You know about jet lag. Do you know about heart lag?

Jet lag, sweet terrible jet lag. It leads to entire chocolate bars consumed at three in the morning or entire novels devoured in the first three days after an international flight. Might lead to sickness, crabbiness, headaches, complaints, arguments. Every expatriate knows about jet lag.

But do you know about heart lag?

Every time I come back to Djibouti or go back to Minnesota, I feel shock. And then I feel shock that I feel shock. It has been twelve years; I should be used to the coming and going by now. I thought after a decade the transition would get easier, but I find my heart lagging more and more behind my body.

In some ways it does get easier. I know our routine and our stores and our friends and the languages. But in some ways I find the return more jarring than ever, increasingly so. Why?

Expectations. expect not to be jarred, not to be shocked. I expect both sides of the ocean to feel normal, and they do. But when those two normals are so far from each other, when one is green and leafy and one is brown and dusty, when one sounds like robins and one sounds like the call to prayer, the normality of such variance is shocking.

Deeper Cultural Knowledge. Now I am aware of the deeper differences. I see beyond the tourist-culture-shock things like garbage and the driving and the heat and the clothes. I see the values, the fundamental differences in worldview, the different political structures and family functions and religious practices. And these differences both rub against the deeper things of my soul and resonate with those deeper things. This means that a much more profound part of my identity is experiencing the shock.

Personal Change. I have been changed now precisely because of interacting for so many years with this deeper cultural knowledge. Those changes affect the way I act on both sides of the ocean, so the transition requires digging deeper to uproot and replant. It involves more struggle.

Home. Coming home instead of going on a trip or returning to a relatively new place changes the way I see it, changes the way I respond to the inundation of the changes. Small developments happen while I’m gone, and as a long-term expat, I notice them. A corner store turns into a restaurant, the newspaper is under new management, the mosque has a new voice. Home changed in my absence, and I have to catch up.

These things could all easily be considered culture shock. But I recently started thinking of them in terms of jet lag. I decided that they are the result of heart lag. The shock factor is there, but I know I will move beyond it quickly, and I know what resides on the other side – settling, ease, comfortable familiarity. My heart just needs some time to catch up.

We give our bodies time to adjust, and people tend to be sympathetic to the traveler who falls asleep in the middle of a sentence at 7 p.m. after flying for thirty-eight hours. Let’s give our hearts time to adjust too. Be sympathetic to the traveler (even when it is yourself) who needs a few days for their heart to catch up to their body.


Originally published on February 2, 2015.

Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrfice”

This was my original post on A Life Overseas in 2012 when the site launched. Today it is my last regular post. I am stepping away, pulled by my other writing, being in seminary, family, and work and I know there are fresh voices out there to hear from. It has been an honor to write in this space for so many years. Thank you for reading along and sharing your stories. I’ll still be around and you can always find me on socials and my website.

Hudson Taylor said it, David Livingstone said it. “I never made a sacrifice.” A life spent as a foreigner, away from traditional comfortsaway from family and home country, a life of talking about Jesus, in these men’s opinions was no sacrifice.

While I understand the sentiment and the faith-filled valor behind it, I respectfully disagree. What these men did with their lives in China and on the African continent is the very definition of sacrifice.

A sacrifice is a giving up of something loved, something precious in order to gain something better.

I heard a young woman working in Uganda say that her life doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. In the next sentence she talked about hardships and how some days she doesn’t know how she will get through the day. That is sacrifice. I’m not sure what people expect a sacrifice to feel like but I think it feels hard sometimes. I think it feels like not being sure you will get through the day.

Every step of obedience, every life choice, every risk taken, whether it is getting married or not, having children or not, living overseas or not…brings with it a gain and a loss. Negating the reality of the sacrifice cheapens the reward, the sense of joy, fulfillment, purpose, the God-honoring obedience.

One of the problems with saying ‘it is no sacrifice’ is that it leads people to put international workers on pedestals. Have you ever had someone say something like:

“You are so holy because you don’t care when your hair falls out from the brackish water and searing heat.”

“You are so much more spiritual because you don’t struggle when you aren’t able to attend your grandfather’s funeral.”

“I could never do what you are doing because I couldn’t send my kids to boarding school.”

