Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock in a chapter of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among World. The entire chapter is devoted to transition and dealing with leaving one place and starting in a new one. It is a constructive and practical look at leaving well, at closure, at saying our goodbyes in peace. You can read a summary of what it means to build a RAFT here.

The language of transition means having a vocabulary for cross-cultural adjustment. For a child, much of the art of crossing cultures is learned from the parents. So if the parents are struggling and resisting the host culture, the kids will pick that up and internalize it. The language of transition means that as adults we will educate ourselves on culture shock and cultural adjustment and work to pass that on to our kids. It’s a verb, not a noun. It takes action on our part. Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines from a poem come to mind as I write this:

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

While that may seem like a harsh ending to a life, the meaning could not be clearer. Cross-cultural adjustment is imperative and having words and understanding of it is part of the language of transition. I would also add that cultural humility is a necessary ingredient to the work of cross-cultural adjustment.

Finally, the language of transition means  learning to understand the idea of living between worlds. “Every good story has a conflict. Never being fully part of any world is ours. This is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing. We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between. This is our conflict and the heart of our story.”* Learning to be comfortable in the space between is part of the language of transition.

Like learning any language, the language of transition is not mastered overnight. Rather, it takes time, effort, laughter, and tears. We make mistakes, we get up, and we move on. But developing a vocabulary of transition is an important step along the way.

*From Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

A Moment Between Worlds

moving train quote

I’m sitting in a Pakistani Restaurant in Los Angeles, just two miles from the airport – because that’s what we do when we are global nomads. We find comfort foods and places wherever we go, places where we can kill the saudade.

I arrived just a couple of hours ago from New Zealand and knew I had too much time to stay at the airport, but too little time to go very far. So I looked up restaurants near the LA airport and found Bihar Halal, described as an authentic Pakistani restaurant a short ride away. It is indeed only a short ride from the airport and I walk into the smell of naan and curry. There are mostly Pakistanis in the restaurant, a sure sign of its authenticity. I sit down and order a chicken curry, raita, and tandoorki roti. No fancy Americanization of this delicious food – just authentic curry.

I eat with my fingers and soon my nose is running, the spicy taste delighting my palate and forcing me to wipe my nose. The TV is set to a station in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Periodically an advertisement comes on and the Pakistani National Anthem plays in the background. I hum along with it. My Urdu is challenged as I try to follow the plot line of a crime show.

Suddenly my situation strikes me as absurdly surreal – I just arrived from New Zealand, I’m sitting in a Pakistani restaurant, and I’m watching a crime show on Pakistani TV in the middle of Los Angeles. Just yesterday I was sitting in my friend’s garden in Christchurch, New Zealand eating breakfast. Sometimes my worlds change too fast and I am left spinning, like a top spun over and over again by a child who won’t give the toy a rest.

When my mom and dad first moved overseas they would travel by ship. Instead of frenzied airport arrivals and departures, they would wave from the balcony of a ship. They would wave until those they loved faded out of sight, and all that was left were tears on their faces and a wide ocean that would be their landscape for the next six weeks. They left slowly, and they entered slowly. Those long days and nights at sea prepared them for their next steps on land. It was a good way to travel. For six weeks you were literally between worlds, without expectations from either.

Sometimes I wish it were still that way. We move so quickly between countries that it is hard to breathe. Currency, language, food, and customs change in a short plane ride. The cultural lines get blurred and we have high expectations of how quickly we will adjust to whatever culture we find ourselves. No wonder we find ourselves exhausted, collapsed on beds with tears on our pillows. It’s all a bit much.

As light fades outside the restaurant, I realize I have been traveling hard and fast.  The crime show has finished and I am now watching recaps of the Pakistan/India cricket game. I am alone, but not lonely. Instead, I am content in this world I live in. In his book, The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer says this: “In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.” A busy restaurant may be an unlikely place of stillness, but for me that is just what it is.

I paid the bill a long time ago and it is the goodness of the restaurant owner that he has allowed me to rest without distraction. I sigh and pack up my things, reluctant to give up this moment between worlds.

But it is time for the next journey, one that will take me back to an apartment building in Cambridge.

