Born to Belong

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“When you’ve spent your whole life as a cultural chameleon, you end up not knowing what color you were when you started, who you might have been had you been from someplace, what it feels like to belong fully to a people, a tribe, a neighborhood, a city.” from Rachel Hicks in “To My Adult TCK Self: I See You”

In The Weight of Glory, in a chapter based on a lecture called “The Inner Ring”, C.S. Lewis takes a profound look at belonging, specifically at our desire to belong.

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”(Lewis)

The Inner Ring is that elusive place of belonging that is just beyond our reach, just past our grasp. Because once we have reached that inner ring and we begin to settle and think we’ve finally found a place to belong, we realize there is a ring beyond that —and once we’ve gotten to that ring, there’s a ring beyond that still. It is a never-ending quest.

I write about this in Between Worlds, but just writing about something doesn’t take it away. This struggle to belong is human, hard, and never-ending.

We are born to belong. 

A number of years ago, my husband was dropping off my son at a birthday party. Another kid from the class was in the car as he and my son had worked on a class project that morning. When my husband made the plan to drive him home, it made sense that he would combine the trips. We assumed that the birthday party would just have a couple of kids at it. When they arrived at the house where the birthday party was being held, a huge crowd of boys descended on the car welcoming our son. In fact, it appeared the entire class had been invited except for the boy in our car. The boy was crushed. We unwittingly participated in a kid realizing he had been left out, realizing he was not invited to that particular inner ring. It was completely accidental, but it still happened.

If we’re honest we will admit that we all know what it feels like. The stomach-knotting knowledge that we weren’t invited, that we don’t belong. Our first memories of being left out can be as simple, yet painful, as not being invited to a birthday party or as complicated as becoming a part of a blended family, where suddenly we realize the family we thought we belonged to no longer exists. The desire to belong and the feelings that arise when we realize we don’t are part of the human dilemma.

In elementary school that inner ring and quest to belong is the group of girls that excludes us. They are a part of Something Special and we don’t belong. It’s that group in middle school that get together every Friday night and we’re not invited, that group in high school that bears the name and reputation ‘cool’ and no matter how hard we try, we do not know cool. Though we would like it to stop there, it often continues. It’s college, then young adulthood, then work and getting into that inner, secure, exclusive place. It’s church and those people who are in that inner circle, the circle that seems so godly and confident, the one that we wish we belonged to. And yet when we get close, there’s something beyond that circle, just out of our grasp.

We constantly look to that place of belonging, the inner ring that seems so secure, that tells us we have ‘arrived, yet it continually eludes us.

Third culture kids can find this particularly difficult as they straddle many worlds and places. Each place has its own inner ring, each group its own rules. We don’t belong to our passport countries; nor do we fully belong to those other countries where we leave pieces of our lives. Keeping parts of ourselves hidden becomes a necessity because explaining is too difficult.

And yet, it is such a gift. To be able to know what it is to be other in our world of massive displacement is nothing less than a gift. A strange gift perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. The only way to break this cycle of the inner ring is to embrace the gift of not belonging. This echoes Lewis’ response to the “Inner Ring” dilemma. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we may still find ourselves on the outside, but it will no longer be a burden, we will no longer wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it inside. Instead we will find a place, sometimes in the most unlikely of circles.

I have slowly come to this place. I don’t even really know when I first realized that I was no longer striving to be part of the inner ring and I wish it had not taken so long. Somehow the quest to belong, that burden on my back since boarding school days of popular groups and cliques, has slowly but steadily been broken. In some mysterious and completely inexplicable way, I belong.

To be sure there are days when I find myself wandering back to the place of inner rings and the quest to belong. But as I begin to try to worm my way into those rings, something always stops me. I remember what it was to strive so hard that I lost my way. I remember that knowing what it is to not belong brings understanding and eyes to see the one at the edges, the one on the margins who sits in the shadows, aching to belong. A voice inside reminds me that my identity is in something so much bigger and greater than any inner ring. It’s in the knowledge that I am loved by God, created to reflect his glory until all inner rings have faded and time stretches into eternity. 