No and NO! We are not all so different, we simply live in different time zones.I cry when I see handfuls of hair in the drain and when I watched my grandfather’s funeral three months later on a DVD and I weep with a physical pain in my chest over the miles between here and my kids at school. I am not more holy or spiritual or stronger than anyone, I feel the sacrifice.

And feeling the sacrifice makes the privilege, the reward, so deeply precious, so treasured, so urgently prayed for.

Livingstone said (emphasis mine),

It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.”

Not a sacrifice, but rather a privilege.

Can this life not be both? Are sacrifice and privilege juxtaposed against one another or could they perhaps go hand in hand? It is a privilege to sacrifice.

Living with hair in the drain instead of my head, away from loved ones during a crisis and on everyday days, international borders between me and my kids, living like this is a sacrifice. It hurts, it tears, it might leave you weeping on the couch some nights, snortling into your husband’s shoulder. But it is not in vain. It is not without joy. It is not without faith. Feel the pain and the joy of it and then render everything sacrificed as rubbish and count the privilege as gain.

I will not say that I have never made a sacrifice.

I will say that I have never made a sacrifice in vain. I have never made a sacrifice that didn’t bring with it a deep, residing joy. I have never made a sacrifice without faith that there is a reward coming which will, like Livingston said, far outweigh these present sufferings.

With my eyes steady on the prize, I sacrifice. Never in vain, (almost) never without joy. Always with faith.

In what ways do you feel the sacrifice? Experience the privilege?

Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain and culture Stripping

Expatriates are told to prepare for Culture Shock and expect to experience it within their first year.

But what about after that year? What about after seven years? Nine? Fifteen? What about the frustrations and tears, hurt and stress, internal (or external) cries for ‘home’? What about those days when you will do anything to

After the first year, I thought I was free from culture shock. Now I would delve deep, adapt, feel more local than foreign. So when I continued to struggle with cultural issues and when that struggle increased and peaked around year seven, I thought I was crazy. Failing. The Only One.

This wasn’t culture shock, I had moved well beyond shock. So what was it? I discovered that two things happen, after culture shock, as we root in a land not our own, as we love hard and get involved and take risks.

  • Culture Pain

Culture pain comes when the difficult, or different, or confusing aspects of a new culture begin to affect you at a deep, personal level. Living overseas is really your life now. This is your past, your present, your future. This is where your children learned to walk and ride bikes, where you laugh and grieve and build a tapestry of memories.

Things like corruption and poor health care, attitudes toward HIV, education of girls, adoption, or poverty, religious rituals, children’s rites of passage, are not theoretical anymore. This is now you giving birth, your daughter in the classroom, your adoption papers misplaced, your coworker recently diagnosed. These issues are now yours to navigate. And sometimes, that hurts.

  • Culture Stripping

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“That very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when we began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt…he peeled the beastly stuff right off…and there it was lying on the grass…and there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been…I’d been turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’re no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.”

  • Glad for it

The arms, the new self, this new way of living and seeing the world look different than before you moved overseas. Not perfect, not like anyone else’s, and still sensitive. But different because the shock, the pain, the stripping, have changed you.

And you are glad to see it.

Have you experienced Culture Pain? Culture Stripping? Culture Shock? Did one surprise you more than the others? Linger longer? Cut deeper?

Toilets Around the World

Travel for long in any part of the world and you will discover the need for a toilet. The need could be urgent, perhaps caused by Daallo Airlines (the official airline of the Horn of Africa) inter-Africa meals. It could be a run-of-the-mill need, but no matter. You need a bathroom. Or a toilet. Or a bush. Or a hole in the ground. And you need it stat.

What kind of bathroom facility might you find? It depends on where you live and, spoiler alert, if I based my decision of where to live abroad on bathroom standards, I would go to Japan.

Ethiopia There is an abundance of squatty potties except at Western-style restaurants or hotels where you can find the more throne-like seat. But none are not guaranteed to be clean, flushable, or stocked with paper or water. When in rural areas, there is not even the need for a hole in the ground, simply find a tree and squat. But be prepared to be observed, especially if you are a foreigner.

Indonesia Public toilets are mostly squatty potties with buckets of water, no flushing. The left hand is used for wiping so make sure to never use the left hand for anything else, like shaking hands, pointing, or handing out food or gifts. Sometimes people charge a small fee to use these toilets though whether this is an official position or an entrepreneurial street kid can be unclear.

