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.

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Patience is a Virtue

Transitions are never easy, no matter your age or where you are. Times of change and going into the unknown will always be simultaneously scary and exciting. As third culture kids we have more experience with change and so we may understand the challenges better, but it doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. Sure, we have more practice with adapting and we know it gets better, but even we feel lost, lonely and confused. Even we question ourselves and doubt our capabilities when we’re thrown into a completely new environment. And surprisingly, we question ourselves even more when we are in a supposedly familiar place, and still struggle to adapt. We pride ourselves on being resilient and being able to settle in anywhere, so when we have a hard time doing that we doubt ourselves. We get frustrated and feel something must be wrong with us for not figuring it out.

This is something I’ve experienced during these past years since I’ve returned to my passport country. I wondered why it was taking me so long to adapt here and why, even years later, I was still struggling. I couldn’t understand and I was frustrated, questioning how I could call myself resilient when I couldn’t even settle here properly. I’ve written recently about my struggle to adapt, sharing my realization of something crucial: I was being so hard on myself because I kept viewing it as a re-entry, when really it was a new entry. This experience also helped me learn a very valuable lesson that applies no matter where you are or what you are going through: be patient and kind with yourself. I have read this before and my mom recently said it to me, but I had never truly understood its meaning or importance until these last few years. It is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, but also one of the toughest. You only learn it the hard way and it’s very difficult to stick by. It’s so much easier to doubt and question yourself, to get frustrated and feel inadequate… It’s so much easier to do that than to say, “Hey, this is tough and I’m doing the best I can. I just need time and I’ll figure it out.”

We can be so patient and understanding with others, yet we refuse ourselves that same kindness. We forget that what we are doing is no easy feat and that years of experience doesn’t mean we have everything figured out from day one. We (or at least I) also seem to forget that the challenges we faced as third culture kids are not exactly the same as adult third culture kids.

I’ve written this from my point of view as an adult third culture kid, but I believe this is a lesson that applies to everyone. The words ‘you are your own worst enemy’ or ‘you are your harshest critic’ ring so true for many us. But we should learn to not be so hard on ourselves and not be so quick to doubt what we’re capable of. Whatever transitions you may be going through, wherever you are in the world, however old you are… Remember to be patient and to be kind – not just with others, but with yourself too.

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Who I Am

I am a third culture kid.

Of that I will never be rid.

 

I’ve grown up among worlds,

Like many other boys and girls.

 

I am made up of one travelling heart,

Which is often spread worlds apart.

 

I am internationally grown,

But I have a hard time defining home.

 

I am made up of many places,

Like a dice of six faces.

 

The places I’ve lived and loved,

And those that run through my blood;

 

Each of them is a part of me,

Part of my story and my journey.

 

Much of it is yet to be told,

But to one thing I will always hold:

 

I’m an adult third culture kid,

Of that I never wish to be rid.

To Enter or to Reenter: That is the Question

Recently I read a couple of blog posts written by an adult third culture kid about expats and reentry, and TCKs and entry. I thought the differentiation she made was very telling and made perfect sense to me. When you consider reentry, it means returning somewhere you’ve already been and that you can consider as home. For an expat who left his/her home country for a ‘mission’ elsewhere, coming back to their home base is indeed reentry. For a third culture kid however, moving to their passport country is not necessarily a reentry. They may have never lived in their passport country or only lived there as a child, or perhaps don’t return to the exact same location in that country. Some aspects of settling back in may be the same for reentry and entry, but the TCK often goes through more struggles to adapt.

Ever since I moved back to my passport country as an adult I’ve been struggling with the notion of entry versus reentry. When you’re living in a foreign country, people know you’re not from there so it’s acceptable to be confused, to grieve, to be lost, not know local customs etc… When we return to our passport country we can suddenly find ourselves feeling like ‘hidden immigrants’. We sound like others here, we’re technically “from” here, but really we’re not. But how do you explain that to non-TCKs? It doesn’t make any sense to most of them. How can we feel and act like foreigners in our “home” country? It sometimes feels like we have to hide our confusion, our grief and our disorientation. We might even feel like something is wrong with us for having such a hard time adapting when we’ve had to adjust to far more difficult situations. As third culture kids, we pride ourselves on our resilience and adaptability, but suddenly we’re struggling to find our way. That can be because we view this move like others might see it – as a reentry – when really it’s another new entry. If we consider it a reentry, then it’s no wonder we question why it seems so much tougher than other moves we’ve done.

