Sunday, December 18, 2011

TCKs and Grief

I'm not a full-time Twitter-er ... I read more than I tweet.  Usually I'll "re-tweet" things I see that are interesting or funny.  I follow a lot of different Twitterers (what the heck do you call people who use Twitter?  Twits?) and a lot of TCK-related Twits, in particular one called "FIGT" or "Families in Global Transition".  This group provides resources for missionaries serving all over the world.  Remember how I said being the parent of a TCK didn't come with a manual?  Today the internet is filled with "manuals".  This particular tweet had a link to a talk given by David C. Pollock, a co-author of the book "Third Culture Kids".  He talks about how TCKs experience their own particular brand of grief.  In light of my previous post about "recovering", I thought it apropos to share his words here.

Part 1

Part 2

On a related note, here's a good article for parents about how to help your TCK deal with grief.

Of course, grief isn't fun.  It's not something we love to experience.  But it is a reality.  Sometimes we're told to "suck it up" and shake it off, stop feeling sorry for yourself.  We're not allowed to fully express our grief.  I remember once right after my sister died, my dad and I were sitting together in the house.  I was trying really hard to hold back my tears.  I thought that my crying would upset my parents all the more, and I didn't want to do that.  My dad noticed my efforts, and he put his arm around me and said it was okay.  That it was okay for me to cry.  So I did.  I had permission.

Living the TCK life, my parents didn't understand my grief.  How can you be sad?  We're in Singapore!  We're in London!  Look how lucky you are!  But they were looking at our life situation from the perspective of a fully formed adult, who has the foundation of their selves fully in place .  From my perspective, I was still under construction.  It was like someone was stacking coins on top of each other.  One quarter on top of the other, evenly spaced.  With every move or loss, someone came along and flicked one of the coins out of center, but the stack continued to grow.  After that, of course, the stack was unsteady, apt to crumble at any minute.  I hadn't lived long enough to have a stable base from which to appreciate the things and places I was seeing.  Grieving for a dead sibling is okay.  But the grief for my lost friends, my lost homes, was not okay or understandable.

Part of the recovery is giving yourself permission to grieve.  When someone asks me, "Was it hard being a TCK?" I respond, yes and no.  As an adult I now appreciate the rich experiences I had, the places I saw.  But when I was in the thick of it, it was very very hard.  There was a lot of sadness.  But now I have permission to grieve, and that helps me recover.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tebow Was Here? Superstar Still Unknown In Philippines City Of His Birth

Tebow Was Here? Superstar Still Unknown In Philippines City Of His Birth


Synonyms for the word "recovering":

 Recover, reclaim, retrieve: to regain literally or figuratively something or someone. To recover is to obtain again what one has lost possession of: to recover a stolen jewel.  To reclaim is to bring back from error or wrongdoing, or from a rude or undeveloped state: to reclaim desert land by irrigation.  To retrieve is to bring back or restore, especially something to its former, prosperous state: to retrieve one's fortune. Heal, mend, recuperate; rally. 

Recently a fellow TCK blogger wrote an article questioning the validity of the word "recovering" in terms of being a Third Culture Kid.  Of course I was offended at first, seeing as my little piece of the information superhighway is actually named "Recovering Third Culture Kid."  When I was scratching my head trying to come up with a catchy name for the blog, it just popped into my head.  I didn't give it a lot of thought. The fact is, I am a recovering Third Culture Kid!  If we break the definition down into its parts, I can illustrate this pretty easily.

Recover: To obtain again what one has lost possession of.  I guess you could ask: how can you recover that which you never had?  In other words, if I was never "not" a TCK, how can I return to "not" being a TCK?  I guess in this sense, I am reclaiming my identity.  Something which I know I had as a child at one point!  The identity that I was forced on so many occasions to reshape and redefine.  Yes, I was the same person at each new posting, but I was forced to make myself fit into a new set of rules that were required to fit in.  Where I fit in with one form of myself "here", I had to remold myself to fit in "there".  And not necessarily between foreign postings.  Even coming back to the states, I had to learn what to say and what not to say.  We TCK's talk a lot about being perceived as arrogant, talking about our big houses, our maids and our drivers.  So we just don't talk about them.  The parts of our lives overseas that we took for granted don't apply in the states! We have to craft our conversations carefully, to pick and choose the things that will make us find common ground with those we are trying to befriend.  And we don't do it consciously, we do it on some level, knowing what will and won't work.  As an adult, I realize how much I did it, how difficult it was, and how many times I failed miserably.  It of course becomes easier as an adult, because you finally realize that so many things just don't matter!  So what if you don't get into that clique!  Did you really want to be part of them anyway?  Most likely not. 

