You are the bridge builders and the listeners, the ones who understand what it is to live between.
You are the border crossers and the visa holders, the ones who say goodbye to a million friends, and make a million more.
You are the sorters and the packers, putting a world into a suitcase – the ones who know that packing up a suitcase and packing up a life are two different things. Into one you put your belongings, into the other – you pack your heart.
You are the language learners and the mistake makers, the ones who try to sort out grammar and idioms, ruefully accepting the good natured laughs that your language skills provoke.
You are the world news gatherers, catching your breath as you hear about a tragedy across oceans and continents that affect the people and places you love. Praying and hoping as you await news beyond the headlines.
You are the challengers of stereotypes, knowing that “No one is a single story.”*
You are the defender of accents, the one who knows that limited language ability does not mean limited intellectual ability; the one who knows that accents are the badges of honor in a world that needs connecting.
You are the ones who know the strength of ‘saudade’ and have cried tears of longing for what no longer exists.
You are the ones who can bargain for the best produce in five languages yet get paralyzed in the cereal aisle of your passport country.
You are the holder of stories and hidden experiences, the lover of all things travel, the one who knows what it is to be lonely on a Sunday night in an international or domestic airport.
You are the ones who know what it is to be displaced and culturally confused, the ones who long to end the refugee crisis and closed borders, the ones who speak out against policies that hurt people and shut them out.
You are the ones who feel the pain of closed borders and the sadness of unused tickets, the ones who are forever separated from so many places and people you love.
You are my fellow travelers and global souls, you are my friends and my family, you are my tribe. May you take comfort in your stories and your memories, your sacred objects and your soul friends.
May your life of movement help you to love more, judge less, and reach across the boundaries that divide knowing that all is not lost.
The train rounds a bend. The rest of the cars appear one by one, all tied to one another far into the distance It comes as a surprise to be tied to things so far back Nazım Hikmet, Human Landscapes from My Country
Recently I was thinking about an event in my childhood. It took place at the time of the Indo-Pak war – the war of independence for East Pakistan, the outcome being East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh.
As I remember, it coincided with a mono epidemic at our boarding school, where many of us were sent home early to recover from what used to be known as the “kissing” disease.
My parents were living in the city of Larkana in Southern Pakistan at the time, and we were the only expat family, the only English speaking family in the area. It created a unique family dynamic, one where we relied heavily on each other without even realizing it.
My brothers decided to build a trench in our front yard, a worthy act that could hardly have saved us from Indian bombs falling but was, nevertheless, a creative outlet. When finished, they proudly invited my parents and me to take a look. We were duly impressed, although secretly I remember thinking it didn’t look like it could survive an air raid. I’m not sure why I wasn’t involved in digging the trench, but knowing the princess that I was and continue to be, it was wise that I was on the sidelines – ever appreciative but not getting my hands dirty.
And so it went, my siblings and me. They were the ones that traveled with me through the same places and situations of our between worlds life. Home leaves, where we went through the painful process of trying to adjust to our passport country and the strangeness of New England for a short year before packing our bags to head back overseas; winters in the dusty, Bougainvillea laden homes in the Sindh region of Pakistan; long Punjabi church services listening to Miss Mall lead singing with her powerful bass voice; boarding school and the ups and downs of being away from home; camping in Kaghan valley with the monsoon season ensuring everything was damp; eating curry by the side of the road during family trips; falling asleep to the sounds of ocean waves hitting the sand during our yearly week at the beach; and so much more that went into our sibling journey.
The situations changed, but the main characters were always the same. Ed. Stan. Tom. Marilyn. Dan.
Until they weren’t. Until the actors, one by one, left the scene and it was finally left to me and my younger brother to continue the play. A few years later I would be the one to leave the stage and my brother would continue on his own. What used to be a chaotic and ever-stimulating conversation among siblings changed to a silent monologue, different for each of us.
If the time and sounds of childhood are marked by our siblings, then perhaps it is even more so for the third culture kid. The daily events, the arguing, the all out fights, but overall the undying loyalty to place and to each other that connects our memories.
“Remember that time in Greece when we ate cherries at the outdoor cafe?” “Remember that time in Japan when I fell into the fish pond outside the hotel?” “Remember the time in Murree when we were on the mountain during that storm and thought we would get struck by lightning?” “Remember picnics by the canal?” “Remember leaving for the beach in the wee hours of the morning, landrover packed tight with stuff?” “Remember baby turtles and Hawkes Bay?”
