Debbie: To Live Elsewhere

Born in the USA, Debbie moved to Nigeria with missionary parents before her first birthday. Beginning at age six, she lived in a boarding school eight months per year. Now she’s writing her childhood stories, seeking ‘Above all Else’ to find where God was in all of it.

I’m an adult MK/TCK who grew up in Nigeria. Mostly.

Born in California on my parents’ first furlough, I flew to Nigeria at nine months old. Our cosy village station lay nestled in a semi-circle of hills studded with rocky outcroppings and savannah brush. But beginning in first grade, I was sent to boarding school 300 miles away, only returning home for Christmas and summer vacations.

During those lengthy separations from family, I suffered from intense homesickness. Many nights I cried alone in bed, feeling abandoned by God and my parents. By fourth grade I toughened up and accepted that way of life as normal, but the wounds remained.

Every few years my family and I left Nigeria and flew to my parents’ home state of California. Those long furlough journeys included visits to New York to debrief at mission headquarters and side trips to various states to connect with relatives and supporters. So many were strangers to me. I quickly grew close to my cousins, then was torn away as we traveled across the States.

Quite often I hear TCKs say, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” But each time I hear that phrase, I swallow a lump in my throat, and it sinks like a stone to the pit of my stomach. I feel like I’m failing at being a happy Christian. Why can’t I say those words? I wonder. Am I ungrateful? Do I have blinders on? Am I wallowing in the negative?

Yes, there were happy times on my station of Egbe, in the Nigerian bush. But they were overshadowed by the knowledge I’d have to leave my home with the big climbing trees, grassy yard, and the dusty paths leading to friends’ homes, and head back to boarding school.

Boarding school. The very words bring up hard feelings: cloistered, imprisoned, squelched, claustrophobic, closed in. How does one recover from that?

I always wanted to live in a two-story house on a square block in a neatly manicured neighbourhood in America. The idyllic homes we visited on furlough every Sunday after church, when a family invited the missionaries to dinner, were beautifully decorated and the kids’ rooms were full with dolls and books and toys.

However, my adult American friends now tell me stories of trauma in the perfect-looking homes of their childhood I once envied. Dads who focused too much on their work and not on their kids. Moms who spun from crazy-happy to crazy-crazy in a split second. Grandmothers, cold and angry, who crossed their arms instead of hugging. Grandfathers who did unthinkable things to their little girls. I now realize my life wouldn’t have been perfect in America anyway.

I still can’t say that I’m grateful for all my painful childhood experiences. Or, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” But I’m at least longing a little bit less to have lived elsewhere.

To hear more of Debbie’s stories, encouragements, and reflections, check out her blog ‘Above All Else‘. You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Claire: Living with Borders

Claire was born in the Philippines and raised in Chicago, Illinois. A diplomat’s daughter, she’s lived in Seattle, Washington; Melbourne, Australia; and in Singapore. She is developing an independent documentary series called Dreamland: The Filipino American Story.

My biggest guilty pleasure is browsing Zillow or AirBnb. I imagine myself living in a vintage apartment back in my childhood neighborhood, walking around like a local. Or building a tiny house on wheels so I can constantly be on my way somewhere else. But even if I wanted to, I could never just take off on a whim. Visas are required for every country I’ve called home, except for Singapore.

As a TCK raised to believe the world can be roamed freely, my choices today are shaped by borders. The struggle has moved away from questions of identity into uncharted territory for the TCK: staying put. Since returning to Manila five years ago, I wake up everyday wanting to just fly. Where can I go, what can I do to find joy right here? It’s the challenge faced by any creative person: make it new.

And so I address God and ask, “What new thing will You show me today?”

While navigating the twisty, narrow streets of the most densely populated city in the world, I try to look past the chaos that is Manila.

The sari-sari store keepers fanning themselves in the thick heat and the fearless entrepreneurs opening cafes and co-working spaces all share a kind of grace in their striving. I see the work they put into building community, and the spirit of the city begins to grow on me. The idea of rootedness turns into a peaceful stability.

Then there are days I’m frantic for change (hence the virtual apartment hunting). Or I drive three hours south of the city, out to the small volcano poking out from the middle of a lake, if only to cope with the sameness of my surroundings.

As a young mom, I made the choice to raise my Philippine-born daughters as third culture kids. This was not an easy decision to make, even though being a cultural misfit was the only way I knew how to be. At 10 and 11, my girls were thriving at school, had best friends and pets they adored, and a roomy house they ruled noisily, all while making their own childhood memories in one place. I thought about the turbulence and trauma I experienced at 13, moving from the US to the Philippines; the bumpy transition to Melbourne at age 17.

