All posts by Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Her next book will be released in October, 2019. Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (this is not an ex-patriot or an ex-pat or an ex-patriate). A few years ago an article called this into question, and the conversation is ongoing. The Guardian published Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? I regularly hear from people concerned that I call myself an expatriate. I needed to dig into this.

Is the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated it and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? There are two levels (at least) to this discussion: definitional and experiential.

According to Meriam-Webster:

  • the word Expatriate is a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land.”
  • the word Immigrant is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence.”

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction. Immigrants have an intention to stay, for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

According to Google, an expat is someone residing outside their native/passport country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

That is the dictionary discussion and by definition, I’m an expatirate. What about our experiences?

The most diverse place I know well is the protestant church I attend. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Congo, Nigeria, Senegal, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of all of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. I never thought of any of us, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passports and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

But that is just my experience and in different parts of the world, this is very different. Hana Omar commented on my FB page that in Europe there seems to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And, there are related words, much more racially charged, like migrant worker, a person who is actually an expat. Or in other places the term Foreign Domestic Workers is used for people who are also technically expatriates.

Both expatriate and immigrant are beautiful words and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts. And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Three things. One, I am an expatriate, not an immigrant. Two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. Listen, ask questions, hear where they came from and where they are going and don’t jump to conclusions. Three, the ability to use and choose this term is evidence of my privilege and not all expatriates have that ability, being labeled what others perceive them as, often solely on account of skin color. This is deeply problematic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant?

What would you suggest as a new term?

15 Things I Want to Tell Graduating Third Culture Kids

Originally published on Djibouti Jones

You can always come home. Home might not be this house but home is always this family. Come rejoicing, come weeping, come whole, come broken, come lonely, come with packs of friends, come in silence, come and spill it all. This table, meaning the table I’ve set in my heart for our family, always has room.

You can never go back. There is no rewind on life and no redoing spent years. You can’t go back, even if you come back. In You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” Keep going. This host country will keep going and changing, too. When you meet again, whether this country or the people you have known on the continent, know that you will have to reintroduce yourself and re-explore the other and rediscover who you can be together, or from a distance, now. You might want to go back, you might think things were better or easier or simpler back when…that’s nostalgia. That’s saudade. That’s okay. Those days were good and beautiful and hilarious and I can testify to that. They are part of you now, in your very being, the fabric of what makes you, you. But you can’t live them again. Hold them, honor them, and live into the now and the new.

Guard your heart, your mind, your soul, your body. Be wise, be discerning. Make good choices. Be patient, take your time. Stay in touch with old friends. Don’t sink into social media or the internet or porn or alcohol or consumerism.

But don’t lock it up. Don’t shut the door to keep out what might feel like overwhelming American culture. Don’t be afraid to be tender and loving. Don’t cling so fast to friends far away that you don’t have space for new friends. Be vulnerable, in the appropriate relationships.

Don’t treat Americans with contempt. Hear them out, learn their stories, ask inquisitive questions.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. All that TCK awesomeness. All that you awesomeness. You can blend it up however you want, but don’t be ashamed or embarrassed or too proud. Be you.

Be honest about what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help. People might think it is strange that you don’t know something they think is normal American life, but most of the time, they will also enjoy helping you and you never know what friendship might come of it. Be humble.

Explore and be curious and savor. Think of your college campus or your new city as though you have just moved abroad, which for all practical purposes, you have. Think of American English as a new language, restaurants as exotic local fare, a trip downtown as an exciting cultural exploration. Try stuff. Try broomball. Try downhill skiing. Try snowball fights. (Don’t try licking the flagpole in January). Try saying “oofdah.”

Seek out a trusted advisor with whom you can be completely transparent and ask for cultural guidance. Here gender and race conversations look different. Here poverty, justice, corruption, wealth, privilege these things look different and are talked about in different ways. It will be hard and you might feel confused sometimes, but try to learn to contextualize your conversations and learn from the people around you. Conversations in America have changed since mom and dad lived there and we can’t be specifically helpful in this regard because we are often confused, too. In this same vein, seek out a counselor, a trained professional, who understands cross-cultural issues.

Find a strong, healthy, joyful, creative, supportive, purposeful spiritual body to be part of. Maybe a church, maybe a campus group, maybe a small group of friends. Explore who you are, spiritually, apart from mom and dad.

Root yourself. You might be tempted to flit around and there will be potentially appropriate times to leave – to transfer or to study abroad – but don’t move just for the sake of movement. Settle in, make a home, even a dorm home, connect with people, invest in your community.

Call home. Text. Facebook message. Send photos. When you do, be honest. Goods and bads. Talk us through it. We’re transitioning, too. We miss you like whale sharks would miss the sea.

I am eternally grateful that we have had the honor of sharing this life abroad with you. This life hasn’t always been easy, but what is easy? No place is easy. The way you love your host country is precious. And it has embraced you back. This is a rare thing.

You are not alone. You can cross the sea, go to the highest mountain, the lowest volcanic lava tunnel, you are not alone. God is with you, cliché and true. But also, all the people who have loved you and taught you and coached you and prayed for you are with you. You don’t leave friends or family behind, not when they have invested in you. They have become part of who you are, part of your character and your stories. You know this, from the Open Houses that we had/will have. We need to have them on two continents, with letters from people in dozens of other countries, because love and support is coming at you from all corners of the globe.

