A Guest Post on TCK’s

So, apparently, when I say I’ll be playing hooky for a few days, I really mean a few weeks. I had to let a few things go when I found out I was pregnant with our fourth (surprise!), and as sitting in front of the computer was one of the things that tended to make my nausea worse, the blog went on an indefinite hiatus. I am 13 weeks now, so hopefully almost past the first trimester ickiness and hoping to get back into my daily writing practice soon.

I am breaking my radio silence today to let you know that I am guest posting over at Djibouti Jones as part of the Painting Pictures series on Third Culture Kids. I am so honored to be a part of this series and I hope you’ll take the time to read my post, When an ATCK Chooses a Life Overseas, and join in the conversation via the comment section. And then stick around and read some of the other posts in the the series — there have some wonderful submissions by some really talented writers and bloggers!

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When the First Language Becomes the Second Language

No, this is not a post about how I am afraid that Alex is starting to forget English now that he is immersed in Spanish at school three days a week. It is a post about how children subconsciously alter the way they speak their first language when they are in their second language environment.

All the kids at Hansei learn English as a foreign language, starting in pre-K. (I believe Korean is also an option when they get older.) Today, we attended an English open house at Hansei. All the kids participated — the younger grades sang songs, while the older grades put on plays and did poetry readings. Alex’s Kindergarten class sang several songs, like “There Was a Farmer Had a Dog,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “The Hokey Pokey,” complete with actions and motions. At first, Rusty and I noticed that the other kids were looking to Alex, rather than their teacher, to know what to do. Which I guess is probably normal, as he is not only a full year older, but also a native English speaker.

But then, we realized that he had adopted a very Latino accent in the way he was pronouncing certain words like “little” (LEE-tell), and “goodbye” (GUDE-bai). I was thoroughly amused by this, and it reminded me of a similar time in my own life when I spoke English with a perfect Kenyan accent…

When I was in first grade, I was chosen to recite a poem for an end-of-the-year program at my school, Victoria Primary School, in Kisumu, Kenya. I practiced my poem at home for weeks in my normal accent (and to this day, I still remember the first verse of it by heart), but when the time came for me to stand up and recite, I did it like a Kenyan. My mom says if she had closed her eyes, she would never have known it was her own daughter standing up there. Of course, my parents were in fits of laughter, and trying to hide their faces behind the people in front of them so I wouldn’t see and become flustered. I was blissfully unaware of all of this. I finished reciting my poem and left the stage.

Later, on the way home, my mom asked me to recite my poem again. I obliged, of course in my American accent. She said, “No, I want you to recite it like you did at the school.”

I was confused. “That is how I recited it at the school,” I said. I had absolutely NO IDEA what I had done or why the fact that I had used a Kenyan accent in a situation that OBVIOUSLY called for it was so very funny to my parents. Years later, of course, I can see the humor in it, and that is partly what made hearing Alex do a similar thing so funny today.

One of the great benefits of growing up a TCK is the exposure to other languages. And, additionally, the exposure to other ways of speaking a language (other accents, different words for the same thing, etc.). I find that I am a sort of chameleon when it comes to accents. Leave me in a certain place long enough, and I will start to adopt the local accent. In the South, I start to drawl and say words like “ya’ll,” and up North, I order “pop” and speak through my nose. But I do find that I can more readily understand different accents than a person who has spent their entire life in one geographic location. And I’m better able to understand ESL speakers with heavy accents.

It seems that Alex, for his part, is well on his way to becoming an “accent chameleon” like his mother!

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Unrooted Childhoods: Sara Mansfield Taber

The first section in the book Unrooted Childhoods contains essays from people who would describe their global upbringing as mostly enriching. They have positive memories of growing up abroad. Sara Mansfield Taber’s essay “Rain Light” recounts the 5 years of her childhood she spent in Holland as the daughter of an American diplomat. I loved her rich descriptions of the Dutch countryside. It was obvious from reading her essay that she became very attached to Holland, the Dutch culture, and the Dutch language. Her love for the traditional wooden shoes and her determination to become good at wearing them became a sort of symbol of her attachment to and affection for her new home. I can relate well to being very attached to a specific place, as this is how I feel about Kenya, having spent my entire childhood there. However, it is not something I give myself permission to dwell on too often or too long as it can lead to a profound sense of loss.

Sara describes how, in the first few weeks after moving to Holland, she had trouble falling asleep at night until her parents had checked her room (sometimes several times) for kidnappers. She writes, “It was as though my body remembered, even if my mind did not, that change, though rhythmic and regular, is still a ransacking and a threat (p.31).” This is probably one of the most accurate descriptions of change, at least for someone of my temperament, I have ever read!