But when I asked my father for advice, he said: “We moved all the time. You kids turned out OK.” And so my husband chased a career in Singapore, where my kids grew up, graduating high school at an American school. My daughters are adults now, and I celebrate the empathy, open-mindedness, and adaptability they share with other TCKs. But I worry about their restlessness (which mirrors mine), and their own journeys to belonging.

I can’t help but see my passport country in the context of the places I’ve lived. Not only have I seen more, but I’ve been steeped for years in a multitude of experiences, and maintain rich friendships across countries. I’m painfully aware of the privilege that’s allowed me to live so many kinds of lives. There are places that feel more like home to me than others, but I could never choose just one cultural identity.

Instead I claim and nurture a global identity, with all its moving, malleable parts. Then the question becomes not “who am I”, but finding where I stand in a much bigger story.

Follow Claire on Twitter @cam_writes, and keep up with her ‘Dreamland’ documentary about Filipino American history on Twitter @dreamlanddoc and Instagram @StoriesfromDreamland

Samantha: Where I Belong

Samantha was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she attended international secondary school. She studied her undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and now works with Friends International in Scotland to support international students.

Ethnically I am Chinese. But in terms of national identity, I have never felt a strong tie to my Chinese heritage. The reason for this may be due to growing up in a multicultural environment.

I lived in Hong Kong, but grew up listening to and watching American pop culture. At home, I spoke Cantonese with my parents, while at school I spoke English with my peers. I studied in an international school under the UK education system, where my classmates were the children of expats and immigrants from all over the world.

In class, our teachers referenced things from the UK which I had never seen in Hong Kong: Jaffa Cakes and scones among other things. They also shared stories about themselves from their childhood years, waiting eagerly in the mornings for the milkman to deliver glass bottles of unhomogenised milk, and how they would then fight with their siblings to be the one to sip the cream on top. They were experiences which I had never encountered and can only imagine.

Since most of my education was in English, it became my dominant language. I remember once my Chinese tutor said to me: “you are not Chinese”, because of my poor ability to communicate in the Chinese language. It stung. I held back tears, determined not to cry in front of her. Looking back now, I do know why that hurt me.

As humans, we deeply desire to belong. Our sense of belonging impacts our identity.

Living in Hong Kong, I struggled to fit in with the local Chinese people no matter where I went. I always thought it was because of my poor Chinese, but after going to the UK for university studies, I found that I could not fit in with the local British people either. Although I had the language, I did not have the culture.

We International school kids are a community of our own. We have our own culture – a product of the east meeting the west. There is nothing else quite like it.

Though quite at home in our own little circles, we were very much foreigners to the locals. So then where did I belong? And what determined this? My ethnicity? The language I spoke? The place I spent the most time in? My culture?

One summer during university break, I joined an international student outreach. It was run by Friends International, a Christian Ministry organisation that aims to reach international students in the UK with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our team that year, we had nine members from eight different countries. We were all from different places, with very different upbringings, and all spoke English as a second language. But as I listened to the stories of these people and shared with them mine, we connected in a way closer than I have ever felt to any community. This was very interesting to me, and as I probed at it in my mind, I slowly began to realise that it was because we are united in something bigger, something that transcends language and culture, place and time.

You see, when we believed in Jesus and gave our lives to Him, we began to share life with Him and with others in Him. We became united in His family, in wondrous fellowship with brothers and sisters of every race and age around the world, and this is a bond profoundly deeper than anything else!

I found where I belong: in God’s family.

Stephen: TCK Care

Migration means leaving things behind. It moves you into a disoriented world which doesn’t add up in the way you were used to. You have to start putting things together in a new way.

Ruth Padel, The Mara Crossing

My name is Stephen Black, and I grew up in the bush in Nigeria.

I had a rich childhood, full of excitement and adventure and a fair share of grief and loss as well. I grew up in farm country where I had the freedom and safety to be a kid in a way that I’ve never seen again. And I gained the ability to learn languages, cultures, and people which has served me well time and again in my adult life. To be real, I lost more friendships, endured more stress, and encountered more violence than a child ever should. And I wouldn’t trade it.

I have found that sentiment to be a common theme among TCK’s – that there were difficult, painful aspects of their mobile, multicultural lives, yet that the experience as a whole has shaped their identity and their culture. It’s given them skills, strengths, and an awareness that they never would have found otherwise.