Live here and now. They might be hard words to live in and I’m still learning how to do this well. Right here, this now. And then this one and then this one. Pay attention to your here and your now and feel it. This actually builds new pathways in your brain. Did you know that? How you choose to receive and embrace each moment matters. Make it good, even the hard ones. Learn from them. Savor the good moments. Laugh when you want to, cry when you want to. Get angry and feel wonder. Here. Now.

Okay and a couple bonus, obligatory things:

I love you. I’m proud of you. Always and forever, to the moon and around to this country and back around again.

What do you want to say to your graduating senior, TCK or not?

Read suggestions on helping TCKs transition to university in Finding Home.

Find more wisdom for graduating TCKs here.

A Letter to the Grandparents of My Third Culture Kids

*originally published at Djibouti Jones.

I remember telling you we were pregnant. We had spaghetti because that’s what you served your parents when you announced each pregnancy. I requested it, but you cooked it because I already felt sick. And so, almost before I told you, you knew.

I remember telling you we were pregnant with twins. You knew I had the ultrasound that day. I stepped into your house and said, “We have something to tell you.” The plan was to show you the videotape of the ultrasound, make you guess why our baby had two heads. But, again, you knew before I told you. You said, “Its twins, isn’t it?”

I remember you tattooing my massive stretch-marked belly with planets and stars and I remember you coming to see the high level ultrasounds and crying.

I don’t really remember telling you we were moving to Somalia. But I also don’t remember you ever saying, “Don’t go.” You had expected something like this for years, almost like you knew again, before I told you. I don’t remember telling you we were taking your grandchildren to what felt like to us, at that time, the ends of the earth, a place none of us could picture in our minds. But I don’t remember you saying, “Don’t go,” because you never said it.

We boxed our belongings and stored them in your basement, in your upstairs closets and empty farm buildings. We wrenched up our family and our roots. And we left.

I don’t know what that was like for you.

I can imagine. I imagine it felt like ripping and shattering. I can imagine it felt cold and black, unreal and yet too real. It seems so long ago, the actual leaving, but it also seems so near. I think because the leaving wasn’t truly that one day, it is every day since the first in January 2003.

Sometimes I want to apologize to you, for causing this pain. Sometimes I want to apologize for not sending enough updates on the kids or Skyping often enough, for having stand-in relatives.

But, though I wish there wasn’t pain involved, I don’t feel right apologizing. Because I don’t have regrets, not ultimately, not when all things are taken into consideration. If I could live two lives, one of me would stay put and one would be on this wild adventure I am on. But since I can’t, I won’t apologize for not being able to accomplish the impossible.

So instead, I will simply say thank you.

Thank you for not saying “Don’t go.”

Thank you for raising us with a vision for the world outside our immediate circles. Thank you for teaching us to work hard, to trust like crazy, to dream big, to love deep. Thank you for helping us pass these qualities on to your grandchildren.

Thank you for sliding down McDonald’s Playland slides, for gathering up snow pants when we show up for a month and the temperature is below zero, for washing extra dishes, for baby-sitting back in those days when we needed it. Thank you for finding used bicycles and even a stray cat for us to use/love.

Thank you for crying when we left but for never making us feel guilty. Thank you for making space in your homes for our boxes, space for our bodies when we are back. Thank you for giving your grandchildren a safe place to talk about their experiences, for being interested in their lives, for seeing that they are content and for not overturning that.

Thank you for all the trips to the airport, for welcome signs and welcome candies, for homemade quilts to warm our freezing toes, for bags of clothes to wear while in the US.

Thank you for picnics and parties and fresh fish fry and bean-bag toss and lasagna and bowls of strawberries. Thank you for keeping family traditions and for slipping us in seamlessly when we are here to join. Thank you for sending some of those traditions in packages across the sea.

Thank you for visiting, for stamping your passport with a country few of your friends have heard of. Thank you for learning about a region of the world you previously hadn’t paid attention to. Thank you for seeing our lives there, not just the black hole left in your heart, but the life we have built of work and friendships and home. Thank you for possessing the courage and humility it takes to acknowledge and appreciate that and to not insist that the only good place for us to live is near you (though that would be good too).

And now that two of our three kids are in college, thank you for stepping up and being grandparents in the same country. Driving practice, wisdom teeth surgeries, holidays, weekends with college students crashing your home.

Thank you for making it abundantly clear that no matter where we live, we are loved. We love you and we miss you.

Upside Down Dependency

Humanitarians often talk about the issue of dependency and how to avoid creating it. The whole: teach a person to fish scenario.

What if the conversation is backward?

What if the person at risk of developing the dependency is the humanitarian?

Humanitarians need the local person to be needy. We need a job, we need to feel useful, we need to feel value, we need to produce. We need gripping photos for fundraising attempts. On a more heart level, we need to feel powerful, in charge, and heroic.

The needier the local person and the longer they remain in that state, the more secure we are in our position.

