A Life Overseas – On Safety & Sanity

Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

CALL THE MIDWIFE, SEASON 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety. 

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe? 

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next. 

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well. 

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew? 

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving. 

Here are a few things that may help: 

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says  “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth. 

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand. 

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis. 

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity. 

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision. 

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.” 

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response. 

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn: 

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

ROBYNN BLISS

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

On Expectations and Finding Home

Stories with quote

It was around two years ago that Rachel Pieh Jones did a series on her blog called Painting Pictures – Third Culture Kids Series. She hosted a variety of people with a multitude of thoughts and perspectives and the series was excellent. Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg* contributed an essay to her series called “A Whole Self.” She began that essay with these thoughts: 

The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.~Ruth van Reken

“I don’t really know how to answer that,” said my friend, also a psychologist, in response to my question, “Where’s home?” To be fair, I knew it was a loaded question for him because I am familiar with his background. His father is English, his mother Lebanese/French and he was born in Qatar. He has lived in several different countries in his life, eventually settling in Beirut with his wife. He went on to say that he feels there is a fundamental difference between himself and his wife. “She has her place. Beirut is ‘home’ for her, and I know she has a settledness that I lack. I don’t know where ‘my place’ is, and that internal restlessness is always with me. It feels like a sore spot that I can’t help but keep poking to see if it still hurts. It always does.

There is a lot more to that essay and I urge you to take a look but what I want to post today is the writer’s response to a question I posed through the comments:

What have you found with ATCK’s (Adult Third Culture Kids) who go on to raise TCK’s? I seemingly went through none of this [trying to find home] as long as I was living overseas, but it hit so hard when we moved to the United States….why did all of this not surface earlier overseas? What have you found in your work around ATCK’s who stay in one place after being raised globally vs. ATCK’s who move from place to place?

Her response was wise and insightful and so I wanted to share it.

Many of the issues of being a TCK don’t show up while in the formative culture because the “Mental Supervisor” that governs our processing is almost always on duty. We are mindful of the fact that every encounter has the potential to blow up into something ugly/huge/shaming/insulting/whatever, and we monitor our responses accordingly. On a subconscious level, we never forget that we will never be Korean/Indian/Whatever. (It’s part of the reason that many TCKs/ATCKs experience a sense of ‘freedom’ in flying away from the foreign country. The Mental Supervisor goes “off duty” and there is a sense of relaxation/relief.)

We often have a grace for ourselves in the formative culture that we do not have in the identified culture. In other words, we have completely different expectations. This is also true of others in both the formative culture and the identified. We will be excused for our cultural mistakes in the formative culture much more readily than in our identified culture, and so we experience a sense of criticism, judgment, and censure that may be more obvious and open than it is in the foreign place.

In my work with ATCKs, I’ve found that they tend to fall into two camps – those who cannot tolerate being too long in one place and who usually end up overseas again, and those for whom the idea of moving overseas makes them feel physically ill. This group looks for a place of permanence, a place to belong – to make home. This doesn’t mean they don’t continue to feel lonely or unconnected, but this group tends to eventually find a measure of security, both mentally and emotionally in the feeling of permanence – as in, “I’m NOT moving.”

The former group become almost perpetual nomads, and it is this group that I see most often because they are endlessly looking for something that they have never defined. Until they do, of course, they won’t find it.

On finding a therapist: I always suggest to people who ask me this that they ask the therapist how much work they’ve done with refugees & immigrants. Not second or third generation, but people who’ve come to America (or in my case, Canada) within the last 10 years. If they’ve not had any exposure to this demographic, I suggest they keep looking. The other alternative that has worked is to ask the therapist to read the book Third Culture Kids. If the therapist is willing, then very likely, working together will be beneficial. If the therapist refuses, keep looking.

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I will close with her words at the end of the article she wrote for Painting Pictures: 

We, you and I, work together to build a balanced perspective of the formative culture, the current culture, and the values common to both. We explore how many people confuse principle and practice, and thus become rigid or inflexible, incapable of adapting to new situations and circumstances. As you identify the values that are important to you, we then figure out how those values are manifesting in the current culture. We talk about unresolved grief – a lifetime of losses, accumulated mostly without the opportunity to mourn. We make Stones of Remembrance. We laugh. We cry. I am witness to your rage of letting go. Not only of the hurts of the present, but also of the wounds of the past, never truly acknowledged in the effort to be accepted in the formative culture. Together, we clean out that deeply buried reservoir of the flotsam and jetsam of relational fractures, wounded self, and thwarted or bent dreams. And the whole time, we keep coming back to the work of defining ‘home.’

Now its your turn! I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Whether you know an ATCK, are one, or work with them, what are your thoughts on giving grace in the formative culture, and withholding it in the identified culture? 

With thanks to Rachel Pieh Jones for her series Painting Pictures and to Dr. Susannah for her thoughtful response to my question!

*Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg is a Canadian behavioural health psychologist traveling the world on a busman’s holiday. Bossy from birth, compassionate by choice, and funny by accident, Dr. Susannah writes about anything that catches her attention. Follow her on twitter.

TCK Identity and Spelling Confusion

spelling differences

It’s that Third Culture Kid identity thing again. If our souls don’t show the confusion we feel, our spelling certainly does.

Is it color or colour? Honor or honour? Favor or Favour? Neighbor or neighbour?

Is it caliber or calibre? Center or centre? Fiber or fibre? Theater or theatre? Tire or Tyre?

The red F on the spelling quiz tells us we are wrong, but how can we be wrong when just a year before we were right?

And the spelling moves on to words and phrases and grammar:

One year it’s “Put your jumper on!” and the next it’s “Put your sweater on!”. In one country we’re going to the football game, across the ocean in the U.S we’re going to the soccer game.

We take the subway on Saturday and, after a transatlantic flight and jet lag, we take the Tube on Monday. We eat chips with a sandwich one day, and crisps the next. We buy our medicine and our shampoo at a pharmacy or drugstore in one country and at a Chemist shop in another.

And that doesn’t even include the boot and the trunk, the barrister and the attorney, the flat and the apartment, the nappy and the diaper.

(Let’s not even go into the words that would offend like rubbers and erasers.)