So I talk to people about what it means to be a TCK and how to care for a TCK, taking advantage of those benefits and processing the losses and the grief. I have begun collecting those stories, strategies, and supportive conversations in the form of a podcast: TCK Care.

Stephen now works as a TCK Care Worker, and uses his podcast to discuss and share TCK stories and experiences, connecting with a range of people who have grown up abroad, and those who have researched these themes. He describes it as ‘a podcast for those with a multicultural childhood, past or present.’

Jude: Human Amongst Robots (Poem)

Jude was born in Brazil, and moved to Italy when he was 11 years old. He moved to England as a young adult, before later returning to his beloved Italy.

When I was 24, I decided to leave Italy and have a ‘London experience’. I arrived there alone, and I had to start from zero – that meant a new job, new house, new friends, and a new culture. It was the most wonderful, painful experience I’ve ever had.

London is amazing – loads of culture, hundreds of things to do…but mostly you are alone. And when you come from a Latino/Mediterranean culture, you are taught to expect a ‘mi casa es tu casa‘ welcome. In the UK, I had to face the fact that ‘mi casa es tu casa…if I want you here.’ I was living with deep depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

For the first three years, I had a love-hate relationship with the country.

I didn’t share my experience with other immigrants that were in my position. It was only after I published my poetry book ‘Words/Wars’ that a few people reached out to me: “I thought I was the only one that lived in that loneliness.”

I would say this: this might not be the last place you live in. Give yourself the opportunity to live more experiences and see more places. Don’t build boundaries; be open, because life changes, and you will change with it.

LND
The fog is in town and
my heart is gone.
I am drinking a hot cappuccino
in Starbucks,
and voices are all around me.
Memories of my life get
louder in here
because this place is so empty,
and people
look like crazy robots.
I don’t miss being a robot.
I am real now.
A human amongst robots.
I have a heart that pulses hard.

Jude tweets at @JsaintJude, and his debut poetry book is for sale on Amazon.

“Have You Heard of London?”

I’m pretty British. If you asked me where I was from, I would say Britain. When I was living in England, a lot of people would look at my Spanish name, or pick up on something different in my accent and say, “No, no – where are you really from?” And I would think about it, and shrug. “Britain?”

My mother is Scottish, my father is South American. I was born in Scotland. I lived the first four years of my life travelling with missionary parents, and then we moved to England. I lived there for about seventeen years, before moving to China, and now Scotland.

So you see, it’s confusing for me when people tell me I’m not really English, because…what else would I be?

Languages Are Suspicious

There’s a joke in Catherine Bohart’s satirical video ‘How to be an immigrant British people like‘* that “British people are suspicious of people who speak more than one language…why do you have a secret code that only you and your friends understand?” Because the thing about your average Brit is, they don’t have a good reputation for language learning.

*This video is full of British humour, which is very dry and sarcastic! It’s meant to poke fun at some of the racist stereotypes in society today, not to be offensive.

In my family, we started learning Spanish as kids. And then when I had to start studying French at school, I was good at it because a lot of the grammar and vocabulary was similar to Spanish. At university, I jumped at the opportunity to learn some Mandarin Chinese. I love languages – every time I travel to a new country, I’ll try to learn at least the basic phrases to get by. I’ve collected bits and pieces of Swahili, Zulu, Rufumbira, German, Thai, and Indonesian along the way.

Now, of course there are so many British people that also love to travel and learn languages. But that wasn’t the case for my friends. They would get annoyed with me for going to European summer camps, or to visit family in Scotland every school holiday – “You just disappear,” they’d say. “We never see you.” And now that we’re adults, I keep missing reunions because I just live too far away. My school friends all live in the same county that we grew up in.

Have you heard of London?

I loved living in China, partly because Chinese people would accept my ‘English-ness’ without question. They wanted me to comment on English politics, or cook English food for them, or recommend some British TV shows. And I could, because I grew up British, more or less.

The only problem was, when I met other British people in China, they couldn’t identify me as one of ‘their own’. I remember taking a group of British students out for dinner, only to have one of them turn around and say, “Oh, Dani, I forgot to ask – which state are you from?”

Another time, someone at my church stood up to give a notice in a perfect cockney accent. I went up to talk to him after the service, introduced myself, and said, “Whereabouts are you from?”

“Well,” he said. “Have you heard of London?”

Have I heard of London?

“I’m British,” I said, and he quickly changed the subject.

I’m not offended by things like this. I know that my accent changes, especially when I’m outside of the UK. But it does make me feel a little like a fraud, that I almost shouldn’t be telling people I’m British if my ‘country-mates’ can’t back me up on that.