Chad At bus stations in Chad the toilets have four walls, no roof. There is a cement floor with a small hole and raised blocks on either side to step on. When the bus stops and isn’t at a station, for a small fee passengers can use the village’s three-walled structure with a dirt floor and a short-drop hole. If the bus stops away from a station and away from a village, find a bush or a clump of grass. Men on one side of the road, women on the other.

Djibouti In the city for many men, all the world is a toilet. They just step to the side of the road and unzip. Many rural areas share a bathroom among neighbors: four tin walls and no roof, a hole in the ground, and a bucket of water. In the city some restaurants have facilities, toilet paper and toilet seat not included. The airport sometimes provides paper and running water and on a good day, the toilets will flush. In homes, there is often a pair of ‘toilet flip-flops’ that people slip on because the floors are wet.

Somaliland A restaurant in the coastal town of Berbera in northern Somaliland has a four-walled, no ceiling wooden structure with a short drop hole that goes more back than down, meaning the goods mostly just sit there. With no water for washing it down or for washing the hand, dirt has to suffice. When a toddler once had a diarrhea accident on the dirt floor inside the restaurant, the waiter simply covered it over with a plank of wood.

Ecuador Unless you bring your own, in Ecuador you prepay for toilet paper so hopefully you are able to make a good guess regarding how much you’ll need. There are no toilet seats and since those are rather hard to fit into purses, get used to not using one.

Austria One particular toilet in the subway station at the opera house charges a small fee to fill the bathroom with the delightful strains of classical music while you go.

South Africa At a game park in South Africa, at the end of a long path lined with tall reeds for privacy, you can find a fully functional flush toilet, open to the sky. No walls, no ceiling, and hopefully no overhead satellites.

Taiwan In Taiwan’s public bathrooms you are actually given the choice between sitting and squatting. For those who prefer to not touch anything, squatty is the preferred option. In fancier locales, toilet paper is provided in the stall but otherwise, either gather a handful at the communal dispenser or bring a wad in your purse.

United States No hands is the goal in American bathrooms. Automatic flush, automatic water, automatic soap dispenser, automatic hot air dryer. But privacy doesn’t seem to be a major concern as bathrooms have short doors and cracks between them. Also, conservation of water doesn’t seem to matter as the toilet bowls are filled so high that there are stories of foreigners, or returning expatriates, going for a wipe only to find that they have dunked their hand into the water.

Japan In Japan you can push a button to turn on music or white noise in your stall so others won’t be disturbed by your sounds. Not only do people not want to hear you, they don’t want to smell you either, so some toilets come with a power deodorizer. Other push-button options include a bidet wash, a dryer, an automatic seat-lifter for men, and an automatic paper seat cover dispenser. Doors go all the way to the floor for complete privacy. There are also handles for hanging umbrellas and sometimes even heated seats.

Personally, I like the idea of the opera music in Austria but the heated seat in Japan won me over. In Djibouti it is so hot we have no need for heated seats, but I grew up in Minnesota, the frozen tundra as we like to call it. Getting up in the morning and sitting on a freezing toilet seat is all the shock you need to wake up for the day. A heated seat sounds divine.

Everyone, everywhere, needs a bathroom, whether it is the earth or a warm throne surrounded by music. The specifics will vary but the need is universal.

Welcome to the essence of the travel experience.

Kids Who Vomit on Airplanes and the Parents Who Travel With Them

(originally published in 2013)

just a little fun essay today

I am sad to say that my youngest daughter is a Kid Who Vomits on Airplanes. This means my husband and I have become the Parents Who Travel With Them. Our older two kids don’t do this, or haven’t, since 2004 when one of them vomited twice on a tiny safari airplane in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Once going up and once coming down. But our youngest seems to have trouble with long, international flights, of which she takes many. Here are some of the lessons we have learned.

What happens.

What happens when a kid barfs on airplanes is that you don’t necessarily see it coming. The kid is most likely not sick, at least not with anything contagious. The kid is airsick. Our daughter hates the smell of airplanes, she plugs her nose as she boards, so maybe the smell is a trigger for her. But she is pleasant and feeling great until suddenly she is hurling.

The sudden onset of airsickness means you won’t have time to prepare. You need to prepare ahead of time.

Here’s what you need.

