When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back [—at A Life Overseas]

Our pictures are on the walls!

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. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .


Sorry—No Ifs, Sos, or Buts

139499559_0248586250_nIf you were following the news a couple weeks ago, you got to hear a great example of a straightforward, unequivocal apology from MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry. Earlier, on her show, she and her guests had made fun of a photograph showing Mitt and Ann Romney with their 21 grandchildren. The subject of their jokes was that everyone in the photo was white, except for the adopted African-American baby sitting on Mr. Romney’s knee.

In a tweet following the show, Harris-Perry wrote, “I am sorry. Without reservation or qualification. I apologize to the Romney family.”

That kind of an apology is hard to come by. It’s hard to get, and it’s hard to give. But it’s the kind of apology necessary for healthy repentance and healthy relationships—and for healthy good-byes.

R is for Reconciliation

In their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Third Culture Kid experts David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken advise that those transitioning from one country to another should build a “RAFT.” The four parts of that raft are

  • Reconciliation
  • Affirmation
  • Farewells, and
  • Think Destination

“Reconciliation,” say the authors, “includes both the need to forgive and to be forgiven.” And this forgiveness is especially important preceding a move across time zones and oceans.

When transitions approach, those leaving—and those staying—have a small window of opportunity for a face-to-face healing of wounded relationships, a window that gets smaller as the departure gets closer. That’s why apologies become more and more necessary, even at a time when they may seem more and more difficult.

But simply deciding to say “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, because not all apologies are created equal. In fact, we live in the age of the “non-apology apology.” When you say, “I’m sorry,” do you add on any qualifiers? Do extra words reveal your true feelings?

Or do your words of remorse stand on their own, with no ifs, sos, or buts?

No Ifs

The “If” apology is probably the most popular way to get out of a full confession. It goes something like this: “I’m sorry if my choice of words offended you.” What that says is “If my words offended you, then you must be very thin skinned. You should not be offended by what I said, because it wasn’t really offensive. But because you are upset, I would like you to know that had I known I was dealing with someone as sensitive as you, I would not have said what I said . . in your presence.” When this kind of apology is given, is there any real doubt in the speaker’s mind that someone is offended, hurt, etc.?

No Sos

Sos aren’t usually spoken—unless we’re particularly brazen—but they appear when we require something in return for our apologies. If they were actually to emerge from the recesses of our hidden motives and be vocalized, we might say, “I’m sorry . . . so now I’ll listen while you tell me there’s nothing to apologize for,” or “I’m sorry . . . so you need to stop blaming me,” or “I’m sorry . . . so you’re sorry too, right? (I’m more than willing to meet you halfway. That is the way it works, isn’t it?)”

No Buts

By definition, but means that what comes second is going to contrast with what came first. Sometimes the I’m sorry is just a way to softly introduce the “truth”: “I’m sorry, but you had it coming to you.” The but can also announce excuses: “I’m sorry, but I was really tired.” It can spread around the blame: “I’m sorry, but I’m not the only guilty party here.” Or it can even pass the buck on to all of humanity: “I’m sorry, but anyone else in my situation would have done the same thing. (And any reasonable person would agree.)”

Sorry Does Seem to Be the Hardest Word

It’s difficult to apologize without tacking on a weasel word or two, to just let our “I’m sorry” resonate in silence. I should know, as I’m guilty of using every kind of disclaimer above myself, several times. I’ve also left apologies unsaid.

So why is it so hard?

Maybe it’s habit. It’s easy to fall into old patterns, in particular when we’re under stress. And few things are more stressful than voicing an apology that’s been a long time coming. If you don’t want it to come out wrong, you might need to practice beforehand.

Maybe it’s self preservation. A real apology leaves us truly vulnerable. We have to drop our guard and be willing to take our licks.

Or maybe it’s because of the word sorry itself, coming from the Old English sarig, meaning “full of sorrow.” Today, sorry can range from a deep, sorrowful regret over something said or done to a simple usage that means “excuse me,” such as when we’re walking through a crowded hallway. And we also use it to express our sympathy for someone else’s sorrow, as in “I’m sorry for your loss.” I think it’s this last usage, in the context of an apology, that often get’s us in trouble. As with several examples above, our words sound less like “I’m sorry that I wronged you” and more like “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Regardless of why it’s hard, it’s worth the effort. We need to mend relationships, and we need to bring healing to our own hearts. And we need to do it as soon as possible, so we don’t have to try to work it in at the airport.

And one more thing. There’s no guarantee that the person on the other end of an apology will forgive us. In fact, the deepest apologies come when we don’t think we deserve to be forgiven. And the greatest relief comes when we receive forgiveness anyway.