Belonging….doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. – Brené Brown in Daring Greatly

Thinking of a graduation gift for TCKs? Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey may be a good option! Worlds Apart v2

A Life Overseas – Living Between Worlds

tck journey 2

For as long as I can remember I have lived between worlds.

My first memories of life are from a rooftop in the southern area of Pakistan. The high, flat roof surrounded by walls was a perfect place to keep cool when the hot months came in early May. We slept on rope beds covered in mosquito netting, able to feel an almost cool breeze after sundown.

Mosques surrounded our house on all four sides, their minarets stately and tall against the desert sky. While on the inside prayer times and Bibles sustained us, on the outside we were minorities in a Muslim world where the call to prayer echoed out over the city five times a day and ordered the lives of all those around us.

When you grow up between worlds the research on identity formation does not apply in quite the same way. Instead, you move back and forth as one 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).

 There is now documented research that identifies some of the strengths and weaknesses that are part of growing up between worlds.

Here are some of the strengths that the third culture kid develops through living between worlds:

Cross-cultural skills

From their early years, third culture kids interact and enjoy ‘difference.’  They often take on various characteristics from the cultures where they have lived. They don’t see difference as good or bad – just different. This gives them a huge advantage in our global world. To be able to interact across cultural values and differences is a gift that is inherent to who they are.

Adaptability

Third culture kids show amazing ability to adapt across cultures. They are as comfortable in a crowded bazaar in a large city in Asia as they are in a pub in England. They blend with seeming ease into whatever setting they are thrown into – as long as it is outside their passport country! Read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

I would love to have you add your own thoughts to either the comments over there or here. I will take the comments and suggestions and compile them into a blog post. Thank you!  

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging is available here:

Read reviews of Between Worlds here: 

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On Cultural Competency & Cultural Humility

I spoke to a class of graduate nursing students yesterday in the city of Worcester. The topic was on cultural competency and health care — a topic I’ve spoken on for many years. They were an amazing group of students; smart, engaged, thoughtful, and diverse.

When I began to do this work around 13 years ago I knew it all. I spoke with confidence and flair, I had all the ‘best’ examples and brought people into the conversation in a new way. But this work is like living cross-culturally; the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. The more you experience, the less you are sure of any absolutes. So now, I’m much less sure of outcomes, yet much more committed to the process.

If you define cultural competency at its most basic level, it is about learning to communicate and function effectively across cultural barriers, cultural differences. So no matter where you live in the world, it is something that is useful to learn. In our increasingly diverse societies, it is indeed a critical life skill. The difference however when it comes to cultural competency and health care is that the stakes are higher. Cultural competency, knowing how to function in the midst of cultural differences, can change an outcome, can be the difference between life and death, or life and permanent, irreversible damage and I am not being dramatic when I say that.

  • There is the 71-million dollar word resulting in an 18 year-old becoming a quadriplegic.
  • There is the story of Lia Lee; a Hmong child who ended up having severe brain damage, largely because the arrogance of western biomedicine and the ignorance of healthcare providers who did not take into account the family’s belief system.
  • There is the story of a Japanese mom who ‘didn’t sound worried’ over the phone so was not given an appointment for her small child. By the time she did get the appointment, it was too late and the child died.

There is an argument in the field of cultural competency on the word ‘competency’. I would argue that in every field there are certain competencies that need to be met. As a nurse, I was not allowed to do certain things until I had reached a certain level of competency. It didn’t mean I knew everything, it meant that I was at a point where I could function well and not be a danger to patients. The same is true for cultural competency – I believe that people can reach a level of competency and have tools to use when it comes to communicating effectively across cultural boundaries.

But critical to this field of study, to this skill set is the idea of cultural humility. This term was developed in 1998 by two physicians: Dr. Melanie Tervalon and Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia. They proposed that this was what the goal should be when it comes to looking at outcomes. They say this: “Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnership with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations.”

How does that work out in practice?