A barf bag. I have rarely seen actual barf bags in the seat pocket in front of me. Bring your own or ask a flight attendant for one and make sure it doesn’t have holes. Large Ziplocks baggies work well. Even if you do discover one in that seat pocket, it can’t hurt to ask for an extra.

A target. You don’t want to be the target, you don’t want your child’s Pillow Pet to be the target, you want the barf bag to be the target. Having the barf bag in your possession but not in your actual hand renders it useless. A baggie in the carry-on roller bag over your head will do nothing for you when the kid blows chunks during takeoff. Hold the bag, make sure the opening is easily widened, remind your child that you have it, just in case.

Extra clothes. Extra clothes for your kid won’t help you if there is projectile vomiting involved or if you failed to follow the suggestion of having a target.

Baby wipes. Even families without babies can benefit from carrying baby wipes. They clean up well and smell, if not great, at least better than barf.

Paper towels or Kleenex. Baby wipes are great but not sufficient. You’ll want a little extra for wiping up your kid’s face and any spillage. You probably can’t rely on the flight attendants to help, they are busy and I’m not sure vomit clean up is in their job description. But it is definitely in the parenting job description. Though they will probably provide extra cleaning supplies.

The airplane bathroom. There is water and a sink in there. I know it is small, I have been in them with twin toddlers. But you can use it. Use the soap, use the paper towels, use the sink. Give your kid a sink bath, rinse out the clothes. Your seatmates would rather have you damp than stinking. While you and the kid will dry, the smell will only grow worse over the course of the flight.

Kindness and gratitude. You will need people to be kind to you, though that will be challenging for them. You stink. Your kid stinks. The sounds she was making made them feel sick. If someone offers a ridiculously small moist hand towelette, accept it with gratitude and not with a snarky, “That’s hardly big enough for this disaster.” Apologize for the smell if someone says something rude but you don’t have to apologize for your kid, they have done nothing wrong, it could happen to anyone.

What she needs.

Your kid needs an extra pair of clothing. Shirt and pants and socks and underwear. If you have a daughter, she needs her hair in a ponytail. She needs a toothbrush. She needs a comfort toy or stuffed animal or distraction game or movie or reminder of the exciting destination. She needs a hug. She needs to know that next time you travel together, you are still willing to sit next to her, that you aren’t angry or embarrassed. Maybe, depending on the strength of your own stomach (channeling Chunk in The Goonies here), she might need to have a barf bag on hand for you, the intrepid parent.

I’m happy to say that on my daughter’s most recent flight from Djibouti to Minneapolis, which included a five-hour delay due to the near death of a fellow passenger, she landed successfully without vomiting. Her first words upon landing, accompanied by a triumphant fist pump?

“I made it!”

Fear of Flying

I have a fear of flying. This is a problem because as an expat, I travel fairly often and fairly daunting distances. The worst moment is not takeoff or landing, during which I grip both armrests and whisper, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” The worst moment is not even when we hit turbulence, during which I take deep breaths and close my eyes. The worst moment is when the planes have just reached their cruising altitude and the pilots ease up on acceleration. There is a sudden quiet. No more thrusting, no more ear-rattling noise to confirm the plane’s operational capability. Just quiet, peaceful soaring. It is in this precise moment when all obvious effort diminishes that I fully expect the plane to drop.

The silence is disturbing, the ease disconcerting. I find the noise and strain, the bustle and ruckus of takeoff far more reassuring. We can’t possibly remain in the sky if there is no evidence of labor, if all I need do is lean back against the headrest and read a book.

Like with airplanes, on earth I am most comfortable in the place of effort and hard work. The expectations are clear – namely, effort and hard work. There is the bustle and ruckus to dwell on, to distract from feelings of guilt, doubt, failure, timidity, terror.

But the thing is, in all that noise, in the rattling chaos of exertion, I can’t hear Jesus. 

Sometimes in my faith journey these moments arrive when all the working and the accelerating vanishes and the bottom drops out, like on the plane, and I’m sure this whole thing is going down. But it is in precisely those moments, when I enter silence and begin to rest, that I become aware of nudges I wouldn’t have noticed with my foot on the accelerator.

Nudges toward intimidating, risky things, big and small things, things I can’t see the ends of or guarantee the results of. Like starting a running club. Like signing up for a marathon. Like stopping at a makeshift restaurant and asking the women if I can sit for a few days and learn from them. Like working with the local newspaper. Like saying, ‘I will trust you Lord,’ regarding our school choices for my kids. Or saying ‘yes’ to a literary agent or a publishing house.