All of this can range from funny to embarrassing to irritating. But the stories created from these differences are priceless. So as you think about queues and lines, prams and strollers, lifts and elevators, I ask you to embrace your dual identity and tell us your biggest language gaffe, whether it be in English or another language, through the comments.  

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broccoli & cheese muffinsToday’s muffins from Stacy are savory and look like they would be delicious with a winter soup. Take a look at Broccoli & Cheese muffins by clicking here or directly on the picture. Stacy is also going to have some amazing holiday recipes this week so you may want to bookmark her blog.

Taper, Trim & Snip – A Journey Around the World Through Haircuts

English: Most cosmetology and beauty school pr...

Today’s post By Robynn was originally published in 2011. Today we offer it to you again as there are far more readers than Communicating Across Boundaries had at that time – Enjoy! 

One of my ridiculous claims to fame is that I’ve had my hair cut in 9 countries. It may seem a silly thing to say at a dinner party or over coffee with a friend, yet remembering those nine countries keeps me connected to my story while at the same time holding out hope for a trim in a tenth country somewhere, sometime!

Pakistan

Growing up in Pakistan meant many childhood haircuts. The ones where I’d sit on the edge of a charpai (rope bed) in our courtyard so mom could cut my bangs, or perch on one stool on top of another outside Utopia house in the summer with the wide expansive views of the Himalayas and my chin tucked into my chest so the back of my hair could be trimmed by Auntie Carol. Then there were the boarding school haircuts in dorm rooms—some quickly and surreptitiously done by friends by the light of flashlight, others by dorm mothers with proper plastic sheets and the hair cutting tools to taper, trim, and snip!

Canada

Returning to Canada for college meant inexpensive haircuts for a dollar downstairs outside the student lounge by college girls anxious to earn extra pocket-money. After graduating and moving to the big city I could afford a haircut by Blair at Blessings and Co –a stylish, extravagant salon with warm lighting and classical music in the background.

Mexico

One Christmas my cousins and I travelled down to visit my aunt and uncle who were staying in Southern California. On Christmas day all 5 of us descended on friends wintering in Yuma, AZ in their RV. Vera cooked up a turkey in her miniature oven and prepared the fixings on her tiny stove. We ate Christmas dinner around the picnic table outside. On Boxing Day we decided to cross over into Mexico. I had needed a haircut so why not in Mexico? The back alley beauty parlour proudly boasted 4 women in floral aprons all sitting around gossiping in Spanish with nothing to do. They were thrilled for the business and for the distraction. “Haircut?” I enquired. Off they prattled an excited affirmative. They decked me out in a green sheet and started in. “Taper?” one asked. “Yes, taper it up in the back but then keep the longer layers in the front. Don’t cut my bangs! Cut it short over the ears.” I made my wishes known. “Taper?” she repeated, it was apparently the only English hair word she knew. She kept saying it as she cut and primmed and pranced all over my head, “Taper?…. taper?… taper?…” I kept smiling and nodding, “Sure!”

India

Lowell and I eventually married and moved to India. After a futile attempt to grow my hair so as to look more like my neighbors, one of my most notorious haircuts involved a four star hotel in Delhi, a friendly beautician, an excellent haircut and, at no extra charge, a terrible case of head lice! There was another memorable haircut from a friend who had a beauty parlour in her home. When I got home, Lowell, who isn’t particularly observant about things like hair, asked, “Is it supposed to do that in the back?” My sweet friend had hacked a chunk of hair out of my style. It took several months to grow it out!

England

One year as we were headed back to the US for meetings, I emailed ahead to ask my friend Dianne in New Jersey to please make me an appointment for a haircut immediately after we arrived and before the meetings began. Our route had us going through Kuwait City. There we encountered technical difficulties and were put up in an airport hotel for 24 hours. Next stop was London. Because we had missed our ongoing connection we were once again graciously given a room at The Edwardian Airport Hotel –the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in—for another 24 hours. Knowing I had missed my appointment in NJ, I walked down to the lobby of the hotel and discovered one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had at one of the highest prices I’ve ever paid!

Thailand

There was a haircut in Huahin, Thailand. Actually there were two. The first one, where the hair cutter (again) chopped off a little too much resulting in a hole on the side of my head. This was directly followed by another where a fellow traveler and tourist made a brave attempt at correcting it with a towel over my shoulders and a pair of nail scissors in the hotel lobby!

United Arab Emirates

A trip to the UAE to visit friends resulted in a luxurious experience in a posh beauty parlour. The Arab women, free from their black robes and public restraints, were chatty and outgoing. The latest fashions were uncovered, beautiful black hair was let loose. There was a vibrant intimacy in the air. Nails were painted, unwanted hair was waxed off arms and legs, faces were massaged with fragrant creams and oils, eye brows were shaped with dancing threads and of course hair was washed, cut and coiffed. It felt to me like I had entered a strange new mysterious world. It was a sensual and sizzling place. And I had my hair cut there!

Nepal

Kathmandu provided me a haircut at a funny little roadside parlour. The walls were covered in laminated pictures of lovely Chinese women with modern hairdos and Bollywood movie stars. The hair cut was inconsequential but I remember my senses being blasted with poignant incense burning, the garish vermillion paste and grains of rice on the forehead of my hair cutter and loud raucous blaring of those same Bollywood stars blasting their tunes.

Years ago a group came from Kansas to visit some others in Varanasi, the city in North India where we lived. When I heard that one of the visitors was a hair stylist I begged for a haircut! Judy popped by our house and there in the middle of our dining room on the banks of the Ganges river she cut my hair, another friend’s hair, and our girls’ hair. It was such a treat: a good haircut right in our own home.

United States

Now that we’re in Kansas that same Judy cuts my hair monthly. Coming from my world, it seems shamefully extravagant to have a good haircut that frequently. I pop over to her house and she cuts my hair in a room tucked off her dining room. Judy previously worked in a high-end salon and now works out of her home. She massages my scalp with a conditioner that smells expensive: all coconut and pineapple lather. She massages my soul as we talk about significant things: marriage, and grace and God. When the cut is done, she styles and spritzes and sprays and pretends that I’m a wealthy client.