She also tells about her first few difficult weeks at a new school, how she “stood at the edge of the blacktop, pretending to be interested in my fingers and swallowing tears. Then, and many times thereafter, it seemed to me that my whole life had consisted just of this: standing at the edge of the blacktop, swallowing tears (p. 31-32).” My heart just sort of hurt when I read this because — I get it. I so get it. I get the wanting to fit in, but being hesitant to take the initiative for the paralyzing fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I get the acting aloof and pretending indifference, and all the while aching to just belong. I’ve been there, many times, and it is so not easy.

Sara took Dutch classes in her first year of school in Holland and developed a real affinity for the language. However, the following year, despite her desire to continue with Dutch, she switched to taking the school’s required French classes. She writes, “With that… I was left with a little lump of feeling, which has remained in my belly ever since, that, somehow, an important chapter of my life had gone unfinished, a self left off, half-begun.” Um, yeah. I can relate to this on so many levels… on learning Portuguese only to not use it or remember it… on working towards Angola for 4 years only to not go at the last minute. I feel like these “unfinished chapters” have left me in a state of arrested development. Like everything that’s happening right now is just a sort of interlude. I know in my head that it’s not, and I’ll never be able to go back and finish those chapters now, but getting my heart to recognize that is another matter entirely.

Unrooted Childhoods: Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer’s essay “Living in the Transit Lounge” serves as an introduction to the entire book, Unrooted Childhoods. He starts out by describing — no, romanticizing — the globally nomadic life. I don’t relate well to this right now because, in recent years, I have become increasingly disillusioned with this lifestyle. Oh, it seems exciting and adventurous and romantic to someone on the outside, and I’m not denying that there are many benefits to all the moving around our family has done in the last few years. We have certainly seen some amazing places and had some very cool experiences. But there are times when I just long for stability, for normalcy, for roots.

I was glad to see Iyer move away from romanticizing the life of a global nomad into an honest treatment of its pitfalls and problems. “What is the price we pay for all this?” he asks on page 14, then goes on to say, “Seasoned experts at dispassion, we are less good at involvement or suspensions of disbelief; at, in fact, the abolition of distance. We are masters of the aerial perspective, but touching down becomes more difficult (p. 14-15).” I definitely feel like this is a good description of where I’m at right now. With each move, each painful goodbye, each difficult transition, it becomes harder and harder for me to “attach” the next time to a new people, a new place.

At the same time, I think that my faith grounds me in a sense. I am not completely lost in the world, bobbing about like a cork on a vast sea. When Iyer asks, “What does the Transit Lounger feel? What are the issues that we would die for? What are the passions that we would live for?”, I feel that I can answer those questions. I find my purpose in Christ, and this gives me roots. Oh, they aren’t geographic roots, to be sure, but they are roots all the same. And all of my global wanderings have had a purpose as well, a purpose that goes beyond myself and any desire I might have for adventure or cool experiences.

In the end, a missionary is not so much a Transit Lounger as an Ambassador: “And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:19-20)

Unrooted Childhoods: A Chapter by Chapter Review

Last year, just after we arrived in Ecuador and desperate for reading material, I borrowed a book from my sister called Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global. It is a collection of essays from TCK’s from many different countries and many different walks of life. As I read it, I found myself identifying, as a fellow TCK, with many of the writers’ experiences. At the same time, I also found myself wondering how my own children will remember their experiences of growing up in other countries and cultures. I remember thinking that I should make a collection of quotes and passages from the book to revisit later… the only problem was that I found myself wanting to write down about every third sentence!

Now, almost one year later, I have decided to go back and read this book again. I will be doing a chapter-by-chapter “review” of it here on my blog. I use the term “review” loosely, because it won’t be so much a review as it will be an interaction with the essays and with the experiences and viewpoints of the authors. I want to explore both the positive and negative aspects of growing up abroad so that I can better understand and relate to my own children in the years to come.

See, I know from personal experience what it is to be a TCK, and all the blessings (and the baggage) that goes along with growing up abroad. But I don’t yet know from personal experience about raising TCK’s. I’m learning as I go, and I’m thankful to have not only my own life experiences to draw from, but the life experiences of others, like the writers of the essays in this book. I’m also thankful for all of the study and research that has been done in the last few decades on TCK’s. So much more is understood today about children who grow up overseas, about their unique gifts and also about the challenges they face.

