Posts Tagged ‘High Mobility’

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.


*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).


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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Sacred Objects

If you were to look at my desk, you’d probably wonder at the eclectic mix of objects it contains. There’s the mug with “St. Louis” emblazoned across it that serves as a pencil cup, the small rose-and-violet-colored soapstone elephant that I use as a paperweight, and the woven basket that’s a catchall for paperclips and other miscellaneous items. Oh and don’t forget the ebony letter opener topped with a carved head. Each of these items represents somewhere I’ve lived, objects I’ve collected over my lifetime and carried with me from place to place.

In the article “My Well-Worn Blankie,” Amy Casteel writes of an item—a yellow patchwork quilt—that she took with her on her family’s travels. As Casteel explains, this quilt represented home:

But my yellow blankie always reminded me that home was made up of people, love, food and things that are not changed by moving. While I had an insatiable sense of adventure, I had the same need to know and be known that all humans carry within them. We nomads are not the only ones with this need, nor the only ones who find it goes unmet. That gives us a great sense of empathy with people in all manner of situations. When my own need could be met by a person, I suppose that I turned to the quilt. It became a sacred object. It represents more to me than its composition of fibers. It is connected to a whole series of memories, ideas, and emotions. And it has been present in every single place that I have lived. Rather than my childhood memories residing inside the borders of a particular town, they are scattered across states and continents. The quilt was there. It was a constant” (p. 10, Among Worlds December 2010 issue).

Like Casteel, I longed for home, for a place to “know and be known.” And, like her yellow blankie, I found things to help create this sense of home. I collected my “sacred objects,” each item representing a piece of my experience, carried from place to place as tangible evidence of my life. Side by side, they seem incongruous, but together they make up a map of my history, my own patchwork quilt of memories. Whenever I sit at my desk to work, they are there, reminding me of where I have been, and anchoring me as I move forward.

As fellow world-travelers, what have you found has helped you in the transition between places? It doesn’t have to be a literal object; family rituals, traditions, or customs carried from place to place can also help to ease the way. We all need a way to connect the past to the present. How do you do that? Share your stories in the comment section.

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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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