Remember? Remember? Remember?
We were named and claimed as members of a family, marked by faith and place. In life’s journey, we knew that siblings mattered; sometimes they were all we had.
In losing one of our siblings, we have lost not just a person, but a piece of place, a voice of our memories logged deep in our souls. We have lost a place at the sibling table as represented by Stan.
A friend recently captured this well in a comment written to me about a photograph:
I see in the photo and hear in the words that loss of places in a person too…the sibling. One of the precious few who embody all those places and things collected from those times, and in so doing, they are our truth-sayers about that unique snapshot of those two years here and three years there.
Siblings – those ones who represent the places we lived and the events that went with them. The ones who we will always have with us until they are no longer here.
When I began writing, I never set out to write about living between. I found however that it was impossible. When you have lived between for so long, of course it will come out in your writing. If we are are going to be honest writers, our earned fact and lived experience can’t help but make its way onto the page. And in sharing this lived experience, I’ve found others – whether writers or readers – who share this earned fact of living between.
I recently posed a question to some of those writers and readers. I asked them to describe what it was for them to live between worlds. The answers didn’t surprise me, but they did encourage me and offer insight that I needed. They made me feel like I was not alone.
To you who this day may be feeling alone, read what some others have said, and know that we are on this journey together.
It’s a Privilege…
It’s a rare and precious privilege for us to be able to live ‘between’ worlds, but I think that the price we pay is to forever surrender the option of utterly belonging – completely and without question – in a single place ever again. I think it’s a price most of us would willingly pay if asked in advance, but it’s often unanticipated. (Thinking a lot about ‘belonging’ today as I spend my first birthday in a new country just 6 days after arrival – my husband’s at work and I’ve not had a chance to build a new community yet. So thankful this isn’t my first international move and I can see past the fog of these early days to the inevitable lovely ones to come!) – Carolyn
“I find that in living between worlds I am forever focused on fitting in wherever I am, I have to struggle to define who I am anymore. As I age, I find I tire of this constant dance between cultures and tongues and I finally start to use and be thankful for my mother tongue English more, embrace my sloppier American way of dressing and eat my heart food of dahl bhat at least once a week – no matter what anyone says.” – Lizzy
“Honestly, it’s lonely. People in your host country don’t understand what you have come from, your culture etc and people at home don’t understand where you are and your new life, And living between the two, is lonely. Not saying life is bad and lonely etc. I feel so privileged to live where we do, and I love my home country a lot and miss it, but living between the two worlds – it can be lonely.” – Ally
It’s the Best and It’s the Worst!
“Sometimes its the best of both worlds, sometimes the worst of both. And for the worst bit, I uses to try to explain it but I don’t anymore.” – Katherine
It’s Missing Pieces of My Heart…
Never having all the pieces of my heart in one place. Always feeling like a piece was missing. – Chrissy
I Feel Foreign Where I Don’t Look Strange…
“I feel at home where I look like a stranger and I feel foreign where I don’t look strange – am homesick no matter where. And on top of that – grateful for the privilege to be where and who I am” – Jutta
It’s Like Being an Amphibian…
“It feels like, you’re an amphibian. You feel like you belong in those two worlds.” – Adella
It takes Humility and Humor….
“Visiting and having friends between worlds is exciting and wonderful if you can constantly remember to have humility and humor. Working between worlds is a lot harder and requires the same ingredients plus very careful, intentional, and polite communication about absolutely everything.” – Julie
Only Happy on an Airplane…
“I was told as a young missionary that missionaries are only really happy on an airplane. I don’t think that’s true any more, but there’s an element of anticipation in the “in between” where you’re so looking forward to those elements and people that you have been missing that you forget about all the things you’ll miss.” – Marianne
What it Takes from us in Roots, It Gives Back in Perspective….
