Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review: Misunderstood

The question of identity is central to the process of every human growing up, but as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) I've found that there are extra complications in finding a personal identity in the midst of having multiple cultural identities. To ask the question "who am I?" and find no answer within ourselves or in our surroundings creates panic. Tanya Crossman's new book, Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing up Overseas in the 21st Century, is a candle to hold aloft in the midst of that panic. A tool to help TCKs begin defining their identities.

(my copy, along with jewelry from China, jewelry form the US, and jewelry bought in the US that reminds me of China)

I knew I had been quoted in the book several times, so as I read I was playing this game trying to guess my own quotes before seeing who actually said them. So often, I would go, "oh yeah, that was me" only to realize it wasn't - someone else felt word-for-word what I felt. In essence, that is the power of Misunderstood. Here you will find that the things that define you (or your child, if you're raising a TCK), whether you're aware of them or not, are common in the TCK community. To me, this is both comforting and saddening.

I had to read this book slowly because sometimes it brought up memories or realizations that required some emotional debriefing before I could resume. This book is me, growing up. What a complicated thing to review.

I first met Tanya in Beijing in 2005. I was 14, she was 24. My family was in the midst of one of the biggest transitional phases of my life and during our 6 months in Beijing, I slept on the floor of an office - there simply wasn't room for more beds in our small apartment. I wore a lot of heavy eye make up and wrote a lot of dark poetry and felt incredibly lost. Truth be told, I didn't spend a ton of time with Tanya in Beijing, partly because I just wasn't there for long, but the thing that impressed me about her was that she stuck with me when everything around me was changing.

In the following decade, we only talked a handful of times, but she's always managed to be there at these pivotal moments, gently helping me to understand that major parts of my life are not flukes, but part of this rich tapestry of a global childhood which continues to define me in adulthood. We recently got to meet up again for the first time since 2008, right here in LA!

(Me, Tanya, and fellow TCK Pauline)

I moved to China with my missionary parents soon after turning 3. Between 1994 and 2008, I moved continents or major cities 9 times (not to mention endless houses within those cities). My family returned to the US for good in 2008, just as I finished high school. My dad found work in Santa Maria, California, where I have now lived for the past 8 years. I did not plan to stay, but I met my husband, settled down (to an extent), and had two children. That's the short version of my life so far, but between all those milestones, I've grown into an adult with a life-story that's been shaped by a myriad of experiences and pulled in countless directions.

Something that I found especially valuable about Tanya's writing and research is its ability to put names to my experiences. This happened during the behind-the-scenes process of writing this book, and then continued to astonish me as I read through the finished version. Some of these realizations have been dramatic - I realized that my husband was a "fence post", a relationship that I developed immediately after repatriating that helped me navigate life in America. Initially, I felt very rattled that something so personal as a relationship that turned into marriage played right into a textbook TCK scenario. The entire book has made me question what is me, and what is simply a result of my unusual upbringing?

Within the first few pages of Misunderstood, I'd uncovered yet another major realization. Tanya includes a graphic of all the kinds of people that fall under the TCK label, including refugees, immigrants, and adoptees. I've been working toward a career advocating for the rights and well-being of refugees and immigrants, never realizing that I am likely drawn to them as my brothers and sisters by experience. I may not be fleeing war or impoverishment, but I understand the experience and what it does to ones heart, and ultimately ones entire life. I think it is a common human characteristic to seek out others who are "like us", and for me, that is the transient community.

Sometimes, I resent that I'm often defined by something that I can't control.

I have had several meet-ups with TCKs since repatriating, though not nearly as many as some other TCKs. Part of my repatriation strategy was to avoid sheltering myself in a TCK-only community. I've never attended a TCK gathering or conference or gone to therapy to discuss what sort of impact my TCK-ness has had on me. In a way, this strategy worked, but in the few times that I have met up with TCK friends, I've been astonished at how easy everything suddenly seems. Even though I no longer try and explain myself to the general public, knowing that I have nothing to explain at all in the presence of another TCK takes an invisible burden off my shoulders.

