The day began just after midnight of the eve before, saying goodnight to someone who had taken a very dear place in my heart and shared with me nearly half the time I'd been in this country I now claimed as home. Then a whirlwind of work, an evening with another dear friend who had become my family away from family, and I found myself drowsily sitting in the coveted front seat of a rickety blue and white bus, bouncing along the potholed road, as 16 young ladies sang and giggled behind me. I could hardly keep my eyes open to see the night lights with familiar shops along the way but I breathed in deep the warmth of belonging and felt at peace with where I was.
For the melancholy, though, moments of deep joy and peace often seem to tumble into moments of questioning. Or deep sadness. The next day, and the one following, I found myself sitting on my bed crying. And I couldn't tell you why. I just felt sad.
Amazingly, my sister messaged me in the middle of my tears asking if I was home. Moments later, I was on video chat with my family, as they showed me the beautiful sky view of Taipei by night. I struggled to get through a sentence or two when they asked how I was and then, for the next 20 minutes, they gave me the beautiful gift of listening in understanding as I tried to explain why I was feeling so sad.
Work was becoming less of a ministry and more of a burden, as I fell further and further behind trying to juggle two full-time positions in addition to other expected responsibilities. I woke up in the morning dreading the day and counted the minutes til my lunch break, then til the end of the day when I could lock my computer and my door and leave.
My coveted private room with single bathroom was less of a place to retreat in the cold winter than a symbol of how lonely being alone could be, as I missed my family dreadfully. I hated eating meals by myself and went out as often as anyone invited me so the echo wouldn't speak louder than my thoughts. Not having a proper kitchen or a car to easily buy groceries meant a challenge in preparing healthy meals so I skipped meals, ate processed foods that lasted longer, or ordered out whenever I could. A manaeesh with cucumbers/tomatoes/olives counted as my vegetables for the day.
The pressure of living in a small community that was all too eager to live vicariously through my life was starting to really bother me, as the constant questions piled on top of expectations became too much to handle. I skipped church because I didn't want people to ask me why I was sitting where I was, or wasn't sitting somewhere else. A simple grocery shopping trip turned into 101 Questions after and I didn't have the emotional energy neither the answers.
Then there was the TCK grief process. Somehow this never seemed to be complete but came in cycles, unpredictable, triggered by unknown causes that would appear to be unrelated, but when the grief came it would overwhelm. It was then that it was best if I could simply retreat for awhile to cry, mourn, and be kind to myself with silence, solitude, comfort food, and time with God.
Today I realized I didn't remember what it felt like to sit on the swing in my backyard in Burkina Faso. I was 9 years old when we left so I should have a memory of pushing back and then flying up in the air as high as I could go. I should hear the links as they slid past each other, rusting in the humid African sun. I should see the side of our house coming close as the swing swung out and I tried my hardest to get high enough to see the tiled roof. I should smell the dry grass tall with prickly burrs in places and the hint of cool as sunset approached. Yet none of those sensory memories came easily to the surface and I wondered for a panicked moment, Was that me? Why can't I remember me?
Perhaps this is why I've been writing ever since an aunt gave me a square wide-lined diary for an earliteen birthday, its simple lock and key easy to pick yet giving a sense of privacy, its padded brightly coloured cover inviting me to open it and write all sorts of interesting things inside. I still have it in a box that is now packed with all shapes and sizes of notebooks I've collected through the years as I graduated to spiral-bound college-lined notebooks from Taiwan with 0.38 tip coloured ink pens to match.
I write to remember myself. All the details, all the sensory memories, all the moments I'm afraid I will forget, because inevitably I do, is packed away in those notebooks. My biggest fear is that one day a fire will come along and burn the last scrap of evidence that I existed in time before the trauma of a family split defined me in a way I'd not chosen for myself. Today I still write. I blog, I journal, I keep a prayer journal, I write lengthy emails to my best friend and family, and I manage tomes even in text messages.
See, if I'd grown up in and lived in a single country, it would be easier to label my memories and shelf them in a way that prettily displayed their prominence in determining who I was. The problem was, I didn't have that luxury. Or limitation, depending on how you looked at it. Each country was an entirely new experience and required adaptation and flexibility beyond the ordinary one would encounter in familiar surroundings. I had to scrape out who I was from the community I'd lived in and try to sketch it into a new setting which only became more tiring as I grew older.
I've lived more than 30 years on visas. My experience was not one of initials carved into a wooden school desk, coffee chats with elementary school friends, or high school reunions. Cliques defined my inability to slip into cultures, though I grew adept at faking confidence or a don't-care-attitude when I sat alone in the cafeteria. I learned to look for the lonely so we could create a group together, to listen and blend well enough that others invited me along simply because they liked me rather than knew me, and to be okay with being alone on a Saturday night.
So the third-culture kid in me still searches for a home. A place of belonging. At times I think I've found it, when a deep feeling of peace and joy settles my soul in the most unexpected moments, whether in a concert hall or singing an old hymn or riding in the ancient van home from the airport. At other times, I glimpse it in a person when understanding comes without explanation. Then there are times I wonder if I will ever feel truly at home and whether I should resign myself to accepting there will always be tension between my multiple selves swirled in conflicting cultures and paradoxical worldviews.
These are not simple answers that can be found in a book or on an inspirational quote magnet. Each of us must walk the journey alone as no one else, no matter how culturally sensitive they are, has seen and experienced and processed life as we. Just as we long for them to give us freedom to be different, we need to allow them to not understand without judgement. For me, this means to write, to cry, to push myself beyond the comfort into the unknown. I listen, I read, I ask questions. And I am learning to forgive myself for forgetting.
I couldn't handle all those memories without collapsing underneath the responsibility of cataloguing each one in their respective place. It was too much to bring together all my realities into a single coherent one so I pulled each apart, like the segments of a mandarin, and threw myself into creating a new identity that absorbed as much of the host culture as I could to the point of being unrecognizable. The accent, the music, the hairstyle, the speed at which I spoke, the mannerisms, became me. So even as I wrote to preserve the memories in those particular moments, I slid a heavy metal door shut on who I was in a previous space of time.
A friend told me the other day, You have Lebanese mannerisms. I looked at her, surprised. She was a TCK too, familiar with our chameleon-way of adapting, and had noticed something about me that nobody else had. Perhaps because everyone else now assumed I was Lebanese, from the taxi driver who rattled off the location to confirm it and I simply nodded my head to avoid being charged extra, to the lady behind me at the grocery story checkout telling me a story about her day as I smiled at what I hoped were the appropriate places.
I realized I was doing the same thing all over again. In hopes of fitting in, of being fully accepted, of no longer being called the foreigner, I was trying to become Lebanese. In doing so, though, I was starting to forget who I'd been before.
Writing helps us remember who we were and reminds us who we are. I am bare feet running on cold blue tile on a hot African summer's afternoon. I am green Dutch countryside and black and white cows blurring by as the train heads to Schiphol. I am hot peppers stuffed into onion bhajas dipped in cooling yoghurt in my Mauritian grandmother's British kitchen. I am five a.m. prayers and roosters crowing to the beat of Lebanese drums. I am soured cabbage surrounded by a sea of red chili paste by rolls wrapped in pungent seaweed and salty fish soup.