The Pink Bike

by Rebecca Hopkins

In April of last year, I moved away from Indonesia—my home of 14 years—and sold almost everything. And so, in June, someone gave me a pink bike.

I’m not exactly sure who. My aunt and uncle did the very loving thing of collecting used and new items from their friends to restock a home we didn’t yet have for a life of whose shape we weren’t sure.

I’m pretty sure they mentioned the giver’s name. But the problem was, there were so many names and gifts, and I was disoriented from all the changes that the gifts were still hard to take in. I’d traded one set of overwhelm for another.

On the first truly warm week of summer in Colorado Springs, I pulled the pink bike out of the garage of my parents’ house where we were staying. It took some adjusting to get the seat the right height and to figure out the gears. I had to remind myself that traffic flows on the right side of the road in America. But soon enough, I was moving and the wind was flipping my pony tail and my legs pushed strong.

And then, as I rounded the corner, I realized I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years.

The last time I’d ridden was when I was pregnant with my first child, living on a tiny island in Indonesia where my husband worked as a humanitarian pilot for a nonprofit organization. I remember trying to convince myself that the tropical heat, terrible bouts of morning sickness, rough roads, crazy motorbike traffic and neighborhood harasser weren’t adequate reasons to stop riding for a time. But my new motherly instinct won out over my normal risk-taking personality.

I didn’t give up jogging or writing or teaching English to neighborhood kids. But for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t really ride much once I gave birth. And one day—three kids into motherhood—someone stopped by my house and asked if he could buy my now rusty bike. Without thinking much of it, I said yes.

Life filled with kids and culture and small airplanes and jungle adventures and serving and I didn’t really miss the bike. The next time I touched one, I was holding the back of my son’s bike, holding it steady, urging him to pedal, telling him to be brave.

It broke all our hearts to sell my kids’ childhood bikes that last week in Indonesia. The two small crates we were allotted filled up fast. We had a million choices to make, and the bikes just didn’t make the cut.

They’re just bikes, I told myself, while holding my son, watching someone leave our yard with his bike. It’s just a dollhouse. It’s just their baby clothes. It’s just their school table. It’s just a cat.

It’s just a house we’ve loved and a life we’ve built and friends we adore and the only country my kids have called home.

When I learned my uncle had found bikes for my kids, that knowledge kept me going through all the decisions we had to make. I guarded the news from my kids like a state secret so that we could all watch their excited faces at the unveiling once we got to the States. I hadn’t known, though, about the bikes he’d found for my husband and me. But when I saw all five of them lined up, I could see, for the first time, the building blocks of a new adventure.

Getting back on a bike several weeks after our arrival in Colorado was… like riding a bike…except…when it was harder than that. The angles on the roads felt too sharp, my agility less than I remembered it, the air too dry and thin. And when I needed to stop, I couldn’t seem to both jump off the seat and keep my feet from becoming entangled on various bike parts. I dumped it a couple of times, both times while others were watching.  I brushed the dirt off my hands, put on a smile and waved. “I’m OK. Just fine.”

“You always have a lot of energy to move forward,” my sister recently told me. “You’re good at it.”

She has a way of mirroring back who I am in a kind, affirming way.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole nomadic life honing what is probably also a natural part of my personality.  I can keep my eyes on my next step, look for the good in people and places, find ways to connect and put energy into building…building relationships, building a home, building a life. I’ve developed what may seem like a conflicted relationship with putting down roots and uprooting. I’m a wanderer and nomad at heart who intentionally grows roots wherever I land.

I’ve read much about “third culture kids,” this category of highly mobile people who’ve moved in and out of countries and cultures in their childhood. As an Army kid, I was one. Now I raise them. These past few years, I’ve been listening to what others are teaching about them, what I’ve experienced and what my kids are saying.

For all the beauty that a third culture kid lifestyle brings (understanding of and appreciation of a broader world, ability to adapt, a near-absence of prejudices, foreign language aptitude), these kids (and later, adults) know so well the world of loss. Sometimes the losses feel real and present, like loss of bikes and houses and friends and pets. Sometimes the losses are hidden and ambiguous loss, the unseen, hard-to-put-into-words losses such as dreams, confidence, identity and belonging.

For me, it’s actually easier to keep moving, keep building, keep Pollyanna-ing my way through hard things than to stop and grieve. Both taking the necessary time to mourn and also putting energy into moving forward can feel like a balancing act.

In late summer, I joined my dad on a bike ride on Cottonwood Trail at sunrise.  He’s so much better at biking in mile-high altitude than I am. I followed behind his smooth, quick pedaling with my own pumping heart loud in my ears. Soon, I had to shed my sweatshirt, and I stuck it in my backpack with my water and phone. I was still carrying so much else, too. All that was now missing from my life felt heavy. In so many ways, it felt hard to breathe.

