The Temporary Intimacy of Expat Life (and my search for rootedness) {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today. . . .

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It’s not hard for me to put down roots in a new place. Roots are all I want. That may sound unconventional coming from a Third Culture Kid, but Army life was unsettling, and even small tastes of stability were tantalizing to me. I’m always searching for roots.

Specific places can be very healing to me, but I almost wonder if the place itself doesn’t matter as long as the place seems permanent. I could settle anywhere as long as it’s forever. I know this need for stability points somewhere. It points to a longing for a forever home. A hunger for the new city. A desire that can’t be completely fulfilled in this sin-tarnished world.

So whenever I move to a new place, I pretend it’s a permanent home. I decide I never want to move away. I give myself, heart and soul, to this new place and to this new people. I make plans for future years, future decades even. I tell myself that I will settle here and live here forever. I imagine everything in the future taking place in this place.

While some TCKs want to move places frequently, that hasn’t been my experience. I don’t want to leave a new place after a few years of living there. I don’t become unsettled at the thought of settling somewhere. Sometimes I tell myself that this desire I have for roots is good. I tell myself that it means I’m stable and secure. But then I have to ask, if I’m so stable and secure, why would I become so unmoored by goodbyes?

A desire to move frequently can be unhealthy, it’s true. But it is equally true that this insatiable desire I have never to move homes or see life change can be unhealthy too. For see, God is the God who is doing a new thing. And growth in Christ never happens without change — sometimes painful change. So I sometimes live in denial, for this overseas life is not, and can never be, permanent. I will have to move eventually. My friends, the dear people with whom I live my life and to whom I’ve pledged my undying love, must also move at some point.

You can finish reading here.

Two Things We Need to Teach Our Kids About Sex

by Elizabeth

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This spring Jonathan and I participated in a panel discussion on issues of sexuality and parenting. During the course of our conversation I verbalized two things I think are important when it comes to talking about sex with our children. First, from very early on we need to be cultivating a mistrust of friends’ information. And second, virginity is not the point: purity is.

Long before we ever thought about talking about sex with our children, we encouraged them to come to us with the things their friends told them. Then we could tell them if their friends were giving accurate information — or not. We happen to be a very talkative family (you probably can’t imagine that, can you??), and our children report back to us with gusto.

The things they tell us their friends said are, almost without exception, incorrect. By now it’s almost a family joke. We started this approach early and are hoping it continues into the teen and young adult years. We’ve now started telling our older kids that when it comes to sex, their friends will most likely not be correct. They appear to believe us because this has been the case for so many other topics over the years.

One more thing about the friendship issue: we need to include Google as one of these untrustworthy “friends.” There are a couple reasons for this. The internet may very well give scientifically or Biblically accurate information — but not necessarily. And young people have difficulty discerning reputable sources on the internet. Additionally, finding porn during a Google search is literally 1 second away. {I know this because it happened to me. Ew.} The internet is not our friend when it comes to sex education.

Cultivating a mistrust of friends’ information is something we can do from very early ages, before we begin talking about sex or even begin thinking about talking about sex. But when we do begin talking about sex, we need to start steering the conversation away from virginity — which has been a traditional way of talking about sex and marriage — and direct it towards purity.

Virginity refers to an event. Its loss might be a past event or a future event, but it is still a one-time occurrence. Purity, on the other hand, is a state of living and a state of being. No matter what our past is, because of Jesus, purity is possible in the present and in the future.

Purity is what Paul means when he tells us to press on. Purity is what Jesus means when He tells the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. Virginity will fail us, but purity is always available.

Our virginity status isn’t a pre-requisite for marriage. God cares more that we are currently living in purity than whether we enter marriage a virgin. (Of course, if you’re a virgin, that means God wants you to remain so until marriage.) But if sexual immortality has been confessed, repented of, and forgiven, those specific sins don’t matter anymore. We — and our children — are clean now.

