Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

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.


*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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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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