There has been much discussion lately about the term “trailing spouse” and whether it is appropriate or even polite. It projects a sense of “other” rather than something that makes up a whole. I usually conger up a vision of a dog’s tail. Other terms being used are “accompanying partner”, “expat wife”, “support partner”. Expat Lingo says she had been called a ‘stakeholder at home’. I have used the term ‘world juggler’ before.
But in the end, whatever you call it, the trailing spouse is usually the support system, the glue that holds it all together. Sometimes the glue falls apart and life can be rough.
In Trailing: A Memoir by Kristin Louise Duncombe, things fall apart. Kristin grew up all over the world so when she met her Argentine husband, the thought of moving overseas didn’t seem so strange. Although she did have her reservations about putting her career on hold, she didn’t have a passion about what she did and had not clearly defined what she wanted to do. Her husband, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders was passionate about what he did and had no questions about what he was going to do. She was in love. She married him and went to Kenya.
Being a TCK (Third Culture Kid) myself, I also thought following my husband overseas would be no problem. Even though you have lived in many places around the world, the child TCK and the Adult TCK have different experiences and challenges. I had no support system behind me as we just up and moved. Kristin had a small “family” of doctors but it did not help much since most of them were single and always on the road. Her husband was gone much of the time.
On the other hand, I think she showed remarkable resilience. She found herself some work at a Nairobi hospital helping teens and eventually found a position with USAID at the US Embassy. Unfortunately the Embassy was bombed and she lost her job but by that time her husband had taken a position in Uganda. After having a baby, she finds a job in a small village outside Kampala. She never sees her husband and the marriage starts to unravel.
I found myself identifying with this book on several levels. I had a difficult adjustment when I moved to Russia. My husband was a freelancer. There were no benefits or perks. As soon as I landed I was expected to find a job and help with financial support. If found jobs mainly doing clerical administrative work but I also fell into a writing position for the American Women’s Club and was able to improve my writing skills and help other expat women at the same time. I edited and produced a newsletter that helped to build a community.
Everybody has a different experience when they live overseas. I knew couples who were both professionals in their own right. I knew women who moved around the globe on their own and met their husband along the way. One woman was a very successful diplomat and her husband did his own thing in another country but was able to work remotely. Some people take the time to write books. There is always something to do. I found my way and started writing and wrote a memoir.
The current challenge for international organizations is to find the balance and provide options for accompanying partners. With today’s technology, there are much more possibilities available.
Kristin’s happy ending was her husband accepted a position in Paris and she managed to set up a successful counseling practice working with expat families who are trying to cope with life overseas. After having gone through the worst of it, she now had all the tools necessary to help others in similar situations.Trailing: A Memoir is well written and engaging. It makes me want to know more about her. It is available on Amazon.com.
Yesterday I went to the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference. I had been looking forward to it for a while. It is a support group for expat families and third culture kids and they have a conference every year where people come together to share their work and ideas and provide information on resources available.
Anyway, I woke up very early because I had about a 45 minute drive and it started at 8 am. I felt awful. I had a scratchy throat, I was achy, I was spaced out. How could this be? A cold? I hadn’t been sick in years. Great! Well, that wasn’t going to stop me. I dragged myself out of bed, dosed myself up with pain killers and hit the road.
The conference was non stop, session to session, from 8 am to 5:30 pm. By the time I got out of there I was exhausted. I left right after the last session and while trying to maneuver downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, I must have take a wrong turn or not taken a turn or something because I was totally lost. I don’t have a GPS in my car but I do have an iPhone. I pulled over and tried to figure out where I was. For some reason I couldn’t get it to find my location. I must have been in a bad area because the maps were loading really slowly and I was not getting results.
So in a panic I called my son. Help! Luckily he was home and guided me to a place I recognized and I made it home an hour later. Needless to say, I went to bed early.
In spike of my set backs and panic attacks, I did have a great day. I met interesting people, attended sessions where I learned new things, and had that warm fuzzy feeling I always get when I’m around my fellow TCK’s.
Here are a few highlights.