So let’s not talk about virginity, other than to define what it is. Instead let’s teach our children to walk in the way of purity and commit to walking in that way ourselves.

 

In the future I’d like to address various questions about sex and relationships that I’ve received from teenagers over the years. So stay tuned.

10 Ways to Choose Life in the Middle of an Eating Disorder

by Elizabeth

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Last fall I taught a class to international teen girls which I entitled “Life After ED,” where ED refers to eating disorders. I borrowed that title from a book I have not read because it so perfectly encapsulates what I want people to know: there is life after eating disorders. People need the hope of a life abundant when they’re in the midst of a struggle with scarcity.

When we talk about eating disorders, we’re talking about a range of struggles, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia (obsession with “right” eating), and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). The research I’ve read indicates that 75% to 80% of women will deal with some sort of food or body image issue in their life, and many are easy to hide, so when I talk about eating disorders, I’m not just talking about extreme cases. Food and body image issues are struggles for all of us.

[Men deal with eating disorders too, but I don’t know those stats, nor do I have significant knowledge of that subject.]

Most of the girls in that class were Third Culture Kids, and most of them didn’t know my story. It feels like such a healed part of my life that I rarely think about it nowadays — and I often forget to tell it. So I started out by telling my personal story through the lens of a cross-cultural transition, because that was my experience. Then I touched on some theology regarding our bodies (including the concept of Imago Dei), and finished with a discussion of ways to seek healing and freedom in this area.

Today I’m only going to share some practical ways to choose life in the midst of a body image or food struggle. As I’m still in the early stages of truly understanding “the theology of the body” (yes that too is a borrowed book title), I’m going to skip that section of my class. And because I’ve published my eating disorder story before, I won’t rehash it here, even though the story I told these girls had some additional (and also very personal) details.

So without further ado, here’s my list. And since this list is relatively short, feel free to ask for clarifications on any of the items, whether publicly or privately.

 

