Thursday, January 24, 2013

Home Is Where My Earrings Are

Those of us who grew up going to international schools have our own stories, our own experiences, our own Trivial Pursuit moments.  We reminisce about cutting class and escaping to the local sari-sari store to buy cigarettes.  Remember that evil gym teacher who always tortured us with laps around the track in the blazing tropical sun?  The swishy typing instructor with the lizard-skin pants?  Remember being caught smoking in the girls’ bathroom?  Or the time you leaned against the sink in there and it fell to the floor in a reverberating crash, tiny pieces of porcelain raining and tinkling all around?  Amazing how fast you can run away from trouble!

Still gorgeous after all these years!
How many of us ever wondered about those hearty souls who spent their lives educating us?  How did our teachers end up in a classroom in India, or Manila or Saudi Arabia (for Pete’s sake!) sharing their wit and wisdom with us Third Culture Kids?  Listening to us whine and moan about our tumultuous TCK lives, offering a pat on the shoulder when tragedy struck.  For some reason these brave people stayed in our minds and hearts over the years.  Are our relationships with our TCK teachers deeper than most student-teacher attachments? 

“Home Is Where My Earrings Are” is a memoir of a life in international education.  Dannie Russell’s husband, Daryle, was my high school principal in the Philippines.  I don’t remember meeting Dannie, but I feel like I know her quite well after reading her book. 

Dr. Russell was a kind, benevolent dictator, if you will.  I was never afraid of him; he always had a smile, that big California grin, and never appeared stern, although he ran a tight ship.  Nothing made you sit up straighter than the words, "Psst!  Here comes Doctor Russell!"  When my father was transferred to Singapore in the middle of my senior year (gasp!) Dr. R. was kind enough to decide that I had taken enough classes to earn my diploma.  I’m not sure that was accurate, but I was forever grateful.  The actual piece of paper, written in English and Tagalog, arrived in a big brown envelope not long after we arrived in Singapore.  (While that may be impressive to most, I later learned that kids in Africa had diplomas that were printed on lambskin).  As if that wasn’t enough, Dr. Russell arranged (with my parents’ cooperation of course) for me to return to Manila in May, to graduate with my class.  At the commencement ceremony, he handed me my empty diploma folder with a wink.  I think he may have had something to do with me getting a blind date for the prom, but that may be stretching it a bit.

My blind date to the prom in Manila.  
In her book, Dannie writes about the behind-the-scenes adventures of the wife of an international educator, and later about becoming an educator herself.  She writes about their early days in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia (ever practical, laughing at the convenience of having a bidet right next to the toilet when dysentery strikes); the opulent-but-casual formality of Manila (from the intricacies of having President Marcos speak at graduation, to scuba diving lessons with the wife of the American ambassador); and their frightening arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (no pictures of boys and girls together – rip, tear!  No Disney videos!  No chocolates, they might have alcohol centers!)  Dannie’s positive attitude is pervasive; she only gets down when they arrive in Saudi to the news that the headmaster Dr. Russell is replacing has refused to leave, insisting that the “new guy” will never make it.  She senses that they are being socially snubbed, but that doesn’t stop her.  She decides that she is going to meet a new friend every month, and she does.

Living in Riyadh during Operation Desert Storm, under constant threat of SCUD attacks from Iraq was harrowing, to say the least.  To diffuse the fear?  Celebrate with a SPUD party!  Nothing like a baked potato bar to calm the nerves.  When you lose your sense of humor, you're a goner.  While most schools beg and plead for more textbooks and library books; in Riyadh the Russells pleaded for money to buy gas masks.  

Dannie baked cookies and personally delivered them to the American troops at the front near the Kuwaiti border.  Their daughter was detained at one point by the Saudi “morality police” the mutawwa, for not wearing an abaya.  This after they had lived in the country for nearly 11 years, having never worn the veil.  They had always respected the rules there, always dressing conservatively.
Not your typical teacher’s life story, “fer shure”!

I can just imagine the conversation between the newly married Dannie and Daryle:  “See honey, we’re going to go live in Africa, where we won’t have many modern conveniences.  You’re going to teach English, and one day you’re going to be caught in the middle of a violent student demonstration.  We’re going to meet Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor.  Then we’re going to move across the world to the Philippines, where we’re going to hob-nob with big-wigs there and you’re going to volunteer at a refugee camp in Thailand near the border of Laos.  You're gonna go into the jungle and with a bunch of teenagers, you're gonna build a school.  Then we’ll go to the most restrictive Muslim country in the world, live there during a war, and after that we’re going to move to Pakistan, visit Afghanistan and eat grilled sheep parts with the Taliban.  What do you say?”

I can just hear Dannie … “When do we leave?”

Monday, January 14, 2013


This is a post I wrote a year or so ago, about the term "Recovering".  Thought it might be worthwhile revisiting.

Recovering Third Culture Kid: "Recovering"

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Road Home

Images used with permission

What is “home”?  For many it is bricks and mortar, the smell of mom’s cooking, the feel of a cotton blanket on a familiar bed.  It is paintings, objects and photographs of a life lived.  On a broader scale, it is a familiar language, black pavement with straight lines.  Home is the people who know you best: family.

