When Grandma’s Lap Is Far Away

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Diane Stortz knows a thing or two about being separated from family. She’s the co-author of Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally.

She also knows a thing or two about children’s books, having written Words to Dream OnThe Sweetest Story Bible, and a couple for Roman Downey’s Little Angels series, among others.

By my reckoning, that means that she knows two things or four about finding books to send to grandchildren overseas.

If you’d like some good advice, go to her blog and read her five points on what to look for when choosing the right storybook for children.

And at Christian Children’s Authors, she puts in a plug for recordable children’s books. Maybe it’s because I don’t have grandchildren yet, but I never knew there was such a thing. What a great idea for staying in touch with faraway granddaughters and grandsons, nieces and nephews.

In this post, Stortz mentions three publishers that produce recordable books: Hallmark, DaySpring, and Publications International. Using that as my starting point, here’s a sampling of what I found (it includes lots of grandmas and lots of bears)—

Conversations to Keep: Grandma and Me
That’s What Grandmas Do
My Grandpa and Me
Guess How Much I Miss You

Guess How Much I Love You
Under the Same Moon
What Aunts Do Best/What Uncles Do Best
I Love You So Much

I Love You Head to Toe
Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You
Bright and Beautiful
All Day Long with Jesus

Bedtime Prayers and Promises
Sesame Street, Together at Heart
If . . . 

And here are a couple for sending back the other way—

I Love You Grandma
My Grandma Is Special

Susan Adcox, “Grandparents Expert” at About.com, writes that Hallmark recordable books are “pure magic.” “What child wouldn’t be entranced to open a storybook and hear it read in a grandparent’s voice?” she asks.

She goes on to compliment the recording process, calling it “practically foolproof.”

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What Is a Bridge but a Paradox?

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What do you see when you see a dock?

A place for studying the horizon?
For dipping a toe in the water?
For casting off?

Or a place for lowering your sails?
For stepping onto dry land?
For coming ashore?

Is it a place for setting out or coming back? Much depends on the compass of your heart.

If for you, the dock is too short, out of desire or necessity, you build it forward, step by step, plank by plank, as you go—through the spray and the mist and the fog. And when you’ve built till you’re more coming than going, you see another shore—build, step, build, step. You are there.

This is crossing cultures. This is creating a bridge. This is going from home to home.

Then, at some point, out of desire or necessity, you step back onto the bridge. You must have been gone a long time, because what was once a complete span is now incomplete. You need to build to close the gaps. And at times you’re simply on a dock again, building to a shore you cannot yet see. Strange. It was a bridge before.

This time while you’re crossing, you find that in the mist there are others with you, and when they talk, you understand them, because they are speaking your language.

“Where are you from?” you hear someone ask, and the answer, “That’s an interesting question.” “You, too?” one says. “Me, too,” another replies. You understand them, not because you use the same words, but because when you speak those words you agree on the impreciseness of their meanings: near, far, hot, cold, friends, enemies, rich, poor, family, strangershere, there, hello, goodbye. Their meanings are slippery, like the damp boards beneath your feet. And the slipperiness is comfortable.

In time, you cross the bridge again and again, sharing familiar greetings with those in the misty middle. But never do you set out without having to repair what was built before. You continue . . . build, step, build, step.

What is a bridge, but a paradox, leading from home to home, from not-home to not-home? Your heart’s compass spins. The shores, they push and pull, they give hugs at arms length, they don’t plan on changing, but they do. The same can be said of you.

And then, out of desire or necessity, you settle down farther inland. You put down roots in loose soil. There’s a dock over the next, next hill. You go to visit from time to time and walk its length. You listen to the slap of the waves. You breathe in the smell of the ocean. You taste the salt in the air . . . and you remember the sounds and the smells and the bitter-sweet flavors of where you used to be.

What do you see when you see a dock?

You put down roots in loose soil, but you still speak the language of the bridge.


