Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye

airport

“Make sure you say goodbye” I text these words to my youngest son, followed by “It’s important to say your goodbyes.”

He is only leaving for the summer, he will be back on the same campus next year. But it is critical to me to say this to him. I want my children to be able to say goodbyes, to honor them. I want my children to be able to honor their grief, not suppress it as though it is unimportant, as though it will go away and not leave an imprint on their hearts.

I do the same for my youngest daughter. She is graduating from college, ending one stage and moving on to the next. “Say your goodbyes.” I tell her.

These kids of mine? They’ve moved so much. They’ve lived on different continents, in different countries, cities, and communities. And I am desperate for them to know how to honor the goodbye.

Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.”*

It’s March and for the transnational family or child parties and packing will soon fill all the days and worry and tears interrupt the nights. In a couple of months there will be graduations and school endings, job changes and home leaves; home life will be dictated by lists and deadlines. And the unspoken questions will be will we leave in peace, or will we just leave?

And in the midst of all of this it’s easy to forget that grief must be honored and goodbyes must be said. 

So I can’t shout these words loud enough. I can’t speak them clearly enough. I can’t emphasize them strongly enough. Honor the goodbye. Honor the grief that comes with the goodbye.

My bookshelves are filled with books on cross-cultural living, on identity, on belonging, on growing roots in a global world. Every day I think about these things as I read about military brats and third culture kids, kids and their parents who live like bridges between worlds, gathering up their portable lives into suitcases full of mementoes as they move on to the next place. I interact with moms who are worried they are ruining their children, moms who fantasize that life in their birth countries is stable and perfect even as they try to plant roots in countries that are unfamiliar. I connect with third culture kids who never want to move again, who establish their bodies and souls in one place even as they decorate their homes with remnants of their past lives. I also connect with third culture kids who are itching for that next move, that next step – restless and longing in the small towns where they find themselves, unable to see the threads that begin to tie them to these towns.And every day I am more sure of the need to honor the grief, to honor the goodbye. 

And I think about what honoring the grief and honoring the goodbye means. We grieve because we are losing places and people that we love. Each goodbye is a little like death, it’s saying goodbye to permanence and the relationships as we know them. They will change, they have to change. Comfort and hope will have their place, and they are part of the process, but sometimes we need to just sit with the grief before being forced to move on. The global transnational family has developed an amazing capacity to adapt, to move forward, but sometimes we need to just stop where we are and honor that moment, honor the goodbye.

Years ago we moved from one part of the city of Cairo to another, a seemingly small move. But the move still came with loss of connection and community. The kids were leaving their school, we were leaving our neighborhood. We planned to move all our belongings before leaving for the U.S for a home leave. After we returned we would settle into our new space. Part of this move meant giving up our small, red Zastava car. The car was tiny and we barely fit in it but we loved that car. We would arrive places and pile out while others looked on in amazement that we could fit so many children in a car that is smaller than a Volkswagen Bug. The night that we watched another family drive away in our red car my son Joel was inconsolable. I remember walking with him that night, his small hand reaching up to my larger one, and hearing his tears, his sobs. The car was symbolic of this move. “Why do we have to sell our car?” he wailed. Walking beside him I remember part of my heart breaking as well. “I’m so sorry Joel. I’m so sorry.”There was nothing else I could say. I look back at that time and I’m glad that’s all I said. Because in truth, there were no other words.

I think that is what it is like to honor grief. It is sitting with it, not trying to push it away, not providing false reassurance, just sitting. Can we sit with it and let it flow? Can we sit quietly with ourselves or with others and not push an agenda of false happiness? Can we learn that grief is good, grief is individual, grief is rarely nicely organized, grief is physical and emotional?

So if you are one of those people, one of those families that is saying goodbye this June, I offer this: Sit with your grief, let it flow, don’t try too hard to analyze, don’t push yourself or others to some ‘right’ response. Just sit with it. Because as the grief comes, so will the comfort.

And as for your goodbyes? Say your goodbyes. The goodbyes will hurt, they will smart. Like a wound feels when the salty ocean water washes over it, you will brace yourself. But just as the salt in the ocean provides healing so will goodbyes offer healing to your mobile soul.

Are you one who is saying goodbye this year? I would love to hear from you on what you think makes a ‘good’ goodbye. Others, what do you think about honoring grief and honoring goodbyes?

A great resource is the RAFT plan: Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination. Take a look here for details on this.


Now Available – Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey “…a must read for those wanting to build bridges.” Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, American University, Washington, D.C. 

Portions of this book were previously released under Passages Through Pakistan.

This post first appeared in Communicating Across Boundaries.

How a 40 Year Old Camel Changed My Life

 

In the interest of integrity — the title to this post is slightly misleading.

I’ve been reading up on clickbait and I’m just trying to stay current.

Click here to catch up: 33 Clickbait Headlines for Expats — Number 12 Will Make You Gasp

The full truth is the camel (actual picture above) was only a child when he changed my life AND he was not the sole life-changer. There were others. A black pleather book bag, some cheap wooden shoes, and a one peso coin from the Phillippines, just to name a few.

 

Here’s a question: If you’re a global person, how did you get that way?

 

You’ve had this experience, right? Home for the summer. Meet somebody new (feel free to change the proper nouns) . . .

