You are the bridge builders and the listeners, the ones who understand what it is to live between.
You are the border crossers and the visa holders, the ones who say goodbye to a million friends, and make a million more.
You are the sorters and the packers, putting a world into a suitcase – the ones who know that packing up a suitcase and packing up a life are two different things. Into one you put your belongings, into the other – you pack your heart.
You are the language learners and the mistake makers, the ones who try to sort out grammar and idioms, ruefully accepting the good natured laughs that your language skills provoke.
You are the world news gatherers, catching your breath as you hear about a tragedy across oceans and continents that affect the people and places you love. Praying and hoping as you await news beyond the headlines.
You are the challengers of stereotypes, knowing that “No one is a single story.”*
You are the defender of accents, the one who knows that limited language ability does not mean limited intellectual ability; the one who knows that accents are the badges of honor in a world that needs connecting.
You are the ones who know the strength of ‘saudade’ and have cried tears of longing for what no longer exists.
You are the ones who can bargain for the best produce in five languages yet get paralyzed in the cereal aisle of your passport country.
You are the holder of stories and hidden experiences, the lover of all things travel, the one who knows what it is to be lonely on a Sunday night in an international or domestic airport.
You are the ones who know what it is to be displaced and culturally confused, the ones who long to end the refugee crisis and closed borders, the ones who speak out against policies that hurt people and shut them out.
You are the ones who feel the pain of closed borders and the sadness of unused tickets, the ones who are forever separated from so many places and people you love.
You are my fellow travelers and global souls, you are my friends and my family, you are my tribe. May you take comfort in your stories and your memories, your sacred objects and your soul friends.
May your life of movement help you to love more, judge less, and reach across the boundaries that divide knowing that all is not lost.
I first heard the term “earned fact” from Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As an immersive journalist, she talks about being able to write, not because she saw something, or read something, but because she lived something. In order to write the book, Boo immersed herself in the lives of people in a slum in Mumbai. Daily, she went to the slum, sat with people, recorded stories, observed, and asked questions. She did this for three years. When she wrote about the slum, she described the people, the smells, the garbage and even the air as one who had experienced this world.
But the book itself is not the focus of this blog post. Instead, I am interested in this idea of “earned fact” and how it relates to the third culture kid conversation. I’m interested because many of the third culture kids I know, myself included, become weary of feeling like we have to somehow justify our experience through education or research. The reality is that we have something that education and research can never give anyone – we have earned fact. We have lived something extraordinary and our words and stories come from that place.
Our earned fact often begins at birth, where the first words we hear are not from our mother tongue. Instead, they are words said over us by a midwife, nurse, or doctor who speak Urdu, Tagalog, or any other of a number of languages. We don’t come into our lives as third culture kids with already formed world views. Instead, our world views are formed by living between. Our identity is shaped through interacting with our parents and their dominant culture and the dominant culture surrounding us. Research on identity formation does not apply in the same way. Instead, we move back and forth as little people whose identity is being forged and shaped between two, often conflicting, cultures. “A British child taking toddling steps on foreign soil or speaking his or her first words in Chinese with an amah (nanny) has no idea of what it means to be human yet, let alone “British.” He or she simply responds to what is happening in the moment” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001).
The earned fact continues through childhoods lived on the edge and in between, picnicking in places that are far from our passport countries and participating in events that don’t make sense to peers in our passport countries. What is normal to us is considered ‘exotic’ by some, ‘extraordinary’ by others; ‘reckless’ by more than a handful. In the words of Liz Rice, in her memoir Rituals of Separation, one thousand things begin to separate us from the people we are related to by blood or by legal definition.
From the moment my life in Korea started, one thousand things began to separate me from the people of my bloodline and the country of my passport. My umbilical cord of identity stretched out to the city and the people in front of me.
“Closing one life door had opened up another. I was becoming part of a new family, not bound by blood or nationality, but created out of calling and circumstance, and the simple fact of what happens when a little girl’s parents decide to make a home in a new land.
Nothing about that life or my identity felt particularly remarkable until I came to the U.S. Nothing about my place in-between cultures and communities, between fundamentally different ways of understanding the world, seemed like something I needed to reconcile until the day we left Korea behind. I only look back now and try to analyze this time, to pick it apart, to understand the people and places that were forming me, to remember the ways of those who were teaching me how to greet and grieve.”
