Category Archives: Third Culture Kids

My childhood experiences that will sound strange to my kids

This post was supposed to go up on Friday but, ironically, the internet went down and stayed down for almost two days. Why ironic? Well …

The summer before we moved to Laos, Mike and I met both sets of our parents in Alaska and we all did the inner-passage cruise together. We learned something about our parents on that trip, something that shocked us.

Only one of the four of them had an indoor toilet in their house when they were born.

I know, sort of hard to imagine, right?

During that week we spent more than one dinner talking about childhoods. All four of them grew up on farms. Mike grew up on a farm. I, with my globally nomadic childhood, was the odd one out. But even my cross-continental urban mishmash provided a patchwork of experiences that I suspect will seem utterly foreign to my own children.

Here are some examples.

1.   The only show I can remember watching television before I was nine is the A-Team (Bangladesh). If there were other English language programs playing there, I don’t remember them. I’m sure I probably watched Playschool etc. in Australia earlier, but I don’t remember those either. Between the ages of 12 and 16 (Zimbabwe) we only had two channels on TV. English programming came on one at 3pm and the other at 5pm. My favorite shows were MacGyver and Mash. MacGyver was my first and most serious tele-crush.

2.   I spent hours in 7th-10th grade (Zimbabwe) taking dictation by hand in my classes at school and then memorizing those hand-written facts because we didn’t have textbooks.

3.   I researched many of my school assignments using the big set of encyclopedias my parents kept on our bookshelf.

4.   I first learned how to sew on a hand-crank sewing machine.

5.   I weighed out all my ingredients for cooking class on scales using little bronze counterweights.

6.   I had to do my 10th grade national physics exams using log tables instead of a calculator (that one was archaic even for Zimbabwe, I think).

7.   I was still buying tapes instead of CD’s when I was fifteen.

8.   I was in 11th grade (and back in the U.S.) before I turned in my first typed school assignment.

9.   The first two years I was at university (in Australia) while the rest of my family was in Washington DC, I used to write them letters once a week (yes, the type that require you to put pen to paper and use an envelope and a stamp). Also, we shared one phone between nine dorm rooms, and that phone could only accept incoming calls. I was lucky if I got to chat with my family for half an hour (usually Sunday morning) once a week.

10.   I was 21 years old when I got my first personal email address.

11.   I was 27 years old before I ever owned a cell phone.

Most of these experiences that will probably seem old-fashioned to Dominic (heck, they seem old-fashioned to me) have to do with how much information technology has changed during my lifetime.

I came of age right alongside the internet, and in many ways I think I’ve been very lucky in this. Yes, I didn’t have email or facebook during those early, hard days of separation from my family. But now I also don’t have much childish or teenaged awkwardness documented in Technicolor for all the world to view. You can find out a startling amount about me online now, but basically none of that has anything to do with my life before the age of 25, and that suits me just fine.

If and when he wants to play this game in twenty years, Dominic will be able to tell people that when he was born his parents didn’t own a car or a motorbike (we only own bicycles) and that we didn’t have hot running water on the ground floor of our house (the water in the showers is heated by wall-mounted units). He can thank Laos for that. He will also, however, be able to thank the internet and his mother for the fact that anyone who so desires will be able to find photographs of him the day that he was born and any number of baby anecdotes. Little D’s got the best of both worlds. Or perhaps, the worst?

What are some of your childhood experiences that will probably seem foreign to your own children? And what do you think about parents writing about their kids?

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Stories we tell our grandchildren

It’s been a busy week on this side of the world. I’m juggling two consulting projects from the kitchen table here in Laos, both for clients in London. One of the projects is reviewing training material for workshops running in Sudan and Chad next week. Sudan, incidentally, is where my father headed off to for two months yesterday on his own consulting project. The world seems very small sometimes. Well, except when you’re flying across the Pacific – then it seems enormous. Or when you stop and think about the fact that your immediate family is once again scattered over four continents.

OK, the world is not that small come to think of it. But thank God for the internet, and for skype. One of these days I will write an Ode to Skype. I will.

Did you know that when I first went to University in Sydney (way back in 1995) I wrote weekly letters back to my parents – who were about as far away as they could get, in Washington DC – and received weekly letters back? I sometimes also used to receive cartoons that my mother had clipped from the Washington Post and stuck in an envelope and posted with nary a note inside. Not even a scrawled, “Thinking of you. Love you”. This practice invariably made me roll my eyes. We didn’t even have our own individual phones in our dorm rooms. Nine of us that lived in the same group shared a phone in the common room that could only receive incoming calls. So on Sunday mornings I used to hang around the dorm waiting for my parents to call in. Sometimes we connected, sometimes we didn’t.