As I re-read the introduction of this book tonight, the following sentence jumped out at me: “the paradox of nomadism is that its benefits are always tied to losses.” (p. 3) I think that neatly sums up how I hope to interact with this book: I want to recognize and give thanks for the benefits of an “unrooted childhood” without glossing over or minimizing the losses.

Driving (Legally) in Ecuador

If you read Wheel-Less (Part 3), then you know that I will soon have a car that I can drive. Which I am truthfully more nervous than excited about. Because having a car to drive and actually driving it regularly means that I need to be a legal driver in Ecuador. And that means an Ecuadorian driver’s license. An international license (which is what I have now) is really only acceptable for someone who is not planning to live somewhere long-term. By law, and in order to be covered by our insurance in case of an accident, I need an Ecuadorian license.

No biggie, right? I’ve done this before, right? Well, actually, I haven’t done this before. Despite the fact that I have lived abroad 25 years of my entire life, I have never had anything but a U.S. license (or an international license from AAA). I reached the legal driving age in Kenya (18) about 2 months before I left for college, so what was the point, really? Our first 3 years in Japan, we made the decision not to put me on our insurance because drivers under the age of 25 made the cost of insurance drastically more expensive. Since I wasn’t driving, there was no need for me to get a driver’s license. The second time we were in Japan, we were just getting ready to start the application process, having been there almost a year, when we received word that Rusty’s mom had a terminal brain tumor and decided to return to the States. In Portugal, we drove on international licenses since we weren’t planning to be there long-term.

So, my Ecuadorian license will be my first driver’s license from another country. And I find myself dreading the whole process — the gathering of paperwork, the multiple trips to this or that office to do this or that task, only to have to repeat it all the next day because the form wasn’t filled out in the correct color of ink (or some other absurdity). And I am dreading the tests, not the written test so much — even though it is in Spanish. But the driving test? I am absolutely petrified. I know this is carryover from when I took the driving test for my U.S. license (at the ripe old age of 20 — yes, this marks me as a TCK!). The only test in my life I have ever failed. It took me two months to work up the courage to go back in and try again.

I keep telling myself that it probably won’t be nearly as difficult or unpleasant as I’m making it out to be in my mind. But I am a worry-wart, and this is one of the things I fret over at night as I’m trying to fall asleep. Hopefully, soon, it will all be over, and I will stand on the other side and say, “That wasn’t so bad. Why was I so worried?” We are taking two weeks off language classes starting next week in order to take care of some paperwork, including applying for our Ecuadorian drivers’ licenses.

Wish me luck! And I’ll try to blog some about the process, once it’s done.

Reflections from the Beach (written March 12)

We got back to Quito yesterday from a few days of family vacation at the beach. It was some much needed time away from all the responsibilities, stresses, and distractions of daily life. I wrote this in my journal on the morning we left, sitting out on the veranda and watching the vast ocean as the day dawned:

We are at Playa Almendro for a few more hours. 5 days we have enjoyed here — 5 idyllic, carefree days — and I don’t want it to end. But all too soon, we will be loading up for the journey back to Quito.

I kept thinking I would grab some time to write while we were here. I even brought my computer, to do some writing for my blog. But I never turned it on the entire time we were here, and I never sat down to write in my journal until this morning. Maybe I was just having too much fun. Or maybe I needed a break from even the responsibility of writing, much as I enjoy it. Or maybe I was more interested in just relaxing, just being, than I was in reflecting and pondering and gathering the words to write about my feelings.

We swam, played in the sand, soaked in the hot tub, played games, read books, watched movies, laid in the sun. It’s amazing how quickly life at the beach settles into a lazy routine based on the rising and setting of the sun. We were up each day by 7:00 (without an alarm) and falling asleep in our books by 10:30. We ate lots of yummy food, and thanks to my prep work last week on the meals, and Rusty’s help with the dishes, I didn’t have to spend all my time in the kitchen.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat out on the beach for quite awhile, watching the waves roll in and listening to the pound of the surf. And I thought how easy it is to be at peace here — away from all my worries and responsibilities and stresses, and with the wide empty ocean to look at, to listen to, to soothe my soul. It’s always been one of my dreams to live by the sea. But I wonder — if I could see this every day, would it still have the power to melt away my cares, to put life back in perspective for me? Or would it just become part of my “normal,” something I see but don’t really notice?

I do know that the sea calls to me, has always called to my heart in a way that I can’t really explain. Every time I come back to it, I feel a sense of homecoming. And that surprises me, not only because I’ve never lived by the sea, but because that sense of home, of belonging, often eludes me as a TCK and global nomad, someone who is from everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the ocean is much the same, no matter where you are in the world. It’s something I’ve been ruminating over since yesterday.