Reclaim:  To bring back from error or wrongdoing, or from a rude or undeveloped state.  For many years I blamed my parents for all of my TCK-related shortcomings.  I was shy, I was awkward, I never fit in.  "If only I had grown up in one place, I wouldn't be like this!"  Earlier this year, I wrote a blog entry about seeing a picture of my 12-year-old self in a yearbook.  We were living in Brussels. I  remember my self from that time: I had no inhibitions, I had lots of girlfriends, I was outgoing, a leader.  After sixth grade we moved back to the states, and that "me" was lost forever.  That was the birth of my shy and insecure self.  Of course, you can point at lots of things other than moving back to the states that made me that way: my sister died shortly after that, and my family went into a downward spiral.  But even before my sister's accident, there were changes.  I remember going to the new school in Louisiana and feeling completely bereft.  I broke down in the cafeteria one day (the dreaded "where do I sit at lunch") and some girl took pity on me and took me outside.  I remember stamping my foot in frustration, that I was out of control, making a spectacle of myself in front of this stranger.  I was completely awash in a maelstrom of emotions and I couldn't stop them.  I will never forget the "WTF?!?" look on her face.  And the sheer misery in my very soul.  So you can't tell me that the move didn't affect me.  

Many times I hear parents considering a move (even just to another school district) and then I hear them say, "No, I would never do that to my kid."  I don't remember either of my parents asking me how I felt about moving.  It was a directive, an announcement.  We're moving, period.  No discussions about how this would affect us, if we were happy about it or what.  It was just done.  When we moved from Manila to Singapore (in the middle of my senior year in high school) I apparently cried and cried, a lot.  My mom asked me recently, "What were you crying about?"  Really?  You don't KNOW?  I guess it was a generational thing, I don't know.  People back then just didn't coddle their kids like a lot of folks do these days.  They worry about their precious babies' bruised psyches.  I guess in retrospect I'm glad I wasn't coddled.  But it would have been nice to have a little understanding at the time.

My point being ... I don't blame my parents any more.  I accept my life for what it is.  What is the point of dredging up the past?  Mom & Dad did the best they could, looking at the bigger picture.  They thought they were offering us a great opportunity to see the world!  To grow up with a global perspective.  To have broader horizons.  Raising children as TCKs at that time didn't come with a manual.  (It does now!)  Blaming them doesn't change the past.  As my mom says, "Go to Home Depot, buy a ladder and get over it!"  Well, Mom, I'm trying!  

Retrieve:  To bring back or restore to its former, prosperous state. Retrieving a healthy part of myself is in the ultimate recognition of why I do and feel some things, that are a result of my being a TCK.  It is a new awareness of what makes me tick, and being comfortable with this awareness.  Okay, I'm like this because of this, and that's okay.  Today I have personality quirks that are directly related to growing up like I did.  I hate (despise) being "new" and not knowing how to do my job.  I hate being the newbie in the neighborhood.  A good friend of mine once told me that you have to give yourself a full year before you feel "home" in a new place.  On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to others who seem out of place too.  That's a good thing!  I don't feel bad that I find comfort in my solitude.  I don't feel guilty that I don't need the company of others, just to hang out for the sake of hanging out.  I learned to be alone while my parents traveled or while I traveled by myself.  This may be a factor of maturity, after all, when we're grown up, we weed out the things that don't matter. 

And finally, what helps me retrieve my well-being is relating to others who are like me.  The internet, of course, has made it so much easier to talk to and relate to other TCKs, including the friends I made along my way.  It's those relationships that are satisfying to me, because other TCKs GET me.  And I get them.  No blank stares, no eyes glazing over.  We are the same.  We've finally found the clique that is worth belonging to.  Because of this, we are all restored to our former, prosperous selves. By reaching out and connecting with each other, we are recovering.  

Filipino Christmas

Great article in this month's "Mabuhay" magazine, Philippine Airlines' award-winning travel and lifestyle magazine.  This blog is beginning to sound more like "Recovering Third Culture Kid Whose Favorite Country to Live In was the Philippines".  

Monday, December 12, 2011

Continental Drift

I wish I had the literary chops that Sarah Stoner has ... she writes about herself, about "us" TCKs, in a fluid, wispy way that paints a picture of our enigmatic selves ... Marco Polo Arts Magazine

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Displaced Christmas

Same lyrics, different melodies: Coping with an expat Christmas

Read this interesting blog about not being "home" (wherever that is) for Christmas.  I found it a little cynical .. although I understand.  Everyone who celebrates Christmas seems to have their own idea of a "genuine" Christmas, i.e. what it should be, what it means, what accouterments should come with it.  (I think it's called "tradition" haha).  Maybe it's based on that one perfect Christmas from childhood where everything came together in a symphony of smells, tastes, sensations, and thrills.  For me it was the magic of going to bed with a few paltry gifts under the tree, only to wake up to find the living room practically strewn wall to wall with silvery wrapped presents.  See, there really IS a Santa Claus!  Even if his handwriting was eerily similar to my father's, I chose to believe.  My mom's initials are S.C., so even if the cards were signed from "S.C.," I ignored the irony and chose to believe they stood for "Santa Claus".  Even though I loathed going to midnight mass at church, and sat sleepily through the service, yawning as if my jaw would come apart, that memory goes down with the whole Christmas package (pun intended).