The effective aid worker must be willing and able to clearly evaluate their impact and step away when they are no longer necessary. Isn’t that the whole point? If not, it should be.

Becoming no longer necessary needs to be one of our primary goals. If it isn’t, the program or project being implemented needs to be reevaluated and adjusted accordingly.

A true effort to avoid creating dependency is to make sure that effort goes both ways.

A successful aid program will mean those who implement it will one day become superfluous. This requires great humility and imagination, especially for the Westerner.

Me, no longer needed?! Me, step aside for a local to take over?!


If that isn’t the goal, something is wrong. The aid worker has become dependent.

Teach the community to fish and what does the teacher do once the students have learned? Many either keep on staying or simply never, truly, teach the community to fish without the foreigner providing worms, instructions, the market in which to sell the fish, or motivation.

It is still the outsider, bringing in outside information that is not indigenous. It is not the outsider looking at what the local community is already doing and coming alongside to improve and expand it.


In an incredible On Being podcast interview with Anand Giridharadas, he says, “It’s language like the “win-win,” which sounds great, but in some deep way is actually about rich people saying, the only acceptable forms of social change are the forms of social change that also kick something back upstairs — language like “doing well by doing good,” which, again, is like, “The only conditions under which I’m willing to do good is under which I would also do well.”

Maybe that doing well is economic, maybe it is emotional. Still, the ego of the humanitarian is dependent on the need of the local.


Sometimes I wonder if the people inside the projects established by Western aid agencies and faith-based organizations talk about how dependent that machinery is on them? I wonder if they say something like, “Take a fish from a Westerner and he’ll stick around for a day. Let him teach you to fish and he’ll stick around for a lifetime. (while eating a lot more fish than you will ever catch).”

The aid machine needs humanitarian crises. It needs war and refugees and massive camps and epidemics. The more dire the situation, the more money pours in and the longer people have job security. The more dangerous the situation, the higher the hazard pay.

That is on a large scale. But what about in your own work?

Is your job security dependent on perpetuating a certain level of need?

Is your identity dependent on feeling useful?

Is your sense of value dependent on maintaining a status quo of you being provider, instructor, leader, instigator?

Is your purpose dependent on another’s weakness?

Is your funding structure dependent on persistent need in the local community?

Or have you worked to develop a true, authentic sense of community and partnership? Have you come in as a humble servant, willingly placing yourself beneath local authority structures and adjusting to local systems?

Who is at risk of dependency in your work?

Resources to help guide your evaluation:

When Helping Hurts

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa

Toxic Charity

Subversive Jesus and all things things Craig Greenfield writes

13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids (by yours truly)

*contains affiliate links

Moral Injury

I first learned the term “moral injury” in a Plough magazine article by Michael Yandell, Hope in the Void. He quoted authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini who say moral injury, “comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs…Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble causes. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible.”

Foreign Policy magazine describes moral injury as “damage done to a ‘person’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing, or failing to prevent acts that transgress moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.”

Can you think of ways you have experienced this in your life abroad?

We know about female genital mutilation and cannot stop it. We turn away from the begging children. We participate in economic inequality. We are inappropriately respected or honored because of the color of our skin or our passport and we do little to stop it. We huddle behind locked doors and guarded, walled compounds when disorder breaks out in the streets. We pay the bribe to get our mail or our water turned on.

This is not how we imagined serving, helping, or changing the world. We are humanitarians, we are people motivated by faith and by a desire to serve and help. Some of us thought we could change the world, only to discover we are complicit in harm, subconsciously or not.

About his own memories of serving as a soldier in the Iraq war, Yandell wrote, “I know I am not who I thought I was. I am something different, something I never planned on being.”

Another way to think about moral injury is as a wound to the soul.

I am not heroic and I know this far better now, after 16 years abroad, than I ever would have learned had I stayed in the US. I am the opposite of heroic. Living here has stripped away all illusion of moral superiority or high character. I stand exposed.

All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit.

And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.

I know now, who I am. I am not who I thought I was or who I intended to be.

Oh how deeply runs the chasm between who I thought I was and who I now know myself to be.

Oh how much greater my knowledge of my need for a grace I cannot earn.

This is not about moving abroad and learning how selfish and greedy and impatient and proud you are. (I learned all that too) This is darker, deeper, and more damaging.

Moral injury is a heavy, serious topic that deserves much deeper exploration than a single blog post. I’ll provide some links below and encourage you to explore the idea on your own, to see how you may have been impacted, or not. And then I encourage you to find a place where you can be honest and courageously vulnerable so that you can find healing.

Does this resonate with you? How? And how can you move toward healing?

The Headington Institute

Hope in the Void, Plough Magazine

Foreign Policy The Warrior and Moral Injury

Psychology Today: Moral Injury

A Blessing on Your Life Overseas

I’ve walked through darkness this year. In the lowest moments, a friend sent me blessings every day. I started reading John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us. I am now sending blessings to someone I love dearly, to walk with her through her own dark days. My brother is getting married to a woman I adore, so I wrote them a marriage blessing.

