The Unseen Path: The Introspection of an Adult Third Culture Kid

I both fear and seek out the unknown. I grew up with unknowns always being a part of my life. New house, new school, new country, new continent, new language… That’s what life was like growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK). I was always afraid of being the new kid, of not fitting in, not making friends, not knowing my way around school. And yet I always thrived once I settled in. I was without friends for long and my toughest transitions ended up leading to my most enduring friendships.

But it was only in my late 20s that I fully realized my capacity to transition and adapt well. Only when I was closer to 30 I started believing I could handle more than I thought. Only recently did I truly understand the experiences and opportunities that scare me the most usually end up being the most rewarding.

Looking back, I wish I had known myself better as a young adult. I wish I had trusted my abilities to transition well, learn quickly and meet new people. I wish I had known what I know now about my passions, about writing, creating and connecting.

Overcome Your Fears

When you’re asked to think about advice to your younger self, it’s not always an easy process. Sometimes you don’t want to think too deeply or honestly about it because it can lead to a difficult introspection. If I could give advice to my younger self, it would all link back to doing more, trying new things, trusting myself and not being afraid.

I hesitate to use the word ‘regret’ for some of my choices, but I do sometimes wonder if I would be on another path if I had made different choices.

After graduating from an American/International school in Paris, I chose to attend university in France. The program was interesting, it was a good college, and I liked the beautiful buildings in a lovely part of Paris. All of that is true, but the decision was equally colored by the fact I would be staying at home with my family… Because I didn’t feel ready to be alone out in the world. I was afraid of doing such a transition alone. Unwittingly, however, I threw myself into another complex situation: studying in French and not fitting in with either the French students or the international exchange students. It was a much harder transition than I had anticipated, and I still felt alone, despite living with my family.

After a difficult first semester I eventually settled in, made friends, learned a lot and enjoyed my time there. I’ll never know if another choice would have been better and I don’t regret attending that university, but I don’t want fear playing a role in any decision I make.

Know Your Passions (and Trust Them)

Before learning my lesson about fear and choices, I had another major decision to make in my years of young adulthood. A few weeks ago I found myself thinking about this particular missed opportunity.

After completing my bachelor’s degree in history, I was looking for work while preparing applications for a master’s program. I was fortunate to find two options relatively quickly: a nine-month job as a part time assistant librarian at my old high school or a three-month administrative internship at the Paris office of a major international newspaper.

Although I had always loved to write, I had never truly considered making it my job. At the time, I believed I wanted to go into international education and it was better to work for nine months rather than three, so the assistant librarian position made the most sense. Again, like for university, these points were all true. But so were my fears about the internship: fear of not being up to par, of being overwhelmed by the tasks required or of making mistakes.

Today, truly knowing myself, my passions and trusting my capabilities, I would have picked the internship. I would have been elated and terrified – but I would never have let my fear stop me from such an incredible opportunity.

It’s important to trust your passions and to find concrete ways to nurture them. It took several more years and a new transition before I finally learned that lesson.

Make Your Own Path

A few years ago, I moved to the US with my husband. It’s my passport country (not country of origin) but I hadn’t lived there since I was eight years old, and we moved to a state I’d never been to before. It was our first move together, my first major move away from family (not including university), and the first time I moved without school, university or a job. There were a lot of unknowns and a lot of assumptions. I assumed it would be easy to settle in, fit in and find a job.

I was wrong. I looked for all kinds of jobs, to no avail. I felt lonely. It didn’t matter I sounded and looked like everyone else. I knew I was different and it made fitting in difficult. Through it all I wrote and wrote and wrote… Then one day my husband suggested I start a blog. I balked at the idea, as I had never written publicly before. But I refused to let fear get the upper hand and shortly after I created my blog. It opened up a world of possibilities, led to friendships, projects and my first published articles. For the first time, I started to consider that my passion could lead to something concrete and be more than a hobby.

My most complex transition opened doors I never expected. It didn’t matter I hadn’t followed a ‘traditional’ trajectory to land on my new path – I made my own. I sought out new opportunities and ventured into the unknown. Despite having been a writer most of my life I had never considered writing as a viable option for college or employment. Only recently I learned and started believing my passion can also be my career. I pushed through my fears to create a path with moveable roots that fits my passions and my TCK nature.

After several detours (or perhaps they were simply part of the journey), I found my path. Would I have ended up here no matter what choices or decisions I made? Is it simply a question of when, rather than if? I’ll never know. What I do know, however, is how important those childhood and young adulthood lessons were in shaping my decisions as an adult.

