Interview with Ruth Van Reken

A few weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2016 Families in Global Transition Conference in Amsterdam. It’s the third time I attend this conference and every time I find myself re-energized and grateful for this international community. It’s a space where I don’t have to explain myself or my background; I feel welcomed, understood and heard.

This year we had three spectacular keynote speakers, including the founder of FIGT and Third Culture Kid/Cross-Cultural Kid advocate, Ruth Van Reken. Ruth is so much more than that, however, so in her honor I would like to share my interview with her from 2014. That was the first year I attended FIGT and the first time I met Ruth – her warmth, humor and genuine interest in everyone she meets made a lasting impression. It was a privilege to interview her in 2014 and to hear her speak this year.

This interview was first published in Insights and Interviews from the 2014 Families in Global Transition Conference: The Global Family Redefined

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Certain names immediately come to mind when thinking about Third Culture Kid (TCK) research: Norma McCaig, Ruth Hill Useem, David Pollock and of course, Ruth Van Reken.

It is difficult to find just one word that defines Ruth, who is a missionary kid, an Adult Third Culture Kid, author, teacher, public speaker, and advocate of TCKs, among many other things. She was born in Kano, Nigeria to an American mom born and raised in Chicago, and an American ATCK dad born in Resht, Iran. She spent much of her childhood in Africa, returning to the US. for high school. As an adult, Ruth went to college, became a nurse, and then met and married her husband, David. Also a missionary kid and TCK in his own right, having lived two years in China as a child, David is also a doctor and as he wanted to work overseas, Ruth continued her expat life with her husband, raising three global nomads of her own in Liberia and the US.

As an Adult TCK, daughter, mother and grandmother of TCKs, Ruth knows the impact of this lifestyle and the importance of understanding it. She is dedicated to helping others understand their journey and to spreading the word about this global community. Without Ruth there would be no TCK ‘bible’ (Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds) and no Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conferences.

Finding Words for Her Story

The two publications Ruth is most known for, Letters Never Sent and Growing up Among Worlds, were written under very different circumstances, but they both helped Ruth (and others) understand their own TCK background.

Letters Never Sent

Although she had led a happy life, as an adult Ruth found herself battling depression various times. It was triggered again when her oldest daughter left for the first time to return to the US for school, and Ruth realized it might be linked to her own childhood. A year later, in 1986, the whole family moved back to the US, settling in Indianapolis, which was a new adjustment for them all. It was during these periods that Ruth started keeping a journal, which would later be published as Letters Never Sent.

Finally writing about her experiences, at 39 years old, helped her process the emotions she had felt growing up as a TCK, especially about leaving home and going to boarding school. Expressing those emotions allowed her to finally address them and cope with them.

“This was not a book about a topic but simply a process of self-discovery,” she explained.

Her story resonated with many readers, and it continues to do so today, having sold over 32,000 copies. But when Ruth first wrote Letters, she had a hard time getting it printed because publishers didn’t believe there would be enough interest in her story.

“They said […] that not enough people would care about it as not that many had lived it,” she recalled. “Finally a friend who was a printer said he would print it for me for free and I could repay him if I sold it.”

From there Ruth did the selling herself until her collaboration with author and publisher Jo Parfitt, which allowed her book to receive the exposure it deserved. Jo revamped Letters by adding photos, an epilogue by Ruth, and making it available in print and kindle ensuring Ruth no longer had to sell it herself.

The book initially shunned by publishers would go on to impact people all over the world, who realized they weren’t alone in how they felt. By sharing her experiences and emotions, Ruth has helped others to learn from her lessons and ultimately live better in their understanding.

Letters showed me there was a well of grief that I had not been able to own or express,” she said. “And when we are protecting against the pain, we also cannot dare to live in the fullness of the joy.”

Growing Up Among Worlds

It was while working on Letters that Ruth and David Pollock first connected. He was preparing a conference on TCKs and she sent him a letter asking if he was doing anything to help adults struggling with their TCK experiences. That one letter led to a great friendship and collaboration.

