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Sunday, April 16, 2017

There

I knew there was culture shock going from country to country when it was a significant move. I didn't think it would hit this strong, though, after visiting a country I'd never lived in for just 5 short days. I'd like to blame it on a bad cold, my friends gone because it's Easter vacation, and too much to do, but I think I cannot. I think I really am experiencing a good old fashioned case of culture shock and I'm not happy about it one bit.

I booked a ticket to Austria a couple of months ago when fares were cheap and I knew my cousin and family were going to be around (the last time they were headed off for a weekend camping and hiking in the mountains with their church and that wasn't my idea of a holiday so I'd ended up not going). Splurging a little, I also booked tickets to a concert in Vienna and a Bavarian Salt Mines/Sound of Music combo tour in Salzburg, along with booking a nice little hotel in Lengfelden just outside Salzburg for the two days I would be staying there before heading back to Lebanon.

Bright and early on a Friday morning, after just two hours of sleep, I stepped into a shared cab, my arms filled with a stiff package that contained a wedding dress. Not mine, but for a Syrian woman who lived in Vienna. I was the courier, bringing it from her relatives, along with all the accoutrements that accompanied such a beautiful dress that was resplendent with tulle. I managed to get all said items through the various check points until the final security screening just before the gates.

It was then that some alert young fellow, awake so early in the morning, decided that the 6 feet of wiring that was carefully wrapped between the folds of the stiff skirt was not allowed on board. Perhaps it was seen as some sort of weapon, I don't know, but the poor young man's minimal English and my non-existent Arabic didn't help to resolve the problem.He went first to one colleague and then another, asking their opinion. I hastily brought up a picture of a wedding dress hoop skirt to show them what the wiring was for, to which they glanced at uncomfortably and resumed their discussion. A woman, re-dressing after security, shrugged her shoulders and wished me good luck.

Finally, the young man told me I would have to go all the way back through the 4 security and immigration check points to the front of the airport and check in the offending wire. He suggested I check the entire wedding dress, which was stuffed into an oversized khaki garment bag, but I decided to put it inside my backpack and check that instead. Then I looked at my ticket. Boarding time was in 5 minutes and there was no way I was going to make my flight if I had to go through all that hoopla. Plus, I'd already checked a bag and it was on my flight. I showed him my ticket. A more senior officer showed up just then and when asked what to do, shrugged nonchalantly, giving the okay for me to proceed to my gate, wire and all. I thanked the young man profusely.

Several hours later, the pastor of one of the Viennese churches was collecting the wedding dress from me at my cousin's house. I spent the first three days of my holiday with my cousin and family, thoroughly enjoying the culture, getting to know their vivacious kids, and drinking in the Viennese countryside. I was disappointed that the Danube wasn't really blue or beautiful, for that matter, and Vienna's industrialization was a bit much, but downtown more than made up for it with its opulence of architecture.

All too soon, I'd boarded a train for my second destination and slept most of the way to Salzburg. There I slid down wooden chutes, sang How do you solve a problem like Maria, dutifully ate the requisite apple strudel, and lost myself for a few blissful moments among storefronts that belonged in a museum. Reality had to catch up with me, though, and Tuesday morning found me on a train back to Vienna to catch my flights to Istanbul and beyond. Austria had been wonderful but it was time to go back home. At least that is what I thought.

I was at the beginning of a horrid cold so my trip was split between drinking green tea and sleeping, as I stumbled between gates and tried to find something reasonable to eat in the airports. As the plane descended over Beirut's night lights, I felt anticipation at my return. The drive home on now-familiar streets brought a huge smile to my face and I didn't even mind lugging my bags up the two flights of stairs to my room. I was happy to be home. I thought.

I'm on the tail end of the cold now, so just about back to feeling normal physically. Yet I find myself strangely unbalanced emotionally. I'm not sure why and it's somewhat discombobulating. It's strange to find myself wishing to return to Austria, Salzburg in particular, or even California, which I never wanted to feel homesick for. I can't place the reason, or even quite the feeling.