Pakistan, Canada, Mexico, the UAE, England, Thailand, Nepal, India and of course here in the US… mine is a story punctuated by interesting haircuts in far off corners of the world. I wonder if and when the 10th country will be added to the list. On occasion I regret the places I’ve been where I failed to get my haircut! Even as I settle into the Midwest, my soul and my hair long for an adventure somewhere in a far off corner of the world sometime soon!

Where have you had your hair cut? Would love to hear through the comments? 

Re-post: Bright Pink Razais

Before Fridays with Robynn began, Robynn did a piece that I loved. I’m reposting today as Communicating Across Boundaries has so many new followers that have not seen this amazing piece. Enjoy Bright Pink Razais.

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We have two little girls that began their childhoods in India. Just before we brought them to the US they received bright pink razais for their birthdays. Each razai was bordered with a red, black and quite pink block print. They were gloriously Indian. They were cozy and comforting and warm. The girls loved those blankets.

The razais covered their beds those last months in India. They were the last things packed in to the suitcases for the long journey into their new world. They were the first things unpacked in our new home here in Kansas. The pink bulky comforters were immediately spread on their new bunk beds on top of the pale bedspreads  provided by generous women from our church. In a way the razais represented the identity of these little girls.

The razais said” We are Indian. We are bright, we are alive and we are not from here. We are different.”

Traditionally a razai is a thick cotton stuffed comforter. A large brightly patterned cloth bag is blown full of white fluffy cotton. That stuffed balloon is sewn shut, trampled down and harnessed with stitches and knots to keep the wild, wind-blown cotton in place. These blankets, to the uninformed might seem like carpets. They are heavy and immovable. During the winter in the villages, when the goats are tethered and the water buffalo are fed, families circle around a metal brazier filled with hot coals. A thick razai covers the coal plate and everyone’s toes and knees and arms. And under the light of a lantern and the weight of a razai stories are told, rumours fabricated, news exchanged. The razais serve a limited purpose each year. The temperatures drop surprisingly low in the desert. But the winters are short and the razais are locked into large aluminum trunks for the long summers. Modern razais are filled with polyester. They’re much lighter in weight, easier to wash, easier to roll and to store. But the colours are still as vibrant and the purpose is still the same.

Over these last 4 years since our return to North America the girl’s beloved razais have served as tents, as sleeping bags, as magic carpets, as reading companions, as dear friends. Although now our girls have picked more subtle bed covers, the hot pink razais remain among the blankets. Our older daughter prefers to have her Target-purchased, light pink and pale green floral bedspread on top of her razai. It’s still there, but not as visible as it once was. She still pulls it up to her chin at night, sees it, smiles and reaches for the bedspread.

Our younger little girl, however, vacillates between her two options. Some days the bright Indian blanket is on top, other days her lavender and mauve striped comforter rises to the surface. She’s our child that struggles to remember India. And it grieves her. I can see it on her face. The razai for her assures her that her birth place is a vibrant part of who she is. She snuggles up under that reassurance with stuffed elephants and tigers to keep her company. Some mornings the American cover is kicked off. On other days the pink razai is balled up at her feet and her only covering is her newer, softer bed spread.

I pulled the pink razais out of the wash machine yesterday morning and tears flooded my face. It comforts me to have bed-clothes from Asia enveloping my girls as they sleep. Somehow the connection to my own Pakistani childhood is strengthened. These heavy, bright, seemingly silly blankets keep me warm and remembering in the cold blast of a place I still struggle to settle into and embrace.

Bloggers Note: Just a reminder that Fridays posts are written by Robynn Bliss (née Allyn), a fellow Third-Culture-Kid and invisible immigrant. A Canadian who grew up in Pakistan, she married an American and then lived in India for many years. She has entered into the western hemisphere and now lives in Kansas with her husband Lowell, and three children Connor, Adelaide and Bronwynn. She is as bright, alive and colorful as her writing.

The Galaxies Within Us – A Guest Post

Today I am delighted to introduce you to Jenni Gate. Jenni and I met online through another third culture kid. It was instant connection and we have said more than once that we have lived parallel lives, the most obvious being both of us graduating from high school in Pakistan, two different schools, in the same year. Read more about Jenni at the end but for now enjoy this beautiful post on memories within. 

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I am a universe with the memories of each place I’ve lived orbiting around my brain like stars within a galaxy. 

world, globeEach TCK or global nomad carries the memories of all the places lived in their own unique universe.  When we discuss our experiences, we offer a shimmer, a glimpse into our individual universe. A scent or a word spoken in just the right way may trigger a flood of memories, like a meteor shower crashing into a planet, carrying the memory of one culture as it impacts another and another and another. In an instant, we remember every moment we had to say a good-bye or every moment we were the new kid at school. When our planets collide, the shock of one culture compared with another, we may be immobile until we understand the new realm of experience, the new rules of gravity, the new physics of our interactions with one another.

Worlds of memory are packed away inside us, pushed into the dark matter of our minds.

I first realized this when I started writing memoirs of a life growing up globally. I began describing some of the people who took care of us when we were little. Like most westerners living in the Third World, we had household staff. In Benghazi, Libya, we had a neighbor who was about 12 years old. She loved to keep my mother company, eager to help bathe us and dress us and comb our hair when I was an infant and my older sister was 3 or 4 years old. In Nigeria, we had Marta, a nanny who carried us, fed us, played with us, and babysat us when our parents were out. We also had Ussman, who organized every aspect of our lives.  In Kinshasa, we had Mousa, a timid, quiet man who cooked and cleaned and looked out for us.  In Islamabad, we had Rafiq and our cook Ashraf, who made incredible after-school snacks to please us.

As I wrote about each of these people, people I once loved as close as family, it dawned on me that with each move, we said good-bye to people we loved and trusted. We never took time to grieve these losses.

I began to categorize the things we lost and the things we gained. I listed schools, toys, games, houses. I listed holidays and cultural norms. I listed identities. There was Jenni the ballerina, Jenni the swimmer, Jenni the hockey player, Jenni the cheerleader. I listed pets. We left so many pets behind when we moved. We were grateful for those we moved with us. We left pets with close friends and distant acquaintances; we left pets behind into the unknown during wars and evacuations. We got to a point that we refused to get large dogs because they could not come with us when we moved, and it was too hard to separate from them.

