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We recently had our last week of meetings for Tarmac, the group we do at Covenant College. I always have mixed emotions about our final session. I’m proud and grateful for the growth that’s evident after a semester spent journeying together into deep places. Yet these conversations by their very nature forge heartfelt connection, and saying goodbye (never easy for TCKs) is sad. I’ve learned to embrace the bittersweet aspect of these endings, but I’ve also learned that I need to do something tangible to mark it for myself, to acknowledge the meaning and impact of these relationships.

As a lover of stories, writing is a vital way in which I honor these moments. A few months ago, Paul and I took some time to put into words what we wanted Covenant students to know as they left Tarmac. Inspired by Rachel Pieh Jones’s moving letter to her children, we compiled our own list of 15 things we would say to the global nomads in our lives. I revisited the list the other day and found solace in its words of affirmation and hope.

So, to the cross-cultural travelers in Tarmac this semester and to all of us who need encouragement on this journey between worlds, here are 15 things to remember:

1. You are courageous. You have faced a lifetime’s worth of loss, change, new cultures, life & death experiences, and emotional upheaval. You continue to bravely face each new experience and relationship. Most of all, you face yourself with courage and grace.

2. You are complex. Your life has not been straightforward. There aren’t easy answers to questions like “Where are you from?” and “Where’s home?” This complexity, while frustrating at times, is also rich and full.

3. You are unique. There is no one else exactly like you, with your particular blend of attributes, preferences, experiences, and emotions. These combine to create a beautiful mosaic of character and personality. You are amazing and a gift to the world.

4. You are valued. We love your complexity and uniqueness. We appreciate you. It is a joy and a privilege to know you.

5. You are a whole person. Your experiences as a TCK are as important a part of who you are today as they were when you were going through them. Yet they are not the only thing that defines you. Your current experiences matter too. These experiences, combined with your unique attributes, make you a fully-rounded person who remains constant no matter your context.

6. You are seen and heard. Your stories matter to us. We love hearing them. We see the pain and the joy they’ve caused, the questions with which you wrestle, the hopes for your future. It’s our honor to be a witness to your life story.

7. You are not alone. When it seems like no one understands, or cares, or as if everyone who knows you has left, remember that there are others who get it—others who see you, understand, and are with you. Even greater than that, God is with you. He has been with you from the start and He will never leave.

8. The pain of feeling like an outsider can still run deep. Creating community with other TCKs can be a vital part of being fully yourself.

9. Pay attention to the voice inside of you telling you how you’re feeling and what you need. You possess the resources to care for yourself, and the Holy Spirit will meet you there, if you make space to listen.

10. Relationships are risky and challenging, but they are worth it. Life is better when we share it with others. Draw on your courage and be willing to open yourself to others

11. Every person, including you, is at their own place on this journey. God can be trusted to walk through it with you.

12. You will have grief, but it will not overcome you. It will come in waves, often at the times you least expect it, and it will feel overwhelming. Yet, just like an ocean wave hits the shore and the ebbs back out, so your grief will not last forever. Feel it when it comes; talk about it; let it be; but also trust that it will recede. Going through the grief is worth it. Even when it feels easier to run away from it, bury it, get around it or blow it up, it is meaningful to face yourself and the grief and emerge richer.

13. The things you have lost have value. Your cultural knowledge and experience are treasured no matter what culture you’re currently in. Honor your losses and remember them. Look for the ways that your experience of loss can open the door to step into the stories of others, help you learn from them, and hone your character.

14. You cannot lose you. No matter where you go, what you do, or what you experience, you cannot lose who you are. The places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, the cultures you’ve experienced – all of these have shaped you, and they stay with you. Whether you travel the world or stay in the same place for the rest of your life, those memories and those experiences will always belong to you; they will always define you. No one can take them away from you.

15. You are strong and resilient. Life will continue to be hard; there will be transitions, losses, and unexpected hurdles, but you will be able to withstand them. With God’s help and the resources you’ve developed over a lifetime, you can face whatever comes with grace and courage.

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I’ve been pondering the significance of the connections we form. People are complex. Relationships are tricky. I find myself marveling every day at how we manage to attach to others in spite of the things within and without us that cause confusion, friction, and disconnection. Our capacity for intimacy is enormous and resilient, surviving the many obstacles to being known.