Mike and I were talking the other day about the stories that we might tell our grandkids. My grandparents tell stories about not finishing high school. Or getting married at twenty and then having him go off to fight in WWII two weeks later and not coming back for two years. Or owning and working a sugar cane farm, and the year that there was a huge flood and the barn burned down. My father talks about growing up on a dairy farm, and how it was a special treat to have chicken on Christmas day, and how he had to milk all the cows before and after school. My mother talks about going to school in a three-room schoolhouse down the road with 40 other kids.

These stories fascinate me. I can remember this sugar cane farm – my mother’s parents didn’t move off it until I was about thirteen – and I briefly attended this tiny school in between the time we lived in Bangladesh and the first time we moved to Washington DC. I’ve glimpsed these lives, but they haven’t really been mine. I feel that way a lot, actually – that I’ve glimpsed many, many different lives, but most of them haven’t really been mine. This process of figuring out what sort of life has been and is mine remains an ongoing one.

Mike and I decided the stories that would probably seem as foreign to our grandkids as stories of two-year separations during World War II seem to us, would be the stories about LBTI – Life Before The Internet. It will probably be inconceivable to our children, not to mention our grandchildren, that this time existed before computers in homes, before email, skype, and mobile phones, before the bone deep assurance that you can reach almost anyone, almost anywhere, as quickly as you want and need to.

I reckon these stories – the ones about handwriting school assignments in eleventh grade, researching papers using only our set of encyclopedias, penning letters home in University, scheduled weekly phone calls that sometimes didn’t happen, and years spent in overseas countries when my parents could only call their parents very infrequently (and it cost the moon) – these are the stories that will smack of science fiction. They will force these children to imagine a world very different from the one that they know.

What do you think? And what sorts of stories have your parents and grandparents told you? Does the world that they grow up in seem foreign or familiar?

Speaking of families…

Last week I wrote about the extended iterative dialogue that it takes to co-ordinate a McKay family holiday (or a trip to town to get bread for lunch). When Mike read the post that night he laughed.

“That’s ten conversations and four emails you put out before I emailed my parents about this,” he said.

There were at least two reasons for this. The first of those is that Mike is considerably busier than I am at present. The second is something I’ve learned since getting married…

[Drum roll, please]

Not all family systems operate the same way.

I know, it’s a total revelation, isn’t it?

Mike and I met for the first time, after three months of letter writing, in Australia. He flew over from PNG while I was home for holidays and came to stay at my parents place with me for ten days so that we could figure out whether or not we were going to date.

On his first morning there, my Dad marched out onto the porch and handed him the phone.

Mike looked at him blankly.

“You can give your parents a call and let them know you’re here safely,” Dad said.

“Uh,” Mike looked confused. “I emailed them. They know where I am.”

“But don’t you think you should give them a call?” Dad asked, while I tried not to giggle.

“If I call them from here, they’re going to think something’s wrong,” Mike said.

“But they might be worried about you,” Dad said.

At that I did giggle. Mike had spent much of the last two months on remote islands in the South Pacific, and I had been in Ghana and Kenya. Neither of us had rung home during any of these trips.

I knew what Dad was doing. He wasn’t just trying to assuage any worry Mike’s parents may have been feeling about his safety. By handing Mike the phone and inviting him to use it to make a long distance call he was less trying to send the message, you should call home, than the message, our house is your house, make yourself totally comfortable.

The problem was, Mike was only picking up on the first of those messages, and he was starting to look a little hunted.

“But if I call them they will be worried about me,” Mike said.

As I recall this ended in a stalemate. Every couple of days for the first week Mike was there Dad would wave the phone in his general direction and Mike would look confused and a bit uneasy.

Now the following is offered with the disclaimer that I still have a lot to learn about Mike’s family. I may not exactly be on target with this, but here’s one thing I think I’ve learned so far: Mike’s family tends to be more direct than mine.

If Mike’s family wants to make you feel at home they say, “make yourself at home.” When his Dad wants to make me feel part of the family he gives me a hug and says, “welcome to the family.” His Mom says, “I hope my son is treating you right and, by the way, if you have any arguments I’m on your side.”

When Mike and I decided to get married I expected (in theory, anyway) to learn things about Mike’s family – ways of doing things, styles of interacting – that were different than what I’d grown up with. What I didn’t expect was that I’d learn almost as much about my family.

They warned us in marriage counseling that, when in doubt, we should rely on the spouse whose family it is to interpret what’s actually going on and what the appropriate course of action might be.