It means being a student of the patient, person, or the community — not an expert.

It means not equating limited language ability with limited intellectual ability.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity. 

It means learning the fine art of negotiation, and the finer art of putting what we think is best in the background, focusing instead on what the person or community thinks is best .

Most of all, it means knowing who you are, what your cultural beliefs and values are, and how they may come into conflict with those you are wanting to serve. We wear our culture like skin. we’re so used to it we don’t even think that what we do, how we think, how we govern, how our schools are set up, our infrastructure, our medical system, is all based on cultural beliefs and values. Until we recognize both the complexity and the pervasiveness of our cultural beliefs we cannot move forward in communicating effectively across cultural boundaries. Then, and only then can we move forward on this path.

I left the students yesterday with this quote: 

Most things that don’t make sense from the outside usually do make sense if understood from the inside…

It’s a life long journey, but so worth pursuing. 

Blogger’s Note: One book I would recommend that looks at cultural competency in the context of western medicine is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. It is a profound look at culture, healthcare, and what can go wrong.

An Open Letter to a Young TCK

At one time both Robynn and I were young third culture kids. We were trying to make our way, transplant our roots to foreign soil. The days were hard and we made mistakes. Robynn writes with wisdom in this – an open letter to a young TCK. So grab a cup of tea and sit down and read! And as always – please share your thoughts. A blog doesn’t live without readers and commenters! 

hand written letter

I recently wrote this to a young Third Culture Kid. She’s been struggling to settle in and my heart has nearly broken several times as I’ve watched her trying to find who she is and where she’s from in the midst of her agony. This is a letter I wrote to her. I open it up for you to read too.

“There is no doubt in my mind that God has a very important, unique, purpose for you. He chose you well before the beginning of time to grow up in your family…. And then he gave you the experiences he did with the first chapter of your life in India, and the second chapter in the Europe and the third chapter at College…all for a very specific purpose. No one else has your history, your collection of memories, your experiences, your family, together with the amazing ways you’ve been gifted, your talents, your passions, your convictions! Your Father God is thrilled with you. He’s crazy about you! He loves watching you! And he has great and grand plans for you! I firmly believe this!

As your “auntie” I want to give you some advice. Like all advice, you can take it or leave it! But there are so many ways that I relate to you. So many things we share in common. I speak this advice from that place, but also from the place of age and a little more maturity (although certainly not always!). I’ve watched you. I’ve prayed for you. I have come to deeply love you. These are the things I’d like to say. They aren’t in any particular order but here you go (you might want to make yourself a cup of tea! This got kind of long!):

1. Live here and now. You are too young to live in the past. Connect with life in the present tense. You no longer live in India. You no longer live in the UK. I know this is not necessarily where you would choose to live (it’s not where I would choose to live either!) But God calls us to live where He has placed us.

There is something holy about those two words: Here and Now.

He has gifts for you each day…but unless you begin to live NOW you’ll miss them because you’ll be remembering gifts from yesterday, gifts from the UK, gifts from India. Those yesterday gifts were precious, no doubt about that, but I don’t want you to miss out on what God has in store for you today! Jesus really convicted me of this about three years ago. I was still living in Varanasi. He was asking me to live here in Manhattan. I read a great book called “The Wisdom of Stability” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and it  changed my perspective on this issue. I highly recommend that book to you.

2. Get involved. Connect. Engage with what’s happening around you! This is similar to “Live here and now”– maybe it’s even the application of living here and now. One of the ways you can stop living in the past or in the future is to make an effort to consciously connect with the place and the community you are placed in. Get involved! You have so much to offer! Find a local community orchestra. Join it. You’ve talked about theater….is that something you’d be interested in again? If so, track one down. Audition. Get involved. I know you’re scared and nervous…but EVERYONE is!

Not just you, not just other TCKS—every single person enters the world afraid. Some people fake it better than others! you can do this! But it takes effort and initiative. Do it afraid!