My ideal Christmas is located in New England (think Currier & Ives) with snow on the ground, getting a sled and a breathtaking Scarlet O'Hara doll from Santa.  My mom was in a choir that year that performed in gold paper dresses (don't ask me how they pulled THAT off) doing great hits from Andy Williams and Herb Alpert.  One of my favorite Christmas songs is the great chart-buster "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle" and I love it because of its obscurity.  Another favorite was Alan Sherman's "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (not the usual one!)  (All these songs traveled with us on my dad's reel-to-reel tape deck).  I think of my parents dressing up, dad in his red sweater and Santa tie, drinking a cup of tea while waiting for mom to come out, in a great whiff of Chanel No. 5, her ears sparkling with gold earrings and her wrists tinkling with bangle bracelets.

So how are we to live up to that New England standard, living overseas?  New traditions crept into the family lore.  In Japan of the early 1960's it was hard to get Christmas wrapping, so the cry on Christmas morning was "SAVE THE BOWS!" Gifts were unwrapped carefully and the paper was carefully folded into squares, saved for next year.  I was in a performance at school, dressed in a hula skirt, and we danced to "Christmas Island".  We used to go to some enormous banquet Christmas Eve, which was really more like New Years' Eve, with noise makers and music that went on into the wee hours of the night.  That was the Japanese equivalent of midnight mass for me.  I was so worried about getting home in time for Santa to come!

Brussels came in a close second for "Ideal Christmas".  We made weekend trips to Germany (the REAL home of Christmas!) and stocked up on ornaments and decorations from there.  Mom still re-uses tags from those days, with glitter and pictures of old Europe on them.  There was snow on the ground, and we went to the dreaded midnight mass at a British Anglican church.  So the agony became a little more bearable because it was done with an English accent.  Very little.

Then came our move to the Philippines.  The first obstacle, other than the weather, was finding an acceptable Christmas tree.  We brought in a pathetic looking tree that may or may not have been in the pine family.  Mom, against all odds, actually decorated it and made it look quite presentable (again, pun intended!)  It wasn't the New England Christmas tree, but it, like Charlie Brown's tree, became part of our family history.  Midnight Mass in Manila involved sweating and fanning, but I still yawned and loathed it.  Check.  One year it involved a typhoon.  Okay, liquid snow; close enough.  I'm pretty sure we had turkey too.  Served by our maids in their Christmas aprons.  Now there's a tradition that I'd like to bring back.  These days, when we're all stuffed to the gills and the dirty dishes and cooking detritus spreads out towards the horizon, mom and I lean back and yell, "PACITA!" as if she would come running in her slippers and clean it all up.

All in all, we made do wherever we were, appreciating the unusual customs, incorporating the culture of where we were into making new traditions.  We never wished we were back in the states, because, while that was "home" to most Americans, wherever we were was "home".  And that was okay with me.

Friday, November 4, 2011

TCKs and Adoption: A connection?

As you know, I have two daughters who were adopted from the Republic of Kazakhstan*.  (The earliest entries in this blog are from our second trip to Kazakhstan, although the pictures didn't make the transition from AOL).  Lisa came to us in 2001, and Melanie in 2004.  I created a beautiful (if I may say so myself!) adoption scrapbook for Lisa, and have been egregiously negligent in preparing one for Melanie.  I finally got around to getting Melanie's pictures together to work on her book, and I'm hopeful to get it done by Christmas.  Seeing as November is "Adoption Awareness Month" it's only appropriate that I get to it now.  Oh, and by the way, my husband and I have adopted a cat, Buddy, into our family.  (An interesting story in and of itself!)

Buddy the Cat
We're just celebrating adoption all around!!

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have had the heart for adoption if I hadn't been a Third Culture Kid.  Granted, there are many many people who aren't TCKs who have adopted internationally, but I think my route to being an adoptive parent started all those years ago in Asia.  I can't explain it; it wasn't a lightning bolt moment.  I have written earlier about the poverty that I witnessed, the kind that isn't just "po'" (as Herman Cain puts it) but really, really destitute.  As in living in a shack made of corrugated tin.  In a shanty town where the flood waters would rise to the shoulders.  I saw and felt the great divide between our luxurious house in Forbes park, and the beggars outside the gates.  I didn't feel privileged, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable.  Most of the underprivileged people I encountered on a personal level, however, were sweet and friendly and always had a smile.  I used to buy my "blue seal" cigarettes (American-made) from a little guy who sold them out of a wooden box by the side of the road.  He was always cheerful and anxious to make a sale.

Melanie and me getting acquainted. 
One time I left my wallet in a delapidated taxi, and the driver made a trip back to my house to return it to me.  He seemed shocked when I hugged him and thanked him.  The last housekeeper we had (I still don't like to call them "maids") truly loved us, and we loved her back.  She would spend the day at our house, cleaning and cooking and then casually tell us she needed to get home because the house was flooded to her waist.  Wouldn't most of us just call in?  Her name was Pacita, meaning "peace" and she embodied the word.  Almost always calm and collected.  She knew how much our dogs meant to us: when we were packing to move to Singapore, one of our schnauzers went missing.  She called my mom at our hotel in tears, frantic that she couldn't find the dog.  We raced to the house, only to find that Gus had been shut up between a stack of boxes and a door.  Pacita was crying with relief.  I think she kinda loved Gus too.