The top is still spinning, but curry and naan have slowed it down and eased me into reentry. I am content.

At least for now.

___________

Note: Tomorrow I will be announcing the two winners of the Meditations coloring book! Stay tuned!

Also, please continue your thoughts and prayers for the people of Pakistan as the country mourns for those who died and hopes that those who are wounded will heal.

  • Evil in Not the Final Word ““Has not Pakistan suffered enough?” I shout the words inside, knowing that few would understand my reactions. Yet, the Pakistani flag lights up my newsfeed and I am grateful for friends who do understand, who know and love this place that so many of us called home.”
  • I am Pakistan? “Our humanity has constraints; limitation is after all a characteristic common to all people. We do not therefore have the emotional capacity to mourn all who die in this world and to scream at all the wickedness that weaves so deeply through every culture. But while  our tears are reserved for Western nations, the rest of the world is right to be suspicious of us.”
  • Keen Pain in Pakistan over “Lives Shattered into Pieces”  “Shock and grief enveloped Pakistan on Monday as the official death toll from the attack in Lahore a day earlier rose to at least 72, with 341 people reported wounded by officials.”

“I wouldn’t give it up for a moment!”

Airport Happy Place

….and other things we wouldn’t give up! [With thanks to Michele Phoenix.]

I love playing the game “Two truths and a lie.”  It’s a get-to-know-you game, designed so that strangers can begin feeling comfortable with each other. The premise is that you tell a group three things about yourself. Two of them have to be true, but one of them is false. The group has to then decide which one is false. With a group of people who have never left their home towns, you get quite a few “I love my pets” “I love my kids” “I went on vacation to Vermont” (of course, the lie is that they didn’t go on vacation to Vermont, they haven’t left the state.) But if you play this game with others, the results are extraordinary. From a CIA operative taking out someone’s appendix to being in a Bollywood movie, you find out extraordinary things about people.

Third culture kids, whether they be from the military, business, diplomatic, or mission sector, are by far the best at this game. They can take their life experiences, experiences that haven’t all been easy, and tell their stories without being accused of boasting. They can pick the best parts of their lives and share them.

It’s this game I thought about when I saw the video below.  Michele Phoenix asked adult third culture kids (in this case, adult kids of missionary parents) what they liked best about growing up between worlds. She then had younger kids recite their answers. The result is a fun two-minute video. It’s like someone took all the answers to two truths and a lie and put them together in video form.

The wealth of experiences mentioned in this short video is something to celebrate.While Communicating Across Boundaries has a broader audience than missionary kids, any TCK, adult TCK or cross cultural kid could love this. After you watch it, feel free to tell us some of your experiences in the comment section.

________________

For a look at the survey that Michele Phoenix did on adult missionary kids, take a look here. 

Traveling While White

Blogger’s note: I have received some good feedback and pushback from this article – always good when you write a piece like this. Based on the feedback, I realize that it’s is not necessarily the simple black and white issue I have made it to be. I still hold to my original premise, that many, if not most of us, do benefit from the privilege of skin and perhaps passport color, but I welcome your feedback. It is important to note that this is in no way designed to be a political piece. It is an observation while traveling. 

I arrive in Auckland, New Zealand at six in the morning, bleary-eyed with little sweaters on my teeth. It’s been a long flight from San Francisco.  
I am tired but excited as I go through passport control. Exiting the desk, where uniformed women and men look down through glass windows from places of power, I see a family pulled aside. The family looks tired, exhausted really, travel weary and ready to settle. 

Four kids of different ages and stages sit, stand, and lie across chairs. A man with passport control has their passports and is talking on the phone. I don’t recognize the color of their passports, but from the color of their skin I know they could be from any of a number of countries. The father is clearly worried, the mom looks resigned– resigned to wait, to be patient, to accept whatever will come. 

In these brief moments, as I take in all that I see, I realize all over again what I’ve known all along: traveling while white is a privilege. This family is traveling while brown, while I travel while white. 

In all my years of travel to over 30 countries, I have never been detained at an airport. I have never been subject to extensive searches. I have never been suspected or considered suspicious. I carry stamps in my passport from countries that are on the State Departments “no fly” list, I have been to places considered dangerous– yet I have never had any sort of difficulty going anywhere. 