Working on Growing up Among Worlds was a very different process to writing her journal. David had done much of the research but someone needed to put it in writing and make it available to others. In addition to writing it, there was also a need to clarify the whys of such a lifestyle, which were the challenges Ruth took on. Trying to explain the impact of growing up as a TCK also helped her understand herself better.

“As I tried to sort out the why do these characteristics emerge, I began to get new insights into my own story,” she recalled. “I could then use my story and hopefully expand to help others have a language for their story too.”

The Creation of Families in Global Transition

FIGT had very humble beginnings in the Midwest USA. While trying to adjust to life in suburban Indiana after living overseas, Ruth realized that not enough help was being given to relocated families. Although relocation packages included nice benefits and practical information, they lacked support in other areas.

“Topics such as transition, TCKs or spousal matters were not covered,” she said. “There seemed little awareness or appreciation for the enormity of the emotional/ psychological/ social issues that they or their children faced.”

In the meantime, Norma McCaig had started Global Nomads and David Pollock was talking about TCKs to international schools and organizations. Ruth’s memoir, Letters Never Sent had been published and people had begun writing to her, sharing their own similar experiences.

“It was apparent that issues related to global family living were real out in the world but they seemed invisible where I was living in Indianapolis,” she recalled. Then one day while sitting at her kitchen table with three friends, discussing the book she was writing with David Pollock, they realized it would be great to spread this information to a wider audience.

And so began the preparation for the first FIGT conference.

They found a venue, set a date (May 16th 1998) and created a logo, which is still used today. They even found a star speaker: David Pollock. At the time he was Executive Director of Interaction International (formerly Manhattan Youth Services), which he had co-founded in the 1960s. Few locals attended the conference, but many people traveled into town to hear David speak and ‘the magic of FIGT began’.

Although that first conference only had two sessions, it was so successful a second one was planned the following year and by 2001 FIGT had become an official organization. The conference was eventually moved from Indianapolis to Houston where there was a larger international community due to the oil industry, before moving to its current home in Washington, DC.

“Throughout the process, incredibly dedicated and capable board members […] have continued to lead the way to making FIGT what it is now,” she said.

Although David Pollock is gone, his legacy continues, not only through the knowledge he has left behind, but also through his son Michael, who led a Concurrent session with Ruth at the 2014 FIGT conference.

The FIGT Bookstore

Another evolving aspect of FIGT is the bookstore. At the first conference there was no bookstore – there wasn’t even a book table. Ruth’s husband sold them straight from the boxes in the lobby towards the end of the conference.

“No one believed there was enough interest in such a topic to generate many sales,” Ruth recalled.

The main books available at the time were Letters Never Sent by Ruth and Strangers at Home by Carolyn Smith, a US diplomat’s daughter. The following years there were more, including Growing up Among Worlds as well as publications from Jo Parfitt and Robin Pascoe. But unfortunately the choices remained quite limited.

Today there is an online bookstore and a physical bookstore at the FIGT conferences filled with a myriad of expat and TCK-related books.

Future Research and Passing the Torch

Ruth is currently working on new research regarding Cross-Cultural Kids (CCK). She wants to see how certain lessons can apply to all children who have experienced a globalized upbringing or some form of displacement from their parents’ home/culture.

“The details of the stories for a refugee child and an ambassador’s daughter are world’s apart,” she noted. “But both have lost the stability and connection to one world around them where they would have traditionally grown and had their identity mirrored back to them.”

Her hope is that by understanding the TCK experience it is also possible to help children from other cross-cultural backgrounds. She hopes to expand our views of who constitutes a global nomad and to use our past lessons to benefit them.

“If we have identified the gifts TCKs often receive from their cross-cultural childhood […] then is it possible those with other types of cross-cultural backgrounds […] have the same kinds of giftings?” she questioned.

She is also hopeful that future generations of TCKs/CCKs will continue to carry the torch for the global community. “Now we are in TCK Phase Two, watching your generation move into its place in the history of the world and build on the past so lessons learned can be applied to the present and prepare others to live well in a future where I believe CCKs of all backgrounds will be the norm and not the exception,” she said.

