Tuesday, May 28, 2013


You might find it strange, that I, an all-around girly girl, have such an interest in stories of war.  My bookshelves are filled, not with chick lit, but with tomes about military campaigns, about soldiers, military nurses and doctors and the innocent victims of war.  I am darkly compelled to read of the horrendous futility of it all.  I am fascinated with the impossible capacity of the human spirit to persevere and survive when everything around is vicious, heartless and cruel.  I know of the misery that lives in green fields dotted with white crosses and Stars of David.  The cemeteries are too quiet, too permanent.  Once there, the inhabitants never leave.  As long as there is family, there are small mementos placed here and there, a photograph or some flowers.  But in time, even the families vanish, and all that is left is a crumbling stone.

When we lived in Brussels, we attended a British Anglican church, and we always took part in the Remembrance Day services.  Also known as Armistice Day, the U.S. Veteran’s Day, it marks the end of the hostilities in Europe in 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I am still moved by the English tradition of wearing a blood red poppy on the lapel, which may or not stem from the poem, In Flanders Field, by the Canadian soldier John McCrae.  I never knew until I studied history at university, how many had perished in that war, more or less wiping out an entire generation of young men. 

My interest in World War II probably came from living near the actual places where it hapened.  There aren’t too many sites on American soil, other than Pearl Harbor, where the battles of that conflict took place.  In Manila we used to drive through the American cemetery just about every day … the visual enormity of the loss of life wasn’t lost on me.  I remember the meticulously manicured green lawn, the stark white tombstones, and the American flag standing guard, fluttering proudly in the breeze. 

For some reason I never visited Bataan or Corregidor.  I could kick myself for my teenaged apathy.  My father, on the other hand, was involved in the construction of an oil terminal on the peninsula of Bataan, and drove over there on a regular basis.  We could see the faraway shadow of the island of Corregidor lying low in the water as we stood on Dewey Boulevard overlooking Manila Bay.  I heard stories about the Bataan Death March, and of families who were interned at the University of Santo Tomas.  One acquaintance told us about being a small child when Manila fell, and how his parents told him it was all a game as they marched, under armed guard, through the hot, dusty streets of Manila to the makeshift prison. 

My dad had joined the Navy when he was 17 years old, right after high school graduation.  He was in boot camp in San Diego when the war ended; he told me once that he was in the group being prepared to invade Japan, had the nuclear bombs not put an end to it all.  After the war he spent a year in the Pacific on a minesweeper, which had the grim duty of detonating the ocean mines left behind by the Japanese.  Dad told me stories about salt-water showers and chow time, and how they sat on the bridge with a rifle, shooting at mines until they exploded.  “Take all you want but eat all you take,” he used to say, a reminder of his Navy days.

In Belgium, as an 11-year-old, my parents took me to Breendonk Concentration Camp near Antwerp.  When I came home I drew pictures in my childish hand of people hanging from hooks.  I suppose this was my way of dealing with the incomprehensible.  My parents never hid these things from me; I always knew about the Holocaust.  I think I read the Diary of Anne Frank before I was out of elementary school.  I can’t explain my morbid curiosity.

For every Allied soldier who died, I acknowledge that there were soldiers lost on the other side as well.  Enemy or not, they were sons, fathers and brothers.  It's not about "ancient" history any more, either.  Too many young men have died in the Middle East in recent years, and too many are coming home with their limbs missing, bodies maimed, and minds darkened, never to be the same.  What is it about mankind that makes us wage war?  Can we not learn from the past?

I’m going to put on my librarian’s hat today, and share with you some of the books I hold very dear to my heart.  Some stories are very hard to read, but imagine how hard it was to endure the reality. And I ask you to never forget.  Every day should be Memorial Day. 