This earned fact is not easily described. When I talk about negotiating across cultural differences, I don’t just have a theoretical understanding. I have experiences that began when I was very young. When I speak on culturally responsive care, and understanding the impact of culture on all aspects of life, it is part of my bones. I have sat on the sidelines of many conversations or discussions on culture. Because I have fair skin, and my features resemble many in the area where I live, it’s assumed that I have only lived here, that my experience does not include anything beyond the borders of Massachusetts. It’s a hard and discouraging assumption to fight. I have a notebook of things that have been said to me that dismiss my invisible experience – invisible until I tell stories that go beyond my skin color and show a life lived in places and cultures far different than the one where I now reside.
There is a skepticism of the term “Third Culture Kid.” Third culture adults don’t necessarily like it, and third culture kids don’t buy into it. It separates them. It is irritating and divisive. I hear that and I respect the sentiment behind it. We have enough in the world to divide us into the next millenium and beyond. But for some of us, this term has encouraged us to connect. It has given us a foundation from which to engage. It has given us hope that we are not alone.
Because here’s the thing – There was a time when we didn’t have a name. When we were forever told to pull up our boot straps and get on with life.
There was a time when we thought we were the only ones, traveling solo in our passport countries, not knowing how to put words to our longings, how to verbalize our pain.
There was a time when reentry seminars were non-existent and it was assumed that we would arrive in our passport countries without incident, when folks said to us “Aren’t you glad to be back home” and we nodded assent, but a part of us shriveled inside. We would assimilate and no one would ever know that part of us that shaped and molded us from birth.
There was a time when we over spiritualized and downplayed ‘place’ and ‘home’, convincing ourselves that since our real home was in Heaven, earth really didn’t matter too much. But ah….when we got to Heaven, that would all change. Except that we were young and Heaven seemed oh so far away.
There was a time when we laughed at the thought that we had losses, we brushed away any grief. “That’s ridiculous” we sniffed! Other’s have far more losses. Others are far worse off. But then we faced one too many moves and in the back of our minds the whisper of losses began to shout.*
So, to those that don’t need the term “Third Culture Kid” – I hear you and I honor and respect that. But to those of us who do feel like the term has helped? Make no mistake that we, that you, have an earned fact and some of that earned fact can be represented in the phrase “Third Culture Kid” or “Third Culture Adult.”
As my friend Robynn so beautifully states, we are from this third culture, this nebulous nomadic space. Whether we are 13 or 50, we have these common traits and can proudly own our earned fact. And we can, if we choose, use the term Third Culture Kid or Adult Third Culture Kid. It’s our choice.
Wingaersheek Beach is a beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts. A winding road off Route 128 takes you up hills and around curves, like you’re traveling to nowhere. But beyond the winding roads and heavily wooded area you realize there is an extraordinary beach, hidden from the unaware traveler.
Wingaersheek beach is unique among beaches. Massive rocks in the middle of the sand create a natural playground for children or seating spaces for adults to lounge. High tide pushes everyone toward the marshes and soft, white sand while low tide transforms the area into sand bars in the ocean and empty beach to roam and play.
For us the real magic of Wingaersheek comes after 5, when tired beach goers walk toward their cars, sand and sun covering their bodies, and we arrive. The real magic is low tide at sunset.
Our love of Wingaersheek began many years ago, during another tumultuous time of transition. We had been living in the mega city of Cairo, Egypt for seven years but circumstances urged us to return to the United States. We landed in Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. with five kids, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat named Pharaoh. Two of our kids had been born in Egypt, and none of them knew much about living in America. In fact, none of us did. In total we had lived in the United States for 12 months in 11 years. The best way to describe us was as hidden immigrants with good English skills.
We thought we would make our home in the suburban landscape of Washington D.C., where politicians, lobbyists, and power brokers hide behind expensively unassuming brick homes and everyone has to know someone to get anywhere. It turns out that this was the wrong place for us, and six weeks after arriving we found ourselves on the Northshore of Boston.
We were jobless and initially homeless, with an extended family that was praying hard.
I remember the palpable fear of a new beginning in the United States. I remember the unknown, the newness of everything, the anxiety about the future. I remember the sense of being on shaky ground; like an earthquake where you don’t remember where to go, and instead stand paralyzed, wondering when the tremors will stop.
Our hopes and plans for the future were all focused on living overseas. We never imagined that this would change, never imagined that our dreams would have to change, that our plans would have to shift. It was a death of expectations. It was the death of our life as we knew it. It was the death of a dream.
If someone had asked us what we had left behind, we would have said “Everything. We left everything behind.”