Although she speaks of passing the torch to the next generation, Ruth is far from done with her work. She continues to travel to conferences and schools speaking about TCKs and how to help them understand and make the most of their experiences.

Meeting Ruth was a highlight of the conference for me – I was immediately won over by her kindness, humor and warmth. She seems to have time for everyone, despite being in constant demand. She is modest and humble, almost to a fault, which only makes her more charming. She has done so much for this community and yet always downplays her contributions, preferring to give the credit to others. Thankfully those around her are willing to sing her praises and give her the recognition she deserves.

Ruth had endless wisdom to share, both when we spoke at FIGT and when I interviewed her after. She knows that growing up as a TCK/CCK is not simply good or bad. There are challenges and sorrow, but there are also amazing opportunities and happiness. Sometimes we forget that the ups and downs are both necessary parts of life.

“The joy doesn’t negate the pain of the loss and the pain of chronic cycles of separation and loss also doesn’t negate the joy,” she said. “Never ever forget you only grieve for losing something you loved.”

After these many words of wisdom, she shared one final piece of advice, which she has carried around her whole life.

Her ATCK father told her: “Ruth, no matter where you go in life, always unpack your bags and plant your trees […] Maybe you won’t be there to eat the fruit from those trees, but someone else will.”

In an increasingly mobile world, perhaps that is the greatest piece of wisdom.

 

 

Fulfilling a (Writer’s) Dream

I’m particularly excited to publish today’s blog post, because I get to share a project that is very important to me and that has been nearly a year in the making.

2014 Parfitt/Pascoe Writing Residency (PPWR)

Last February (2014), I was selected as one of four writing scholars to attend a fantastic conference on all things expat and Third Culture Kid (TCK). The conference, Families in Global Transition (FIGT), happens every year and is a great way to learn more about the global lifestyle and meet like-minded people.

The FIGT conference was held in March, and I wrote about it a few times – the welcoming atmosphere, the touching performance of a TCK’s story, and about becoming a writer. As writing scholars, we attended many sessions, keynote speeches and interviewed a variety of fascinating people. After the conference, our job was to write articles on everything we had seen and heard. Some of these articles were published on our blogs or in magazines, but most were stashed away in preparation for a bigger unveiling: a book.

It’s Here!

After months of writing, compiling articles, interviews, book reviews and editing (and more editing), our book finally went to press a few weeks ago. And less than two weeks ago, it became available to buy, both in print and on kindle.

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Please don’t be put off by the book if you haven’t attended the conference or don’t live a global lifestyle. Although the articles cover the conference, they are intended for a much wider audience than simply the FIGT attendees. If you are an expat, global nomad, TCK and/or if you work with them, this book is for you. If you are simply curious to learn more about living a global life, you will also find a lot to interest you.

A Dream Come True

I have always loved writing, but it has only been these past few years that I truly started to envision making a career out of writing. Having my articles published in magazines was already more than I had ever imagined. Now my name is on a book as a contributor and assistant editor. It’s incredibly exciting and surreal at the same time.

Jo Parfitt, who created this writing residency, had wanted to do this for a long time. She said that being able to combine her love for FIGT and her desire to help new writers was like a dream come true for her.

I’m grateful she fulfilled her dream, because in doing so she also made one of my dreams come true.

2014 Families in Global Transition Overview

I had the privilege to attend the the FIGT conference as a Parfitt/Pascoe writing scholar, which allowed me to meet many wonderful people, do a lot of writing and learn a lot about this global community.

Another great thing to come out of the conference was the chance to write an overview of my experiences for Global Living Magazine, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

Well, that article is now available to view on their website, so I wanted to share the link and the layout of the article. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it, and if you’re interested in any further information, please don’t hesitate to ask!

READ THE ARTICLE HERE: The 2014 Families in Global Transition Conference

As seen in Global Living Magazine www.globallivingmagazine.com

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Published Article – Families in Global Transition Conference

I know it has been quite a while since my last post, but I’ve been kept very busy with articles to write following the Families in Global Transition conference I attended in Washington D.C. several weeks ago. As we are preparing a book on the conference, there has been a lot of writing to do and a looming deadline!