I'm tired of dusty grocery stores where I can't find what I need. I'm tired of driving down streets so congested, I can't find a place to park or turn where I need to. I'm tired of picking through a bin of aubergines to find just one that isn't soft and then being charged the wrong price when it's being weighed. I'm tired of cooking at a friend's house and trying to gauge how much I'll need for the coming week, though I'm thankful they let me cook there. I'm tired of waiting for the washing machines to be free so I can do my laundry, while making sure I have enough pegs and it isn't a wet rainy day so my laundry will dry properly. I'm tired of feeling stuck on a campus, but not sure where to do, who to go with, or how to get there if I were to find something interesting to do. I want a car, or easy public transportation that's cheap and clean. I want a grocery store that has everything in one place and in English, so I know what I'm buying. I want a washing machine that isn't full of someone else's balls of hair or lint.

I feel somewhat guilty writing this. After all, there are people who can't see colour, so they've never seen a beautiful sunset. There are people who can't hear, so they've never heard the voice of their loved ones. There are people who die every day from starvation, who struggle to get ahead because they were born into poverty, who live in war-marked countries and never know if the next bomb will be their last breath. I don't have any of those problems. I just have a bad case of culture shock and home sickness, though for what home I am completely uncertain. Perhaps for now, it's simply not this home. Though I thought, when I came, it would be forever, now that pronouncement is not quite as solemn as it was then.

I'm not exactly sure what to do. I guess I'll call home, eat some comfort foods, hold my friends' twin baby boys close, and remind myself that when I was there, wherever there happened to be, I wasn't happy either. When I tally the total marks, here is still ahead. Perhaps for now, that will have to be enough. I hope so.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Arms Full of Hope

I'm feeling homesick tonight. It's a strange feeling, one I haven't noticed for more than 6 months now. It began this afternoon, as I was at Karen's house. When she and Dilip knelt with their little twin one-year olds for family prayer, a sudden nostalgia came over me. Later, I sat and drank tea while she tidied up the kitchen and we chatted comfortably about life. It felt like home even as I missed a home I'd chosen to leave. Perhaps, though, it wasn't the physical building I missed as much as the memories tugging at my heart to be with the ones I love.

There are days when I light up with joy inside and can't contain the excitement bubbling over. Then there are days like today when I'm a little more subdued. When the thought of maneuvering the bumper-to-bumper traffic to pick through soft onions and try to gauge if an avocado will last two or three days is just too much for me to handle. When the thought of finding a friendly dentist whom I can trust to take care of my teeth without yanking out ones I need or getting trigger-happy with the filling gun is more than I can face.

So I put on Yiruma and eat a chocolate Easter egg. And I smile because I know that this too won't last. Maybe tomorrow, or maybe it will be a week from now, and I'll be ready to step into this crazy big big world I live in and embrace the adventure. I'll hop into a service taxi, use my three words of Arabic, and sally forth to the unknown. This is why I came and why I continue to challenge myself beyond the comfortable. To breathe, I have to keep living life bigger than I can imagine. It is only then that I know. . .homesickness is merely a glimpse in the past but as I turn my face forward I see only light. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Keep Speaking

What's your last name? the exuberant distinctly-accented South African said as she reached for my name tag. I flipped it around, simultaneously telling her. Did you write a book? I looked in the bookstore and I couldn't find it. Startled, I shook my head. No, I hadn't written a book, I said. Well, you should write one then, she insisted. I thanked her for the kind words as she left to speak to another attendee.
 
A book. It was something I had thought about before, but had never known exactly how to focus my writing. Sure, I blogged about my feelings, reflecting on how my TCK experience had coloured my adult life and how I approached life. I wasn't so sure I had enough material to write an entire book about a specific part of my TCKness or whether I should write until I had integrated all my identities or perhaps until I got married. It would be good to have a well-written conclusion already figured out before I wrote.

Loss is something we all deal with, regardless of whether we move countries, cities, or cultural contexts. As the world becomes increasingly more accessible, chosen migration becomes the norm. This affects us all to some extent, whether we recognize it or not. When we feel we must bury those losses, we struggle even more to validate our experience.

As I walked out of the conference venue today, I nodded my head. This would be the next step. A book. So the next time someone asked me, Do you have a book? I could smile and say Yes.

