I spent a lot of parenting years under the assumption that if I were only a TCK myself all this would be easier, make more sense. I know now that isn’t true, it is a simple case of the grass is always greener or the desert is always browner, depending on which you love. And Marilyn Gardner makes this so clear in todays Painting Pictures post. Marilyn is an internet treasure, an Anne-of-Green-Gables kindred spirit, and finding her this year has been one of the best things about my blogging experience. This is one of my personal favorite’s of Marilyn’s pieces because of the journey she takes the reader on. Enjoy her wisdom, honesty, and perspective (and enjoy her work as a new regular contributor to A Life Overseas).
A Third Culture Kid Talks About Raising Third Culture Kids
Just being brought up by people who didn’t and still don’t feel fully here, fully present–that’s very intense,” ….. “It’s not just all about the house we live in and the friends we have right here. There was always a whole other alternative universe to our lives.” from Jhumpa Lahiri: The Quiet Laureate – Time Magazine 2008
If I could pick two words to describe my life they would be the words “Between Worlds”. Like a tightrope walker suspended between buildings, so was my life. My tightrope was between Pakistan and the United States; between home and boarding; between Muslim and Christian.
Since birth I knew I lived in a culture between – I was a third culture kid.
I realized early in life that airports and airplanes were perfect places of belonging, because I was literally between worlds as I sat in airports, idling the time with my books and my brothers waiting for flights. Or sitting in the airplane, row 33D, buckling and unbuckling while settling in to a long flight.
I always knew I would raise my children overseas. In my mind it was a given. It made complete sense – it was a world I loved and my kids would love it too.
But there is a curious dynamic when an adult third culture kid moves on to raise third culture kids. First off, you transfer your love of travel, adventure, languages, and cross-cultural living. You don’t worry that they will be away from their passport countries, you don’t worry that they’ll miss aunts and uncles. You know theirs is a life that few have, and even fewer understand but you also know that in many areas the benefits outweigh the deficits.
So I was set. My world was a world of expat comings and goings, making friends with Egyptians, conjugating verbs in Arabic classes, and attending events at international schools. It was a world of change and transience and we were at home within that transience. We didn’t name the losses – we didn’t think there were any.
But then we moved. We left our home in Cairo of 7 years, our life overseas of 10 years, and moved to a small town in New England. A town that boasted community and Victorian homes, a small school and tidy lawns. A town with white picket fences and white faces.
And it was during this move that the dynamic changed, for I could no longer transfer that which I knew to my children. Instead I transferred insecurity and an over powering sense of being “other.”
Nothing in my background had prepared me for this move. No books, no language classes, no articles. – nothing. I was struggling to find my way in a world that I didn’t know and I was doing it with 5 third culture kids on my proverbial apron strings. And suddenly this adult third culture kid thing was not an asset – it was a deficit; a glaring deficit that manifest itself in insecurity and turmoil. I didn’t know how to cook with American ingredients or what to do at American public schools. Birthday parties and play dates were unfamiliar, and my background was a conversation stopper at every level.
What happens when the adult third culture kid finds herself raising third culture kids back in their legal passport country?
A whole lot of pain happens, a whole lot of insecurity, a whole lot of self-questioning and self-doubt. I hid all of this in a well-developed fortress of confidence dressed up in up-to-date outfits that would belie the out-of-date person I was. I worked hard to create a persona that would work. And all the time I was exhausted. I wanted to curl up with my own mom and cry until the tears could fall no more. I wanted to gather my children to my self and whisk them off where we would be safe – to Pakistan or Egypt, my safe spaces.
But I did none of those things. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, step by blistered step. I made curry and Kosherie, tastes of home in a strange land. I decorated with brass, copper, pottery, and a little double heart frame that stood on the mantel with pictures of Arafat and Rabin. We talked Egypt and Pakistan and slowly learned to talk small town New England. And the kids continued to say they were from Egypt – they were African American, they were ‘different’. Our home was, in the words of Jhumpa Lahiri, an ‘alternative universe’ that stood in stark contrast to the world where we had unpacked our suitcases.
While America was on the outside, we had a whole other world on the inside. We continued to live in the space between, the one where I was most comfortable – Between Worlds. We looked like everyone around us, but we were immigrants in our own right. This negotiating two worlds was more than slightly schizophrenic and at times impossible.
