Rituals

This past weekend, I couldn’t help but think of Doug Ota’s closing keynote address at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference. “We live in a society bereft of ritual,” he said. “We live in a day and age where we have deconstructed and dismantled many of the social conventions our forefathers spent centuries building.”

As a TCK, I’ve missed out on many of my family’s and friends’ rituals—I missed my younger brother’s high school graduation because I was studying abroad in Italy, I missed a friend’s wedding because I was home in Taiwan spending Christmas in my family, the list goes on. Most TCKs have a list of the rituals they missed.

When we miss rituals, it’s easy for us to begin to devalue rituals because we can’t take part in them. If we tell ourselves they aren’t important, then us missing them as globally mobile people doesn’t seem to be such a big deal.

This weekend I was reminded how important rituals are and what a privilege it is to be a part of them.

Thirteen years ago I met Anna, one of my closest friends. We both laugh as we recount the story of how our friendship began. We attended the same missionary school in Taiwan, but being a year apart in school (me in sixth grade and she in fifth), we wanted to be friends but were too shy to talk to each other. Our brothers in the same class were buddies, and it wasn’t until the two of them were being chaperoned one day by my mother that Anna and I started actually talking.

After that, we were inseparable. We’d beg our teachers to let us do anything together even though we were in separate classes, sometimes to the point of bribery. When I moved off to boarding school, we had grand plans for her to be my roommate when she arrived the next year.

In true TCK fashion, though, her family moved back to the states the year she was supposed to join me. That was about nine years ago.

On Saturday I celebrated her wedding with her. Maybe thirteen years doesn’t seem like a long time to make a friendship last for people who have grown up in the same state their whole lives, but when your friendship is separated first by the Pacific Ocean and then later by half a country, it’s a milestone marker to be able to stand with your friend on her wedding day. We spent a good portion of the day looking at each other and asking if she was old enough to get married. In our minds, we’re still in middle school and creating the yearbook.

As we celebrated the ritual of marriage and the joy of a wedding, I was reminded how much rituals signify something larger than just an event. They are a part of building a community and marking life. They remind you that you are part of something bigger and intangible.

Mwen te ale Ayiti, mwen te aprann…

If I had to sum up my professional year in numbers, this would be it:

17 flights
26 nights in guesthouses and hotels
35+ Creole vocabulary words
6 daylong workshops published
2,530 PowerPoint slides created
430 new Haitian 朋友s
1 birthday on foreign soil

If I had to sum up my professional year in thoughts and lessons, then it goes something more like this:

As a kid, I never really had a desire to travel to the Caribbean. The region always sounded like that exotic vacation spot that I would never go to. Haiti in particular never called me, even when my grandfather mentioned his trips there.

Switch regions for a second to Asia: in 2004 when the tsunami hit Thailand, I had an uncanny desire to do something about it. I was in 9th grade at the time, and so really couldn’t do much, but my friend and I organized a bake sale and donated the money to WorldVision.

Back to the Caribbean: In 2010, when the earthquake hit Haiti, the world sprung into action. But for some reason (call me unfeeling) I didn’t feel drawn to helping right then and there. Should I do something? I wondered, but the more I wondered, the more I felt I needed to just wait.

A year and a half ago Haiti walked into my life.

I had a phenomenal opportunity to do something in Haiti by developing teacher training material and instructing workshops in Haiti. I took it, and spent the past year living and breathing Haiti.

And as usually happens when teaching and/or traveling in a foreigner country, I ended up learning more than I feel like I imparted. Even though Haiti continues to be one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, the people of Haiti exhibit such an undying optimism, gratitude, and grace that it’s impossible not to feel like we’re missing out on something in the states. Yes, many people of Haiti may live in material poverty, but their wealth of optimism and spirit points to something bigger that I think we can all learn from. There’s a graciousness in relationships that is hard to find in other countries.

When I tell people that I’ve been working in Haiti over the past year, their common response is, “Oh my goodness, what’s it like down there? I hear it’s a mess. How do they live?”

As I got this question more and more, it bothered me increasingly. Yes, people living in poverty is unjust and inexcusable–no one should live in material poverty. There’s a lot to improve. But that’s the case in any country. To think that any country has it together would be a sorely misguided conclusion. The growth areas of other countries may not be material wealth, but there are other areas to grow. I’d love for us to move from the question of “What’s it like?” to “What can we learn?”

That’s exactly the attitude that the Haitian teacher with whom we worked displayed this year. The more we visited, the more they asked, “What can I learn?” and “How does this apply to my classroom?”

I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this too. So often I am quick to judge from my own perspective and leave the learning aside. So as I wrap up my year of working in Haiti, my own challenge to myself is to change my perspective from, “What’s it like?” to “What can I learn?”

City Living

It’s almost mid-June. Boston has finally emerged from one of its worst winters on record (which of course is the year I moved back up North). Schools are almost out for the summer.