Ask God to help you and then walk into things. The reward far outweighs the risk. Remember Bronwynn going to camp, in spite of her terrific fears and worries. She did it! She did it afraid…but she did it! And you and I both know she had the time of her life. If she can…so can you!

3. Say thank you. I’ve ranted about this before. You’ve heard this speech…but it’s a really important one. Say thank you A LOT. For everything. This will make life in this next chapter much easier too. Tell your mom thank you for everything….tell your dad thank you! No one likes to be taken advantage of, or used…. remember the day we picked up Blake from IHOP? He used me that day and it wasn’t pleasant! Remember how much I went on and on about saying thank you?

4. Clean up your messes. When you’re a kid you learn to clean up your own mess but when you are an adult you learn to clean up community messes. Jump in! Learn to see the “messes” around you and pitch in. Clean up. Take care of your things…but not just your things, the things of others. Don’t leave it for later. Don’t ignore what you see. Clean. Wash up. Scrub. Fold. It  is part of being an adult.

5. Make choices. That’s a vague way to say this….but what I mean is, it’s time to start acting and living like an adult. You get to decide how to spend your money. You get to choose your own phone plan. You get to choose where you go and how you get there. You have so much freedom now! It’s exciting! You want to go visit a friend, you can! Buy a ticket and Go! You want to buy some special software for your computer? You can! Go for it! Being an adult is actually fun!

Of course – there are other choices, the not so fun ones. You also get to decide where you’ll apply for a job, how you’ll get to that job. But you can do this. And you’ll discover joy along the way. Your relationship with your parents is different now too. You no longer need their permission. I know you still want their approval and their blessing (that’s perfectly normal….) but you get to make your own decisions. And surely you know that if they don’t approve of what choices you make they will still love you forever and ever. NOTHING will ever change that!

6. Listen to God. He has so much he wants to give you….so many adventures he wants to take you on. Ask him. Listen to his responses. Step out in faith. Take some time even this summer to inquire of him. What contribution does he want you to make to the world around you? Who are the people he’s given you to love? Reach out in faith. Think about the things you love, the things that bring you joy…lay those things out before God. Does he want to use you in some way connected to those things? Think about the things you are good at, the skills you have,the experiences you’ve had…lay those things out before God too. Does he want to use you in some way connected to those things? Talk it out with him. Listen to his answers.

He’s not playing hide and seek. He is here. Ready and excited. He loves you so very much.

7. Take your eyes off yourself.

a) I know your pain has been so big. I know it must feel like it’s going to consume you. I know life here in the US hasn’t turned out quite like you thought it would. And I know that’s very very hard.

Pain is the one thing we share in common with every other person on the globe! Everyone is hurting. Everyone has a story of sadness and great grief.

Everyone has been affected by sin. And while it’s true no one person can completely understand another’s pain, and it’s also true that pain has the capacity to isolate people because of that. It’s a lonely place. Having said that, if we take our eyes off ourselves and place them on Jesus, he begins to point out people around us who are also in pain that we can minister to. When we do that we begin to see how pain connects people. You can better comfort and reach out because of your own pain (not that it’s the same as someone else’s but that you both share a story of pain). There are so many people who need comfort and connection. You can do that….if you see who those people are. The wonder of it all is that when you do that…when you reach out to someone else in pain…. your own pain begins to diminish just a little. It doesn’t go away but it doesn’t consume you in the same way either.

b) Along the same lines…but a little different…. The people around you have lives too. I don’t mean this to sound harsh, I’ve said it many times to my own children too, but you are not the center of the universe. Life does not revolve around you.

Part of growing up is trying to understand life from another’s point of view.

You are uniquely qualified to know what it must be like to move cultures and countries…. You’ve experienced grief in leaving people behind. You can sympathize with others in that way. Ask them how they are.  Ask them if they’re doing ok.

There…you’re done! You made it through Auntie Robynn’s Rants and Raves!

Above all, I want you to know this one thing: There is nothing you can do that will change God’s love for you. He is with you. He walks with you into this next stage. You can fully lean on him. He is pleased with you. It doesn’t ultimately matter what anyone else thinks… God is pleased with you. Deeply. Completely. You can rest in that sweet sweet reality.