We gained new insights into religions of the world. We gained cultural norms and social expectations. We gained new friends, new enemies, new people we may or may not remember. We gained languages. We gained dreams and hopes, and new ways of perceiving. We learned that the universe was open, and the infinite is possible.

Each time we move, we pack up our memories along with our possessions. Sometimes the boxes that hold specific memories aren’t opened again for years, if ever. We look to selected memories to help define us, clinging to a whisper of what we might have become if we had followed a certain trajectory or lived our lives in one place. We do this because with each move, part of our identity is packaged into its own separate planet containing memories, cultural norms, activities, hobbies, friends, pets, places and people that we may never do or see again. These memories inevitably spin from our minds as we turn to new experiences, new cultures, new planets to be explored and integrated into our universe, always seeking a foundation we can call our planet earth – home.

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Jenni was born in Libya, and as a child she lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Washington DC area.  As an adult, she has lived in Alaska, England, and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

With a childhood enriched by travel and diverse experiences, Jenni learned early that the only constant in life is change, and she developed skills to manage each change as it happens.

She has worked as a paralegal, a mediator, a small business consultant, and a writer. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. She blogs at nomadtrailsandtales.com.

Time to Say Good-bye

English: Varanasi, India as seen from Ganga river.

When we left India, back in May 2007, we left with the idea that we would return. I’m not sure we really said goodbye.

But our story changed.

Even after we made the decision to not return to India, our best friends, Steve & Ellen, strongly suggested that we go back to India to say a proper good-bye. They said it for the sake of our souls. They said it for love of our children. They based it on many other families they’ve known whose children have been deeply affected by such a sudden and thorough uprooting.

Saying good-bye is important.

I had the opportunity to say goodbye when I accompanied four friends from Kansas to Varanasi in 2008. Lowell had that opportunity when he made the grueling trek back to sort out our belongings (with the invaluable help of my parents and the community there!) in 2009. But our kids have never had that chance.

It’s been on my heart for several years now but the timing has never seemed right. However, as Lowell and I have talked and prayed we think maybe now it’s time! This year, if we can afford it, we’d like to take the kids back to India to visit! Our plan is to take them out of school in December. We’ll visit some of our old favourite places. We’ll eat some of our old favourite foods at old favourite restaurants! We’ll visit our old home, the place where Connor and Bronwynn were born, we’ll visit old friends, we’ll see the kid’s school.

We told the kids this plan on Christmas Eve. With three personalities we got three vastly different responses. All three reactions reinforced that it seems to us to be a good thing to make this return trip.

Bronwynn squealed with delight. She jumped up and down. She’s our child who struggles to remember India and it troubles her. Somehow she knows it’s an important part of her identity but she can’t remember. Hearing the news she was thrilled!

Adelaide is our planner. She craves order and organization. When she heard the idea she immediately wanted details. When would we leave? When would we return? How will this affect her GPA? What about her December finals? Did we already have tickets?

Connor, who most solidly spent half his childhood there was the most difficult to discern. He was laying on the floor. He turned on his side and went silent. Soon tears started to flow down his cheeks. When we pressed him to understand his emotional response he said, “I don’t know if I can handle India again.” Lowell and I cried with him. What stresses does Connor still carry?    How much of our own burnout and depression—the things that drove us from India–was transferred to his small shoulders and soul?

Certainly Lowell will have work to do while we’re there. But admittedly and unashamedly, our main reason for returning to say goodbye is for our Connor, Adelaide and Bronwynn.

Their stories demand a closing chapter on India! Their souls matter and it seems an important trip to make for their sakes. They need to say good-bye.

A Post Script: Connor came to me two or three weeks after we initially told him about the trip and said, “I think I can do it mom. I think I’m ready to face India again,” he hesitated a moment before continuing with a grin, “And I’m going to eat all the Tandoori Chicken I want and you’re not going to stop me!”

The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part Two

Pakistan - Lower Bazaar MurreeThe response to “The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part One” was overwhelming. It struck a chord in many of us and Cecily’s vulnerability allowed us to see ourselves in her story – different passport countries but similar narratives. Today Cecily brings us Part Two of her post on The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid. If you missed Part One take a look here.

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You can be arrogant about different things. The rich and wealthy are often considered arrogant by people less well off. Smart people can be arrogant about their brains, sporty people about their brawn. I watch Survivor (my fave show) where the arrogant contestant is a staple of the cast line up every year. In one particular season the good-looking girl was the arrogant one. She created groups and excluded others depending on their ‘hotness’ and ‘cuteness’.

No matter what area of life arrogance shows up in, it’s always an attitude of superiority. Arrogance seeks to diminish the personhood of another based on not matching up to certain criteria, usually determined by the arrogant person. It’s one person saying to another, “You’re not good enough because you don’t tick my boxes.”

I had a lot of boxes when I was a young adult.

The things I valued included being smart, educated, globally-aware with a broad outlook on life, well-travelled, interested in social justice, opinionated, hard-working, straightforward, sensible, clear about your goals, kind, funny and a good conversationalist.

All of those things were fine in themselves. In fact, they were better than fine. They were good, worthwhile, valuable, necessary and community-changing. The problem was that if other people didn’t match up to my standards, I dismissed, disregarded, disdained, disrespected and even despised them. My version of being human was better than theirs. Of course, I hid it – or I tried to. But you can’t stop arrogance leaking out the cracks.

As a third culture kid I put on arrogance as a protection. It was hard to fit nowhere and always be on the outside of every group. I didn’t know the rules of the culture I was supposed to belong to and I didn’t have the group knowledge that my peers took for granted. I didn’t like feeling like I was second best; an oddity; that girl with the funny accent.

It hurt. A lot.

So I created my own identity where I didn’t have to be worse than everybody else. In my version of the world, I was better, for a whole variety of reasons.

It wasn’t until later, when I was older, that I realized that this didn’t really work so well. For a start I was lonely. With every strong wind I wobbled precariously on the pedestal of my own making. And when I did finally fall off, it was hard to accept that I wasn’t perfect, and even harder to accept that I needed help.

Shedding my TCK arrogance meant taking a new look at the lives of the people I was living among. They weren’t second best, small, trivial or stagnant, like I had always thought. They were just lives. They were just people.