To Belong

Just finished 3 days at FIGT, a conference that I had the privilege to go to for the first time in my life. It sounds like it's been around for quite a while, at least 10 years, from what I heard some of the other attendees saying. Just like any other experience in life, I started out feeling excited yet somewhat nervous about what it would be like. I came in quietly, observing, and dreading the many tea breaks when the mostly-female group would converge on snacks and hot drinks, chatting to old friends and meeting new. A "New Attendee" sticker on my name tag made me stick out even more.

My initial impression was that there wasn't as much TCKness as I had been expecting. I hadn't spent too much time studying FIGTs target audience, so while I was indeed one of them, being a TCK, there were many more who fell into their group, including expat spouses, global nomads, or families preparing to go overseas for the first time who had perhaps been involved in international work of some sort, such as my friend Lisa who had been directing a sports program geared towards international school children.

The first morning, after managing to get on the wrong tram and having to backtrack at the next station, I found myself in a large very empty hall, waiting to go through a full dress rehearsal for our IGNITE! session the following day. Lisa F, our very cheerful coordinator, was busily rounding up everyone and going over last minute microphone adjustments with the AV guys. I sat quietly in the back of the room, nervously going over my speech one last time while studying the five other female presenters at the front of the room. They were either older and more mature or more charismatic than me and I felt somewhat intimidated. I tried to remind myself that my message was equally as important as theirs but wasn't convinced.

Soon Lisa called us up and went over the basics. Then we went right into the rehearsal. I hadn't paid attention to the order of speakers so was blissfully unaware of when I was presenting. Suddenly, my name appeared on the what-seemed-like 50-foot high screen. I stepped onto the stage and began my talk. It was disastrous.

Okay, not completely disastrous but I stumbled through the end feeling even more nervous than before. The 6-person audience smiled encouragingly at me, while Lisa said to be sure to speak up a little louder on the day as my voice was too soft in certain parts. I'd been memorizing my speech the past week or so, but wasn't prepared for a screen prompter, which distracted me as I ended up looking at the floor while reading the slides instead of looking at the audience and reciting my speech. That, combined with my attempt to hold a cordless microphone in my right hand and flip my miniature index cards with my left, while scanning the audience and trying to remember to emotively deliver the words was too much multi-tasking for me.

I spent the rest of the day memorizing my speech, using a technique my former choir director, Seth, had used to help us with the tricky bits of songs. I went over and over the cards I was struggling with, worked on linking them to previous cards, and then began to string together the speech back to front. I sat for an hour on a rustic hand-carved wooden bench for two in a secluded part of the famous Keukenhof and went over my 6.5 minute speech over and over. I'd realized that when I had a brain freeze, I couldn't carry on, so I worked on saying the entire speech even with mistakes, rather than stopping to correct myself. There was no time to repeat or hunt for words--the slides auto advanced every 20 seconds so it was a case of make it or break it.

In my room that night and the next morning, I practiced using my laptop, the kitchen counter, and my hairbrush as props. I placed the laptop on the floor as a makeshift screen prompter, placed my index cards on the counter so I could flip them over one by one rather than use one hand to move them behind each other, and held the hairbrush to my mouth as a pretend microphone. After three successful trial runs of the entire speech, I knew I was ready. It was then that I cried.

As I'd worked on my speech for the past month, while I was writing from my heart and my experience, I hadn't really allowed myself to feel the emotion that accompanied the charged words, such as intangible loss, reinventing identity, living between worlds, telling our story, and so on. I knew it would make a difference in how I spoke, but I also knew I couldn't afford to get emotional on the stage and risk losing time as I presented my important message.

When I realized that God had helped me to reach the point that I felt I had done all I could to prepare and had given me the ability to successfully memorize the speech, I got emotional. I got emotional as I realized I was about to deliver in just a few short minutes a distilling of my 36 years of life. This was my story. A story of loss, of identity, of reconciling, of integrating, of acceptance and relief in finding myself.

