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.
Traveling to far-away places and coping with new surroundings brings about lots of adjustments—adjustments in thought patterns and in ways of doing even mundane tasks. Few know this as dramatically as those who have lived aboard the International Space Station. But you don’t need to venture into outer space to be able to relate to their stories of exploration and adaptation.
National Geographic’s One Strange Rock looks at our planet through the eyes of eight astronauts. The final episode of this, the first season, is titled “Home.” (Watch it here.)
In it, host Will Smith asks,
Where is home? Is it where you were born, where you were raised, or where you are now? Is it somewhere you lived, somewhere you left, somewhere that shaped you? If you really want to know you need to leave them all behind.
One of those who’s left it all behind is Peggy Whitson, who, over three missions, spent a total of 665 days in space—a record for NASA astronauts and more than any other woman in the world. She’s come a long way from where she she lived as a child, a farm near Beaconsfield, Iowa, current population “elevenish.”
As I’ve grown up and gone to college and gone to graduate school, home has expanded from Iowa to Texas to the United States, and since being in space, home is actually planet earth.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield:
One of the biggest changes I noticed within myself as the result of flying in space was that the difference between us and them disappeared. Somehow going around the world in 92 minutes, not just once, but over and over and over again, turned the entire world into one shared place. I think it’s a perspective that seeps into astronauts. I think it’s a perspective that’s kind of good for everybody.
Astronaut Leland Melvin adds,
I truly believe that if more people could have the opportunity to see the planet from space, looking at the rich colors, looking at the fact that there are no borders separating us, we could see that we are truly all connected as human beings
Back to Smith, on reentry:
Ever been on a trip and seen something new, something incredibly beautiful, or something that changed the way you think about things? Now imagine that trip was to space. You’ve seen something that only a very few people have ever seen.
Astronauts need to tell someone, anyone, everyone. Soon they’re ready to go back down, but it’s actually bittersweet. They’re going back to the place that made them, but leaving the place that shaped them.
About her return, Whitson shares, “It was hard to leave because I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.” She starts to choke up and then blurts out, “Jeepers!” and laughs. “But I was all excited about being back home and being back on earth, having, you know, wind, and smelling the air and just being on earth.”
“But coming home isn’t easy,” says Smith. “Mother earth doesn’t exactly welcome you back with open arms.”
Repatriation from space, returning through the earth’s atmosphere, is actually the hardest part of the trip, and setting down on the solid ground of Kazakstan isn’t the softest of landings.
Whitson says, “Most people compare it to a car crash. I would compare it to maybe two car crashes.”
And then there’s the transition from weightlessness to . . . weight. “Wow, space was good,” Whitson says and adds with a smile, “Gravity sucks.”
Though he’s not part of the One Strange Rock crew, Scott Kelly has this to say about the reverse culture stress brought about by gravity:
Back to Melvin, in the National Geographic production:
When I got home from space after getting out of my suit, then to have a meal without the food floating away from you, and being able to pet your dog and talk to your parents fact to face, it made me feel so much more connected to the planet.
Another astronaut, Nicole Scott:
I couldn’t wait to feel what a breeze would be like again, you know, what the smell of grass was going to, you know, smell like again.
It’s the smells of earth, the smell of home, the smells of the natural world, it’s overpowering. It’s kind of overwhelming.
Just because you physically leave the surface of the earth does not mean you leave the earth, because the earth is part of you.
I’m not sure whether I feel more like an earthling or a space woman. I think being a space woman’s a lot more fun.
A few days ago, I heard a new-to-me song on the radio on my drive home from work. As the kids on American Bandstand were wont to say, “It’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to” (and by “dance” I mean “tap my foot”). I liked it so well that I found it on Youtube when I got home and it’s now a standard on my playlist (and by “playlist” I mean I’ve been listening to it over and over again).
The song is “No Roots,” written and performed by Alice Merton, and the part that caught my attention was the chorus, with its, appropriately enough, “I’ve got not roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots! I’ve got no roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots!”