I know there was probably some resentment of us foreigners in Manila, but I never felt it directed at me.  All of the Filipinos I knew, from every social strata, were downright good people.  I'm not sure if this is why I wanted to adopt ... at the time I knew that I had a houseful of boys, and although I loved each one of them dearly, I really wanted a little girl.  I never looked at adoption as a philanthropic endeavor, to save an orphan from poverty.  For me it was simply a selfish thing, a desire for bows and ruffles.  

There is the occasional "discouraging word" from folks who think international adoption is great, but that more people should be adopting from the United States.  I agree ... and as international adoption becomes, sadly, more and more difficult due to the ratification of The Hague Convention, I am hopeful that more people will adopt American children.  Many already have and still do.  But different strokes for different folks.  The foster system in this country is in bad shape, and many kids end up emotionally and psychologically damaged in terrible ways.  I almost wish we could have orphanages in this country run as well as those in Kazakhstan.  No orphanage is ideal, of course, but at least there is some accountability and oversight there.  And believe me, the ladies who take care of those babies LOVE them.  It's hard to love each one enough when you have 15 in a group, but it's better than nothing.  

"Traffic jam" on the road from Almaty to Taldy Korgan.
The bottom line is, our daughters were in Asia, and that is where we went to find them.  I can't specify what it was about living in the Philippines that drove me to want to adopt, but I am confident that, somehow, my TCK-ness played a big part.  Perhaps it was the lack of fear in traveling to a Third World country. (Although today, Kazakhstan is much farther away from being part of the Third World).  Who knows?  Back then, traveling and living in Kazakhstan took a boatload of patience, tolerance and just plain nerves of steel.  Imagine: Driving six hours in the night over the Russia-Kazakhstan frontier;  phone service that required a degree in rocket science; interesting food; giardia in the water; things that went bump in the night (or more like CRASH), BATS in the living room (not the ones you play baseball with).  You get the picture.  Maybe my years in the Philippines (cockroaches, brown-outs, typhoons, martial law) were a prelude to my time in Central Asia.  I'd be curious to know how many TCKs have gone on to adopt internationally.  

In my next post I will address an issue of which not many people are aware: UNICEF and International Adoption.  

* Still don't know where Kazakhstan is?  

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Moving to a new city is fun on so many levels; one of the more exciting things to do is find an array of new doctors and dentists.  Sometimes you can hit a home run; other times, not so much. Meeting my new family doctor, I hit an out of the park grand-slam.  She is a Filipina, and we spent half of my appointment talking about the Philippines.  She even made me sing the national anthem (sitting on the examination table in my paper gown!)  Back in the martial law era of Ferdinand Marcos, we were required to stand and hear the anthem played in movie theaters.  I have no idea what it means, but boy can I belt it out.

Recounting this little tidbit to my high school chums, I started a thread about how fun it is to connect with Filipinos today.  I can spot a Filipino accent from just about anywhere, be it US Airways' call center, or on a bus, and I always make a jackass out of myself (according to my kids) talking to the owner of the accent about how I lived in Manila.  I almost always get a smile (yes I can hear a smile over the phone).  On a recent Alaskan cruise most of the crew was Filipino and I was a celebrity in their midst, of sorts. I always got a "Magandang umaga!" (Good Morning!) or "Anong pangalan mo?" (What's your name?) when I ran into them, accompanied by giggles.  It's a connection ... an acknowledgement.  Most Westerners don't even give them a second thought; they're just the "staff".  By knowing something about where they come from, I hope I give them a sense of importance, that I validate their identity, and communicate how much I appreciate and love their country, that they are human beings to me, not just waiters and busboys.  In a way, they do the same for me.  I feel a connection too, something that we TCKs latch on to like a life boat. Our lives are filled with such continual disconnection, that finding a common ground is like manna, its juice a medicine for our souls.

So when I recently heard someone refer to Filipinos as "Orientals," my defenses shot up.  Way back in the early days of this blog I wrote this post about the word "oriental".  By osmosis, I suppose, I developed an aversion to the word not for any particular reason other than it just felt wrong to me.  I know there are is a wide swing among people as to whether or not the word is offensive.  It strikes me in the same way as the generational "colored" or, of course, the dreaded "N" word.  The State of Washington enacted a bill in 2002 claiming that the word "oriental" in regards to its citizens was "outdated and pejorative" and that "All state and local government statues, codes, rules, regulations and other official documents enacted after July 1, 2002, are required to use the term 'Asian' when referring to people of Asian descent.  The use of the term 'Oriental' is prohibited."