Little by little I’ve been figuring out the difference between entry vs. reentry and understanding why it’s taking me so long to adapt here. Even now, 3 years later there are still days when I feel as lost as when we first arrived. Those blog posts I mentioned have helped me realize that there is nothing wrong with that and I am not alone in my struggle. These years of reentry have made me grow the most as an adult third culture kid. I’ve experienced a very different kind of move and adaptation from what I was used to. Some parts were easier than other moves – no new language to learn, no first day at school…But many things are much harder because I am “supposed” to know them and it is assumed that I do. We’re not afforded the luxury of patience and understanding that foreigners would receive. Sometimes it can be very difficult to navigate this complicated situation and find common ground with people here. Communicating with others here has definitely been a learning process and I’m still figuring it out, 3 years later.

Despite these struggles, however, there have been many good moments and there is a lot that I love here. Growing up all over the world taught me many things, but one of the most important lessons I learned is to enjoy every moment and make the best of every situation. And that’s what I’m doing. Although not every day is easy, not every day is a struggle either. And every year has been better than the one before. Every year I find new strength and new joys, which teach me more about myself. This past year I have felt the most at peace with myself since moving here, and the most in tune to what makes me happy here. That in itself tells me I’m on the right track to figuring out my entry.

“Autumn…”

“…The year’s last, loveliest smile.” William Cullen Bryant

I have always loved autumn. All four seasons have something beautiful to offer, but for some reason, autumn holds something special for me. Growing up I didn’t always live somewhere with four proper seasons, which meant that for many years I didn’t get to enjoy a true fall. I was lucky to spend my first years as a kid playing in leaves and watching the beautiful fall colors in Wisconsin…But I admit that I mostly remember jumping into the leaves! After we left the U.S. it was quite a while before I saw a proper autumn again. Mexico and Sydney barely had fall and the Philippines definitely didn’t have those temperate seasons since it’s tropical… I had to wait several years before seeing four well-defined seasons and my beloved autumn once again.

When we moved to France, I rejoiced at being able to see and feel each individual season. They all had their time, they were not fleeting or melting together; they were four distinct seasons. And finally, I found autumn again. The colors lit me up inside and the crisp fall air made me want to laugh out loud, for no particular reason other than feeling so alive and so invigorated. And autumn does that to me every year. The years when fall isn’t so prominent or passes by quicker, I feel the absence and I long for that season I love so much.

Then three years ago my husband and I moved to New England, and I suddenly experienced autumn like I never had before. This is now our fourth autumn here and every year I am amazed by the beauty this season has to offer in this part of the world. Although I love fall, I do love all of the other seasons too and so it was always difficult for me to choose just one favorite season… But here in New England, it’s easy. Autumn is by far my favorite season here. None of the other seasons inspire me and invigorate me the way fall does. There is something so exhilarating about the crisp autumn air and the clear blue sky. The flowers in the spring are lovely and bright, but it’s hard to compete with the rich jewel tones of autumn leaves.

There’s something about this season that makes me want to explore and try new things. I want to write more, take more photos, see new parks, go for long walks and just be outside. I want to feel the cool air turning my cheeks pink, heading back inside with windswept hair and hands full of colored leaves. Then I want to sit down with a mug of hot chocolate or tea and watch the glow of the sun on the fiery trees.

Whether I got to see fall every year or not doesn’t matter. I get to experience it now and I intend to take advantage of every minute.

 

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Click for a bigger version – this small one just doesn’t do justice to how beautiful this scenery is…

“I loved autumn, the one season of the year that God seemed to have put there just for the beauty of it.” Lee Maynard

First Day

Heart palpitating, palms sweating…

Actually, everything sweating.

 

Do I look all right,

Or is this shirt too bright?

 

I wonder if they’ll talk to me,

Or simply let me be…

 

I’m not really sure which I’d prefer.

 

Will I be able to find my way,

Or will my nerves lead me astray?

 

Trying to hold back the tears

And not let them see all my fears.

 

As always there’s a complication,

My name isn’t there or there’s a mispronunciation.

 

Here we go again.

 

I raise my hand up in the air,

Trying to ignore all those eyes that stare.

 

I tell the teacher about my name,

Thinking how many times must I do the same?

 

The day finally draws to a close,

And the relief inside me grows.

 

At least I made it through today.

New Kid On The Block

I opened my eyes and looked around the unfamiliar room. The walls were bare and for a moment I wondered where I was. Then with a jolt I remembered, and I could feel the knots in my stomach. I knew this day would come again, but I was never really ready for it. Today I was the new kid. Again.