And as the days get warmer, the Families in Global Transition Conference becomes more and more of a distant memory. It’s been a privilege to follow the reflections of some of the attendees and presenters from the conference, and as a Parfitt Pascoe Writing Scholar, I’ve been able to relive some of my favorite sessions as I wrote articles about them (stay tuned for future publications). But the more time ticks on, the more removed the experience feels.

Until today, when I realized that the weekend will probably always be a part of me. Although I’ll never be surrounded by that same group of global nomads again, there are some key lessons that I can remember and take away. Some of them I’ve blogged about in the past (see previous posts on Bridging Worlds and Diversity), but some I’m still learning.

Let me explain:

A few weeks ago I faced a very challenging decision: I’d been offered admission to a Master’s Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education [wait, what?!? When I finished undergrad, I didn’t even want to get a Master’s, much less apply to Harvard! Long story]. It was an International Education Policy program, which had basically become my dream program–nine months of intensive coursework and internships, and an M.Ed on the other side. I could either remain in the work force or go back to school.

After a year of some pretty amazing trips to Haiti and working with Haitian educators, I decided I needed to accept Harvard’s offer of admission. [Guys, I’m going to Harvard!!!]

Choosing to go to Harvard meant that I’d have to move. Since it was less than a year ago that I’d loaded my earthly possessions into a Penske truck and driven them up to Massachusetts, I wasn’t too keen on packing them up again. But with the help of some lovely friends, it happened and I relocated twenty minutes south to Somerville.

I’ve never felt happier after a move than I have in the past three days.

In contrast to the previous places I’ve inhabited in the United States, I’m finally back in a city. Not one of those suburb towns that pretends to be a city–a real city. With a subway system, and permit parking, and traffic that yields to pedestrians, and systems that are enforced.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve loved all of the areas and communities that I’ve lived in previously after moving to the United States. I enjoyed my college campus, North Carolina was beautiful, and suburban Massachusetts was hugely convenient.

But there’s something about being a city that is ridiculously homelike, regardless of the country it’s in, even though things like street sweeping and parking permits for moving vans are annoying. For the first time since being an adult, I can walk to the grocery store. I can walk to the nearest subway stop. There’s a bike path two blocks behind my apartment.

And most importantly, there are people. Lots of people, from all over the world. Walk into Panera, and you’ll hear three different languages. I hardly know any of these people, but they remind me that I’m part of humanity.

How does this relate to FIGT15? As I was finishing up an article this week, I was reminded of Katia Vlachos’ session called, “Home is What You Make It.” She described how we often define home in one of three ways: people, place, or feeling.

If we’re talking about people, I have homes all over the world. If we’re talking about place, I have a few of those as well.

But home as a feeling? I don’t know that I’d found that until I moved into a city.

Maybe this is the honeymoon phase of moving. I’m sure I won’t feel the same way when winter comes to Boston again, or when traffic gets congested, but right now, I love city living.

Book Review: B at Home

Amidst the research being published on Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and the impact of global mobility on education, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the voices of the people we are researching and writing about—the kids themselves.

Valerie Besanceney has created a wonderful short chapter book that begins to provide words for a TCK experiences when he or she moves. The book follows the story of 10-year-old Emma through her international move from one home to another due to her father’s work relocation. It is written from the perspective of both Emma and interspersed with the thoughts of her stuffed bear, affectionately named “B.”

Through telling the story through both the eyes of Emma and B, Besanceney has been able to capture all angles of the moving experience—the impact of past moves, the uncertainty of a future move, and how Emma processes the entire situation. Besanceney skillfully brings up questions of rituals, friendships, changing schools, and creating a home, all of which are bound to run through the mind of any child who moves.

This book would be an excellent book for a parent and child to read together to help process an international move. Reading about Emma’s experience going through a similar transition will likely provide words for a TCK to begin processing a moving experience, opening up a conversation with parents. At the same time, it will remind the child that he or she is not alone in feeling this way. Parents may also glean ideas for how to make the transition easier by reading this book, whether it’s establishing a new ritual or creating a Moving Booklet similar to the one Emma receives in the story.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with children and who is making an international move. Feel free to check it out on Amazon.

Book Review: Safe Passage

In a previous post (Visible Learning), I referenced Doug Ota’s book Safe Passage. His phenomenal book merits a little bit more of a review than simply the nod that I gave him in that blog post.

When I first received Doug’s book, I was admittedly intimidated by it–such a well-researched and carefully structured book surely represented a challenging read. I’ve never been more pleasantly surprised about the content of a  book than I was when I finally opened the front cover.

Doug Ota’s book Safe Passage: How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it not only presents well-researched information on how mobility impacts a child’s educational well-being, but does so in easily digestible pieces. Readers feel like they’re in a conversation with Doug as he shares insights and models about transition experiences, brought to life by metaphors.

What I enjoyed most about the book–besides the nautical themes intertwined throughout–was the emphasis that Doug placed on an individual’s story. By emphasizing a child’s story, Doug affirm the value of a child’s history. Moreover, Doug refused to stop at the surface-level implications of transition, but takes the reader deeper into the psychological impact of transition on belonging and community.