World War II – Pacific Theater
The Iron Gates of Santo Tomas – Emily Van Sickle
The Pacific War – John Costello
The Flamboya Tree – Clara Olink Kelly
Manila Memories – Edited by Juergen Goldhagen
The Fall of Japan – William Craig
My Faraway Home – Mary McKay Menard
The Quiet Warrior – (Admiral Raymond Spruance) – Thomas Buell
Ghost Soldiers – Hampton Sides
All This Hell – Evelyn Monahan & Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee
We Band of Angels – Elizabeth M. Norman
Escape from Davao – John D. Lukacs
I Came Back from Bataan – Robert Whitmore
With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa – Eugene Sledge
Helmet for My Pillow – Robert Leckie
Bridge to the Sun – Gwen Terasaki
Hidenari Terasaki; Pearl Harbor and Occupied Japan – Roger B. Jeans
Flyboys – James Bradley
No Ordinary Joes – Larry Colton
Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand
In Harm’s Way – Doug Stanton
Blind Man’s Bluff – Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew and Annette Drew
Tears in the Darkness – Michael Norman
Bataan Death March; A Survivor’s Account – William Dyess
Ocean Devil – James McManus
Conduct Under Fire – John A. Glusman
Enola Gay – Gordon Thomas & Max Morgan Witts
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan – Herbert P. Bix
Captured Honor – Bob Wodnik

World War II – Europe
The Wild Blue – Stephen Ambrose
A Lucky Child – Thomas Buergenthal
Partners in Command – Mark Perry
Edith’s Story – Edith Velmans
To See You Again – Betty Schimmel
The Lost – Daniel Mendelsohn
The Girl in the Green Sweater – Krystyna Chiger
Suite Fran├žaise (fiction) – Irene Nemirovsky
The Pianist – Wladyslaw Szilman
Sarah's Key (fiction) - Tatiana de Rosnay
The Book Thief (fiction) – Markus Zusak
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (fiction) – John Boyne
Where the Birds Never Sing – Jack Sacco
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. – H. Paul Jeffers
Jimmy Stewart, Bomber Pilot – Starr Smith
The Winds of War - Herman Wouk
War and Remembrance - Herman Wouk
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

A Rumor of War – Philip Caputo
On The Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong – Kate Webb
Vietnam, A History – Stanley Karnow
Faith of My Fathers – John McCain
War Torn; Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam 
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (Not about Vietnam in and of itself, but formed the basis of the film "Apocalypse Now")

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Never Forget

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
--Lt. Col. John McCrae

Friday, May 24, 2013

Like a Greyhound Bus

Today I’m sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee.  Not unusual in and of itself, but I should be in Lisbon, Portugal.  My mother-in-law and I were supposed to leave yesterday to fly to Newark, then Lisbon.  We would have gotten there this morning around 8, been driven to our hotel, and then had a free day to rest and walk around the city.  Maybe the coffee there is strong and European, and I would be savoring every sip as I sat at a sidewalk cafe.  I would be taking in all the new scents, sounds and sights.  In my mind’s eye, Portugal is colorful but ancient, with cobblestones, castles and the smell of the ocean. 


But here I am.  Apparently there was “weather” in Newark, and the airline kept delaying our flight.  We got to the airport around 10:00 for our 11:45 flight.  After sitting patiently as our departure time was moved further and further into the afternoon, we realized that we would miss our flight to Lisbon. We still held out hope for the next day.  After standing in a long line to be re-booked, our optimism vanished as the agent tickety-tapped on her computer, shaking her head.  Shortly after this our flight was cancelled entirely.  We weren’t going.  The earliest we could get out was Sunday, long after our ship had sailed.

My mother-in-law, Gloria, had invited me on this trip back in the fall.  I don’t know much about Portugal, and was really looking forward to adding a new place to my personal map.  We were going to be on a river cruise down the Douro River, also going into Spain to Salamanca.  I read up on the history of Portugal (did you know Carmen Miranda was from there?  She could wear a fruit salad like nobody's business!)  I had shopped for clothes, gotten prescriptions refilled, and said good-byes to my mother and husband.  Mentally, I was already halfway there.

Abruptly, the trip was over before it began.  I can’t remember, in all the years I spent travelling from pillar to post, ever having a trip out-and-out cancelled.  Maybe interrupted, but never cancelled.  I've written about my tripus interruptus (or is it tripii interruptii?) before.  Same story, different chapter.  Different airport floor.

Yesterday I got into a conversation with a (jaded) pilot who was also waiting for the flight.  He was commuting to his job in Newark, and had a lot to say about the airline for which he worked.  He bemoaned the fact that, unlike those in the US, most international airlines are subsidized by their governments. Singapore Airlines is probably the most well-run, passenger-friendly airline in the world.  You will hardly hear that said about very many American airlines.  Each airline company in this country is in it for the profit, which means shaving down on just about everything, like food, drinks, good service, etc., and charging for ridiculous things like carry-on luggage.  

