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.

The Darkness is Not Winning – A Life Overseas

Cairo, Light

I’m at A Life Overseas today where I quote my brother and sister-in-law!

I read these words from their newsletter yesterday morning and immediately asked permission to use them. These are words that reflect a future and a hope.

“The darkness is not winning!

“The truth is that wherever the news on television has been particularly bad this year, the Light is there shining and overcoming the Darkness. Refugees in the Middle East are being taken in by Christians, hatred is overcome by love. The hungry are being fed and the wounded healed in Jesus name. Discouraged and dislocated people are hearing about Jesus and receiving him and finding life and community and safety. Slaves in South East Asia are being set free from sex and labor imprisonment and the Light is even shining into the places where these slaves are working while they are still in slavery.” Stan & Tami Brown

Will you join me at A Life Overseas today? 

 

A Life Overseas – For You in the Trenches

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Readers, I’m at A Life Overseas today talking to those of you who are in the trenches, where world events happen all around you. I hope you join me in that space. 

All weekend I have thought about what to write this morning. I think about world events and how they have filled up our newsfeeds, yet I also know that you live in your own world events. You live in places where bombs go off, where corruption runs rampant, where trash builds up because of anger at governments, where babies die too soon and young women and men lose their innocence to the evil of others.

So what do I say to you who live in the trenches; you who sigh as you hear the news, because you know how awful it is, you know how broken it is. You don’t need a bomb to tell you the world is broken. You heard God’s call to a broken world, a world he loves, and you try to live out that call every single day. You have given up what Rachel Pieh Jones calls the Western illusion of safety, instead you walk in the safety of God.

You have chosen a currency beyond fear. Because when fear is our currency, we cannot live effectively. Whether this be around parenting, around work, or around where we are called to live, this is truth.When fear is our currency, we forget that safety is not about where we live, or work, or play.

Safety is about knowing where our security lies, what we’re called to do, and who we’re called to be.

What are we called to when we face a broken world?

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas. 

Dear Linda

rose-676760_1920In the middle of the night I got a message from my friend Linda that lives on the other side of the world. She is hurting. They left South Asia several years after we did. Her husband took a position that he finds fulfilling and satisfying. She however has struggled to find her place. She is lonely. The friendships she does have she holds onto tightly for fear that those friends will abandon her. She no longer knows who she is or what she has to offer.

It’s not the first such letter I’ve received. There was one eight or nine months ago from Lisa. Her family’s lease had been suddenly revoked. They were asked by their landlord to leave the acreage they (and others with them) had restored from a weed choked, overgrown plot of ruin to a luscious garden retreat space. Her heart was breaking too. How would she get passed the sense of loss? How would she find herself again…when so much of her was planted in the ground they had cultivated?

Still another email came in August. This particular friend, Susan, knows they are planning on leaving the city they’ve adopted as their own in Asia. All the signs are pointing in that direction but she is beginning to sense even now unintended sorrows and sadness. She wondered if there was a way to manage such a transition while mitigating some of the heartache. Is there a “how to” book for making such a earth-shaking, globe traversing change?

My heart connects so thoroughly with these women. They are my friends it’s true. But they are also travelling along some of the same roads that I’ve been on. I’ve walked down those pathways and they were not so easy. The journey from there to here is long and mostly uphill and it’s ever so painful. I want to protect them from the pain they are in or the pain they have yet to face. I want to make all their endings happy ones. I want to cocoon them with some mythical protective wrap that ensures they will get through the transitions without agony, with their souls intact, with their hearts unscarred.

I suspect Linda doesn’t just grieve for the place she left behind. She grieves for everything else that got left there too: her memories, her place in the community, the meaning-infused ministry she was a part of, her friendships –made deeper there by shared suffering over time. Her marriage looked different there. She parented differently there. Her children were younger then and responded differently to her. And while parenting and being a spouse have not changed–she is still a wife and a mother–it looks wildly different than it used to.

I’m guessing she also left huge pieces of her self somewhere in South Asia. Linda wasn’t being careless, she didn’t mean to forget to pack her personality and sense of self, but in all the chaos and change, she inadvertently forgot to bring Linda. At least that was my experience… When we returned I realized I had forgotten to bring me!