Because I travel while white. I have done nothing to deserve good treatment, but I do receive it. It is not my birthright to be able to walk out of and into countries freely, but I get to anyway. 

I travel while white. I am part of the privileged minority of the white. 

I can deny it all I want, but it is still the truth. Traveling while white is a privilege that I’ve done nothing to deserve. 

This is part of what it means to be aware of one’s own privilege. I need to own that privilege and realize that it is not like this for everyone. 
Traveling while white means: 

1. I’m never detained

2. I am welcomed to almost everywhere I go

3. I am considered safe, not a threat

4. I am treated with respect

5. I can express anger without getting in trouble.

6. I can make a fuss and not be reprimanded.

7. I can treat others poorly and not be confronted.

8. I receive smiles and nods, rarely stares and auspicious glances. 

9. I usually get my own way.

10. I receive apologies when things don’t go my way. 

I sigh as I look back at the family, wishing I could help. But I’m a stranger to Aukland, I don’t really know what is going on. All I know, is that I’m white and I’m really tired. 

A Lonely Planet

I’m sitting at Gate 97 in the International Terminal of San Francisco’s International Airport. It’s evening and weary travelers are staking their claim to prime seating locations — the areas with booths and plugs are going first, followed by side seats near plugs. Our electronic age demands above all that we keep our gadgets powered, at the ready for use.

I arrived this morning from Portland, Oregon. I came to speak at a conference and my time has been busy and rewarding. A group of third culture kids has once again wormed their way into my heart and I am better for it. 

I have been in more airports and logged more travel hours than I can count yet travel still  brings out an introspection in me — I sit and I wonder about the lives of all those I see. I wonder who they have left and who they are going to see; what tears have been spilled over hard goodbyes. I wonder what brings them to this particular flight on this day. For 13 hours we will share a space in the sky – but most of us will still leave as strangers. 

We live on a lonely planet. A planet that needs tragedies to bring out the humanity in people, a planet increasingly connected even as it is increasingly divided. We sit in airports the world over, waiting for flights, passing time, tired and often lonely. 

We need each other more than we know. Our DNA is wired for connection, for human companionship and intimacy. More and more, researchers are concerned about the loneliness that manifests itself in so many, a loneliness that affects our emotional and physical health. 

Yes – we need each other more than we know. 

An announcement comes over the intercom, alerting us that our flight will be boarding shortly. 

I think of those I am leaving behind for a brief time. Those I love the most will be on a different continent for the next ten days. I am acutely aware that anything could happen. I say a silent prayer, reminded once again that I cannot live this life without God, without faith in a God who is ultimately good and merciful. 

My introspection is cut off, interrupted by a young woman who asks if she can share my space and plug in her computer. 

I smile and say yes, connected for a brief moment and I am grateful. 

Valley of Weeping

We arrived in the Bekaa Valley and immediately felt the temperature change. It was cold and damp, the sun hidden behind a grey cloud. We entered a cold, concrete warehouse full of large, blue bags and boxes. This is where food and supplies are stored for refugees in the area. A truck was parked outside and volunteers were busy filling it with bags and boxes, all part of todays food distribution.

Inside the building we met Bashir, the director of Heart for Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley location. He explained to us that this is the hub for the 13 camps and thousands of refugees that they have committed to working with in the area. We would be going to visit a school and then head to a camp where we would be part of a regular food distribution. Along the way, we would meet and hear the stories of a few refugee families.

The school was a few miles away and up a gravel road. A mural on the outside, painted in primary colors, brought a bright splash of color to an otherwise bleak building. The inside, as though defying the outside to determine its fate, was full of life and learning. The school principal explained that the school focused on the neediest kids, kids who were orphans or who had lost at least one parent in the Syrian conflict. There was room for 75 kids and he said that parents are constantly pleading with them to accept their children. Many of the refugee kids have no opportunities to go to school and have now missed two to three years of critical learning. No school means long days at refugee camps with hundreds of children. No school means a generation lost to learning the basics.