I figured that could mean all sorts of things but thought it sounded kind of Third-Culture-Kid-ish. Sure enough, an internet search told me that Merton’s led a life of international relocation, moving 11 (or 12) times in her 24 years. Born in Frankfort, Germany, she moved to Connecticut, with her German mother and Irish father, when she was three months old. The family later moved to Canada, and when Merton was 13, they returned to Germany—where she learned German and attended high school—followed by another move, to England. Later, on her own, she was back in Germany again, where she earned a bachelor’s degree at the Popakademie (University of Popular Music and Music Business) Baden-Württemberg. (I’m piecing this together from bios and interviews, so I apologize if the details are off. The point is, she’s moved around a lot.)
“No Roots” has done its share of globe trotting, as well, with Billboard reporting that as of August of last year, it had climbed the top-ten charts in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Switzerland. And now it’s crossed the ocean to take on the pop charts in the US, hitting number-one on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs airplay ranking in December.
Merton may not call herself a TCK—or an Adult TCK—but she certainly speaks the language. The lyrics for “No Roots” include
I built a home and wait for someone to tear it down Then pack it up in boxes, head for the next town running
I like standing still, but that’s just a wishful plan Ask me where I come from, I’ll say a different land
with the refrain
And a thousand times I’ve seen this road A thousand times . . . I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground
Merton wrote her first song, “Lighthouse,” when she was a 16-year-old student in Germany. She tells Billboard that the song was born out of her homesickness. “I just didn’t feel at home in Germany at all in the beginning,” she says. “That’s why I kept on searching for this lighthouse, I guess, which would take me back to Canada.”
Years later, her nomadic life once again provided inspiration, resulting in “No Roots.” Again to Billboard, she says,
I was on the beach, and I was just thinking to myself that I have no one place where I actually feel like I’m at home. I came up with the idea of having no roots—never being grounded to a certain place, but having your home with people who you love.
Talking with Tolga Akar, in an interview for a German radio station, she says that writing “No Roots” was helpful in processing her global transitions:
Once I’ve written a song I know how I feel about something. So this whole no roots topic was this topic that was just swimming around in my head, ‘cause I just felt like I just wasn’t at home anywhere. So I guess it’s kind of like therapy, because I only really knew how I felt about not having a home after I wrote that song.
But the therapeutic effect isn’t only in the creation of the song, for Merton, it’s also in the singing. Riff Magazine asks why her feelings of rootlessness didn’t lead to a “sad ballad.” She replies,
Before I went into the studio, I knew I wanted this song to be up-tempo. This topic at the time wasn’t a happy topic for me because I felt quite lost, but I didn’t want to look back at this song and feel sad while singing it, because I needed something that reminded me that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place. I knew that I wanted a hooligan-like choir to chant “roots,” so that it would feel even more uplifting.
If you’re a TCK, or anyone lost and rootless, let “No Roots” remind you “that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place.” Sing along with Alice Merton. She’s got the words and the tune.
Or if it’s more your style, you can join the hooligan choir and holler out “Roots!”—with passion—every time it comes around.
On Wednesday, while we were watching Game 6 of the World Series, I saw a commercial that featured a young girl introducing herself to her new classmates. Her parents met in Texas, she tells them, then relocated to Washington, and she was born at Fort Knox. Next came Georgia and then Korea. “Mmm,” she says, pointing to South Korea on the wall map, “Seaweed snacks.”
Her fellow students think that sounds pretty awful, but my son, who was born in Taiwan, yelled out, “See? See? I’m not the only one!”
She ends her introduction with “And now we live here for good.”
What were they advertising? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find the commercial online and watch it again. I Googled “home ad seaweed.” Google asked if I meant “home and seaweed” and showed me 5 Creative Uses for Seaweed in the Home, from Rodale’s OrganicLife: fertilizer, dietary supplement, East Asian cuisine ingredient, pet food ingredient, and beer additive. It also led me to a Wired article telling me, “This Seaweed-Covered House Is the World’s Coziest Sushi Roll” (“The primary challenge for the designers was turning an unruly weed into a consistent building material”), and The New York Times sharing that “‘Seaweed’ Clothing Has None, Tests Show” (“the labs found no evidence of seaweed in the Lululemon clothing”).