Why do we have to label people?  Why do we talk about the "(fill in the blank)" lady who waited on us but not the "white" lady?  To me, these labels set others apart.  The label emphasizes their difference, as if we (the westerners) are the "norm" and the "orientals" or "blacks" are the deviation.  The word "oriental" itself is ethnocentric, to differentiate between the geographic West and the exotic East.  Do we refer to ourselves as "occidental" (western)?  No.  Why not?  Labeling others and not ourselves creates an "us" versus "them" way of thinking.  I'm reminded of my college history classes where I learned about Theodore Roosevelt's attitude towards the Philippines.  He had a paternalistic view, asserting that the United States had an obligation towards its "little brown brothers".  I remember how this was a kick to the stomach for me.  As if they weren't capable of taking care or governing themselves.  "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley is an intriguing, if not shocking, look at American imperialism of the time, and how, the author posits, this was an underlying cause of early 20th century Japanese expansion, and therefore, World War II.  What is really sad is that there are still undercurrents of this today, if not overtly, at the very least subconsciously.

Surely I'm spreading controversy here, but I welcome input from all sides.  Maybe it's a little close to home because my daughters are Asian.  I am ashamed to admit that I have been more than a little rankled by people who referred to them as "oriental" and have replied in less than polite terms. I know there is a way to politely inform without hurting feelings.  Am I being hypocritical here?  Aren't I being just as paternalistic and protective of my "Asian" brothers and sisters by speaking out on their behalf?  I know they can speak for themselves.  In that regard, I am reposting a poem that I heard years ago.

is not
head bowed, submissive, industrious
model minority
hard working, studious

is not being
Lotus blossom, exotic passion flower

in no talking
ahh so, ching chong chinaman
no tickee, no washee

is a white man's word
Oriental is jap, flip, chink, gook
it's "how 'bout a back rub mama-san"
it's "you people could teach them niggers
and mexicans a thing or two
you're good people
none of that hollerin' and protesting"

is slanty eyes, glasses, and buck teeth
Charlie Chan, Tokyo Rose, Madam Butterfly
it's "a half hour after eating chinese food
you're hungry again"
it's houseboys, gardeners, and laundrymen
Oriental is a fad: yin-yang, kung fu
"say one of them funny words for me"
Oriental is downcast eyes, china doll
"they all look alike"
Oriental is sneaky
Oriental is a white man's word

ARE NOT Oriental.
We have learned the word all our lives
we have learned to be Oriental
we have learned to live it, speak it,
play the role
The time has come
to look at who gave the name.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Orphan Nutrition Project Video - SPOON Foundation

The Orphan Nutrition Project Video - SPOON Foundation

Digressing a little bit from the Third Culture Kid agenda on my little blog. The SPOON Foundation is a non-profit organization started by two moms who, like me, adopted children from Kazakhstan. When we were adopting Melanie from Taldy Korgan, in eastern Kazakhstan, we were fortunate enough to meet a little girl who later was adopted by one of these moms. The little girl was in a special needs group because she couldn't walk. The caregivers speculated that she had cerebral palsy or mental retardation, or both. When she got home, she was diagnosed with rickets, a vitamin deficiency that affects the growth and development of the bones; a condition which can be reversed with vitamins and by a simple change in diet.

When we first came home with Lisa, she could barely walk up a flight of stairs, much less pedal a tricycle. We saw first hand the lack of exercise and gross motor "play" that the children got in the Baby House; activities that children in this country take for granted.  We took part in a program sponsored by our agency to build playgrounds at some of the orphanages there. I went to Esik and Petropavlovsk the summer of 2006 and helped to build two sets. I learned a lot that summer about power tools and how to use a post-hole digger.  But exercise is only one part of the solution to make these kids' lives better.

I am so excited to see how the SPOON foundation's efforts have been received by the government of Kazakhstan, and to see that it may spread into other countries as well. Please take a minute to look at the video, and to get a glimpse into the Kazakh baby houses where my daughters spent their early days.

Hey it's Johnny C | Adventures and insights about Third Culture Kids, Asian and Asian-American culture, Globalism, Human Rights, Travel, and more

An eye-opening blog that I have come to love.

Hey it's Johnny C | Adventures and insights about Third Culture Kids, Asian and Asian-American culture, Globalism, Human Rights, Travel, and more

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No-Bake Cheesecake Cups with Nutella Spiderweb Topping | BlogHer

A delicious treat from a Filipina who explains how All Saint's Day is celebrated in the Philippines.

No-Bake Cheesecake Cups with Nutella Spiderweb Topping | BlogHer

10 Most Suitable Countries for American Expatriates | Expatify - StumbleUpon

Hmmm ... which to pick? Australia might be the "easiest" because of the language issue. Having recently been to Spain for the first time, I might want to move to Barcelona. What a city! Just fantasy, of course! Where would you go?

10 Most Suitable Countries for American Expatriates | Expatify - StumbleUpon

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Parallel Universe

A couple of weekends ago, my husband and I traveled to San Antonio for alumni weekend at Trinity University.  Trinity holds a special place in our hearts, as we met there at freshman orientation, in 1978.  He recently got a call from some fraternity brothers, encouraging him to come down for a beer or two, to catch up and to talk about the good old days.  We had some timeshare points to use, so we thought, why not?  We ate some good Mexican food, did some shopping, and overall had a great weekend getaway.  The fraternity party was great, we saw some familiar faces, and got caught up on all the goings-on over the past 30 years.

