Painting Pictures: When Third Culture Kids Reunite

painting pictures1Today’s Painting Pictures post comes from Jenni Gates, a USAID kid who has lived all over the world. Her post is a moving picture of what happens at a TCK reunion and by the end of it, I was yet again reaching for my kleenex. Her words are beautifully chosen and tender and honest and I am so happy to share this piece with you. And can I just add that I love, love the first photo she shares, so apt for this series. If you are an ATCK, have you had reunions with old friends? What are the reunions like?

When Third Culture Kids Reunite

Upon arrival in Athens, tears sprung to my eyes at the sight of my friends. The last time I had seen many of them was at our high school graduation in Pakistan. I rushed to hug them, words tumbling out in a jumble. We laughed at the initial awkwardness we all felt, and then it was as if we had never been apart. We talked about our lives in our “home” countries, about our families and jobs. Someone brought up some of the ridiculous situations we got into in high school: the time baby cobras hatched out of the potted plants, the school lunches seasoned with the occasional cockroach, the teachers who made our lives miserable or inspired us to achieve our dreams. Memories bubbled to the surface.

TCK reunions overflow with emotion. We have said so many goodbyes in our lives to friends we never knew whether we would see again. We returned to our passport cultures without knowing who we were or where we belonged. We lost contact in our childhoods with more people than most people ever even meet in a lifetime. Our journey beyond the high school years has been complicated, often lonely, and full of awkward moments. For many TCKs, the trip “home” has meant having to learn the language of their passport culture. For all TCKs, it means learning the culture everyone assumes they should already know. For the most part, we maneuver and learn our “home” culture on our own.

Many houses-street art Athens -artist unknown

Many Houses – street art Athens, artist unknown

Today, because of the internet, it is possible for TCKs to stay in contact after re-entry to their home culture. For those of us from older generations, this was not possible. Still, today a TCK may find the interactions with other TCKs becoming superficial as they grow distant and move on separately with their lives. The close bonds formed, sometimes under fire, but always while being the outsider together in a host country are difficult to recreate in our passport countries. Connections begin to unravel with time and distance. Nostalgia for the worlds we have lost becomes our outlook.

When we have the opportunity to meet with old friends, we jump at it. It means more than your average stateside high school reunion. It means seeing people we never thought we would see again, recapturing unique shared experiences, the times we spent in the host culture that people in our home cultures could never understand. The things that were once normal to us are foreign in our home cultures, and though we may try to carry those experiences with us, we slowly lose the essence over time. A reunion is like sniffing the rosebud of memory.

Our reunions tend to take place in various corners of the globe. We met in Athens because a few of our friends were Greek and settled there after high school. We have met in the Washington DC area many times. A reunion last year took place in Istanbul. I’ve had mini-reunions in central England, Norway, and other parts of Europe. Some of my TCK friends from the high school in Pakistan meet yearly now to cross the US by motorcycle. The friendships started in our youth are close, unique, and unmatched in our adult lives. The ability to reconnect reminds us of who we are and what we shared. Our reunion conversations are all over the boards. Politics and religion, poverty and wealth; we speak of riots and wars as other people speak of climbing trees and playing with dolls. 

In Athens at dinner most nights, we ordered massive quantities of food and shared it: cheese-stuffed peppers, tzatziki, lamb sausages, squid, octopus, sardines, mussels, meatballs, dolmades, feta cheese and olives, Greek salads with every meal – all delicious. At reunions in Washington DC, we gravitate to Indian or Thai restaurants or pot lucks at someone’s home with shamiana tents shading our meals and mirrored pillows decorating our seats. Without fail, stories abound. Everyone tries to imitate the Pakistani and Indian accents we remember so well. We see the sights. We take endless photographs. We cruise the Bosporous or tour the Smithsonian. We create new memories to carry us into the future.

One evening on the way home from dinner in Athens, our Greek host made a comment that he didn’t really feel like he “fits” anywhere. It may have been because he did not know how to read and write in Greek when he went home, but he felt he would never fit into his home culture. At work, and even at family events, he felt like he was on the outside looking in. He missed social cues, references to the home culture of things that happened while he was in Pakistan. This resonated for all of us. We agreed that we have all returned “home,” without ever feeling at home in our passport countries. The place we belong the most is with each other – with our international and Pakistani friends and other people who grew up the way we did. I feel at home with other TCKs in a way that is not possible in a non-TCK setting.

Reuniting with other TCKs after many years is overwhelming. Reflecting on it now, it seems while in Athens each of us had at least one day of complete emotional meltdown. When we left Pakistan after high school, we scattered across the globe, not knowing whether we would ever see one another again. Our time at the school in Pakistan was unusual, to say the least. We had a small student body, and the international community was close-knit. Together, we had faced history classes and Model UN; cultural conventions and proms at the Intercon Hotel; we had encountered spiders, snakes, and angry mobs; we had been through riots, military coups, and armed conflict. Each year, we made new friends and said too many goodbyes to our best friends.

After reuniting, the time comes to say goodbye. It is impossible to put into words how complicated and painful it can be to separate again. Parting is fulfilling and devastating at the same time. After a week in Athens of sightseeing, sun, fun and reliving old memories, we began to leave. I hugged my friends and told them I loved them. I choked back a sob as I turned away. I wandered aimlessly through the airport, dejected. It felt as if I were leaving my family behind forever. I had ample time to reflect on my flight home, about travel, life, friendship. For the TCK child who grows up outside the passport country, a reunion with others who grew up the same way is grounding. It helps us put down roots where none may have existed.

Jenni Gate is an accomplished wanderer and aspiring writer raised in a USAID family. Born in Libya and raised throughout Africa and Asia, Jenni’s upbringing as a global nomad provided a unique perspective on life. As a child, she lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Washington DC area. As an adult, she has lived in Alaska, England, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Much of her work draws on her extensive experience in the legal field. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, drawing upon her global experiences.

Jenni is a member of the Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

To read more about Jenni’s adventures around the world, visit her blog at Nomad Trails and Tales, like her page on Facebook, and follow her on Pinterest.