But I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids – and I wasn’t sure how else to do it.
But Grace entered the space between and slowly by slowly I began to meet people who wanted to hear my story, who shared our curry, who walked beside me. Slowly I began to trust these friends to be cultural brokers, liaisons who could explain American oddities to me so that I could feel more comfortable. And as I grew more comfortable, others grew more comfortable around me, around us. We no longer exuded a “We’re other, We’re better” scent. Instead, we could laugh and be content as other, be accepted as different but not bad.
It was years later that I read the following words in an article, words that reminded me of our story, that described what a third culture kid raising third culture kids needs.
“So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her. Ask her where she’s lived. Ask her what she’s left behind. Open doors. And just listen. Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn. She has a story — many stories. And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.” © Nina Sichel
That’s what I needed, that’s what they gave, and that’s how I healed.
Follow Marilyn on Twitter and read more on her blog: Communicating Across Boundaries.
[…] Today’s post is perhaps the truest piece I’ve ever posted. It is a piece I needed to write and I look forward to hearing from some of you. I’ve included an excerpt here and then I ask you to go to Djibouti Jones to read the rest of the piece. […]
I’ve been reading Marilyn’s blog for a while now, and her thoughtful posts always resonate with me – especially when they concern TCKs. Oddly, I find myself now in almost the opposite situation from hers. I grew up as a TCK – first in Asia, then in Europe (with a brief stop in the US in between, just long enough to learn that starting conversations with, “In Bangkok, we..” or “When I lived in Taiwan…” was not a great idea.) My husband(also a TCK) and I tried to stay put, tried to put down roots for our kids, but as Marilyn says – we didn’t know how. We struggled to assimilate, we struggled with itchy feet, we struggled to try and understand why people who had lived in the same town their entire lives might not understand two people who had never spent more than 4 years in a row in any one place,and rarely in the US. We lasted in the first place for just over 8 years, moved cross-country twice after that, and, eventually, despite our best intentions, found ourselves back overseas after more than 20 years in the US. We both found the expat community here in Seoul so much easier and more comfortable to assimilate into than anywhere we’d moved in the states. No wonder, then, that we just extended our contract another two years…
Thanks for sharing your journey, I think those are things that resonate with so many expats and TCKs especially. I’m happy it seems you’ve found a place to be and to be content. For now, until the next itchy foot stage!
MsCaroline, we are on the front end of “trying to stay put for awhile” so our kids can get through middle school without so much moving. My husband and I were not TCKs. I never moved until I left home for university, but our kids have learned to walk on three different continents. It feels like it’s time to drop anchor for awhile, but I’m not sure ho long we’ll last!
I identify with this 100 percent. I was raising my son overseas until he was six and then found myself back in my passport country trying to understand what the PTA was and why birthday parties were so complicated. Even at that young age I passed along my tck-ness to him. He has that itch.
Yes Kathleen! And I was the only one in the PTA with my nose pierced….everyone thought I was trying to be a hippie. And birthday parties? Oh.Wow. My lack of knowledge was so blatant at those that I couldn’t even pretend. Thanks so much for the empathy expressed in this comment.
Ms. Caroline – oh you got me! That’s one of my struggles – we are constantly looking for ways to get back overseas for a period longer than 2 weeks. Something we’ve not yet achieved. We’re hoping, dreaming, praying that Turkey will be our next spot. Thanks for sharing your story and for understanding mine so well.
this is such a fascinating insight. thank you so much. i am not a tck but moved around a TON (every 2-3 years, a different state every time) as a kid and am now starting to wonder if i don’t exhibit some of these same tendencies. the blessings are easy for me to see, but i am only now starting to realize the insecurities (especially in establishing long-term friendships and healthy faith communities) and how they effect me. thanks for this post!
Yes – D! Totally. Check out Ruth Van Reken’s site, and her post from last week. She talks about Cross Cultural Kids and that exactly fits what you’ve described. She says people are realizing how much crossover there is between TCks and CCKs.