The first session I attended was called:
Living Whilst Surviving – an Anatomy of Hope and of What Kept Them Going
This was a story of a family who faced great adversity during war in Europe, were separated, deported, jailed, sent to camps, and yet they had great resilience and managed to keep going during all of it, finding small things to make them happy. “They did not forget, they forgave. They did not say ‘Why me?’, they said ‘What can I do’?” They found ways to make things better.
She transitioned this to her current life as an expat in the Netherlands. The take away I got from this session was about the children. She commented on the expat children in The Hague. They are privileged, with nannies, good schools, all kinds of gadgets – iPods, iPhones, they have drivers, and travel the world. Yet, many of them feel isolated and unhappy. In some cases their mother is unhappy with her situation, living abroad, feeling isolated. This transfers to the children. Often her coping mechanism is to keep the children busy and away from her.
There should be more of a support group for both the wives and the children but nobody wants to talk about it. They feel guilty because they know they are privileged and don’t really have anything to complain about.
A friend of mine refers to these problems as “first world problems”. And she is right.
One thing Eva emphasized more than once was how damaging it is to over book a child. They are constantly busy with dance lessons, soccer practice, piano lessons, French lessons. They don’t have time to themselves. Time to think. Time to dream. Time to imagine. Time to just be.
I wanted to tell her about my son. Many years ago he took a pen that didn’t work and it became his weapon, his gun, his rocket launcher, his airplane, his truck. And all these years, he has spent hours with that pen. It is a joke now because if he loses his pen, we all have to panic and look for it. But it really doesn’t matter, because we can always find another pen that doesn’t work. He has had several.
Let them just be.
The second session I went to was:
In Search of Identity: Awakening your Authentic Self
This was about communication and specifically Neuro Linguistic Programming. Something I had never heard of. What I got out of it was that most of the things we do, we do out of habit. But we can choose to do things differently. So if we look at two different types of people who are trying to communicate with each other, oftentimes there is conflict because they are not communicating on an equal level.
For example, one person is “introverted” and one is “extroverted”. The introvert takes his cues internally. He is very sure of himself and knows what he likes and wants and doesn’t need a lot of external input – i.e. advice, terms of endearment, hugs. While the extrovert takes his cues from the outside and needs a lot of input in order to make a decision or feel good about himself.
If people understand these differences, they can learn to communicate with each other in different ways that reduce conflict.
A very interesting topic but it would take a while to fully understand it (in my opinion).
The third session was:
Unpacking Our Global Baggage for Creative Expression: Writing your TCK Memoir, Solo Show, or Essay
Elizabeth is an actress and writer. She performed a segment of her one-woman multi-character show about growing up as a dual citizen of mixed heritage in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East, and New England. If you live in the LA area, I suggest you go see her (see link). I could identify with most of what she said.
Harriet wrote her memoirs when she was in her late 70’s. She was a Victorian woman and represented her class and period well.
Her grandfather and uncle were prisoner’s of war in France under Napoleon. Her grandmother and mother lived nearby for 15 years so the family could be together. After the battle of Waterloo, they were released and returned to England. That is where her mother met her father while he was on furlough from India.
Harriet was born in 1828 to a British military family in India. At 11 years old, as was common practice at the time, she was shipped off to England with two younger siblings to continue her education. When they landing in England their clothes were so outdated everybody laughed at them. Her brother was immediately sent on to boarding school where two older brothers were waiting for him. She and her sister lived with a family they had never met before for about a year, until her aunt came to collect them. Her aunt was strict and cruel and Harriet hated every minute of her time there.
At seventeen she started her journey back to India to be reunited with her parents who she had not seen for 6 years. She traveled by steamer and by land until she reached Aden just off the Red Sea. The group traveling with her were friendly and she had a happy time. At Aden she received a letter from her brother-in-law in India and feared her sister was sick. It was worse, her father was dead. When she finally reached Calcutta, there was nobody to meet her. She saw her mother two weeks later only to discover that she was on her way back to England with the younger children. Harriet was to stay with another aunt and uncle who was serving the in Punjab Campaign.