It was surreal to see the old campus, in some ways the same, in some ways, very different.  It was almost as if we could sense the ghosts of our former (young) selves, flitting about from place to place.  I could see myself walking across campus to get to my 8:00 class, eating a bite in the refectory (who came up with that name for the eating place??) or dancing to the band at the annual welcome back party at the tower.  We walked around, sharing our memories ... "That's where I jumped the fence to the pool and went for a swim in February, just so I could tell my friends back in New York that I went swimming in February!"  "There is the window seat in the library where I used to study."  "I remember when they threw me in the fountain for my birthday!"  And so on.  I felt like I was in a time warp.

Ultimately though, we left a little deflated.  It was as if we suddenly realized that that part of our lives is no longer.  The concrete and bricks may still be there, in one form or another, but we are no longer a part of the place.  We did a little grieving, too, about that carefree time in our lives, when all we had to worry about was getting good grades, and making our allowance stretch through the month.  It was a little disappointing that some things had changed, but they were mostly changed for the better.  That creaky old building where I had most of my classes was no more; bulldozed and rebuilt into a modern, exposed beam and glass representation of modern architecture.  The old science building where Mitch spent hours in biology and chemistry labs was earmarked for demolition as well, with a new, state of the art science complex under construction next door.

Fort Bonifacio

Third Culture Kids spend a lot of time looking back.  Our years overseas were, for the most part, charmed.  We lived lives that no one in our home culture could ever envision.  We tell stories about the exotic locales, the luxurious lifestyle, the freedom.  In the case of the Philippines, we had extraordinary carte-blanche to explore the city and explore ourselves.  We had maids, drivers and gardeners.  Field trips meant a drive to some of the most beautiful tropical beaches in the world.  Some of us were witnesses to history; sometimes living through revolutions or martial law.  We lived just down the road from the American military cemetery at Fort Bonifacio.  Daily we drove on streets where World War II battles took place.  Names like Corregidor and Bataan meant something real to us.

The new and improved Manila.
So when the day comes that dad announces that we are "moving back to the states" we unrealistically expect our past lives to remain the same.  We want that time in our lives to freeze, to never change, to stay suspended in permanent animation.  We grieve when we hear about the changes.  There's now an elevated highway on E. de los Santos Avenue?  You've got to be kidding!  And where is the Quad, where we used to spend our afternoons watching movies or hanging out?  Gone!  There's now a SUBWAY system in Singapore?  Impossible!  A recent visit to Google Earth confirmed that my old house on Cambridge Circle in Forbes Park, is no more.  Granted it was one stiff wind away from falling down when we were there, but it was nevertheless a jolt to see that it was gone.  I can still close my eyes and be in my bedroom, and hear the hum of the window-unit "aircon".  I can hear the cook, Pacita, announcing "Dee-ner is u-ready!"  But that parallel universe is gone.  In my mind I hear platitudes like, "You can never go back" and "The only thing that stays the same is change."

For us TCK's though, those cliches are too close to our hearts.  When you watch a child grow up, the changes are imperceptible.  Only others, who haven't seen them in a long time, notice how drastic the changes are,  ("My goodness!  You've been eating your Wheaties!")  From the distance of time, the changes in our former homes are just too striking to comprehend.  Our old school has been demolished for an office skyscraper; the new location is flat-out gorgeous on a major scale.  Someone posted a video (above) and pictures online of the old campus before it was wiped out.  Rubble littered the floor, empty classrooms were covered in cobwebs and dust.  Here and there was a broken desk, a microscope still sat on a counter. The earth was reclaiming the land; weeds were growing through the concrete floors and vines covered the cracked walls.  It was eerie and devastating to a lot of us.  When we were there, it was old, it was creaky, but it was ours.

The new and improved International School, Manila
There is a lot of talk about TCK's having unresolved grief ... moving sometimes is like a death.  In those days, there was no internet to keep up with the old gang.  In most cases, you never saw those people again, ever.  So it was like a death, several times over.  Is it any wonder that we have issues with attachment and identity?

Not to end on a morose note.  Now we have the internet, we have message boards where we can reconnect with former classmates.  It heals the heart to "see" those folks again, to banter about our days in Manila, to look at pictures of ourselves from that time.  Reconnecting with the past heals; all of our awkward foibles and high school mistakes are forgiven and forgotten.  Happily, our spirits do still exist in that time and space, in that parallel universe.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Little Filipino Humor!

Filipinos are certainly getting into mainstream America and into the world. With an estimated 4 million Filipino-American population (as of 2007), Filipinos are an emerging group in a diverse society in the United States .

Filipino talents like Manny Pacquiao, Charice Pempengco, Arnel Pineda, Lea Salonga, and Monique Lhuiller are doing a great job pitching in!

David Letterman, apparently used Filipino-Americans in one of his skits.

Here’s the recap:

Top 10 Reasons Why There Couldn’t Be a Filipino-American US President

By David Letterman

10. The White House is not big enough for in-laws and extended relatives.

9. There are not enough parking spaces at the White House for 2 Honda Civics,
2 Toyota Land Cruisers, 3 Toyota Corollas, a Mercedes Benz, a BMW , and
an MPV (My Pinoy Van).
8. Dignitaries generally are intimidated by eating with their fingers at State dinners.