I echo what Rachel said. When you think of the difference from state to state, from north to south etc – there are significant cultural barriers, all leading to a chameleon-like existence. I’m so glad you brought up the friendship and faith community piece. Those could be a blog post (or three) of their own. I’ve really struggled with the faith community piece and have felt like I am the odd puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit and I know I have passed that on to my children as well. I’m so deeply in need of grace through this journey. I also think this is partially what has led us to the Eastern Orthodox church and a whole load of “Lord have Mercy’s”. I’m slowly wrapping all this up into God’s mercy but it is a long road and some days I really hate it! Rachel – thanks again for creating a safe space to work through this with others and gain wisdom.
Thank you to Rachel and Marilyn for sharing this with us. It’s a powerful post. On Tckid.com I have seen people ask questions about what it is like to be a TCK and to raise TCKs. I don’t know, I am a TCK, lived outside of my passport culture for 19yrs (in Africa), married a CCK (cross cultural kid) and now we are raising our kids in the Netherlands. I still feel very at home in the expat community. I noticed that several of our daughter’s friends are being raised bilingually, just as I was when I was a kid. I try to expose her to some English at home too. I feel restless regularly but writing my blog seems to be medicine to me :). I really think that we would adjust well and thrive if we would move abroad….
There are great advantages of growing up in other cultures and moving around but there is another side to the story. There is a paradox, because there is the pain, the “homesickness” to African things and friends. Thank you for writing about the other part of the story.
I feel the same way about blogging – like medicine. That’s a good word for it. And especially powerful medicine when it includes conversations and connections like this one. Working these things out with others who are/or were/or will is so encouraging and helpful and inspiring to me.
Thanks, Marilyn, for sharing your story of how you found Grace in the “space between.” I imagine that many of the people who wanted to hear your stories and share your curry were also well-traveled. Is that true?
Oooh – good question Anita. Even if people haven’t lived overseas but have traveled a bit, it seems like they are the ones most interested in other international experiences. That’s what I find anyway – if someone has left the US even for a trip, their eyes don’t glaze over QUITE as much when I say “Africa.”
Anita – what a great question~One or two were….but two that I specifically think of (those who I call my ‘Cultural Brokers’ were not. One was born and raised in Boston, Irish in an Italian neighborhood, but she got it – she supported, listened, encouraged, loved. And through her I learned more of Boston and its heritage. One thing I found compelling – a couple of people who I connected with best were not of the same faith background, or no faith background at all. Somehow that fit the part of me that loved communicating across cultural boundaries. They didn’t expect me to be like them, and I didn’t expect them to ‘get’ me. And so it was comfortable. Churches were by FAR the most difficult and I’ll probably work through that until the day I die. Some people who traveled were worse….they thought because they had spent a week in “Africa” (The country not the continent heehee!) they knew cross cultural living, a week in Cairo meant they could analyze the Middle East, Two weeks meant they could write a book….that was actually the toughest. This is getting long but I love the discussion!
I wish I could Facebook “Like” your comment Marilyn. Love it. I think there should be a post someday – either on your own blog or somewhere else – about the church issues you allude to. Tough stuff. But I love how you describe the reason it may have been easier to connect with people of other faiths. That is quite insightful.
This blogs comes at a perfect time for me. I’m an adult TCK raising TCKs and we will be returning to our passport country in a month for at least a year. It has been 11 years since we’ve lived there. This blog has really made me think. I’m glad for the heads-up, so that I can be a little more aware and try and be a little more prepared for what it will be like for me as well as for my two kids. My oldest will begin college this fall and my youngest will be going to an American public school for the first time as a Junior. We’re in for an adventure I think. Rachel thanks for posting this on your blog, and Marilyn thanks for writing it. I appreciate it.
Shari – thanks so much for sharing. Last year, right when school started I wrote a post based on a conversation I had with some colleagues about a TCK (daughter of a friend of mine) who was starting an American public high school for the first time. I’ve linked it here as hearing about your kids reminded me of talking to her! http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2012/09/11/outsiders/ Check it out if you want to. There are some things I’d do differently but over all, I just didn’t know what to do! Probably wouldn’t have settled in such a small town 🙂
Great link Marilyn.