“Hey, I’m Bob.”

“Hey Bob, I’m Jerry.”

“Nice to meet you Jerry, where ya’ from?”

“Uhhhh . . . well . . . I was born in Illinois but now I live in China.”

“CHINA!!! WAHHH. I could NEVER do that.”

I have “literally” had some variation of this conversation one billion times. So if there are so many people who could NEVER do this, what is it about YOU? What makes you so different than the normal people?

And maybe more importantly, can you put “literally” in quotes like that?

The reality is that we’ve all got a different story that led us here. For some, it was a blinding Damascus zap that dramatically reset your trajectory in one afternoon. For others, it was more of a decades-long yearning that finally came true.

Regardless, if you have never sat and processed the previous chapters in your book (that is still being written) . . . you should.

 

I’ll go first, but as I do — HERE ARE FOUR QUESTIONS TO HELP YOU GET STARTED.

 

WHEN DID IT START?

When did you first start showing an interest in global things?

This is where the camel comes in for me. He was a gift from my grandparents who had traveled to the other side of the planet and stopped off to see the pyramids along the way. They weren’t what I would call “travel savvy” but they knew better than to come home without some souvenirs for the grandkids.

Click here to read: The Day Grandma Got Us Kicked Out of Mexico

I know now from my own experience with airport gift-shop, guilt purchases how the trinkets made their way to my cousins, my siblings and me.

I also know roughly how much they cost.

None of that mattered when I was five. They might as well have been The Crown Jewels or the Holy Grail or a real camel. I was giddy.

I didn’t notice it then but I loved those things more than anyone else did. I thought we were all as excited as I was. They just thought I was weird.

 

WHAT TWEAKED YOU?

What experiences stirred your global interest?

I vividly remember riding home on the bus and digging through my new bag (Mom’s yard sale find). It was cheap, used, fake leather with a tag that rocked my world.

“Made in Taiwan.”

Endorphins must have blasted my 2nd-grade brain because I could paint you a picture of that exact moment to this day. I leaped off the bus, ran inside and screamed, “MOM! MOM! LOOK AT THIS!!”

Her response was underwhelming.

“Uh, honey, everything is made in Taiwan.”

Cynic.

It was still a big day for me.

Other world-rocking experiences include but are not limited to:

  • Scrounging through my Grandfathers WW2 memories.
  • Meeting a real live foreign exchange student from a whole other country.
  • National Geographic Magazine.
  • Eating Taco Bell for the first time (don’t even try to steal my joy).

 

WHO WERE THEY?

What people expanded your horizons?

A missionary to the Phillippines handed me a one peso coin at the Mt. Zion General Baptist Church which was located 30 miles into a cornfield in any direction. I was 6 and it was the first time I had touched non-U.S. currency. Another moment imprinted on my brain.

My Grandpa told me one story about meeting a Chinese boy in the war . . . 14 times.

My wife had spent 6 months in Taiwan before we ever met. She acted like it was no big deal. It so was.

 

WHAT ARE YOU GIVING BACK?

How are you influencing the next generation of global people?

Not everyone gets excited about global things. That makes no sense to me but I’ve finally come to realize that I’m the weird one.

I’m good with that but every once in a while another weird, younger version of me pops up.

The kids that go bug-eyed when they find out where we live.

The ones that ask, “how do you spell my name in Chinese?”

The high-seas adventurers who feel like they’ve struck gold when they get their first set of chopsticks.

 

Consider this a challenge to simply keep an eye out for those golden moments and be willing to hang out there for a bit. That’s a solid investment in the future of global people.

 

Alright — I went first. What’s your story? Why are you the way you are?

 

Takes some time and think about it. Comment below.

Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

Ahh, busyness . . . sneaks up on you doesn’t it? Especially this time of year.

Caught me off guard and I’m a bit overrun by cookies, carols and Christmas cheer to pause and post something fresh.

So . . . please accept my apologies and this repost from The Culture Blend.

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year to boot.

Oops, I went home for Christmas

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and thought that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they needed to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You know who you are.

Fetal position?

More homesick than ever?

Pricing airfare again?

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads, it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

What’s your experience?  Have you left and come back?  Flying out this week?    Share your story below.  

The Challenge of Thankfulness

Blah. Blah. Blah. That was my gut reaction when I got this challenge recently.

Identify three things that you are thankful for and start every day focused on them.  See what happens.

In fairness to me — I come from a place where “thankfulness” has been sugar-coated, watered down, sucked dry and beaten to death.  A place where “count your blessings” is an overused, last-ditch, trump card response when we find ourselves paralyzed by another person’s pain.  Where once every November we go around the table and belch out slight variations on the same three platitudes.

“I’m thankful for family.”

“I’m thankful for friends.”

“I’m thankful for money.”

sidenote: we don’t come right out and say “money” but . . . 

So I’m a little jaded on the whole thankfulness exercise and quite frankly “challenges” seem to be spinning a bit out of control too . . .

Ice bucket challenges.

Extreme duct tape challenges.

Bathing in hot Cheetohs challenges.

For real.

People are bathing in hot Cheetos.

I don’t really need a challenge . . . but then two things happened.

