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

Maurizzio: Studying Abroad

Maurizzio, originally from Peru, has studied at universities in the US and the UK. He shares how those experiences are shaping his career, and offers some advice for anyone planning to study abroad.

Looking Back

I walk into the Starbucks and order a cup of coffee.

The man waiting for me gives me a quizzical look. ‘You take your coffee black?’ he asks. I nod.

We sit down and start to chat. It looks simple enough, but this man is here to evaluate me for a job. The atmosphere might look relaxed, but here I am, at 31 years old, seeking employment as a professor in one of Peru’s most prestigious universities.

His eyes scan my CV. ‘Maurizzio Zamudio, Peruvian. MA in History.’ He recites my information as if I he were teaching it to me for the first time. ‘I see you studied abroad. Where exactly?’

‘University of Exeter,’ I reply.

Fast forward one year and here I am, at 32, a full-fledged university professor lecturing in 2 different departments on topics related to Art History. Apart from that, I also give conferences on crisis management because, as my mentor says, ‘History is the history of crises’. In my spare time I’m polishing my two novels for their future publication.

That’s a lot.

Sometimes I wonder how it got to this point. I’m not complaining – I just really want to know how I came from being unemployed to having too much on my plate. Part of me knows the answer.

Let’s roll back the clock to 2005 when, at 17, I left home to do my Bachelor’s Degree in the US. Then to 2015 when I went to the UK for my Masters. The years spent abroad studying are definitely one of the many reasons employers jump at my CV.

Feels good, but I must give credit where credit is due. Without those experiences abroad, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I’m now.

‘Are you going abroad by yourself?’

I got asked this question multiple times. It makes sense, because leaving home for a foreign country on your own is a daunting task. It isn’t easy to adjust to a new language and new culture. You will make mistakes and mess up. But the important thing is to remember those are natural things. The whole ‘fish out of
the water’ feeling is what you are supposed to be going through.

Is it really that bad?

It doesn’t have to be. Granted, you will feel alone at first, but that’s natural; in my case, I knew no one on campus when I arrived. To me, what made my experience abroad were the friendships I made. You will make them too. You will meet people like you, newcomers who are just as lost as you are. Don’t feel embarrassed; everyone is just as scared as you are.

However, let me stress something; do go out, do meet people. I’m an introvert and I had to drag myself out to talk to people. I’m not the kind who does well in big groups, so I ended with a small circle of friends, but I knew I could count on them. Those people are lifesavers.

Depression is real, and being far from home, international students are more prone to it. Don’t give it an advantage.

Finally, I know you are there to study, so do study and get good grades, but don’t let studies take you away from enjoying the place you are in. Organise a road trip, go watch a film, do touristy things.

You are only in that city for a few years. Enjoy it.

Find Maurizzio on Twitter @Maurizzio_Z.

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently. 

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