A Final Disclaimer

Maybe I’ve stepped on some toes with this post. I apologize if you’re bothered by what I’ve written, but sometimes I have a hard time getting my real meaning across, so please don’t think that any of it was on purpose.

I guess what I’m trying to say is “I’m sorry.”

Well, no. Not really.

(Melissa Harris-Perry, “An Apology from Melissa Harris-Perry,” MSNBC, January 4, 2014; David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[photo: “Sorry!” by Andrew Yee, used under a Creative Commons license]

An Oscars’ Shortlisted Film on a TCK’s Long “Road Home”—Watch It Online


It’s not easy being shortlisted for the Academy Awards, but that’s what Rahul Gandotra did in 2011 with his live-action short film, The Road Home.

A Hidden-Immigrant Story

Gandotra was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and grew up in eight countries, spending time in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the US. He attended the University of Michigan and then got an MA in film directing from The London Film School. For his master’s thesis, he returned to Woodstock, a boarding school in the Himalayas, to shoot The Road Home. When Gandotra attended school there in the 10th grade, his class of 52 had students from 26 countries.

The Road Home tells the story of Pico, a Woodstock student who runs away from the school, hoping to get to the airport and return to London. Pico looks Indian on the outside, but on the inside, he is British. He doesn’t speak Hindi, and the culture is foreign to him. He is a “hidden immigrant” who desperately wants to escape this assault on his identity.

In an interview with Jedda Blog, Gandotra says that while he was filming in India, he was introduced to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds. “That book described me really well,” he says.

I realized these are the type of people I am making the film for and that this film is for anyone who questions where they are from, at any time of their life. Any one who has had an outsider experience or has left their country can relate to this movie.

Later, when Van Reken previewed The Road Home, she wrote the following on the film’s IMDb site:

Just three weeks ago, I watched as two people watched this with tears of both joy and sadness streamed down their faces. Joy that what they had felt but been unable to articulate for their whole lives was finally given voice. Sadness as they identified so deeply with the pain Pico feels when others assume who he is by outward appearance rather than by his life experiences.

They also understood only too well how the frustration Pico felt of not being known by other [sic] as he knows himself to be and how that frustration comes out in a way others see as anger instead of pain. . . .

Best of all, The Road Home reminds us of one of the most fundamental truths for our globalizing world: until we know each person’s story, we cannot make judgments of who that person is regardless of skin color or apparent ethnicity. That’s why this film is so needed and important.

Watch The Road Home for Free

At the film’s website, you can enter your email address to receive a “sampler” packet of commentaries, interviews, web resources, and—best of all—a link to watch the entire 23-minute film online.

In Gandotra’s “Welcome” clip, he tells how Van Reken was instrumental in getting the packet put together. When he sent the video to her, he was, he says, “floored and shocked by what she said.” She wanted him to put the film on DVD so everyone could see it, and even though he was busy with the film-festival circuit she persisted. “She felt,” he says, “that she had the right to literally push and harass me into making this DVD. . . .”

He demurred, but it did no good. On her own, Van Reken recruited people from around the world who created a set of resources for the sampler packet. The final result is the full professional version of the DVD (available for purchase here).

One of the highlights of the packet is a 5-minute commentary on the film, with Van Reken, Gandotra, and Third Culture Kid expert Heidi Tunberg talking about TCKs. The professional DVD includes an additional 92 minutes of commentary.

Gandotra is currently working on a feature-lengh film based on the story of The Road Home, calling it a “a coming-of-age, adventure road movie.” In the new version, Pico runs away from Woodstock with Rachel, an American female classmate. The two come to the attention of a terrorist organization that wants to kidnap them. As they are pursued across India, Rachel discovers the nation, while Pico discovers his own identity.

Gandotra’s “Feature Preview” page says, “Although the feature script is faster paced than the short, it stays true to the ‘flavor’ and themes of the original film.” I look forward to hearing more about this longer version, and I hope to see it someday.

I also hope that amid the chase scenes it does, in fact, hold on to The Road Home‘s poignant insights. Because it is Pico’s inner journey—as he tries to reach the airport—that brings the most power to his search for home.

