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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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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.

 

 

 

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The grief of what was lost at re-entry is a process. Loss is painful. Grief is long. The process is difficult. But it is do-able. May you stick with it, sit in it and come out on the other side able to creatively envision a new future full of hope and blessing and purpose and meaning. – Lindsay Cade

In previous posts we’ve discussed how transition is linked with loss and what the grief process looks like. Today I would like to direct you to the writings of fellow traveler Lindsay Cade. Lindsay is passionate about helping individuals on their cross-cultural journeys. She has a great blog, Care611, with many useful posts on subjects relevant to cross-cultural life. One of these is a thoughtful post on grief that includes some helpful graphics illustrating the grief cycle. Be sure to check it out!

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Transition and Loss

Alexandra Fuller, who I mentioned in an earlier post, wrote a book about her “travels with an African solider” in the book Scribbling the Cat. In one passage, she reflects on the abrupt nature of cross-cultural transition in our highly mobile & technological world:

In late December I went home to my husband and to my children and to the post-Christmas chaos of a resort town, but instead of feeling glad to be back, I was dislocated and depressed. It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible. The shock is too much, the contrast too raw. We should sail or swim or walk from Africa, letting bits of her drop out of us, and gradually, in this way, assimilate the excesses and liberties of the States in tiny, incremental sips, maybe touring up through South America and Mexico before trying to stomach the land of the Free and the Brave” (p. 72).

I remember all too well disembarking from a plane after a grueling 18-hour ride and being bombarded by the sounds and sights of American culture. Compared to the less-developed African country from which I had just come, the bustle and noise were overwhelming. “Culture shock” is aptly named; there is something truly stunning about finding oneself in an entirely different environment in such a short time.

Like many global nomads, I learned to take it all in stride. Transition became an everyday occurrence, something to move through and quickly adapt to. Yet, even if these changes seemed run-of-the-mill, their impact remained significant. With every transition came loss. Something was different, whether in my surroundings, myself, or both. While I often did not have time to process those losses, they were there, under the surface, waiting to emerge when I least expected.

Fuller, also a global nomad, goes on to describe her experience of this after awaking one night and being unable to go back to sleep:

“I went through to the kitchen—feeling exiled by who I was—and made some tea and sat on the sofa with a blanket over my knees. It was the time of night that precedes dawn and is without perspective or reason. It was the hour when regret and fear overwhelm hope and courage and when all that is ugly in us is magnified and when we are most panic-stricken by what we have lost, and what have almost lost, and what we fear we might lose” (p. 74).

Loss in transition is inevitable. The question is: what do you do with it? When the fears rise in the dark, when the memories of people and places now gone wash over you, how do you respond?

The first step is to be honest about it. Voice the fears; name the losses; tell the stories of your experience. Silence gives power to the darker parts of ourselves: doubt, regret, and panic seem much bigger inside our heads than when they are spoken. Start by admitting to yourself, whether in writing or aloud, that the grief and fear exists.

Once you’ve admitted it to yourself, it can be helpful to tell someone else. Find at least one safe, trustworthy person with whom to share your story. It can be incredibly healing to have another person bear witness to your experience, honor your memories, cry with you, fight off the anxiety, and offer support and understanding. We all need someone in our lives who can validate our feelings and remind us we aren’t alone.

Processing transition, grieving losses, confronting fears – these are complicated processes that can seem overwhelming at times. Yet they are also important processes that need to be engaged in. They begin with acknowledgment, the recognition that they exist and need to be addressed.

We’ll explore what comes next in the process as we continue this discussion in future weeks. In the meantime, how have you handled loss in transition? Share your stories in the comment section.

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“Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?” are the four most-dreaded words a global nomad will ever hear.

Alexandra Fuller, in her memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, illustrates it well:

“‘But what are you?’ I am asked over and over again.
‘Where are you from originally?’
I began then, embarking from a hot, dry boat.
Blinking bewildered from the sausage-gut of a train. Arriving in Rhodesia, Africa. From Derbyshire, England. I was two years old, startled and speaking toddler English. Lungs shocked by thick, hot, humid air. Senses crushed under the weight of so many stimuli.
I say, ‘I’m African.’ But not black.
And I say, ‘I was born in England,’ by mistake.
But, ‘I have lived in Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe) and in Malawi (which used to be Nyasaland) and in Zambia (which used to be Northern Rhodesia)’.
And I add, ‘Now I live in America,’ through marriage.
And (full disclosure), ‘But my parents were born of Scottish and English parents.’
What does that make me?”

We all have our ways of dealing with the question. Some of us quickly name a place and turn the conversation back around to the questioner. Others decide to bravely venture a short list of residences and hope the subject drops there. My tactic has been to make the topic present tense, saying, “I live here right now.” However we handle the question, it’s one that every traveler continues to ask herself, deep inside, long after the conversation is over.

“Where are you from?” The questioner wants to know where to place you, where to identify you with. For him, it’s part of belonging – a connection to soil and history and family roots. It’s a way of saying, “I am this place and this place is me.” For those who have lived in one spot most of their lives, there’s a lifetime of information to be gained from this question. It’s a source of pride, comfort, and security. They love where they’re from and they want the world to know. Some people wear their hometowns like a badge of honor – Boston, Vienna, Santiago, Nairobi, Tokyo, Perth – these places define them. They hold worlds within them and the individual is proud to affiliate with them.

For the global nomad, place holds meaning, but there have been so many places that to choose just one with which to identify feels like deciding which feature to dominate one’s appearance. Should you be the blue-eyed boy today? Or the red-haired girl? How about the tall one? Or the one with the crooked smile? What if you wanted to have freckles and brown eyes; would that be okay? Is it even possible to hold all of those in one body? Can one person contain the many languages, cultures, customs, and unique aspects of the world? It seems too difficult to try, so some days we just resort to being Jane from Ourtown, USA.

Yet within every one of us is a longing for home, a place where we can say, “I belong here.” It’s part of our DNA. We were made to connect, to be rooted in places and people who know us.

I was talking to a fellow traveler one day who said, “I wish in real life we had a ‘Home button’ we could push, like on a web browser, so that no matter where we were in the world, we’d immediately go to the place where we feel most at home.” In our highly connected, technological world, such an invention seems like a brilliant idea. Whenever teleportation becomes fact rather than fiction, global nomads will be first in line to take advantage of it! Until that day, we’ll keep doing the best we can to make our current place of residence feel more like home.

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“The truth is we’re all travelers who have not reached our final destination.”

~ Carolyn Arends

Transition is inescapable; life is constantly changing. For the highly mobile – missionaries, military personnel, diplomats, international aid workers, global business employees and others – transition is a way of life. Being on the move, having others come in and out of one’s life, changing locations, schools, and jobs, are all part of cross-cultural living. While constant change can be exciting, offering never-ending variety, it can also be tiring. It’s wearying to start over again and again, with new places and people.

This double-sided experience, good and bad together, is typical of the global nomad’s existence. Yet it can be difficult to understand, much less express, the mixed emotions of a transitional lifestyle. It is sometimes useful to read others’ words first, as a way of finding language for your own experience. And so, this blog is a place to read others’ stories of transition, and to tell your own. Our hope is that in the sharing of stories, we will find understanding, insight, and the common bond of shared experience.

All of us navigate new territory on a daily basis. Whether you’re someone who has spent your whole life on the move or you’re new to the transition experience, welcome. There is room on the tarmac for all travelers.

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