At times we don’t know where we’re headed as TCKs. We can have the ticket in hand, the boarding gate memorized, the fluids packed in clear plastic bags but we cannot know where we’re actually headed. We just don’t stop moving. If we stop, we have to try to fit in. Tanya Crossman unfolds the pattern TCKs go through as they settle, blend in, find loneliness, feel displaced, and move on.
“Some TCKs end up self-isolating, in what can become a vicious cycle. They feel different, that they do not belong, so they act to fit in; the acting makes them feel distant from people, so they feel more isolated” (Crossman 279).
Adaption is natural to a TCK’s life. It forms our being. It’s an essential part of our past and our present. We’re constantly uncovering different layers of our childhood moves, those layers continue to shape us and change us. We’re always moving – either in person or in place or in time – and to stop would be detrimental to our spirits.
It’s striking to me that even as a TCK who welcomes change I can feel so displaced on certain days. The past few years have been full of life-changing transit. I should feel right at home in the midst of my ever swaying world. But I don’t. I feel lost and weak and moveable.
Two years ago my husband and I made the decision to move to Cambridge, England. He was accepted to a PhD programme in the engineering department. We packed up our Tennessee flat, said good bye to our American friends and family and embarked on a great adventure. At twenty-two we felt very incapable and yet invincible.
Invincible we were not.
After a lonely, difficult year of struggling through our savings we were faced with another daunting decision. My nursing license for the U.K. had not come through yet, and my U.S. license was expiring soon. Our savings were down to about three hundred dollars – not even enough for one flight. I had spiraled into a deep depression fueled by loneliness and anxiety. We were desperately waiting for funding to come through for his programme so we wouldn’t have to take on loans for another year.
Miraculously, in an answer to prayer, the funding came through – but my license did not. This led us to decide I would return to the States, live with his family, and work in Mississippi for a season. He would stay, continue his PhD, and we would work on finding a way for me to move back as soon as possible. As a wife, I was terrified of being away from my husband and my best friend for any length of time. As a TCK, however, I was delighted with our decision. I welcomed the change. Cambridge had been lonely, a year of depression and angst, a year of old wounds surfacing and tormenting me. I needed to leave. Moving seemed the right thing to do – moreover moving on my own seemed even more welcoming. I would be regaining some of the independence I’d lost. I was thrilled at this prospect of adventure once again – until it actually happened.
Landing in Mississippi, we were lovingly greeted by family. My husband settled me in and then returned to his research. I sat. I slept. I waited to feel at home.
After several months of waiting, I’m convinced that TCKs won’t know what it is to feel “at home” because the word “home” conjures up so many varied memories. Some come from tormented countries, others from too many countries, some from countries they’ve never claimed and others from countries they’ve never left. We try. We find hovels or nests we call our home. We drive ourselves insane with trying to blend old and new, past and present, forgotten and discovered.
During my first year of university I spent Thanksgiving in D.C. with my mum and sister. As we toured the lovely, decorated capital city I asked my mum to take me to the archives so we could look at the Declaration of Independence. I bore my eyes through that bullet proof glass and stared at the old parchment and willed myself to feel American. I didn’t. I felt a great respect for history, for the courage of the colonies, for the penmanship of Thomas Jefferson but other than that all I could think was “I wonder if there really is a map on the back?” Deep rooted patriotism for the United States was something I desperately wanted to experience because I believed it would help me feel at home. I believed it would help me fit in with my peers, my church, my friends. I believed it would help me separate myself from all the other memories of different countries. If my heart was committed to one nation, then surely the rest of me would follow. But that wasn’t my experience.
For a long time I resented myself for not feeling at home in America. I resented it because it deepened my feelings of displacement. Uprootedness. I’d left Scotland, Portugal, Angola, Kenya, the Middle East, all to land in The Southern States and will myself to be familiar with Cracker Barrel. Or Kroger. Or mispronouncing tomato. In every day though, something happens or comes to mind that reminds me of all those places and the farcical role I’ve written for myself unravels. Some days I convince myself I can forget all these countries and immerse myself enough in American culture to feel at home. Other days I sob while driving down the highway listening to American Kids on the country music station. Where is my little pink house, Mr. Chesney?