One, I got even more jaded about the fact that I was jaded about something like thankfulness. Who gets jaded about thankfulness? What’s next?

Jaded about happiness?

Clean air?

Puppies?

Two, We had a really annoying financial month.

I’ll spare you the whiny, first world problem details but it is one of those “too much month at the end of the money” situations.  You’ve been there, right?

Irritating.

Frustrating.

Stressful.

It was a slippery slope.  One thought spawned another and it didn’t take me long to move from, “we need to be super careful this month” to “do I even make enough money?” to “is this all I’m worth?” to “I’m not getting younger” to “my kids will never go to college and they’re going to end up broke and living in cardboard boxes.”

My stress levels were through the roof and I was feeling strained thin.

Overwhelmed

Undervalued.

Discontent.

So I took the challenge but I was resolved not to make it fluffy. It took multiple days of hard digging to even get close. I waded through the masses of “things to be thankful for” and honestly, I felt stuck in a cliche . . . “I have SO much to be thankful for.”

Blah Blah Blah.

But really . . .  I do have SO much to be thankful for.

Picking three, however, is hard. Here’s where I landed:

 

ONE: I am thankful for the flavor of my family

I LOVE what makes my family absolutely unique. I love the adoption bit. The globe-trekking bit. The China bit. The curly hair. The introversion. The extroversion. The airports. The summers home. The family traditions. The quirks. The journey. The pitstops along the way . . .

This list doesn’t stop . . . ever . . . and it all blends to make something so rich and so good that I can’t hardly stand it.

I love the flavor of my family.

 

TWO: I love the width and depth of my friends.

Easy there . . . I’m not fat shaming.

I have good friends. All over the world. It’s ridiculous.

Friends that I can not see for years and instantly jump in where we left off. Friends that make me laugh until my ears hurt. Friends that I can philosophize and theologize with in such a way that we’ll both feel like we’ve figured out the worlds problems (if only we could get anyone else to listen). Friends that would walk with me through anything but would be the very first to smack me in the back of the head if I stepped out of line.

I love the width and depth of my friends.

And then I got stuck.

Couldn’t find my third one.

Maybe there are just two.

Until one day (in the middle of the hard money month) I was walking to work. My work walk is not typical.

9 kilometers.

Along the ocean.

Stunning.

Seriously. Who gets to do this?

Turns out that question was another slippery slope but it was a much, much better ride. My thoughts jumped from “I’m walking by the ocean” to “I’m going to a job that I love” to “I have EVERYTHING I could ever need” to “I have so much more than I could ever even want.”

I was embarassed of my whininess.

I was waylayed by flavor and width and depth.

And I found my third thankful.

 

THREE: I am thankful for the value of my finances.

It hit me (like a ton of bricks) that I am not in poverty. In my absolute worst financial month I can’t even see the poverty line.  My kids are going to eat and go to school and play with their friends and fight over what to watch on Netflix. Another payday was coming and we were going to make it but even if we couldn’t, we have layer after layer after layer of people who would instantly help us waiting just on the other side of my pride.

This is a hard month.

This is not poverty.

And then it hit me even harder. I am not a billionaire. In my best financial month, I can’t even imagine the billionaire line.

But show me a billionaire as rich as me.

My financial stress doesn’t even compare.  My family gets my attention. I GET to do my job and I love every minute of it. I GET to live cross-culturally and travel and meet people who look at the same thing I am looking at and see something completely different.

“Not fair” took on a whole new meaning and suddenly I felt empathy for everyone who wasn’t me. I’m not saying my money is worth more than a billionaire’s . . . but it kinda’ is.

Nothing had changed.

Different perspective.

So content.

I see the irony and the hypocrisy here.

Family

Friends

Money

Blah Blah Blah.

But it was worth it — to pause — and wrestle with a challenge without involving ice buckets . . . or duct tape . . . or Cheetohs.

Just the challenge of genuine, unfluffy thankfulness.

Tag. You’re it.

Are You OK? and Help! Two Things You Really Need to Learn to Say in Your Target Language

When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.

Are You OK?

The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.

One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.

Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”

It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask caring questions and expect heartfelt responses.

G. K. Chesterton writes, “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” If I could add to Chesterton’s observation, I’d say, “The resident sees what can’t be seen.” Or that’s what should happen. There are many things hidden from the outsider, tucked deep in the souls of the people. And the best way to see behind the curtain is to ask. One of the simplest yet most profound questions we can voice is “Are you OK?” It shows caring. It shows that we know all may not be well, and yet we ask anyway. It shows that we are truly willing to step in and be a part of the community around us.

Help!

The second phrase isn’t a phrase at all. It’s just one word, but what a word it is. It’s a word that became the focus of my thoughts one day because of a leaky air conditioner.

At one point, we lived on the third floor of an apartment building, with a barber shop below that had a fiberglass awning over its entrance. Under normal circumstances, the condensation from our AC unit would travel down a plastic tube to the street. But of course, circumstances rarely seemed normal, and the water from our AC did not drain into the tube. Instead it drip . . . drip . . . dripped . . . and dripped . . . and dripped onto the awning. We knew this because the barber told us. I set out quickly to fix the problem—which involved climbing out on a window ledge and stretching as far as I could to reach the air conditioner. I did this when my wife wasn’t at home, mostly because I didn’t want her to talk me out of it. But as I had to step closer to the edge, clinging to the bricks with one hand and trying to grab the AC with the other, I thought, “What if I slip and end up hanging over the alley by three fingers? How do you yell ‘Help!’ in Chinese?” It simply hadn’t come up in my language class during the unit on common food items at the grocery store.