I am still learning, growing and there are many unknown and unseen curves to this path. I still seek out and fear the unknown – but I no longer let my fear get the better of me. I do not let my fear overtake my decisions. I love the unknown for what it can teach me, where it can lead me and what it has given me. As TCKs, unknowns are a constant part of our lives and it can be difficult to view them as opportunities when you’re overwhelmed by them. With the right support, understanding and faith in ourselves, however, we can overcome even the toughest situations.

If I had to give advice to my younger self, it would be this: “Trust yourself and your capabilities. You’ve been the new kid, you’ve seen the unknowns and you made it through.”

“Don’t miss out on amazing opportunities because you’re too afraid to try – the path hidden behind your fears is usually the one most worth taking.”

 

The Voices of #TCKchat

Complete the phrase: I wish I knew _____ before I went to university:

@oliviacharlet I wish I’d had the knowledge I have today of who I am as a TCK when I moved for university. Would have explored more and made more friends. #TCKchat

@unsettledtck I wish I knew that it takes time to settle in and everyone feels as lost as you. #TCKchat

@TCKFeminist I wish I knew that things like ‘psychological services/support’ and ‘rights and advice center’ matter when picking out a school. #TCKchat

@seachangementor Wish I knew it was okay to tell my parents I was struggling. Wish I knew how to ask for help and who to ask. #TCKchat

‎@TweetingAuthor I wish I knew myself before attending college. #TCKchat

@bateconsult I also wish I knew how bad homesickness could and would be. #TCKchat

What career advice would you give to younger TCKs?

@TCKPonders Your experiences and skills are rarer than you think! Always highlight them and the right job will value them too. #TCKchat

@mishellhmm Promote understanding and openness no matter where you end up working. It’s the value of our unique experiences. #TCKchat

@Jsimens Choose what is most important: career with overseas potential or roots (no movement). #TCKchat

@GaylynnGabbie Get out there. Get out of your comfort zone. Utilize your connections. Don’t limit yourself. #TCKchat

@juanjohn Figure out what you want to do and do it, no matter how scary. If you’re a TCK, you’ve already been out of your comfort zone before, right? #TCKchat

 

#TCKchat General Information

#TCKchat is held on the first Wednesday/Thursday of each month with 2 sessions: 1st session at GMT 15:00 and 2nd session at GMT +1 3:00.

To learn more and view upcoming topics, co-hosts bios and a video showing you how to participate in #TCKchat visit: www.tckchat.com / www.twitter.com/tckchat

Co-hosts First Session:

  • Amanda Bate @bateconsult
  • Dounia Bertuccelli @DouniaB_TCK
  • Stephanie Taderera @TCKponders
  • Meghali Pandey @TCKmeglet
  • Yousef Alenzi @_ra77al

Co-hosts Second Session:

  • Ellen Mahoney @seachangementor
  • Mary Bassey @verilymary
  • Lisa Zenno @tckwsucoug
  • John Liang @juanjohnjedi

Upcoming Topics

  • October: Aging Parents
  • November: Travel Hacks
  • December: A Look Back at the Past Year

————————————————————————–

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Among Worlds, as part of my #TCKchat column. Minor modifications were made to include the most updated information on co-hosts and upcoming topics.

————————————————————————–

Sadly, #TCKchat officially ended in November 2016. We loved all of the wonderful interactions, funny conversations and insightful discussions we had. Thanks to all who participated; we’ll miss you!

You can still find me on twitter @DouniaB_TCK. Hope to chat with you there!

Advertisements

Inside Out and Jumbled Up

I never expected that an animated movie could make me feel so much. That it could reach so far into my heart and find emotions and feelings that I thought were either gone or buried deep. Turns out they were just under the surface, waiting to be triggered. And maybe they will always be there.

The movie I’m talking about is the new Pixar film Inside Out, which is about an 11-year-old girl (Riley), moving from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco. A lot of the movie happens in her head, where we see the different emotions (joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger) personified as individual characters. It is beautifully made and I was blown away by how imaginative, creative and magical it was.

I was equally impressed with how the filmmakers portrayed her emotions, how they dealt with sadness and how they showed the importance of acknowledging all emotions – because they all play a role in shaping who we are and how we live our life. It showed that sadness is not an emotion to ignore; it’s not something bad and shouldn’t be stigmatized. Sometimes all you need is to acknowledge the sadness, sit with it and let it out. Then you are more likely to find comfort and see the beauty and joy around you.

When we ignore sadness or push it down, we don’t address it and often other emotions/ reactions come out instead – fear, disgust and anger. As Riley struggles with her emotions during this new transition she becomes confused, lonely and angry. Confused at how jumbled her feelings are, lonely without friends at her new school and angry that she was dragged away from her home and her friends.