On Being a Footnote

There are those days when I feel like a footnote; a mere reference in the essay of life. I sit on page 50 in 8 point Times New Roman font, footnote #7 properly cited in APA format. In my worst case scenario I’m not even the full citation – I am merely an “Ibid et al”. Depressing much?

On those days I imagine someone almost missing me and then suddenly realizing I’m there and saying “So…What’s it like to be a footnote?” before quickly moving on to the important stuff.

Yet in a good research paper or essay, footnotes and references cannot be underestimated – they are critical to making a paper credible and authentic. If you don’t reference properly you get a poor grade, it’s that simple, it’s that important.

A good author searches hard to find the right reference, the unique one that will lend credibility to the essay and give them the backing needed to move on. Ask anyone who has done a dissertation and they will tell you of the days they were stuck, paralyzed as it were, until they found the perfect reference, the perfect footnote.

And God is the author who put in this footnote. He searched out this footnote until he found it and placed it right where it belonged. To him this footnote is infinitely loved, of immeasurable importance, of unimaginable worth. And he never grows tired of writing this essay, writing the narrative of life, of giving us creative ways to articulate his truth.

So I don’t know if you feel like a footnote or an important chapter – either way, know that you are part of the Author’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of life.

“God surely must love the minor characters, having made so many of them!” (courtesy of Dr. Daniel Brown, source unidentified)

CAB Readers – Thank you!  We did it! Made it to over 100,000 views yesterday since I began writing in January 2011. When I began this project as a way to find my voice I didn’t dare hope that people would be as affirming and supportive as they are! Thank you! Stay tuned for more on a celebration inviting you to share your stories! Also – if you like the content, invite others to join in! 

Coming for the first time? Try out some of these popular posts! 

Bucharest to Boston: Little Immigrant Girl

 

“Be honest with me…Did you just ask me to come with you to Seattle because no one else could?”

The words took me by surprise. They were from Mariuca, a capable woman and excellent trainer. “NO!” I said emphatically. The truth was, there were any number of people who could have been asked that would have loved to be a part of the trip, but I hadn’t even considered them. “Good!” She sighed with relief. “You have to understand, I still see myself as a little immigrant girl, and can hardly believe I’m traveling across the country to do a training.”

At 26 years old Mariuca came to the United States. She entered the country a year after 9/11 with her airline allotment of two suitcases, the clothes on her back, and a whole lot of love for her American husband. Enough love to warrant a move from her childhood home of Bucharest, Romania to a new country and city, Boston, Massachusetts. At the airport in Bucharest her mom pressed a one hundred dollar bill into her hand and said “just in case you need it.”

Trained as a lawyer, she quickly realized that she did not want to go through the grueling process of reciprocity that it would take to practice law in the United States. Her profession was partly chosen as a result of her mother being a lawyer and having a dream that some day a mother/daughter team would practice law together. The mom’s dream ended and Mariuca found a job as a receptionist in a large city medical center. Daily the center welcomed people from around the world, and with a lot of people comes a lot of ethnically and culturally diverse groups, a lot of different languages, and even more needs.

Most who passed by the cute, energetic receptionist with the “accent” would never have guessed that behind the smile and ease were two seemingly contradictory things – an educated, confident lawyer and a little immigrant girl. Both worked in Mariuca’s favor. The background as a lawyer made her a brilliant problem-solver and an articulate advocate; the scared little immigrant girl gave her a deep empathy for patients and a willingness to go the extra step to ensure comfort and care.

Her skills were noticed. Mariuca ended up being promoted to an interpreter in the dermatology department, followed by a move to Women’s Health where she took on the role of a patient navigator. Ultimately she ended up where she is today – a supervisor and a trainer.