Thinking the commercial might be selling houses, I searched for “real estate commercial seaweed,” but that honed in on “commercial seaweed,” which gave me Grand View Research’s “Commercial Seaweed Market to Reach $22.13 Billion by 2024,” and “The Power of Seaweed, from the Wall Street Journal (“there’s growing evidence that seaweed might fit the bill as a raw material for biofuel, and one Indian entrepreneur is hoping to exploit it”).
No World Series commercial yet, but I didn’t give up. And through some combination of search terms, I found what I was looking for. The ad is from Navy Federal Credit Union and is titled “Here for Good.” I couldn’t embed it, but you can watch it at iSpot.tv.
Have you seen Lion? I actually hadn’t heard about the film until I saw the DVD on the “new” rack at the library. I should have heard about it, though. It didn’t win any Oscars, but it did get nominated this year in six categories, including best picture (obviously, I didn’t watch the Academy Awards).
What a powerful movie. It’s worth watching for anyone, but it is particularly relevant for those who have adopted or are contemplating adopting—especially cross-culturally—for parents with special-needs children, or for adopted children themselves.
Lion is based on the true story of Saroo, a five-year-old boy in India who is separated from his family after boarding an empty train, which takes him hundreds of miles from his home. He spends some time on the streets, is taken in by an orphanage, and ends up adopted by a couple in Australia. After growing up as their son, he begins to recall scenes from his previous life and longs to reconnect with his birth family. But “finding his way back home” is a monumental task.
The film is heartbreaking and uplifting, and not in a simple arc that leads directly from the the first to the second.
In Lion, adult Saroo is played by Dev Patel, who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor. He is an impressive actor, but Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo. . . . he really tugs at your heart. You can get a glimpse of him in the trailer below. Listen to him call for his brother Guddu. Oh boy.
If you plan to watch Lion, you might want to hold off on the second and third videos. They tell most of Saroo’s story, so they’re full of spoilers. One is a Google Earth ad highlighting how Saroo used their product in his search. The second is from 60 Minutes.
If you watch the film, you’ll see that John and Sue Brierley adopted another boy from India, as well. His name is Mantosh. He was severely abused before joining the Brierleys, and he is a troubled soul. His real-life story, so far, lacks the bright edges of Saroo’s, and is darker inside. Ms. Brierley tells Mia Freedman, at No Filter, that Mantosh was “very upset” about how he is portrayed in the film, but she believes it necessary to show his situation realistically, not to gloss over the effects of his mistreatment—effects on him and their family. “It was important for people to see what can happen,” she says, “to face up to the terrible things that are going on, and still to this day, of course.” She adds,
The film for me, takes a lot of people deep, deep to—you know—to a place they don’t go to a lot or choose not to go to—don’t want to go to, don’t want to know about, think badly of.
. . . .
You know some of the stories I’ve had told . . . they’ve just astounded me, you know, the family stories, the things that people have felt they could say after seeing the film, admitting to troubles in their family, in their childhood. So I think it’s a worthwhile thing for people to see.
If you’d like to give towards helping the 11-million children living on the streets in India, watch the video below for information on the #LionHeart campaign.
It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.
We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.
But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.
This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.
What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .
When my wife and I and our four children stepped off the plane in your country, with our 12 carry-on bags—and all our plans, enthusiasm, expectations . . . and naiveté—you welcomed us. In fact, the customs agent greeted us with a smile. And during the following years that we lived among you, we lost count of your kindnesses.
We weren’t refugees, we didn’t arrive on your shores having been forced out of our homes, we weren’t stranded. We had chosen to come. You didn’t find us naked and bloodied at the side of a road, but still you were often good Samaritans to us. When you saw us sitting on the curb, so to speak, facing roadblocks or not sure where we were headed, so many of you did not simply walk by on the other side.
For this we thank you.
To our language teachers who patiently, ever so patiently, led us through vocabulary lessons and guided us on the nuances of your culture, laughing with us but not at us, thank you.
To the food-cart vendors who listened to us practice the names of what they were selling and cheerfully rewarded us with wonderful tasting snacks and meals, sometimes putting something extra in with our order, thank you.
To the policeman who loaded up our family in his patrol car and took us home after we got lost on a walk, even though we ended up being only three blocks away from our apartment building, thank you.
And to the people near our home who didn’t think the worst of a family, who, for some reason, was riding in a police car, thank you.