We found a ranch style house in the small town of Essex with a bright orange kitchen. It was an unimaginative house, but the pond behind the house provided hours of joy for our kids. We enrolled our three oldest in school, and we began to look for jobs.
It was now September and Massachusetts was at its finest. Each day dawned bright and golden, temperatures in the low seventies, blue sky that artists and lovers dream about.
We would wake up in the morning and get the three older kids off to school, comforting them as they bravely set out to make their own way in an American school in a small town. After the three older ones were off, we would sit down and look for jobs, scanning newspaper want ads and filling out job applications, all the while praying silently.
And then, we would go to Wingaersheek Beach. The two youngest were one and four years old, and we would pack them into car seats in our red mini van and ride the winding road to the ocean.
The ocean never disappointed. Laying a picnic blanket on the sand, we would sit and munch on sandwiches and fruit. One year old Jonathan was not yet walking and was content with a shovel and bucket. Four-year-old Stefanie would prance all over the sand in a polka dot bikini, her whole being alive with the joy of sand, sun, and ocean.
And we would rest. There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t make people call us back to interview us, we couldn’t beg people for jobs, we couldn’t do anything to speed up the process. We did all we could do in the morning, and then we went to Wingaersheek Beach.
It was a gift during transition. A healing gift that filled our souls with hope when so much else felt hopeless. Allowing the gift of creation to do its solid work, we rested and we drank in the beauty all around us.
I never knew so many years ago that Wingaersheek would again become a solace during transition, but this August it has. With our unexpected early return from Kurdistan, we have done much the same as we did so many years ago. We have looked for jobs, contacted people, gone for interviews – and then we have gone to Wingaersheek Beach, where low tide and sunsets have wrapped us in hope.
So many years ago, a pond became a solace to my children while an ocean became a solace to my husband and me, making a difficult transition bearable. And so it is this time, nature doing what it does so well if we allow it – providing healing and fostering resilience.
I will always love low tide at Wingaersheek Beach, where heaven meets earth in ocean waves, sand, and sunsets, a tribute to a Creator who calls it ‘Good.’
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It is the last week of June and graduation season for this year will soon be behind us. In any culture, graduations are milestones and rites of passage. They are filled with excitement and butterfly stomachs, a clear sense of accomplishment and an expectation for what might lie ahead. But for the third culture kid, there are significant differences between their experience and the experience of their peers in their passport countries. While some of the excitement and accomplishment might be the same, there is far more going on behind the scenes. We are not only leaving a school – we are leaving a home, a community, and a country. While most kids can go back home without a reason, the third culture kid cannot. The third culture kid does not only say goodbye to a school, they say goodbye to a life. Graduation for the TCK is a type of deportation.
Today I’ve included my graduation story and, in doing so, I hope I hear some of yours.
The last week of my senior year we passed yearbooks around, struggling to write what our hearts were feeling with cheap pens next to black and white photographs. I reserved the best spaces for best friends and boyfriends, and retreated to quiet spaces to read their words. When I would re-read them in the future my heart would ache with longing.
The week was a flurry of activity –concerts, awards ceremonies, dinners, and free time of lounging with our friends on picnic tables outside of the school. But amidst the flurry, we knew that this was all ending, and nothing could stop it. The week culminated on a clear, starry summer night as ten of us walked slowly, one by one, down the aisle of the school auditorium.
I knew every feature by heart. I had invited Jesus into my heart in this auditorium –several times. I sang in choir here, played piano for school concerts, giggled with friends, held a boy’s hand, practiced cheerleading. It was this auditorium where we read our mail and watched basketball games. I had been in plays on this stage, playing the part of Toinette in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid. This was where we had practiced Our Town for hours before heading to Kabul and the famous Kabul Coup. This was the center of our school, and its high ceiling and huge stone walls held the memories of a million events.
Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” echoed off the old walls of the building, saying to all those present: Here they are! It’s their turn –their turn to graduate, their honor, the class of 1978. We had been to many graduations before, but this was ours. There were speeches, piano duets, and singing.
As I sat on stage, I looked out at my community. I looked out and saw people who had written on my life. I saw my parents and my youngest brother. I saw my adopted aunts and uncles, my teachers and my mentors. I saw my friends and those who would come after me. In that moment, I saw only the good. The hard memories were not a part of this event, they weren’t invited. The ceremony ended and our names were called individually. We stepped forward to receive diplomas with wild applause.