I also had to take a look at myself and ask the question: what am I trying to protect myself from? Grief, yes. Hurt, certainly. But most of all, the idea that I am second best. Having a truer perception of myself in relation to others and God helped me be brave to feel the grief, experience the hurt, and know that I am loved, just as surely as others are too.

For a while I felt invisible in my new identity.

It felt as though without the armor of superiority, no-one could see me. But it wasn’t true. People could always see me. The difference was that now I could relate to them. I didn’t have to get rid of the boxes I ticked for myself, but I could now value other people’s boxes just as much.

Maybe not all TCKs are like me and put on arrogance as protection. Even so, there is still often a perception that we are know-it-alls and show-offs, often simply because we have different knowledge to the people around us.

I remember as a little girl on furlough in Australia expressing surprise at the size of the garlic bulbs in the supermarket. “That’s a lot bigger than in Pakistan,” I said to my cousin, who promptly turned up her nose at me.

“Well, in Australia, that’s how big garlic is,” she said sniffily. I could see she was upset but I had no idea what I had said.

I only understood it later in life when I met an exchange student at uni.
“Back home we do this,” she said. “In the US we do that.” I found it boring at first. And then I found it insulting. “I have such great times with my really great friends back home,” she said. “I really miss them.”

“If it’s so great, why don’t you go back there,” was my immediate thought. “Aren’t we good enough for you?” And all of a sudden I realized why my cousin had been upset about the garlic. All she had heard from me was “Pakistan this and Pakistan that” and she was tired of it. Didn’t her experience count for something too? Couldn’t I just start living where I was?

Children blurt out what’s on their minds, but as TCK adults we have a choice; we can constantly talk about our past experiences and places we’ve been and risk being thought arrogant and difficult to get on with. Or we can live more fully where we are, embrace what’s around us and be aware that when we bring other knowledge and experience to the conversation we need to do it with respect for the people we are with and the culture we are in.

Cecily Paterson blogs at www.cecilypaterson.squarespace.com. She is the author of an award-winning memoir, Love, Tears & Autism, and recently published her first teen novel, Invisible, available free as an e-book at iTunes and smashwords.com and cheap at Amazon.com.

Home – Cecily. Mostly.

cecilypaterson.squarespace.com

For more essays on third culture kids take a look at Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging available here: 

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Home in “Quotes”

20130108-074643.jpgA blog post I read a while ago once again highlighted the “home” dilemma for Third Culture Kids. ExpatAlien wrote about going “home”. Significant to me were the quotes that framed the word.

She didn’t say “I’m going home she said “I’m going ‘home’“.

The reality is that home is often in quotes–it’s the way we can emphasize the ambiguity we have when it comes to calling places home. We can’t put it in quotes when we speak, but when we write? When we write the word we can use quotes to silently communicate a million thoughts and feelings.

It’s a fascinating and effective tool. It speaks what we can’t say; it emphasizes what we feel deeply, but can’t always articulate.

It is home in quotes.

Much has been written about “home” for the TCK; this is a central theme of both our journey and longing. In July I wrote a post called “Where the Story Begins” and opened it up to people to share stories of ‘home’. Outasiteoutamind shared that she wrote an essay years ago called “Home is Where I Feed My Cat”. Robynn said “Home is where the story ends” bringing attention to the end goal and recognizing that she is simply a sojourner on earth, here for a short time.

Perhaps it’s because I’m frustrated with my neighbors, perhaps it’s my government issued grey cubicle, but as the New Year begins home in quotes is coming up again. I am facing the restlessness that is so familiar, the longing that leads me to an airplane and suitcase (or at least to a travel website).

I don’t want to contemplate, analyze or philosophize. I want to open it up to you – what is home to you?

Whether you are a third culture kid or someone who has stayed in the same place most of your life, you have a concept, a definition of home. What is “home”? Do you put home in quotation marks? Use your own definition or borrow from another, but share it in the comments section. Definitions have a way of providing clarity, and clarity can heal.

What, then, is “Home”? 

Birthdays: A Cross-Cultural Intensive

When Robynn sent me this post this week I shook my head in amazement. You see what she didn’t know is that birthdays in the U.S. have been a picture of my cultural disconnect. I had no idea how to do them and by the end of each party felt alienated and insecure. I’ve come a long way but this post brought back many memories. Enjoy!

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Five years ago we celebrated our first round of birthdays since our return to the US after living in India for over a decade.

English: A child's birthday celebration

Children’s birthdays in India are a big deal. The first birthday is an event! When Connor turned one we had half the town on our roof for an evening of eating, drinking chai and celebrating. We served cake and samosas and sweets. The birthday boy went to bed just after the party started but that did little to affect the party! Guests came late and stayed later. It was a great evening.

In a land where traditionally infant mortality rates have been high that first birthday marks an accomplishment: the child didn’t die! He lived. His community kept him alive. And his life should be celebrated! Each subsequent birthday is a little less important but still the parties are significant and impressive. Fatalism is suspended for a day. Life matters and is honoured with a party!

Born on January 5th, Adelaide’s birthday was the first in our round of family birthdays that first year back in the States. We invited several of the girls from her class, her Sunday School friends, grandma and grandpa and her cousins to come. The invitations we sent out were perfunctory and admittedly, in my mind, a little odd. There was a space to put a start time and an end time. It struck me as strange, but I wrote that the party would start at 3:30 and it would end at 4:30. I really meant that people could come anytime between those times.

As the girls were dropped off I warmly invited moms and dads to stay too. They seem perplexed by that and declined my invitation. All except one. Sue stayed with her daughter Claire. In India, birthdays are a community experience. Parents accompany their children to children’s parties. Often whole families come and enjoy the cake, the conversation, the event.

Apparently it’s not like that here.

And the guests really did show up at 3:30! It was astounding. The doorbell started to ring at 3:26 and by 3:34 all the little girls had been dropped off.  We played some silly little girl games, we ate some cake and drank pink Koolaid…but we had barely gotten started when the parents started showing up to retrieve their daughters! They came promptly at 4:30. By 4:37 all the little girls were gone! I couldn’t believe it.