Fake-British

When I was in England and people would do the whole “Where are you really from?” thing, I would just tell them I was Scottish, and that would usually satisfy their curiosity.

Now I live in Scotland, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not really Scottish. I don’t do small talk quite how they do, my accent is different, and I’ve never heard of half of the famous places here! The only problem is, Scottish people actually know what an English accent sounds like, so “I’m English” doesn’t really cut it here, either.

It’s not at all that I’m ashamed of my South American heritage – I love being with that side of my family, and I love visiting in that part of the world. But I’ve never lived there. My Spanish isn’t even that fluent. It’s part of my identity, and so is my British-ness.

I was sort of hoping that writing this up would lead me to a conclusion ‘British people don’t really think I’m British, but I’ve learned…’ That would have been a really nice way to end. But I don’t have a neat answer. Sometimes it still hurts me that people from a country that I identify with so strongly don’t accept me as one of their own. More often, these days, I’m trying not to care.

I’m trying to enjoy the places that I get to live and explore, and to remember that in the grand scheme of things, nationality is a social construct. We (humans) drew up borders and claimed ownership of them, and those borders have changed, are changing, and will change. We’re all just people living in cultures and within land boundaries that other people pretty much just made up. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, just that they are not permanent.

So to be honest, you can ask me if I’ve heard of London. (I have.) You can ask me about my accent, or my name. It’s okay. I’m going to keep calling myself British, though, because at the end of the day – who’s to say I’m not?

Love, Dani

Zoë: Homebird

From age 2 to 10, Zoë grew up on two missionary/charity ships. She and her family lived with people from over 45 nations and cultures, while moving from country to country every few weeks. She moved back to the UK in 2009.

A good friend of mine was explaining why I’m such a ‘homebird’ (despite still being terrible at remembering to tell my family when I’ve arrived somewhere safely!), and why I feel most comfortable with my family. Wherever I am, whether it’s a ten minute car ride or a twenty hour flight away, I have to make myself fully at home, be fully with the people I’m with at that moment. I think it’s because I don’t know how long I’ll have with them.

As an MK (Missionary Kid), my family were the only people who understood me, and what I’ve been through. Throughout all of the moving, they have been the only stable (human) thing in my life.

I’ve always struggled to understand people that don’t get on with their families, but I’ve realised that family has a different meaning to some people. For me, they are the stability throughout the change. There’s this bond between us, an understanding that might not be there in other families.

We went through so much together – illness, university, turbulent plane rides, summer camps…there’s a bond that can’t be broken or understood by ‘outsiders’. That’s what family means to me.

Now I’ve started university, and am living away from my family for the first time. I’ve struggled a lot with having people around me not ‘get’ me. I feel this loss of something, this sense of loneliness. But I’m also learning that the people I’m surrounded by now are also the people that will experience and understand this season with me, and it’s okay that it’s not my family I’m sharing it with. I’m thankful for them, and I’m thankful for a God I can rely on through all of these changes. He’s the only other stability I’ve had in my life.

So if you’re in a similar situation, take heart. You will be okay. I will be okay. He’s got us, and in every season there’s a new opportunity for growth.

“I’m Still Here”: Staying Friends From Afar

The worst part about living in globally mobile circles is the constant stream of ‘goodbyes’. What do you do when your friend leaves the country? They’re off to build a new life in a new place and with new people, so would it be best to just let them forget you and move on?

It’s true that they might have less time to talk to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to! I’m going to talk about this in terms of Third Culture Kids, but this is also true of ex-pats and global nomads.

TCKs often spend good chunks of their lives moving from place to place, in a cycle of new beginnings and fresh starts. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need stability. If your friend is going to go to a new place, don’t back off. Be understanding that there will be new pressures on their time, but if you can make the effort to let them know “We’re still friends, I’m still here,” you can help them make the transition. You can be a steadying factor in a world that keeps changing: a reminder that their past lives haven’t disappeared. “I’m still here,” can be the most meaningful and comforting words.

And if you’re like me, and you’re questioning whether you were close enough friends to merit staying in touch, or if that person really liked you enough to want to keep talking to you…message anyway! You can make that decision, because the chances of the other person appreciating it are pretty high. And what’s the worst that could happen?

Excuse the bad-quality picture, but one of my favourite ways of keeping in touch with English-speaking friends while I was in China was finding funny translations. For those who can’t make it out, this is a notebook with the following poem: “Rain. / Rain is falling / all around. / It falls on field.”