As a Third Culture Kid (TCK), this movie resonated with me in a way no other movie ever has. I felt like I was watching my story on screen. And I know my TCK husband felt the same. We felt the sharp ache of goodbyes; the deep loneliness of having no friends and eating lunch alone while others talked and laughed around you; the anger and confusion of being torn away from everything familiar and loved. But mostly we felt the sadness… And we were both caught by surprise at the intensity of our emotions.

I’m now 30 years old, and I had a very healthy TCK upbringing. My parents were always supportive, they prepared us for every move, gave us closure and allowed us to grieve. So I thought all those emotions were sorted and neatly packed away in ‘long-term memory’ as the movie showed us. I never expected them to resurface so easily and to overwhelm me the way they did. But when Riley finally admits her sadness to her parents and says how much she misses home, the emotion was so raw, so real and so familiar that my heart overflowed… And so did my tears.

But the beauty of the movie, and of life, is that once you acknowledge the sadness you can address it and you don’t have to deal with it alone. From there it’s uphill because you’re not fighting against it anymore and more importantly you’re not fighting alone.

The movie shows that as Riley strengthens her relationship with her parents, makes new friends and slowly finds her place until this new location becomes home. And that’s how it worked every time for us – once you get past the heartache, loneliness and sadness, you make friends and you make a new home… At least until next time.

I don’t regret this life and despite feeling such raw sadness, I loved the movie. It has so much wonderful humor and such poignant, touching scenes. It wasn’t a sad movie, but it also didn’t shy away from the sad moments. It embraced them and showed how they’re an important part of the bigger picture. I’m grateful that someone took the time to make such a movie and to make it so eloquently and beautifully.

Words cannot really do it justice, so I would recommend this movie with all my heart. If you’re like me you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think, you’ll be amazed by the magic of the movie… You’ll leave feeling inside out, upside down, jumbled up and moved to the core.

But you’ll also leave feeling warm, buoyant and just a little more lit up inside.

Moveable Roots

In the nearly four and a half years since I returned to the U.S. as an adult, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be an accompanying spouse. Although I knew that’s what my situation would be when I chose to accompany my husband where his work would take him, I’ve only fully realized what it entails by living it these past few years.

When we were growing up, we didn’t have to deal with any logistics of the move, understanding health insurance, figuring out credit systems etc. As children, we had a regular routine, surrounded by many others like us at school. But as an adult, especially as an accompanying spouse, none of that applies anymore. Now we’re the ones with responsibilities and it’s up to us to figure it all out. There are no teachers or fellow students to help you out. This is very individual, independent learning – for better or for worse.

Since we’ve moved here, I’ve had to learn about living in the U.S. as an adult. Just because I have an American accent, people assume I’m from here and therefore I am aware of all the intricacies of daily life here. I only lived here as a young child, and although it is my passport country, it’s not where I’m from originally and it’s not where I’ve spent most of my life. This adds a further layer of complexity to this transition. This makes it a confusing mix of familiar and totally foreign. It makes us hidden immigrants and repats and neither all at the same time.

I’ve suddenly become acutely aware of what it must have been like for our parents – trying to make a home and figure everything out in a foreign place. And I also realize more than ever what a challenge that probably was for my mom, or any accompanying spouse. While the working spouse has a job to go, a routine, people they regularly interact with, the accompanying spouse often has none of those. I’ve learned just how difficult it can be to meet people when you work from home, don’t go to an office/school or have kids.

I had assumed that being an accompanying spouse in my passport country would make certain things easier – no need to get work permits or apply for visas, and no language barrier. And yet finding work has been extremely difficult, despite trying many times and in many different domains. I find myself competing with locals who have lived here, studied here and worked here most of their lives. I clearly have a foreign name, and have lived, studied and worked all over the world, but never in the U.S.

I also assumed I would find it relatively easy to adapt, to speak with people, to figure things out quickly… I had done it so many other times, in foreign places, while having to learn a new language; how hard could it be this time? Well, I didn’t realize how much the culture shock and loneliness would impact me. It was more acute than I expected, especially living in an area where there are very few foreigners and even less (if any) with TCK backgrounds/experiences like us. I have found it quite difficult to connect with people here. I have acquaintances and have no trouble carrying on a conversation, but I have forged few real relationships.

It has been a struggle and a steep learning curve. But thankfully it has also been a blessing in disguise. I suddenly found myself with a lot of free time, which allowed me to reignite my love for writing. I have started building something of my own, one brick at a time – first my blog, then some published articles, then my writer’s residency, published book reviews and soon a book with my name on it (as a writer and assistant editor). Those have led to other opportunities, little bits and pieces that slowly add to the puzzle. There is still a long way to go, but I’m proud of where I’ve gotten.