This is a great comfort to me, as I have lived out many of the typical relational patterns of the TCK lifestyle. Global nomads tend to go deep quickly, making the most of the short time afforded them to form friendships and relational connections. I love meeting new people and making new friends. I’m eager to really get to know others, and find great joy in deep conversations about life experiences, beliefs, and values. At the same time, my highly mobile childhood primed me to expect that most relationships won’t last; one or both of us will leave at some point. With every new friendship that starts, I subconsciously prepare myself for the day when it will end. Thus, the connection goes only so deep: enough to feel bonded, but not enough to get too hurt when the inevitable goodbye comes.

Like many global nomads I hold things loosely, keenly aware that life could change at any moment. I don’t invest too much because I’m not certain it will last. This creates flexibility, but also produces rootlessness – a sense of not being tied down anywhere. Like TCKs before me, I found a way to survive the ongoing, inescapable loss by quickly moving onto the next person, place, or thing. Yet, I’m often plagued by restlessness, a desire for regular movement and change. At times, this pattern of alternating attachment and release can leave me feeling disconnected from life and relationships altogether.

All hope is not lost, however. My life as an adult TCK (ATCK) has taught me a few things about relationships that counteract these feelings.

First, relationships are worth fighting for. Like most TCKs, I often turned to the technique of “quick release”* in the face of conflict or anything that seemed to threaten the end of a relationship. I didn’t believe that a friendship could survive a fight or an absence. Yet, as I’ve learned more about what it takes to truly connect with another person, I’ve come to see that conflict is part of the natural flow of friendship. Two people will never agree on everything. They will hurt each other’s feelings. But this doesn’t have to be a reason to run away. Instead of a closed door to further connection, conflict can be a pathway to greater understanding, if both members are willing to stay and work it out.

Second, relationships can last. They may not look the same as they did in the beginning, but friendships have the capacity to grow and change as individuals’ lives grow and change. I clearly remember a conversation with a friend towards the end of my time in graduate school. I was preparing to leave the academic community in which I’d invested the past 3 years and I was mourning the loss of people who had become dear to me. My friend looked at me and said, “Laura, just because you’re graduating doesn’t mean we’ll stop being friends. We’ll still see each other. We’ll still talk. Our relationship isn’t over.” His words were a revelation. Prior to that, I hadn’t experienced many friendships that were maintained after I left the context in which they had formed. Yet, he was right; over these past three years, we’ve stayed connected. I don’t see him quite as often as I did when I was on campus every day, but I’m still a part of his life and he is still a part of mine.

Third, relationships have seasons. Global nomads are used to “old friends” fading into the background and new ones coming to take their place. This pattern does happen; there are times and places in which certain friendships thrive. Yet, it is also possible to maintain friendships over many years while also adding new friendships into the mix. It may be that different friendships take precedence in one’s life at different times, with some friends becoming closer after a period of separation, while others are present in particular circumstances. I’ve recently reconnected with some of my college friends after a few years’ distance. It’s been fun to reminisce about our school days and discuss current life events. I’m enjoying the way our friendship has resurfaced in this time and place in our lives.

Fourth, relationships can root us. Friendships provide a place of connection and knowing that we don’t receive elsewhere. We may not have the traditional ties to a particular place or culture, but we are rooted to all the friends we’ve made in all the places we’ve lived. We are tied to them by cords of shared memory, and we pick up those cords every time we are together. These roots stretch across time and space, and they remain, even as locations change and priorities shift.

Despite the legacy of our developmental years, we aren’t doomed to repeat the particular patterns of rootlessness and restlessness that led us away from connection and community. We have the opportunity to be intentional about forming attachments to people and places. This requires learning a new way of relating: working through conflict, reaching out, opening up, and allowing others in. It will feel strange; all new things do. Nevertheless, it is worth doing because friendship nurtured over time offers richness and depth that cannot be experienced otherwise.

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*Quick release: a relational technique in which the TCK pulls away from a relationship in advance of an approaching departure, acting as though the separation has already occurred. This can happen whether the separation is going to be temporary or permanent; often conflict can provide a way to “leave” the relationship without facing the more difficult part of working through differences. While the quick release may offer a reprieve from the short-term pain of saying goodbye, it does not relieve the more enduring grief of multiple losses. (Adapted from p.140 in Pollock, David C. & Van Reken, Ruth E. (2001) Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing).

I recently had the opportunity to spend the day with a friend from South Africa. We were high school classmates and hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, though we kept in touch through email and Facebook. Despite the many years that had passed, it felt instantly comfortable to be with her again. We spent the day catching up on family news, discussing our latest professional ventures, and sharing various insights we’d gained in recent years. We parted with hugs and assurances to stay in touch.

