I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened, but there came a time when I realized that I would never treat another culture the way I treat my own.
Wrapping my head around the idea that some experiences aren’t meant to last is quite hard to come to grips with, especially when my entire existence is often found in and around community. I have found this to be similar for most third culture kids. Community is supposed to be something that binds people together, but for TCKs, the concept can be a little harder to pin down, especially when you find that you are on the move most of the time.
I recently returned from a trip to Africa—my first time in the continent, where I was speaking at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Many of my pre-conceived notions of Africa up to this point had been centered around what I had seen and heard from others; either personal stories of missional encounters, adventures on safari, or even spending time checking out the sights and sounds of the villages. But learning by observation in person can have farther-reaching effects when seeing how others live their lives in the day-to-day.
As much as I wanted to stay in Kenya longer than the week or so I was there, the vibrancy of life that I encountered from seeing friends, and even strangers, get along so well was almost unfathomable to me; the raw blend of culture and community was something I realized I had been seeking my whole life.
Yet the TCK’s dilemma is often found in the void between seeking the community we long for, and having the sense that there is a community we can stay and be part of. So far as there are points of connectivity that we can make – whether making a new friend, being welcomed into a family, understanding the culture to the extent we can appropriate it to our own existence; there is a viable way to understand what being part of a community feels like. But can we ever get to that point where we feel comfortable within any given community? That is the question.
I like to think of the TCK as the perpetual traveler—always finding new ways to find pockets of community along life’s travels, but finding a balance between staying long enough to find it, and seeking new places to find it elsewhere. Perhaps there is no comfortable ‘in-between,’ where it is possible to find an idealistic place that feels like home; but it is the hope that somehow, someway, it may be out there.
Striking the balance between seeking this community elsewhere, and staying in the community you find yourself in is a hard struggle. I like to think of the example of Abram—a character in the Bible who was told by God to go to a distant land for no apparent reason. Yet he literally packed up everything he had overnight and went on a journey to an unknown land, an unknown people, and an unknown destination. When he got there, it was everything he didn’t expect, but also, in a way, it was everything he needed.
Maybe that’s a journey that most TCKs find themselves on, even though they don’t really understand the main reason or purpose behind their struggles. It’s tough to leave everything you’ve known behind and be uprooted, perhaps literally overnight, and transplanted to a place you never thought you’d end up in. Let yourself discover that it’s not everything you expected, but maybe everything you needed: that’s the definition of a community worth sticking with.
Alright guys, let’s be honest. The moods and emotions of someone who grew up overseas are turbulent and ever-changing. One day, we’re so well-adjusted and content with where we are in life and in the world (“Mature adult who doesn’t have any emotional baggage from a lifetime of goodbyes? That’s me!”). The next day we’re suddenly making a bee-line for the airport with a backpack of necessities and the cheapest international economy ticket on the market (“Just kidding. Get me out of this black hole of domestic American living.”).
Okay…maybe it’s not that extreme (for some of us). But TCKs and travel-lovers alike are definitely subject to some emotional, flighty tendencies. Luckily, there are a few stories that have calmed me down on my more extreme “I-don’t-belong-here” days. So, here it is: a list of seven books to satisfy the quirky moods of a TCK.
1. For when you want a flashback to your unconventional 90’s childhood:
Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World by Deb Brammer— Okay, all you MKs out there probably had a copy of this book shoved in your face at some point in your childhood. If not, let me give you a brief synopsis. Young American girl moves to Taiwan as an MK. Goes to international school. Makes friends. Learns to like authentic Asian food. Basically, if life overseas was an hour-long Focus on the Family radio special, it would be this book.
2. For when you just want to pack up and leave everything (again)
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer— If the story of Chris McCandless doesn’t encourage your wanderlust, then I don’t know what will. Abandoning a life of prestigious degrees, white-picket fences, financial security, and even his own name, Chris burns all of his bridges (and his money) and treks from the Southwest to Alaska. His extremely inspiring and tragic story will certainly leave you itching to pack your bags and hit the road.
3. For when you feel like you don’t fit the status quo:
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare— Raised in Barbados, with a later move to conservative, 17th century Connecticut, Kit Tyler is a textbook TCK. This chick goes through some major culture-shock moments (i.e. she gets mistaken for a witch just because she knows how to swim). This may be a children’s book, but you’ll find yourself connecting with Kit’s struggle to find belonging in a culture vastly different from anything she’s ever known.
4. For when the reverse culture shock hits you hard:
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín— Oh, this book will pull at your heartstrings in the most painful way possible. A story of loving and leaving, Brooklyn tells of an Irish girl named Eilís who emigrates to the East Coast. The theme of missing her birthplace and making a life for herself in her new home is woven throughout the whole book. Get ready to cry when you read this one. (P.S. The movie is equally magnificent and emotionally traumatic. Warning: the quote below may leave you in tears. Proceed with caution.)
5. For when you're craving some [obviously-superior-to-American] cuisine:
The Hundred-Food Journey by Richard C. Morais— Travel. Mouth-watering descriptions of Indian-French fusion dishes. This book has it all. If you’ve been especially missing that homey comfort dish from your field country, be careful. This book may tip you over the edge and force you to buy a plane ticket immediately.
6. For when you need reminding that your overseas experience really wasn’t that bad:
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver— This story is quite literally the Greek tragedy of missionary endeavors. 1 abusive father plus 1 country in political turmoil plus 4 daughters and a wife subjected to the oppressive expectations put upon them by culture equals a freaking train wreck. Need a little reality check? Read this book. Your life really isn’t that bad.
7. For when you’re (still) trying to figure out where home is:
At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreider— This memoir follows the story of Tsh and Kyle Oxenreider, a couple of Americans who spent most of their early married life abroad and feel much more at home outside their home country than within. As soon as their children are old enough to carry their own backpacks, the family decides to leave their motherland once again and become, as O. Henry puts it, “citizens of the world.” Tsh is basically the mother we all want to become, and her grapple with what “home” means will leave you saying, “Me, too.”