I know that sounds ridiculous! Of course I came back too….but really so much of me didn’t. Huge parts of my personality didn’t make the journey. There was no use for most of my knowledge or experience. It was no longer relevant. No one needs to know how long to pressure cook beans on this side of the ocean! And if that’s what I had to offer—suddenly I wasn’t offering much at all. The humour on that side, certain silly situations, daily living, prompted certain responses from me. With those prompts all gone or vastly changed I found myself responding in ways I didn’t recognize. I missed the old me. It took me awhile to get to know the new me.

Dear dear Linda (and Lisa and Susan too) –I want you to know that this time will end. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to every transition. I suspect, from what you’ve told me, that you are right smack in the middle. A kind lady, a momentary mentor of sorts, once told me that it would likely take me ten years to adjust to life here in the United States. My husband, Lowell, was shocked when he heard that! Ten years?! But for me it was very helpful. It would end. I would settle. I would get through this. And Linda, you will too. The heartache and the intense sadnesses will pass. You will find yourself again. The time of transition will end.

Time will generously give you new experiences. You are beginning to collect new memories and new stories. God is showing his new mercies for each new day.

Discovering who you are and what you have to offer in this ‘new’ place is perhaps the hardest part of this. It’s frightful and unsettling. I wasn’t brave enough to step out and try new things for a very long time. Even when I did I felt like I was mostly faking it. It didn’t feel right. It took a very long time to get past that. It’s only been the past year or so—and even the past few months—where I’ve begun to experience brief moments of a fully soul satisfied Robynn again.

Give yourself lots of time. Extend lots of grace to yourself. Cry when you need to cry. Drink lots of hot tea and bring to mind the presence of God. He is with you in this. He has not abandoned you. He knows who you are—there in that old life, and here in this new life. He’s not surprised by how you are doing. He’s not disappointed in you. His patience and tender care are enduring. He’s the only one that can fully relate to the amount of loss and change you’ve been through. God understands. He cares for you in your loneliness too. He is with you even in that place. When it feels terribly dark and you wonder if you really are going crazy–He brings a little bit of light and hope. Hold onto Jesus, sweet Linda. He has not changed.

You may always be a little lonely. That chapter in your life was rich with deep friendships and meaningful connections with your team, your international church, your community. Most friends now will likely not fully understand that. But God will give you others that, while not completely identifying with your past, will be able to meet you in your present. I suspect the ache for the “good ole’ days” will always be there but grief will be gently replaced with nostalgia. You will always miss the way it was, the way you were, but those longings will no longer paralyze you.

Linda, I’m so sorry. I wish I could make it better for you and easier. I will pray earnestly for restored joy, for the end to come when it needs to come (hopefully sooner rather than later), for new friends, for a new sense of purpose. All will be well….eventually….all manner of things shall be well.

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

A Life Overseas – Freedom from the Silence of Shame

I’m at A Life Overseas today, talking about a hard subject. I hope you’ll join me there! silence of shame

Long ago on a spring day in Cairo, I was walking across a small footbridge to the area of the city where I lived. I had crossed the footbridge hundreds of times, usually with one or three children hanging on to my skirt and in my arms. This time I was alone, lost in my thoughts and enjoying the walk.

I had single-parented four kids for ten days, and I was pregnant with our fifth child. I was tired, lonely, and hormone-infused.

There was minimal traffic on the foot bridge at this time of day, but as I began heading down toward the street, a man started walking up the other side. I thought nothing of it, until out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking directly toward me. Before I could react, he had reached out and grabbed my breasts. I began screaming like a mad-woman. I shouted in Arabic at the top of my lungs “Shame! For shame! You are a Muslim? You are not a good Muslim!”  He had picked a lonely, hormone-infused pregnant woman to harass, and my anger knew no bounds. Hearing the commotion, some men on the street began walking towards me. They were clearly concerned. “What happened?” “How can we help?”

While some people share stories of their language skills improving when they share the gospel message, mine always tended to improve when I was angry. My Arabic was perfect as I screamed and cried my distress. The men could not have been kinder. “We’ll find him! We’ll get him! This is not Islam, he is not a good Muslim!” they assured me. I remember their kindness and concern in vivid detail.

Shaking and crying, I continued on my way. The walk was ruined, the bright spring day dark with shame and anger. Read the rest here at A Life Overseas.