Maria Lombart stood before an audience of over 200 people in The Hague, Netherlands. It was two years ago at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference but her dynamic presentation has continued to resonate with me ever since. It’s a personal story of loss and identity development with similarities to many cross-cultural students I have encountered and you may well know. Ultimately, it is a story of peace and belonging which I believe deserves sharing.
“My Opa stood by the train tracks, huddled deep into his jacket in the cold Dutch winter. We snapped a quick photo together, I climbed on the train and waved goodbye. I didn’t realize this would be the last time I would see him,” she began. It was a compelling start. Her loss was palpable.
An Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK), Maria continued to speak from her heart and from her personal experience as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) growing up in Africa, Europe and the Middle East before living in North America, Asia and now Lebanon as an adult.
Loss and Identity
Reminding us of Pollock and van Reken’s belief that by the time TCKs are 18, they will have experienced more loss than most adults do in a lifetime, Maria shared that TCKs learn not to shed a tear when saying goodbye because there are many more to come. “Loss is normalized. We leave behind people, places and things that are important to us…these losses become part of our identity,” she said.
TCKs have to continually reinvent themselves to combat the loss of things that would ordinarily keep kids grounded in their identity – language, culture, relationships and home. Citing from research she conducted with 69 TCKs, one comment exemplified this point. “I realized I’d never felt so foreign as I did when I was surrounded by people who thought I was one of them but had no idea I wasn’t. Because I looked like them and lived in their country, I had to become someone they could understand, which meant burying the past that made me who I was. It meant recreating a new identity when I hadn’t even cemented creating the first one yet…creating this new identity almost implied that my previous identity was invalid.”
Maria’s story too, is grounded in loss. By the time she was 18 she had lived in six countries across four continents and experienced eight distinct cultures. She affirmed Marilyn Gardner’s notion that “TCKs live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes comfortable in another but only truly comfortable in the space between.” They don’t belong to a single language, country, culture or set of customs because their identity is rooted in multiple contexts. This can have positive and negative outcomes.
Positively, the TCK lifestyle results in:
- An expanded worldview,
- An ability to defend minorities even if they are not fully understood,
- A capacity to adapt their behavior to a situation or shift easily between languages, dress and mannerisms to fit into a culture
- A feeling of ease with a variety of people
Negatively, however, the TCK lifestyle:
- Makes it difficult to grieve the losses without the tools to process them
- Can result in anger and depression
- May lead to an inability to know how to reconcile their past with their present in a way that will be accepted by others
Tangible and Intangible Losses
Maria categorized the losses experienced by TCKs into tangible and intangible
She recalled a bowl of alabaster eggs, a favourite cooking pot and an old brown rocking chair that were lost. Links to childhood memories and stability, things she could touch but “once they were gone so was a part of my identity,” she said.
Maria’s accent, for example, would lead you to believe that she is American but her identity is complex. She didn’t know who to be when asked where she’s from. TCKs develop multiple identities in order to fit into the variety of cultures in which they live without ever completely being one or the other.
Maria pushed the memories deep down in order to deal with the losses and forgot them. She doesn’t remember visiting Syria or the house in London in which she resided nor the village in Cyprus where her Mum bought handmade candles and lace. “I had to make room for new experiences and no time to mourn the loss of continuity from the old ones,” she said. Living between cultures was too difficult for her and she didn’t know how to reconcile this into one identity… until she returned to where the story began and started to tell her story.
Return to the Place of Loss
Returning to where the story began started the healing and integration process for Maria. Last year, she returned to Egypt – the place she lived from age nine to 15. She searched for the house where her uncle lived – the only relative close by when she and her family were living overseas. “The door was a different color, the paint was peeling and the grass was a little more yellow but I found it, and the dirt field were I learned to drive stick shift,” she said. Now Maria works in Beirut, Lebanon, the last place she lived as a TCK and this has helped her. She has returned to a place where she finds peace and joy and where she now calls home.
Tell Your Story
“We need to tell our story. We need to acknowledge the losses and affirm their significance, accept that part of our identity and begin to integrate it into who we are today. We also need to know that our losses are real yet they don’t define us in our entirety,” said Maria. She is a walking example of her belief that loss can be redeemed for wholeness.
Find someone who will listen without judgment
To Parents and Counsellors
Please give ATCKs and TCKs safe spaces to tell their story
To ATCKs and TCKs
Return to the place of loss because it’s an important part of the integration process
A Kaleidoscope of Cultures
Maria is no longer in doubt about her response to that often-dreaded question ‘where are you from?’ “I’m a Kaleidoscope of Cultures,” is her reply, followed by the telling of her story, which began on the African continent when she was just six months old. “It was then that I left the country that defined a part of my identity. The first of many that would shape it through the years,” she said. Once upon a time Maria would envy those who could easily say ‘in my country,’ but as she explained, all claim to that phrase was lost when she received her first passport stamp. “I had to learn to live in the in between. Between identities and cultures and countries. Today I no longer need a country. I have found a place of peace and belonging. It is in my heart.”
This article was written by Jane Barron and originally published in Insights and Interviews from the 2017 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference – Building on the Basics: Creating Your Tribe on The Move
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David C. Pollock and Ruth E. van Reken, Nicolas Brealey Publishing, 2009
Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging, Marilyn R. Gardner, Doorlight Publications, 2014
Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child: Practical Storytelling Techniques That Will Strengthen the Global Family, Julia Simens, UK: Summertime Publishing, 2011
The Worlds Within: An Anthology of TCK Art and Writing: Young, Global and Between Cultures, e. László-Herbert & J. Parfitt, (ed), UK: Summertime Publishing, 2014