From lawyer to patient advocate and supervisor, Mariuca has made a home for herself here. She is well established in both career and community and has a beautiful little two-year old girl. But no matter how successful she is, there are still days when she feels like a little, immigrant girl with two suitcases and an unknown future. This is the place where she was as we traveled from Boston to Seattle and it was my job to remind her that she is a capable, amazing woman – that even if she was a little immigrant girl, she had worth and gifts, they were just undiscovered.

I’ve been told that an important part of care giving for Alzheimer’s patients is understanding what the patient’s life was like before they had Alzheimer’s disease and their memory betrayed them. One of the ways to do this is to post pictures of the patient on their door, showing people a little bit of who they were, and what things were important to them in the past. A physicist, a Nobel laureate, a firefighter, a mom – if we remember who they were, we may be more careful about how we treat them as they are. Seeing them in their current reality is only one small piece of the picture of their lives. I wish the same was true for immigrants in our communities.  I wish we had pictures that told more of the story behind the accent, that showed us the past life of a cleaning lady or cashier. It would be simultaneously eye-opening and humbling.

Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s television personality, used to sing a little song as he would put on his grey, worn sweater. “Who are the people in your neighborhood?….These are the people in your neighborhood”. As I end the post I paraphrase his well-known words: “Who are the immigrants in your neighborhood?” Are they lawyers turned patient advocates? Doctors turned home health aides? Biochemists turned medical assistants? Do we know who they are? If we don’t we have only a small piece of a big picture. As the clichéd “nation of immigrants”,  knowing each other a little better could go a long way in increasing understanding

New Roots for Refugees

A struggle that many refugees, and those of us who have lived in various places around the world, have is to find grocery stores where the produce or goods that can create the tastes we are familiar with are available? “No cilantro?” we wail at the confused store worker, who happens to be stacking cold storage cucumbers in neat little sterile, green rows.

Food and produce have a way of either making us feel at home, or alone and alien, as we frantically search for that ingredient or herb and vegetable that we desperately need.

Refugees in San Diego have come up with a solution called “New Roots”. New Roots is a community farming project that is described as a “United Nations of Produce”. 12 countries with 85 “farmers” are involved in this particular farm, an innovative project that builds on the historical legacy of immigrants creatively finding ways to belong and survive. New Roots provides classes on soil irrigation and climate to help women and men know what of their beloved past diets will grow best, and when things should be planted.

Besides fruits, vegetables, and herbs from all over the world, the farmers market where goods are sold is alive with the colors of the world worn by men and women from Somalia, Burundi, Mexico, and more.

In the 1970’s when the Hmong community began to arrive as refugees in cities across the United States “spread like a thin layer of butter throughout the country so they’d disappear.” (from The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) a Hmong advisor to the refugee program urged the government to give this agrarian people a bit of land, assuring them that within a couple of years, the Hmong would be self-sufficient. This, of course, was not taken seriously for many reasons – supposedly too expensive, would be unfair to others, impractical, and would set off “wild protests” from city and suburban-settled Americans, who, even if you gave them a small plot of land, wouldn’t necessarily want it. Interesting that many Hmong communities have experienced greater than 25 plus years of welfare dependency. To transplant an agrarian group to the inner city is neither wise, nor kind. This new idea of community farms that are “dedicated to refugee agriculture” is innovative and becoming wildly successful in various cities across the country.

As I read about these farms, and the sense of belonging that refugees are gaining, simply from working the earth, providing tomatoes for their families and communities that taste like tomatoes, I am reminded of the story of The Secret Garden. Mary, contrary as can be, has been transplanted from the warmth of India after the death of her parents from cholera. There, in the Welsh country side, she has one request of her distant, reclusive uncle “Please Sir, Can I have a bit of earth?” And with a bit of earth, her whole world changes.

Have you moved a lot and struggled to belong? What did it take for you to feel a sense of belonging and home? For some people it’s a “bit of earth” and for others it can be a vocation. Readers, weigh in!

Take a look at this slide presentation from the NY Times! It will give you some great pictures of the New Roots farm stand in the City Heights neighborhood in San Diego.

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/10/09/us/20111010-REFUGEE-3.html