Monday, October 27, 2014

Following the Rules

"I feel like I don't know the rules!"

I am saying this to my husband, not for the first time by any stretch of the imagination, and most definitely not for the last. I feel this way often, though not always in so many words. Usually it is just a collection of moments that I string together in my head that form the overwhelming feeling I can describe, that when tied together, form only the shape of a question mark.

It may be because I am a gatherer, as a close friend put it, gathering in the expressions and words and mindsets and ideas of everyone around me as best as I can and trying to surmise them. It may be because I love psychology, studying body language and the way the mind takes in information. It may be because I love language, that every single word choice leads to an interpretation of something deeper. It may be because I love culture, its intricacies and mysteries that even those in it do not always understand. Whatever it may be it leads to things sticking in my mind long after the moment has passed.

The problem is I don't know where I fit in. Even with all those messages coming at me, I have a hard time knowing what they say. They are in another language. It is like a wall of glass rises up between myself and the world and I keep walking into it, unable to see where it stands. I can't tell if I offended or if I connected. I can't tell if I am supposed to speak or stay silent. Did I push too far? Can we talk about that subject? Are we on the same page or different planets?

"Sometimes when I don't know I just do it with more confidence hoping no one will notice," I admit to my husband.

"Then if you are wrong they might assume you are just rude." he stipulates and again I feel it rising up in me.

"How can I do it right if I don't know the rules?" and then in my head I hear and how can they teach me the rules if they don't even know they follow them?

I think about what they call my "identification" sitting in my wallet. Ironically right now it says Virginia, a place I have lived for only three months. Before that it said Texas, where I lived for four months. Before that it said Illinois, where I lived for six months. The face on it looks like me, but the rest of it does not. For it is an identification I can not identify with.

If you sit behind a desk at airport security and swipe my passport you will see a clearer picture of who I am. Like my passport, on the outside I say America, but when you flip through the pages of my life you find country after country, and even this will not tell you the whole story. But at least in an airport I know the rules. I can follow the signs, move with the crowd. I know when I must take off my shoes, and I put them back on when they give them back without prompting. I shake my head at the people who don't realize they have to take off their belt, or forget the change in their pockets. I sigh at the people who have to stop and ask where something is located, or what happens next.

People wandering LAX 
But that is me in real life, setting off alarms and wandering around looking lost.

"Whenever I'm not sure I just ask," my husband says and I am shocked that he might sometimes be unsure.

But maybe it is time I start stopping to ask. "What are the rules here?" I will start to say. "Is this okay to say?" I will remember to ask. "Too much? Too far?" I will wonder aloud with my mouth instead of silently in my head. I will show my ignorance and hope for grace in the moment instead of forgiveness after it.

And then, like in the airport, after I sigh and shake my head, when I see someone who needs help, I will hope someone will help me, even though I don't know the rules.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Cracked Mirror

It had been a while since I had interacted with a TCK when suddenly I was surrounded by them. If you have never been surrounded by TCKs you need to try it. They spanned from middle school age to just older than myself. Planning for this special weekend was unique. I had to fight the urge to plan out every minute, knowing that my kind is expert at bonding, especially with a whole slew of people who would never ask you where you are from.

I love how close they are all sitting
We all piled into a semi circle of couches almost immediately, introducing ourselves and each other, laughing, and feeling a hint of what home might feel like to others. It was beautiful.

The younger ones knew only that they were different to a small extent. They were living still in limited worlds where everything still seemed normal. The older ones were soaking up every moment like a sponge, recognizing how unique this experience really was, and relishing a moment where everything really did seem normal.

I found myself incredibly emotional, pausing to take mental photos, actual photos, and to store up each precious moment in my heart as a stockpile for later, a reminder that I am not alone in the world. Each face was a stranger and also a reflection, and we had so much fun. The conversation sat at a defaulted depth of our cores. TCKs are notorious for hating small talk and it showed. We reached inside ourselves and held our beating hearts, not on our sleeves to be seen, but in our hands, ready to pass out to anyone with empty hands to hold it.

Even the non-TCKs felt it. Bonding. It happened without prompting and never stopped. No one was excluded. The thought of it, even now, years later, still fills my heart up to the brim.

I thought, these people are all like me.