Part of the struggle of being a repatriated TCK is that in many ways, I fit in completely: I look and sound similar to the people around me, and after 8 years, I can keep up with pop culture. Most people that I know around town do not know that I was not raised in the US. On the one hand, it's a mark of success for a a TCK to blend in so seamlessly in a place, but at my core, I've simply had to quiet the parts of me that don't fit in here at all. I'm 25 and I'm still getting hit in the face by how Chinese I am - how I will never raise my voice at someone in an argument because that would only embarrass my honor.

In the book, Tanya writes, "TCKs spend a lot of time explaining. No matter where they are, someone does not understand key aspects of their life and experience." I spend a lot of time trying to deny this, because I think it causes pain for my non-TCK friends when I allude to the fact that they just "don't get it". In some ways, I like being a chameleon, but I wonder if things would be more straightforward if I looked Chinese. I have this innate desire to associate with the Chinese (or Southeast Asian) people I come in contact with in the US, but I'm not really one of them either and it must be incredibly strange to them that I stare and try and be close to them.

If I were fully Chinese, then I wouldn't have to explain how frustrated I am with America (or living in America) sometimes and how sometimes I think of myself as separate from "regular Americans". I'm American when it suits me, but I am not-fully-American/a TCK when America hurts me or confuses me. Both are true.

The feeling of belonging is a powerful experience. So powerful, in fact, that some researchers suggest that a TCK's (in the article, referred to as "in-betweeners") lack-of-belonging in a new place can make them more susceptible to the call of ISIS or other radical choices. I don't point that out to be a sensationalist, only to emphasize how important the experience of belonging (or lack of belonging) is.

One of the most powerful take-aways from Misunderstood was validation that a TCK's life is one of grief. Acceptance and the ability to work through grief is a major theme in the book. I never experienced a single event that was what I'd consider tragic - no one close to me died, no terrible illness or calamity befell me or my loved ones. Saying goodbye and being uprooted frequently was "normal" to us, and neither something that we could control or something that ever occurred to me to complain about.

I usually don't talk about being a TCK. I have wonderful memories, but I can't help but focus on the fact that I can't access that part of my life any more, even in my memories sometimes, as they begin to fade. I have a happy new life, but remembering the first half is almost always sad. In reading Misunderstood, I felt like I finally had permission to admit that the cumulative affect of loss, even if it was not actual death, broke my heart repeatedly and that I still carry those wounds, even if they have mostly healed.

Misunderstood made me realize that I might not be as at peace here in the US as I thought I was, but I see that as a positive thing. I do think that I've settled here in the US - it feels more like home than China - but sometimes I think that in order to "fully be here" I have to forget my previous life so that the hurt of losing it isn't raw. Although it sounds childish and perhaps even sad, I thought I'd more or less put being a TCK behind me. Instead, Tanya has helped me to see that being a TCK is this rich and vibrant opportunity stretching out in front of me. I believe that knowledge is power, and the more I can dive in to what has shaped my entire self, the better I will be able to overcome the parts that hold me back.

I can not overemphasize how much Misunderstood touches on every aspect of my life. My faith, my friendships, my marriage, my siblings, my parents, my patriotism, my parenting, my career. Sometimes I want to stop being a TCK, but I can't. I can't separate myself from this, so the only thing is to move forward in it and let myself be open to growth and the pain that accompanies it. Having a guidebook through this ongoing experience is something that I didn't know I needed until now.

(photo: my copy is filled with notes, realizations, and reminders to myself)

Misunderstood has also been incredibly helpful to me as a parent, as I gaug whether I want to move overseas with my own children. Right now, the answer is no. It's hard for me to say that, because I do desperately want them to experience the positive aspects of life overseas, but I'm still reeling from all the ways in which my life has been changed by being a TCK, and so much of it being defined by grief. I know that grief is a universal experience, but I hesitate to knowingly bestow it on my children. I hope to provide them with a stable home base and still be able to travel with them in more of a vacation setting.

In a practical sense, this book is not a strategy book for how to navigate life as a TCK. Instead, it is a guidebook to what defines TCKs. If I didn't feel like it would undo so much of my settling-in work, I would push this book into the hands of every non-TCK that I love.

In the dedication of Misunderstood, Tanya writes that it is "to my kids", and it made me tear up. She's never let go of us, even when so many others have. For that, she has my eternal heartfelt gratitude, and I think you will find that her book will be a comforting friend in times and situations of uncertainty, whether they are your own or your child's.

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