One of my favorite quotes from Eugene H. Peterson (a writer whose work I devour) comes from the foreword to a book he didn’t write, called Sidewalks in the Kingdom. “I find that cultivating a sense of place as the exclusive and irreplaceable setting for following Jesus is even more difficult than persuading men and women of the truth of the message of Jesus,” Peterson, a longtime pastor, writes. “God’s great love and purposes for us are worked out in the messes in our kitchens and backyards, in storms and sins, blue skies, daily work, working with us as we are and not as we should be, and where we are… and not where we would like to be.”
I’ve resonated with those words ever since reading them a decade ago. At the time, I was living and working in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a city I had come to love. I was that guy who walked everywhere he could, including work – noticing cracks in the sidewalks, graffiti on the backs of street signs, potted plants on stoops. I was the guy who hung out in locally-owned coffee shops and stopped by the farmer’s market on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I was that guy with the “I Heart City Life” bumper sticker on the back of his car. I belonged.
But I was simultaneously also an outsider, similar in certain ways with the refugees I served in my job as a caseworker. While one of my friends from Lancaster can trace his family’s roots in the area back 13 generations, my family had only settled there in 1998. We were transplants, newbies. And although we could speak the language and look the part, we hadn’t come from a neighboring county or somewhere like New Jersey. We had come from Guatemala, a land so utterly mysterious that stories from our life there tended to draw blank stares.
When I eventually got married and moved across the country to Arizona, I sensed in some of my Pennsylvania friends an attitude of inevitability, the idea that Lancaster was more or less just a layover for me (albeit a 13-year one), between Guatemala and wherever I was off to next. Perhaps in some ways, they were right – more so than this nomad realized at the time.
Needless to say, the idea of place is a complicated one for people like me. And by people like me, I mean third culture kids – those of us who have spent formative years in a culture other than that of their parents. It’s for that reason that I feel an immediate connection to others who have grown up between cultures, even if I know virtually nothing about the specific context of their upbringing and they know little of mine. That’s also why I so appreciate reading the stories of other TCKs, like the ones Marilyn Gardner shares in her book, Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging.
“Third culture kids have stories. Their stories are detailed and vibrant. Stories of travel between worlds, of cross-cultural relationships and connections, of grief and of loss, of goodbyes and hellos and more goodbyes,” Gardner writes. “Every good story has a conflict. Never being fully part of any world is ours. This is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing. We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between. This is our conflict and the heart of our story.”
Gardner herself grew up in Pakistan, spending formative years living far from her parents at a boarding school. As an adult, she finds herself feeling nostalgic about the taste and smell of chai tea, shopping for a shalwar kameez at the bazaar, and waking up before dawn to the sound of the call to prayer – just as I experience nostalgia for the taste of tortillas and tamalitos made over an open fire, the intoxicating/nauseating smell of dust and diesel (looking at you, Bruce Cockburn!), and family visits to Lago de Atitlán, the most beautiful lake in the world.
Gardner captures the importance of sharing these memories with anyone who will listen:
The more I hear from immigrants, refugees and third culture kids, the more I am convinced that communicating our stories is a critical part of adjusting to life in our passport countries. We have a lifetime of experiences that when boxed up for fear of misunderstanding, will result in depression and deep pain. As we tell our stories we realize that these transitions and moves are all a part of a bigger narrative, a narrative that is strong and solid and gives meaning to our lives. As we learn to tell our stories we understand not only the complexity of our experience, but the complexity of the human experience, the human heart. So we learn to tell our stories – because your story, my story, and our stories matter.
Between Worlds may not be a book for everyone. It will certainly resonate most deeply with my fellow TCKs. Then again, we all live in an increasingly mobile, uprooted age. Few of us will spend our entire lives in one place. Whether it’s for school, or a job, or a relationship, most of us will move, and moving from one place to another means learning to live between worlds.
None of this, it should be said, diminishes the importance and value of place. The places we live matter – all of them, even if we carry many places with us in our hearts. With Peterson, I can wholeheartedly affirm that the place where we are, right now, is the “exclusive and irreplaceable setting” for becoming the kind of people we were made to be.
Being able to trace your family line 13 generations back in the place you were born and raised is a beautiful thing, and it’s natural to envy a story like that. But that’s not my story; it’s probably not your story either. That’s why, rather than seeing my life as a story marked by deprivation – deprived of one place and one people to which I unambiguously belong – I’ve chosen to see my life as one enriched by a kaleidoscope of people and places, each one beautiful, each one irreplaceable in its uniqueness.