For a third culture kid, the word “home” becomes muddled.  The bricks and mortar one day could be tatami floors and shoji doors the next.  The cooking in this place smells different; you can’t get Chef Boyardee here.  The bed is a strange one, although the blanket may be familiar.  The language is foreign, staccato, strident.  The pavement is broken, dusty. Everyone is a stranger; you said good-bye to the cousins at an airport far, far away.  The hours on the airplane, and shuffling, sleep-filled eyes grainy, through chrome and glass airports, have left your brain cobwebbed and confused.  Even if you wanted to go home, there would be no home to go to. 

After watching “The Road Home”, (, a short film written and directed by Rahul Gandotra, (shortlisted for an Oscar in 2012) the first words that popped into my head were, “a gem” and “a delightful visual taste of a pain that I know.”  Beside the fact that the movie is filmed in National Geographic-like detail, and gives us exquisite snapshots of rural Indian culture, "The Road Home" is an affirmation of the issues of Third Culture Kids.  In this short, 23 minute story, every feeling, every longing, every search for home is played out against the backdrop of what is very likely the place where God lives.

The protagonist is a young Indian boy, Pico, who has been raised in England, and is, for the most part, through and through British.  His accent is as English as tea and buttered scones.  But on the outside, he is Indian.  The opening scene shows him being taunted by his schoolmates because he has whitened his face in a desperate attempt to erase his “Indian-ness.”  He can’t understand why they are jeering at him; you can almost touch his confusion and his pain.  “Indian!  Indian!  Indian!” they yell.  Why doesn’t he run away?  Why is he trying to cover himself up?  You can almost hear the cries of his youthful inner self trying desperately to make his outside match his inside.**

We see him sneaking out the window of his Indian boarding school, ironically named, The Woodstock School.  He is desperate to get home to England, to his “home”, the only home he has ever known.  For some reason his father, back in Britain, has decided to send him back to India, but for what?  To get in touch with his heritage?  Probably, but more realistically to get him into the London School of Economics, and then to Harvard for his MBA.  But what is the point?  An international school in the foothills of the Himalayas?  Where is the Indian heritage in that?

Don't we all feel like we're running after or away from something?

Pico sprints down the curvy road away from the school as the morning bell rings.  He is approached by taxi drivers, who speak to him in Hindi, assuming, of course, that he is Indian.  He certainly looks Indian.  Therefore he must be Indian.  Pico gets angry, yelling at one point, “I’m British!”  One sympathetic taxi driver agrees to drive him to New Delhi, and the journey begins. 

Most of us Third Culture Kids are trying very hard to do the same thing as Pico: we just want our outsides to match our insides.  We want to go “home”, like Pico, but oftentimes “home” doesn’t exist.  We spend our lives trying to find “home”, and for the most part we never get there; our lives are a constant journey.  Our Road Home has no final destination.

In my case, being an American, it should follow that America is home.  I look American, I sound American.  I can disappear into a crowd.  But on the inside, I am as foreign as can be.  To many Americans, foreigners are just that: foreign, and not worthy of being understood or studied.  (Like a Third Culture Kid?  We may seem a little weird, come across as a little arrogant.  Not many people take the effort to get to know us).  Not to say that all Americans are xenophobic, but many are.  I had a teacher in primary school tell me that Singapore was in China.  Even in fourth grade, I knew that wasn’t true.  Many people I meet here in the States don’t care about what goes on outside our borders, unless we were fighting a war or our jobs are being exported there. 

Most American religious folks believe that Christianity is the one and only way to heaven.  I have seen people cry real tears for the “lost” people.  I chuckled silently as I imagined a group of Buddhists praying for the poor Christians who don’t know the Bodhisattva.  It’s been a constant refrain in my musings, but having come to know other religions on a genuine level has opened my mind to myriad possibilities for living one’s life, and where one goes when this life is done.

I never learned how to be a “typical American kid” whatever that is.  My daughter, who has been to the same school her whole life, isn’t happy unless she is surrounded by several of her friends.  I, on the other hand, am happiest when I am alone.  I was forced to learn to occupy myself because there were so many times in my life when I was alone, either on a long-haul flight across the Pacific, or left behind while my parents took trips to exotic places.  Making friends for me is exhausting, because I had to do it so many times, over and over, sometimes with not-so-good results.  My daughter, on the other hand, does it like she breathes. 

I may never know what it is like to have a permanent “home”.  Even now, I am a newcomer where I live.  I’ve only been here a year and a half, and I’m waiting patiently to bloom where I am planted.  But it’s hard to wish for home when there never really was one to begin with.  I may look like I fit in, but on the inside, I am so very different.

Pico, in “The Road Home,” has a home to wish for.  He wants to go back to England, the only home he has ever known.  He doesn’t want to be Indian, even though when he looks in the mirror, an Indian boy stares back at him.  At the end of his journey, I think he comes to terms with his reality and reluctantly agrees to meet the Indian boy in the mirror.  In a way, all of us TCK’s are Pico.  We just want to feel like we belong.  Perhaps the only way we can belong is to realize that we never will.  

You can "rent" The Road Home for 48 hours for only $1.99, but I encourage you to buy the DVD so that you can listen to the director's commentary.  He is actually a TCK himself, and talks about what he was thinking with every scene.  

More about the film:


** Gandotra explains in the director's commentary that there have been several interpretations of this scene.  Is it a dream sequence?  Did the taunting kids paint his face white?  Or did Pico do it himself, thinking no one would notice?  You decide.