One time, back when we were adopting, we flew to Frankfurt on USAirways.  After the long haul across the Atlantic, we were served a stale doughnut (really!) for breakfast, and tinned orange juice.  On the next leg to Almaty, Kazakhstan, the German airline Lufthansa served us a cheese omelet with mushrooms, a delicious roll with jam and butter, fresh fruit and mimosas.  And yes, we were in Economy class.  We were incredulous. 

The deregulation of the airlines in the late 1970s and early 1980s may have been in the interest of capitalism; to increase competition and decrease prices, but the end result has been disastrous.  I’m not sure how or if this directly affected airline travel as an experience, but anyone who traveled in the past remembers how it used to be.  People dressed up to travel; it was a Big Deal.  Women wore hose and men suits.  Children were in their Sunday best.  Flight attendants were polite, charming, and helpful.  We used to get playing cards and other souvenirs.  I distinctly remember a candy lei given to me by a flight attendant the first time we landed in Hawaii.  I suppose it was a lot more expensive to fly back then too, and only available to those who had the money, or whose companies paid for the tickets.

Now we may as well be riding on a Greyhound Bus.  Shorts and flip-flops are de rigueur.  My eyes pop out of my head sometimes when I see how people dress to travel.  Flight attendants are sometimes like drill sergeants.  Friendly?  Maybe.  Polite, perhaps.  I don’t think that attractiveness is necessarily a requirement, but personal hygiene may be warranted at times.  Among passengers there is a sense of entitlement: it’s all about THEM.  Get me to my destination OR ELSE.  I have heard horrific stories of gate agents being punched and flight attendants being similarly assaulted. When I looked at the line of people waiting at the desk yesterday, I truly feared a brawl would break out.

When I find myself in this kind of situation, I remind myself that these airline employees have nothing to do with the difficulty at hand.  Rather, I find myself going overboard (no pun intended) in thanking them for what they do, acknowledging that their job must be so difficult.  You can’t imagine the grateful looks on faces when I say this.  We as a society always seem to always need someone to blame, and that usually ends up being the person LEAST responsible.  There’s probably some big corporate big-wig in a secret room far away who is making the decisions, and there’s no way we can track them down for a quick thump on the nose.  And sometimes it's just something as uncontrollable as the weather.  Who's to blame for that?  Would you really want to fly in a major thunderstorm?

We have to remember that there are people who do jobs that we ourselves wouldn’t dream of doing.  I always thank goodness there are kindergarten teachers, nurses, undertakers, and others who work in  demanding fields.  I suppose being a Third Culture Kid has made me sensitive to other people; I have seen so much and have developed a discerning eye to that around me.  Many TCKs can put themselves in others’ shoes so easily and appreciate our diversity.  If only more people could do the same. 

In the meantime, I am hopeful that I will make it to Portugal someday.  I have never stopped wanting to go somewhere new.  I just wish it was easier to get there.  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Remembering Carobel

This little gem made its appearance on my Kindle the day before Mother’s Day.  It’s a collection of essays by 31 women who reflect on the gifts their mother left them, both spiritual and physical.  I had heard about this book from one of the essayists, Lillian Daniel, who is a Third Culture Kid, like me.  I wrote a little about Lillian’s dad, Leon, and her mom in this post from 2011.  

Lillian’s mother, Carobel Calhoun Daniel, was a drinking buddy friend of my mom’s in Manila.  They met at our church, Holy Trinity Whiskeypalian Episcopalian, down the street from our house.  Leon was a UPI correspondent and they had lived in Japan, India and Thailand before landing in Manila.  Most of what I remember about these women is cigarettes and flowing caftans, big hair, lots of lipstick, laughter and dirty jokes.  At the time, Lillian was about 10 years old, a tow-headed, pig-tailed, freckle-faced ball of energy; she was always running, it seemed.  One time she fell and smacked her head on the concrete floor, and Caro had to watch her closely when she developed the symptoms of a concussion. 