Driving back afterwards, I reflected on what a gift the day had been. As a global nomad, I don’t often have the opportunity to reconnect with people from my past. My monocultural friends often speak of high school reunions and childhood friends with whom they have regular meetings, but I don’t have much personal experience with that. I attended so many schools growing up that I wouldn’t even know where to start when it came to reunions. The logistics required to see childhood friends are so complicated with all of us scattered around the world that it hardly seems like a viable option. Yet, when my friends talk about growing up with the same people with whom they are still friends now, I find myself a little bit envious. What would it be like to get to know someone over a lifetime? We’ve talked before about how TCKs struggle with the question “where are you from?” because there isn’t an easy answer when you’ve grown up in multiple cultures. Just as there is often a longing for  “home” as an identifiable location, there is also a longing for the things that make home what it is, namely people who know you.

This is complex for TCKs, as we are literally defined by the fact that our sense of belonging is tied to people rather than places. I already know that I feel more “at home” with other global nomads than I do with anyone else. But when I was with my South African friend the other day, I also felt at home. Talking to a mentor about the experience, she commented, “Your experience of being with your friend was like what other people experience when they go back to their hometown. You got to ‘go home’ when you were with her.” Her comment rang true, and reminded me that I need to expand my definition of “home”. Traditionally, “home” is defined as a physical location, whether it’s a literal dwelling or a particular region of the world. For TCKs who have experienced a life of high mobility, such a home doesn’t exist. With so many options to choose from, how can one decide which place gets the designation “home”?

But home is not just a literal location. As Pollock and Van Reken note in Third Culture Kids, it carries an emotional connotation as well (p. 125). Home implies a place of true belonging. And true belonging is found with those who know and love me. I may not have a literal “hometown” to return to, but I have people who have been part of my life for many years. When I’m with them, I’m at home.

My time with my friend also helped me remember that I carry home within me. There is something about being in the presence of someone who has known you for a while that reminds you of all that is true about yourself. We all contain elements of our personality – our temperament, skills & abilities, likes & dislikes, unique insights – that remain constant regardless of our age, location, or company. These enduring traits are the things that define us. They become a way of feeling at home with ourselves. When we know who we are, we can embrace our identity and find security in that sense of self no matter our context.

Many days my nomadic urge to keep moving is strong. I may never feel a sense of belonging or loyalty to the place where I live. I recognize these are part of my complexity as a global nomad and I own my restless, rootless nature. However, I also realize that “home” is no longer beyond my reach. It’s found in the people with whom I share my life – past, present, and future – and in the parts of me that hold my true self. No matter where I may roam, I can always go home.

There are some very talented global nomads making films about the cross-cultural experience. Here are two:

So Where’s Home? A Film about Third Culture Kid Identity by Adrian Bautista

A thoughtful examination of how the highly mobile, multicultural lifestyle affects identity, sense of home, and connection to people and places.

 

Trailer for Les Passagers: A TCK Story by Aga Magdolen

Even though this is the trailer for a longer film it still highlights the benefits and challenges of the global nomad experience.

 

 

 

Longing for Home

Here in the southeastern United States, a new school year has begun. Even though I’m no longer a student, there’s something about the beginning of the school year that makes me nostalgic. I remember so clearly the many times I was a new student starting not just another year in school, but often a new school in a new country, with different friends, teachers, curricula, and customs.

Now that I work with college students, I’m struck each fall by those who arrive for their first year, apprehensive and excited, wondering what their college experience will be like. There’s a look in their eyes that I recognize: that mix of starry wonder and pure terror. College offers a chance to forge a new path, but it also means the usual comforts are no longer available to turn to in the stress of transition and adjustment. What was safe and familiar back “home” with family is not easily within reach. For many cross-cultural travelers, this sense of displacement is keen. Aside from the inevitable “Where are you from?” question, there’s a deeper longing for the comfort of “home,” the familiarity of the people, foods, places, smells, and sights that have comprised one’s world. With “home” residing halfway around the world, how does one feel comfortable in a new environment? And what if throwing oneself fully into the college scene means “home” will be lost forever?

