Home in the Spaces

by Rachel Pieh Jones on August 19, 2017

(revised from an essay published originally by She Loves Magazine)

My kids have lived abroad since 2003 and now we’ve started college tours in the US. I knew every tour guide would ask: Where are you from?

So I preemptively asked one of my daughters, “Where is home?” Ah, the dreaded, complicated, richly beautiful question Third Culture Kids wrestle with answering.

Is home where she was born or where she was potty trained or the place from which her family fled with a single suitcase? Is home where we found peace and safety for a few months, where she cared for a baby hamster, or where she had best friends and a bedroom and memories of skinned knees and Friday waffle-and-Star Wars traditions? Or was it where she licked snow for the first time and ate grandma’s cookies and spoke the same language at school as she spoke at home? Or is it where she lives now, at boarding school? Or where her parents and sister live?

I told her I felt torn sometimes, lost sometimes, whole and rooted sometimes. Half home in America, half home in Djibouti. Fully home in neither, walking around with a sort of tear down my center. And now that she her brother are at school in Kenya, that tear down my center bleeds.

She didn’t blink. “Home? Djibouti.”

Djibouti. This country that has taken so much from her and yet given so much to her. Sometimes I look at the life we stumble through, led by grace and purpose, and I see holes in the shape of grandparents, the shape of cousins and friends who share the same faith traditions, the shape of an intrinsic understanding of subtle cultural nuances.

But my daughter doesn’t look at the holes. She lives in the holes and looks out from them. She sees learning to pump on her own at the playground with rickety swings and rusty nails in the sand. She sees cliff jumping into the ocean and camping under the stars. She sees starting a paper airplane business at school with her best Djiboutian friends. She sees reciting Mary’s Magnificat in French at church on Christmas Eve. she sees a childhood filled with richness and memories and relationships.

Exodus 32 and 33 tell about a particularly rough week Moses suffered. The Israelites built a golden calf, God wanted to destroy them all, Moses shattered the tablets he spent forty days receiving, and then watched three thousand men die at the hands of his relatives. Moses pleaded mercy and begged God to not abandon his people or his promises. Desperate, grieving, disappointed, and longing for God, Moses asked to see his glory. God said no one could see his face and live. Instead, he put Moses in the clefts of a mountain and passed by, declaring his goodness and his name. Exodus says Moses saw only God’s back.

I like the image of Moses, nestled by a loving, powerful God into the spaces, the gaps, the cracks in the mountain. Moses turns from the mountain, looks out of the space, and the glory of God passes by.

When I release my perspective of home and Djibouti and put on my daughter’s, when I find myself living in the holes and looking out from them, I see the back of God. I hear the voice of God declaring his goodness and glory.

I’ve read that many TCKs don’t consider a place home, but rather people. I love that. A home can burn, be flooded, be evacuated, sold. But TCKs find home in the space around people they love and in the space that people they love give to them.

For my TCK then, she finds home in the space to be her Kenyan self that drinks Chai and counts in shillings. Space to be her French self with the perfect accent and all the information you never wanted to know on King Louis the 14th. Space to be her American self that wears skinny jeans and craves adventure and laughs loud. Space to be her Djiboutian self that leaps into the Gulf of Tadjourah and savors the suffocating heat.

Home, for TCKs and their parents, is not a building or a place and probably not even a country. We won’t live here, or there, forever and they know that. We live in the holes, the spaces, the in-between places, and we watch for the passing glory of God.

If you’re a TCK or if you are raising a TCK, how do talk about home? How do you think about home? Do you have any tips for a non-TCK mom trying to figure this all out?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Marilyn’s Mom

    This piece really speaks to me, Rachel. I grew up in one small town, in only 2 homes that I remember until I went away to college at 18. My husband had a similar background. We went to Pakistan with one toddler, added 4 more along the way and turned into some kind of third culture people ourselves. Raising TCKs taught us a lot and as adults they are all involved internationally. Now we are seeing grandchildren with similar world views, “living in the spaces” as you so aptly describe it, last year a great granddaughter born in Thailand and a great grandson in Mexico. What a rich life we have because of how God orchestrated our lives! Thanks so much for writing this and for the reminder of how we continue to be blessed.

  • Richelle Wright

    As a fellow nonTCK mom… with a few TCKs a little further along the path: no advice other than what I’ve been learning with my young adult TCKs and transitioning to young adult TCKs. Try and keep on making sure they have spaces with you they love, listen like mad and respect those spaces they have that you aren’t as crazy about while praying like crazy.

    Thankful God is faithful, even if he doesn’t work out all of the details they way I’d so neatly imagined them when I was a younger mama.

  • I´m a TCK. I grew up in Mexico, raised by Canadian parents and studied at an American school. Home is people. It has to be. Especially, other TCKs. They understand me the way no one else does.

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