Thankfully Sue had stayed. At 4:20 she suggested, Perhaps Adelaide would like to open her gifts now? Ah the gifts….! In India gifts aren’t opened in front of the guests. There’s bound to be discrepancies in gifts. One gift might be really nice: a Barbie doll in glamorous evening wear, or a board game. Another gift might be simpler or of a lesser value: a package of cookies with an eraser, or some pencils. The giver of the lesser gift would be embarrassed. That would be awkward. And in a culture where the guest is god it’s important to ensure that no guest is shamed in any way. So to protect the guests, and ultimately the party, the gifts are opened later after everyone has gone home. But here, and I know this now thanks to Sue, the gifts are opened with the guests. It’s part of the party. The little girls squeal and enjoy watching Adelaide opening her gifts. They love the gift they’ve chosen and they want to see Adelaide’s joy at receiving it!

When I look back on that first birthday here in the US I’m so embarrassed. It was the shortest birthday party on record. It was rushed and disjointed. Parents waited awkwardly at the door for the girls to be done. Giggling girls were shoved into chaos and coats and pushed out the door way too soon. Plates of uneaten cake and half full glasses of pink abandoned in the cross-cultural wake of a party.

Adelaide was none the wiser. She loved her gifts and her Sleeping Beauty cake. She loved being surrounded by her favourite people, even if just for an hour. Turning nine was magical and full of surprise and joy!

I learned a lot that day. An Awful Lot! Crossing cultures is more than just boarding a plane with your passport tucked into your bag. It’s more than eating new and strange foods. It’s more than hearing new and strange sounds of foreign vowels in your ears.

Crossing cultures is about people and parties, about birth and living, about gifts and exchanges, about little girls and Sleeping Beauty cakes and pink Koolaid.

Adelaide turned nine that day, but I grew older and wiser in significant ways too!

As impossible as it is to believe, tomorrow that nine-year old turns 14. Happy Birthday Adelaide!

In Which I order Two 25 Kilo Turkeys in Cairo, Egypt

We did our shopping on the weekend. The turkey, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, jello (you must have jello) and so much more. As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn.

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Share your story in the comment section! 

Singapore-shaped Hole

Little can describe those first months in our passport countries after living overseas, We leave strong, vibrant expat communities and return to places where community seems absent or elusive; we think it’s there but how do we find it? We leave places where we have connected with other people from all over the world and created our own global neighborhood and move to places where that global neighborhood feels far away and the local neighborhood too provincial. Most of all we leave places that we have grown to love, where our hearts are marked by holes shaped like those places and filled with those people that we have left. 

Fall is typically a time when these moves happen. And so my niece Amy is guest posting today, taking us on a bit of her journey this fall as she faces a Singapore-shaped hole in her heart. 

Fall has historically been my favorite season. And this week, the DC metro area is experiencing the most gorgeous fall weather a girl could ask for. The trees are starting to change colors and there is a crisp breeze causing all the leaves to rustle joyously. But what really gets me is the smell; the smell of changing seasons is indescribable and intoxicating.

I find that there is a stirring in my heart; a nostalgic joy that has been long-lost is awakening in my soul. It is brought on by crunchy leaves, bright orange pumpkins, delicious apples, and that familiar and comfortable atmosphere of Fall that I know so well.

But every crunch of a leaf, flash of orange from a pumpkin, and juicy bite of an apple reminds me of the season I have left behind.

English: Overview of Singapore's financial dis...

The last two years of my life were spent on the tiny island of Singapore. This island is a bustling city nestled in Southeast Asia between Malaysia and Indonesia; rich in jungle atmosphere, cultural diversity, and the best food known to man. Though 6 weeks have already passed since I moved back to America, a piece of my heart still dwells with that little island. I long for the sticky, hot air and the smell of jungle and city, combined with a hint of durian.

I wonder when I will again feel that tropical atmosphere, eat chicken rice at the local hawker stall, or be the only white face crammed into a train car packed with Asian faces.

As I am experiencing the joy I have always found in changing seasons, my heart is being torn in two as I grieve what I have left behind. Some mornings when I wake up, the Singapore-shaped hole in my heart is almost too much to bear. I tell myself that I would trade the gorgeous Fall weather any day to be back on that tiny island.

But the grief will inevitably fade, and the joy of Fall will once again take over. And I will move forward into my new season, as we are all forced to do at times, but I do so having left a piece of my heart in Singapore and treasuring the piece of Singapore left in my heart.

 

Negotiating Cross-Cultural Escalators

Česky: Eskalátor, Palác Flora, Praha

I watched the little girl with fascination and amusement.

It was clear by her look of wonder and terror that she had never been on, or near, an escalator.  She stepped toward it hesitantly.

What was this moving staircase? And how on earth was she to ride it.

“Come on! It’s ok! We’ll ride it together” the little girl beside her was gently persistent.

They couldn’t have been more different. The one, dark skin with deep brown eyes and tight curls falling over her round face; the other fair with skin easily burned by the sun, blue eyes as deep as the other’s were brown. Hair past her shoulders, wispy, straight and blonde.

I wanted to covertly snap a picture, so taken was I with this interaction and the contrast. But I would have to be content with the picture in my mind and the words already forming in my head.

She continued to hesitate as the blonde girl coached her along.

“It will be fun, you’ll see”

I have no idea what their story was. More family members seemingly belonging to the blonde girl were at the bottom of the escalator, laughing and looking up, calling out encouragement.

It was a perfect picture of a cultural broker. The darker-skinned girl had never seen, much less ridden, on an escalator. She had no idea if she could trust it. She was in strange territory, away from what she knew, away from comfort and knowing the rules. The girl with her spoke encouragement until they both got on, holding hands.

I left as I heard their laughter echoing upwards.

When we’re crossing into foreign territory it’s comforting to have a hand to hold, someone who can, and will, tell us it will be okay. Someone who won’t mock, but gently coaxes, knowing that we’ll get on when we feel ready.

Sometimes the foreign land is an escalator, other times it’s a crowded bazaar, no matter – the feelings are the same.

We hesitate. 

We are part enamored and part terrified.

We are a good bit overwhelmed. 

The last thing I saw as I turned were two heads close together, one dark and one light, laughing and moving forward.