After we'd finished our presentations, Killian asked a question. How do you find returning has helped you find a place of belonging in yourself? I'd hoped I wouldn't get asked a question but this one I knew the answer to. I stepped confidently to the microphone, smiled, and said, That's a really good question. I then told him how returning, for me, validated who I was before. I found the touchstones of my past and they were now in my present, tangible and visible. Seeing them helped me relinquish the regret of leaving, so many years ago, when I didn't have the choice. This time I had the choice. . .to return. And so I did.

I ended my Ignite! by telling the audience I now live in Lebanon, which has been significant in integrating for me as I've been able to return to a place I found peace and joy and now call home. I encouraged them to return and I hope that Killian, Marilyn, and I won't be the only ones. I hope it won't take others more than 15 years to gather the courage, the money, or the motivation to go back. I don't know if it would have helped in my personal journey to return sooner. I don't know if I had to go through the fires of difficulty for that long so I could really appreciate the treasure of returning when I did.

When I lived in the US, I always looked forward to traveling back to familiar homes, and the Netherlands was no different, though I hadn't ever lived here for more than a couple of months at a time, usually during the summer when we came on furlough. This time, I found myself strangely surprised at the emotions that were tugging insistently. I didn't feel the same sense of coming home I had felt before. I missed my other home.

I missed two foot-high twin boys, my best friend's little tykes, with their infectious smiles and reaching baby arms wrapping around my legs so they could stand up or pulling me close so they could chew on my sweater's zipper. I missed sitting comfortably on the black faux leather armchair in my boss's office as we discussed how to solve the latest petty argument among colleagues or he told me stories about life. I missed stumbling through song service during Sabbath School, as I plonked away on the piano and prayed my tendency to go into autopilot while I played wouldn't lead to me making too many mistakes. I missed turning off all the lights in my room in the evening, leaving just the soft glow of the bedside table lamp on, and settling comfortably with a favourite book just before going to sleep. I missed sitting around the table at night, after the twins had gone to bed and my best friend's husband took a break from studies to join her and me for a cup of tea and a snack. I missed rushing into my classroom two minutes past the hour, still rubbing sleep from my eyes as four pairs of bright eyes looked back at me, ready to learn how to write. I missed the bitter taste of zaatar, the saltiness of jebne manaeesh, the crunch of sweet and sour tofu I adapted from a recipe I found online, and the plush taste of fresh mango juice. I missed waking up in the morning, excited for the adventure the day would bring, and going to sleep at night with a smile on my face.

Lisa did my quick intro, preparing the audience by letting them know we would be doing a switch emotionally to something a little more sober as the previous presenter had been quite engaging with good energy. Then Lisa was stepping down and I was stepping up onto the gray carpeted stage, several spotlights shining on me, the room filled with people dimly lit, I looked down at the screen prompter, saw my slide, and in that moment all 36 years coalesced into one aha moment.  

My Opa stood by the train tracks, huddled deep into his jacket in the cold Dutch winter. We'd snapped a quick photo together, I'd climbed on the train, and waved goodbye. I didn't realize it would be the last time I would see him. As we grow up, we learn quickly that to say goodbye is an expected part of life. We leave without a tear because we know, there will be many more goodbyes ahead.

I left FIGT just as I came. Quietly and without saying gooodbye. Yet I knew I wasn't leaving this time, as I had so many times before, without leaving a tangible imprint in the hearts of those who had heard my simple message, knit together through time. As I sat on the train, hurrying me through the Dutch countryside to the next part of my adventure, I smiled inside. Indeed, as I had told a crowd of people seeking to understand the TCK experience, I had found a place of belonging. It is in my heart.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Heart Still Feels

I just finished watching Lion, a movie about Saroo, an Indian young man who returns to India to find his birth mother after being adopted by an Australian couple when he was just a child. While the movie was rather slow-moving, I resonated with two thoughts. One, when he told his girlfriend, I've found home.

The other was that he kept returning to reconnect with his girlfriend, even though he kept pushing her away out of confusion. The story in his heart seemed too painful and too big to share with someone who came from a monocultural worldview but she had a deep desire to try to understand. I know these feelings. When Professor Baer tells Jo, as they sit in the rafters watching an Italian opera, your heart understood mine, the words echo in my heart.

