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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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Do You Swear?

Things are changing very quickly in the world I thought I once knew. I guess that is how it is, the world is constantly changing, but it had never been a threat to me before. Now it is. Even as refugees struggle to make sense of their new reality that won't allow them entry into the US for at least 3-4 months, I face the possibility of also having what I thought was stable be in jeopardy.

I hold European passports but I live currently in the Middle East. Though my country is not one of the banned ones, it is close enough that should the travel ban expand to include others, rumour speculates that it will be on that list. I just read an article that talked about the former Norwegian PM who was questioned at a US airport because he had been on a trip to Iran two years ago. While I thought my perceived elite citizenships would allow me to continue to travel in and out of the US without challenges, now I'm becoming very concerned about the future.

What amazes me is that people are able to defend the executive order with a straight face. Perhaps they never stood in line in the cold outside a tall metal barred gate, waiting to be let in only to face the sternest of faces behind a glass window, barking out questions without empathy as they were interviewed for a visa that would change their destiny. Perhaps they never stepped outside their small town in the Midwest or the South, never ate a meal with someone who spoke a different language than them, or cried when the latest shooting happened in a city they'd never been but was in a country close to their heart. Perhaps they did not understand that the black and white strokes on a paper, seemingly to protect the innocent was actually destroying the hopes and dreams of countless children. Perhaps their rational logic kept them warm at night and able to callously negate the stories of humanity, citing it as an emotional reaction.

I wonder if I'm the only person who feels somewhat helpless against this tidal wave of prejudice coming from a country that prides itself on being built by immigrants. The Statue of Liberty should hide her face in shame for no longer can she welcome the tired huddled masses. Yet in the midst of this tyranny, there is still a flicker of hope. The thousands of US citizens who are outraged whether those who were ready to welcome refugee families or those who could not place the banned languages on a map. Each one who stands up for justice and demands that, while the borders are protected, equal representation is given to bring in those families who have struggled for years to immigrate to freedom is a beacon of light in the abyss of night.

As for me, I watch the news and I wait. I do not know if the next time I step up to the bullet-proof window and hand my passport over for inspection, if it will be the last time I step on US soil. I do not know if he will smile and say Welcome to the United States or Right this way, ma'am, we have some questions to ask you. I have to trust that my God is bigger than a world leader and can overrule and direct even in the midst of chaos. But the uncertainty isn't easy.

Friday, January 27, 2017

To Relinquish

Sitting in my room that refuses to heat above 62 even though I've set the thermostat to 80, after a somewhat consoling breakfast of dried out khabaz (thin pita-like Arabic bread) and hummus, I was scrolling through my FB friends' feed when I came across a link for God Bless the USA. My all-time favourite song, I hit the link so I could hear Lee Greenwood sing the familiar tune. Until the phrases started to sink in. cuz the flag still stands for freedom and they can't take that away. . .where at least I know I'm free. . .

The debate that's swirling around Trump's latest executive order to halt processing of immigrants from specific countries is one that is tempered by emotion, the new president of the USA not-withstanding. Opinion pieces, statistics, and the voices of those who will be affected by it are everywhere I look. I am an immigrant and I understand the anxiety of those who were expecting to experience freedom, from war, from fear, from uncertainty and more. I battle against the unfairness that a few radicals can influence the fate of thousands of innocent ones. The ignorant often seem to control the future and it's hard to hold on to hope or believe God really is orchestrating events behind what we can see.

I am an immigrant, yes, but I am one who has the dual privilege of standing between countries. I already hold citizenship in two European countries where, though I have not lived since a child, I can return to easily should I desire to pick up my life and leave. Presently, I live in the Middle East where my heart has found its home but simultaneously I struggle to reconcile a possible need to acquire citizenship of the country that symbolizes freedom to some but not all. If I want to stay here, ironically in a country that is close enough to the ones on the current blacklist, I have to either give up my rights to a long-term future in the US or become a citizen that promises to uphold values that stand diametrically opposed to mine in regards to family, social justice, moral ethics, and more.

The person who wrote God Bless the USA had likely never stepped outside its borders and I do not blame them for their perception of freedom. We each understand the concept based on our personal experience and I lack another layer of perception because my passports have allowed me to enter many countries with little hassle. But to choose that song, iconic though it is, to celebrate the new presidential reign is one that raises every hackle and rallies every cell of determination to ensure that people know this is not so. Yes, America was built by immigrants but whether they will be denied entry, as doubtless many will be in the coming years, or whether they will choose to relinquish their rights because they cannot uphold its insistent ignorance, the immigrants may soon be realizing that it is no longer the land of the free or the home of the brave.