February 20, 2020 § 1 Comment
I’m from the Midwest. Specifically, I’m from Missouri. You may be surprised to know that my state is a rather cosmopolitan place, with towns named Lebanon, Cuba, Mexico, Paris, Amsterdam, and Cairo.
Lisa Liang, on the other hand, is not from Missouri, or anywhere close by. She has lived in Cairo, though. But her Cairo is the really big one in northeastern Egypt, not the really small one northwest of St. Louis. In fact, one of the reasons she created her one-person show, Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey, was to answer the question “Are you from the Midwest?” that she’d heard so many times.
So where is Liang from? Um . . . yeah, about that.
Liang is a Third Culture Kid, which she defines early on in her show (standing on a chair and in a teacherly voice) as “someone who has spent a significant part of their childhood outside their passport country or in a culture that is not their parents’ culture and doesn’t have full ownership in any culture.” Third Culture Kids, or TCKs, have a hard time answering “Where are you from?”
She labels this section of her play “t/c/k 101,” and her whole performance is something of a class on what it means to be a global nomad (another term for TCK). But it’s not a dry, pedantic lecture. Maybe that’s because it’s more like the show-and-tell part of school. Stepping off the chair, she literally lets her hair down and acts out her “business brat” life, scene by scene, character by character.
Liang was born in Guatemala, to an American mother of European “hodgepodge” descent and a Guatemalan father of Chinese-Spanish descent, with her father’s job at Xerox taking the family around the world—to Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and . . . Connecticut. All the while, as she faced the challenges of changing places, cultures, and friends, she was, she says, “trained by all of the adults around me to concentrate on the positives and never complain.” After speaking this line, she quickly slaps her hands over her mouth, something she does many times during the play to show how skilled she became at silencing herself so as not to offend or stand out.
But the younger Liang had reason to voice her concerns, and as we watch Alien Citizen, we become her sounding board. There are the times when she was called names, misunderstood, threatened, and verbally abused. But there are also the positives of living cross-culturally, and she shares those moments as well. Her stories are rich and funny and painful and heartbreaking. And while they’re unique to her, they will resonate with others who understand the significance of such terms as “home base-ish” and “transition fatigue” and “foreign school.”
Foreign schools. International clubs. Places where expats gather. Those are the kinds of places where Liang spent much of her growing-up days overseas and where many of her stories take place. There was the time at the Churchill Club when she had her first kiss. And then there was the time outside the Moroccan American Cultural Center when two young men verbally and physically threaten her and her mother.
Here’s where I need to include a side note. I have the delusion that my blog is followed so closely by some in the cross-cultural community that they would read my review, buy Liang’s DVD, and immediately start playing it for their son or daughter’s TCK sleepover. To them, I say be aware that Liang’s play includes a few occurrences of the F-word (along with some derogatory epithets aimed at her). One instance is when the men outside the cultural center used it to attack Liang—a more extreme example of what she experienced often as a female walking by herself on the sidewalks of Morocco. Another is a time when she used the word herself as years of emotion burst forth in a moment of road rage while driving in the States.
In a Q&A session after one of her performances, an audience member asks what part of her life is the most difficult part to tell in her play. She answers that it is acting out the harassment in Morocco, being afraid that she’d be accused of portraying all Moroccan men, all Muslim men, in a negative way. But, she explains, rather than painting entire groups with a broad brush, she’s simply telling her stories. “I’m saying what happened to me,” she tells the audience. “That’s all I’m saying.”
When Liang came to the States for college, she was again faced with a culture in which she didn’t fit. Many of her classmates wished they were going to other schools instead of Wellesley, but for her, it was her school of choice. And her roommate was a Christian whom she describes as a “fanatic.” She shows us her roommate screaming out her belief that her Jewish ancestors who died in the Holocaust are in hell. “You don’t know how it makes me feel!” she yells. Liang is stunned by the belligerence and self-centeredness she hears—and claps her hands over her mouth again in horror.
Alien Citizen reminds me of Letters Never Sent, written by Ruth Van Reken, TCK expert and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. In Letters, Van Reken writes to her missionary parents about the difficulties she faced growing up abroad. It is good that Liang has found a way to remove her hands from her mouth and tell her stories. Van Reken agrees. About watching Liang’s play, she writes, “It was profound for all of us . . . brings laughter and tears to anyone who has lived this life or knows others who have. It is a great show, presenting the gifts as well as the challenges.”
In Alien Citizen, Liang gives a vivid, outside-in view of the places where she’s lived, where the mundane becomes exotic and the exotic mundane. There’s drumming on turtle shells during Christmas celebrations in Guatemala, walking barefoot across the road to buy orange Fanta in Panama, wind surfing in Morocco, and riding in a car spinning on the ice in Fairfield County, Connecticut. It’s because she’s given herself “permission to speak of the pain” that she can be grateful for all the wonderful things she’s experienced. And through Alien Citizen, we get to experience it all, too.