“Watch the corners,” Dad coached. “Sometimes there are pedestrians out here, too. Also, be careful of sand.”

The ride was hard and tiring, but also freeing and empowering. And I soon found my own rhythm between pushing myself and pacing myself.

I found a way, too, to both keep my eyes mostly on the trail and also notice the beauty around me. Everything was pink—sky, mountains, rocks, my cheeks. And my bike.

Maybe I was starting to fit here. Maybe, too, I was finding my way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

An Interview with Sara Saunders, Author of the TCK Book “Swirly”

There have been a lot of books written about Third Culture Kids but not so many for them, especially for young TCKs. Swirly, written by adult-TCK Sara Saunders and illustrated by Matthew Pierce, helps remedy that. It’s a picture book that tells the story of a little girl, Lila, who moves with her family overseas, returns back to her family’s “home” country, and then lands at another, new, destination, all the while trying to figure out where she belongs.

Since 2012, when Swirly was published, I’ve seen it displayed at conferences and included on TCK reading lists, but it wasn’t until recently that I purchased a copy to read myself. I also shared it with my wife, and she read the last few pages to our college-age daughter, who’d grown up overseas. It brought tears to my wife’s eyes.

I wanted to hear more from Sara, so I contacted her, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions:

First of all, where are you from? Just kidding! Better question—Where have you lived? Tell us about your cross-cultural experience as a child.

I was born in the United States, which is my passport country and both of my parents’ passport country. We moved to Nigeria when I was almost 8-years old and lived there for ten years. But I was away at boarding school in Kenya most of the time from age 14-18. My parents were missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, serving in a mission hospital. As a young adult I have also lived and studied or worked in the United States, Thailand, Mexico, Nigeria again, Kenya again, Uganda, and now Lebanon.

When did you become aware that you were a TCK—that you had more than one culture swirled up inside you?

I was aware from early childhood that being an MK made me different from the local children where I lived and also different from American children in my passport country. But I did not become aware of the term TCK and apply it to myself until I was a high school student at Maxwell Adventist Academy in Kenya. When I was a junior, a speaker came from Interaction International to explain the concept to us and encourage us in our search for a sense of identity. This was empowering for me. In fact, this is when I first heard the poem “Colors” by Whitni Thomas, which later inspired me to write Swirly.

In her wonderful poem, Whitni writes about being “blue” and growing up in a “yellow” country:

Why can’t I be both?
A place where I can be me.
A place where I can be green.
I just want to be green.

In your book, Lila is a swirl of blue and yellow and “sometimes even blends of green.” Why did you choose this metaphor—of being a combination of several distinct colors—to describe what it’s like to be a Third Culture Kid?

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I appreciated Whitni’s poem a lot just as it is, but I felt like I wanted to acknowledge that the different pieces of the cultures that form a TCK’s mannerisms and values can often be traced to where they came from and don’t all melt into one solid new culture. For example, I have a hard time calling my elders by their first name after growing up among the Yoruba of Nigeria, who have respectful titles for anyone even less than a year older themselves. But it is also important to me for the whole family—father, mother, children of all ages-—to eat their meals together, at the same time and same table, which is the Anglo-American way, not the Yoruba way. I would like to recognize and celebrate the different pieces of my unique culture and where they come from.

Though it’s aimed at young children, Swirly‘s message resonates with parents and adult TCKs as well. What kinds of responses have you received from readers?

Many people have told me that it helped them to understand and affirm their children, their friends, or themselves. I have seen adult men choke up when describing how it touched them. I’m really happy to know that it has helped others to conceptualize the TCK experience and a shared TCK identity with Jesus.

I’ve seen that you’re also wanting to create books for another group of cross-cultural children—those in refugee communities. Can you tell us more about that?

I am passionate about increasing access to books that are developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant for all children in the world. Many children have zero access to children’s books in which they can see themselves represented. In fact, many have zero access to children’s books of any sort. As I write, I am in Malawi working with university students here on a project to create children’s books which are in the local language, reflect the local culture, and teach good values. Two years ago, the university where I work in Lebanon also collaborated for a project with World Vision to create storybooks for refugee children in our region. Refugee children are trying to find their identity as cross cultural kids, and often are also dealing with discrimination from their host communities and grief, hopelessness, and depression in their homes. I hope to inspire others to fill in the gaps so that these children and all other children in the world can have reading material which helps them to become successful lifelong learners through strong literacy skills and life skills.

Swirly is available from the publisher at AdventistBookCenter and from Amazon.

[photo: “Marbles,” by Peter Miller, used under a Creative Commons license]