“If a life of change has taught me nothing else, it is the truth of impermanence. How Things are now is not necessarily how things will be later. Which is a huge lesson to learn as well. Maybe what this lifestyle takes from us in roots, it gives back in perspective, just as you say- the seeing of both sides.”- Carolyn
“The first day between places- when you have been at both places and still feel exhausted from travel, is surreal.” – Amy
It’s a Narrative, Not One Point in Time…
“Our story of living between is not one point in time. Though you may meet us at one point in time, our lives are bigger than that. You may meet us at a point of sadness, of disconnect – and you assume that is who we are. That living between has made us sad. But that’s only one point of a much bigger story. Our stories are narratives of living between. The points of sadness and disconnect, of not belonging and feeling other are not the whole narrative. There’s the points of understanding displacement, of the incredible joy of discovery, the points of growing empathy from young ages, of taking that empathy and discovering that it is foundational to bridge-building, to seeing both sides. And then that glorious gift of travel that makes us feel alive, stirs us out of complacency, and ushers us into the broader world.”
It’s a narrative of privilege, of discovery, of joy, of empathy, and yes…. of loneliness. – Marilyn
What are your descriptions of living between? I would love to hear them.
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I know this brilliant woman, Alisha Paddock, who is working on her doctorate on the intriguing subject of sacred space. As part of her research she’s been studying the difference between space and place. Here’s how she briefly describes those differences at their very essence:
Space is an abstract concept and needs an identity, memories and certain behaviors attached to the space in order to change it to ‘place’. When people lose (their place and with it their sense of identity, their memories, their behavioral cues) because they have been displaced (by outside forces as refugees), or (by) travel, or because of a move, these people are re-placed and need to work at creating a new identity, defining proper behaviors for the new space, and staying long enough to create new memories. People need these types of connections not only to other people but also to places in order to feel grounded/stable/implaced.
This I Love Where I Live challenge highlights people that have chosen to create place again in a variety of new spaces. They are inspiring me to continue to settling, finding my new identity, creating new memories.
I grew up in ‘the boonies’ in Zaire, in central Africa.
I currently live in the capital city of Cameroon, in central Africa.
1. I love godly coworkers.
2. I love rain.
3. I love the quiet life – not lots of media competition for the family’s time or focus.
4. I love the forest around our house and yet we’re close enough to the city to get most products.
5. I love living next to the school where we work – only needing
transportation once a week.
6. I love being able to exercise outside in all seasons.
I grew up in Incheon, South Korea.
I now live in Manhattan, Kansas
I love Manhattan because it is a safe, very close-knit community.
Manhattan is quiet and peaceful. I love cities, don’t get me wrong. I love the culture and convenience of living in large cities. I don’t mind traffic either. But living in Manhattan, there is no rush or crowdedness or bad air quality due to the large numbers of cars and people.
Kansas State University provides numerous benefits for Manhattan residents. Sports and performing arts keep the community active and fun. Faculty and staff are heavily involved in community and local education institutions – helping young children dream big. Quality musical venues for young musicians are plenty.
People are kind and genuinely care about the community and the next generation.
Overall, the community is conservative – which I value.
American Airlines flies in and out of Manhattan!- enough said.
I grew up in Murree, Pakistan.
I live in Glasgow, Scotland.
I love Scotland as a country, it is beautiful, green, has large areas of unspoilt nature with lots of Mountains (283 over 3000 feet, google Munro), brilliant cycling, long distance walking, kayaking camping etc.
I have a good job which pays me well and provides lots of stimulation to achieve my best (I’m still working out how to achieve that without pushing myself beyond my limits).
My parents live an hour’s drive away and we see them relatively frequently.
I am Scottish and proud of it (even when our national sports team seem to continuously let us down), we have recently increased our political stance in UK and Europe.
There are many famous Scotts who have made some of the world most important discoveries (Flemming discovery of penicillin, Macintosh who made early waterproof raincoats, Macadam who introduced the layered format to road building and mixed it with tar to get the modern roadway).
Scotland has a strong Christian heritage and still has Christianity as a cornerstone of its legal system.
I was born in Libya, grew up in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Virginia, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
I am now living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I love living here because:
I don’t need a car, it’s possible to get around by songthaew or tuk tuk;
I love history, and there is so much history in this city and in this country;
Chiang Mai is beautiful. The old city is one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever lived in.
It’s far less expensive than Seattle, where I used to live and also loved.
This is an international city. Every day I meet people from literally all over the world.
I can easily travel to other Asian capitals, just a quick plane ride or bus ride away.
I learned when I was growing up that I needed to make a conscious decision to love a place before I moved there, and then I always do. The times when I have been unsure, I’ve been unhappy. I decided before moving to Thailand that I would love it, and I do. There are so many reasons to love where I live now, and the ones I listed above are just a few of many.