Ok. So that link made me want to cry. I guess because I can FEEL what the writer was going through! Thanks for sharing it with me. Although we are moving to a fairly small community, it is also a community that serves a big university that draws a lot of international students, and those students bring their families and therefore the school system is used to outsiders – at least that is what my sister says. Now I am crying… don’t really know why, but moving can do this to us, right? Too many emotions swirling around today, I guess. However, I do want to be and advocate for the international students there, because I have been so blessed by the “insiders” here that have gone way out of their way many times to help me and my family out. We have learned so much about hospitality from the people here. However, I also realize that international students are viewed as people who are not in the know and need help, whereas when we return, we look like Americans, we talk like Americans, so when we don’t act like Americans people thinks we’re stupid. My daughter summed it up well two years ago when we returned to this country. She said, “When I’m here I try really hard to fit in and not look so different, but in America I want people to know that I’m different.” I think she was speaking to that feeling of looking like we fit in and so when we do something “odd” or don’t know something that “everyone” knows it makes us feel stupid. I think I’m ranting, so I’ll quit now. Thanks for giving me a place to rant this morning. 🙂 I’m not crying anymore.
Thanks Shari, for your honesty and for sharing this process. I feel like (and am reading a book right now that confirms this) writing helps stir up, and heal, emotions. I’m thankful this post and Marilyn’s other one are blessing you – and yes, tears are a blessing sometimes!
Last year we spent some extended time in America after living for four years in West Africa. We went to the movie theatre as a family ONCE during that time. When the attendant took our tickets and we walked down the long carpeted hallway to find our theatre door, my four year old squealed with excitement. “I love this place!” he shouted, “It looks like the AIRPORT!!”
Thanks for this post. I find all of your wisdom so helpful as I parent three energetic boys (7,5, and 3 yo) on the mission field in W Africa!
I love this comment! When we arrived in the U.S. from Cairo one time we headed out of the airport, still in the city and my kids saw some green grass. “Look Dad!” one yelled! We’re in the Country!” They had rarely seen grass except at the International School compound.
This made me cry. My husband and I are both third culture kids and we are raising our own little third culture kid… yet in one week we are moving to our passport country and will feel more out of place than ever. Thank you for this article.
Thank you Alaina – truth be told, there were so many tears I think I filled the New England sky. In fact, the October that we moved saw more rain than they had seen in years….I felt like it was my tears spilling over (Narcissistic of me, I know!!) I continue to be grateful for that Grace in the space between and praying that you will find grace in those spaces.
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Marilyn, You hit the nail on the head. Thank you for this insightful amazing post. As a TCK raising two little TCKs I wondered at my great fear of small town America for myself, my kids and our family. This post put the finger on why. Thank you. On a side note. Taking your small town nieces to the Somali Mall(in the big city USA) to get henna patterns (tattoos) goes over real well with the nieces but not the mother in law! I shudder to think about the PTA.
Praise God for Culture Brokers who have the guts to not only love you but also give you valuable insight into your passport culture. I’m already praying for Culture Brokers for my kids. Thank you Marilyn, again for these timely wise words.
Ok, so I just discovered this blog, absolutely amazing. And then this post: I am absolutely amazed. I am a TCK, going to school for nursing here in my passport country. My family still is abroad. And yes I still have ‘itchy’ feet and I think I will never be happy with a white picket fence. Who truly knows, and maybe I’ll have to try, but I can only imagine a life abroad. My dream is to be that TCK mother who can share everything I have with my own. Thank you for sharing, thank you for letting me know it is possible. I never feel more at home then when I am anywhere but my passport country and that feeling is anything but a deficit. Because of what my parents gave me, I have seen more, experienced more, and know more than so many. Knowing that so many go on to bring their own children into this life is well inspiring.
Tressa – I’m so glad you came by this article. We have so much in common only a few years age difference between us 🙂 I too am incredibly grateful for being able to head back to first my passport country, and then Egypt which became my adult love. My hope, indeed prayer, is that we can go back again to live for a while. Visits are just not enough. I hope nursing school goes well for you – today I’m actually headed to a school of nursing to talk about culture and health care! Feel free to contact me through the links above!
[…] Marilyn Gardner expressed this sentiment of finding “Grace in the space between” in her post A Third Culture Kid Talks About Raising Third Culture Kids. Living in the present is the best gift that parents can give to their children and for those […]
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