When we first arrived here, I never imagined that things would develop in this manner. I thought I would find a regular, part-time job and take a more ‘traditional’ path. Instead an unexpected path opened up and I’m continuously surprised by what it’s given me and by what I’ve learned about myself along the way. These last few years have allowed me to plant seeds for a career that I can carry with me wherever future plans may take us.

And what could be more fitting for a TCK, expat and accompanying spouse than a career with moveable roots?

DSC_2563

Longing

I long for something,

Without knowing what.

I long for somewhere,

without knowing where.

 

I long for change,

For that next adventure…

I’m restless and bored,

Ready to start somewhere new.

 

And yet I long to settle,

To put down roots.

To call some place home

And know it’s my own.

 

But where is that illusive home?

That place where I belong,

Where I am neither other

Nor outsider?

 

I am homesick,

But I don’t know for where…

For which country, which place,

Which home?

 

My heart aches,

Without knowing for what.

It longs for something

That I cannot define.

 

Such is the path

Of my third culture kid journey:

Sometimes confusing, often contradictory…

And forever longing.

DSC_2059

Book Review – Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

Between WorldsBetween Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn R. Gardner

When I found out that Marilyn was going to publish a book, I knew it would be great and I was impatient to read it. I first read Marilyn’s writing on her blog, Communicating Across Boundaries, and I was immediately captured by her words. Her writing is always so honest, vulnerable, insightful and eloquent. Her book is no different.

Although I received Marilyn’s book a while ago (courtesy of the author herself – thank you!), I’ve taken a while to get through it and write this review. It wasn’t because the book is heavy reading or takes a while to get through, but rather because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to savor what I was reading and have the time to reflect upon it.

Reading Between Worlds is like having a conversation with a TCK best friend. You may have lived in different countries and experienced different things but ultimately you understand each other to the deepest core. You can skip the small talk and trying to explain your background and just get right into the nitty-gritty things. The things that matter, that affected you, that shaped you. The way growing up between worlds is both blessing and curse, beautiful and heart-breaking…But that no matter how tough it can be you would do it all again.

Marilyn covers all that and so much more in this first (and hopefully not last!) book. She has divided her essays into seven topics that most, if not all, TCKs have dealt with: home, identity, belonging, airports, grief and loss, culture clash, and goodbyes. Through these topics we get a glimpse into Marilyn’s world growing up as a TCK and then struggling to adjust as an ATCK, especially upon returning to her passport country. But this isn’t a chronological book outlining each aspect of her life growing up, and I love that. It’s a collection of touching, heart-warming, humorous, gut wrenching essays about defining moments, memories or events. Her descriptions are so vivid and the details so precise that we can almost see, smell and hear everything. We can picture the Chai Shop, smell the curry, hear the raindrops on the tin roof and the call to prayer. We can also feel her sorrow, her intense joy and all the myriad of emotions that come with living between worlds.

On a very personal level, I connected deeply with many things Marilyn wrote. We are so very different in our TCK experiences – I have never lived in Pakistan, but lived in 7 different countries around the world; I grew up as a ‘corporate’ TCK, not an MK; we are of different generations…But none of that matters. I had already noticed how little it mattered when reading her blog posts as I often felt that she was writing my own thoughts and feelings. Reading Between Worlds was the same. She could have been expressing my own joys, fears and struggles. I felt understood and comforted. And I know I will be re-reading her book time and time again.

For those of you who haven’t read Between Worlds yet, please do. You won’t regret it. Everyone can find something to relate to, whether TCK or not. To tempt you and give you a taste of Marilyn’s beautiful writing, here are some of my favorite quotes. I could have included many, many more, but I hope that this selection will push you to read her wonderful book.


“Every good story has a conflict. Never being fully part of any world is ours. This is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing. We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between. This is our conflict and the heart of our story.” (p. 29) 

“My passport was my grown-up teddy bear. Its expiration was an identity theft of sorts, arousing a host of feelings for which I was unprepared. I was swept away in a tsunami of soul tears, tears that come from such a deep place that you do not think you can survive them. And in those soul tears, I made up my mind that no matter what, I would not let my passport expire again. […] It was a crucial part of the complexity of my journey of identity.” (p. 58)

“Third culture kid envy is one of the consequences of being designed for travel. It is what I feel when my feet are trapped on the ground for too long while I watch others travel.” (p. 73)

“Being able to travel is one of life’s greatest gifts. It simultaneously keeps one humble and fully alive. And for me the gift and magic begin at the airport. The airport is a place where I don’t have to try. It’s where I can be fully comfortable between worlds.” (p. 91)