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Jonny and Yasmin got married on a beautiful day in New Plymouth, New Zealand. While hints of rain threatened in the morning, the afternoon was clear and sunny. It was perfect.
Yasmin is a kindred spirit and daughter of my dear friend Jenny. She is years younger than I am, but through background and personality we have a definite and unique connection.
Yasmin was first raised in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, an area known primarily because of Malala Yousafzai. Swat Valley is a ruggedly beautiful place with deep gorges and mountain streams that grow into rivers that run over rocks. Swaying rope bridges connect mountains together high above these rivers. This is the same Swat Valley where the Taliban shot a 14-year-old girl because she was a threat and the United States droned innocent civilians with one click because surely among the many innocent there would be one who was guilty.
At the time, much of Swat was stunning untouched terrain and Yasmin’s family, the McGrane’s, were the only foreigners most people had ever met.
While growing up, our family would vacation in Swat Valley, staying in a sturdy family tent or a rest house. When my husband and I lived in Pakistan with our first child, we too vacationed there, recording the trip through pictures taken of the two of us holding a baby and a toddler, steady as only the young can be on a rope bridge swaying high above a scenic river.
I didn’t meet Yasmin in Pakistan. I met her when she was ten years old and the family had moved to Egypt. Our families connected and developed a lasting friendship, challenged by miles of continents and oceans once we both left Cairo. I will never forget the night we left Egypt – a night when our hearts broke. The McGrane’s helped to pick up the pieces through a meal, talking, and a blessing through a hymn and a prayer.
Yasmin and I have both had the experience of learning to live well in places where we don’t always feel we belong. Though years and continents apart, her adjustment back to New Zealand in her teen years parallels that of mine in America during my college years. Both of us alternate between feeling at home and alien in our passport countries. After high school in Cairo and New Zealand, Yasmin went on to cho0se medicine as a profession and has already used her skills in resource poor settings, largely because of her background.
With this as our history, it was a gift to be a part of Yasmin’s wedding day.
After a ceremony at a church, we went to an old barn that was beautifully decorated with lights, brass, and white linen. We ate curry and naan served out of large, brass dishes and danced until our legs ached.
Speeches were given by those closest to the couple, and one minute we teared up while the next minute we were laughing. Because that is what life is – the poignant and the hilarious, the sacred and the ordinary all mixed up in a speech. It was when Yasmin spoke that I knew she had truly found her partner in life. As she looked at Jonny with the eyes of a bride on her wedding day, she said this: “In you, my heart has found a home.”
“In you, my heart has found a home.”
For the third culture kid, global nomad, refugee or immigrant, home takes on a life of its own. We search for it, we get angry about it, we try to find answers that will satisfy the questions we inevitably get, and we write about it. We talk about going home, but when we get there we find that it is no longer the home that we knew, and we are disappointed once again. Home eludes us and place betrays us until we exhaust ourselves and others with our quest.
“In you, my heart has found a home.” Yasmin has known many homes. Swat Valley, Peshawar, different places throughout New Zealand – but her words echoed what I know in my soul, even as I try to pretend that this is not true: Homes are not places, they are the people, places, memories, and events that span the globe.
I said goodbye to Yasmin at the airport, honored that she wanted me to come with the family to see her off on her honeymoon. We waved goodbye from the terminal window, and my eyes were misty as she walked away with the man who has given her heart a home.
I write this as I journey “home” from New Zealand. It has been a time of rest and warmth, and I am so grateful. I said goodbye to my friend Jenny outside security and felt the familiar choking in my throat as I said goodbye, both of us tearful. I know that I will arrive in Boston and feel alien. Alien until I am greeted by the man who has made his home with me for the last 31 plus years – and in him, my heart will be at home.
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Journey back with me to a city in France, in the late 60s, as I revisit my childhood as a third culture kid… :
As the cold and the damp settled over the French landscape, it seemed to seep through the walls of our house. Even our free range cats, normally night prowlers, huddled between our legs at night and slept on top of the radiator covers during the day. Umbrellas and boots cluttered the front entryway. The last of the hazelnuts were gathered from the roof of our backyard chicken coop. At the end of our block, heaps of coal towered behind a high wall, waiting to be loaded into trucks and delivered to homes. Occasionally, large chunks of coal tumbled onto the sidewalk as we walked home from school. My older brother, Rob, and little sister, Renee, and I would trudge home with our ‘cartable’ (backpacks) at 4:30 pm, as the already sunless sky darkened.