I wish all cross-cultural encounters were this successful. Would that more would result in two heads together in mutual laughter and hope, negotiating the escalators of cross-cultural living and communicating.

When Following Jesus Is a One Way Trip

I met Deanna Davis through blogging, and it was an immediate TCK connection. Deanna writes with honesty and clarity about her faith and her life as a TCK/ATCK. I think you’ll love this piece by her: “When Following Jesus is a One Way Trip”. There is more information about Deanna at the end of the post along with a link to her blog. Enjoy!

While living in Germany for several years, I was painfully aware of the fact that I wasn’t German.

Us at the airport in Leipzig in 2008, saying goodbye to more than just our friends.

If the language and culture were not daily reminders for me, then the Germans certainly were. It isn’t that my German friends didn’t genuinely love and value me. I know they did. But one of them let a revealing Freudian slip pass once that marked me. I forget the context of the conversation, but at some point she said, “Well, you know Deanna, when we (meaning Germans) talk about you…”.

I’m sure the dot dot dots were positive. And I guess I should be flattered that people cared enough to make me a subject of conversation. But all I heard was, “You guys talk about me? When I’m not there?” The meaning was clear. They were German, and when the Germans got together, I wasn’t one of them. I was the American on the outside. I didn’t really belong. Not like the Germans did anyway.

This wasn’t unexpected. Of course in my head I knew I wasn’t German. It’s just that I had made such a tremendous effort and so many sacrifices to try to fit in. It broke my heart to realize the place I’d called home for the last few years wasn’t really home.

Then there was the time we were back in the States over the holidays for the first time in years, sitting in our big-suburban-cookie-cutter church’s Sunday morning extravaganza. And I knew in that moment, in fact, I think my heart even used these words, “This isn’t home anymore”. The styles, the themes, the subjects of conversation. None of it spoke to me. The connecting points were gone and I remember feeling so out-of-place that I wept. My home wasn’t home anymore.

It was an “Oh cr@p!” moment for me. Was this what Jesus had asked me to give up as I followed Him overseas? I didn’t belong in Germany – and now I didn’t belong in the states either.

Had following Jesus made me homeless?

I can see now it was one of the unexpected costs of following Jesus. What before had been comfortable, normal and “mine” was no longer so. He had changed me. Changed my heart, the things I like, the things I got emotional about, the things I wanted to talk about, the relationships that anchored me, the very definition of words in my heart like home, success, normal, enough. I wasn’t the same person who had left America with Jesus a few years earlier. I had returned quite different – with more of Jesus and less of me. Not American. Not German. Homeless. And there was no going back.

I am coming to realize that sometimes following Jesus is a “forward-only” proposition. It is a one way trip. I can never again be the person I once was. I can never fully return to the relationships I had.  What used to satisfy or make me happy doesn’t anymore. And it has taken me the last 3 years to figure out something of what this means in my life.

It means that Jesus loves me too much to let me remain unchanged as I followed Him.  He loves me too much to let me return to the “me” I was before He and I started walking together. And we are never going back.

Deanna Davis is an ATCK (Adult Third Culture Kid) who grew up in a military family and lived and traveled around the globe. She is also a writer and blogger interested in the intersections between the eternal and the now. You can read more of her work at Intersections, her personal blog. The quote below gives a little glimpse into what she loves!

“If I could do anything I wanted with a day I’d spend most of it walking through a really beautiful place, reading something intellectually challenging, eating something spicy and then talking it over with someone I love.”

Outsiders

I found myself growing hot with frustration.

I tried to back up. “Let me explain. Both of you grew up here. You’ve lived in the towns where you now live since you were born. It means you know the rules; you ‘get’ how to do things, how things work. Those of us who move here? We don’t know these things”

I felt like I was speaking to children. The conversation began as I was telling some colleagues about our friends who just moved here for a year after living in Japan, Australia, and most recently, Romania. Their youngest daughter went to her first day of school yesterday.

“So?” was the reaction I got “Big deal.”

It was.

This was her first day of school in America. Ever. She’s in high school and she’s never attended school in the United States. Added to the equation is that this is a part of the country where people don’t move a lot. You meet many people who have lived here all their lives. Those of us who haven’t are the exception, not the rule. Both kids and school administrators are not used to having new comers. There is an assumption that everyone knows the rules, everyone knows how to fill out the forms, find out specifics, work the system.

So it was a huge, big, fat deal.

And to have to explain this felt more than frustrating. Everything seems easy when you know how to do it. But as Robynn said in a previous post, sometimes the “easy” is impossible.

So I tried to put the situation into a different context. “Imagine if you came with me to Pakistan and I wanted you to get something in the bazaar, or I wanted you to go sign in with the police. Would you know how to do it?” Silence “What if I said ‘but it’s so easy! everyone knows how to do that!'” I think I made my point.

I found myself yet again the outsider trying to defend other outsiders. It’s a role I have played often, but it still surprises me that people don’t understand. We become so comfortable with our normal that we consider it normal for everyone else.

It’s fall now and schools across the country have begun the school year. Elementary, high school, college, graduate school – it all begins in September. And there are a lot of outsiders, a lot of people who don’t have a clue where they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to get there.

They may not know that you are expected to wait in line in the United States or that in America the expectation is that you follow traffic laws. They may not understand that you don’t walk through a “drive” through to get your meal; they might be shocked at our public displays of affection to our pets and our partners; they probably don’t know that bargaining isn’t common – you don’t negotiate the price. And initially they won’t even know where to get the basics – eggs, bread, milk, and fruit.

We can step into these scenarios and be that person who makes life a little easier for the outsider, a little less daunting, a little more manageable. That person who reaches out and understands that some of these things really are big deals. The person that helps make the easy possible.

Do you remember what it was like to be an outsider? How did that work for you? Who was the person who came alongside you and walked you through the rules, the do’s and don’ts of life in another place? 

Re-Post: Memories of an Expatriate 4th of July

At 52 years old, I have spent more fourth of July holidays overseas, celebrating with other expatriates and a grudging realization that I like the holiday, than in the US. Today’s post is a re-post from last year when many of you were not CAB readers. Enjoy!