At 19, she met and married Robert Tytler, a Captain in the British Army who was also a widower with two children.
This woman did not have an easy life.
On May 11, 1857, she was living in Delhi, eight months pregnant with two small children at home. That was the day of the Great Sepoy Mutiny. The “Sepoy” was the Indian soldier serving in the British Army.
“It is wonderful to think how unanimous they were, Hindus and Mohammedans, in the one object of exterminating the hateful Christian in India. On this occasion the Mohammedans and Hindus were one, their bitter antagonism to each other, which had always been our safeguard so far, was for the time overcome. The gullible Hindus, two to one in each regiment, firmly believed Prithee Rai’s raj would return and then they would be masters of India. The wily Mohammedans, who were using these poor deluded men as a cat’s paw, encouraged the belief, knowing all along that they would soon find their mistake, for the Mohammedan meant to reign by the edge of his sword, which would also be used to proselytize the poor idol worshippers.”
However Philip Mason notes in the Introduction: “Harriet, of course, like everyone else, has heard of the cartridges (smeared with pork and beef fat) but does not seem to have known that the original offensive cartridges were withdrawn (therefore confirming that the rumor was true). Like every other young wife in India at the time, she thinks that the Mutiny was a deep-laid plot, instigated by the sons of the king and spread by wicked Muslims who played on the fears of the simple gullible Hindus.”
Harriet ran for her life that day. She, pregnant, with her two children, 2 and 4 years old, eventually loaded themselves onto an already overloaded carriage and rode hard out of town. Her husband riding back and forth checking on other people. The carriage broke to pieces. They found another one, it also broke down. They ended up walking to the next outpost where luckily there was no uprising.
Eventually the British took back Delhi. Harriet bore 10 children, 8 of whom lived, and spent the rest of her life an expat in India. She died in 1907 at the age of 79.
By the time Kathleen was 18 she had lived on 5 continents. When she starts college in California, she experiences severe “reverse” culture shock.
She talks about traveling around Europe, seeing the sites from London to Athens, hiking up Swiss mountains, and living in Africa. She survived a plane crash, a coup d’etat in Burma, earthquakes in Mexico, driving through the Andes in Columbia and army ants in Nigeria. Her college peers talk about football games, high school proms and television shows she never heard of. She can’t relate to them at all and they think she is bragging about all the places she has been. It is like an alien landed in their dorm room talking about visiting the rings of Saturn.
Follow Kathleen on her journey through the ups and downs of being a Third Culture Kid.
I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when I wrote this essay…
I went to an elephant camp in Burma. In this camp there are about 90 work elephants kept in a teak forest. They make expensive furniture out of teak. They also make the frame of ships out of teak wood. The elephants are used to either push or pull heavy teak logs to the river where the logs then float down to the city Rangoon.
When I went to elephant camp the thing I most enjoyed was riding an elephant. You sit in a wooden box and you sort of sway from side to side and you could get seasick if you rode for very long and were not used to it. Most of you must think that elephants don’t have hair but my mother soon found out that they do have hair because she slid down the back of the elephant instead of climbing down on this head and front knee as she should have and the strong hairs stuck to her pants. These hairs are black, they are about four inches long and they are very strong.
We fed the elephants the fruit from the tamarind trees. Tamarind is an acidy brown fruit which the elephants like very much.
Each elephant has its own care-taker and rider called an oozie in Burmese. This man feeds and takes good care of his elephant. He also carves out of wood a bell which the elephant always wears around his neck. Every night the elephant is set free to find food in the forest. In the morning when the oozie goes to find his elephant he knows which one is his by the sound of the bell his elephant is wearing.
We spent four days at this camp up near the China border and we learned much about elephants and teak wood.
I stole these pictures and summaries from Amazon. I know, shame on me.
I am currently searching for memoirs on Third Culture Kids/ Global Nomads/ Cross Culture Kids/ or whatever label you prefer. I have found that there are quite a few Missionary Kids with books. I find them compelling but I can’t always identify with them.