It’s not that I hadn’t asked for help before: “Excuse me, could you tell me if I’m on the right train?” “Can you help us take our photo?” “Do you have these shoes in a larger size?” But I’d never thought about shouting “Help!” because I’d never before thought about needing to be saved.

It’s an odd thing for a missionary to think about his own need for salvation. Isn’t that what we came to offer? But spiritual salvation wasn’t what I had in mind. I was thinking about the kind of saving you need when you’re deeply afraid, when your child is struck by a car in the crosswalk, when you face a mugger in a dark alley, when flood waters are rising, or when loneliness grabs ahold of you and won’t let go.

Knowing how to call for help, though, is not the same as admitting that we need real, meaningful help from those around us. And it’s not just the security guard or the policeman or the nurse who can answer our pleas. It might be the student next door or the businessman hurrying to work or the homeless lady sorting through the trash, whoever is close by as you dangle from the ledge.

Those of us who go to other countries to help must be able to receive help, too. We need to be willing to rely on those around us, to learn, to take advice, and to share our needs—even our emotional and (gasp) spiritual needs. This, too, shows that we want to be part of the community.

People of the Cloth

We talk about the “social fabric,” and it’s an apt metaphor when it comes to needing and being needed. They’re the warp and woof of community. For many, it’s easier to ask “Are you OK?” than to cry out “Help!” but we must be vulnerable enough to say both, to be able to allow someone to voice what’s wrong before we offer a solution and to be able to acknowledge our reliance on those around us.

Take a look at the tapestry that surrounds you. Do you see yourself as a seamstress or tailor, mending the neighborhood according to a pattern of your own making? Or are you, yourself, a part of the fabric, a thread woven in by the skilled hand of the one who knits hearts together and makes all things new?

It may just be that we need to expand our vocabulary.

[photos: “helping-hand,” by Faith @101, used under a Creative Commons license; “Connections,” by scrappy annie, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Five People Who Shape You the Most

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” (Jim Rohn)

Soak in that for a minute. Think it through. Is it true?

For you personally?

For everyone?

For me it is one of those brilliantly profound and profoundly frustrating statements.

It makes sense. A lot of sense. So much sense that a piece of me instinctively wants it to be wrong — a feeling which increases in intensity the more I hear it. I have a visceral reaction to anything so quotable it shows up everywhere but that’s the world we live in isn’t it?

A world of instant cliches.

I’ve pondered this quote though and I wonder if it applies in the same way for people like you and me. You know . . . the cross-cultural types. Help me out because I’m curious to know if this is just me or if it goes with the territory.

Here is my dilemma. I don’t know who I spend the most time with. I literally do not have an answer for who those five people would be. I’m like a TCK trying to tell you where he is from.

Even if I could identify the top five right now (simply based on time spent together) they would be completely different from my five three years ago . . . and three years before that . . . and three before that.

My life moves in rhythms that naturally divide my closest friendships into sections of time and geography. I have a BFF at every port but I have never seen any of them in the same room (which makes me think that maybe they are all actually the same person . . . or Batman).

I love that part of my life. I really do.

I love that I can travel almost anywhere in the world and catch up with an old friend. I love the “hello agains”. I love the picking up where we left off as if we never left off at all. I love that the only indicator of time passed is our growing kids. I love the reminiscing about the seasons when we did spend most of our time together and I even love the falsely hopeful farewells.

“Come visit us.”

“Oh we will . . . one of these days.”

I also love that I’m building more of those connections right where we are . . . in this season.

I love talking work stuff and figuring out life problems. I love wrestling through the challenges of the transition that never ends with newbies, stayers and goers. I love bumbling through cross-cultural things with other bumblers and I love deep, heartfelt, sincere conversations that lean heavily on sign-language and Google Translate.

But five?

Just five?

In one place?

Can’t do it.

I could narrow it down though, to the five that I HAVE spent the most time with. The five who have impacted me the most. The five who would go anywhere and do anything for me and know that I would do the same.

They are the five people that I WOULD spend the most time with . . . if we all lived in the same country . . . at the same time . . . and they weren’t too busy fighting the Joker.

This cross-cultural life is anything but average but if I can be the average of my global list of five guys, I’ll be in good shape.

How about you?

Do you know your five? Are they all in one place or spread out?

 

When Hard Things Happen Back Home

There is something surreal about being on the other side of the world while major events unfold in your home country.  It leaves you feeling both connected and disconnected at the exact same time.

 

It is 7158 miles (11,520 kilometers) from where I am sitting right now to Charlottesville, Virginia (USA) but there is a part of me that is right there.  Thanks to the marvels of modern technology I can tune in anytime I want.  I can get lost in the news feeds, and sucked into the endless vacuum of clickable links.  If I’m feeling brave I can peek into the opinion pieces which are on the same page as the comedians which are just one careless click away from the babblers which are right next to the loud mouths which hang out with the trolls.