In her book Home Keeps Moving, Heidi Sand-Hart calls this the “unquenchable search for a ‘home’ that doesn’t exist” (p. 63). For many of us global nomads, the longing for home is constant. Yet it is not only those of who have lived cross-culturally who feel the pull for a permanent place to belong. Monocultural author Sarah Clarkson speaks of this same longing in an essay entitled Candle in the Window of a Houseboat:

“I am a gypsy soul, a restless-hearted wanderer. For far too long now I have sought my place on earth. My life, outer and inner, feels ever crammed in suitcases as I soldier on to one more new frontier. Though the journey is bright and the changing landscapes rich with adventure, come night, I am weary. My hope grows frail as I trudge alone, again, to a temporary home. The loneliness of my one, striving self far from home; the constant fight to work, to perform, to achieve; the sense of being adrift in an unsettled world: these cluster about me at night. The dread of my own unmoored existence is something I can almost taste. If only, I think, if only I could find my place on earth.

But even then, would my heart arrive at home? In the blackness, I trudge on, stung by the memory of a talk with a friend. Her life is as settled as mine is transient. The hunger haunts her as well. The rest, or rootedness, the sense of belonging we both crave eludes her grasp as deftly as it does mine. The soul can be in exile even when the body has arrived. And in the dark, I wonder. Are all of us doomed to wander on and never arrive, body or heart, at the shelter we desire? To venture bravely forth but never make it back? Is life in a fallen world a houseboat existence? Are we confined to one narrow craft and shoved ever on down the river of life?”

This yearning for a place to call “home” – somewhere to belong – is universal, it seems. As cross-cultural travelers, we may be more familiar with it than most, but we are not alone in our desire for home.

While we may take comfort in knowing that this desire is common to multicultural and monocultural individuals alike, the question remains: What do we do with it? How do we respond to the ache for place and belonging? Clarkson offers an answer:

“…home is the room I carve out at the center of my journey, the space of self and time in which I light the candle of God’s joy and watch it fill the coracle of my heart. Yes, the river rushes on. No, I cannot escape the flow of time, the shove of hunger for a world beyond this, the journey and work to which every heart is born. But home I may craft wherever I go.”

While we cannot guarantee that we will find one place in this world to call home, we can always find a way to make the place we inhabit one in which we belong. Not only that, but we can take elements of “home” with us wherever we go. Home becomes not just a physical place, but an emotional attachment, an enduring sense of identity, a connection to all the pieces of our lives that comprise who we are and where we come from. As global nomad Brian Lev explains:

“Home [is] made up of those memories and emotions I have collected over time, from which I draw comfort and strength as needed. In effect home is a place I can go in my mind, where culture is a mix from many places, and belonging can be taken for granted.…” (p. 64, Home Keeps Moving).

For all of us, whether we’re starting out in a new location or continuing in the same one, the task is the same: make our “home” real, wherever we are. As we put together the pieces of our past and present, leaving room for future moments to be added, we create a new space where we belong, a place that gives us the confidence and security to face whatever changes may come.

I’ve been thinking a lot about goodbyes lately. In the US, May and June are the months when school ends, so there are graduation ceremonies, end-of-year parties, and various other ways to say goodbye to the year and the people in it. May and June are also popular wedding months. Weddings, while happy occasions, bring their own kind of goodbyes – leaving one’s respective families to create a new one together.

Like many global nomads, I shy away from goodbyes. Endings aren’t my strong suit; I’m much better at beginnings. Over the years, I’ve wondered: what’s the point of dwelling on an ending? Partings are inevitable. Why not just move on to the next new start?

Victor L. Hunter*, in his thoughtful and provocative essay “Closure and Commencement: The Stress of Finding Home”, challenges this typical TCK mentality. He writes,

“Goodbyes are important. Without a meaningful goodbye, an effective closure, there cannot be a creative hello, a new beginning, and hopeful commencement.”

Hunter’s thesis is that there cannot be a proper beginning until there has been a proper ending. In fact, beginnings become better because of effective goodbyes.

This may seem strange at first; it did to me. As a seasoned traveler, I was used to getting on planes and saying “see you later!” to friends, only to never return. I thought I was handling this lack of closure until I started to notice the pull within me to avoid starting new relationships. Much like we noted in our discussion on grief, I was in denial about what it had meant to leave. But my heart knew. The resistance bubbled to the surface and confronted me when placed in yet another situation where I had to make new friends, get to know a new place, create a new “home”.

Pollock and Van Reken** discuss the importance of leaving well. They say that taking the time for closure makes the inevitable transition that much more bearable. Not only that, but by being intentional about goodbye, we are able to highlight the meaning each person and place has held for us. Goodbyes are commemorations – they create a lasting place in our hearts and memories for those relationships and experiences which have shaped us. We mark them in time and space, and carry them as pieces of our stories.