After completing a few worksheets and stuffing them back in my backpack, I could think of no greater pleasure than reading. We had a small, one-room ‘bibliotheque’ (library) where we lived in Villeneuve-Le-Roi, France. I loved to gather up as many mysteries as I was allowed to check out – Les Six Companions series by Paul-Jacques Bonzon was my favorite. There were also the comic series Asterix et Obelix (by Goscinni) and Tintin (by Herge), and a shelf in our living room with a set of Childcraft encyclopedias. The one titled Rhymes and Poems, illustrated with rosy-cheeked, plump, and happy children, was the most worn. At bedtime, my mother would often read aloud to us, taking me us away into a world of mischievous bears who liked marmalade (Paddington Bear, by Michael Bond) or the adventures of children carried off into the night on a flying bed (The Magic Bed-Knob, by Mary Norton).
As a third culture kid, reading was not just a soothing activity, it allowed me to enter into worlds very different from my own and also to find characters who understood and put words to my emotions and life experiences. As a child in a French school, I once wrote these very thoughts on the significance of reading in an essay. I was very proud of my essay, and my teacher read it aloud to my class. I thought she was going to praise it, but instead she made fun of it, using it as an occasion to vent her strong dislike of Americans. Feeling humiliated, I wanted to sink through the floor. Looking back through adult eyes, I now know that this teacher was wrong in how she treated me and in her assessment of my essay. C.S. Lewis aptly remarked:
“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
Reading stories of children who faced difficult situations, such as Mary in The Secret Garden, Anne in Anne of Green Gables, and Pollyanna, or brave women such as Gladys Aylward as recounted in biographies, gave me courage, inspiring me to be brave and strong and not to allow the hard things I occasionally faced to bring me down, and to be a positive influence on those around me. That teacher may have had a bitter cup to drink in life; I will never know. I can only hope she found God’s love and grace to heal her own wounded heart.
I remain a strong believer in bibliotherapy. Reading continues to sustain and inspire me. That is why I started Kids Books Without Borders. I want to extend this gift to other third culture kids, offering them a range of books: picture books, early readers, chapter books, classics, fantasy, realistic fiction, biographies, fairy tales and folktales, multicultural books, TCK books, poetry, science fiction, non-fiction, and young adult books. We have many instances of them all!
I also have a blog with the purpose of sharing stories, resources, book lists, and my own reviews to help you select the best books for your third culture kids. While I write about my favorite books and classics, my niche is children’s books that address TCK issues (moving, self-acceptance, loss, travel, cultural identity, etc.). I also have a love for multicultural children’s literature –children’s books that address issues of race, culture, language and adapting to a new culture.
If you are living overseas and would like to request books, please go to my website at kidsbookswithoutborders.wordpress.com. I currently have over 4,500, thanks in part to donations from families at my local church, friends, and homeschool groups. I would love to hear from you and to have the privilege of blessing your family with great children’s books!
Note about the author: Gail O’Connor is a TCK friend from my Chicago years who grew up overseas in France with a British mom and an American dad. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, home to Indiana University where she has raised her family. She loves to read and now extends this love of reading and books to those who live overseas.
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You sit in a crowd of people and you feel your mouth go dry, the bite you just took from your scone chokes your throat. How can you be this lonely in a crowd of people? How is it possible that your passport country feels so alien?
You were excited to return, there were many things you were sick of in your adopted country. You were tired of the dirt. You had enough of the chaos. You had to boil water one time too many and you had forgotten to soak the vegetables in iodine solution resulting in a visiting guest getting dysentery.
Your household help, who you love, was complaining and asking for more money and you simultaneously felt angry and guilty. You have so much. She has so little. But it’s not that simple.
And you were feeling so alien in your other world. The last few weeks have been chaotic and hot. So many people to see, so many projects to finish, children to prepare, suitcases to pack. You could hardly wait to go to a coffee shop and order coffee in your own language, not tripping over verbs and adjectives. You read an article on burn out and knew immediately that the article described you.
But as you look around , you let out a soul-deep sigh. You pictured all this so differently. You thought it would be so good, such a rest, such a time of peace.