The move to my passport culture, a country I hadn’t lived in for 20 years, was littered with pain and grief. I felt the physical ache in my heart as we boarded the plane with the last of our belongings. I sobbed audibly as the plane wheels slammed down on the runway in Los Angeles. To me, it felt like epic defeat to end up in America, land of the so-called ‘free’. I promised TM I’d stick it out for three months.
Fast-forward six years later, and my same American husband tells me that I am thriving here, even more than he is. I’m not just surviving life in America but thriving. What!? Could it be true?
I have long shied away from the term “thrive” because it sounds like selling-out for anyone who prides themselves on traveling the world. But it is true that I am no longer intimidated by life in the States. For the most part, I have no urge to run away. I know how to do life here, I have found a place to belong and I am confident in my identity.
If you are a TCK about to make a similar move, thriving doesn’t mean you give up who you are or your deep-rooted longings. It doesn’t mean you will come to like everything about your passport culture or want to live there forever. It’s just that, if you put on your same accepting cultural lens you graciously use on far flung cultures, you might just find pockets of life and purpose in your passport culture.
In a state of despair, I wrote this journal entry as we were about to leave China six years ago:
As a white girl, I don’t belong in a Chinese inner circle but I feel I belong and have a place in society here. Though I have always looked foreign in China, the simplest of walks like the one on my way to work has permeated my world view forever. Then, when I think about moving to where we are moving, I get down down dooooown.
- Am I about to be resigned to a life of boredom and ignorance, terrible food culture and waste?
- How can I go from constant brain stimulation to plain old life in America?
- What if people never understand the real me?
- Will people ever even ask where I come from?
- Will I forget language and culture?
- Will I be doomed to eternal death by monoculturalism?
- What do I do with smalltalk?
- I hate speaking English all the time – will I ever meet speakers of other languages?
Last Sunday, I sat down with TM and reflected on how I have come to embrace this life in America that I never chose. And not only embrace it, but dare I say ‘thrive”, without losing my self in the process.
Arguably, I think the first step towards thriving is to be fully present in your goodbyes and welcome the process of grief related to leaving. As you grieve, think of comfort measures that keep you alive. I would often go on a long run, enjoy a bubble bath, or journal my thoughts.
While you won’t rid yourself of the grief, familiar sights and smells and sounds can remind us of who we are and where we came from in a new place. When I was in a deep, dark place in those first years, one wise woman counseled me to “build all around you the places that you miss”. How lovely to begin to unwither to the sound of Chinese lessons, Putumayo Indian music or even in simple things like displaying my French novels on our bookshelf.
When you are ready, dare to peel the plastic off your new furniture and live in it. Don’t just cling to your previous circles through Facebook but rather choose to present. I did such a poor job at this. I was legitimately depressed in those first two years. I had hoped and assumed we’d move away much sooner. Today, I regret wasting two years being physically present albeit mentally anywhere but here.
Don’t isolate yourself. As soon as possible, find outlets for your hobbies and passions shared by people in your new city. If you were an ultimate frisbee aficionado in Bali, chances are, you can connect with people in your new location who share your hobby. This takes so much courage. It took me two full years to muster up the courage to go to my first networking event, my first meet-up group and to look for a Chinese church. Later, I met my best local friends pursuing my love of cross-cultural living, birth, food, Christ, running…
Realize that all humans around the world have the same core needs and longing for acceptance and affection. Yep, even people uninterested in world issues. I remember being invited to a girls’ evening. I was bored with the gushy small-talk about beauty and pop culture. I returned home, vowing to never meet with them again. It was all too awkward and meaningless. Today, I could meet up with those same people and shrug off the small-talk and find connection knowing we share the same needs all humans do.
Seek out relationships with international and monocultural people who “get you”. Over the years, I have been carried by Third Culture friends who share my culture, or a Slovenian, a German, a Rwandan friend who have similar longings. What a breath of fresh air they are in the journey. And, over the years, I’ve also developed friendships with monocultural friends who don’t just marvel at the country name-dropping, but try to understand. They do exist.
Six years later, I can confidently write that even the scariest place holds within it immense beauty. I still find obscenely large SUVs wasteful. I still get so angry at the state of healthcare or gun violence. But, by the sheer grace of God, I no longer walk around bitter at American society at large for the things that irk me. I have discovered much beauty and many like-minded people, even in the middle of America.
I definitely sobbed arriving here, kicking and screaming. But the real surprise is, I may just shed a tear leaving.
Passport image courtesy dcgreer