We visited each classroom, watching dedicated teachers, some of them refugees themselves, focus on English, Arabic, and Mathematics. I longed to whisk some of the kids away and soak them in a hot tub for hours. It’s hard to keep clean with no running water, and kids around the world attract dirt like magnets attract metal.

Our next stop was at a camp around fifteen minutes away. The camp had 165 tents and with an average of ten people per tent, hundreds of residents. The food and supplies truck had already arrived and men were busy unloading. We received instructions: Each family would get one bag of food that contained sugar, tea, lentils, salt, rice and a few more basic supplies. Added to that we put three containers of oil, a bottle of dishwashing liquid, and soap into a bag. We got to work filling bags while the volunteers called a member of each family over to receive their allotment.

Most of the families from this camp came from farming communities in Syria. They are used to hard work, and life has never been easy for them. But refugee status has added a whole new level of ‘hard’ to their existence. Each family pays for the tents that they live in, $600 per year to use the land. The camp is isolated, far away from any stores or businesses. Men try to find work, but it is limited to informal arrangements as they don’t have legal status to work. Being paid ‘under the table’ means that you have no rights to argue your pay. You take what you get and move forward.

While the food distribution continued, we walked through the camp to visit a family. Taking off our shoes, we walked across the carpeted ground and sat on pillows set up around the sides of the tent. We asked the family their story. They were farmers in Syria near Aleppo — the family had 1500 olive trees that they tended and used as income generators. They lived simply, but the olive trees had been in the family for generations. With ISIS coming in and wreaking havoc, they fled to nearby Lebanon and had been at this camp for over 15 months. The olive trees were gone now, chopped up for firewood, no longer a living thing offering fruit and oil.

The extended family was large and growing, with a pregnant daughter-in-law as well as other family back in Syria.

Just one family. Just one story. But symbolic of so many more. Olive trees gone to waste, trees that had stood for generations helping a large farming family survive. Gone. Tragically cut down by people who care nothing for life. A family displaced, living in extreme cold and extreme heat in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

We left the family, knowing we had so little to give. Now, a week after leaving Lebanon, I write this so I remember. So the pictures stay in my heart and mind a little while longer, so that I don’t forget. The rallying cry of these refugees is “Don’t forget. Don’t forget us. Remember us. Pray for us. Tell our stories.” And so I must.

We said our goodbyes and left the valley in late afternoon, driving up through a mountain pass where a thick fog blurred the valley below. Looking out the window, vision blurred, I thought about a Psalm I memorized years before:

How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
         In whose heart are the highways to Zion!

Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring;
         The early rain also covers it with blessings.

They go from strength to strength,
         Every one of them appears before God in Zion.*

I look at the history of the verse and understand that historically this is a valley of weeping. And so these refugee tents full of people are scattered across this valley of weeping, this valley of tears. I can only pray that along with the tears is a God who sees and remembers, a God who will turn this valley into blessing.

*Psalm 84:5-7

Note: This week I hope to relay several stories from our time in Lebanon and Jordan. Thank you for your interest.

The MK/TCK Aversion to Being a Tourist

Attempting to be ‘good’ tourists on our last day in Amman

I love travel. I love planes. I love airports. I love that feeling of getting another stamp in my passport, of going into unchartered territory, of waking up on the other side of the world.

But I hate being a tourist. I hate associating with tourists. I despise the wide-eyed wonder and giggles of tourists when they see naked children beside the road. I groan at the “Well, that looks different! I wonder what it tastes like!” said loudly from the table across the room. I cringe when people stop in the middle of the road, lost and discombobulated.

For years the words “I’m not a tourist! I live here.” were on my lips when I went to bazaars in the Middle East. Even if I didn’t live in the place, I learned the phrase just so I could set myself apart.

I purposely try to book apartments off of websites or stay in guesthouses instead of hotels, just so I can give off the air that I know what I’m doing.

The problem is – sometimes I am a tourist. Often I don’t belong and I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know where to eat or shop. I don’t know local customs and can barely say hello. I don’t know any idioms and I don’t know how to get places.

