Posts Tagged ‘Home’

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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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.

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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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“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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