7. There are too many dining rooms in the White House – where will they put
the picture of the Last Supper?

6. The White House walls are not big enough to hold a pair of giant wooden
spoon and fork.

5. Secret Service staff won’t respond to “psst… psst” or “hoy.hoyhoy!”

4. Secret Service staff will not be comfortable driving the presidential car with a Holy Rosary hanging on the rear view mirror, or the statue of the Santo Nino on the dashboard.

3. No budget allocation to purchase a Karaoke music-machine for every room in the White House.
2. State dinners do not allow “Take Home”.


1. Air Force One does not allow overweight Balikbayan boxes!

Stumbled Upon is a great thing.  If you have the credit card, you get points for every purchase, and after you pay your bill you have hundreds of points to spend on free merchandise.  And if you spend more than $25.00 worth, you get free shipping!  Wish I had thought of it.  Doesn't everyone?

The other day we did some shopping for some Very Important stuff, but were short of the $25.00 free shipping amount.  To fill in the gap, I did a quick search for Third Culture Kids and a book called "The Sullivan Saga" popped up, with the following product description:

"These are the exotic, funny and sometimes bittersweet family stories and photos of an overseas childhood told by the daughter of a State Department diplomat about her family's travels and experiences living overseas from 1957 to 1972. She and her six brothers spent their childhoods in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Ethiopia. Through her stories, the reader can begin to appreciate the adaptability of children to other cultures and the fortitude and courage of parents trying to raise their children to be good citizens of the world as well as good Americans."

It didn't take me long to decide to get it (maybe a nanosecond).  I read it in one sitting (or in my case, lying).  Imagine you are the only girl in a family of six brothers!  That's challenge enough, I would think.  But then at the age of 5 (like me!) you are taken to Asia to live due to your father's job (okay, at that point there were only 4 brothers).  Maureen, the author, was blonde (like me) and also like me had the experience of people walking up to touch her hair.  In those days towheads were a curiosity and the Asian folks just *had* to touch it!  My mom was pretty lenient about it, smiling and nodding, but it pretty much creeped me out.

Maureen's mom Hope gave birth in Korea 10 days after they arrived.  (Why they didn't wait in the US until the baby was born is beyond me!)  In the accompanying video on the website, Hope describes arriving at the Seventh Day Adventist hospital, in labor.  A Korean woman was on the lone delivery table, and the staff swiftly moved her to the floor to make room for Hope.  A crowd of Koreans came into the room, including the janitor, to see if the Western woman gave birth the same way the Korean women did!  Hope seems like a plucky woman, (or maybe being in labor she just didn't give a darn!), and she thought, "what the heck" and had the baby right then and there. Two years later she had another baby in Korea.

The family went on to posts in Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Ethiopia.  Maureen went to the International School (then the American School) like I did, and the family lived on the same street that we did (Cambridge Circle, Forbes Park).  Her experience in Manila wasn't all hearts and flowers.  She had moved right before entering high school (like me) after making good friends in Taiwan and making the cheerleading squad.  (Sounds familiar!)  According to Maureen, AS was different from her previous schools in that "the majority of the students weren't transients like us.  Indeed, most were expatriate residents of the Philippines who were American citizens, but they didn't move every two years like we did."  She talks about being an outsider where all of the cliques had been established in elementary school.  She describes being amongst "sons and daughters of expatriates who had married and merged into the local Filipino society" which she found to be "something of a closed society".  It took her a YEAR (her emphasis) to make a single good friend.  (Well, me too, but I had to do it again, year after year!)

Although she does go on to describe all the historical sites and the fun beaches they went to, I was sad to hear that her experience in Manila wasn't that great.  However, I could relate to a lot of what she wrote.  I too felt on the fringe at IS, but by the time I got there, the school was populated by more of a transient group.  There was a core group of "old timers" who had spent their entire lives at IS, but there were also a lot of kids who came and went.  Like Maureen, I also had trouble making friends, but I don't blame the demographics of the school.  The fact was, I was shy, I was awkward, and teenagers can just be cruel.  As I (finally) felt like a (nominal) part of the "cool" crowd in later years, I admit I was probably less than nice to some of the kids I had befriended at the start.  Or maybe we just grew apart.  I hope it was the latter.  I hate to think of myself as being as cruel to others as others had been to me.  It's "Lord of the Flies" out there sometimes.

Maureen finally found her niche in Bangkok, graduating from the International School there.  The prologue of her book describes her first days at the University of Montana, holding a post card inviting her to a gathering of foreign exchange students.  Her home address in Thailand made the club assume she was one of them.  She writes the following:

"It's only kids like me -- overseas brats, third-culture kids, American dependents of diplomats or the U.S. military -- that have this problem with the semantics of the otherwise simple question 'Where are you from?'  The intent of the question is to place you in some context, to begin to know you ... I have my 'elevator speech' of who I am: 'I was born in Washington DC.  My father works for the State Department and I was raised overseas in Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Ethiopia.'"