The magnitude of what I was leaving was not completely lost to me that night. Even in the midst of the goodbyes, I felt my throat catch. But as I look back I am overwhelmed by it. We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew. For the rest of our lives we would struggle to answer the question, “Where are you from?” We would rage at those who attacked our adopted country, even as we raged at Pakistan herself. Some of us would be accused of crying “every time a cow died in Pakistan.” Others stoically moved forward, silent about the impact of being raised in another world.
As for me, I went back that night to the cottage where we had set up our home for the past few weeks of summer. Suitcases and bags sat on beds and chairs throughout the cottage. It was beginning to echo with the empty place we would leave behind, and it smelled musty and damp, the effects of monsoon season already begun. Crying had to wait, there was still packing to do. But how do you pack up a life? I stayed up to gather the remainder of my possessions, putting them into an old green suitcase, and finally fell asleep to the sounds of monsoon rain on the tin roof.
The next day I would leave Pakistan and never sleep in this house again, never walk up the hill to catch the school bus. The final chapter of life as a child in Pakistan had ended. I was the baby turtle, making its way slowly to the sea. No one could do it for me. In order to survive and thrive, I had to do it by myself.
“Home is not an answer to a question. It is my grandmother’s front porch where I first saw how dark the night was supposed to be. It is the swimming pool in our first apartment complex in Portland where I learned to see without looking, underwater with my eyes closed like the mermaid I knew I was. It is the spot where my sister is buried. It is Eagle Creek where the salmon spawn and then die, using their last reserve of energy to protect their eggs. The journey home is arduous. Surviving costs something. Returning costs something more.”
So where’s home? The dreaded ambiguity of the question shouts at me even when the person’s voice is calm and friendly. Writer Jamila Osman says that she always answers the question with her voice raised in a question at the end. In her words, the “last syllable lifts its head in desire.”
I do the same, as if I am looking to the person I am talking with to affirm the answer. That’s what happens when you’ve lived in over 29 houses on three continents. You answer the question with a question mark.
Just as the “where are you from” question brings out feelings of ambiguity and confusion, so does the “where is home” question.
As I read Osman’s words, I think about what my own words would be. I craft them, because just writing them down helps to change that last syllable from a question mark to a definitive answer.
Home is not an answer to a question. It is the dusty roads and Bougainvillea laden home in Pakistan. It is the winding road taking me to my boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range. It is the sound of a train, and vendors shouting “Chai, Chai, Garam Chai!” It is the busy streets of Cairo and the memories of a fifth floor walk up flat, the sounds of men yelling that they have molasses for sale on the street below. It is the sunsets in Phoenix that evoke the deepest longing and the deepest joy. It is the color and stories of Central Square in Cambridge and our porch on Newton Street with the smell of homemade bread drifting from the kitchen. It is the vibrant colors of icons and the beautiful chants from Divine Liturgy. Each place has stories and memories of home.
I realize in writing that I no longer mind the question. I no longer hate the ambiguity. Instead I realize that it is a gift. The syllable of desire has changed to a syllable of hope.
Note: Just as the “I’m from” story can be helpful in our narrative so can writing down what home is to you. If you choose to do this, I would love to publish some of them. Please contact me through the comments or a private message at communicatingblog(at)gmail(dot)com.
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Through all the travel and all the moves, I’ve hung my heart a lot of places around the globe. But none is so special as Pakistan.
“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever.”
Over the weekend we visited Pakistani friends in San Diego who are very dear to us. Rehan was my husband’s best friend during college. The friendship continued strong through marriage, kids, and now adult kids. We don’t see them often enough, but when we do it is non stop talking, eating the best Pakistani food in the world, and laughing hard. The conversation moves from one topic to the next without a gap. We interrupt each other, go off topic, and we’re loud.
It is always delightful, and this time was even more so.
Beyond the blue skies, Palm trees, and ocean was a house alive with warmth and hospitality. I didn’t want to leave. My heart was so full! Full of friendship and Pakistan; memories and curry. But too soon the visit was over and I’m now sitting back in Boston, in a house that feels cold, with a heart that aches with the leaving.
When you’ve lived across the globe, you end up sharing your heart with a lot of people. Each one of them holds a small piece that makes up the whole, rather like a mosaic with bits of colored tile that an artist fits together to create a beautiful piece.
But when you’ve left your heart in so many places, it’s also hard to come home, especially when home feels cold and lonely. Edward Said talks about exile and the “unhealable rift” between humans and their native places. My native place was Pakistan, a place far from the one marked as legal on my passport. So when I experience these times of connection, no matter how short, that unhealable rift is filled with the salve of understanding.