“You should each act as mediators and translators for your own family of origin,” they said. “It can take five or ten years, maybe more, to really understand the family culture your spouse comes from.”

At the time I thought that was a little extreme. Ten years? Seriously?

But now, watching my own family through two sets of eyes, I’ve seen enough operating system collisions involving them and Mike that I’m not so sure anymore.

Don’t get me wrong – these have not exactly been “two oil tankers meeting at high speed on a freeway” moments. They are usually more “two rowboats drifting past each other in the night” moments. But one thing they have taught me is that while my family can be direct, we are also, often, very indirect.

A couple of months ago Mike and I were with my parents on a ferry in Canada. It was crowded and busy, so Mike stood in line and got us both all some food while Dad went to find a table. Mum and I wandered over when they’d gotten everything sorted.

Bacon cheeseburger, as requested, and French fries. (Yes, there were many valid reasons for finding – when I weighed myself on a baggage scale in Vancouver airport the night we left for Laos – that I was five pounds heavier than I had been one month earlier).

Anyway, back to my burger. My burger that had mayonnaise on it.

When I opened it up and saw this I said, “Oh yuck,” and proceeded to scrape off the mayonnaise.

About ten seconds later, my mother leaned across the table and said to Mike, “When Lisa says ‘yuck’ she doesn’t mean, ‘you screwed up’, she just means that she doesn’t like mayonnaise.”

“But I did screw up,” Mike said, “because I knew that, and I could have asked for no mayonnaise. But what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t take it personally when Lisa’s not happy?”

“Yes,” Mum said, not even glancing in my direction.

“Oh Mike,” I said, leaning across the table beside Mum, and grinning. “That’s one of the things Mum is saying, but it’s not even the most important one. The primary message in what she just said wasn’t for you at all, it was for me, and that message was: When Mike has stood in line for twenty minutes to get you lunch don’t you open up your burger and say “yuck” you little ingrate.

Mum laughed.

“You’re very good,” she said. “That’s exactly what I was saying.”

“No!” Mike was dumbfounded. “How could you possibly get that out of what she just said???”

“How could you not get that???” I asked.

Mike took a bite of his own burger and sighed. “I don’t understand how you – an Australian – managed to grow up mainly in Africa and the US yet turn out to be so Asian in your preferred communication style. On the bright side, I guess you’re going to fit in well in Laos.”

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Family Planning

This week Mike and I have been trying to lock down an itinerary for December. We hadn’t planned on going anywhere this December – we decided we’d had quite enough travel in the last eight months, and we’d already been in Australia and Washington DC several times during the last couple of years. No, we were going to enjoy having our feet on the ground and the coolish weather in Luang Prabang (they promise me that it is coming). This Christmas we were absolutely, definitely, staying put.

Unfortunately, though, we have good friends. Regrettably, a couple of them (yes, you, Tristan and Amber) chose this year to fall in love and get engaged in Fiji in a sunset-drenched blaze of romantic glory. And, alas, they invited us to their wedding – in December, in Australia.

So Mike and I have been talking tickets this past couple of weeks, and budgets, and leave from work. We’ve been talking weddings and family gatherings, the power of positive presence at key moments, and how much it meant to us that people came from near and far to witness our wedding vows last year. This December, we decided, we absolutely, definitely, wanted to try to make it to Australia.

I think Mike thought that once we’d decided this, it would be as simple as seeing if he could get leave, setting our dates, and booking our tickets. But he hadn’t reckoned on family planning.

No, people, not that sort of family planning. McKay family planning.

I don’t know how our particular family planning dynamic evolved. I suspect it’s the product of decades spent trying to co-ordinate five schedules across nearly as many countries. Throughout the years everyone in my family has had to learn to think ahead, and in many different directions at once, when it comes to travel.

If, for example, we can forecast that Dad will be returning from Africa around the same time that I will need to go to Australia to sit University entrance exams, we can plan for me (one week after I return from ten weeks in the Philippines) to fly over from Washington DC, meet him in Heathrow, and travel on with him to Australia.

If we can spot that I’ll be in Africa for work on a particular date far enough in advance, this allows Mum and Dad to plan work to overlap with me in Kenya, and then me to plan a three-day stop-over in Washington on the way back from Ghana to spend Thanksgiving with Michelle and Jed.

In my family it seems that we are all well-trained from years of practice to be scanning these puzzle pieces – the four other moving targets that are our immediate family members – and to be trying to fit those pieces together.