These thoughts are inspired by Mission Training International‘s “Pair of Ducks.” MTI uses two rubber ducks—a “yay duck” and a “yuck duck”—to show cross-cultural workers and their kids that all the places where they’ve lived have their good and bad parts.

[photo: “Harbour Bridge,” by D.Reichardt, used under a Creative Commons license]

TCKs as Prototypical Citizens and Culture Shock as Exaggerated Poop: Ted Ward’s Views on Growing Up Abroad

16241388115_fec39f427a_zQuotation tracing. It’s almost as exhilarating as tracing a river.

According to the Taipei Times, the sport of river tracing may have been birthed in Taiwan in 1982. That year, a Japanese expedition team representing the Osaka Grassshoes Society traced the Nantsi River to the top of Taiwan’s Jade Mountain. (How’s that for an epic-sounding adventure?) Years ago I got to chaperone a group of junior-high-school students in a much less demanding trek, hiking in and up a fast-moving mountain river in northern Taiwan. We had a great time wading, swimming, crawling, and climbing. Not only did we find the spring that was the river’s source, but we also enjoyed—and discovered a lot during—the getting there.

So it is with quotation tracing, finding the origin and context of well-known, though often misquoted and misattributed, quotations. There’s much to be learned from tracking down quotations, and now that I’m older, I find that quotation tracing is more suited to a more sedentary lifestyle, as well.

My target quotation this time is one that we read often in literature about Third Culture Kids. And just like river tracing in Taiwan, it comes from the 80s. It’s Ted Ward’s

TCKs are the prototype citizens of the future.

I used this form of the quotation a few years ago in a blog post that I wrote. Sadly, at the time, I hadn’t checked the source. Had I done so, I would have seen that the original comes from page 57 of “The MK’s Advantage: Three Cultural Contexts,” in Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family. The chapter from Ward is an abridged version of a presentation he made in Quito, Ecuador, at the International Conference on Missionary Kids, held in 1987. (David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, in Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, are two who point to this source.) I would have also seen that the quotation has been paraphrased over time.

Speaking about the qualities that define Missionary Kids (MKs) as world Christians, Ward says,

Another characteristic is the loyalty to Christian values, even above the social pragmatics that we deal with in any society. There are characteristics of the internationalizing community of Christ that may very well, in this increasingly shrunken world, become characteristic of the church in general in the twenty-first century. One of my propositions is that the missionary kid of the nineties will be the prototype of the Christian of the twenty-first century [emphasis mine].

Because Missionary Kids are a subset of Third Culture Kids, it’s not a stretch to apply what Ward said to the larger group as a whole, but it’s interesting that his comments in this context refer not to general global citizens but to citizens of the community of Christians. This is understandable, though, as Ward’s audience was missionary families, and if he were talking to expat families in general, I would think it logical that he would apply the same principle to the broader category of all TCKs.

But looking at Ward’s presentation as a whole, I find something even more interesting. It’s his strong pronouncements of how MKs should embrace the advantages of their lives abroad and should not focus on the perceived negatives. “I view the MK growing up experience,” he says, “as very positive and very valuable, in comparison with the experiences available to their cousins who are stuck back home.”

To combat negative stereotypes applied to MKs, Ward uses somewhat blunt language, language that grates against my way of thinking. But one of his goals seems to be to shake up our assumptions, and my discomfort shows that he has been successful in that with me.

At the time that he spoke at the Quito conference, Ward was serving as dean of International Studies, Mission, and Education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Before that, he spent 30 years at Michigan State University, teaching in the areas of education and curriculum research, and taking a leading role in the field of theological education.

While at Michigan State, Ward was a colleague of Ruth Hill Useem, the sociologist and anthropologist who coined the term Third Culture Kid. Ward describes Useem’s technical usage of TCK as being in the context of

cultural variables that are not definable in terms of ours and theirs. She was talking about the dynamic of that which is different because people from outside settings residing in an inside setting do not take their primary identities ultimately from either, but they take it from the commonness that they have with others who are doing the same thing.