I don’t believe in writer’s block (refuse the concept!) but I did struggle this month with brain fog. I have all kinds of excuses, but instead of listing them, I’ll tell you what I decided.

I decided we need blessing. We need to insist on it, to wrestle with God until he gives it to us, to turn to one another and offer it. We need to speak blessing, not rage. We need to receive blessing when it comes to us from unexpected places. We need to discover, anew, all it can mean to live as a blessing among the nations.

And so, I bless you, expatriate, and your life overseas.

I tried to write my own blessing but alas, brain fog. Or #blamethecancer? So I’m borrowing from other, wiser people.

From To Bless the Space Between Us, by John O’Donohue

When you travel, you find yourself

Alone in a different way,

More attentive now

To the self you bring along,

Your more subtle eye watching

You abroad; and how what meets you

Touches that part of the heart

That lies low at home.


Welcoming Blessing, by Jan Richardson

When you are lost
in your own life.

When the landscape
you have known
falls away.

When your familiar path
becomes foreign
and you find yourself
a stranger
in the story you had held
most dear.

Then let yourself
be lost.
Let yourself leave
for a place
whose contours
you do not already know,
whose cadences
you have not learned
by heart.
Let yourself land
on a threshold
that mirrors the mystery
of your own
bewildered soul.

It will come
as a surprise,
what arrives
to welcome you
through the door,
making a place for you
at the table
and calling you
by your name.

Let what comes,


From Mary Oliver, Evidence: Poems

“Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.”


The Journey, by Rumi

Come, seek,

for seeking is the foundation of fortune:
every success depends upon focusing the heart.
Unconcerned with the business of the world,
keep saying with all your soul, “Ku, ku,” like the dove…

Even though you’re not equipped,
keep searching…

Whoever you see engaged in search,
become her friend and cast your head in front of her,
for choosing to be a neighbor of seekers,
you become one yourself…

Day and night you are a traveler in a ship.
You are under the protection of a life-giving spirit…

Step aboard the ship and set sail,
like the soul going towards the soul’s Beloved.
Without hands or feet, travel toward Timelessness
just as spirits flee from non-existence.

…By God, don’t linger
in any spiritual benefit you have gained,
but yearn for more like one suffering from illness
whose thirst for water is never quenched…

Leave the seat of honor behind:
the Journey is your seat of honor.


May you be blessed this season, wherever you are and in whatever combination of lightness and darkness you find yourself.

6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

I have cancer.

The first time I said it out loud, I actually had to shout it into my phone. Like shout. As in, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” And since I am anti-exclamation points, let the fact that I just used, like, a bajillion, communicate how loudly I shouted it.

I shouted, “I have cancer,” because I was trying to tell my husband the news.

He is not hard of hearing.

He also was not in the vicinity when Dr. D called.

I was in my car. He was not in the car with me. He wasn’t in the city with me. He wasn’t in the state. He wasn’t on the continent.

See, I got cancer while my husband and I are living on opposite sides of the planet for a season. Don’t worry about us, we’re all good. Going on twenty years of a great marriage. But our twins graduated and sixteen years ago, when we moved to Somalia, I told my husband, “When they graduate, I’m going to spend at least their first semester of college in the US.”

So here we are, sixteen years later.

And apparently, God had a plan for my life. That plan included the superb timing of me getting cancer while living in a country that has the medical prowess to detect and treat it. #miracles

But, ahem, God? What about my husband? One big perk of marriage is having a companion for life’s junk. I don’t like that part of this plan, that part that has him in Djibouti and me in Minnesota, and there is a poor telephone and internet connection and so instead of beating around the bush with something like, “The doctor found papillary thyroid carcinoma,” or, “the test results aren’t exactly awesome,” or even, “They found cancer,” which would imply it was not exactly me, or mine, or inside my body, I had to shout, to be very clear and to make sure he got the message before the internet shut off, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” (again, those darn exclamation points).

Anyway. My point is that this international life is hard and beautiful and amazing and sometimes, it really really stinks. Sometimes it means periods of unwanted and un-chosen separation. It means money spent changing plane tickets at the last minute. It means feeling divided. It means lonely grief. Work and team and home on one side of the ocean. Sick wife or worried husband on the other side.

But there are good things, too, about a cancerous life overseas. #learninggratitude #perspective

There are incredible aspects of the life overseas that truly manifest, to my surprise to be honest, during times of pain, grief, confusion, and sorrow.

Here Community. I have had to learn to ask for help and to accept help when it is offered. Why is this so hard? It shouldn’t be. My ‘here’ community for now is in the US and it is a community I haven’t relied on in physically present ways in a long time. Now, they are bringing me meals and driving me around and dropping off bags of goodies and giving me cash gifts for massages or books(!). The generosity of intimate family and friends, as well as near-strangers is breath-taking.

There Community. We have the incredible privilege of a ‘there’ community, which right now means an internationally located one. Usually, these two communities are reversed. But for now, over there, people are caring for my husband while we are apart. They are bringing him meals and having him over for game nights, celebrating his birthday, and checking in on him. And they are sending messages to me of encouragement. Kindness, compassion, practical care. People abroad know that we are all abroad without our closest families or friends and they step up. Local people and other expats. They move in and hold our fear and grief and it is precious.