When I moved to China, I loved my new life: my friends, my routine, my lifestyle…it was such a positive move. I was living my dream. That said, every time I opened my laptop a little part of me was desperate to see a new Facebook message, or a new email from someone from the UK. Every little ‘hello’ from someone who knew me in my ‘old life’ suddenly meant the world to me – even though I was so happy in China. Moving will change you, but it doesn’t turn you into a new person. I didn’t want my UK community to forget me, because I absolutely never forgot them.

And all of this is not to say that long-distance friendships are not hard. They are! They take discipline and effort and creativity. Being an “I’m still here” friend can be as rewarding, as it is emotionally challenging.

What does a good long distance friendship look like in 2019? There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Snail Mail. Post things to each other! Whether that’s postcards, Christmas newsletter, or little mementos from a place you’re both familiar with, being able to send something tangible can make the friendship seem much less abstract.
  • Voice Messages. Texting is great, but I love sending and receiving voice messages. It just seems a lot less clinical, and it makes the friend feel a lot closer. They are also less effort than having to type, so they can be much chattier!
  • Remember Birthdays. And other important days – let them know they’re on your mind, even if you can only send a little message.
  • Send them things that remind you of them. Memes, news articles, jokes, photographs…you don’t have to be in full-blown conversation all the time, but you can keep enjoying the things you have in common! If you have the chance to make your friend smile, just go for it.

It’s not realistic to keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met. But it’s also not realistic to ask yourself or others to constantly be making new relationships, and forgetting old ones. We can actively decide who to maintain contact with, who to put in that extra bit of effort for. And we can treasure and foster relationship with those who do the same for us.

So if you can be an “I’m still here” friend for someone (even if the ‘here’ is metaphorical), all the better.

Love, Dani

  • How do you maintain long-distance friendships?
  • Are you, or do you have an “I’m still here” friend? How has that helped with your/their transition?

Hannah: TCKs and the Arts

Hannah is a Third Culture Kid who grew up between Ghana and the USA. She is the founder of TCK Art website ‘cUlture MiKs‘.

“My TCK experience was a lonely one, full of transitions and travel and impermanence; and my way of dealing with that was to create art.  As a child, I wrote songs and poetry and stories because I believed I was the only one who felt the way I did.”

Hannah spent much of her time in Ghana without the company of other TCKs, unaware that other people like her existed.

In an interview with TCK Care, she explains, “I didn’t know anybody else like me. No one had ever told me they felt like me, so a lot of my art in my younger years came out of that sense of ‘I must write because there’s nothing out there that really expresses me.'”

It was only when she returned to the USA for university that she found a community of TCKs online, who shared her experience and emotions.

“That’s why I made [the website] – to be a resource for people to find other TCKs who feel things similar to them. It’s like, ‘hey, you’re not alone in this, we all feel this way.'”

Now, Hannah’s website is a source of comfort, inspiration, and solidarity for TCKs all over the world, with a wide range of contributors. She’s collected a range of poetry, music, videos, and paintings dealing with themes of identity, home, and culture, and she is still open to submissions! If you like to express yourself through art or are interested in other peoples’ TCK experiences, Culture Miks just might be the place for you.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Thomas Merton

I Can’t Stop Moving

I grew up in a globally mobile family. Now I’m in Scotland, I have a job and a community…but even the idea of being here for the rest of my life makes my heart beat faster, and the panic sets in. It’s not that I’m not happy here, or that I don’t like my life here. I just can’t stop moving.

I love meeting international friends, and trying new foods, and exploring new places. And in a strange way, I think I like being foreign. I like that people can look at me without expecting me to immediately understand the culture, or the idioms, or the unspoken traditions. There’s more leeway to be different, because I am different.

On the other hand, I love the feeling of being settled – of having a favourite restaurant, a circle of close friends that you’d trust with your life, and a steady income. So why, when I find those things, can’t I stay?

My brain is set to rhythms of change. My body is on a timer; every couple of years I want to wipe the slate clean, pack my earthly belongings into suitcases, and start over. I’m not a criminal, I don’t think I’m emotionally detached, I’m just…a mover.

Would I like to break the cycle, to settle down and accumulate life souvenirs, maybe start a family, maybe buy a house?

I don’t know. Maybe I just haven’t found the right place yet.

Either way, all I know for now is that I can’t stop moving.

“Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world. The possibilities for the future are endless. The sense of being at home anywhere, yet feeling that home is nowhere, is part of who I am.” – Ndela Faye, writing for The Guardian

Love, Dani