Posts Tagged ‘Identity’

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 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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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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As if it weren’t hard enough to deal with the question, “Where are you from?” most global nomads find relating to people across cultures to be a complex thing. In particular, forming relationships with monocultural individuals (i.e. individuals who have lived in only one culture) is a challenge. How much do you share? How do you get past the small talk? Why is it easier to engage in conversation with those who are older or younger, rather than peers?

One of the keys to explaining why living & relating in a monocultural environment is difficult for the cross-cultural individual is the idea of cultural balance.

Understanding cultural balance starts with understanding how we develop a cultural identity. Culture is a system of shared assumptions, beliefs and values. It is the framework from which we interpret and make sense of life and the world around us. Culture is learned; the surrounding environment teaches us how to think and act.

Culture has 2 parts as illustrated by Dr. Kohl’s cultural iceberg*:

Surface culture is the behaviors, language and customs of a particular place. Deep culture is its worldview and value system. Surface culture can be picked up over a short period of time in a new place. Deep culture takes much longer to learn, and it is the part of culture that makes us feel as though we belong.

As you moved through cultures, you were constantly trying to achieve cultural balance, or the knowledge of how things are and work in a particular community. Cultural balance is important because it makes us feel “in the know,” which gives us stability, security, and a sense of belonging. This was harder for you because you had to begin the process all over again every time you encountered a new culture. This made understanding who you were in relationship to the culture around you very challenging.

Not only that, but understanding how to communicate with those from another culture—those who had achieved cultural balance—was difficult because you were each operating from a different perspective on the way that relationships develop.

The following diagram depicts the typical progression for relationships**:

For those who grow up in a monocultural environment, relationships develop over long periods of time in a shared environment. Thus staying on level 1, sharing experiences and small talk, makes perfect sense. For the multicultural individual who is used to a highly mobile world, there isn’t time to share experiences and discussions about the weather, because one or the other of you might leave at any point. So the third-culture individual jumps in at level 2 or 3, and might even go as far as level 4. Yet level 5 is never attained, because the global nomad can’t risk the pain and loss that would come with such an experience of intimacy. Because separation is inevitable, due to their ever-changing world, they have to guard some part of their heart.

Thus, when a monocultural individual comes into contact with a multicultural one, developing a friendship becomes an obstacle course of missed signals, confusion, and frustration. Neither individual understands how the other approaches relationships, and these misunderstandings can often lead to isolation or dissatisfaction. The key, for the multicultural person, is to understand the way that culture is absorbed and how relationships are formed, and then to take the courageous leap to explain this to their monocultural peers. Mutual understanding leads to greater intimacy. Relationships across cultures can be successful, if one is willing to try a different way.


*Diagram reproduced from Pollock, David C. & Van Reken, Ruth E. (2001) Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing.

**Courtesy of Brenda Keck, based on information provided by Interaction International, adapted from Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am by John Powell.

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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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