When asked recently how to describe being a TCK and the ensuing loneliness I said this: “I’ll always be a little girl on the inside. That little girl lives in Angola. She plays in the dirt, her mum is her teacher, her dog is her friend, her dad takes her to ballet across town. She’s constantly changing her role: missionary child at church, at the embassy, at a mission meeting, in America visiting family, at boarding school. These all require different languages, different facial expressions, different clothes and mannerisms. She was never fake, but adaptable, continuously reconfiguring and challenging herself to learn what was needed to cope.”
I still feel this way every day. I feel like the little girl from Angola (but not really from there) trying to determine what needs to be learned, what needs to said, what needs to be kept secret, what needs to be changed in order to cope. I feel displaced, disjointed, as if someone just picked that girl up from her make believe game and dropped her here – in the United States – and said “Okay, figure it out.” And each difference I notice between me and other Americans heightens the feeling of displacement.
One difference I found immediately between myself and my American family were my driving skills. Mine are minimal. I studied for my license, took a very shoddy Tennessee driving exam, and somehow found myself legally able to operate a car. I used this newfound freedom to make Sonic runs, go to clinical, drive to Kroger parking lots to sit and listen to the radio. I used it to make myself more like everyone else in my university – American. Free. I drove a small Ford focus. That zippy, compact car was both a source of independence and a prop in my American facade.
Since living in Mississippi I have driven my mother-in-law’s Volvo. It has taken several months to feel comfortable in a much larger vehicle. The most stressful bit of driving was backing out of the compound.
Often at night there are more than four or five cars parked neatly in the gated courtyard. I work the night shift so I naturally have to leave when the parked cars are at their peak. For a few weeks I refused to reverse. The electric gate was a terrifying hazard, not to mention the carriage house walls or that awful green dumpster. It was a nerve wrecking prospect all around. I have brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law who were more than willing to zip the Volvo out for me on high pressure moments – but still, it grated me.
Here was a blatant difference. It was brought up in conversation, often jokingly, that I didn’t reverse, or that I shouldn’t be afraid. It wasn’t easy to explain that this was one more thing I didn’t know how to do. One more thing that made me less a part of the family, less American, less here. I made a resolution to never ask someone to back me out again. One morning, it took about a 50 point turn for me to successfully maneuver myself out of the parking spot and into the alley. But I did it. Last week I backed all the way out of my spot, around another car, out the gate and around the corner in one smooth movement. No stopping and turning. No jerking forward or back. No breaking out in a nervous sweat. No panicked tears. An effortless reverse.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more American.
I conquered something so foreign, something I couldn’t even explain was foreign because for every one else it was banal. Nevertheless, I conquered it. The small, insignificant victory made me feel more like I belonged here, at least for the time being.
All TCKs have a reversing story. We all have small wins that become defining moments for us in our culture reintroduction. We all have small failures that hold us back. I think most of us would say we still feel like children, running from one country to the next trying to figure the world out. If you know TCKs, be kind with their differences. Be gentle with their unknowns and gracious with their oddities. If you are a TCK, I would encourage you to know you’re not displaced. Or homeless. Or in any way out of place. You have an Eternal Home and an Earthly purpose to further and glorify His kingdom. Our loss of home on Earth only sweetens our anticipation of His return. This truth has comforted me so much as I’ve made Mississippi home for the past year. It’s not like any place I remember, and I don’t always fit in, but it’s where He has me, so this is where I’ll be, playing make-believe in a different garden and learning how to reverse out of car lots.
And it’s where I belong – for now.
“The Inner Lives of TCKs .” Misunderstood: the Impact of Growing up Overseas in the 21st Century, by Tanya Crossman, Summertime Publishing, 2016 p. 279.
Resources for TCKs
Misunderstood – Tanya Crossman
A Life Overseas – https://www.alifeoverseas.com
The Stories of Noggy Bloggy – https://noggybloggy.wordpress.com