Doug’s book is a must-read. It holds wisdom not only for international schools, but for all organizations that assist families with international transitions. Doug’s well-balanced advice and structured guidelines are applicable across countries. I would recommend this book to anyone involved in education or counseling of globally-mobile families, or anyone with children impacted by mobility.

The Year I Stayed

This past weekend, my roommate and I went to my coworker’s house for a scrapbooking day. Call me corny, but I love scrapbooking–it’s a way for me to remember all of the phenomenal experiences I’ve been blessed to have. I’m not a phenomenal scrapbooker and don’t go all out, but there’s something sacred about putting a picture on a page and memorializing it.

My coworker and roommate were looking through my life scrapbook. By the time we flipped to my college years, it was fun to hear my roommate go, “Hey look, it’s me!” We’ve been friends since freshman year of college. “I like seeing where I appear in cross-sections of your life,” she said later.

As I thought about how so many of the people who are important to me reappear in random places, I was reminded again how blessed I am to have sustained relationships with so many people across the globe.

But I also realized that sometime it doesn’t take cool stories to have a meaningful life.

A few weeks ago I got a card in the mail from a friend who’s baby shower I’d attended a couple of weeks previously. She’s a friend I met while I was student teaching, and somehow kept in touch with after I moved to North Carolina and made an effort to see every time I came back up to visit. I was flattered when I read in the card that she felt I’d become one of the closest friends she has.

As a TCK, I tend to measure my life by travel, countries, and cool stories (how many other people can say that they’ve lived in a 700 year old monastery??). These are the stories that make people ooh and ahh around the table, and give you cool points in a social gathering.

But realizing the impact that simply being present in a location for a year can have made me realize that life’s value extends far beyond where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Life’s value also comes from the relationships that are built. When you’re building them, it doesn’t always feel like you’re doing much. They don’t always come with cool stories that start with, “That time I was in Thailand.” But they mean that people matter.

I almost moved abroad again this year. I think I would have had a lovely time in Turkey if I had. But I also think I would have missed out on some meaningful relationships from this year. And for those relationships, I’ll be forever grateful.

Creation Regained

Sometimes I forget why I want to do what I want to do in life. In short, I want to spend my life making education accessible to people globally. Why? Because everyone has a voice, and too often groups of people are marginalized because they don’t have access to education and so are not respected in the world, or because the education system has been created by people who don’t understand them and so doesn’t work out like it’s supposed to.  That’s not right. It’s not right that people don’t have a voice and so their needs are misunderstood or ignored.

I got really good at saying this and therefore knowing that’s what I wanted to do, but I admittedly forgot why I was saying this until this week. And it started in a politics class during my sophomore year of college, even though I didn’t know it at the time. I took the class somewhat unwillingly–politics scared me. I wanted to take sociology to fulfill my human sciences requirement, but the course either filled up, or didn’t work in my schedule, I don’t remember. I ended up in Perspectives on Political Order, and it scared me.

One of the textbooks for that class was Al Wolters’ Creation Regained. It was actually one of the few textbooks I didn’t purchase and just borrowed from a roommate (I wish I’d purchased it). You can read a summary of the book here. In short, the book discusses redemption through Christ not only for us, but also as an act of moving the world into right relationship with God. The world includes things like the physical world, but also social constructs and everything God has created. Wolters asserts that everything created by God was good and has been tainted by sin, and Christ’s redemption was not just for human salvation, but the salvation of the world (Dad, please don’t pick holes in my theology…I know it’s not perfect).

I don’t think I fully grasped the impact of the book until I started teaching in a low-income school district where the effects of racism still ran deep. As I grew frustrated with the fact that the system didn’t work for my students and how I as a teacher would be measured by inappropriate teaching standards, I grew indignant and angry. I wanted to be done.

One evening I was speaking with someone about teaching, and I brought up my faith background, then began to spew out how angry I was about how ridiculous the school system and testing requirements are and how my students were being treated unjustly and as a result it wasn’t fair.

“Lauren, what does your faith say you should do about that?” she asked.

I stopped. “I mean, it says I should do something about it,” I stammered, a little sheepishly. How could I say otherwise, when Christ has called us to bring justice to the world?

Suddenly, Wolters’ book made just a little bit more sense. An unequal education system is one of those things that has been corrupted by sin, and we have a responsibility to transform it in order to provide everyone with the quality of life they deserve as human beings. And I knew I couldn’t just turn my back on it. Having seen the impact that such inequality had on my students just wasn’t right.

That doesn’t mean I know exactly how to change the education system. But I want to learn, and help make it happen.

I’d forgotten this.

This past week I attended a lecture at my alma mater. I was walking back into the building afterward and ran into my professor from my politics course. I wasn’t really expecting him to remember me–I was one in about 30 students from a gen-ed class five years ago. But impressively, he did (kudos to my small Christian liberal arts college faculty!). A day later he’d sent me an article about Wolters’ Creation Regained. As I read through it, I remembered why I do what I do.

You should probably read Creation Regained–you just might find a new meaning for the work that you do.