But Ward goes on to point out that Useem’s definition of third culture is based on her study of “the overseas intellectual communities of Western European and American people in the sciences and technology.” And he writes that the paper in which she coins the term Third Culture Kid has “no reference to anything like what we would call the MK.” Therefore, he believes that today’s use (or “misuse”) of TCK has made it a “static term,” with “standard values” and “generalizations about it which lead us to the wrong questions.” (edited 5/11/21*)

What are some of the wrong questions? They are nonsense questions. “Is it OK to be an MK?” “What are the problems of being an MK?” They’re dumb questions, but they’re the questions that a static view of culture leads you to.

Then you get preoccupied by rootlessness. Oh, come on. Millions of people in the world are rootless. Don’t get paranoid about thirty thousand kids when ten percent of them are rootless.

It is this kind of negative thinking, especially by parents of MKs, that Ward opposes. For instance, in the area of culture shock:

Words like culture shock—good grief! Talk about popularization of some bad research! Culture shock—for the most part largely exaggerated poop! Incompetency, yes, but incompetency comes in all kinds of forms.

And about American expat parents who are concerned about their children’s lack of understanding of US culture, he responds,

I find more MKs understanding the nature of American society than people who are raised wholly within it. Would that we could get that message across to parents. Paranoid parents have got to be helped.

Ward also laments missionary parents’ worries about reverse culture shock. Years ago, it wasn’t so easy for missionaries or their children to return “home,” so they weren’t so apt to influence their children towards the inevitability of going back. One qualification of MKs as prototypical world Christians, says Ward, is their ability to serve God anywhere, without being tied down to a particular country or culture, especially the one from which they came.

Ward believes that the long-term work of missionaries has changed. “A career missionary today does not get buried in China at age forty-seven under great mounds of Chinese soil,” he states. “He gets buried at age forty-seven at a North American mission office desk under mounds of paper.” Ward doesn’t want this sort of mindset to be passed on to Missionary Kids.

Ward has given me, a former missionary and current parent of several MKs, a lot to think about, and I wonder how I would have responded if I had been in his audience 27 years ago.

While tracing Ward’s quotation to its source, I’ve been challenged, affirmed, and stretched. I’ve learned a few things and I’ve read some things that I’ll be pondering for a while. I’m grateful for the work that Ted Ward has done for and with cross-cultural workers and their families. And while I’m not on board with everything he’s said (for instance, I don’t think that culture shock is “largely exaggerated poop”), I do understand that there can be a tendency toward paranoia and excessive navel gazing.

We need balance. It’s good to look inward, with caution. But it’s also good to look up and out and aim for some mountaintops, to hike some rivers, to look with optimism at the path ahead, and to see the landscape from a different perspective.

(*In my original post, I misunderstood Ward’s view of how Useem defines the term Third Culture Kid, writing “According to Ward, Hill Useem applied it to particular new cultures—new communities in a distinct time and place—that expats form inside their host country. This is different from how we currently use TCK (or MK) to describe a broad group of people raised overseas.” I have rewritten the paragraph above to better express Ward’s objections to today’s usage of TCK.)

(Ian Bartholomew, “Taiwan’s Rivers Offer Vast Potential for Adventure,” Taipei Times, August 19, 2001; Ted Ward, “The MK’s Advantage: Three Cultural Contexts,” Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family: Compendium of the International Conference on Missionary Kids, Quito, Ecuador, January 4-8, 1987, Volume I, Pam Echerd and Alice Arathoon, eds., William Carey, 1989.)

[photo: “Consumer Confidence!” by Chris & Karen Highland, used under a Creative Commons license]

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear When I’m Hurting

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“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.” —Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids

The losses involved with cross-cultural transitions are many, and not all will be voiced as simple answers to the question “What do you miss the most?” They include relationships, dreams, purpose, status, identity, and some things that defy labels.