When I first discovered who I was and had my ‘aha’ moment (see About), I tried to find anything I could to read on the subject of Third Culture Kids. At that time it was very limited. This was in the mid-90’s and I was living in Moscow. I didn’t have a library or a local English bookstore. I trolled the internet and I found these two books:
Hidden Immigrants: Legacies of Growing Up Abroad
Entering the foreign service in 1965 as a relatively new bride, the author accompanied her husband, Charles, on a 26 year odyssey that took her to Morocco, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Norway, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Both Bell daughters were born in Africa and brought up in different parts of the world. This book is a story of their growing up in foreign lands.
Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing
Ruth Ellen van Reken
Born and raised in Nigeria as the daughter of American missionaries, at age 39 Ruth needed to understand why, despite a life filled with rich experiences, a meaningful spiritual component, and family and friends who loved her, she often battled a secret depression. Through the journaling that became this book, she discovered that the very goodness of her life kept her from dealing with some of the challenges that also come with a global lifestyle – the realities of chronic cycles of separation and loss, reentry, and questions of identity. How could there be any struggles when she loved her childhood world so much? As a way of examining this ‘other side’ of her story, Ruth’s began to write many letters home such as the girl known as Miss Question Box might have written. This book contains her story from ages six to thirty-nine. Today, in her mid-sixties, renowned internationally for her compassion, knowledge and insight into what it means to be a child growing up among worlds, van Reken, looks back over her life and adds a fascinating and reflective epilogue to a memoir that has already sold 32,000 copies and has helped and inspired its readers.
Letters Never Sent has just been re-released and I am told has additional information and photos. They were both good books and I was happy to have found them. It was the beginning of my education.
Several years later I met Ruth Van Reken at a Global Nomad conference and she signed my Third Culture Kids book written by her and David C Pollock. Now that was a real eye opener! It is kind of like the bible of TCK’s.
Now that I am working on my own memoir, I am searching for books to read. Research! So here is a list of books I have read, am reading, and want to read.
Do you know of any good memoirs? I would love to know about them!!
BOOKS I HAVE READ
For The Souls and Soils of India
Helen C Maybury
Helen Maybury (ne Conser) was born in India in 1924 and attended two international schools in India, Kodaikanal and Woodstock, before coming to the United States for university studies in 1942. She has produced a heartwarming profile of her mother and father, two courageous individuals who were confirmed in their resolve to serve God and His people. In all, Helen’s parents spent 37 years in India, as well as 9 years in home missions in the United States after their retirement. Alongside the personal history, the letters tell the story of India during a time of tremendous upheaval and historical significance, as the country fought its way to independence. There are letters that tell of meetings with great leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, and Vinoba Bhave, the author of the land-gift or “sarvodaya” movement. A non-violent revolutionary in the tradition of Gandhi, he collected millions of acres of land to distribute to the landless. Helen’s parents were an American couple who clearly cared deeply for equality, human dignity and social justice.
In the small world department… This woman lives in my apartment complex and I found out about this book though our monthly newsletter. When I told my parents about the book, they told me they know somebody in their apartment complex who went to school with Helen! –expat alien
Fly Away Home
‘Clean freak’ Maggie tries so hard to keep her life in order but is foiled at every turn. The descendent of second generation Norwegian immigrants to America, she grows up in New Jersey, spending her summer vacations on an idyllic island in Norway. Later, in the wake of an abusive marriage, she and her three young children leave America and return to the Nordic Island of her ancestors, where she rekindles a relationship with her childhood sweetheart. Pulled between two worlds, her life continues as she seeks meaning, identity and happiness. With her true love by her side and three more children to care for, Maggie discovers her traveling days are far from over. Life’s unexpected twists see her return to America before being catapulted to the Netherlands. At last she can begin to make sense of her experiences until, that is, she is on the move again. In the process she learns that life comes full circle, from the hopes and dreams of her forebears to the place where she can finally find peace and come to terms with her past. Follow this Jersey girl as she flies back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean looking for love and a place to call home.