It’s a slippery slope.

The difference though, between my two sides of the planet, is that on this side I have to chase that information.  There is no avalanche of “this just in” unless I go looking for it.  The intensity, the tension, the boiling blood and the inescapable super-charged atmosphere is all taking place on that side. I can see it on my 13 inch screen anytime I want — and I can feel it because it is my home and those are my people . . . but it’s not the same as being there.

Connected and disconnected at the same time.

And as much as this life abroad has taught me to zoom in it has also conditioned me to zoom out.  Like a lot of expats I wrestle with global guilt.  I find myself instantly consumed by the overwhelming events from back home and just as quickly reminded that back home is not the only place on earth where overwhelming events are consuming people.

In the exact same week that a man in Virginia drove a car into a crowd killing a woman and injuring 19 others another man drove a van into a crowd killing at least 13 and injuring 100 others in Spain.

And a mudslide killed almost 500 in Sierra Leone.

And 24 people were killed after an election in Kenya.

And 32 drug dealers were killed in the Philippines.

And dozens were killed in a train wreck in Egypt.

And there were floods in Bangladesh.

And a food crisis in Yemen.

And fires in Greece.

Come on fellow expats . . . tell me I’m not the only one who does this.  In one moment I am caught up in the whirlwind of news from my passport country and in the very next moment (if I’m being totally honest) I’m judging them because no matter how big it is, there are bigger things going on in the world.

Connected and disconnected at the same time.  

And then I realize that I would strongly defend the rights of anyone in Sierra Leone or Kenya or Yemen to be consumed by their own news and less concerned about Charlottesville .

And then I realize that I haven’t extended that same grace to my own people.

And then it hits me that I have also withheld it from myself.

And then my heart aches for my homeland.  Tension.  Intensity.  Frustration.  Empathy.

Connection and disconnection at the same time.

There is something surreal about being on the other side of the world while major events unfold in your home country. 

You who once were far off (disconnected) have been brought near (connected) by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one (connected) and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility (disconnection) by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God (connected) in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (disconnection). And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access (connection) in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers (disconnected) and aliens (disconnected), but you are fellow citizens (connected) with the saints and members of the household of God (connected), built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together (connected), grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.  

Ephesians 2:13-22

The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

People living a life overseas are a special breed.  We don’t so much make sense to the normal people do we?

My family is on the tail end of a whirlwind, six week “home” (finger quotes) visit and we’ve been reminded every moment of it what a ridiculous life we have chosen.

Seriously.  Who does this?

By the time this trip is over we will have changed our entire existence eleven times, each one strung to the next by a 4 to 12 hour road trip on the hottest days of the summer in a car with two children and lukewarm air conditioning.  We will have done countless heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we missed you so much” hellos only to turn right around for equally heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we’ll miss you so much” goodbyes.

We live out of suitcases which seem to be gaining weight as fast as we are.

Every few days we switch to another guest bed, couch,  futon, air mattress or (on very special occasions) hotel.

We’ve learned how to use other people’s washing machines and we leave at least one sock or one pair of underwear at every stop (you’re welcome).

We’ve sat perched like a dog at a dinner table waiting for someone to ask for a China story and we’ve fine-tuned our skills of pretending we’re not disappointed when they don’t.

We’ve successfully dodged knock-down, drag-out political battles over issues we probably don’t care about, full on relational melodramas with people we barely know and annoyingly offensive jokes about Chinese food and cats.

Hygiene still matters but I’m not even sure what day yesterday was . . . let alone whether I showered or not.

For weeks we have been “ON”.  Big smiles.  Happy faces.  Intentional eye contact from the moment we landed — and we had jet lag that day.

It’s exhausting being “home” — and to be honest the whole life overseas thing can feel equally chaotic at its most settled points.

BUT . . .

I’m learning that there is such a fine line between chaos and rhythm.

Trips “home” would feel like total mayhem to any normal person . . . but we covered that right?  We are so not normal.

I love that the longer we do this the more pages there are in our story are filled with 3 am, jetlag induced Daddy-Daughter milkshakes at any place open.

It has been rich beyond words to pick up right where we left off with dozens of “hello again” friends and we’ve got this whole switching from cousins in one place to old friends in another thing to an art form.

We are expert packers, flexible sleepers, versatile launderers and accomplished lip biters.

We know how to deflect awkwardness and my kids intuitively sense when family at one stop would be horribly offended by things that were fun at the last.

Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.

We are good at this.  We have found our rhythm and in some confusing way a part of our stability IS the movement.

If that makes no sense at all . . . congratulations . . . you might be normal.

If it does . . . you’re probably living a life overseas.

 

On Home and Keeping Place

Longing for home

“Home is a human place. Instinctively, each of us, male and female, knows the sound of its welcome – and the joy of our possible return.

This community knows the challenge of creating home in odd spaces and places around the globe. We also know what it is to be homesick, to long for familiar sights and sounds, to occasionally cry during the dark of night, reaching out to a God who created place.

In her newly released book, Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel writes about this human longing. The back cover eloquently conveys what the book extends to the reader:

“Keeping Place offers hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded,and a new vision of what it means to live today with our longings for eternal home.”