When someone is grieving a loss—whether of a loved one or of opportunities or of “home”—we tend to search for something to say rather than for a chance to listen. And when we speak, we too often don’t invite the person to express her sadness. Instead, we say what we hope will make the grief go away.

Why are we so uncomfortable with grief? Of course, we don’t like for our friends to be sad, but how often does our discomfort also come from not wanting to be around sad people?

At the risk of being hypocritical, I’ve made a list of things that I don’t like to hear when I’m sad and hurting. I’m afraid that I’ve said most of them myself and probably will continue to do so from time to time. But I’m trying to listen more and talk less. I’m trying to allow grief to run its course in others and not try to make it go away so that can get on with life.

I need to give credit to a small book, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, for it’s inspiration and validation. At just over 100 pages, this guide by Ginny Callaway is full of practical advice for what to say and what not to say, for what to do and what not to do when helping a grieving friend. From her own experience—Callaway’s ten-year-old daughter died in a car accident—and from talking with others, Callaway knows what she’s writing about. Even though the subject of her book is grief caused by the death of a loved one, her advice is valuable for dealing with people grieving other losses as well.

You may not agree with my list. Some items may seem rather picky, and some may be the things that in fact cheer you up. But if I do nothing else, I’d like to initiate an inner conversation on how our words may sound, even if they come from the best of intentions.

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear . . . and Shouldn’t Say:

1 – I know how you feel.
(This was first on Callaway’s list, too.)

We don’t know exactly how others feel, and even if we’ve gone through something similar, it’s only similar, not exactly the same. We don’t know everything from a person’s past that has culminated in the present emotions. “I know how you feel” doesn’t invite much further sharing. You might try saying something like, “I know a little of what you’re going through,” that is, if it’s true.

“I know how you feel” often leads to . . .

2 – Let me tell you what happened to me.

This is not a time to one-up someone. We shouldn’t invalidate others’ experiences or their emotions. Maybe my friend moved three times in a year. Telling her that I’ve moved six times says, “Compared to me, you don’t have the right to feel sad.” This phrase is a close cousin to “We all have our problems.”

3 – Do you mind if I take this call?

When we’re having deep, important conversations with others, a you’re-important-enough-to-me-that-I’ve-set-aside-this-time-for-you talk, we shouldn’t even have our phones out, ringing, beeping, or buzzing. Just being able to see a cell phone during a conversation distracts from building relationships. We shouldn’t acknowledge a ring unless it’s to silence the phone. And we shouldn’t answer our phones unless we’re on call for an emergency situation. It’s not always possible to escape distractions, but that means we need to do a better job of choosing our times and places.

4 – Everything happens for a reason. (It’s all part of God’s plan. It wasn’t meant to be.)

I actually don’t believe this to be true. Maybe you do. Either way, it’s not a cure-all that makes the pain go away, even though that’s often how it’s used. It’s become something that too many people say with little thought to the theology behind it. This often sounds like “Why are you sad? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” But if the things that have occurred happen not to feel like good things, then remember . . .

5 – When one door closes, another one opens.

A more spiritualized version of this is “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” I haven’t figured out which chapter of the Bible this verse comes from. It’s one of the many platitudes that people say to make everything OK. Feel-good sayings tell the listener just that: “Feel good.” They are often used to tie problems up in a bow and to do the same for many a conversation: Now that we’ve solved that problem, we can talk about something else.

6 – Let me know if you need anything.

Many people who are huting emotionally feel as if they’re burdening others and can be embarrassed by how needy they’ve become. Saying “Let me know if you need anything” puts the ball in their court to ask for help. And even though we’ve made the offer sincerely, when someone considers sharing a need, it’s very easy for him to feel as if he’s imposing. Instead, we should continue to ask what his needs are . . . and also help without an invitation.