This is what I search for. I'm looking for home not just in a country, where the smells of open market, people carrying you along in the push of the evening, crunching grilled fresh corn on the cob, or crickets accompanying the imam for evening prayers are as familiar as the detergent aisle in Walmart. I'm looking for home in a person. Familiarity. Solidarity. Continuity. Above all--loyalty.

I just finished putting together a 6-minute presentation for a conference in the Netherlands next month. I'll be speaking to professionals and families about how loss impacts TCKs and how as adults we search to reconcile our identities that have been seriously influenced by the continual loss. Saroo lost his language, comfort in eating with his fingers, his older brother, and the connection with his mother and sister. When he began to search for his past, he knew that it had affected who he was today. His identity was incomplete with those missing pieces.

I understand. This is why I look for someone who will take the time to sit and listen. Who will ask me questions about who I am and why I think the way I do. Who will be fascinated by my past and discover ways I view the world that I didn't even realize. And above all, who will look into my heart, see the missing pieces, and reassure me that even though he can never fill those empty places, he will cover them with love and understanding. Those places will always be empty but now I will be able to see them through a covering woven with the tears of someone who sat with me and understood my pain.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

I Am Free to Dance

Sometimes we come to the realization of things much later than we imagined and when we do, we wonder why we chose not to see reality. Stubborn, that is what I am. I easily fall into situations that I then have to try to extricate myself from. I insist that I'm aware and yet I really am lying to myself. I am good at that. It's born of years spent in a culture that insisted forgiveness equated minimizing lies, winking at poor behavior, and ignoring broken standards.

Perhaps what really counts in the end then is honesty to the core. This is best blended with respect, humility, and kindness and while I'm not saying one can be perfect, because I know we all fail, I am beginning to believe that just being nice isn't enough. It isn't too much to ask for total commitment that extends beyond the fairytale story of glass slippers and princesses.

We all fall. We all stumble. We all mess up on the way, sometimes because we're tired of living up to outside expectations and sometimes because we really don't know. Yet the real heroes are the ones who quietly get back up and keep going, even if it means crawling for a while until they have the energy to stand. They recognize their deep need of a Saviour and have learned to relinquish their attempts to be their own law.

There's a phrase from a song that keeps playing in my head. What do I know of Holy?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Goes By

The seasons change pretty clearly here. Summer's humid air so thick you can set a spoon upright in it gives way to the relief of autumn's cool breezes that blow away the layer of smog always hovering over the city. Winter's damp cold shivers into spring with the scent of fresh cut grass and itch of mutant ninja mosquitoes. Each season has its signature, its moments where I breathe in deep and smile, and its idiosyncrasies that make me long for the next one to arrive.

In the same way, I have clearly seen the seasons of my life change in the short year I've been here. When I first came, my heart was open to every friendly person and I enjoyed getting to know people from different cultures and learning how they saw life. Then I found a best friend and we did everything together, from eating in the cafeteria to going to church to singing in choir. As summertime came, tiny twin boys stole my heart and I began to spend most of my time with them and their parents. Soon I was part of a group that went out to eat and watch movies but even that group dissolved and I was spending most of my free time with the twins again.

Today I find myself somewhat stingy with my availability. Perhaps it comes with settling into routine and realizing that it simply isn't possible to befriend everyone. I'm realizing that it's okay to have just a handful of close friends with whom I invest my time and then to be friendly to everyone else. This is part of life and as the dynamics shift and seasons change, the faces change also. For me, though, I have a difficult time letting go.

I know realistically that, just as I choose whom to spend my time with, others will choose whether or not to invest in my life. It fills my heart with joy when I know that someone has chosen me; but it's elementary school all over again when someone I know I'd never forget allows me to slip easily out of their life. As a TCK, I live with the insecurity that I will never fully fit in therefore I will never be fully chosen by someone else because I don't belong. I'm not exotic enough to stand out but my ability to blend in is limited to how I look and not what I say or think.

I've been playing a song on repeat for several weeks now. It's a song by Lonestar that perfectly describes those I've seen standing on the tracks, their face turned away as the train I'm on begins to pick up speed while it heads away. Seasons change and I'm helpless to change the inevitable--one of us will leave. The only thing is. . .this time, I'm staying.