I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Keeping Place. Throughout my reading, I thought about my upbringing, as well as the many moves I have made in my adult life. I also thought about this community and the ways we leave one home and create a new one, always aware that in home and place, the temporal and the eternal meet.

I asked Jen if she would meet with our community here at A Life Overseas and talk about the book – which really means have a conversation about home and place.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Can you give us a sense of how you came to write a book about place and home? 

I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. This is partially because we were a very typically mobile American family during my childhood: my dad chased the tail of opportunity, and we moved for those opportunities. And although I wanted to give a more rooted life to my own children, we’ve also moved a lot for my husband’s career, including a move to Canada six years ago.

But it’s not just mobility that has left me longing for home. I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s these life experiences that springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book.

You currently live in Toronto, Canada – a place where you didn’t grow up and a country where you don’t legally hold citizenship. How has living where you are a guest shaped your view of home?

It’s now been six years that we’ve had no permanent immigration status in Canada, so I’m writing about home from the “stranger” perspective, for sure. In an ex-pat life, the longings for permanence and belonging are particularly acute, and it’s easy, of course, to nostalgically think of the place we’ve left behind as the home that would settle those longings.

But truthfully, I’ve realized in writing the book that these longings aren’t just characteristic of the ex-pat life. It’s not as if we’re the only ones to feel dislocation in this world. No, I think it’s most true to say that exile is the human experience and has been since Genesis 3 when we left the Garden behind. This exile can be dislocation geographically, but it can also be estrangement in our relationships with others and most importantly, with God.

What truths (characteristics) of God did you learn through writing this book? 

Probably most importantly, I’ve begun to see God is as “homemaker.” That word tends, for many Westerners, to connote a woman who abandons career to stay at home with her children, and this conception has given us a very narrow view of homemaking. But to look carefully at the arc of Scripture (which begins and ends at home) is to see a homemaking God. At the very beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. “It is good” is a way for God to say, “It is homelike. People can live here.” And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.

For me, a view of God’s homemaking inspires a whole new affective quality to his work of redemption. It’s not just that God has sent Jesus so that he can “acquit” sinners in a kind of impersonal legal transaction. It’s that God has made His own Son a stranger for our sake.

Salvation isn’t just pardon: it’s welcome. It’s homecoming.

In Keeping Place, you speak of God as a “housekeeping” God. How did you come to this description? 

I didn’t expect that “housekeeping” would become as big a theme in the book as it did, but I started to see that it was a word that could make sense of the tension between the “now” and the “not yet.” In one sense, we are experiencing “home” with God now through the work of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In other sense, we’re waiting on “home”—groaning, along with the rest of creation, to see this broken world put to rights. Housekeeping is a word that seemed to speak to the activity of the in-between. In other words, we may not have “home” in the fullest sense of that word, but we do have the “housekeeping”—the call to embodied, emplaced acts of love in the world.

I think we can fairly say that housekeeping is work that God himself took up through Jesus Christ when he took on flesh and entered the world, eventually to suffer death. He didn’t love at a distance. He implicated himself in the world’s grief. As the prophet Isaiah says, Jesus was a suffering servant.

This is what I’m thinking of when I say that God is not just a homemaking God but a housekeeping God.

How has Keeping Place shaped your practical view of home?  

As I’ve just said, “housekeeping” is a concept that became central to the book and has been very meaningfully to me personally. In my own experience, displacement has sometimes left me feeling stuck. To feel impermanent in a place, it’s easy to choose disinvestment and to idealize the “far” over the near. Housekeeping is the word that draws me back to the near. Who is God calling me to love and serve in the place that I’m in? What is the particular suffering of the people closest to me—in my family, my neighborhood, my city? And to borrow from Henri Nouwen, what are ways that God is moving me into the role of the prodigal father in order that I might express his love and welcome? I can get stuck in my own feeling of homesickness—or I could work to help others discover the gospel promise of home.

Housekeeping is also a word to remind me about the nature of love. It’s not usually going to be glamorous. It’s often going to go unnoticed and unappreciated. It is never a once-and-done work. But when the church of Jesus Christ takes up the “housekeeping” for their cities, when we do it for the love of God and love of neighbor, I believe we witness to the reality of a homemaking God and a permanent, eternal home.

In the article “Refugees don’t need your pity” the author says this: “Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” How does Keeping Place address this statement? 

In Keeping Place, I’ve tried to say that all of humanity is suffering from homesickness. If we acknowledge the three biblical dimensions of home that I draw out in the book (home as geographical connection, home as social bond, home as friendship with God), then at some level, we’re all feeling rootless. We’re feeling displaced. We’re all suffering the nostalgia of what was lost in Genesis 3. This could be because we’ve moved. But it might also be that our parents are divorced or we’re spiritually unmoored.

One temptation that Christians often face is to downplay home as geographical connection, which is why I do want to say that physical rootlessness is a very real grief in our age. We don’t have the connection to land that previous generations did. Wendell Berry is a contemporary novelist, who draws out the kind of suffering this produces. It’s easy sometimes as Christians to approach home in a very “gnostic” way: we make it mean our connection with God or human community. But from Scripture, I don’t think we can avoid that place is a very important dimension of home. When the kingdom of God comes to earth, we’re not going to live ghostly lives in the clouds. We’re going to live embodied lives in a city.