7 – It could be worse. (You have so much to be thankful for.)

Of course it could be worse. But that’s not the point. It’s bad enough. Words saying that a person’s problems don’t deserve the grief being expressed can lead that person to hide his sorrow, convinced that his feelings aren’t justified. Hidden sorrow doesn’t go away, it just shows up later as unexplained despair, anger, physical ailments, and the like.

8 – You need to move on.

It’s no fun to be stuck in a difficult place, but that place may seem like the only option. When the routines of the past are gone, and the future is frighteningly unsettled, what does progress look like? It’s not simply putting on a smile so that others feel more comfortable.

9 – I want the old you back.

There’s a good chance the grieving person wants her old self back, too. It may seem as if the grief is the cause of the change, but often, one of the losses that the person is grieving is the loss of the person she used to be. That loss wasn’t chosen. It wasn’t planned, expected, or wanted. And coming “home” doesn’t mean the changes will automatically go away.

And last, but not least . . .

10 – This is just a season.

Doesn’t it seem that for Christians every period of time has become a “season”? When people tell me that my difficulties are only a season, I hear them say that they will end soon, and spring is around the corner. How do they know? What if my winter lasts for 8 years? Why don’t we call the good times “just a season”?


I Need to Listen with Grace, Too

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I’ll step down off my rickety soapbox and look at things from another angle. As a sometime recipient of the words above, I also understand that I need to receive with grace my friends’ efforts—even when I’m hurting. I need better to hear their concern even when the words don’t feel right.

Missionary Rachel Marie Stone and her fellow authors address this in their Christianity Today article, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing.” She writes that “listicles” of “things you should never say” are all the rage but often misguided.

I’ll stand by my list, but I’ll also take her point to heart:

Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She’d been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:

“I just can’t stand the thought of all the stupid things people at church might say to me about this experience,” I told her.

“But people will say stupid things,” she said kindly. “The question is, how will you receive those stupid remarks?”

It seemed to me then that my own sense of the importance of right words did not necessitate my hair-trigger outrage at hearing “wrong” words. I could survive thoughtless remarks, choosing to hear, beneath them, the genuine concern and impulse to connect that underlies so much of our imperfect human communication.

When I’m helping, I’ll do my best not to say the wrong things. When I’m being helped, I’ll do my best to hear those best intentions.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Ginny Callaway, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, High Windy Press, 2011; Rachel Marie Stone, Megan Hill, and Gina Dalfonzo, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing,” Christianity Today, August 5, 2014)

[photo: “365 0127,” by Tim Caynes, used under a Creative Commons license]

Mercy Ships, a TCK, Ex-Missionaries, and Small Clubs

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“We’re part of a small club.” That’s what a friend told me not long ago.

I was at a meeting where a young missionary couple had just finished presenting why they had left their ministry and had come back to the States. A former missionary myself, I made my way to the husband to thank him for sharing. Then my friend and his wife joined us. They had returned from the mission field, too. My friend said with a sigh, “We’re part of a small club.”

It is a small club. And when you’ve come back well before you thought you would, when you didn’t come back celebrating a finished work or returning to a greater ministry, when you’re still in the process of refinding your place back home, it’s a club that can feel smaller than it really is.

A few days later, I read an article in Christianity Today about a still smaller club. It’s a club  that currently has just one member. Her name is Carys Parker.

Carys is a TCK and an MK. And she’s the only person to have been raised on a Mercy Ship from birth through high school graduation. Spun off from Youth With a Mission (YWAM),  Mercy Ships is a Christian ministry providing free health care in port cities around the world—mostly in Africa—from the decks of its floating hospital.

Carys is the daughter of Gary Parker, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, and Susan Parker, an executive assistant. The couple met while working with Mercy Ships in 1987. Carys lived on the ship Anastasis until she was 12 years old, then moved with her family, including a younger brother, Wesley, to the Africa Mercy.