From marauding monkeys to strange men in her bedroom, from Africa to Australasia to America, with stops in Melanesia, the Caribbean and Europe along the way, Apple Gidley vividly sketches her itinerant global life. The challenges of expatriation, whether finding a home, a job, or a school are faced mostly with equanimity. Touched with humour and pathos, places come alive with stories of people met and cultures learned, with a few foreign faux pas added to the mix.
This has some good insight and lessons learned –expat alien
Home Keeps Moving
Home Keeps Moving follows Heidi and her missionary family on their many moves through the eyes of a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and the unique phenomena of having four very different home countries to relate to. It tells the true story of being catapulted from continent to continent constantly: leaving friends and starting all over again, her unquenchable search for a home and sense of belonging in this world, her desire for a life-partner with the odds all but against her due to constantly relocating (even into adulthood). You will laugh and cry along with Heidi as she recounts hilarious and heart-breaking tales from her childhood as West blends with East.
That is the true beauty of Heidi s upbringing, it crossed borders and defied logic but she lacked for nothing.
This is a very short MK book that touches on some important points. It also incorporates other people’s experiences so gives more than one perspective. —expat alien
Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global
Faith Eidse, Nina Sichel
A fusion of voices and deeply personal experiences from every corner of the globe, Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global presents a cultural mosaic of today’s citizens of the world. Twenty stirring memoirs of childhoods spent packing, written by both world-famous and first-time authors, make the story of growing up displaced feel universal. Best-selling fiction and non-fiction authors Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Pat Conroy, Pico Iyer and Ariel Dorfman contribute powerful and deeply personal accounts of mobile childhoods and the cultural experiences they engender. The memoirs touch on the opportunities and difficulties of growing up in the ever-changing landscape of expatriate communities.
Potato In A Rice Bowl
In the memoir Potato in a Rice Bowl, Peggy Keener shares her wacky misadventures as a sincere-though misguided-Minnesota housewife struggling to create normalcy for her family while living in Japan during the 1960s. Through charming vignettes, Peggy takes a look back at her bewildering foray into the Japanese culture after her husband accepts a military assignment in a country thousands of miles away from the small prairie town of Austin, Minnesota, where she was born and raised. The mother of three boys, Peggy chronicles how she managed to settle her disoriented family and flounce headfirst into the thorny, baffling culture while her husband was miles away on military missions. As she bungles through her boys’ Japanese school, grapples with the eccentricities of her home and neighbors, and reconstructs the language to her liking, she somehow ends up as a personality on Japanese national television-all with the earnest hope of melding with her new country. In this humorous, irreverent, and even soul-searching collection of anecdotes, Peggy provides an entertaining glimpse into the enigmatic Land of the Rising Sun.
Voluntary Nomads: A Mother’s Memories of Foreign Service Family Life
Nancy Pogue LaTurner
Nancy LaTurner’s engaging memoir begins in 1974 as her young family struggles without a livelihood in rural New Mexico. When a welcome stroke of luck lands her husband Fred a job with the State Department, Nancy eagerly packs their few belongings and bundles up their 20-month-old son and 12-month-old daughter for the journey from Los Lunas, New Mexico to Washington, DC and onward to any of the 200 U.S. Embassies around the world.
Empowered by Nancy’s enthusiasm and Fred’s optimism, the naive little family embraces their first assignment in Tehran during the final days of the Shah’s regime. Dropped straight into a different culture and language in a country suffering the turmoil of revolutionary unrest, the LaTurners learn how important adaptability is to their new way of life.
Throughout Voluntary Nomads, Nancy’s recollection of raising two children in extraordinary conditions demonstrates that the triumphs and heartaches of family life go on, no matter how exotic the locations or unique the experiences. Nancy’s stories of Foreign Service family adventures in Iran, Cameroon, New Zealand, Somalia, Dominican Republic, Austria, and Bolivia, told with warmth, insight and candor, celebrate the resilience and resourcefulness of a spirited American family.
Ride the Wings of Morning
A conventional English girl arrived in South Africa, to help a friend run horseback safaris on a game reserve in the Northern Transvaal.
It was 1992. There were yellow road signs declaring “Dit is die Volkstaat”.