Alien Citizen is available for purchase on DVD and for rent in streamable HD. The DVD includes a Q&A with Liang and the director, Sofie Calderon, and interviews with Liang’s brother and parents. There are also institutional DVDs that include a digital study guide with over 35 clips from the film, each followed by questions to promote learning and discussion.
[photo courtesy of HapaLis Prods]
July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
As the daughter of the director of Billy Graham’s North American crusades, Jess Archer had moved 12 times by the time she was 14—going from city to city and country to country. This, she wrote this week in Christianity Today, turned her into “the poster child for generalized anxiety disorder.”
In her article, she groups relocating during childhood with experiencing divorce and being in foster care as “major traumas” that weaken or destroy the concept of home and can lead to “serious anxiety disorders in kids.”
When it comes to describing the trauma of moving, some Third Culture Kids and some TCK parents would agree whole-heartedly; others would say they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. But can we all agree that moving produces anxiety, even if it’s not of the serious-disorder kind?
Archer goes on to give advice on how to ease our children through transitions, including preparing them, taking time to say goodbye, protecting their routines, and praying over them.
I especially like her prayer, offered for an anxious child at bedtime. I like it so much that I don’t mind that she uses the word season (just a pet peeve of mine). I like it so much that I’m praying it for my children. I like it so much I’m praying it for my wife and for myself, and for my friends in transition, too:
God of peace, this child needs rest. Her body is tense and her mind is wired. Nothing in this space feels like home. Good shepherd, loosen the knots of anxiety. Infuse her with hope of a grand design for good in her life. Show her that a new season is coming, and that you make all things new.
You can find Archer’s post, “Too Many Transitions Can Traumatize Our Kids,” at Her.meneutics (Christianity Today, July 25, 2016). And if you’d like to read more of her thoughts on finding stability as a child in a life filled with change, go get a copy of her memoir, Finding Home with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Billy Graham: A Memoir of Growing Up Inside the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (Westbow, 2015).
At her blog, Archer includes the following excerpt from her book:
What people wanted to ask me growing up the way I did was: Can you tell me what it means to have a home? They wanted to ask me, but they didn’t have the language for it, and I was only a child. They thought, How would she know? She’s just a young girl.
Instead, people asked me a standard set of questions: How many places have you lived? Which was your favorite place? Which was the worst place to live? But what they really wanted were answers for their own lives. When I said I didn’t really have a home, they shivered for themselves . . . displacement at the core of every heart. The haunting need to know a place is yours forever, but the deep fear that it isn’t. Because I didn’t have a permanent home, I wrestled better and harder than most adults with the need for one, and by the time I was a teenager I had burned through to an expanded definition.
And amen again.
August 14, 2012 § 5 Comments
The past few weeks have been kind of tough for my wife and me. Not long ago, we marked the one year anniversary of our return to the States after living in Taiwan for 10 years. We assumed that by this time we’d have this next stage of our life on track, but instead, we’ve got a lot of loose ends, still looking for full-time work and long-term housing. As Ruth Van Reken says (talking about Third Culture Kids, but it has broad applications), “Every time there’s transition, there is loss,” and then she adds that “where there’s loss, there’s grief.”
One of the ways I’ve dealt with our losses is by attending a “grief group.” While most of the other people in the meetings have lost loved ones, I have found it very helpful to hear their stories and learn general principles for dealing with grief.
The more I hear the experiences of those who are going through difficult times, the more I’m convinced that good listeners are hard to find—and I’m sure I don’t always fall into that category, myself. Too many people would rather offer quick-fix cliches than to share in another person’s grief. In fact, we even have a hard time accepting our own grief. Grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, in The Journey through Grief: Reflections on Healing, writes about the grieving process,
I must keep opening and changing through it all until I become the unique person who has transcended the pain and discovered self-compassion—a vulnerable yet grounded me who chooses to live again.
“Self-compassion” is an interesting concept, as compassion comes from the Latin com and pati, meaning “with” and “suffer,” respectively. So according to Wolfelt, we must discover how to “suffer with” ourselves.
In a previous post, I quoted Van Reken as saying,
There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.
She elaborated on this idea in a presentation I heard her give several years ago, citing a wonderful example from the New Testament: When Jesus traveled to Bethany after the death of his friend Lazarus, Lazarus’s sister Martha came out to meet him:
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
(John 11:221-27 NIV 1984)
This, says Van Reken, is an example of encouragement, given by Jesus because he knew the needs of Martha. But Van Reken sees herself more as a Mary, Lazarus’s other sister. According to Van Reken, Mary didn’t need encouragement, she needed comfort:
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
(John 11:32-35 NIV 1984)
While both sisters said the same thing to Jesus, he responded to them in different ways. Van Reken, in an e-mail discussion by the SIM AMK Task Force, says that while Jesus “appealed to [Martha’s] reason and gave her truth as information,” with Mary
Jesus entered into her experience with the truth of his compassion and comfort. Words to her would have bounced like icicles on her heart. Didn’t anyone CARE? And He showed, He cared. I love it that Jesus knows us well enough to meet us as the people He made us to be. I love it when He meets others in their way—but sometimes when they try to meet ME in their way, or I try to meet them in MY way, we can clash. I think they don’t care because they aren’t on the floor crying with me, and they think I’m a basket case who needs to look at the facts a little more clearly and I’ll be “just fine.”