“At airports, life seems full of endless possibilities. Whether I’m traveling to Rochester, New York or Karachi, I enter the terminal and get airport eyes, seeing the world through the lens of hope and opportunity.” (p. 105)

“As we tell our stories we realize that these transitions and moves are all part of a bigger narrative, a narrative that is strong and solid and gives meaning to our lives. As we learn to tell our stories we understand not only the complexity of our experience, but the complexity of the human experience, the human heart. So we learn to tell our stories – because your story, my story, and our stories matter.” (p. 162)

“Third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, foreigners. We find each other in unlikely spaces. In the shared experience of other, we find belonging and rest, whether in a short ride to an airport or a long-distance phone conversation. These moments of connection seem to come at the right time, sustaining us until the next encounter, preventing us from falling into an abyss of self-pity and isolation.” (p. 181)

“No matter where these goodbyes have taken place, whether it’s been on hot tarmacs, or dusty river banks; efficient European airports or train stations, the symptoms are the same. My stomach gets those characteristic ‘goodbye’ butterflies, my throat constricts, my body feels restless. Time passes too quickly; minutes count, hours horrify.” (p. 195 & 230)

“All the world feels caught in these goodbyes, goodbyes that bruise and hurt, yet remind us that our hearts are still soft and alive.” (p. 202)


And last, but certainly not least, a quote from Marilyn’s preface:

“This book is a product of that life, a life lived on both sides of the globe. It is a set of essays from a life lived between worlds. […] It is my hope that my words, stories, thoughts, and feelings resonate with those who, along with me, are living between worlds.”

I’m From…

I’m from the warm Mediterranean Sea,

And the smell of fresh pines in the mountain.

 

I’m from lavender fields and vineyards,

And the ochre colored house.

 

I’m from bahebak, je t’aime,

I love you, te quiero and ti amo.

 

I’m from islands and continents,

From north to south and east to west.

 

I’m from all these places that hold my heart,

And from a home that’s rooted in love.

 


This post is inspired by a beautiful poem written by 10th grader and TCK Adelaide, shared by Marilyn at Communicating Across Boundaries. “The Language Arts teacher wanted them to write a poem introducing themselves to her and to the class. It was a simple assignment. Five short stanzas. Two lines each. Begin each stanza with, “I’m from…” (Click to see the entire post and read Adelaide’s touching poem about growing up between worlds)

If you liked Adelaide’s poem and my poem, here’s another one for you, courtesy of Tayo Rockson, who was also inspired by Marilyn’s post!

Feeling inspired? Please feel free to share your own I’m From poem in the comments, or if you write one on your own blog, I would love to link to it here!

A Sense of Belonging

I’ve come to realize something in my years as a TCK: there is no period of adaptation. It’s just a continuous cycle; you’re never actually finished adapting. Just when you think you might be, something else happens to make you realize that you’re a foreigner in this land. But what happens if you feel like a foreigner wherever you go? Being fully detached from a TCK environment has been an interesting process. I didn’t realize how big of a difference it made. Even in the times I wasn’t regularly in a TCK environment (when I was studying at the French or English universities), I was still immersed into it often enough. Then I went fully back into that environment, as a substitute teacher and tutor at my old high school in Paris. But out here, it’s a whole different ballgame, and sometimes it’s tougher to figure it all out.

Sometimes it’s just silly little things that bother me more than they should. Things that are actually more than ok, but not of my standard. It’s frustration at myself, frustration at feeling so foreign and different, and showing it. Feeling like the whole world can see just how strange and out of place you are, just how much you don’t fit in. They probably can’t, they might not have any idea at all, but that’s how it feels sometimes. As a TCK, something I pride myself on is being able to adapt, being flexible, but I don’t always feel like I succeed. And those days are never easy.

Then I realized something else. It’s the people you’re with and the little things which make you feel like you belong. It’s finding pleasure in simple moments, enjoying the warm sun on your face, looking out the window at the blue sky and thinking ‘what a beautiful day, and I’m lucky to be here’. At least for me, that’s what helps me feel like I belong. Two days ago when I started writing this entry, it was much more melancholy. Then the sun came back out – literally and figuratively – and I realized that no matter how long it takes me to adapt, I am happy here. I’m happy to have a home with my husband, a place to really call our own. After all the years we spent apart, only seeing each other every few weeks or months, falling asleep by his side every night and waking up to him every morning is a source of profound joy for me. I love those morning drives to drop him off at work, because it’s just a few more minutes with him before he’s gone for the day. Starting my day by his side is the best way to start it; he makes me feel like I belong.