A Life Overseas – Capable of Complexity

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

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

And…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at A Life Overseas by clicking here.

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

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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. 

A Life Overseas – When You’re Sure God Loves Ann Voskamp More Than He Loves You…


”I’m pretty sure God loves Ann Voskamp more than he loves me.” 

I wrote this to a friend recently. I don’t even know Ann Voskamp, but I was still convinced that when it came to actual love, I was in the dog house and Ann was in the castle on the hill.

I mean, what’s not to love? She clearly loves Jesus. She gives money to the poor. She eats off the land (she’s a farmer’s wife for god’s sake). She adopts kids from places Far Away. She writes books that are poetic and lyrical and get onto the New York Times Bestseller’s list. Her inanimate books even love Jesus. She travels the world and writes about it. Plus, she’s thin. Everyone knows that God  likes thin people best. She even has a quote on the walls of the American University in Suleimaniya, Iraq. I saw it with my own eyes. Actually, through my husband’s eyes because they wouldn’t let me past security, but whatever.

So, yeah – I’m pretty sure God and Jesus and the whole Trinity love her more, because when I compare my little life to that of Ann Voskamp? I can’t even.

I have weighed myself on the scale of God’s love, and I have been found wanting. 

It’s kind of depressing. No – it’s not kind of depressing; it is deeply depressing. Not that they love her more, but that in my heart I really believe this. And if you’re honest, you probably believe that God loves some people more than he loves you.

Because let’s just get it out there in black ink: It’s so hard to believe that we are loved uniquely, deeply, completely, and unconditionally by a God who delights in us. It is so easy to see why he loves other people, but it is so difficult to get that he loves us. He saw what he made, and he called it “Good!”.  Our thinking is distorted and we are tricked into believing lies abot God, lies about ourselves. 

Here’s the rub: If I really believe that God loves Ann Voskamp more than me because of all the things that she does better than I do, then I probably believe that God loves me better than some other people. As much as I deny that, the reasoning is logical based on my distorted theology.

Comparison kills and we will always be found wanting. Whether we convince ourselves that we are better or worse than the person we are comparing ourselves to, we will always lose. Always.

Comparison and envy rot the soul. 

A few years ago I wrote a piece about envy. I’ve included it today because this is what I need to come back to when I have thoughts like the one I confessed, thoughts that undoubtedly, God loves Ann Voskamp more than he loves me.

May all of us give our distorted theology to God and thank him that in his master design he made each of us and loves each of us – deeply, uniquely, and completely.


We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.

We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.

“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”

The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.

“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.

She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.

But it didn’t. Not really.

Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity. 

Read the rest here.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones~ Proverbs 14:30

Have you dealt with potential competition or envy with fellow workers who are overseas?  It’s a hard but important question!

*name has been changed!


 

A Life Overseas – On Home and Keeping Place

Longing for home

“Home is a human place. Instinctively, each of us, male and female, knows the sound of its welcome – and the joy of our possible return.

Readers – Today I am at A Life Overseas talking with Jen Pollock Michel about her newly released book Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home. Will you join me there? I’ve given you a brief preview below!

This community knows the challenge of creating home in odd spaces and places around the globe. We also know what it is to be homesick, to long for familiar sights and sounds, to occasionally cry during the dark of night, reaching out to a God who created place.

In her newly released book, Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel writes about this human longing. The back cover eloquently conveys what the book extends to the reader:

“Keeping Place offers hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded,and a new vision of what it means to live today with our longings for eternal home.”

I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Keeping Place. Throughout my reading, I thought about my upbringing, as well as the many moves I have made in my adult life. I also thought about this community and the ways we leave one home and create a new one, always aware that in home and place, the temporal and the eternal meet.

I asked Jen if she would meet with our community here at A Life Overseas and talk about the book – which really means have a conversation about home and place.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Can you give us a sense of how you came to write a book about place and home? 

I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. This is partially because we were a very typically mobile American family during my childhood: my dad chased the tail of opportunity, and we moved for those opportunities. And although I wanted to give a more rooted life to my own children, we’ve also moved a lot for my husband’s career, including a move to Canada six years ago.

But it’s not just mobility that has left me longing for home. I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s these life experiences that springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book.

You currently live in Toronto, Canada – a place where you didn’t grow up and a country where you don’t legally hold citizenship. How has living where you are a guest shaped your view of home?