That’s what I feel right now as I sit on my couch. A lonely cat is cuddled as close as possible to me, willing me to never leave again. I know how she feels. I hate leaving those I love. I hate the loneliness I feel when I walk in to a cold house in a place where I have to work so hard to belong. My heart is a dead weight, my sighs fill up the silence.
Frederick Buechner says this about loss “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” I read it, but right now I’m not sure I believe it.
The thing with feelings is that they can change in an instant. So I sit with a heavy heart filled with memories of those I’ve loved around the globe. Some gone, some still present but far away. These feelings will pass, my heart will feel lighter, my memory bank fuller.
But right now, I sit, holding on to archived memories to give me strength.
* Edward Said ‘Reflections on Exile’
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“…but we also knew what it was like to feel temporary, to keep your eye on the clock, to normalise the inevitability of departure so completely that you didn’t think about it, even though you always thought about it.”
It was six years ago when my mom told me that from age 6 through age 18 I never slept in the same bed more than three months at a time. I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but I do remember the moment she told me. It was like all the fuzzy fog of self accusation that had enveloped me suddenly changed into clear and complete understanding.
It always felt like it was my fault that I didn’t feel like I belonged. If only I tried harder. If only I reached out more. If only I wasn’t so sensitive.
But with my mom’s revelation, the “if only” suddenly became a “no wonder!” complete with all the emphasis an exclamation mark can give.
No wonder I always felt temporary.
No wonder I got restless every few months, rearranging furniture, changing pictures on the wall, looking for a new job.
No wonder I thought I could feel my inner scream of rebellion when people around me were unwilling to face change.
Our life as third culture kids had rhythms of movement. You never questioned those rhythms, they were like the seasons of the year, and you don’t question seasons of the year. Instead, you meet them and embrace them. Then, just when you’ve grown tired and have had enough of winter, you see the burst of spring through forsythia and daffodils poking through old, grey snow.
Like the seasons, arrivals and departures were normalized. We came, we left, and in between we lived. Our resilience was amazing but along the way we didn’t always face the grief that had collected, didn’t always realize that there were some coping mechanisms that would need to be confronted, things that prevented us from fully engaging in life and people around us.
Deepak Unnikrishnan, an Abu Dhabi based writer, recently wrote an article called “Abu Dhabi: the city where citizenship is not an option.” Other than airport layovers on the way to Pakistan, I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi, yet it’s been a long time since I read an article that so completely described the third culture kid experience; the normalization of movement that others find so difficult to relate to.
Like me, Deepak grew up in a place that was not his ‘passport’ country. There are no long-term options for citizenship in the United Arab Emirates, and so children like Deepak, who then become adults, know that at some point they will leave. They had to have a reason to stay.
“…at 20, with the help of a loan from my parents, I found myself leaving for the US. I don’t recall having a conversation with anyone about how I felt. My parents, like others of their generation, normalised departure. But they didn’t tell us what to do with the memories, or how to archive them.”
Deepak questions the words that are available to those of us who are trained to leave our homes behind. “Expatriate isn’t right. Neither is migrant. And guest worker just feels cold, almost euphemistic” he says.
As I think about this I realize why I continue to hold on to the identity and importance of the term “third culture kid”. Because that is the identity I believe the author is looking for. It is we who are trained to leave our homes behind. It is we who know we won’t stay, we who know we can’t stay. It is we whose memories matter so deeply, whose memories need to be archived so that we can hold on to pieces of place. It is we who continue to embrace this identity, even as we move into more permanent seasons and places in our lives.
As kids we are involuntary transients; as adults sometimes the easiest path to take is to become voluntary transients, procreating involuntary transients along the way. We continue patterns of normalizing arrivals and departures; understanding the sweetness of arrivals and the bitterness of goodbyes. We are expert packers and planners, holding our arrival and departure manifestos in our hearts and heads.
But sometimes, we need to plant our feet solidly into the soil around us and stay a little longer. Sometimes we need to realize it’s okay to write our names in the land of our passport countries, even as we hold on to archived memories to give us strength.
“For most of us, being raised as foreigners meant our stay in [insert country] was free of permanence. For some, a temporary stay meant a year or two; for others, time dragged on indefinitely, but always, always, the time would come to say goodbye. Our parents may have chosen to remain, but we would leave. We were raised to be different, we were raised knowing we wouldn’t stay, knowing that as soon as we finished school we would leave and probably not come back.” Nina Sichel in Unrooted Childhoods
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