Pollock and Van Reken suggest the acronym RAFT to help remember the aspects of a good goodbye:

Reconciliation: Leaving is the time to make amends; heal old wounds; resolve grievances. Global nomads are notoriously poor at conflict because they often aren’t in relationships long enough to work through conflict. Rather than leaving with disagreements still intact, take the opportunity to address any open conflict and resolve the relationship so that you don’t carry resentment and bitterness with you.

Affirmation: Seize the opportunity to tell people how much they mean to you. Savor time together and acknowledge the difference the person has made in your life. Reminisce about favorite experiences. Give gifts or write cards that express how they’ve influenced you. Make time to say out loud how you feel about loved ones while you’re still with them.

Farewells: Take time to say goodbye to people and places that you love. Hunter talks about walking through the city with his wife and stopping at their favorite places one last time. He writes, “Each place had its corner in our memory which we acknowledged with gratitude” (p. 184). In addition to saying goodbye to specific places, find sacred objects to carry with you to the next location. Give yourself space to begin to grieve leaving what you love.

Think destination: Begin to look forward to what’s ahead. As Hunter mentioned, closure allows for commencement. Even as you say goodbye, recognize that new hellos are coming too. It’s okay to be excited about these, and to begin preparing for them. Think ahead to where you’re going and what it will be like so that you’re prepared (or as prepared as you can be) for what you will face upon arrival.

Following these steps of building a RAFT allows for a smooth transition from one place to the next. Nothing about leaving one place and entering another is easy, but by actively acknowledging the change, you can give yourself the tools to face it more effectively.

I’ve begun trying to mark the significant events and endings in my life. I attend graduations and hug the students embarking on new adventures. I share a meal with friends moving out-of-town. I spend time in favorite places before my own moves. I write letters and give gifts to those who have impacted my life. These rituals are bittersweet, as any goodbye would be. I feel the weight of loss. But I also feel the fullness of connection, the warmth of love and friendship that supersede location. And to my surprise, there is greater joy in acknowledging the goodbye than ignoring it ever brought. Denial was empty and void; it left me numb. Acknowledgement, however painful, makes me more human, more alive. In this living, I have come to embrace goodbyes. I do not welcome them – I’d rather not be parted from those I love – but I have found a way through the inevitable partings, a way that leads to brighter, more hopeful beginnings.

* p. 179 in Hunter, V. L. (1986). “Closure and Commencement: The Stress of Finding Home.” In Austin C. E. (Ed.), Cross-Cultural Re-Entry: A Book of Readings. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press.

** Based on pp. 181-185 in Pollock, David C. and Van Reken, Ruth E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition. Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing.

In our discussion on grief, we’ve talked about loss encompassing varying, sometimes opposite, emotions. It can be hard to feel caught in between, which is why grief is often unresolved; we don’t know how to embrace both the pain and joy that life contain. There is a fear that if we were to acknowledge the difficult, painful things in life we would diminish, or negate, the wonderful, joyous moments. The truth is that for all of us, life is paradoxical. We go through every day holding opposite realities in tension: laughter & tears, happiness & sorrow, courage & fear, strength & weakness.

Global nomads feel this tension keenly, as they traverse various cultures and try to piece the disparate parts of their experience into a coherent whole. Each person and place holds special meaning; each experience is significant in shaping the TCK’s identity. Yet, some of these people and places are no longer accessible. Thus, what on the one hand represents great joy and happiness, on the other hand is characterized by immense sorrow and loss. This makes the task of grieving that much more difficult.

Sara Groves’ song “Painting Pictures of Egypt” uniquely captures the bittersweet dynamic of cross-cultural living and grieving.

Paradox in loss is inescapable. Life on this earth is bittersweet. The highs and lows come side by side and we must learn how to make room for that tension, rather than be paralyzed by it. As with other aspects of grief, acknowledgment is the first step. Identifying the paradox allows us to understand it. Once we know it is there, we can expand our hearts and minds to allow the tension to exist as it is. In creating space for the paradox, we invite it to be a companion on our journey rather than an unwanted tag-a-long.

As we continue down the road, we may even find that there are times when paradox provides a place to rest; a place where questions don’t have to be answered and mysteries don’t have to be figured out. And in the resting there is comfort for our grieving hearts.