  1. Break the shackles of shame. I want to take away the shame of struggling with these things. They’re common to women. They’re not terrible or shocking, whether it’s to me or to God or to so many other women out there. So take a deep breath. These struggles with food and body hatred are just part of your life right now. The only way to move forward and get them out of your life is to acknowledge them. And remember, you are NOT alone.
  2. Get some help. You really need some outside help to fight your food and body image battles. It’s very hard to walk this path alone. So talk to someone – a parent, a counselor, a pastor, a teacher, another safe adult. But NOT a peer. Not a friend. It’s not that you can’t confess these things to your friends, but you can get into trouble partnering with a friend in fighting an eating disorder. It can become about competition. Or it can become about endorsement, where you and your friends all know you struggle, and you “accept” each other, but there is no accountability to grow or change. A counselor, on the other hand, will help you delve into the reasons why you stumbled into this eating disorder in the first place. A Christian counselor, in particular, will help you stand on the truth of God’s word and seek Jesus for the healing of your mind and your body. But make sure your counselor feels safe to you. If you’re not comfortable with one, look for another.
  3. Don’t expect a quick fix. There is no special prayer or special person’s prayer that will magically and instantaneously cure your struggle. There is only consistently walking with Jesus toward healing and restoration and consistently realigning your mind with the truth of God’s love. There is only “a long obedience in the same direction” (to reference yet another book I haven’t read).
  4. Don’t be thrown off guard by relapses. They are normal; I had three. Three separate times I stopped eating enough, lost too much weight, and stopped my normal female functioning too. It happened twice in high school and once after I had my second child. Remember, relapses are NOT the end of recovery or healing, and they don’t mean that no healing or recovery has occurred. They are just a temporary setback. So take a deep breath and start again to walk this road of healing.
  5. Don’t get your ideas of what your body is supposed to look like from magazines or images on the internet. This is simple to understand but difficult to live. I know how tempting it is to look at those pictures and compare yourself to them. I know how tempting it is to compare yourself to your own personal idea of a perfect body. But those images, whether on a screen or on a glossy magazine page, or inside your own head, don’t tell the truth. They aren’t real. Don’t let them lie to you about what is beautiful or valuable or what you must look like. Reject those ideas, they’re not from God. Put down the magazines or turn off your phone or your computer if you have to.
  6. Know where your value and worth come from. When God formed us from the dust, He stamped us with His image, something He didn’t do for any other creature. This is the idea of imago dei: the belief that all human beings, regardless of status or creed or “usefulness” or even likability, are valuable, because the God who created them is the one who gives them their value. Imago dei is what needs to be restored when we struggle with disordered eating, body image distortion, body shame, body hatred, or the effects of sexual abuse. So remember how much you are worth — body, soul, and all.
  7. Look in the mirror and declare God’s Word over yourself. This can be really hard and uncomfortable at first. Get into your underclothes and stand in front of that mirror and speak out loud statements like, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” or “I am created in the image of God, and God himself says that’s very good,” or “I am a child of God,” or “I am in Christ Jesus, and there is no condemnation for me, not even from myself,” or “The Spirit is setting me free from these things.” It’s hard at this stage to accept your physical body as something good, but try practicing these things and see if they help.
  8. Work on portion control, but avoid calorie counting. Portion control can be hard. Whether you’re accustomed to restricting OR overeating, it’s difficult to learn to listen to your body’s signs of hunger and fullness and to eat a normal, regular amount of food that’s not too big and not too small. Look up recommended portion sizes if you want, but don’t pay too much attention to calorie counts. Calorie counting is both legalistic and addictive and tends to be used in fear, not freedom. So don’t get hung up on calories.
  9. Hold onto hope for healing, restoration, and life abundant. I stand before you today free of obsessive thoughts of body hatred. I may have occasional thoughts of dissatisfaction, but I am free of obsession and the accompanying depression that my body is not good enough (and that therefore I am not good enough). So I want you to have HOPE: hope for freedom and wholeness and a full life after dealing with eating disorders.
  10. Remember that God is not giving up on you. God longs to live in you, in body, soul, and spirit. He will not give up on you, no matter how many times you binge, purge, or starve. He loves you the SAME. Always the same, eternal, everlasting, pure, perfect love. Of course we will make mistakes and let our beliefs and thoughts get all messed up. Of course we will make mistakes and make poor choices: that’s why Jesus came. God knew we would need Him, and He never gives up on us.

 

Linking up with Velvet Ashes

“Fernweh” and “Heimweh” — words for the one who’s far from home {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today . . .

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I found a new word on the Facebook profile of a missionary writer, and it’s the best new word I’ve heard in a long time. It’s called fernweh, and it’s a German word that means “a longing for faraway places.”

The feeler of fernweh carries a desire — whether met or unmet — to travel to distant countries, to visit new places, and to have new experiences. Its nearest English equivalent might be the idea of “wanderlust.” When transliterated, fernweh means “farsickness,” in much the same way that heimweh means “homesickness.”

Fernweh and heimweh: these sister words draw me in. Ever since I found them, I cannot get them out of my head, for I live in a faraway place.

At least, it’s far away from the Europe and North America in which I grew up. It was far away, but now it’s near. I find now that the faraway place has become home, and home has become the faraway place.

Finish reading this post at A Life Overseas.

What toilet paper art is teaching me about life and creativity

by Jonathan

Every evening, my little girls create.

Every evening, my little girls take the cardboard innards of toilet paper rolls and they create beauty. In the bathroom.

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Every evening they create, and every morning I find the dried up pieces piled up on the floor.

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They don’t seem to notice the great impracticalities of their efforts. They don’t seem to care that no one will see their work or admire their skills. They just do it for the joy. They do it because they like it.

And they remind me that it’s possible to make even a bathroom in Cambodia a place of art. It’s possible to see beyond the leaky sink, the bare light bulb, the plastic door, the smelly drains, the cracked tile, the rusty doorknobs, and see beauty.