My stomach lurches and squeezes and I grab onto the armrests and whisper, “Jesus.” And he whispers back, “In repentance and rest is your salvation. In quietness and trust is your strength.”

See, the thing about soaring, the thing I find both frightening and exhilarating is, airplanes are designed to do it. So I’m going to try, in those quiet moments, to lean into what I am designed for, to continue saying, “Jesus,” and continue saying, “Yes,” and I’m going to enjoy the ride.

What do you need to say ‘yes’ to so you can soar?

How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation?

I’m a bit out of words lately. I’m in seminary full-time. Covid. Elections. Wars. Planes crashing. Racial tension. Political violence. Conspiracy theories.

It’s a lot.

I have way more questions than answers. Some of my questions are around the gaps in the training I received before moving abroad and in the ongoing trainings and mentorships I have access to. By not addressing these gaps, we risk perpetuating problems as expatriates continue to export our culture and values without fully engaging in our new contexts.

I’m going to share some of the questions I am asking myself. I hope you will take some time to think about them.

Do you know the history of your host country from the perspective of its citizens?

            Ancient history, precolonial history, colonial history, and post-colonial history?

            National heroes? Legends, myths, folktales?

            Religious history, from multiple perspectives?

            Racial, class, gender history?

When did women gain the right to vote? How many women serve in leadership? How are they perceived?

Did your country have slavery? Were the people enslaved by others? 

What have been recent and historic conflicts? What were they about? How were they resolved?

Do you know what role your passport nation has played in any of this history?

Did you learn this from Westerners writing about them or from them? Does this knowledge come tainted from an outsider’s viewpoint?

Do you read book written by authors from your host country? 

Do you listen to local music?

Do you read the local newspaper, listen to the radio, follow leaders on social media?

Do you know how people view people of your gender, race, ethnicity, class, stature? Do you know why?

Do you know what people who look like you have done here in the past? For better and for worse?

I meet far too many people who could care less about these things in the countries where they work and are supposedly “serving.” I don’t understand how a person hopes to “make a difference” if they don’t know how things are. What do they hope will be “different?” Unless they mean more like themselves.

Before leaving your passport nation there are some things you need to do, namely start learning about where you are going and commit to never, never stopping. Those of us who are already gone need to do this work. 

I now believe ongoing local cultural training must be required by all organizations who send people abroad. I don’t mean “culture” like food and clothing and language. I mean deep, heart level, historic, worldview forming topics. The possibilities are endless. 

What would you add?

Merry Gentle Christmas

This is the time of year when everyone who has an Instagram account or a website (like me) pulls out their “what you must buy” lists. From books to fair trade products, things you never knew you wanted but now you must buy because if you do you will feel good about yourself and be saving the world and what could be better than that. We hope the affiliate links work because for every dollar Amazon earns, we poor writers and bloggers make…I don’t even know but the answer is not much.

This is the time of year we (me) write sappy, funny, melodramatic Christmas letters and mail them or put them online in the hopes they will bring you Christmas cheer, earn us a lot of “likes” or “hugs”, or even find their way onto someone with a larger platform’s must-read list so that we can get more likes and hugs and clicks on those affiliate links.

This is the time of year we (me) recap everything wonderful and terrible that happened in 2020 and try to spin it in a positive light or a sorrowful light, depending on what kind of response we hope to evoke in you.

This is the time of year we (me) rethink the Nativity, disparage shoe boxes, and talk about Christmas in the desert.

This is the time we (me) write clever jingles about our own stories to the tune of Christmas songs.

I’m tired this year.

I sat down to write this essay and tried to find an old essay I could copy and paste and post instead. None of them seemed appropriate. I’ve linked to them above because I totally do all those things. I’m saying them with all the cynicism but I also mean them sincerely. I love sharing words and books and resources and I really do hope it blesses you and makes you feel less alone and opens up new vistas of understanding or generosity. Both/and. This is one of the hard things about being a human.

I don’t know what to say about Christmas or New Year’s this year. I just feel tired. I think other people will say it all and say it better and I’ll link to the articles and wish I had written them myself.

This essay is like a not-essay. Are those real things? Can they please be real things?