Particularly in the case of my beloved mother case, it is also not just international travel schedules that are the focus of this sort of scanning. Over the course of thirty minutes and approximately the same number of plan-iterations, my mother can (and regularly does) transform a simple plan along the lines of “someone needs to go to town to pick up bread for lunch” into:

  • Matt and Lou take one car and go to Riverside for a coffee date.
  • Michelle and I drop off Mum at the bakery to get the bread for tomorrow’s lunch (since we’ve changed the plan to have lunch at home today). Mum will then walk from there to the drycleaners.
  • Michelle and I drop off Dad at to the hardware store to buy a replacement washer for the kitchen sink tap. He will then walk from there to the Coles to buy milk and bananas.
  • Michelle and I go to the butcher to buy a kilo of sausages, run a container full of fresh cherries four streets away to my grandparents, and circle back around to my pick up first Dad, then Mum.
  • We go to Riverside to meet Matt and Lou and all have lunch together there before going from the cafe straight to the beach (“so don’t forget to pack sunscreen, and swimmers, and hats,” Mum will say, “Oh, we’re almost out of sunscreen, I better go to the pharmacy after the drycleaners and before the café, or maybe Matt and Lou can do it…”)

This sort of constant “scope-creep” of the plan can drive Michelle, Matt, and I unreasonably crazy.

Sometimes one of us will put their foot down.

“That’s it, no more. Mum, we’re sticking with this plan. No more changes. No pharmacy. This is the plan.”

“But why?” she will ask, genuinely mystified as to why we have lost patience with this endless dialogue in search of the most efficient plan ever concocted.

“Because,” we will answer, secretly enjoying this parent-child role reversal that we are now occasionally entitled to, “that’s just the way it is. And until you get your own field hospital during a civil war to manage (which you would excel at, by the way) you’re stuck with us. And we’re done with this planning process.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot about family planning this week as Mike and I have been trying to plan for this possible trip to Australia. For Mike, it’s meant several hours of chatting with me and researching tickets online. For me, it’s also meant six separate skype chats with my parents, two calls with my sister, one with my brother, one with a friend in Sydney, three all-family emails, and one children-and-spouses-only email. We are all trying to make sure everyone stays on the same page – and to feel our way forward and fit pieces together in ways that make sense for everyone. We are trying to answer these questions all at once:

Are Mike and I going to fly over together or separately? Are Michelle, Tahlia, and Jed going to come over this December from Washington DC, and/or are Matt and Lou going to go to them? Can Mike and I also link up with Matt and Lou (who are in Canberra), while the wedding is in Melbourne, and Mum and Dad are up near Brisbane? Is there any way I can co-ordinate with friends in Sydney too, or is that just too crazy/expensive? Are Mum and Dad – who had been floating the idea of a family holiday in New Zealand in February – going to be discouraged by this shifting timeline? Should we/can we shoot for a family gathering in this December between the wedding and Christmas, or try for next year instead?

Sometimes, I will admit, when I’ve just spent two hours on airline websites researching possibilities it’s enough to make me sigh deeply and wish briefly for a smaller world – not just a world where we’re all closer together, but a world with fewer variables in it.

But in many better moments I know that this is what Elizabeth Gilbert would term a “champagne problem.” It is the problem of someone rich in loved ones and in possession of enough disposable income to get on the plane in the first place. It is the problem of someone who is wealthy indeed.

As of yesterday the tickets are booked – well, those from Laos to Australia and back again, anyway. Still to sort out are the in-country movements, dates, and flights. Michelle, Matt, Mum, and Dad… I’ll be in and on skype tomorrow afternoon. Let’s chat.

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Pebbles, insults, and memories

Something awesome happened today.

Chip MacGregor, literary agent extraordinaire, called my book a “cult hit” on his blog. But that wasn’t the only awesomeness in his post. He also reproduced a letter he’d received from someone who’d sent him an unsolicited proposal. He wrote her a brief note saying that he didn’t think there was a market for her book, and she sent him back a letter saying, “Destruction? Is that not your very identity? Your cruelty oozes…You should be immensely worried about who you are… Believe it or not, Chippy, you’re a pebble, like all of us.”

There was a lot in there I left out, but I think the best part of the whole letter is the pebble line. Who gets all worked up – using the words gross, ugly, hatcheting, and demolishing – and then caps it off by calling someone “Chippy” and “a pebble”?

A pebble.

So I’ve been thinking about pebbles and smiling today. And that’s made me think about Alaska and a moment when I wasn’t smiling quite as much.

That story starts with souvenir collecting – a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago in an essay called “Thanksgiving”. Here’s an excerpt from that essay (and I swear that the word pebbles was, indeed, in there when I originally published it):

“What is it about being somewhere different that breeds the need to capture something we can carry with us when we leave?