Surrounded. I have people praying for me literally all over the world. Which means at all times of the day and night, too. I have people from all manner of faith traditions praying for me. I find this so comforting. I feel it, I feel like the inside of a Twinkie, the creamy middle. I feel weak and squishy and like, if I weren’t surrounded, I’d spread out all over the place in a goopy mess. But the prayers of my Muslim and Christian and Jewish and no-faith people are holding me together, holding me in place. I got a prayer message from a dear Somali friend the other day and nearly cried. This is such a profound and unique gift.

Thankfulness. A lot of thankfulness has to do with perspective. I have so much to be thankful for. Hospitals with no wild animals wandering through them. A knowledgeable well-trained surgeon. Fully stocked pharmacies with medications that are not expired. The timing of this adventure. Clean drinking water. An abundance of nutritious food. Toilets that flush on the first try. Hot showers. Fifteen years in a developing-world country has radically changed my perspective.

Identification. I don’t know what it is like to be a refugee or to see my country decimated by war. I don’t know what it is like to watch my children go hungry or to bury a loved one who left too young. But every bit of pain, when it is not ignored but faced, thins out the dividing lines of race, religion, wealth, politics. Like the Grinch, our hearts can grow three sizes in one day, if we choose empathy. When we make space for our own pain, space opens up, almost magically, to hold the pain of others, too.

Joy. I’m not going to say look at the poor, they’re so happy. But I will say that people who have suffered, and that always includes poor people, can develop reservoirs of joy that the healthy, strong, and powerful will never know. It is a ferocious and subversive joy that refuses to be smothered by loss or pain and because of where we live and who we choose to love, I have seen this with my own eyes. I can draw strength from that example.

What are ways that living abroad while going through trials has brought unique blessing into your life and home?

Let’s Talk about Sexual Harassment


Kavanaugh vs. Blasey Ford

Running while Female (aka, living while female)

Its time to talk about sexual harassment again. I am not coming at this from a political angle. But recent US political events highlighted, again, that sexual harassment is a very real and present danger and can have long-term consequences, sometimes leading to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, high blood pressure, and PTSD.

Organizations, teams, families, friends, coworkers, everyone living abroad needs to talk about this.


What does harassment look like? Here’s just a few examples based on personal experience:

Leering. Open-mouthed, wide-eyed stares. Kissy-faces. Sexual hand gestures. Men cupping imaginary breasts. Men pulling down their pants. Pulling my hair and yanking on my clothes. Calling me a whore and a prostitute and an infidel and describing what they would like to do to me or simply shouting, “sex!” Throwing rocks and soda bottle caps. Trying to trip me. Jumping from behind and shouting, in an attempt to scare me. Spitting. Following. Mimicking my walk. Walking behind so closely they step on my heels. Drawing the finger across the throat. Grabbing my breasts, pinching and/or punching my ass, dumping a bottle of liquid on me while I wait on the corner.

(Lest I give the impression this only happens where I live now, I have experienced sexual harassment in every country I’ve spent significant time in.)

Unfortunately, even while women shout and educate and train, I don’t have high hopes that sexual assault or harassment will stop. But I also don’t want to sit in a place of anger and humiliation. These experiences need to be redeemed.

The first thing I did after a particularly upsetting incident was visit two friends, one Djiboutian and one expat, who live together. I told them what happened, they told me what they experience, how they respond. We prayed for each other. This is how we start to redeem sexual harassment. Together, we refuse to be silenced.

I own my story. I listen to the stories of the women around me. I say, me too. That happened to me too. (I actually wrote this essay four years before #metoo. Just sayin’.) I tell my story, I don’t hide it because it is embarrassing, because my reaction wasn’t what I wish it were. I hear the women around me say, me too. And, I’m sorry. And, I’m angry with you, for you. We are the walking wounded. Yes, we are wounded, but yes, we are walking forward, out the front door. And knowing that Asha is walking out her front door, Mumina out hers, Sarah out hers, Carrie out hers, I gather all their strength and step out mine.

I recognize that there is nothing new under the sun and I read about the women of faith who have walked this path before. Dinah. Tamar. Esther. The Levite’s concubine. Their tears are not forgotten. Not by women and not by the Creator of all humans.

I learn, to the depths of my core, that I am created in the image of God. I learn how to offer that same truth and dignity to others, to lessen the incidents of my own dehumanizing of others, like beggars at my door or men I might lump into a clump of harassers. I honor the men who rise up to defend me.

I talk to my husband about it. Men need to know what this does to women, they need encouragement and exhortation to talk to other men about it. It needs to be a team discussion topic.

I use words to illuminate the raw places of my soul and wrote this to my body after a boy grabbed me through the car window while I was stopped in traffic. I encourage anyone who has been harassed to write a letter to your body.

You are my body. This is all I’ve got. This color, this shape, this height. These are my muscles, you are strong and enable me to walk down the street or run or bike. Underneath these clothes, these are my stretch marks and scars and cellulite patterns. This is my voice and the way I laugh. When I walk, this is the way my butt swings, this is the rhythm of my hips and the sway of my shoulders.