I think that many of us are Marys. We need tears of compassion rather than words of reason. And I would suggest that, lacking the insight of the Son of God, we would do well to start with the kind of comfort that comes alongside those who are grieving, instead of trying to pull them out of their grief with our words or actions. There will be time for encouragement, when the griever is ready. For many of us, it’s not that we don’t understand the encouraging truths, it’s just that other truths, of loss and pain and sadness, are demanding our attention, and we push them away too soon at our own peril.
“My process has been hard at times because so much of our system of faith precludes the simplicity of the ‘Jesus wept’ verse,” says Van Reken. “And for whoever I am, those kinds of tears will change more for me than anything else. The problem with a quick spiritual answer is I actually KNOW the answer; I’m just not there yet.”
(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Alan Wolfelt, The Journey through Grief: Reflections on Healing, Fort Collins: Companion Press, 1997, p 42; Ruth Van Reken, “Mary and Martha,” Simroots Open Dialogue)
May 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
The first video below is one I’ve seen posted recently on a couple TCK blogs. It was made by a student at Georgetown University. Really well done. Then when I went to its Vimeo site, I read the comments section and saw links to the three others here. Some have been around for a while, but they’re all new to me. Enjoy:
So Where’s Home? A Film about Third Culture Kid Identity, Adrian Bautista
A short documentary that “explores the unique perspectives and identities of Third Culture Kids, people who have spent a significant portion of their childhood overseas.”
Teaser for Neither Here nor There, Ema Ryan Yamazaki
This teaser introduces a 35-minute documentary, also by a college student, that “investigates the often overlooked effects on adults who had international upbringings, their struggles to fit in and an eternal search to belong.” The full video is available for purchase here.
Trailer for Les Passagers: A TCK Story, Aga Magdolen
This trailer is for a documentary “about Third Culture Kids and their journey to find where they belong.”
Thoughts on Traveling, Sanii Fiina
By another university student, this is kind of a visual, multi-language poem. It’s an “idea based on identity and how different languages can create one nationality… or something like that!”
April 30, 2012 § 12 Comments
In November of 2007, I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation by Ruth Van Reken, co-author, with David Pollock, of the classic Third Culture Kids. One of her main points was that people who have changed countries often don’t acknowledge their losses, nor do they commonly grieve those losses in a healthy way. But because I didn’t take notes (or if I did, they’re packed away somewhere), I don’t remember a lot of specific details from what she said.
Recently I found a couple resources that have helped me fill in the blanks. One was an article in Columbia News from earlier in the same year, in which Van Reken told the reporter about the losses felt by Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids:
Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, “What did you lose?” Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.
And the other was an interview that Expat Women conducted with Van Reken, again in 2007, in which she expanded on this topic:
[T]he challenge that I see keeping some ATCKs from fully using the great gifts their life has offered them is the issue of unresolved grief. There are several key reasons for this.
First it’s the cycle of mobility itself that is inherent in this lifestyle. Although every person in this world suffers loss, the high mobility of the third culture experience increases the number of times significant loss happens. But beyond the obvious losses mobility brings, TCKs have many other unrecognized or hidden losses as well. They can lose an entire world with the closing of an airplane door but because the country isn’t “theirs,” too often no one seems to understand or honor all that is entailed with that loss.
Other times, TCKs do recognize their losses and try to tell their parents or others how sad they are feeling but people tell them they “shouldn’t” feel like that because they have such an interesting life. Or they may remind the TCK of the greater purposes for which they are in this place . . . God, country, or to make enough money to put the TCK through college. At that point, the permission to grieve openly is gone and the child has no way to process it. Oddly, it seems the very richness and benefits of this life create many of these responses which then take away the permission to grieve because we (or others) believe the grief is a sign of ingratitude for all we have received. In fact, the opposite is true . . . we are grieving because we have lost what we loved! It is an affirmation of our lives, not a negation
In addition, another reason many TCKs can’t work through their various losses is simply that well-meaning people (including parents!) often try to encourage TCKs before they comfort them. There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.
This distinction between encouragement and comfort is another aspect of Van Reken’s presentation that stuck with me. It’s a lesson that applies to all of us as we deal with people going through difficult times. And it’s a point that I plan on visiting again here in the near future—especially since I’ve found another article online that shows how Van Reken uses a story from the life of Jesus to teach this point, just like she did when I heard her speak.
Three cheers for Google and Yahoo! As long as I have the Internet, I may never have to take notes again.
(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,'” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; “Expat Women’s Interview with Ruth,” Expat Women, August 2007 [archived at Wayback Machine])