I want to be like that. I want to create for the joy of it. I want to write and speak from the fire and joy inside, not for the acclimation or accolades from the outside, and regardless of whether or not the space is perfectly designed for creating.

I want to speak laughter and joy into the mundane.

And when the internet gets a bit tense and people get a bit fired up, I want to remind people that “toilet paper art on plastic door” is a thing.

And whether anyone notices, and whether my work ends up in a pile on the bathroom floor tomorrow morning, I will still create.

Will you?

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*In our house in Cambodia, the bathrooms consist of one small room made entirely of tile. The toilet, sink, and shower occupy pretty much the same space, and the door’s made of plastic.

Our first book!

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We’ve compiled over 50 of our short essays into a new book. The book covers topics like transition, TCKs, grief and loss, conflict, marriage on the field, and more. The Kindle version is $1.99 and is available here.

Here’s what Elizabeth has to say about the print edition:

What I like about the paper copy is that it’s in 8 1/2 X 11 inch format, so it has lots of white space and (ahem) margin to make your own notes, to sort of journal through it, as it were. A lot of our posts really are like journal entries of what God is taking us through, so having a hard copy allows you to journal through those issues on your own, too. Hopefully that’s a blessing to someone!

We are ordering a bunch to have with us here in Phnom Penh, so if you’re local and you’d like a hard copy, check back with us in a couple of weeks. Thanks so much for all your support along the way.

all for ONE,
Jonathan T.

 

7 Thoughts for Graduating TCKs {A Life Overseas}

by Elizabeth

Dear Graduating Senior,

This spring I hugged you. I cried with you. I said goodbye to you. And then I looked into the faces of your parents as they said goodbye too. How can I express the depth of my love for you and your parents? I don’t know. All I know is that if we were sitting down to coffee again, these are the things I’d want to tell you.

They’re the things I’ve mostly stumbled across on my journey as an Adult Third Culture Kid, though they’re by no means comprehensive or applicable to all people. Much like every other human on the planet, I’ve had to sort through my childhood as an adult, and these are the things that have helped me along the way. I hope they help you too.

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1. IT’S OK (AND NORMAL) TO HAVE DELAYED ISSUES

When you were young, home was where mom and dad were (or perhaps where grandma and grandpa were), and most likely, you were almost always with one of those people or in one of those places. But TCK angst is something that tends to catch up to people later in life. That’s the way it was for me, anyway.

Issues of home, belonging, and identity are all higher level, more complex topics. And now that you’re launching out on your own, your old idea of “home” probably won’t be as accessible. The Third Culture world of your childhood will be out of reach, and these issues might come crashing down on you. All of this is OK.

Maybe you felt settled in life before, but feel unsettled now. Maybe you thought life was good or even great before, but feel lost now. Maybe you were part of a happy, healthy family as a child and now find yourself dealing with some thorny emotional issues as a young adult. Don’t worry; it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.

Or perhaps you’ve already experienced a lot of transition and upheaval in your life, and you’ve already had to grapple with issues of belonging, identity, and home. That’s ok too. You’ll probably still find that TCK issues pop up in your life over the next several years, often when you’re not expecting them. This is normal. It’s part of the process of growing up. I just don’t want you to be surprised by it.

2. SYSTEMS ARE A HELPFUL LENS

Growing up as a military kid, I didn’t have a vocabulary for what was happening in my life. For example, why was civilian life so different and so hard for us?? Answer: because we had suddenly exited a military system (or culture) and entered a non-military one. I didn’t know that back then, but I know it now, and the idea of viewing the TCK experience through the lens of a system has been very helpful to me.

This is one way to explain the idea: your parents made a conscious choice to enter a system (whichever system it was), but much of your TCK experience was then dictated by that system. Even graduating from high school and having to leave your childhood home — as painful as that can be — is dictated by the system you’re living in. You can even be part of more than one system. There’s your third culture system with other TCKs. Then there’s your parents’ organization’s system. And there are probably more.

