So, You Want to go Back ‘Home’?

There come’s a time in the lives of most adult third culture kids, many expats, as well as immigrants and refugees when they want to go ‘home.’ Sometimes it’s after a short time of living away; other times it’s after years, but always it comes with a sense of great anticipation coupled with a strong shot of fear.

What is it like to go back home? How does it feel? How should I prepare? 

There is no stock answer to this, but perspectives from adult third culture kids who have gone back to visit can help.

I’m addressing this today, but I’m also opening it up to others. I would love to compile a set of essays with the common theme of “Going Home”. Do you write? Do you draw? Are you a poet? Think about contributing to a collection of “Going Home” essays and visual pieces! Send any ideas or contributions to communicatingblog@gmail.com.

The familiar and the new

When I stepped off the plane in Pakistan, it was all so sweetly familiar. My heart broke with the beauty of familiarity. This is the place I knew and loved, the familiar smell of chapatis and curry; the beautiful sound of the call to prayer; the sounds of childhood through Urdu and Sindhi speakers; the heat and beauty of bright fuchsia Bougainvillea – all of it was so sweetly beautiful.

But as we were driving from the airport and rounded a corner, I suddenly saw the newness of everything. New buildings, roads, bridges, and restaurants.  And then the new things that were not pretty. There was a massive garbage pile of bright pastel colored plastic bags and my heart sank with the sadness of waste marring what used to be empty land and palm trees.

It was the familiar and the new, such a visual representation of the paradox of being a third culture kid; the conflict of replacing the old memories with new experiences.

Be prepared to hate that you are “just visiting”

When you have lived in a place, it is incredibly difficult to “just visit”. It doesn’t feel right at any level. I wrote about this a few years ago here. We were visiting Cairo when I first remember this question.

It was in Cairo that we had watched three of our five children take their first steps.
It was in Cairo where our youngest two were born, three years apart. It was our community in this city that had loved us and cared for us through pregnancies and sickness; through post-delivery chaos and family crises; and through packing up and leaving when the time came. The apartment we lived in still had markings of our children’s measurements on the doorpost. We had seen these just a day before while with our friends.

Cairo had been home for a long time and it broke our hearts to leave. We said goodbye to all those things we loved so deeply. Rides in huge, wooden boats called feluccas on the Nile River; Egyptian lentils (Kosherie) with the spicy tomato sauce and crispy fried onions to top it off; friendships that had been forged through hours of talking and doing life together; a church that was one of a kind with people from all over the world.

So when the woman asked me the question I didn’t know what to say. A lump came into my throat and I willed myself to hold back the tears.

The words ‘Visit’ and ‘Live’ are worlds apart. Visit means stranger, tourist, one who goes and stays in a place for a “short time.” The dictionary definition is clear on this.
It goes on to add “for purposes of sociability, business, politeness, curiousity…”

By contrast, the word live means “to dwell, to stay as a permanent resident.”

The reality is that I no longer live in either Cairo or Pakistan (or Chicago or Phoenix). I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That is my legal address. I do not have permission to live or work in either of those countries, and at times it hurts.

While in a sense we are going ‘home’, in another sense we are just visiting. We have changed, as have the places that we love so dearly. My daughter once wrote that we belong to these lands where we lived, but they do not belong to us. Again, it’s being comfortable with paradox, with living between.

Understand that you may revisit feelings of grief and loss

When an adult third culture kid or expat suddenly finds himself or herself a stranger, a visitor in a land they once claimed, the grief is acute and necessary. There is no way around but through and trying to avoid the reality is not helpful.

The grief that washed over me in Cairo the first time I returned was deep and I wanted to bury myself in it. I wanted to be able to grieve with abandon, to cry the tears I had wanted to cry since leaving two years prior. I wanted to cry tears that would water the dusty ground that surrounded me, ground that had not seen water for a long time. But I couldn’t. 

Because indulging in the grief I felt at that moment would have taken me away from the place that I loved, the people who I loved.

The loss and grief that would come over me in waves when I visited Pakistan to work in flood relief was equally strong. But those times were woven into so many precious times of joy and belly aching laughter; times of reconnecting and hearing stories from people I had not seen for years. I willed the grief away so I would not waste the present time.

Don’t waste your present visit by dwelling on grief from your past. The grief has to come, it needs to come, but enjoy each moment, because that visit will be over all too soon. And the visit from the present may help heal some of the grief from the past.