– – – – –

Growing up a third culture kid (TCK) meant that being the new kid at school was just part of our lives. I attended 5 different schools all over the world; sometimes there were a lot of other new kids and other times there weren’t. Regardless of how many there were, it was always a difficult experience and a time when TCKs can feel very lonely. September came to be synonymous with these struggles as that was usually when we started at a new school and when the real challenges began. June was usually the sad month of goodbyes and September was the scary month of new beginnings. It is often a month of turmoil for kids moving somewhere new – settling into an unfamiliar house, finding their way in a foreign city, and most daunting, starting at a new school.

Growing up as a TCK, I was the new kid many times, and I know how difficult that is. So whenever I saw new kids, I would always go and ask them if I could help out. I would look out for them and if I ever saw one who looked lost or lonely, I would go introduce myself and offer to help them find their way, or just simply talk to them. Often the smallest gesture makes the biggest difference, especially when you’re feeling lost or alone.

Throughout my years as a TCK, I realized how much those little gestures of kindness and comfort make such a big difference, especially during transition periods. The countless teachers and students who reached out a helping hand when we felt lost and alone slowly made that new place feel more like home. And the way my parents were always supportive and reassuring, while making sure we were involved helped us cope with all the changes in our lives. With time, I also realized just how resilient and adaptable us TCKs really are. I’m not going to pretend that moving was (or is) easy and that there aren’t moments of sadness. But the truth is that, before you know it, you’ll know your way around school, you’ll be giving directions to tourists, and you’ll be calling that strange, foreign place home.

– – – – –

I opened my eyes and looked around my room with a smile. I knew that the dreaded conversation of leaving would happen again someday and that my heart would once again feel as if it were breaking into a million pieces. But I also knew that for now, I was home.

For now, I was no longer the new kid.

Third Culture Kid For Life

The first time I heard the term “third culture kid” I was in 10th or 11th grade. By that time I was living in my 6th country and attending my 5th school – I had been living as a TCK my whole life without ever knowing there was a special name for us. I remember someone came and spoke to us during an assembly. The funny part is that I don’t remember what he/she talked about specifically but I remember hearing about third culture kids for the first time and realizing that that’s what we were. It wasn’t necessarily an epiphany or and “a-ha” moment; it was more “wow, that’s us. We’re TCKs. Pretty cool.” It probably had more of an impact on me later, but it was still a moment of profound understanding…and also of pride. I thought it was pretty awesome that we were third culture kids and that our lifestyle could be understood by others. It also explained why we could all relate to each other even if we’d lived in completely different countries. It wasn’t the locations or languages that allowed us to have this unspoken understanding; it was the shared experience of growing up across continents and oceans. Each of us knew the goodbyes, the packing and unpacking, the anxiety of a first day at school, the heartbreak of leaving a home, and that ‘home’ is so much more than a fixed location. We know all that and so much more. Those are the invisible bonds that tie us TCKs together, that allow us to connect with each no matter how different our geographical paths may have been. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s a community I’m very proud to be a part of.

As I’ve gotten older, I realized how that community continues to grow every year and how lucky I am to have grown up at a time when people were talking and writing about TCKs. I know that many older TCKs didn’t have a sense of understanding of why they felt the way they did or how their life impacted them so much. Since graduating from high school 10 years ago, I’ve seen just how much my life as a third culture kid shaped me, and how much that experience will always be part of who I am. It’s only when you leave a TCK environment that you really notice the impact of the life you led and how much it sets you apart. I’ve really become aware of that over the past few years and especially since I’ve moved back to the U.S.

It seems that being away from any TCK environment unlocked something in me – I wanted to write about my experiences, and I wanted to read stories of others like me. My Christmas list included David C. Pollack and Ruth E. Van Reken’s book Third Culture Kids – Growing Up Among Worlds, my notebook is filled with stories and memories of my life as a third culture kid, and I started this blog. Suddenly I had so much I wanted to say, so many stories I wanted to share, and such a strong desire to connect with others who understood. I learned early on that writing brought me a special kind of comfort that I didn’t find elsewhere and writing about my experiences, sharing them and communicating about them has been both cathartic and enriching.

It’s only recently that I fully realized just how pivotal that moment of enlightenment was for me, all those years ago. It opened up a world of understanding and led to a lifelong fascination for this community I’m so lucky to be a part of. Those words helped explain my life to those who hadn’t lived it and strengthened the bonds with those who had. I was proud when I found out I was a third culture kid and that pride has only grown with time. You may not choose to be a third culture kid, but you can choose to embrace the experience and the adventure. It may be difficult at times, but what you gain from it and how you grow from it makes every tough moment worth it. Being a third culture kid, and what you learn from that incredible journey, is something that will stay with you for a lifetime.