(Emily Rome, “Oscar Shorts: An Autobiographical Journey in ‘The Road Home,'” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2012; Zareen Muzaffar, “The Road Home. An Exclusive Interview with Director and Film-maker Rahyl Gandotra,” Jedda Blog, October 2013; )

[photo courtesy of The Road Home / Rahul Gandotra]

These Newsletters Aren’t Sent Either

3742918775_f3b2aee5be_mRuth E. Van Reken’s honest revelations in Letter’s Never Sent has me thinking about all the missionary newsletters I’ve written and read. Missionaries are a good group for emphasizing the positives and putting a good spin on the negatives. Newsletters just aren’t a safe place to share deep struggles, especially when many of the readers are current or potential donors.

I’m not saying that every newsletter should be filled with pain. I’m not even saying that every missionary has enough pain to fill a newsletter. What I am saying is that if the only things you know about missionaries come from newsletters, presentations, and answer-the-routine-questions conversations, then you don’t know the whole story. And what I am saying is that if you are a missionary who is hurting, you are not alone in what you’re going through.

In fact, if you’re any kind of cross-cultural worker or a Third Culture Kid or a trailing spouse or an expat or a repat or a soldier overseas or a family member left behind, and if, at one time or another, any of the following could serve as a heading for your next newsletter or blog or prayer update . . . believe me, you are not alone.

Nobody cares.
God has been silent for a long time.
This was a mistake.
I’ve changed, and I don’t like who I’ve become.
I feel betrayed.
I’m overwhelmed.
I don’t care anymore.
I think I’m going crazy.
Where is my joy?
I wish I could die.
I feel like a failure.
I’m afraid.
I’m lonely.
I’m angry.
I’m disappointed in myself, and I think God is, too.
I don’t belong.

Let me say it one more time: If this is where you’re at or where you’ve been, You are not alone.

And I hope you’re never, ever left to feel as if you are.

[photo: “Creativity,” by Mark van Laere, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Letters Never Sent” but, Thankfully, Published Instead

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken125933835_e355fbcad2_m first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

Following her experiences as a Third Culture Kid, born to missionary parents in Nigeria, and later as a missionary to Africa herself, Van Reken wrote a series of “letters,” to her mother and father, and to God, expressing feelings that earlier she wasn’t able to fully share.

While it would be easy to assume that the details of Van Reken’s story are dated—the book begins with her trip to boarding school in 1951—her expressions of honest emotions cut through the years and show the wonderings and pleadings of a heart that beats in many missionaries and their children today. But it is a heart that is all too often hidden and quieted.

One of the feelings voiced by the young Ruth Ellen is guilt . . . guilt that her inner thoughts are a betrayal of her parents’ calling. During her high-school years, she and her sister stayed in the States, while their parents returned to their work in Nigeria. As her mother and father’s departure nears, Ruth Ellen fights with her emotions, writing in a “never sent” letter:

If I throw myself into your arms and sob my heart out, it might keep you from going. And even though that’s what I want, how could I ever bear the guilt of being the one who kept you from doing God’s work? I’ve always vowed I wouldn’t be one of “those kids,” the kind that other missionaries talk about in whispers, with a sad shake of their heads. “So-and-so couldn’t come back to the field because of their children.” They must be pretty bad kids, I’ve always figured. I don’t want anyone to say that about me or our family.

And I can’t very well come to God with this because, in a way I feel like it’s all His fault.

Years later, as Ruth Ellen ponders her approaching wedding to David Van Reken, she expresses a distrust of God, developed from many years of having, as a TCK, to let go of what is dear to her:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

Ruth does get to keep David, and the two are soon joined by a baby daughter. But depression comes to Ruth, seeming to be at odds with the spirituality that she longs to possess. “How many hundreds of testimonies have I heard about the joy that Jesus gives?” she writes. “He surely isn’t giving it to me right now—or maybe I just don’t know how to receive it.”

Her depression becomes deep enough that she thinks about suicide:

I’ve actually wondered what it would be like to take pills and never wake up. But in my heart I know that wouldn’t solve anything. I have a child I’m responsible for, and I want to see her grow up. And I want to live, if I can be the person that I’ve always thought I had the potential to be. But right now that seems like a hopeless dream.

Then, using words that are reminiscent of those penned by the Psalmist in Psalm 13, she writes,

The thread I’m hanging on to is an intellectual belief that God still has a purpose for my life. I can’t imagine how He can ever put all the pieces back together and make me whole, but it’s my only hope. I told Him today that He could forget helping me to do better—there’s nothing left of me to help. If He doesn’t do something new, I’m finished.

But there is hope. There is help for her to do better. And it comes in the form of a new friend, Linda, who opens a path for Ruth by sharing her own personal struggles in a Sunday school class. This is something that Ruth hasn’t experienced before, and it gives her courage. This leads to many conversations with Linda, in which Ruth shares her pain, and Linda listens without judgment.