Being able to see my life as part of a system (or systems) with a lot of moving parts has allowed me to look at some of the TCK issues I’ve faced as an adult without faulting my parents. Yes, the many moves were traumatic for me (and in ways I didn’t realize, feel, or fully understand until I was an adult), but I don’t see that trauma as being inflicted on me by my parents. Yes, they chose the military, but it wasn’t their fault when the military moved us mid-school year. It wasn’t their fault when kids at my new school didn’t accept me right away. Rather, it was a result of the system I was in.

The ability to have conversations without shame or blame is vital to moving forward. And the more we can understand the systems we’re in, the easier it is to talk about our experiences and make connections instead of disconnections. So remember that you’re living in (and have lived in) a system. Remember that accepting your TCK experience doesn’t mean you have to become estranged from your family. Admitting that you struggle to find belonging or to define home or self doesn’t mean you’re labeling your parents as “bad.” These things are results of your systems.

3. ALL PEOPLE ARE SINNERS, SO REMEMBER TO GIVE GRACE

While it’s true that you don’t need to blame your parents for the challenges of TCK life, it’s also true that they are human beings. They’re sinners, just like you and just like me. And they may have made some mistakes in life as well as in parenting. Forgive them.

There’s no way around the fact that human parents do hurt their human children: all humans hurt other humans. So while you don’t have to carry around some burden of thinking your parents “ruined your life” with their nomadic choices, you probably also need to forgive them for things. All children — mobile and non-mobile alike — are faced with this question.

I love my parents deeply, and they deeply love me, yet we still found it necessary to have these kinds of conversations. We avoided it for a long time, perhaps for fear of conflict or discomfort, but the healing never came until we did. So talk to your parents. Have conversations with them. Process through the painful stuff. Wade into the murky waters, and find healing and wholeness together. Your parents are invested in your continued health and healing, so let them be a part of it.

Your situation may be more complicated than what I’ve just discussed. Someone may have hurt you deeply, even abused you. In that case, you need more than simple conversations with your parents or other trusted adults. You also need to get some outside help. You need to find trustworthy, compassionate counseling. Both Lisa McKay and Kay Bruner have good insight on how to find a counselor in general and while living overseas. I pray you find someone to guide you through the healing process.

4. GET COMFORTABLE WITH PARADOX

As you pack up your boxes and your suitcases, there’s one more thing I want you to pack. That thing is your ability to accept and even embrace paradox. Most likely, your life has been neither one hundred percent good, nor one hundred percent bad. The truth is, TCK or not, no one’s life is one hundred percent one thing. So resist the temptation to spin the story of your childhood in only one direction, either all good or all bad. Don’t pit the good and bad against each other in a futile effort to discover which one outweighs the other.

You don’t have to minimize the bad in order to accept the good. And you don’t have to minimize the good in order to accept the bad. Simply hold them both in your hands and in your heart, and accept them together, side by side, as the things that have shaped you into the person you are and as the things that are continuing to shape the person you are becoming.

We can’t strain the bad out of the good or the good out of the bad; we can’t separate them like cream from milk. They’re a package deal, a paradox, the “and” of this life. So let’s agree together not to outlaw the good or outlaw the bad. Let’s accept all the parts of ourselves, even the parts that make us (or other people) uncomfortable.

5. GRIEVE YOUR LOSSES

About those negative experiences . . . I know this has been talked about before, but it’s so important I’m going to say it again: you’ve got to grieve your losses. List out your losses, and then mourn them. Grieve the hard things that happened to you.

Maybe it was leaving your passport country to move to your host country, or moving between host countries, or within the same host country. Maybe it was losing a close friend or teacher to transition or even death. It’s probably graduating and leaving your host country this summer. Regardless of the cause, there have been so many goodbyes in your life, and you need to acknowledge how hard they’ve been for you.