At the graduation ceremony for Mercy Ships Academy last year, Carys and her two classmates, aboard their home docked at Conakry, Guinea, addressed the audience. Carys began her speech,

I grew up here.  And without a doubt, my 18 years on a hospital ship in Africa will define me—even when I no longer live here. For just as every person’s worldview develops out of their unique set of experiences, living in this place, with all of you, has profoundly formed and shaped me.  And I am deeply grateful for a lifetime in this community.

And she ended with these words:

There’s an ancient African proverb that says this: “If you want to travel fast travel alone; But if you want to travel far, travel together.” I’m glad that we’ve traveled this road together.  I’m so grateful for you—as well as many former crew, who have passed through my life and now have gone on to other things.  By God’s grace, may I always be faithful to keep the main thing the main thing. Thank you.

Carys is now beginning her second year at Whitworth, a private liberal arts university. About the decision for Carys to attend the Presbyterian-church-affiliated school, Susan told Whitworth University News, “We come from a small shipboard community, and we know that the quality of the community is directly related to the quality of the product—whether that be healthcare or education.”

According to Whitworth University, their community is a campus located in Spokane, Washington, with 3,000 students . . . one of whom grew up on a boat off the coast of Africa, with 400 crew members representing more than 35 countries.

The Whitworth article includes links to segments from a 60 Minutes show that aired last year. The first is a 12-minute spot on Africa Mercy and the inspiring work done by Mercy Ships in Togo, West Africa. The second is a closer look at the Parker family, part of 60 Minutes Overtime.

Reporter Scott Pelley spends considerable time with Gary Parker and his family, and we hear about the staff’s amazing medical ministry as well as what it’s like raising a family in a 630-square-foot ship’s cabin. “The only life the kids have known has made them strangers back home,” he says, and Susan Parker tells TCK stories about her children: In the States, Carys didn’t know what a mailbox looked like, and Wesley (a white child in a white family) came back from school one day to tell his mother that in the past Americans had made slaves out of “our people.” Producer Henry Schuster describes Carys’s life in a way that would be familiar to Third Culture Kids: “She’s got one foot in America. She’s got one foot in Africa. But she’s in this other place in between.”

Living on a ship, of course, has its tensions and difficulties. “It’s not all sweetness and light,” Pelley reports, noting that Susan has not always wanted to raise her children onboard long term. But now, she believes that a ship is the best place for her and Gary to bring up their children, and she no longer wants to return to the States. “There’s nothing wrong with living at home,” she says, “but I don’t think it’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Pelley calls the ship “a tribe unto itself.” That’s a term I’ve heard—tribe—used to describe those who are or have been missionaries. I count myself a member of that tribe. I’ve never been part of a hospital ship, but I know the camaraderie and  purposefulness of being part of a mission community.

The 60 Minutes segments tug at my heart. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out “what we’re supposed to do.” Sometimes it’s not easy at all. We think, we pray, we talk, we argue, we worry, we wonder, we decide . . . and then we stay or we go.

Hearing Carys and her family’s story helps me better appreciate my club, my tribe. But I understand that I’m now here, raising my kids here. And that means I’m no longer part of a more exclusive club, those who are still there.

(Kate Tracy, “Carys Parker, Raised Entirely aboard Mercy Ships, Drops Anchor,” Christianity Today, July 8, 2014; Carys Parker, “Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing,” doingmercy, May 24, 2013; “Student Disembarks at Whitworth after Life at Sea,” October 16, 2013; “Africa Mercy: Hospital of Hope,” 60 Mintues, CBS, February 17, 2013; “Raising Kids at Sea: Meet the Parkers,” 60 Minutes Overtime, CBS, August 4, 2013)

[photo: “Africa Mercy,” by Denise Miller, used under a Creative Commons license]

Storytelling: The Bosphorus Bridge between Cultures

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At one end of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, says Elif Shafak, is a sign that says “Welcome to Europe.” At the other end, another sign reads, “Welcome to Asia.” Shafak, the most widely read female author in Turkey, knows well this city that spans the Bosphorus Strait and connects two continents. She also knows well the push and pull of Eastern and Western cultures in Istanbul. She writes in Time Asia:

East and West are not water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, surprisingly. That can leave the city confused about its identity. We Turks like to brag about straddling past and present, East and West, but we are not quite sure what we mean by that. We think of these two civilizations as boroughs we can go in and out of randomly. . . . But things are not so simple.”