Sometimes when people call me a whore, I’m tempted to round my shoulders over, to curve my back, to turn in on myself. I become so conscious of the way my hips move that I trip over the stones in the dirt road. I’m so aware of the teensiest bit of bouncing in my body, that I feel my face burn red, as though there were something to be ashamed of in the jiggle.

There isn’t something to be ashamed of here.

You are my body. You are all I have to walk around this world in. It is hard enough to escape the shame and guilt of all the ways I am weak and fail my friends, my family, my work. I can not let people add to that shame by allowing them to put that on you, too.

So I won’t.

You are a temple, a holy place where the essence of ‘me’ dwells. We will walk in the glory that is this body, this temple. I promise to own it. Care for it. Use it. Wear it with confidence even in public. There is no shame here.

What else can you do to process harassment in a healthy, restorative way?

P.S. I wrote a follow-up to this piece on my blog, about what happens to me almost every time I write about sexual harassment, if you’re interested.

Some more pieces:

The Story Women Need to Tell

This Is My Body. Thou Shalt Not Break It.

Freedom from the Silence of Shame

10 Dangerous Things for Kids and One True Danger, A Quiz

(I wrote this a long time ago but never hit “publish.” Two of my three kids are now adults, which slightly changes my personal context. But, the essay still stands, a little encouragement for expats as we face life in sometimes challenging locations.)

“You’re Much More Likely to Be Killed By Brain-Eating Parasites, Texting While Driving, Toddlers, Lightning, Falling Out of Bed, Alcoholism, Food Poisoning, Choking On Food, a Financial Crash, Obesity, Medical Errors or “Autoerotic Asphyxiation” than by Terrorists.” (washingtonsblog)

A quiz:

  1. Are Americans more at risk of dying by terrorist or dying by an appliance falling on us?

Death by appliance.

  1. Is a predator more likely to attack a child walking home from the playground alone or to attack a child playing in the home?

Child playing at home.

  1. Does a child face more of a health risk while climbing a tree or while staring at an iPad?

Staring at an iPad.

  1. Are more kids injured by sledding or by television sets?

Television sets.

10,000 kids went to the ER in 2012 because of sledding accidents.

26,000 kids went to the ER because of television set injuries.

  1. Are kids more at risk while walking home from school or while riding in a car?

Riding in the car.

  1. Is a kid more likely to be kidnapped and killed by a stranger or struck by lightening?

Struck by lightening.

  1. Do more children die at homes with a swimming pool or a gun?

Swimming pool.

  1. Are parents more likely to be afraid of the house with the swimming pool or the gun?

The house with the gun.

  1. True or false: The five most likely things to cause injuries to kids are: kidnapping, terrorists, school shooters, dangerous strangers, and drugs.

False. Those are the five things parents are most worried about.

The five things most likely to cause injury to kids are: car accidents, homicide (by someone they know), child abuse, suicide, and drowning.

We fear the dramatic, the unexpected, the unknown, the stories that make news headlines, and the events that are out of our control. If anything, we should fear the every day, the mundane, the average, the things that are so commonplace they don’t make the nightly news. To be clear, I’m not encouraging us to be afraid of anything, just saying we have our ideas mixed up.

According to the CDC, the least safe thing we can do with our kids is drive them anywhere. And, according to Warwick Cairns, author of How to Live Dangerously, if we wanted our child to be kidnapped, it might happen if we left them on a street corner for 750,000 hours. That is 31,500 days or 85.6 years. But if we want them to be in a car accident, all we have to do is drive them around for 18 years, which we all do.

I don’t think parents can ever entirely get rid of the fear of something happening to our children. I’m sure even my own parents, 40 years after my birth, worry about me. But we can stop using our fears to constrict our children and we can stop using our fears to construct a false sense of security.

We need to refuse to live in the world of ‘what if.’ Living in that world is what is actually dangerous for our children. It is dangerous to model fear as the guiding force in our lives. Dangerous to not engage in the world as it is, broken as it is.

We can live with an expansive, wild love that is stronger than our fear. We can train our kids to think creatively, act decisively, and to understand the world around them. We can model courage and resiliency.  We can demonstrate faith.

I don’t want to raise children who are afraid but rather children who are engaged, courageous, and who know that life will not be perfect or risk-free. I want to teach them that yes, something bad might happen to us, and when or if it does, we will walk through it together to find hope and healing. Because that is the reality.

I can’t protect them every second, even if I wanted to or tried. I am not in control and pretending I am leaves all of us unprepared for pain. And that is what would be dangerous for my kids.

How do you face your fears and those of your family?

Gourmet Expat Food: When Dinner is Popcorn and Bananas

(this post was originally published on the Multi-Cultural Kids blog)

My first day in Somalia my two-year old daughter fell off the roof and I had to make spaghetti from tomatoes (no jar of Ragu) and beef (ground by yours truly) and noodles boiled in water that my husband drew from a cistern out front.

Once we figured out how to keep kids from falling off roofs and I figured out how to make spaghetti, that was all I did. Keep the kids safe, and prepare and eat lunch. The same, gross food every single day, with the occasional, even worse, cabbage soup made by a neighbor for variety.