Sophie had heard of “biltong” but knew nothing of Afrikaans culture. She was aware of poachers, but not of the danger of sausage trees. Nor how to cook a gemsquash on the campfire without causing an explosion. She understood there were rhino on the reserve, but not that she would end up working as the safari guide. In the dark. On a stallion. Lost. With completely innocent tourists on other horses.
This upbeat true story, the sequel to her book ‘Funnily Enough’, is told through correspondence sent back and forth between Sophie Neville and her family in England.
ON MY LIST
Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics
by Gene H. Bell-Villada
Born in 1941 of a Hawaiian mother and a white father, Gene H. Bell-Villada, grew up an overseas American citizen. An outsider wherever he landed, he never had a ready answer to the innocuous question “Where are you from?”
By the time Bell-Villada was a teenager, he had lived in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Cuba. Though English was his first language, his claim on U.S. citizenship was a hollow one. All he knew of his purported “homeland” was gleaned from imported comic books and movies. He spoke Spanish fluently, but he never fully fit into the culture of the Latin American countries where he grew up.
In childhood, he attended an American Catholic school for Puerto Ricans in San Juan, longing all the while to convert from Episcopalianism so that he could better fit in. Later at a Cuban military school during the height of the Batista dictatorship, he witnessed fervent political debates among the cadets about Fidel Castro’s nascent revolution and U.S. foreign policy. His times at the American School in Caracas, Venezuela, are tinged with reminiscences of oil booms and fights between U.S. and Venezuelan teen gangs.
At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa
At Home Abroad is a stunning autobiography of Nancy Henderson-James’s youth in Africa. Heart-wrenching is her uprooting at age 15 when the war for independence began, from Angola, whose natural world, people, customs, languages she so loved. Nancy bravely and articulately recounts a true saga of personal loss and bereavement. But out of the crucible of conflicts between herself and her parents, the Africa she loved and the America from which she felt estranged, comes crystalline strength, confidence, humor, and self-knowledge. Her journey to wholeness, with its exquisite analysis and detail, enlightens us, so that we, too, see our own lives with new understanding and compassion and recognize better our place in the 21st century as citizens of the world.
Judy Hogan, Founding Editor of Carolina Wren Press, 1976-91.
I used to be an avid reader. I read everything I could get my hands on. Growing up overseas it was the only real entertainment I had. Books could be hard to find so I wasn’t all that picky. I read whatever came my way. As an adult I always had a book going. I would usually read before bed just to relax and get my mind off things. People recommended things or gave me things or I would pick something up at the bookstore or library.
After I had my child I stopped reading. I just didn’t have the time or the energy anymore. I could not focus on reading at night. Several years went by and I only read a handful of books.
When I was ready to start reading again, I noticed a shift. Either the quality books that were coming out had deteriorated considerably or my tolerance level was way down. I would start books that I thought looked interesting and after a while I would stop reading them and put them back on the shelf. I just couldn’t be bothered with a book that didn’t really hold my attention. And sadly many of them didn’t.
In the past couple of years I have started reading again. I still have problems with books I just can’t finish but I have found some really good ones. Last year I read the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy in two weeks. And those are big books. I couldn’t put them down.
Maybe there is something in the Scandinavian air but I came across another good one the other day, this time out of Norway. I am writing a memoir and recently I have been trying to read as many memoirs as I can. In the past two weeks I have started three. One I doubt I will finish. Another is interesting and I will probably finish it eventually but it isn’t gripping. The third one I read in two evenings. I started it in the evening after work and read until midnight. I toyed with the idea of taking it to work with me next day since it was on my iPad but decided against it. I finished it when I got home.
It is a story teller’s story. Remember The Princess Bride? My all time favorite movie. The grandfather comes into the sick boy’s room and starts to read and the boy doesn’t ever want him to stop. There are no giants or pirates or six handed men in this book. But there is love, adventure, confusion, hope, disappointment, challenge, sorrow, contentment, and joy. All the elements of a good story. It is about living a life and I am sure most people will find they can personally identify with at least some of the things that happen in Maggies’ life. I know I could.
Fly Away Home by Maggie Myklebust is a good read. Put it on your list!