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Summers of Change

Many things come to mind when thinking of summer: sunshine, ice-cream, vacation, lounging on the beach, late nights, cool drinks… But for me, and many other TCKs, summer was also synonymous with change. Sometimes we would watch best friends move away and other times we were the ones leaving. Either way it meant change, adapting to yet another new situation and having to figure it out all over again. When we were moving there were obviously greater challenges and those summers were truly a period of transition.

The summers when we were moving we rarely went directly to the new country. Once school would finish in June, we would pack up the house, ship everything off with the moving company and we would head off to spend the summer with family. At least that way we could enjoy our vacation as much as possible before having to confront the inevitable challenges awaiting us. It was, in my humble adult TCK opinion, a very smart move to allow us this transition period, this pause, in between countries. It softened the blow of leaving our home and gave us strength to deal with arriving in a foreign place. Spending the summers with cousins and grandparents, being surrounded by loved ones and familiarity eased the pain of loss and of sorrowful goodbyes. It reminded us that some things remain constant and steady, even when everything around us seemed to be a whirlwind of change. It also reinforced our belief that time and distance do not alter true friendship and love.

Summers are meant to be a time of joy, fun, laughter and carefree days. We were lucky to enjoy those moments, but for TCKs moving to a new country the summer was much less carefree and relaxed. While others were still enjoying their last lazy days of summer lounging in the sun or chatting with friends, we were unpacking boxes in an unfamiliar house, trying to find our way in foreign roads and dreading the first day at a new school. It wasn’t always easy, and we were grateful for the summers when we weren’t moving, but it was all part of the experience. And despite all the tough moments, I would do it again, without a doubt.

Those summers of change provided valuable lessons that will last me a lifetime and they taught me how resilient I really am. A restful summer is always welcome, but show me the next opportunity for change, and my TCK itchy feet are ready for the next adventure!

I hope you all have a great summer, wherever you may be, and good luck to any of you going through a summer of a change.

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Moving forward, but always remembering the past…

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

As an adult third culture kid living in a decidedly non-TCK environment, I realize more than ever how much our lifestyle sets us apart. There are fundamental differences in the way we experience and see the world, compared to non-TCKs/expats. Some things can’t be learned on theory alone and all the words in the world would not be able to truly explain them. There are many things I could write about that we experience so differently, but the one I wanted to write about today is the ever present flow of goodbyes in the life of a TCK or expat.

How do you explain the expat/TCK cycle of moving every so often? Of having to watch friends leave and saying goodbye, not knowing if you’ll ever see them again? Of being the one leaving, knowing you’re going someplace completely foreign and leaving behind everything familiar – your house, friends, school, city?…

How do you explain thinking “this time I won’t make friends, so it will be easier when we leave”, but knowing that won’t happen as soon as you meet a kindred soul? How do you explain that as difficult as it is to say goodbye, you’d rather go through that than experience everything alone?

How do you explain the contradictory notion that the goodbyes get simultaneously tougher and easier as the years go by? As you get older, you manage the goodbyes better, yet by the same token, the older you are, the deeper the feelings, so the goodbyes tug even more at your heart.

We must seem crazy to non-TCKs/expats when we try to explain it. It must seem awful to them, to those people who have lived all or most of their lives in the same place, rarely having to say goodbye, almost never having to pack up their life and start again somewhere new. There are many hardships with such a life and on bad days you notice them even more. But on the good days you know how lucky you are and how much you have gained through all your experiences.

As a TCK, you learn very quickly the importance of communication and connecting with people. Often TCKs and expats make deeper connections much faster than first culture kids, because we know how precious each second is, before we’re whisked away to another country. We also understand each other on a deeper level, even if we never lived in the same countries or speak the same languages. We experienced the same emotions, felt the same fears, and shared the same joys. We know the deep sorrow of heartbreaking goodbyes and the powerful happiness of making new friends. We know all too well what it’s like to be the new kid, lost and alone, hoping someone stretches out a helping hand without us having to ask. We know that the smallest gesture of kindness can lead to the strongest of friendship. We also know that even if people change, grow apart or lose contact over the years, the friendships were true and deep while they lasted.

That is why even after going through so many goodbyes, we’re still ready to let others in and to open ourselves to them. We know that no matter how hard the goodbyes might be, everything in between them is so worth it. I think TCKs learn how true that is at a very young age, without ever being told.

Perhaps what I find the most difficult to explain is the one thing I know with the most certainty: that even with those heartbreaking moments, with so many tears shed over goodbyes, with having to figure it all out time and time again, I’d still do it all over again.

“Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”.           Alfred Lord Tennyson

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