I am a tourist. I am traveling or visiting a place for “pleasure.” That is the definition of being a tourist. I don’t live and work in the country I am visiting. I am not on a work trip. I am a tourist.

So why is it so hard to admit?

When you have lived in a place that others only visit,  that place, that city and country, become a part of your soul and your heartbeat. You see through the lenses of one who lives there. You know where the best places are for fruit and vegetables; you have a favorite restaurant; you have friends and develop community. And when you’ve done that in a couple of different countries then it seems impossible to just visit places for pure pleasure. There has to be more. You have to connect and communicate across the boundaries that being a tourist perpetuates. When you know what it is to communicate on a deeper level, it is so difficult to feel stuck in the role of tourist; the role of one who is present only for “pleasure.” Not to work, not to live, just for fun. Somehow it seems wrong.

But the reality is, it isn’t wrong. Being a tourist can help people learn and grow, help people to see the world through new eyes. If tourism is done right, then people gain knowledge of a new place and new people. They see the old through tours, museums, and ruins. They see the new through interacting with real people on streets and in stores. Being a tourist is not a bad thing. Being a tourist can help us learn about governments and problems in countries, can help us learn to be better people and better stewards.

While living and working in a country is definitely my favorite, either long or short term, there are sometimes when I have no choice but to admit that I’m a tourist. My question then becomes “How can I be a ‘good’ tourist?”

But that’s for another day. 

How about you? Are you a TCK or MK who hates being a tourist? Would love to hear your stories through the comments. 

Waking up on the Other Side of the World

Istiklal Caddesi on Sunday Afternoon, Istanbul by Stan Brown

Last night my parents left for Istanbul. My niece, Sarah, drove them from Rochester, New York, to Toronto. There they embarked on a non-stop flight to Istanbul.

They woke up on the other side of the world. 

I’ve done this many times myself, but I still shake my head in amazement. How is it that our worlds can change so rapidly? How is it that in a matter of 10 hours, we can arrive in a totally different part of the world?

I know the mechanical and physical part of it, that’s easy. We have airline travel and that has changed the world. What I’m marveling at is the emotional and psychological piece.

You wake up on the other side of the world to the call to prayer and strange syllables being pronounced all around you. You wake up on the other side of the world in a haze of excited exhaustion. Traffic bustles and the city of Istanbul is at the end of a work day. You wake up on the other side of the world, greeted by those who make their home in a 3-bedroom apartment, part of a middle class neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.  You wake up on the other side of the world, united to family who love you and welcome you with special care, even as you leave behind family who love you and care for you daily. 

On A Life Overseas this morning, Elizabeth Trotter has written beautifully about this. Elizabeth will wake up on the other side of the world tomorrow. She leaves Cambodia, a place where she has been writing her name in the land, and heads to the United States. She writes poignantly about this transition:

“Who am I, and where do I belong? I live in this city and traverse its Asian streets, all without quite belonging to them. Yet I don’t quite belong to the immaculately clean American streets I’ll soon be walking, either. Belonging is a slippery feeling for a global nomad. It can be everywhere, and it can be nowhere, all at the same time.

From now on, wherever I go and no matter which side of the sea I settle on, I will always be on the far side of somewhere I love.” from Elizabeth Trotter in The Far Side of Somewhere.

My parents embarked on a life between worlds long before I was born. When I came into their life, they had already planted their feet both sides of the globe — in Pakistan and in the United States. Their careers were spent waking up on the other side of the world, always leaving someone behind. At first, it was parents and siblings. But as time went on, it was their own children and grandchildren. They are ever-familiar with the tightness in the chest, the swallowing, the tears just beyond the eyelids — all symptoms of goodbye. 

As I think about this, I remember the One who knew what it was to live away from his Father, the One who left all that was his, and woke up on the other side of the world. This Jesus knew the agony of separation. The words “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” were on his lips as he was dying. He knew what it was to long for the place where you truly belong, and so he sent a Comforter.

“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;”*

If I asked my parents their secret to waking up the other side of the world, they would tell me that it is this Comforter that makes it possible.

Because when we wake up on the other side of the world, the Comforter comes with us. 

*John 14:16

Photo Credit – Stan Brown

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.