A not-essay about how I don’t know how to capture the grief, rage, loss, confusion, tension, anxiety of this past year. I don’t know how to write about the global things like pandemics, wars, racism, fires, and elections alongside the personal things like graduate school, publishing, cancer, family, and precious friends.

All I want to say is be gentle to yourself. I say that because I want to hear that, too. Be gentle. Be kind. Be patient. Be tender. Take a nap. Go for a long, slow walk. Cry. Laugh so hard it hurts. Don’t worry about your to-do list. Eat cookies, lots of cookies. Sing lovely and terrible Christmas songs. Know that every breath is sacred, every moment holy.

May you have a gentle Christmas and a sacred New Year.

Merry gentle Christmas.

Happy sacred New Year.

The Expat Cookbook

I made another cookbook and it is specially designed for us, for expatriates.

I know we all have cookbooks and the internet and who needs another one. But this one is special. It is designed with us in mind. Expats. People who travel and move and go places and who love people on all sides of the planet and want to eat food.

The Expat Cookbook is not ordered according to Soup, Salad, Mains…

It is ordered for how we actually live.

Chapters include:

Comfort Food

Food to Bring on an Airplane

Food to Mail in a Package

Feed a Crowd on a Budget

Food to bring to the office where there’s no fridge. You know, recipes for our real life. Almost all the recipes come with multiple adaptations and options so it is also a book that lets you thrive with your own taste, creativity, and what you have available.

Maybe you’re moving after the New Year. Maybe you are just now making up your wish-list for Christmas. Maybe your loved one is moving away and you know how much food communicates love.

No deep thoughts for A Life Overseas readers from me this week. Frankly, my brain is fried from Covid life, election hoo-haa, seminary classes, and all the other normal things. Thanks for sticking with A Life Overseas through it all and thanks for letting me share about this with you!

You can pick up your copy at Amazon or through PayHip

Amazon is the only place to get a paperback. I apologize that it isn’t in Indie bookstores yet. Working on that..

For now, cook on and enjoy!

(I’m pretty sure I caught all the typos and apologize for any that remain)

*contains affiliate links

Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Need to Ask

I wrote a couple of posts about questions that Third Culture Kids are often asked. Some they dread, some they love. Same for their parents. There is a problem inherent in these posts and these types of posts. They center the TCK and the expatriate adult. They make us the most important person in conversations we have in our passport countries. They give the impression and create the expectation that everyone should conform to our needs, should be sensitive to our struggles, should care about our joys. 

What about the people we are talking to? The people we “left behind”? The people who lived a full life while we were away? What about our own need to be curious, interested in others, to ask good questions, and to move away from being the center of the experience and story?

What are some questions people would love for the TCK or expatriate to ask them when we’re back in our passport countries?

*note: be sensitive to your level of intimacy with people. These are randomly presented and range from light to personal.

What’s the latest news in your hometown? 

How has Covid impacted you, your family, your job?

What has been the most exciting thing you’d done this past year? The most unexpected? The hardest to accomplish? The most personally transformative?

What’s your favorite restaurant lately? What do you love about it?

Have you gotten any new pets? 

Where should I shop for school clothes this year? What are the current styles in this part of the country/world?

Been on any bad dates? Good dates?

While I am in town where is the one place I absolutely must visit? Why? Will you come with me?

Tell me about your favorite books/movies/music/art.

Who was your best teacher or coach last year?

How have you been talking with your kids about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and police violence in general? 

Have you participated in any protests? Why or why not? How have you experienced them?

What can I learn from your perspective on the USA right now? What is important for me to understand, as a newly returned person?

How can I pray for you?

The conclusion of these past three posts is simply this: ask questions. Ask good, thoughtful, sincere questions. Be curious. Be kind. Be generous.

Questions Third Culture Kids and Their Parents Love

The last post in this series was a set of questions Third Culture Kids have a hard time answering. Today is a set of questions that might be a little easier for them to address. And next month I’ll have a post about parents and TCKs to encourage us to ask better questions ourselves. How can we serve, love, and express interest in others?

Also, I want to be super transparent. I have absorbed so much from people here at A Life Overseas. If some of these questions are something you have said or suggested, thank you and I don’t mean to copy you, I’ve learned from you. One great post is by Taylor Murray, from which I definitely borrowed.


You find yourself in the hallway with a family recently returned from Bangladesh or Korea or Brazil. You don’t have a lot of time, but want to engage with the kids. What can you ask?