I was studying language, studying how to wear a headscarf, studying how to walk without rolling an ankle, and failing miserably at all of it. My husband taught at the University and came home hungry and was served: spaghetti. Sometimes with bone chips in the meat, often without spices, and always with too much oil and soggy noodles because I let them overcook while keeping the twins out of trouble.

We had no refrigeration and I was exhausted from morning market trips, language study and cultural shock, and from toddler twins, that by the time dinnertime rolled around, all I could do was slam bananas and a big bowl of oil-popped popcorn on the table and say, “Eat.”

Night after night, bananas and popcorn. Sometimes a stale baguette smeared with rancid butter and overly sweet jam for dessert.

This was what we now call our ‘popcorn and bananas season,’ It lasted long enough for both of us to lose quite a bit of weight and the spaghetti and soup were so bad that we still gag when we talk about it.

I wanted to do better. We wanted to eat healthy, we wanted to eat a balanced diet with a reasonable amount of variety. But there are times when the best that an expatriate can do is popcorn and bananas. Here is my criteria for when popcorn and bananas count as nutritional, lovingly-provided, and sufficient for dinner:

  1. When moving to a new country. Especially if your village in this country has no fast food, no delivery, no restaurants, no refrigeration, no canned or boxed meals, and no running water.
  2. When you have toddler twins. Or one toddler. Or an infant.
  3. When those toddler twins have miraculously survived falling from roofs and have grown into teenagers and have recently been dropped off at boarding school three countries away and all you can do is sit on the couch and cry.
  4. When you return home after driving around the country on roads that aren’t really roads and are detained by police for inadvertently taking photos of the President’s house and get two flat tires and have a broken jack.
  5. When jet lag sinks in and you can only stumble through the house, blindly swiping at food that looks vaguely familiar.
  6. When all the food in the store is labeled in a language you don’t know but bananas are shaped like bananas in every language.
  7. When there were only three eggs in the market and the other American in the village already bought them all.
  8. When the chickens who laid those eggs are only slaughtered on Fridays and are so small you need a whole one for each member of your family and so tough you can’t even chew the meat anyway. (But chicken is not spaghetti so your family will thank you.)
  9. When you don’t know how to cook from scratch yet.
  10. When you convince yourself that popcorn and bananas is actually healthier than Kraft Mac and Cheese, McDonalds, or peanut butter and jelly on white bread anyway and that is what you used to call a meal, back in that other country that is starting to fade from memory as you try to absorb this new one.

Expat, I know you have the best of intentions for yourself and your family. And I also know there are times you only have the strength to summon up popcorn and bananas. That is okay. Serve it with pride and enjoy the adventure.

Did any of your early cooking attempts turn into utter failures? What meal does your family still gag when thinking about?

Third Culture Kids, College, and Culture Shock

This year two of my three Third Culture Kids are graduating. Last year, we went on college tours in Minnesota and Wisconsin. We observed some, um, interesting cultural things. Our observations were specific to the Midwest and our perspective comes from 16 years in the Horn of Africa. But, they just might help you with your own college tours and if you’d like some tips on how to get through these trips with joy, check out these posts: Tips for TCKs Going on College Tours and Tips for Parents of TCKs Going on College Tours.

Girls wear sport shorts, tight and short sport shorts, or pajamas (dressed to impress?).

Minnesotans play a lot of hockey and broomball.

If you grow up in a country with no snow or ice, you don’t know what broomball is (it is okay to ask, get used to asking).

TCKs are the only seniors in a room who have to clarify the question, “Where are you from?” (do you mean where was I born? where my passport says I’m from? where I go to school? where I keep most of my belongings? where I stay every few years in the summer? where my parents pay taxes and will get in-state tuition? where I came from just this morning?).

There are a lot of white people in the Midwest, especially in rural areas (notice, my kids are also white, but they barely realize it. What this means is that the color of a person’s skin tells you very little of their actual history and story. Ask questions, listen, be slow to judge).

Parents and students respond with more excitement to the prospect of a Starbucks on campus (as opposed to all the way across the street) than they do to a $15 YEARLY membership at a club that provides bikes, kayaks, paddle boards, sports equipment, and intramural teams to join. Or than they do to pretty much every other thing mentioned on tour. Starbucks is very important.

They also care that much about Chipotle. As in, there were more comments and questions about Starbucks and Chipotle than about tuition or study abroad opportunities.

My kids are the only ones without their driver’s license.

In a room of 100 prospective students, the American coming from Kenya (or Djibouti, depending on how they answered the question “Where are you from?”) stands out.

Dorms are intriguing unless you’ve lived the last five years in a dorm.

TCKs don’t know what they don’t know about American culture and life. College will show them, real fast. Again, ask questions.

TCKs should probably start saying, “soccer” instead of “football.” Sorry.

Americans really, really, really love their pets. Like, really.

American parents tend to hold their kids back in Kindergarten, especially boys, but then they shove them out early through PSEO (post-secondary education) or AP (advanced placement) courses. Ostensibly, this is about opportunity for the kids. A large part of me wonders how much of this is also about boasting opportunities for the parents?