It’s now been six years that we’ve had no permanent immigration status in Canada, so I’m writing about home from the “stranger” perspective, for sure. In an ex-pat life, the longings for permanence and belonging are particularly acute, and it’s easy, of course, to nostalgically think of the place we’ve left behind as the home that would settle those longings.

But truthfully, I’ve realized in writing the book that these longings aren’t just characteristic of the ex-pat life. It’s not as if we’re the only ones to feel dislocation in this world. No, I think it’s most true to say that exile is the human experience and has been since Genesis 3 when we left the Garden behind. This exile can be dislocation geographically, but it can also be estrangement in our relationships with others and most importantly, with God.

What truths (characteristics) of God did you learn through writing this book? 

Probably most importantly, I’ve begun to see God is as “homemaker.” That word tends, for many Westerners, to connote a woman who abandons career to stay at home with her children, and this conception has given us a very narrow view of homemaking. But to look carefully at the arc of Scripture (which begins and ends at home) is to see a homemaking God. At the very beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. “It is good” is a way for God to say, “It is homelike. People can live here.” And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.

For me, a view of God’s homemaking inspires a whole new affective quality to his work of redemption. It’s not just that God has sent Jesus so that he can “acquit” sinners in a kind of impersonal legal transaction. It’s that God has made His own Son a stranger for our sake.

Salvation isn’t just pardon: it’s welcome. It’s homecoming.

You can read the rest of the piece here

No Easy Answers – A Life Overseas


Readers, my mom and dad were in the country of Pakistan and raised five of us in that context. 

Yesterday on A Life Overseas my mom shared a poignant story on children, choices, and ultimately learning to trust God with our kids. Would you join us there? 
I have included the beginning of the piece here.

Do YOU think it’s right to take innocent children to those heathen countries?”


The small elderly woman confronted me with the question. Ralph and I were newly appointed missionaries hoping to go to India. I glanced down at my tummy- had she guessed I was pregnant? I didn’t think it showed yet. I likely mumbled something about God’s will and tried to change the subject. 

We did take that innocent child with us to Pakistan, not India, and in the next 10 years we had four more. We were 20-somethings, full of hope and excitement and ideals. God in His mercy hid the future with its pain and struggle and tears of raising children overseas from us.

Not too many years later it had become clear to us that for most missionaries’ children in Pakistan boarding school was a part of that future. Our mission actively supported the founding of Murree Christian School in the northern mountains, eight hundred miles from where we lived. Five children from our mission were enrolled in its first year of existence.

“How can the Lord expect such an enormous sacrifice of us?” I asked myself. “It’s too much. I can’t do it. It can’t be right.” I struggled, asking how this could be God’s will for parents to send such young children away from home.
Eddie would start first grade in my home town during our first furlough. This timing put off our painful decision for a year. But God’s call to Pakistan was very clear to both Ralph and me. Did that call have to mean sending our children away at such a tender age?

In February 1959 Ralph went off to Karachi to arrange our furlough travel leaving me at home with the three children, behind the brick walls that surrounded our tiny courtyard. The Addleton family (Hu, Betty and their two little boys) were the only other foreigners in that small town in the desert and suggested we all go to the canal ten miles away for a picnic. Eddie was so excited that we were going to travel on the Queen Mary from England.
“I’m going to sail my Queen Mary in the canal,” he said, showing me the long string he had tied to a nail in the bow of his small wooden boat.

A couple of hours later, he stood at the edge of the canal, throwing his boat into the water and pulling it back. I kept an eye on him, but he was such a careful little boy. He would never fall in – Stan (his younger brother) might, but not Ed. A jeep driving along the dirt canal road, raised clouds of dust, and we checked the whereabouts of each of the children. Assuring they were all safe, we adults sipped mugs of coffee.

I looked around again just as the jeep passed us. Eddie was gone! I couldn’t see him anywhere. I jumped up and called his name, only to see his boat floating down the canal. Hu Addleton dove in, swam to the middle and began treading water, feeling the bottom with his feet. Bettie gathered up the little ones and the picnic things loading them into the Land Rover. I stood, helpless beside the canal. The water was so muddy, the current so swift. How could Hu possibly find my little boy in that murky water?

Then Hu called out, “I’ve found him!” He dove under and came up holding Eddie’s limp body. He handed Eddie up to me and somehow I knew what I had to do – that morning waiting for the Addletons to arrive, I had re-read a Readers’ Digest article about what was then a new method of artificial respiration, called “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” Eddie’s face was purple. I cleaned mud and sticks out of his mouth, before turning him onto his stomach to see a gush of water from his mouth. Laying him on his back, I started breathing into his mouth. Hu knelt beside us on that grassy canal bank praying loudly, begging God to give us back our son. How many minutes past, I didn’t know….