Some quick questions:

What is your favorite movie/song/book? Doesn’t have to be about their life abroad! We are all so much more than where we physically live.

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you in your host country? And then laugh with them or gasp with them, even if you don’t quite understand. 

Is there a special sound or smell you miss most about China/Peru/New Zealand…?

What time do you get up in the morning and what do you do first? What is a school day like for you?

What is your favorite place to take visitors to in your host country?

What is your best holiday tradition?

Tell me about your best friend there or your pet or your favorite teacher.

How do you decorate your bedroom?

In other words, questions that let a kid be a kid, that value the place they came from and the people they love there, and that give you a potential connection point – like oh I love that book, too! Or, my first grade teacher was just the best, too. Or, I know a kid in your grade who also has an alligator eat their pet monkey (okay, maybe not, but there is surely a way to connect someone with a common interest of say, soccer).


And deeper questions, maybe if you are a close friend or a family friend, or are mentoring or have longer time to talk, maybe over dinner with an older TCK or on a long car ride:

If you could change one thing about your TCK life, what would it be and why? If you could give one part of your TCK life to someone else (because you love it so much), what would it be and why?

What aspects of your host culture do you find yourself doing no matter where you are, or if you change something how do you adjust it? 

Do you notice yourself shifting between cultures? What does that feel like in your physical body or mannerisms?

What excites you about being back in your passport country? Or, what do you feel nervous about? What are you looking forward to? Or dreading?

What can I do to help you right now? Or in the future?

What else would you add?

Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Dread

Next month I will share Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Love, so stay tuned.

You just arrived in your passport country. Someone is approaching. You can’t remember who they are. You can’t remember where you are. What time is it? What language do they speak here? They are getting closer and closer and then the questions start…

Aren’t you glad to be home? Two hard things about this question – first, the TCK most likely does not consider their passport country home, especially if they have been abroad for a long time. My own kids vacillate, but most consistently they say that Djibouti is home. That’s where their bedrooms are, their treasure boxes, their bookshelves, their dog, their holiday traditions, their friends and school and church and sports team, their memories. That’s where they feel comfortable. Second – the TCK might not be glad. That’s a massive assumption. They might be angry or bitter or sad or intimidated or confused.

Don’t you remember me? Probably not! They’re kids. Even adults! We’ve been gone a long time, have maybe visited a lot of churches or gatherings. We love you. And the kids love you and we are so grateful for you. But we might be jet lagging, culturally overwhelmed, weary or broken. Please remind us of your name. I have been so thankful when someone just says, “Hi Rachel, Marilyn. We were in Bible study a couple years ago…” Almost every time, I know who they are, but that little gift is something I’m glad for.

Where do you buy clothes/food/stuff in your country? The kid might start thinking, “Uhh…my parents buy it…or are you saying I’m dressed funny? Or are you asking for a story from the market or…?” This is a complicated question and especially teenagers might feel awkward about it, already wondering if they are fitting in or sticking out.

How is your host country? Um…What do you mean? Third Culture Kids are just kids, they probably don’t know the political situation or the COVID situation or the economic situation. How is it, like the temperature? The food? The education? This is a confusing question.

You must just love it there! Okay, so that’s not a question, but it makes another big assumption. I was never asked that as a kid when people found out I lived in New Brighton – do you just love it there? Wuh? I dunno. I lived there. It was a place. I’ve learned to answer that question with, “Most of the time.” And people laugh and don’t really care for more than that. Still, I don’t like that question because what do you mean? Should I love it there? What if I don’t? Would you care to hear that longer, complicated answer?

How’s the ministry? Not only do the kids maybe not know or not care, they aren’t the missionary, They are a kid. Would you ask a pastor’s kid about the quality of the church work? Would you ask the child of a surgeon how surgery is going? Plus, not all TCKs identify as missionary kids. 

Say something in XXX language. For my kids, their language ability is a treasure. They use their foreign language skills as a shield sometimes, when they feel overwhelmed in the USA, they start speaking to themselves in their learned language. Or, it is a unique gift that they will pull out when they want to, like when they see a Somali at the store. They don’t often want to spill that gift out, or feel like it is a party trick.

How was your trip? Uh, not a trip. A life. Still living it…

Don’t forget next month I’ll share the great questions people can ask.

What are some questions you or your kids dread?