When you are going to college or you have kids going to college, it is like being pregnant. Meaning it is all you talk about. All the time. Every day. All the time. Like, always. All the times. TCKs might get tired of this and might enjoy talking about something else. Like the World Cup. Or international politics or the monkey that swiped their breakfast muffin. In other words, TCKs going to college, like all young adults going to college, are way more than college.

Parents are super nervous about sending their kids an hour away. Their adult kids. I recently heard a mom say that when her daughter didn’t answer the phone for one day, she drove to the campus and searched until she found her daughter and then made her promise to respond immediately to phone calls. Her adult daughter. Who went to school practically down the street. (Parents of TCKs, and myself, be slow to judge. We all need this reminder.)

College campuses are stunning. They are cleaner, more beautiful, and better equipped in terms of restaurants, entertainment, medical facilities, bathrooms, etc, than the country in which we live.

Yes, some people think Kenya is a city near Africa. Even college-bound people. And correct, no one knows what a Djibouti is. Again, sorry. And again, try not to judge. Remember how you didn’t know what broomball was?

Race and gender really are significant topics on college campuses and TCKs, who have grown up in very different racial or gender dynamics, can both offer a unique perspective and will benefit from a parent and also a peer who can help them navigate these topics. Everyone has a lot to learn and that’s a huge part of what college is for.

Enjoy your tours, make the most of them! Take notes on some of the cultural things you notice.

What are some things that helped you and your TCKs explore universities?

Here are a few more resources on college and TCKs:

Janneke Jellema’s essay in Finding Home for advice on transitioning to university as a TCK.

Marilyn Gardner’s book Passages Through Pakistan, especially the last chapter, for help in handling the emotional side of this major transition.

The Global Nomad’s Guide to University, by Tina L. Quick

Should TCKs Take their Parents to College, by Lauren Wells, in A Life Overseas

On Your High School Graduation, by Elizabeth Trotter

Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World

What a season of books for A Life Overseas! I loved seeing Amy Young’s post earlier this week about All the News That’s Fit to Tell. And Elizabeth Trotter released a book recently as well, Hats. Such a privilege to write alongside these wise and creative people. Definitely check out their books!

And I’ve got my own book to share, though it is hardly ‘my own.’ The voices of 24 writers from all over the globe and all manner of experience fill these pages.

It can be easy to box Third Culture Kids into a book or a paradigm, to limit them to their label. But, of course, TCKs are as diverse as the countries in which they live. There are similar characteristics and experiences but there are infinite possibilities for how TCKs will live and respond.

In 2012, on my website, Djibouti Jones, I hosted a guest post essay series about Third Culture Kids called Painting Pictures. The title was taken from Sara Groves’ song, Painting Pictures of Egypt,

I don’t want to leave here
I don’t want to stay
It feels like pinching to me
Either way
And the places I long for the most
Are the places where I’ve been
They are calling out to me
Like a long lost friend…

I knew the series would capture this diversity of experience when I received two particular essays in the same week. One was called, “When an Adult TCK Chooses a Life Overseas.” The next one was called, “When an Adult TCK Does Not Choose a Life Overseas.” The authors had no idea the other had written on this topic.

Other essays covered topics from adoption to re-entry grief, university transition to marrying a TCK. They were written by parents, children, educators, and counselors and we had the immense privilege of launching the series with a post by none other than Ruth Van Reken, who wisely laid the groundwork for defining the term.

At the time, I had just sent two of my children to boarding school. Now, six years later, I am about to launch them back into their passport countries. I revisited the essays and found they resonated on an even deeper level than they had in 2012.

I compiled the essays into a single resource and included interviews and follow-ups with most of the authors. Then, I added action points to each essay, suggestions for how kids or parents or friends or individuals can take the topic and make it personal and useful.

The result, with a gorgeous cover designed by Cecily Paterson (the author of Six Stages of Re-Entry Grief), is Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World.

The book will be released on May 22, 2018.

I personally have two essays in the collection, but feel more like a conduit or a midwife, than an author. It is an honor to bring these wise voices together, from all over the globe, and present them to you.

I would love as many people to be able to access this resource as possible, so to that end, if you pre-order the book, that is order it before May 22, I will send a free copy to the person of your choice. Maybe someone you’d like to start a TCK conversation with, someone who just moved abroad, a family member, an educator, a church member, a coworker, a graduating senior…Of course, you can still get the book after May 22!

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Order the book on Amazon
  2. Email me the receipt (rachelpiehjones(@)gmail(dot)com)
  3. Include the email address of the person you’d like to gift the book to (I promise I won’t keep their email addresses for anything else, just to send the book)

And then, once the book is released, leaving an Amazon review would be totally awesome.

My hope is that these essays would help and encourage TCKs and those who love them as deeply as they have me.

Here are some other great resources for TCKs:

Misunderstood, by Tanya Crossman

Between Worlds and Worlds Apart, by Marilyn Gardner

Noggy Bloggy, a blog by a TCK chronicling with vulnerable honesty his journey with depression, and host of an incredible TCK art series

Home, James, by Emily Steele Jackson, a novel about a TCK

What are some of your go-to resources?