In addition to the many individual topics I am covering for the book, I also managed to write an overview of my experiences that has just been published in the May/June Issue of Global Living Magazine!

If you’re an expat or Third Culture Kid, or even if you’re simply curious about the conference and other global happenings, please check out the magazine!

Hopefully I’ll be ready to put up a new blog post soon – stay tuned…

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Pascoe/Parfitt Resident Writers Introduced at FIGT2014

Today I am sharing a blog post by Linda Janssen, author of The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures, and blogger at http://www.adventuresinexpatland.com. After the Families in Global Transition conference, Linda decided to interview the four ParfittPascoe writing scholars: Cristina Bertarelli, Justine Ickes, Sue Mannering and me!

“One of the highlights of the 2014 FIGT Conference – and believe me, there were many – was the introduction of the first ever group of Pascoe/Parfitt Resident Writers. This illustrious group is named after Robin Pascoe and Jo Parfitt, two luminaries in the field of writing and publishing books which speak directly to the experience of living and raising families across cultures in a globally mobile world.

As an expat author and writer myself, I’ve devoured every single book by Pascoe (including a couple no longer in print) as well as at least a half dozen by the prolific Parfitt, my writing mentor and publisher, learning about everything from culture shock and raising global nomads to finding the humor in sometimes difficult cross-cultural situations and creating a location-independent career. Individually and together they have contributed greatly toward the genre that is now expat literature, from which so many can glean so much.

Knowing these two talents, it is only fitting that the benefits to the writing residents are not limited to a splashy title, new entry on their resumé and attending the FIGT conference sessions at a reduced rate. As conceived by Parfitt, founder of the expatriate press Summertime Publishing, the residency offers much more. The four recipients – Cristina Bertarelli, Dounia Bertuccelli, Justine Ickes and Sue Mannering – received in-depth training on writing articles and getting them placed for publication in an online course developed and led by Parfitt prior to the conference. Once there, they hit the ground running – or note-taking as it were – working nonstop. The residents split up and ensured press coverage of all joint conference and concurrent speaker sessions, which they will write about for the inaugural FIGT Conference Yearbook, due out later this year. The Yearbook ensures anyone interested in the 2014 Conference can immerse themselves in the panels, presentations and discussions of the cutting edge issues addressed.“… READ MORE

If you’re interesting in learning about the writer’s residency or about us scholars, please head over to the FIGT blog to read more!

I am a Writer

Lately I’ve been having trouble getting my thoughts onto paper. I thought I would be overflowing with inspiration after the Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT) and I would be able to write endlessly. Instead, I find myself struggling to express everything I felt. I am overflowing with inspiration, emotions and thoughts, but I am unable to translate them into written words.

I’ve wanted to post an entry about being a writing scholar and what that brought me, yet every time I write something it feels forced. Then I realized I was too focused on just the time at FIGT, without looking at the bigger picture. My journey as a writer didn’t start there, so why was I starting there? So I thought about how I felt at the conference and traced backwards from there…

Learning to Call Myself a Writer

Something I loved very much at FIGT was being surrounded by people who didn’t make me feel uncomfortable or out of place. My background wasn’t an issue, my experiences didn’t make me odd, people even knew how to pronounce my name and what it meant! But it wasn’t just my personal story that felt accepted – my professional story was as well. No one judged me or looked down on me for not having a 9-5 corporate job. So many others at the conference were freelancers in their own domain, or had started their own companies; but even those who do work in corporate environments weren’t judgmental when they knew I was a freelance writer. They showed interest or curiosity, wondering what I wrote about and what led me to writing. Everyone I spoke with at the conference was following their passion, and they also understood the need for a portable career. They understood me.

Outside of the conference, in the “real world”, I often find it hard to be accepted for what I am. I felt like being a freelance writer and trying to pursue my passion wasn’t good enough, so I rarely told people that’s what I do. I usually said I was looking for work and that I sometimes did some writing in the meantime.