And then something happened. One of them wasn't.

He was, but he wasn't.

I sat talking about never wanting to go back, about wanting to bounce from place to place, not even daring to utter what had become a banned phrase in my mind, "settle down". Then I looked up at him eager to see him nod and agree with the enthusiasm only a similar soul could comprehend. But he didn't. He said it. He wanted to settle down. It caught me off guard.

No. I had heard people say this in theory, my older brother had said it before. In my mind I would laugh knowing that he was bred to explore, that in his heart he is a traveler. Staying in one place too long would burn under his feet and his eyes would wander to the sea.

But this was different. This TCKs eyes did not wander to the sea, they wandered to the land he hoped to go back to, a ground where he would raise his flag, claim, and then settle. Inside me was screaming that this could not be. What kind of TCK does he think he is? It felt
wrong. In my perfect world of mirrors one cracked.

It still astounds me from time to time, but I can understand it better now. To find a place that stays familiar, to not move again, to root yourself in a people, a place, a home. I don't know if my eyes will cease to wander to the sea. I think it will be some time before that happens, but I know now that a TCK is not a mirror. We all have a texture, an echo that resonates within us at the same frequency and tone, but how that texture shows up under our individual colors, how that echo sounds in the midst of our unique symphonies is always different.

When I read about TCKs it is like reading a choose your own adventure book. Do those still exist? All of our stories start with the same first chapters, the base of our experiences and characteristics are the same, a life between worlds. But then as you move forward there are splits in the paths. Each person lets those first chapters shape them differently. Some never settle down, some never move. Some stop reading the news, some dig deeper into it. Some love their past, some forget it.

No matter where your adventure takes you, though, your first chapters are the same as mine, as other TCKs. And when you throw a bunch of us in a room, no matter how we have grown those traits, no matter how many of us do not see mirrors, we will all have the same textures and echos, and we will recognize them in each other. It is beautiful.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


I'm sitting in what is about to become our new church small group. Around the room I see all the young adult married couples who have come presumedly for the same reason we are here, to connect. I knew it was coming but somehow I blocked it out of my brain. We will have to introduce ourselves. It is an inevitable fate and when it really sinks in I feel the dread rising in me.

I know I look different. I have not only my natural red hair at this point, but a fade to black thrown in. I love it, but it makes me different. I have a lip ring. I love that too. But it instantly makes me different. Normally it doesn't bother me because I KNOW I am different. But at this point I don't know if I want to be.

The leader doesn't ask us to say where we are from, and I am so relieved that it feels like some of my strange is melting off of me, but only some. I love meeting new people, but it is hard to watch the eyes glaze over when I try to answer questions or explain who I am. It is hard every time. I should know. I have done it over a million times. It looks like my husband will have to explain who I am though and I am glad. He knows me so well and he always knows better than I do how much is too much to share. He is the master of small talk, my own mortal enemy.

We have to say an interesting fact about our spouse and, while I have one picked out for him, I am curious what he will say for me. I lean over and whisper, "what are you going to say?" He grins and says, "that you have red hair..." and I roll my eyes at him and then glare icily. I half hope he is joking and half hope he is not. I want to be the real me but a part of me wants to fit in a little, even if it is just for a minute.

We are listening to each couple as they say who they are, how they met, and interesting facts. The ones who are newly weds are tentative, making sure not to embarrass their spouses by crossing some line they didn't know existed. My husband and I have been married five years now. We have stepped over lines, on toes, across boundaries, and found our way back to each other. Living in a new culture will do that to you. We know where we stand and how to do this. We have done this before. We will do it again.
Suddenly I hear something different. Another couple, another husband, his voice is changing to a tender and careful tone, but behind it is pride. I know it. It is what my husband uses when he talks about me. "She grew up in Santiago, Chile. Her first language was Spanish." I find myself uncontrollably nodding, hoping to reach out from my spot on the couch and say that somehow I know. I know Santiago. I have been there. I know Spanish. I speak that. I know that timid grin she has as she looks around. I do that. I want to yell it out so she knows that I know. She is different like me.

My husband does it perfectly. Rather than announcing that I am strange he offers advice to not ask where I'm from and lists off a few of my countries, the start of my list. It is perfect and I'm grateful. But it doesn't matter as much anymore because I am not the only different one. She is grinning at his admonishing not to ask the dreaded question. She knows. She is reaching out saying that she knows.