My mom and Carobel being outdoorsy

Lillian and my sister Debi
Carobel and Leon had taken in their young nephew, Robert, who had, I surmised, run into a little trouble at home in South Carolina.  His parents thought a year in Asia might do him some good.  Granted, his older sister Lisa had lived with their aunt and uncle when they had lived in India, so it wasn’t a stretch to send Robert to Manila.  My mom and Caro thought it would be “cute” to throw a little “get to know you” party for Robert and me in our back yard, with a small group of kids from school.  I cringe when I think about that occasion, replete with all the awkwardness that 14-year-olds are prone to.  Tinny music played on a stereo and empty bottles of Chianti with drips of candle wax adorned the tables.  We swam in the pool, sitting afterwards, damp and frizzy, trying to break through the shyness and the silences.  Someone turned out the lights at one point (I’m not naming names) and a game of spin the bottle was organized.  The next day Robert took me to see “Serpico” and I fell for him, big time. 

Awkwardness ... ouch!
Together, our families went on beach trips to Batangas and Matabungkay, where my dad scuba dived (dove?) and the rest of us snorkeled.  Afterwards there were late-night car trips home in wet bathing suits and a sunburned state of exhaustion.  I have a vivid memory of Carobel in her pink bathing suit, smoking a Virginia Slim, fretting over Lillian, who had swum through a patch of jellyfish. 

The youngest in a family of sisters, Carobel was the mischievous one.  One of my favorite stories about the young Caro was when the bossy older sisters made her bring them drinks of water.  She repeatedly brought each of them a nice cool glass with a smug smile and a toss of her head.  After all the sisters had drunk their fill, Caro sassily chanted, "I got it from the toilet!!" I can only imagine the hilarity that ensued.  I bet she was a fast runner.

Aunt Caro (as I called her) and Leon were only in Manila for six months; in December UPI transferred them to Hong Kong.  (It’s so strange how events in one’s young life seem to have transpired over a very long time, when in reality it was over in a flash).  We saw them off at the airport, me sad about losing my first crush, but equally sad because I really loved Aunt Caro.  She was like that: her laughter, her bawdiness, her hilarious facial expressions, well, you couldn’t help but love her.  She didn’t dismiss Robert’s and my relationship as “puppy love”.  She got it: that first rush of teenaged love was real and powerful.  That was the first time that an adult had acknowledged me as important and as a real, living and breathing person.

My mom and Carobel stayed in touch over the years.  We visited them in London where they were posted in the late 1970’s.  Caro, after she and Leon divorced, ended up living in Washington DC, where she worked for ABC News, an assistant to anchorman Steve Bell.  When Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1992, mom won a lottery to go through a receiving line to meet the new president, and she took my sister Debi along for the ride to DC.  They, of course, looked up Caro.  While visiting ABC studios one day, Mom and Carobel were waiting for an elevator.  The doors opened and the majestic Peter Jennings exited right in front of them, saying, “Hello Caro!”  My mom, a longtime fan, nearly fainted.  Caro arranged for Mom and Debi to be interviewed by Spencer Christian on Good Morning America the day of the inauguration.  My sister was playing hooky from her teaching job that long weekend, telling her principal that she was ill.  Unfortunately for her, the power had gone out at her school, classes were cancelled for the day, and the principal was home watching at the very moment she appeared on national television. 

That was the last time mom and Caro saw each other.  As sometimes happens, life goes on and we forget to write a note or make a phone call.  Years pass.  Just when you think, I really should get in touch with so-and-so, you learn that it is too late.  Caro died in the 1990s at an entirely too young age.  I was devastated when I heard, and a rush of colorful memories came over me, making me smile through the sadness. 

Lillian today.
Little Lillian, the perky little girl of my memories and the spitting image of her mother, is now a national speaker and writer, a minister at First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.  I can’t say I wasn’t surprised to hear that Lillian had gone to divinity school; her mother had been such a colorful character.  I’m sure Caro herself saw the irony in it.  Lillian writes about her mother exactly the way I remember her.  This story that Lillian wrote in "What My Mother Gave Me" sums up Caro in all her glory, a perfect example of the energy and humor that made up her persona, the "hostess with the mostess" at a dinner party:

"(S)he came out of the kitchen more than an hour late, dressed to the nines in a sparkly outfit a couple of sizes too small, red high-heeled shoes clicking across the floor, and she was holding – on another giant Japanese pottery tray – a magnificent roasted duck.  It was a brand new recipe for her.  We had waited a long time for the meal, but it was hard to see the duck on the plate, for in her enthusiasm for her project, she had gone heavy on the garnish.  It was like a parsley explosion of culinary enthusiasm, a product of a long day’s work, cheerfully given.  But then, the combination of the greenery, the grease of the duck, and a fold in the carpet just underneath her high-heeled shoes all came together in the perfect storm.  As she tripped, the duck she had spent the whole day preparing went flying across the room.  The bird landed where once it had had its tail feathers and skidded across the floors, only to stop on the muddy doormat in the front hall, a brown trail of grease, gravy and parsley garnish in its sad wake …

“(S)he pulled her little shoulders back and marched over to the defeated duck on the doormat.  As she stooped down and picked it up, she announced to the group, ‘Let me just throw this duck away in the kitchen, and I’ll be back in just a minute with the other duck.’”

It’s the nature of the expat life, that friends are made quickly and deeply, and the relationships are long-lasting.  We remember the times and the places we shared, and upon reflection we are transported back to a tropical house, to a dinner shared, a voyage taken together.  Some of these friends make more of an impression than others, and we smile and laugh to ourselves at some of the audacious memories.  While we may be sad that those times are over, we can celebrate that they happened, and that we were lucky enough to know and love truly extraordinary people.  

Lillian touches on being a Third Culture Kid in her book "When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough".  She co-wrote "This Odd and Wondrous Calling" with Martin Copenhaver, in which they address the ups and downs of the ministry.  She also co-hosts a show on Chicago PBS channel WTTW  called "Thirty Good Minutes" which covers faith stories and ideas from different faith traditions. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Third Culture Books

It was inevitable that I ended up studying Library Science.  I have loved books since the dawn of (my) time.  When I was in 5th grade, I pasted call numbers on the spines of the books in my room and made little pockets inside to keep a record of people who might want to “borrow” them.  I don’t think anyone ever visited my homemade lending library, but I was nonetheless prepared.  My mother must have instilled my love for books somehow; she was always reading, and our family bookshelves were filled with classics.  For some strange reason I was compelled to climb up in a tree behind our house with my favorite book, perhaps seeking solitude or to commune with nature.  After I was espied by the neighborhood bully, he taunted me: "Liz climbs trees and read books!"

 When we moved to Japan when I was five, Mom set out to immerse me in the culture.  I had picture books about “Urashima Taro the Japanese fisherman who rescued a turtle, visited the sea god and returned to find that three hundred years had passed.  There was the story of “Kintaro," the young dragon slayer, and Momontaro who came to his elderly parents by way of a peach pit.  Hans Christian Anderson was boring compared to the Japanese.  

The Five Chinese Brothers was a favorite (not Japanese, but Asian) although in later years it was excoriated for promoting Asian stereotypes.  The Story About Ping was another classic set in China.  I guess Mom wanted me to love Asia as much as she did. 

Don’t even make me think about the book “Hachiko” about the dog that meets his dead master’s train every day, waiting for him to return until he (the dog) died of old age.  I get choked up just thinking about it.  I happened to catch a sappy Lifetime movie once, loosely based on the original Japanese story.  Richard Gere played the master, and George Castanza Jason Alexander was a shop owner near the train station.  I found myself sitting on the floor blubbering and sobbing in front of the TV.  Good grief. 

There was the story about the little girl who had survived the atomic bombing at Hiroshima, only to die of leukemia.  There is a Japanese legend that folding 1000 origami cranes would make a wish come true.  This girl’s classmates tried (in vain) to save her life by doing so.  I learned very early the meaning of heartbreak. (And I can still fold a perfect crane).  

I had a book about an orphaned Japanese girl who was sent to live in New York City.  I don’t remember thinking too much about it when I was little, but the back-story must have been interesting.  Why would a small Japanese girl be sent to an old lady’s brownstone in Brooklyn?  Maybe there was a tragic love story, perhaps a marriage between an American soldier and a Japanese geisha?  For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the book, but I can still see the cover and the illustrations.  The girl goes to public school and is taunted about her Asian eyes, but eventually comes to befriend her classmates.  I'm sure the book is at mom’s house somewhere. 