Expanded Circles: Elif Shafak

Shafak has lived out her own cross-cultural experience. Born in France to Turkish parents, she was later raised by her mother in Turkey. Then, after her mother became a diplomat, they moved to Spain, Jordan, Germany, and back to Turkey.

Everywhere I went,” she says in a TED Talk, “The Politics of Fiction,” “I felt like my imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. Stories gave me a sense of center, continuity, and coherence, the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.”

While living in Madrid, Shafak attended an international school where she was the only Turk. While she describes the school as “a miniature United Nations,” it was not “a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy.” Rather, she first encountered cultural stereotypes there. In her later moves with her mother, she saw more and more the general human penchant for retreating into “cultural ghettos”:

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family—if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

Shafak’s tool for helping break us all out of our cocoons is her fiction. She is the author of a number of novels, including The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, which bridges 13th-century Persia and present-day Boston, and Honor, which tells the stories of Kurdish twins, one who grows up to live in London, the other staying in a small village in Turkey.

I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake,” says Shafak, “but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.”

Intersecting Journeys: O. Z. Livaneli

I have not read any of Shafak’s novels, but I did recently finish Bliss: A Novel, written by O. Z. Livaneli in 2006. (It was made into a film in 2007.) Livaneli, like Shafak, is one of Turkey’s most prominent and most-read authors. And, like Shafak, his works often investigate the meeting of cultures.

In Bliss, the cultures are embodied by three characters: Meryem is a fifteen-year-old from a small Turkish village. After being raped by her outwardly pious uncle, she is shunned by her community. Then she is taken to Istanbul by her cousin to be killed. Cemal, a soldier, newly returned from fighting rebels in the mountains, is the cousin chosen to carry out the “honor killing.” And Irfan is a Western-educated professor who abruptly leaves his wife—and his wealthy lifestyle—to sail the Aegean Sea. It is on his journey that he meets Meryem and Cemal.

At first the novel tells three seemingly unrelated stories, each from a distinct viewpoint. Then, as the characters come together, their stories, and their perspectives, intertwine. The settings are varied as well: the shack where Meryem is imprisoned, given only meager food and a rope for hanging herself; the dangerous mountains where Cemal kills ruthlessly so that he won’t be killed; and the university offices populated by the colleagues whom Irfan despises. And then there are the locations that bring them together and expose them to people of still other backgrounds: the train compartment on the way to Istanbul, the chaotic city center and its decrepit surroundings, the home of an eccentric retired ambassador, and the close quarters of Irfan’s rented sailboat.

Through it all, the three have their worlds expanded, in dramatic and often very painful ways.

The Gift of Bridges

Thankfully there are storytellers around the globe such as Shafak and Livaneli, authors whose works juxtapose cultural differences and uncover similarities. These writers allow us to pick up their books and step outside the mirrored walls of our houses and onto bridges that traverse oceans and connect cultures.

By walking these bridges, we reach distant shores, and when our feet touch foreign ground, we find signs that read, “Welcome,” even when it’s not so simple.

(Elif Shafak, “Pulled by Two Tides,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 13, 2006, first published in Time Asia, August 7-14, 2006)
[photo: “Bosphorus Bridge,” by Simon Q, used under a Creative Commons license]

For Global Nomads, a Better Question than “Where Are You From?”

