This piece is in response to Third Culture Kid (TCK) author and scholar Tanya Crossman's series The TCK Experience—Foundational Key Concepts.
When I graduated from high school in Beijing, I said "goodbye" to many close friends. It wasn't the kind of graduation where you know you'll see your friends again next summer—it was the kind of graduation where everybody scattered across the globe. Because China wasn't our permanent home, my TCK friends and I weren't sure if we'd ever return to Beijing or if we'd even see each other again.
Because of transitions like this throughout my life, I've learned both to celebrate and grieve important relationships. Author Tanya Crossman describes two "lessons" TCKs learn through their childhoods: everybody leaves and no one understands. When I read these lessons, I felt like I was reading pages from my own journal. Through many uprootings and goodbyes, here are three ways I've learned to respond to feeling like "everybody leaves" and "no one understands":
1. Value your past, but don't live in it.
We always face the temptation to idealize the places we've been, to wish we could go back to that time when we felt safe, whole, and known. But we can never really go "home" again, because "home" changes—because we change. Sometimes, in order to grow, we need to leave "home" and move somewhere that involves risks and challenges.
When we long for that sense of community and safety, it betrays our core desire to be at "home" with God. In Hebrews 11, Abraham and Sarah have left their homeland and are living in tents in a foreign country:
If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:15-16, NIV).
We could languish and complain about everything we've lost and left behind. But we can also choose to look ahead, because God has prepared a city for us. This is a place where we'll belong, a place where we'll never have to say goodbye, because no one will ever leave. This is a place where everyone will be safe, whole, and known.
2. Care about people where you are, even if your time is short.
This summer, I lived with several interns for a couple months. I knew it was temporary and everyone would leave in August, but our tight timeline pushed me to invest even more. And even though, sure enough, we all left in August, it was worth it. Because we invested in one another, we built friendships that will span our entire lives. Because we were open, we changed each other for the better.
Even though we can never go back to the places, the cultures, the "homes" we've lived in, we can keep building deep communities like the ones we've already experienced. Those close and caring communities are so beautiful because they remind us of what heaven will be like. Jesus promised that the kingdom of heaven is within us, "in your midst" (Luke 17:21). When we get to know other believers, when we catch a glimpse of their hearts, we're getting a little peek into the kingdom of heaven.
3. Remember that no person or place can be everything to you.
When I was younger, I struggled to justify why I thought and acted the way I did. I looked to other people, personality assessments, and achievements to understand myself and mend my fractured identity. But besides heaven, there is no mystical future place where we'll feel 100 percent known and accepted. And there is no person who will completely understand us.
The good news is, God promises in Psalm 139 that he does know us completely. He understands when we feel lonely and misunderstood. He understands when we feel like nobody gets it. He understands when we feel fractured.
And sometimes God gives us friends who recognize that feeling—friends who can stand with us and affirm that they, too, feel that sense of longing. There's no rule that these people have to be TCKs, either. They just have to be willing to try; to listen well and seek to understand.
Ultimately, it's hard to explain the TCK life and its complicated effects. But I've realized that my story is no more valuable than anyone else's. Nobody has an insignificant childhood or a boring story. As Tanya described, everybody— TCK or not—has felt misunderstood and alone.
Though I never went back to Beijing, those close and deep friendships didn't end after graduation. In the past several years, I've visited many of these friends, even the ones who live in distant time zones and different countries. People are precious—even though they can't be everything, even though they might leave—they are always worth investing in. We have the opportunity to change people through the way we invest in them. And we might just find that they change us, too.
Image credit: Dmitry Sovyak on Unsplash
Becca Carlson (pseudonym) grew up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) in Beijing, learning early on how to communicate with and without words. Her love for communication drove her to pursue journalism and truth-telling in its many forms. Currently, Becca is working as a writer and editor in the Midwestern... View Full Bio
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.