The gospel gives credence to the importance of physical place and roots.

The ALOS community is a community that knows what it is to pack up their luggage, homes, and hearts. How might your book on home encourage them? 

I’d go straight to chapter 4 and the story of Jacob. When I was studying the life of Jacob, I was so fascinated that the Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, called him a man of the “liminal places.” Alter was the one who helped me see that every time we find Jacob in the book of Genesis, he’s at a border of some kind.

Who’s meeting Jacob in all of these in-between places? God. God himself. God is the stability that Jacob doesn’t have. I can’t think of a more consoling thought for those of us whose lives have included a lot of packing up, crossing borders, and leaving things behind.

Someone is there to meet us on that journey. And one day, he’s bringing us home.

___________________________

jen michel

Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place. She writes widely for print and digital publications and travels to speak at churches, conferences, and retreats. Jen holds a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She is married to Ryan, and they have five school-age children. Their family attends Grace Toronto Church (Canada). You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel.

Dear Life Abroad — I’ll keep my identity, thanks.

“Loss of identity.”

It makes every list doesn’t it?  Right near the top.  Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.

When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column.  In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.

“Adventure that will change your life forever.  Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods.  Community like you’ve never experienced.  Frequent flier miles galore.”

“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through.  New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.

I get it.  I really do.

I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.

I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.

I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).

MY LIFE ABROAD HAS NOT TAKEN MY IDENTITY FROM ME.

On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity.  Stretched it.  Molded it.  Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.

 

Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.

 

ONE:  EVERYTHING WE DO CHANGES OUR IDENTITY

It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does.  The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.”  We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.

Everything changes us.

College.  Job.  Marriage.  Kids.  Accomplishment.  Tragedy.

All of it becomes a part of who we are.

 

TWO: YOU ALWAYS GO FORWARD — YOU NEVER GO BACK

Here’s where I think the rub is.  I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.

Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum.  It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds.  We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.

Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.

So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not.  In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.

Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.

College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.

That would be a loss of identity for sure.

 

THREE:  YOUR “LIFE ABROAD IDENTITY” IS WORTH HOLDING ONTO

Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad.  I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.

Here’s a clue:  It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.”  That comes later.

It’s NOT,  “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.”  That’s a big one but it’s not number one.

Ready?

It generally goes something like this:  “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be.  I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”

That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me.  It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.

Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.

They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.

 

For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.

Anyone else?

 

 

Ten Things I Love About Christmas Far Away

christmas-in-china-2Cue the music.  Sing it with me.

“Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams”

Stop.

What a sad, sad song.  “If only in my dreams?”  This guy spends the whole song building up the joy and jubilation, which is the magical connection between two foundationally emotional concepts — Christmas and Home — only to finish with, “yeah, probably not gonna’ make it . . . but I’ll be thinkin’ of ya'”

He is obviously one of two things:  An absolute jerk . . . or an expat.

It makes sense for those of us living a life overseas doesn’t it?  Christmas can be hard when you are oceans away dreaming of everything that you connected with in your formative years.

I’d be lying though . . . if I said there weren’t some things that I love about Christmas abroad.  Don’t get me wrong . . .

I miss my family.

I’d love to be home.

But . . .

Here are Ten things I love about Christmas far away:

ONE:  It’s a one stop Christmas

I’m sticking my neck out here so I’m gonna’ need an “amen” from an expat who gets me.

Bouncing between my side of the family and her side, trying to hit everyone who matters and several who don’t, scheduling around the mayhem of other people’s busyness and stressing for weeks in the hopes to connect with every inlaw, outlaw, cousin, nephew, niece and new boyfriend MAY be worth it in the end.

BUT — I for one enjoy noticeably less chaos on this side of the world.

TWO:  Stores are open

This is significant for a chronic procrastinator like myself.  There is nothing as sobering as the realization that your gift options have been reduced to the VERY BEST from the beef jerky section of the 24-7-365 truck stop because it is the ONLY place open at 11pm on December 24th.

That will never be an issue where I live.

THREE:  Reduced Christmas politics

I can’t even keep it straight anymore.  If I say “Merry Christmas” it means I hate Muslims but if I say “Happy Holidays” it means I quit loving Jesus?

Something like that.

I love being in a place that doesn’t get quite so offended by my attempts to spread good cheer.

FOUR:  Extended Holiday

This one is region specific to be sure but I think I’ve landed the perfect gig.  We get two days off for American Thanksgiving which kicks off the Christmas season.  Then we get two weeks off for Christmas, go back to work for a couple of weeks and get TWO MORE WEEKS off for Chinese New Year.

Anyone looking for a job in education and want to move to China?  Call me.

FIVE:  More cookies for me

I happened to marry the best cookie maker on the planet (no offense to all other earth residing cookie makers).  Living abroad has significantly reduced the number of Christmas parties, open houses, bake sales and “cookie exchanges” that she needs to engage in.  There is still no small demand for her baked works of art but in an average December my hand gets slapped 86% less overseas.

I’ll take it.

SIX:  New traditions

New traditions?  Is that an oxymoron?

I love the new customs that have become a part of our family simply because we have been forced to figure it out.  No life-long routine.  No pre-set expectations.  No safety net.  That’s where creative parenting comes alive.