Grief follows us wherever we go; we can’t outrun it. So spend the time now, on the front end, to grieve your TCK losses. You need to learn this skill because you’ll have to use it again later. We live in a fallen world, and bad things will keep happening to you, whether you’re living cross-culturally or not. That means the need to process grief is ever-present, regardless of who you are or where you live.

Learning to grieve well now will help you for the rest of your life. And you might have to grieve some of your losses more than once. You may feel old losses cycling back around again, and you’ll have to stop and re-grieve them. That’s ok. Be gentle with yourself and grieve them again.

6. GET SOME OUTSIDE HELP: TCK COUNSELORS AND MENTORS

I personally used to think something was wrong with me. Why did I have all these problems fitting in? Why did I feel so rejected all the time? I thought the problem was me. Then — and this only happened a couple of years ago with a counselor who specializes in TCKs — I began to see that the trouble I had fitting in was a consequence of something that happened to me.

It wasn’t me that was the problem; it was all those moves and having to fit in someplace new over and over and over again. But learning how to fit in takes time, and there’s always a period of uncertainty before friends are made and acceptance is granted. I cannot even explain how much that realization helped me. I felt less like a broken object and more like a person who’d had experiences that shaped me but who wasn’t inherently and eternally screwed up. I had previously faced a lot of insecurity and social anxiety in my life, but when I started seeing their roots in my nomadic childhood and addressing them that way, the fear and insecurity stopped trailing me so doggone much.

Likewise, you may need a counselor who is familiar with the TCK world. In fact, in her book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile, author and counselor Lois Bushong tells us that a counselor who is not familiar with TCK issues may not know how to treat an adult TCK struggling with depression. In actuality, he or she is probably dealing with unresolved TCK grief, a completely normal response to a globally mobile childhood. (Incidentally Lois is also responsible for my understanding of systems.) So if you are in any way “stuck” in your emotional, mental, or spiritual life, consider finding a counselor who understands TCK life. 

Counseling has been massively helpful in my life, both for TCK-related issues and non-TCK-related issues, and I highly recommend counseling to all people who are breathing. But sometimes you just need someone to talk to, someone who will listen to you and empathize with you and even pray for you. Just talking to an older, wiser adult TCK whom you trust can be very helpful in sorting through your thoughts and feelings. In fact, I’ve done that a lot with Marilyn Gardner, fellow writer and editor on this blog. So if you do nothing else, find a fellow TCK friend to talk to.

7. YOU SHOULD PROBABLY EXPECT SOME FLARE-UPS

I can give you all the advice in the world — advice you might even follow — but you might still turn around one day and be taken by surprise at the intensity of your feelings of loss and isolation and lack of home and belonging. When this happens to me, whether it’s triggered by the yearly May & June goodbyes or by feeling the sting of some rejection, my husband usually asks me, “Is your TCK acting up again?”

Yes, I tell him. The answer is almost always yes. Yes that my TCK is acting up again. Yes that events from my childhood creep into my adulthood. Yes that from time to time issues I thought were settled and resolved feel suddenly unsettled and unresolved.

But simply naming it can take the edge off the pain. Then I can go back to the truths I’ve learned about myself and about God. And you can do that too. When you find your TCK acting up again, name it. Grieve what you need to grieve, and then remind yourself of the truths you’ve learned over the years. Be kind to yourself when this happens, and remember to give yourself some time to recover.

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Even though there was pain, I don’t regret my TCK experience. For me every experience (in the end) brought me closer to Christ. Though at times it might have seemed a wandering path, every wound was a road leading straight back to God. The relationship I have with God primarily because of painful TCK “issues” is something I wouldn’t give up for anything.

So take heart. If you let them, the questions of home, belonging, and identity that your TCK childhood has asked you to answer can take you deeper into the heart of God than ever before. If you’ll take the time to look for Him, you’ll find Jesus on the other side of every question you have. Only Jesus can help you live an unhindered life. His is the face of love, and He is the answer to every question you’ll ever ask. So go with Him: there is redemption on this road.

Originally appeared at A Life Overseas.