*lots of goodies today: go read this post by Marilyn Gardner at Communicating Across Boundaries: Thoughts on Reentry from a Third Culture Kid. Good stuff. You’ll probably need to bookmark it. It is long but worth storing up for later.
*especially relevant to readers and writers of this series: check out The Worlds Within site and read their guidelines for submissions by ATCKs and TCKs for an upcoming anthology. Looks like an amazing opportunity! Deadline for submissions is March 2014.
Today’s Painting Pictures post is by Heather Caliri, another SheLoves writing friend who encourages me to say ‘yes,’ to take risks, to expose my soul on the page. I can testify that the warmth, insight, and courage in these words are a true reflection of the creative and talented woman I am coming to know. As a long-term expatriate reading the words of a 6-month perspective, I appreciate the way she is able to humbly illuminate many of my own struggles and processes.
Living with the Empty Spaces
Before we left for a six-month sabbatical in Buenos Aires, everyone agreed on one thing.
“Kids are resilient,” everyone said. “Throw them with Argentine kids for five minutes and they’ll playing together. Your kids will be fine.”
And my kids were fine, and they are resilient. But did my kids dive into a new culture without any hesitation, just because they are kids?
Um, not so much.
Our apartment in Buenos Aires was a few blocks from two great parks, each complete with swing sets, sand to dig in, and kids of all sizes.
“No,” they’d say.
I’d bribe them with promises of riding the carousel.
But once we were there, one or the other would stare, angrily, at kids who tried to speak to them.
Sometimes one would stomp over to me. “Mama, that girl tried to speak to me in Spanish.”
They would perk up immediately if they heard anyone speaking in English, going over and chatting, making friends. And then go back to silence if the other expats left.
And after six months abroad, our grand experiment in growing semi-third-culture kids was not the success I’d hoped for.
They’d gotten used to staying up until ten, drinking sweetened yerba mate, and scrambling aboard fast-moving buses. But they learned approximately four Spanish words, and have no desire to learn more.
I wanted immersion, and instead we’d dipped in our toes.
Looking back on the experience, I think all my sunny overconfidence came down to this: I forgot that deeply entering into another culture requires facing a loss of the same magnitude. You must strip away old cultural assumptions. You must experience alienation from friends and family back home. You must live for a while with the empty space that’s left.
And you must wait, aching, for that emptiness to be filled with new things.
I lived in Buenos Aires for a year in college, and in that short time, I felt loss and experienced filling. I know, at least a little, what a blessing it is.
And how extraordinarily hard it is before you start getting filled.
I am not sorry to have gone through the grief, alienation, and pain that brought me to a place of connection and love.
But I found it hard to ask my children to do the same.
I homeschooled them instead of enrolling them in local schools. I didn’t force them to go to the park when they didn’t want to. I found them friends that understood some English. I found English-language TV for their downtime. I created a little haven of the US in our apartment. I did all this even knowing the prize that waited on the other end. I hesitated to require them to experience the loss.
I still wonder if I did the right thing.
We chose to go for a short period of time; I wasn’t sure if we’d reach the richness in only six months, no matter how deeply we immersed ourselves. And coming to a new country embedded in your family means you’re shielded more from grief and sadness, isolation and frustration. Perhaps no matter what I required of my kids, six months wouldn’t have left them anywhere closer to immersion.
I returned home with a sense of loss myself. Because honestly, our family may not attempt to live abroad together again. And I wish, very much, that my kids could have experienced the loss and the gain, all mixed up together.
I’m realizing that as hard as it is experience pain myself, it is harder to watch someone else go through it. It is hard to allow the grieving and bewilderment that comes when bedrocks of your kids’ identity—culture, language, place—are shaken.
It required a resolve and strength of character that I wasn’t prepared for.
Knowing that, and being surrounded by my home culture again, I am trying to cultivate that resolve on a smaller scale. I’m trying to look into any of the doors to other cultures open to us here, and continue trying to usher my kids through them, even if it’s not always comfortable.
To have friends that don’t share our faith, so that phrases like, “The one true God,” have to be taken out and examined.
To attend events not in our native tongue, so that we know what it is to sing a song where the very cadence of syllables feels exhilarating and strange.
To model creating relationships across cultures, even if my kids complain that they feel left out when I speak Spanish.