We've always been different, but different is okay.
I don't know why I always feel this way. We are everywhere. TCKs are all over and we always find each other. I know this. I have seen it everywhere I go. We are so different we recognize that different in others. There is always someone who traveled to one of my countries, someone who knows my heart languages, someone who goes home to a different world, or whose home is the whole world.

And now that I know I am not the only different I can listen. I can be still. We can grin at each other when the coffee is ready to drink at 8pm. I am not the only different. I don't feel alone when someone says they don't like to travel even though travel is all I know. I don't feel anxious to explain who I am even though they don't know. I listen to the stories around me because I don't need to be known right now. Someone already knows.

They are different like me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My Map

I'm standing there at work. It is a slow day and I have found myself drawing a map on the back of narrow receipt paper. It seems like it will be easier this way. I have on it North America, divided into countries and states, South America, also divided and labeled just in case. I have added Europe and Africa. I look up and ask, "Okay, are you ready?" She nods expectantly, looking focused.
Familiar Journeying aka My life

I begin where I was born, in the wrong city. A line goes from that city, the capital, to where we were actually living, then up to the US, then back down to Peru. Each line comes with an explanation of my age and the next destination. She is watching and I can tell she is trying to envision it all. The lines between Ecuador and Uruguay overlap each time, and in my mind I know that even these straight lines don't show the whole story. They don't show the nights in airports, the boat rides, the bus rides. But this is about understanding, not accuracy.

Next the lines hop around the United States. They jump from coast to coast, top to bottom. Then they are skidding across the seas to Africa. And finally they jump back and land on where I am, where she is.

She glances over at her map, with three lines on it. It shows one bay with three dots. One dot is "home", one dot is "college", and the last dot is "now". As she looks she draws another line and dot showing "boyfriend" but it is easy to follow. My map looks like a child stole my pen and scribbled across it. I realize that I may have made it harder. Maybe a timeline? Or color coding for age? I'm concerned as I look between the maps. I look up at her and she is grinning.

"That's complicated," and if she isn't saying it with her words she is saying it with the way her eyes are trying to retrace all the lines in order. I laugh nervously wondering if I have lost her, my new friend.

People don't ask anymore. They take the answer I give and stop trying to understand the whole story. They don't blink when I add another country, they just shake it off. So this moment, this rare opportunity to try and explain it all, it means something to me. I don't realize until now I am breathing lightly as if not to disturb the precarious moment. She could easily write it off as confusing, and she probably will. Only she doesn't. She looks up and nods as if it suddenly makes sense. As if I make sense.
This is one of my favorite photos in the world. It feels like me. Thank Iain Anderson.

Do I dare? I have questions for her too. They baffle people as much as "where are you from?" baffles me. "What was it like living in one house your whole life?", "In the same city your whole life?", "Do you want to travel?", "Do you miss your home?"

She answers as best she can, struggling to put words to concepts and feelings. I recognize it, only she is struggling to identify something I may never understand. I'm listening like she is speaking an alien language, watching her gestures like she is foreign, and in many ways she is. I stop her each moment she skims over something, assuming I will know. But I don't.

Suddenly, we are at a standstill, each holding our maps which represent pieces of us, and mysteries to the other. But I am happy we did it. We know now we are different, but we also know now why and how it has shaped each of us. We understand a little more. It gives me hope that I am not unreachable. That for every ten, or hundred, or thousand times I dodge the dreaded question with a vague response, someone will want to know my list, will try to understand how my heart is somehow tied to each place. And for those rare moments, all the others are worth it.

I have hope that I can make real friends who will never relate, but will maybe understand. And if that is true then those who can sort of relate are sure to be real friends, and those who can mostly relate are more than sure to be real friends, and those who are like me will know my heart immediately. Suddenly there is potential in everyone where I only saw frustration. Someplace in this she has given me hope.

The next day I will try again, and another friend will listen and ask and nod. And I will be able to breathe just a little more freely than I have before. And I will keep trying until I must leave. And when I do it will hurt in all the most beautiful ways because I know that I will leave my heart there with them, just as I have in all those other places, with all those other people.