"That answers the question but it is apparently quite intimidating and is generally received with one giant step back.  People don't know what to make of me or my background.  They wonder if I am bragging?  Or am I rich?  At any rate, all that world travel and exotic experience isn't conducive to creating comfort in my peers or a sense of camraderie.

"...We have a different set of skills -- mobile skills, if you will.  We know how to maneuver in new places, to learn our way around, to feel at ease in discomforting situations, to entertain ourselves and to be OK with ambiguity.  Good skills, to be sure, but they don't make you many friends."

I am forever envious of people who can pick my brain and speak out loud the things that I am thinking.  These words pretty much sum up the core of "me".  Thanks for having my back, Maureen.  Oh, and read her book.  It resonates.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Dark Side

I don't just read books.  I consume them.  It's frustrating for me to put a book down; I want to read it entirely in one sitting.  Lately, to my dismay, I have been doing just that.  Unfortunately this habit has kept me up into the wee hours of the morning, my eyes heavy with sleep, but my mind refusing to give in.  Just one more chapter, I think.  Being engaged in a story is just too compelling.

Creepy much?

In the last few days, I've read two books that I stumbled upon (hey, what a great name for a web crawler!)  Recently a friend from high school in Manila started a Facebook thread called "You know you're from International School Manila if ..." and five weeks later it's still brimming with activity.  I have done similar threads here on this blog, with the furniture, art and food.  This is a virtual high school reunion, without the expensive airfare and hotel rooms.  And we are all, in our minds, still young and vibrant: no gray hairs or wrinkles at this gathering!  

I found out a few things at this e-get-together.  One is that I went to high school with the brother of Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of the 80's group INXS.  My son, who is a walking encyclopedia of rock & roll trivia, was intrigued, much like he was intrigued that I went to college with Gibby Haynes, the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers (yes, that's their real name, google it).  I didn't know Rhett Hutchence at IS, but I was moved to buy his book, "Total XS" which tells the story of his relationship with his brother and the mystery of Michael's death; and unfortunately Rhett's drug addiction.  Losing a loved older sibling was something I identified with.  It all started with a comment he made on the Facebook page: "You know you went to the International School Manila if .. you develop a serious drug problem."  There have been 262 responses as of now, from nodding heads to outrage at Rhett being a "downer".  Up until then we had talked about favorite teachers, skipping school, drinking San Miguel beer.  How dare Rhett say something so dark and depressing?  

Yes, they really exist.

Granted, the school itself was not responsible for anyone's drug or alcohol addictions.  So many factors lurk behind the addictive personality.  I'm not so naive as to believe that "just wanting to belong" is the one and only reason for addiction. But the fact is, there was a lot of drug use going on in Manila.  I've talked about there being no drinking age in the Philippines, and for some reason, many of our parents gave us the freedom to wander the streets of Manila with no supervision.  We were little adults, sitting in bars with cigarettes in one hand, glasses of gin & tonic or beer in the other.  Even if we were at home, we were usually bartending our parents' parties, while watching our role models become more & more intoxicated.

My drink of choice.  With calamansi.

We also lived a transient life.  If we weren't moving every two years (or less) our friends were!  The group that was there freshman year was gone the next.  Best friends lasted as long as their parents' postings.  How to find a sense of belonging in that atmosphere?  You aligned yourself with anyone who was willing to take you in.  And sadly, sometimes that group was the druggie group.  My first marijuana came from my sister, who, in college in Louisiana, had come to visit over the Christmas break.  She met two guys from IS Manila on the flight over, and they were big into the drug scene.  She is the one who told me about people smuggling drugs into the Philippines inside boxes of tampons.  In our back yard one afternoon, I had my first toke and ended up jumping up & down in the pool, laughing hysterically.  I didn't fit the profile; people were often shocked that I smoked.  I had a "goody two-shoes" aura about me, I suppose.  Deep down I think I enjoyed surprising people that way; it made me memorable when previously I had been an anonymous, miserable face in the crowd.  A friend once gave me some pot for my birthday wrapped up in tin foil.  I hid it under my bed, but was horrified a few days later to find that our dog had eaten it all, leaving an empty and licked-clean piece of foil.  I hope he enjoyed it!  Overall, though, it just made me sleepy and the taste and smell was sickly-sweet.  I never felt compelled to smoke; I could take it or leave it.  

I didn't run in the hard core crowd that did heroin or cocaine.  But I knew it was out there.  There were car accidents and overdoses.  Entire families would suddenly and mysteriously leave the country.  I know of at least one acquaintance who died as a result of his addictions.  I'm sure there are more that I don't know about.   There was a darker side.  Yes, it is a downer, but is is reality, and you can't change reality by pretending it doesn't exist.  I'm sure at first some of us just wanted to belong, and a toke of a joint made that possible.  After that the path forked: one way was the way I went: just trying things on for size.  The other way was a far darker journey, from which I, but for the grace of God, was spared.  I will always remember my friend who wasn't so lucky.  But really, was this story any different from any other high school at the time?  Don't all teenagers just want to belong, TCK or not?

Tomorrow: "The Sullivan Saga" by Maureen H. Sullivan.