In capitals like Islamabad and Cairo, the celebrations were a highlight of our year. Free food and entertainment combined with celebratory fireworks and raffle prizes enjoyed by all passport holders. Our children loved the chance to meet with friends and eat the uniquely American fare of hamburgers and hotdogs coupled with canned soda and topped off by ice cream cups.

In Islamabad the parties were held at the large compound that housed the American club and pool. As life has become increasingly more precarious for Americans living in Pakistan, I have no doubt the celebrations are far more low-key if at all. Cairo’s venue was Cairo American College, the large international school compound and hundreds came to these events.

One of my best memories came in the summer of 1992. We had received news of the death of my maternal grandmother only days before the 4th of July. She was my only living grandparent and a compassionate soul who deeply loved all of her grandchildren. My mom and dad had left Pakistan after making it their home for 35 years in December of 1988 to be closer to her, knowing that her earthly body was declining and longing to be near her during the remaining time she had left.

On news of her death I experienced a deep longing for family. The longing hung over me like the dust hangs over Cairo-heavy and impossible to remove. Coupled with that I had given birth to my fourth child, a baby girl, just six month before. The only relatives who had met this personality-filled baby were my sister-in-law Terry and my niece, Christi-Lynn. With a tiny, still breast-feeding baby in my arms and three other small children, I wanted the comfort of blood relatives but knew that the trip was financially impossible.

It was during this time that we packed up our young family and set off by foot to the large 4th of July party. There my sadness was in temporary reprieve as our kids got their faces painted, ate hotdogs until they were sick and played with friends.

There was also a raffle. Companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Swiss Air had donated large prizes like nights in hotels, and free airline tickets to the lucky ticket holders.

At the time my husband was taking a summer Arabic course at the American University in Cairo. He had befriended other classmates, some American, who had come to our home to escape the inevitable culture shock that had overtaken them. He told them about the “Free party on the 4th!” and as a result a couple of them had come. They were on their way back to “real Cairo” when they saw Cliff and asked him if he wanted their raffle tickets. Realizing that he would lose nothing, he took them and so we had in our possession 8 tickets.

You know the rest of the story before I put it down – Yes, we won. Not one prize but two. The first was a breakfast at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, renowned for its amazing morning spread. The second? A round-trip airline ticket, generously donated by Swiss Air from Cairo to my choice of anywhere in the continental United States.

To say I was over the moon does not adequately describe my excitement, or gratefulness. I felt in that time when I needed to know my heart was heard, God with great grace gave me a free pass. Like I was losing at a game of Life, only to land on a “Win a TV Game Show, Collect $100,000!” only this was real.

While other 4th of July celebrations have come my way, each holding their share of beautiful fireworks, fun foods, and a grudging recognition that it is one holiday where I proudly carry my U.S. passport, none will ever come close to that day when God met me at an expatriate celebration.

Blogger’s Note: Our 4th of July holidays have changed through the years. They now include a barbecue with friends, watching fireworks while sitting on the beach and a small town parade. For those of you who are from the U.S – Happy 4th! To the many other readers who are not – thanks for bearing with me and hearing about this holiday! I plan to give equal recognition through a blog post to Pakistan Independence Day on August 14!

So.Many.Stories – The Trunk that Traveled the World

Today’s lovely post comes from Annelies Kanis. Annelies is a fellow third culture kid and we share Murree as a common denominator, all be it a generation apart! In this post she looks at a piece of luggage that has been on the journey with her. Read on….

The trunk that traveled the world now sits in our bedroom. It’s retired. It holds extra pillows for kid’s sleepovers, a sleeping bag that once went up the Kilimanjaro and posters from museums that will never find a spot on the wall, but that I can’t bear to throw out.

The trunk is old. I’m guessing it was made around the 1920’s, but maybe that’s just the period that I would like it to be from. A time when women had just gained their rights and there was a world for them to discover. And when they did, they packed all their lovely dresses into this trunk and danced the night away in exotic destinations.

When my parents moved to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees in 1985, they needed trunks to carry our belongings. I was nine, ready for a big adventure and ready to discover the world. Not many people move half way across the world with two kids, a blond Labrador and a lot of stuff. Most people go away on trips for a few weeks. They pack a bag and credit card for the things they forgot to pack. My parents had lived in Bangladesh years before and knew exactly what they’d miss. And those were the things they wanted to take along; items that didn’t fit into suitcases or backpacks. But where do you get trunks if people don’t use them anymore?

Before we left, my dad was director of a nursing home. He knew a few other directors and asked them whether they had trunks up in their attics; trunks that were long forgotten, much like the trips they’d made. Eight trunks came our way and on a sunny day my dad and a friend stenciled our names on them and gave each a number. A few months later they were packed and shipped. And after a rather long stay in customs in Karachi (and a very angry father), they arrived in Peshawar with most of our things intact. We were excited and happy to see all the things we’d packed away months before.

Then came March, and my sister and I went to boarding school. Two of the trunks were packed carefully with all the items on the boarding list. Everything had my name on it and all the clothes were clean and whole. We could never take all the toys we wanted, there were restrictions, so it was carefully determined which toy got to come along. The trunks made the trip up the hill to Murree with us and lived in the attic of the hostel once we’d unpacked. I have vivid memories of 8 girls in a room unpacking all their trunks at the same time. I don’t remember who carried the trunks up to the attic, but I do remember the excitement of seeing each other and later the many tears on that first night away from home. I never cried, I loved boarding. But it’s tough hearing all your friends sob themselves to sleep.

The excitement returned at the end of term, when our trunks came down the stairs from the attic and we literally stuffed all our things in them, ready to go home.

After three years of travel between home in Peshawar and school in Murree, the trunks went back to the Netherlands, filled with Afghan carpets, gifts for family and friends and many memories. My parents still have one or two and a drum filled with Pakistani and Afghan clothing.

I don’t think my trunk will ever travel again. While I plan on travel, I don’t plan on moving overseas and I now prefer Samsonite. And though we want to redecorate our bedroom and the trunk doesn’t fit into the scheme, it is staying. Not for it’s beauty, but for the stories it tells.

Annelies Kanis works as director of programmes at an NGO for children in the Netherlands and developing countries. She lives in Leiden with her two sons and husband. Annelies holds a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from Leiden University and has lived in Pakistan, New York City and Zambia.  

For more on the So.Many.Stories project click here.