Don’t tell my kids we’re figuring it out as we go.

SEVEN: New traditions part 2

It’s not just MY traditions.  I love that because of this beautiful life overseas I now have friends from every corner of the globe.  One of the great conversations among nations is “what do you do on special days?”  It brings a rich understanding of the birth of Christ to learn how the rest of the world celebrates it.

EIGHT:  Satisfaction

Anyone can pull off a flashing lights, tinsel strewn, jingle bell Super Holiday when you’ve got access to to the mega-Christmas wholesale mart and the 10,000 acre tree farm . . . BUT . . . try decorating for the birth of Christ inside of a Communist superpower.  Then you’ll know you’ve nailed it.

Again.  My wife.  Amazing.

NINE:  A fresh perspective on the old, old storychinese-nativity

I thoroughly enjoy seeing the narrative of the birth of Christ outside of the narrative of my passport country.  There is something rich about God becoming man accompanied by the realization that not all men think and act like I do.

I love seeing God through the lenses of people who are not like me.

TEN:  Jesus is Jesus, wherever you live

That’s all.

Merry Christmas.

 

Cumin Lamb and Cigarettes: A College Bound TCK Looks Back as He Looks Forward

k-fam-4

Just three weeks before we moved to China we celebrated with some of our very best friends.  Their son was turning 7 (that’s him totally owning the noodles).  We partied like we were shipping out tomorrow (even though we still had several days left and we were taking a plane).

The ironic twist to that story is just four weeks before we moved to China we had never met any of them.  That’s how instant our connection was.  They were Lifers from the get-go and while I could write volumes about the adventures our two families have had since then I’m actually going to let the 7 year old write this one.

He’s headed to college next year.

In response to an essay question on The Common Application he beautifully exposed the heart of a TCK, with the poignancy of his mother (who is an artist with words) and the clarity of his father (whose passion, expertise and life’s work it is to help ministries and missionaries tell their stories).

Here’s a glimpse into a brilliant young mind, shaped significantly (in his formative years) by life abroad.

The Question:  Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.  If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Zach’s Response:

My childhood was three years long and a few city blocks wide.

The first seven years of my life remain in my memory as a misty blur of brick townhouses and on-brand cereal, highlighted by space themed 4th birthday donuts, and hours of self-driven multiplication tables with my dad.   

k fam 6My clearest memories began when my parents announced that we were moving. Twelve assorted suitcases and plastic bins later, we arrived in Tianjin, China with a week of jet lag and no language skills whatsoever. It was here, among 15 million other souls, that I found my childhood home.

Our 1000 square foot flat perched at the top of a six-story apartment building, where we lived alongside a jumble of first year expats like ourselves and 100th generation natives. Behind our building, a patch of green peeked out of the ubiquitous smog-gray, a miniature Central Park nestled in an oversized New York.  This haven, affectionately called “The Garden” was a motley collection of tree-like shrubs that had gotten lost on the way to Mongolia, and hesitantly blossomed each year for a month or so before succumbing to some combination of acid rain, dust, and icy slush.

Beyond the rusting gates of our complex, which were emblazoned with the fading characters “Fù Kāng huāyuán (Fu Kang Gardens)”, were streets crowded with vendors, pedestrians, grocery laden bicycles, and lawless taxi cabs.  Cigarettes sprouted like tiny smokestacks from the mouths of men playing chess at street corners, and plastic bags rolled by like urban tumbleweeds.  When Chinese New Year rolled around, the newly comforting sights and smells transformed into a thunderstorm of fire crackers, which rang out from every alley and market for two weeks, driving us (along with a host of evil spirits) back into the familiar shelter of our home.  We were strangers in a strange land, an ocean away from the suburban cul de sac that we had left behind.

Needless to say, Noah (my younger brother and best friend) and I spent countless hours inside our shared room, on a floor strewn with two generations of Legos, free from the bounds of reason. Our stuffed animals waged war: with weapons ranging from clusters of magnets dropped from Noah’s top bunk to legitimately dangerous Lego cannons.  While our CEO-destined, Korean classmates left our international school for an evening of tutoring to learn the ways of the real world, we got lost in our own worlds.

k-fam-3Most of what I remember from my three years in Tianjin is composed of oddly specific memories supported by a terabyte of photos. My family holds onto these memories like relics, because of how defining they were for each of us individually and as a family.  The term for people like me and my siblings is TCK (third culture kid).  Our home culture is neither American nor Chinese, but a hypostasis of the two.  I am not Chinese-American (my sister is), but Chinese and American.  Even as the last remnants of my meager Chinese vocabulary fade, leaving behind only the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”, my childhood in Fu Kang Gardens will continue to define who I am.

I am Zach Kennedy (Zhā kǎ lǐ), and my most heart wrenching nostalgia comes from the the taste of cumin seasoned lamb and the smell of cigarette smoke.

k-fam-5

That’s Zach (second from the left) without noodles looking all collegiate.  Noah the Magnet Bomber on the left, Hannah (the Chinese-American) out front and Mia on the right.  Dan and Sara now live, with these four amazing TCK’s, in Richmond, Virginia (USA) where they practice getting more photogenic every day.

If this post strikes a chord send Zach a note in the comments below and wish him well on what comes next.