Read the rest here

Thanking you for joining us to read this poignant, personal story! 


The Language of Transition

Cairo View 2 Sarah Groves quote

“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

Kids Books Without Borders – A Guest Post

Kids Books Without Borders by Gail O’Connor

Books without Borders

Journey back with me to a city in France, in the late 60s, as I revisit my childhood as a third culture kid… :

As the cold and the damp settled over the French landscape, it seemed to seep through the walls of our house. Even our free range cats, normally night prowlers, huddled between our legs at night and slept on top of the radiator covers during the day. Umbrellas and boots cluttered the front entryway. The last of the hazelnuts were gathered from the roof of our backyard chicken coop. At the end of our block, heaps of coal towered behind a high wall, waiting to be loaded into trucks and delivered to homes. Occasionally, large chunks of coal tumbled onto the sidewalk as we walked home from school. My older brother, Rob, and little sister, Renee, and I would trudge home with our ‘cartable’ (backpacks) at 4:30 pm, as the already sunless sky darkened.

Gail

 

After completing a few worksheets and stuffing them back in my backpack, I could think of no greater pleasure than reading. We had a small, one-room ‘bibliotheque’ (library) where we lived in Villeneuve-Le-Roi, France. I loved to gather up as many mysteries as I was allowed to check out – Les Six Companions series by Paul-Jacques Bonzon was my favorite. There were also the comic series Asterix et Obelix (by Goscinni) and Tintin (by Herge), and a shelf in our living room with a set of Childcraft encyclopedias. The one titled Rhymes and Poems, illustrated with rosy-cheeked, plump, and happy children, was the most worn. At bedtime, my mother would often read aloud to us, taking me us away into a world of mischievous bears who liked marmalade (Paddington Bear, by Michael Bond) or the adventures of children carried off into the night on a flying bed (The Magic Bed-Knob, by Mary Norton).

As a third culture kid, reading was not just a soothing activity, it allowed me to enter into worlds very different from my own and also to find characters who understood and put words to my emotions and life experiences. As a child in a French school, I once wrote these very thoughts on the significance of reading in an essay. I was very proud of my essay, and my teacher read it aloud to my class. I thought she was going to praise it, but instead she made fun of it, using it as an occasion to vent her strong dislike of Americans. Feeling humiliated, I wanted to sink through the floor. Looking back through adult eyes, I now know that this teacher was wrong in how she treated me and in her assessment of my essay. C.S. Lewis aptly remarked:

Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Reading stories of children who faced difficult situations, such as Mary in The Secret Garden, Anne in Anne of Green Gables, and Pollyanna, or brave women such as Gladys Aylward as recounted in biographies, gave me courage, inspiring me to be brave and strong and not to allow the hard things I occasionally faced to bring me down, and to be a positive influence on those around me. That teacher may have had a bitter cup to drink in life; I will never know. I can only hope she found God’s love and grace to heal her own wounded heart.

I remain a strong believer in bibliotherapy. Reading continues to sustain and inspire me. That is why I started Kids Books Without Borders. I want to extend this gift to other third culture kids, offering them a range of books: picture books, early readers, chapter books, classics, fantasy, realistic fiction, biographies, fairy tales and folktales, multicultural books, TCK books, poetry, science fiction, non-fiction, and young adult books. We have many instances of them all!

I also have a blog with the purpose of sharing stories, resources, book lists, and my own reviews to help you select the best books for your third culture kids. While I write about my favorite books and classics, my niche is children’s books that address TCK issues (moving, self-acceptance, loss, travel, cultural identity, etc.). I also have a love for multicultural children’s literature –children’s books that address issues of race, culture, language and adapting to a new culture.

If you are living overseas and would like to request books, please go to my website at kidsbookswithoutborders.wordpress.com. I currently have over 4,500, thanks in part to donations from families at my local church, friends, and homeschool groups. I would love to hear from you and to have the privilege of blessing your family with great children’s books!

Note about the author: Gail O’Connor is a TCK friend from my Chicago years who grew up overseas in France with a British mom and an American dad. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, home to Indiana University where she has raised her family. She loves to read and now extends this love of reading and books to those who live overseas.