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.