But that’s not entirely true.

I have been looking for work – both writing/non-writing related; that part is true. But I don’t ‘sometimes write in the meantime’ – I write all the time. And that’s what I want to be doing. I want writing to be my job and my career.

Over the past few months I had started accepting this realization and was trying to push myself to say, “I’m a freelance writer”, when asked what I do. It’s not easy to make myself believe that. Even though I had published a couple of articles in a magazine, I still couldn’t fully convince myself.

Being a Writing Scholar

Then at the beginning of this year, I saw the ParfittPascoe Writing Residency for FIGT:

If you long to turn your writing hobby into a portable career and want to be published in blogs, magazines on and offline, websites and maybe even books, this might be for you.

If you have already proven your desire of turning your dream into a reality with maybe a blog, a few articles published in newsletters and online (not necessarily for money), then you are definitely the kind of person we want.”

It felt like an opportunity tailor-made for me. I wanted to apply but I was scared. Scared that it was too big a commitment and that I wasn’t good enough to do it. There was so much to do, both before and after the conference. There were lessons and articles to prepare beforehand and after it was a whole other story. There would be articles, blog posts and book reviews to publish; interviews to prepare and write-up; and the articles/chapters for the FIGT book. If I applied and was rejected, I would be devastated. If I applied and got accepted, I would be elated…and terrified. I was scared of failure and of success. But I couldn’t NOT apply. It was exactly the chance I was looking for.

While waiting to know if I had been selected, I remember checking my email on my phone before heading off to sleep. And I never do that. I don’t even have my email set up on my phone. But I knew that the decision was probably made and I had to know. There was no way I could wait until the next morning to check. When I read the email telling me I was one of the four scholars, I was thrilled beyond belief. I couldn’t stop smiling. I even woke up my sleeping husband to let him know. The news was too good to keep to myself!

I was so excited about being a writing scholar; it felt like a dream come true. Nervous as I was, I knew I was capable of doing it. I had been waiting for this opportunity and I was going to make it count. It was my chance to prove that I am a writer and that I can make a career out of my passion.

From the very beginning of the conference I realized that I was in the right place – both as a Third Culture Kid and as a writer. The fact that everyone around me was part of a global community fulfilled the TCK side of me, and everyone’s endless encouragement fed the writer in me. But among all the inspiring words, a few stood out – probably because they spoke directly to me and attacked my doubts about being a writer. At the writer’s forum on the first day of FIGT, Shirley Agudo* told us that whatever you want to be, claim it”. Linda Janssen** echoed that thought, reminding us to own what we do and what we are. Sometimes the biggest step is saying those words: “I’m a writer”. Then we must learn to claim them and believe them.

Well, I am a writer. I don’t know if I fully claim it and believe it every day, but I know I’m on the right track.

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*Author, photographer and assistant editor of Global Living Magazine; ** Blogger and author of The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures

Alien Citizen: Laughter, Tears and Finding the Right Words

The Families in Global Transition conference held many surprises for me. I was surprised at how kind and generous everyone was. I was also surprised how we all truly connected to each other and how we all wanted to share our stories. As much as I hoped to find that sense of community, family and home, I didn’t expect it to be so present and strong.

What truly caught me off guard, however, was the intensity of my emotions at the conference. And nothing embodied that more clearly than Elizabeth Liang’s show – Alien Citizen, An Earth Odyssey. Her honest performance left us all spellbound from beginning to end. In a way, it was my story, our stories that she was playing up there. We all struggled at times to find the right words; we all felt a connection to people weaving in and out of our lives; we all remember feeling lost, alone and afraid. But we also remember the beautiful moments too – so we laughed with understanding as we recalled our own stories. And we also cried with very deep understanding as we felt those same emotions well up inside of us.

At least I know I did.

And I did not expect that.

I had heard wonderful things about Lisa’s show and I was really looking forward to seeing it, but I didn’t think it would impact me the way it did. I didn’t know it would reach deep into the core of my being and strike such a chord in my heart.