When I was in the third grade, we lived in Westport, Connecticut, where I attended Saugatuck Elementary School.  It was the quintessential "little red schoolhouse" with creaky wooden floors and a real bell in a steeple.  There was a book fair once, and Hardie Gramatky, of "Little Toot" fame, was there, in person signing copies of "Little Toot on the Grand Canal".  I still have my copy, signed by Gramatky himself, with a little ink illustration of the little tugboat.

In Brussels I was in a fairly serious car accident when I was 11.  (I wrote about it here).  I was at a slumber party thrown by a classmate, and the girl’s governess drove us all to the movies. On the way home there was a terrible collision.  I was in the hospital for a week with a concussion (so THAT is my problem!) and mom brought me a copy of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” that I devoured to pass the time.  It was in this book that I learned what gout was, and came to realize that, Holy Cow, too many children’s stories are just plain tragic. The poor kid lost his beloved mother and was sent to live with his crotchety old grandfather, the formidable Lord of the Manor, who didn’t like the boy at first because his disowned daughter had married beneath her.  It wasn’t long after that that I read “The Little Princess” about the little English girl whose wealthy father is killed in the Boer War and she is banished to live in an attic because the family fortune is gone.  It all made my life seem a little more tolerable in light of these sad stories. 

Mom used to go to London with her friends for ladies’ weekends.  She brought me copies of the Little House on the Prairie books from W H Smith, the series my 6th grade teacher had introduced to me.  I think I have read the entire collection more than 20 times.  I was devastated to learn that Laura had died almost ten years before I was born, as I wanted so badly to meet her (as if that would happen!)  The stories were enchanting.  Many years later, in my early 20’s, mom and I took a road trip to Mansfield, Missouri, to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder home and museum.  Even as an adult (well, chronologically anyway) I cherished those stories and marveled at being in the same place where Laura had once lived.

Maybe it was the long hours spent alone as we traveled to new places, moved into new houses, when the new friends hadn’t been made yet, or the long Pacific crossings on a ship before the invention of the VCR or the video game.  I’m not sure exactly what makes a young girl a voracious reader, but it sure happened to me.  Books were my passport to other worlds; an introduction to many of the cultures in which I found myself living.  Books were a panacea, as they helped me escape the grief that comes with so many transitions and changes.  They were my safe haven, to which I could run while my own reality was filled with flux and inconstancy. 

Some women collect shoes.  I collect books.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Lions of Judah

I was recently invited to a luncheon hosted by a Jewish women's organization called “Lions of Judah”.  (Reminded me a little of the Women’s Missionary Union in the Baptist Church):

"The Lion of Judah program has brought together women of all ages and from many walks of life in order to play an essential role in creating social justice, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, preserving human dignity and building Jewish identity."

As I am hopelessly WASPy, being raised in the Episcopal Church, I felt a little (okay, a lot) out of place.  I have to say, though, that in a previous life I must have been Jewish, because Judaism has been a part of my life since I was a freshman in high school. 

My first best friend in Manila was Susan Roth.  I spent a lot of time at her house in Para├▒aque, and by process of osmosis, learned a lot about her family’s faith.  It was never an issue to me; most TCKs are accepting of others’ differences, and, indeed, curious about them. 

So it wasn’t strange to me that one of the first boys to show an interest in me in Manila was actually Israeli.  He had a ridiculously cute accent and his English was filled with mistakes that I thought were adorable.  He had dark curly hair, and taught me how to say, “I love you” in Hebrew.  He talked about the fact that he would probably be required to serve in the Israeli army someday. It was a reflection of our school’s “internationality” that the group he ran with included Arab and Jewish kids alike.  When his family moved back to Israel, another Jewish family in Manila took him in so he could finish high school.  It was remarkable to me how the Jewish community in Manila took care of its own.  Later on in life I read about how many Jews from Germany and other places in Europe sought refuge in Manila in the late 1930’s, only to find themselves in the clutches of the Japanese.  The hardships that the Jews experienced during the war were indescribable.  Deplorable, tragic, incomprehensible. 