The root of “souvenir” is the verb “to remember”, and the word has come to refer to keepsakes of sentimental value that remind one of past events. Despite the fact that stores selling mostly snow globes and magnets have managed to cheapen this French contribution to the global vocabulary almost beyond use, I still can’t quite let it go. I must admit that I love souvenirs. At their best, they are so much more than things. They are pebbles picked up along the path of life. They are reminders that this path stretches far beyond my living room.

This admission should not be taken to indicate a wholehearted abandonment of all pretension or my endorsement of plastic shot glasses and cheesy tee shirts. To the contrary, I consider my tastes to be highly refined. I may not be able to consistently assemble a trendy outfit, but I am an expert on what constitutes a good souvenir.

This expertise was gained the old-fashioned way – practice, practice, practice. As a wee child I started by collecting “things” – marble boxes inlaid with lapis from India, carved rhinos from Zimbabwe, bronze windmills from Amsterdam… By the time I was ready to leave home and head for University my bedroom looked like a miniature inanimate petting zoo had wandered into a Ten Thousand Villages display. As I packed box after box I decided that two new qualities needed to guide my souvenir collecting – a consistent theme, and portability.

So, in what I now see as my delayed “girl scout” phase, I started collecting patches. As a little girl I would have loved to belong to a club like Girl Scouts that awarded patches for doing things like setting fires, memorizing Bible verses, and reading 5,000 books (especially if that club had awarded patches by mail so that I didn’t actually have to interact with any other children to participate). Instead of a club, however, I got the occasional family-cockroach-massacre in Bangladesh where we competed to see who could amass the biggest pile of carcasses, and spent many hours on my belly in the dirt with my siblings trying to sneak around the entire perimeter of our five acre garden in Zimbabwe without the family dogs discovering what we were up to.

Perhaps if some caring soul had awarded a younger me patches to recognize outstanding achievements in cockroach hunting and canine evasion, I would not have had to spend time working through this phase as an adult. But no one did. So in a spectacular demonstration of resilience, I decided to start awarding patches to myself as souvenirs of my travels..”

After my delayed girl-scout phase I moved on to collecting Christmas ornaments. And, recently I’ve taken to picking up a pebble here or there.

The first pebble I picked up was in Turkey in 2007, at Gallipoli – that site of Australia’s most celebrated military defeat. Before we went, I hadn’t particularly wanted to visit Gallipoli, but my day there impacted me deeply. Just before we left I picked a pebble in Anzac cove. The stone I selected was red. Round on one side and rough on the other, it has been split in half. White veins of quartz run through it in a mirror image of the human body. I carry that pebble in my camera case now, and whenever I look at it I don’t think first of blood and loss and needless sacrifice, or even bravery and “mateship”. I think of graciousness.

But that is another story – the story of the Gallipoli pebble – and perhaps I will tell it someday.

Today’s story is about a pebble I found in my makeup drawer a couple of months ago while I was packing up to move to Laos. This pebble was a smooth, flat, oval. It was grey. It had three white lines of quartz encircling it. And I could not, for the life of me, remember where I had picked it up. Or why.

I kept this pebble on the bench for days, puzzling over it.

After a week, I threw it out.

Not even I could justify shipping a rock all the way from LA to Asia when I could remember exactly nothing about why it may be significant.

About a month after this, Mike and I were in Alaska. We drove from Anchorage to Talkeetna one day to gaze upon the majesty that is Mt McKinley, and when we were done gazing upon majesty we wandered down to the river. Like every river in Alaska, it seems, it was flowing cold and clear over thousands and thousands of smooth, grey, stones.

The pebble I had puzzled over and then discarded had probably come from a river, I realized. And, with that, I remembered…

I had picked up the grey pebble in New Zealand, on our honeymoon, the day we went white water rafting. I remembered reaching down for it – all wet and silvery and cold, so cold – just as the river had been that day. I remembered thinking (unusually sentimentally, for me) that the three parallel lines of quartz that marked the stone could represent Mike, me, and God.

“You threw away our honeymoon rock?” Mike asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face as I relayed all of this to him. “You threw me, you, and God, in the trash?”

“I couldn’t remember,” I said, sulking. “It gets really hard to keep track of where you, me, and God have been, where we’re going, and what it might mean. I was throwing away all my memories, trying to be an efficient packer, because someone wants me to move to Laos.”

“The memories you couldn’t actually remember?” Mike asked, not even trying not to laugh anymore. “Those ones? And that was really talented, by the way, you managed to blame both me and Laos.”

“Thank you,” I said.

So that is my pebble story for the day. What about you? What souvenirs do you favor?