Lisa’s performance hit even closer to home for me because I’ve lived in Central America: I spent three and a half years of my childhood in Mexico. I not only understood the Spanish, but also the cultural aspects…As well as the orange Fanta – although that was my sister’s favorite, not mine. I also understood the Arabic since I’m of Lebanese origin. And I definitely understood Connecticut, because that’s where I’m living now and it’s been a tough adjustment.

I’m sure many others connected with different parts of her stories, recognizing their own experiences in her words. We all know that moving from country to country is not an easy thing to do. Saying goodbye, leaving a home and starting somewhere new is not a fairytale adventure. I didn’t realize just how honest Lisa had made her show – I had expected the laughter, but not the tears. And truth be told, they were as welcome as the laughter. Sometimes we’re so focused on only thinking of the positive that we forget to grieve. But Lisa reminded us that we have to give ourselves permission to feel our pain in order to really see our experiences and appreciate them.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the words to express those feelings. Lisa found solace in acting and I know I found solace in writing. Somehow we found the words, in our own way. Now I just need to find the right words to do justice to her performance.

But maybe our silence and glistening eyes at the end of her show said it all.

Our TCK Family

“The shock from being back from all the internationality is astounding.”

That was my TCK husband’s comment upon our return to CT after the Families in Global Transition Conference. If he says that without even attending the conference but only taking part in the many conversations happening in the evening, it gives you an idea of the impact of FIGT.

Norman Viss, treasurer of the organization, called us one big TCK family. His statement resonated with all of us. It may seem odd to call a roomful of strangers family, but we understand it and we do feel like family. You can see it and hear it in the interactions: we dive right into conversations, no need for small talk; hugs are given to old friends and new friends and people who are just meeting for the first time.

We are family because we understand without having to explain. For all our differences, there is a common thread holding us together. We all know what it means to live between worlds, whether we’ve done it as kids, adults or both.

We had keynote speakers who inspired us, moved us and reminded us of the importance of this global family. We heard stories from speakers from around the world, from different backgrounds and experiences. We learned, we laughed and we cried. We left the conference feeling inspired, motivated, encouraged and loved.

That is why we flock to FIGT and that is why we need to tell others about the conference. Having this family means never being alone and always having someone who understands. It means having roots in a community, no matter where we are geographically.

As Elizabeth Liang reminded us all at the end of her powerful and poignant performance: we are the luckiest people on earth.

We are lucky indeed.

Lucky to have lived such a privileged life and lucky to have gained such experiences. We are lucky to belong to such a wonderful community and to have our TCK ‘siblings’ around the world.

They are our family and our tribe.

And I’m proud to be a part of them.

Just a few of the wonderful TCK and expat 'siblings' from around the world.
Just a few of the wonderful TCK and expat ‘siblings’ from around the world. Thank you to Jo and the fabulous writing team!

Families in Global Transition: Preparation

These past couple of weeks have been filled with reading, research, emails and a lot of writing. That may seem surprising since there hasn’t been much activity on my blog, but that’s because I’ve been busy preparing for the Families in Global Transition Conference.

It’s an annual conference on all things expat, third culture kid, global families… And this year I’m not only attending the conference, but I’m doing so with a writer’s residency, along with 3 other scholars. I was extremely fortunate to get selected as it is a fantastic opportunity and one I am very much looking forward to. In preparation for the conference and the writer’s residency, however, I find myself with a lot of ‘homework’ so I may not blog as often. But I will make sure to blog as much as I can, and I will still be reading and replying to comments, so please feel free to leave your thoughts anytime! I will also make sure to blog about the conference once it comes along…

This is my first time attending FIGT, but I have heard only wonderful things about it. If any of you are interested, make sure you check out their website for more information. This year, in addition to the usual sessions and talks, there will also be a writer’s forum open to everyone attending the conference (led by Jo Parfitt, our writing residency mentor!).

And last, but not least, if any of you happen to be attending the conference this year, please let me know so that we have a chance to meet in person while we’re there!

p.s. I am now on twitter, so feel free to connect with me there as well @DouniaB_TCK