3117467895_011eeea741_zLast week I had the extreme pleasure of meeting with a small group who came together as Global Nomads.

The vocabulary in the conversations was peppered with insider words and phrases. Of course there was global nomad itself, as well as TCK and Adult Third Culture Kid and army brat and MK. But there was also talk of using “English English” and recognizing something as “weirdly comforting.”

No one was in charge. No one gave a prepared presentation. Instead, we just talked. It was kind of like a panel discussion where the audience was the panel itself.

Everyone there was a professional in higher education, but the backgrounds and countries represented were diverse. I was the first one to arrive, and as others came into the room, I asked them, out of habit, “Where are you from?” I only meant “Where do you live?” or “Where did you arrive here from?” I really wasn’t looking for a philosophical response, but in this group, it may have felt as if I were. One person responded with something like, “Oh, that is the question, isn’t it?”

We went around the room and introduced ourselves, and as people continued to join us, we introduced ourselves again. One person had started a group for global nomads on her college campus. One had done her doctoral dissertation on TCKs and university life. One had married an Adult TCK. One was preparing to move overseas.

One mentioned a book he’d read about authors who’d grown up abroad. When I later searched for it on the internet, I found out it is Antje M. Rauwerda’s The Writer and the Overseas Childhood: The Third Culture Literature of Kingsolver, McEwan and Others. While I was looking, I also ran across Writing out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids, a compilation of essays by and about TCKs, edited by Gene H. Bell-Villada, Nina SichelFaith Eidse, and Elaine Neil Orr. I’ve added both books to my Amazon.com Wish List, but I’m afraid the prices will continue to go up rather than down. Even the used copies are over $30.

My search also led me to a blog post written by Sichel, who, along with Eidse, also edited Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Globala book that I’d put on my list long ago. In her post, “The Trouble with Third Culture Kids,” Sichel talks, in the context of children’s mental health, about “chameleons,” “adjustment problems,” “TCK grief,” and “existential loss.”

She writes about a young TCK who is struggling: “She doesn’t want to talk about it.  She doesn’t know where to begin.” When you meet such a girl, she says, “don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.” Instead, she offers a better response, one that would work with adult “kids” as well:

Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story—many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.

“Where have you lived?” I’m going to try that next time I meet a global nomad. And if she seems to be weighed down in her soul, I’ll ask, “What have you left behind?” Then I’ll try to be quiet and just listen.

(Nina Sichel, “The Trouble with Third Culture Kids,” Children’s Mental Health Network, February 11, 2013)

[photo: “Which Way to Go,” by theilr, used under a Creative Commons license]

An Adult Cross-Cultural Kid Creates “Home” in the “World’s Smallest House,” and You Can Too

When he was a child, Van Bo Le-Mentzel’s family relocated as refugees from Laos to Germany. Now an architect, he is redefining home.

“All my life,” Le-Mentzel tells CNN, “I was confronted with the question, What is home? Where do I belong to? Where is my home base? And where do I want to settle?”

One of his answers is his creation, the “one square meter house.” With it, he says, “I can settle wherever I want, because this is the one square meter that nobody is allowed to touch. It’s mine.”

Not only does he want do-it-yourselfers to build their own One SQM Houses, he also envisions them placed in public places in urban areas, each available as “one square meter of freedom,” a place to calm down, concentrate, pray, cry, or “whatever.”

Le-Mentzel is giving away plans for constructing his “world’s smallest house” (which, when completed costs about $300) at Hartz IV Möbel. The site also offers instructions on several other DIY projects, including the Berliner Hocker (Berlin Stool), shown in the video below. It’s a stackable modular bookshelf (a frugal man’s BrickBox?) that, with it’s asymmetrical design, can also serve as a desk, end table, and chair—I think he’s sitting on one inside his house in the video above.

Here’s to creativity spurred on by a cross-cultural life.

(Doug Gross, “Architect Designs ‘World’s Smallest House,'” CNN, July 25)