In the first frenetic, exciting days of college in San Antonio,Texas, I met a cute boy who was from Staten Island, New York.  We had both ended up at a school that neither wanted to attend; he had been wait-listed at Stanford, and I had desperately wanted to go to William and Mary in Virginia.  My parents were in Singapore, his in New York.  The attraction was immediate and powerful.  And yes, you guessed it: he was Jewish.  I fasted with him on Yom Kippur, and listened to his stories about being Bar Mitvahed in Israel.  We bonded over our common (gefilte) fish out water-ness.

We dated for nearly 2-1/2 years in college, then for another year after we graduated.  It seemed inevitable that we would be together always, but he broke up with me so he could concentrate on his medical career.  In a very long, anguished letter, single-spaced and double-sided, he wrote that “It wouldn’t be fair to make you wait for 10 years while I finish my training.”  (I thought it was because I wasn't Jewish, but that wasn't the case).  Heartbroken, we continued our lives without each other, never forgetting our bond and our connection.  Today, due to serendipity and fate, destiny, kismet, whatever you call it, we are married and ridiculously awestruck at this fact.  His mother once joked about the “not making me wait 10 years” comment.  “It’s not fair that you should make her wait ten years; but it’s okay to make her wait THIRTY years?” 

After college, I moved back to Baton Rouge, where my parents had settled after their international days were over.  One of my mom’s good friends, Beth, who was closer to my age, became my friend as well.  Beth came from a Jewish family in New York; she was a self-proclaimed Jewish American Princess.  Beth and Mom used to host the most amazing (and delicious) Passover Seders.  Mom celebrated and respected Judaism as if she had been raised in the faith.  After my sister died, Mom had given up on God and religion: the whole matzo ball.  In her job as an editor at the Graduate School at LSU, Mom met a lot of people.  One of her clients was the daughter of the Rabbi at Beth Shalom Synagogue, as she, the daughter, was working on her Masters’ thesis.  One day, for whatever reason, the Rabbi himself appeared in her office, and, they began to discuss faith.  Mom said, “Oh, Rabbi, I gave up on all that ‘god’ stuff a long time ago.”  The wise Rabbi replied, “Well, you should come join us then!” 

When I married my first husband in 1987, Beth was one of my bridesmaids.  I can only imagine how she felt, standing in the huge Episcopal Church, surrounded by Christianity in all its glory.  But she was my friend, and I wanted her to be there for my big day. 

Over the years I made several Jewish friends; we seemed to bond in a mysterious way that I never understood, but which I celebrated.   

It wasn’t until I attended the Lions of Judah luncheon the other day that I got it. 

The speaker at the luncheon was a lovely, dynamic woman named Susan who is a convert to Judaism.  She is also an ordained interfaith minister.  I had heard about her from my in-laws and have long wanted to meet her.  She talked about a 613th commandment (and you thought there was only ten!): “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.(Deuteronomy 31:19). Susan elaborated that while many Jews see this as a literal writing of a Torah scroll (and many do have actual decorative scrolls written and illustrated), it can also be a commandment to share your own gifts, to contribute to your own community, to preserve the Jewish identity for the generations to come. Susan asked each person to reflect and then share what our personal “gifts” are that we can contribute to our community, to write our own figurative Torah.  (Ugh, I thought, I’m only a guest here!  Does she really expect me to talk in front of all these strangers?)

When it came my turn, (and thanks to a glass of champagne to calm the nerves) I said that I had grown up moving internationally often and had never really had a true home; that I felt my gift was to reach out to others who grew up like me, homeless, in a sense, to reassure them they are not alone.

Then she said something amazing.  She said, “Like the Jews who wandered for 40 years in the desert, without a home to speak of, you offer that sense of ‘home’ to others who have wandered like you.  That is your contribution to your community: by sharing your experiences, you share your meaning of home. Your community is your home.”

I would never in a million years pretend that being a TCK should in any way, shape or form, be compared to the tribulations of the Jewish people over the millennia.  But going back in history to those days when the Jews lived in the desert, wandering from pillar to post, waiting for a new generation to evolve before returning to the Promised Land, I can see a parallel.  It wasn’t the Jews’ choice to be in the desert.  What sustained them all those long, dry years was the sense of community, and the continuity of their People.  Their community was their home, even if their physical “home” was non-existent. Like the Jews, TCKs find their sense of “home” in the community of others like them. 

It all makes sense now.