Take the experience and weave it into the rest of your story

This is your story! Claim that story, map your journey, embrace the in between. We are so incredibly lucky to have these complex stories. No, we don’t always feel lucky, but with so much of the world facing displacement, we understand where others cannot. We can give empathy while others are silent in confusion. In the words of Anna Badkhen: “This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” We can be the people who take our feelings of displacement and use them to build bridges, use them to connect to others who are displaced, to find our voice in a world where people are lonely for connection.

Going back is a critical part of your story. Embrace it, don’t waste it, Because this I know, and I know it well: More difficult than a visit would have been no visit at all, far harder than facing my current reality would have been dreaming of the past in a country far removed and never getting to experience my beloved places again.

“The Story is not over; the journey continues….Somedays it feels as though it is still just beginning.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey


I realize I have always belonged everywhere at once: on the road; in liminal spaces…I have always belonged at the beginning of the world, and where it seems to end, where the sky meets the sea, where the sea meets the land, on a plane when the two become indistinguishable from one another and you can no longer tell if you are going home or leaving it.*


Remember to submit any contributions to communicatingblog@gmail.com. Deadline is June 15. 

*A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home by Jamila Osman 

About a Book….aka Kill Those Darlings!

Worlds apart promo

Some of you may remember a big announcement last year. It was about a book. A book that I was so excited about. I talked about it on the blog and on social media sites. I had a book reading and signing. But something just wasn’t right.

That book, that precious book where I let my childhood memories in all their vulnerability out into the world, did not sell. Meanwhile, my previous book kept on selling.

I couldn’t figure it out. It was so defeating and so depressing. I had been writing that book for eight years. What happened? Why was it so poorly received? I didn’t talk to anyone about it, because when you love writing and you want people to receive your words….well you don’t talk about the hard stuff.

Right after the book came out I had major surgery. While I had hoped to spend my recuperating days writing, instead I ended up just healing. It was the hardest and most humbling work I’ve ever done, and it was a fulltime job. Soon after that, I realized that my dad was entering into his final illness. I needed to spend as much time as I was able with my mom and dad, which is never enough time. He died in October, and soon after that, some of the stuff you never talk about on a blog happened.

And the book got lost in all of the stuff that was happening. But I would still think about this book. Why on earth did I write it? What did I expect? Dear friends from Pakistan were writing me regularly telling me they would never read the book. It was just too hard for them. So what was it for anyway?

I realized I hadn’t written it for them. I had written it for a far more general audience, but the book didn’t reflect that. I also realized some things about writing. Just as an artist puts their heart and soul into their art, we who write put our heart and soul into our words. We craft and recraft sentences. We look for meaning behind things that happen to us and we invite others into those events, hoping they too will find meaning. As Joan Didion says: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live….We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices….” 

Writing helped me to understand more about how important stories are to our understanding of others and ourselves. I thought more specifically about the third culture kid’s journey, the stories behind the arrivals and departures, the narrative that captured the sweetness of hello and the bitterness of goodbye.*

In the middle of all these life events, I did a book reading.  It was there that one of my friends asked me about the title. She said it so graciously, but I took the words to heart. “What about the title?” she asked. “Why did you choose to call it that?”

My friend is Israeli and Jewish – in other words, we come from different countries and different faiths, but she loved the book. Her words took root in my heart.

It was in early winter that Doorlight Publications reached out to me. They wanted to reprint the book. It wasn’t selling well. What did I think about retitling the book and adding a foreword as well as a section that would take the reader from reading about my story to writing about their own journey?

There is a phrase in the writing world that talks about killing your darlings. In other words, the things that you hold onto the most in writing sometimes need to be killed off, taken out, severed from the body of the book.

The title was my darling. I so wanted ‘Pakistan’ to be in the title. And it seemed to make sense that I would put faith in it. But it narrowed the focus of the book too much. The book was my journey through my developmental years in Pakistan and included so much more than Pakistan and faith. Would I be willing to kill my darling?

I would, and I did.

Just last week the book was re-released under the title Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey. I love it. I love the cover. I love the foreword by Rachel Pieh Jones, who is writing her own book to be released in 2019 by Plough Publishing. I love the ‘Mapping Your TCK Journey’ at the end, followed by book resources.

And I’m excited for this new start. You don’t always get another chance with a book, but I did with this one.

So would you give it a chance? Would you consider buying the book? I would love it if you did!

I would love to have you purchase the book! It’s on sale through Amazon and available wherever books are sold.

*Page 184 Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey


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