I’m seeing that encountering other cultures as a family still requires us all to be shaken, resolute, and awake, in the way of any spiritual practice. It requires awareness. It takes time. And no matter how rewarding and right it is, it doesn’t come naturally.
Heather Caliri is a writer and mom from San Diego. Two years ago, she started saying little yeses to faith, art and life. The results were life-changing. Get her free e-book, Dancing Back to Jesus: Post-pefectionist Faith in Five Easy Verbs (http://www.heathercaliri.com/
Heather, I think you did an amazing very brave thing for your family no matter what the outcome. Your little ones are still so young and I think its a parent’s natural inclination to provide as much comfort and familiarity as possible. Look at how the experience changed YOU and how those change swill seep into everything you teach your children. I love how you’re stepping out beyond the margins of comfort in your own life – you’re an inspiration. xo
[…] over at Rachel Pieh Jones’ site, Djibouti Jones today, talking about raising Third-Culture Kids–or not. Won’t you join me […]
Thanks, Claire! Yes, in the end I agree–the experience is what it is. I didn’t need to “achieve” some outcome for it to be a success.
And my kids continue to surprise me: just the other day, my eldest got upset when I told her that no, we weren’t planning on going back to Argentina this year. She misses it, she misses friends, she misses the ice cream 🙂 Whatever did or didn’t happen, she knows and loves a place in the world that many people don’t know anything about.
Heather – these are the words that shouted to me from the page “I’m seeing that encountering other cultures as a family still requires us all to be shaken, resolute, and awake, in the way of any spiritual practice. It requires awareness. It takes time. And no matter how rewarding and right it is, it doesn’t come naturally.” For our family it was a bit opposite — it was the U.S. where we held back, weren’t sure how to navigate life…and I ask myself the same questions you do — all the time. And watching my kids go through the hard, hard process of being in the U.S (for us it wasn’t back in the U.S because they’d never lived here) after 10 years was so difficult. So painful at so many levels. From being told they were boasting for talking about getting chicken pox on the plane from Greece to Turkey to the terror that came with going to a public school in America! Just as you articulated – going through it yourself is bad enough, but watching them have to go through it is even harder. Ultimately I’ve had to accept that I didn’t know how to live when we moved here, and that I needed mercy and grace then for going through the process….and mercy and grace now for working through the memories. Thanks for this post.
Thanks for sharing…I’ve had so many similar experiences with my kids! What it actually happens with kids isn’t always what you’d hope for, but it’s still something 🙂
I love this, and I can’t even say exactly what it is, but it makes me feel better in some way. I think it’s simply hearing that another mom feels the same guilts that I do. I have never been bothered by the “US haven” that we’ve created within our apartment because I think our kids need it, but I’ve also started to be concerned lately that we’re not “immersed” enough; that we’re not “good” expats. Yet, at times, I feel the opposite. The guilt that I felt when my son first started school in a Korean preschool was indescribable. I guess what it comes down to is the fact that, as a mom, I will never feel like I’m doing it right or doing enough. That’s why I’m so thankful that God continues to guide us, through each of those decisions–little or big. You are doing your very best for your kids every day, and God is guiding you through that process. What a relief, right? Thanks for your words!
I don’t see the loss nor any bravery here. Unless you are braving the loss of your McDonalds and Walmart.
Everyone should enjoy going overseas with their family and living life in another culture. It’s a fun and rewarding experience. We’ve lived many years in Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and have traveled many other countries. The whole family speaks multiple languages, loves a wide variety of food, and are deeply enriched every time we travel.
There is no loss. Your perspective is strangely skewed.
Living overseas can be fun and rewarding but I agree with Heather that there is a significant sense of loss as well. A loss of time with extended family, a loss of an innate ability to know how to respond to certain situations, a loss of the familiar and comfortable, which runs much deeper than food or shopping. I think part of the adventure of living overseas is being able to sense that loss and then to embrace the new things that are gained.
I’m glad you have had such a positive experience with your family, but I know many other families who have not enjoyed the life overseas. I guess each person, need, and experience is unique. Myself, I can say that while I enjoy living overseas I also experience a sense of loss, it is a kind of good-hurt.
I’d love to know when you were in Djibouti? Maybe our paths crossed.
We were in Djibouti from 2003 through 2005, and I returned again in 2006 and 2007 for a couple work engagements. It was our best overseas experience ever, even better than Europe and East Asia.
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