Within a few years, the Van Rekens are preparing for their own missionary work in Africa, and Ruth continues to learn how to function without hiding behind masks. Sometimes the masks come off gently, as with Linda, but at other times, they are pulled off forcefully, as when a pastor shares from the pulpit about some of her struggles. But to her amazement, she writes, when “[t]he awful, naked ugliness of my soul was exposed, . . . I was still accepted!”

Healing also comes through forgiveness: forgiving her parents for her many separations from them and forgiving “all those who locked me up with pat answers or quick words of encouragement, when what I needed was understanding and a hug.” Following the death of her uncle, Ruth gets a different kind of response from Jesus: “He held me and understood. He acknowledge my pain. He didn’t try to talk me out of my hurt. . . . I’m learning about God as the Comforter and binder of broken hearts.”

But in letters dated less than two years later, as she and David are serving in Liberia, Ruth writes that the depression has returned. She tells God, barring a change in the next month, to let her die. In her conversations with God that follow, she learns that she has not addressed all of the anger that is leading to her depressed feelings. She still needs to “forgive” God.

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” she hears herself say. “Ever since I came to Liberia to serve you, You’ve done nothing but bad things to me. I’m sick and tired of it.” And she hears God say to her that he isn’t at all shocked by her anger. He can handle it. “You can love someone and still be angry at him,” God tells her. Acknowledging this anger is an important step for Ruth, a step that leads to more healing.

One of the final letters penned by Ruth is dated 1984. That’s 24 years after Ruth Ellen had voiced her struggle with guilt because she wasn’t the perfect missionary child. In it, she says, after reading through all of her previous letters, that there still was one more person to forgive:

I can forgive the little girl I was, for not being all she thought she was supposed to be. The greatest joy has been to understand for the first time in my life that God is the “God of all Comfort.” I could not understand that until I recognized how much I needed His comfort.

Ruth’s story is one of faith and anger and hope and fear and sadness and peace, all flowing one into another. It is a story beautifully and sincerely told. It is a story that can speak to generations of TCKs and cross-cultural workers and to those who want to understand them. And it’s a story that continues. Last year, Van Reken published a newly revised edition of Letters Never Sent, containing 30 additional pages, with photos and an epilogue addressing her later life, including a bout with cancer.

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

The above quotations are taken from the 1988 edition of Letters Never Sent. The book was first printed in the US in 1987 under the title Letters I Never Wrote.

[photo: “unreachable,” by Daniel Zimmel, used under a Creative Commons license]

Comfort vs Encouragement: Jesus’ Responses to Mary and Martha

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 Healingwrites 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.

Jesus wept.

(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)

[photo: “The Eye of Eliza,” by Augusto Serna, used under a Creative Commons license]

Barack Obama, TCK President

A new biography is out on the president, David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story, and it’s getting some media attention, mostly because of the input from former girlfriends and because parts seem to contradict Obama’s own earlier writings. But what interests me more are the insights on how the president’s international upbringing has been a factor in shaping his personality.

As Obama grew up, he was exposed to a variety of different cultures. He was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas, and after his parents divorced, his mother married an Indonesian man. The family later moved to Jakarta, where Obama lived from 6 to 10 years old, before returning to Hawaii, finishing out his elementary and secondary schooling there.

In adaptations from the book, published in Vanity Fair this month, Maraniss writes,

At age 20, Obama was a man of the world. He had never been to south-central Kansas or western Kenya, the homelands of his ancestors, yet his divided heritage from Africa and the American heartland had defined him from the beginning. He could not be of one place, rooted and provincial. From his years living in Indonesia, where he was fully immersed in Javanese schools and culture; from his adolescence in Hawaii, where he was in the polyglot sea of hapa and haole, Asians and islanders; from his mother’s long-term commitment to development work overseas; from his friendship with Pakistani students at Occidental and his extended visit to their country—from all of these he had experienced far more global diversity than the average college junior. He knew the ways of different cultures better than he knew himself.

In 1979, Obama began his post-secondary education at Occidental College, in Los Angeles. Then, after transferring to Columbia University two years later, he reconnected with Alex McNear, a friend from Occidental, who was spending the summer in New York. Obama wrote her that he envied his friends who were heading into business and other mainstream pursuits, but that didn’t feel right for him:

Caught without a class, a structure or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs.

Obama first met a later girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, in 1983 at a Christmas party. In one of those TCK “me too!” moments, they discovered that both had spent time in Jakarta as children. Maraniss writes,

He noticed her accent. Australian, she said. He knew many Aussies, friends of his mother’s, because he had lived in Indonesia when he was a boy. So had she, before her parents divorced, and again briefly in high school. As it turned out, their stays in Jakarta had overlapped for a few years, starting in 1967. They talked nonstop, moving from one subject to another, sharing an intense and immediate affinity, enthralled by the randomness of their meeting and how much they had in common. They had lived many places but never felt at home.

John Richardson, himself a TCK who grew up in Asia, believes that Obama’s time overseas has had a big impact on shaping his personality and how he goes about solving problems. What some—from both the right and left—see as Obama’s frustrating bipartisanship, writes Richardson, isn’t “exactly bipartisanship. It’s something else—something strange and essential. It is, though we don’t quite realize it yet, the real reason we elected him.”

Some, fellow TCKs and non TCKs alike, would argue that this form of bipartisanship is what kept them from voting for him. It’s not my purpose here to argue politics or the rightness or wrongness of Obama’s views or “the real reason we elected him.” Rather, I want to look at how his TCKness affects him. When TCKs meet each other, they soon find out that while their common experiences have often produced shared attitudes, that does not mean that they share the same beliefs and convictions. Some TCKs passionately defend Obama’s policies while others passionately attack them. Being a Third Culture Kid certainly doesn’t produce cookie-cutter people, political or otherwise.

Richardson goes on to quote from what he calls “the TCK bible,” David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up among Worlds:

While growing up in a multiplicity of countries and cultures, TCKs not only observe firsthand the many geographical differences around the world but they also learn how people view life from different philosophical and political perspectives. . . . [TCKs] have lived in other places long enough to appreciate the reasons and understanding behind some of the behavioral differences rather than simply being frustrated by them as visitors tend to be.

But, writes Richardson, when TCKs arrive in the US, their disconnect with American culture makes those around them wonder if there is a disconnect in values, too. He goes back to Third Culture Kids:

It seems the very awareness which helps TCKs view a situation from multiple perspectives can also make TCKs seem impatient or arrogant with others who only see things from their own perspective—particularly people from their home culture . . . others may notice how the TCK’s behavior changes in various circumstances and begin to wonder if they can trust anything the TCK does or says. It looks to them as if he or she has no real convictions about much of anything.

According to Van Reken, TCKs often call themselves “chameleons” because “after spending a little time observing what is going on, they can easily switch language, style of relating, appearance, and cultural practices to take on the characteristics needed to blend better into the current scene.” She quotes an article in the Financial Times that states President Obama “benefited from his chameleon power to make a lot of different people feel he represents them. . . .”

Shortly after Obama’s election, Van Reken wrote for The Daily Beast that the new president and the other adult TCKs that he appointed to his cabinet “share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration.” To Van Reken, Obama’s Dreams of My Father “could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color,” and she calls Obama’s “exceptional skill at mediating among competing arguments,” his seeming aloofness, and his “cool manner” as common traits of Third Culture Kids.

Aloofness is one of the descriptors that President Obama’s critics use to tag him. It is similar to some of the ways his girlfriend, Cook, also describes him in her diary: “something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness . . . but I’m still left with this feeling of . . . a bit of a wall—the veil,” “Distance, distance, distance, and wariness,” “that coolness,” and “his withheld-ness.”

During his relationship with Cook, when the two went to social functions, it was usually with Pakistani friends. But there came a time when Obama began to draw away from them, which Beenu Mahmood, one of those friends, noticed. Maraniss writes that Mahmood

could see Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself as a necessary step in establishing his political identity as an American. For years when Barack was around [the Pakistanis], he seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. He was one of them, in that sense. But to get to where he wanted to go he had to change.

Where am I from? Where am I going? These are questions that are sometimes difficult for Third Culture Kids to answer. But for at least one TCK, the answer to the second question ended up being the White House.

(David Maraniss, “Young Barack Obama in Love: A Girlfriend’s Secret Diary,” Vanity Fair, June 2012; John H. Richardson, “How Obama Really  Thinks: A Primer for the Left and Right,” Esquire, June 21, 2010; David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009; Ruth E. Van Reken, “Obama’s ‘Third Culture’ Team,” The Daily Beast, Nov. 26, 2008)

[photo: “Obama plaque,” by Stefan Geens, used under a Creative Commons license. The plaque is located at State Elementary School Menteng 01, Menteng, Jakarta, Indonesia. The inscription reads, “Barack Hussein Obama II, the 44th President of the United States of America, attended this school from 1969-1971.”]

Global Nomads—Loss, Grief, and Comfort

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])

[photo: “Day 42,” by Amy Riddlei, used under a Creative Commons license]