The Lifeline of Shared Experience

Leaving Behind the People Who Mattered and Finding Them Again

Adult Third Culture Kids are used to leaving behind people, places and things that matter.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t mourn them or, sometimes, that we ever get over losing them.

I’ll be posting about the deep recognition we experience when we run into fellow ATCKs: finally, someone who understands.  Often we glom on to each other the minute we find out we belong to the same nomadic tribe.

David Pacey 2014
David Pacey 2014

Because we are a tribe, and when we connect, the recognition can ease the loneliness just a bit and light a spark in our soul and, sometimes, in our very lives.

That’s amazing enough—but reconnecting with someone who was there with us in the same distant land ratchets the feeling up several notches.

The internet makes it so much easier than it’s ever been for us to reconnect with people who were important to us, and from whom we were separated by circumstances we couldn’t control—their father’s job, or our father’s job.  (Yes, at the time I’m talking about, it was virtually always our father’s job.)  Until Facebook and search engines like Google, we were at the mercy of random encounters to find our childhood soul mates.  No longer.  They make it possible also to find acquaintances we weren’t close to then, but matter deeply to us now because of our shared experience from long ago.  These people were witnesses to us, and we to them.  How cool and how precious is that!

zeevveez 2011
zeevveez 2011

They were there, they saw, they knew the same people, it was a different time.  They understand.

We’ve all gone in vastly different directions, but there it is—that thread—that lifeline—of shared experience.

What a breath of fresh air when they come back into our lives, even if only on the net—even if we never meet them again in person.  They become a beacon, bringing the fog of our memories into sharper and, often, gentler relief.

This is not a plug for Facebook or Google, with which I have a love-hate relationship.  But it’s true—I’ve reconnected online with a man who played on the school swings with me in the first grade at Campo Alegre in Caracas, and dozens of friends and teachers from my formative adolescent years in San Juan.

Some of these people were outliers in my life.  But each of us knows a piece of what it was like for the other.  No one else does.

Isn’t this true of everyone as they journey through life?  Of course.  It’s a universal experience.

But ours is different.  What is unique to the TCK and ATCK experience is that we spent our youth repeatedly starting to feel a part of a community, caring for those around us in that intense way that children and teenagers do, only to be yanked away in a relentless parade of events beyond our control.

We were torn away from the only other people who knew what it was like, to join another group who would be the only ones who knew what that was like, to be torn away again…

c Helga Weber
c Helga Weber

The people we left behind were witnesses, and when we moved on we lost connection not just to them but to our past and, inevitably, ourselves.  We remember in a vacuum, with no peers to provide perspective, to compare memories with, or to laugh or cry with.

This is a situation today’s TCKs will never have to deal with.  The same loss and grieving accompany each move, of course—but it’s hard to imagine that with current technology there is anyone they can’t stay in touch with.

ATCKs also share witness to something rarely written about: what it was like to live in a given country at another, earlier time.

For me, there were so many places that it’s hard to choose one.  Randomly, Genoa:  How to explain what day-to-day life in that medieval seaport was like for me in 1961 as I was homeschooled in my bedroom, my mother drumming into me a fifth grade curriculum provided by the iconic Calvert School back in the States?  When my only friend was an Italian girl who lived in the next apartment and whose mother looked at me in clipped tones and hand gestures whenever I’d come over, until I stopped?  When it took 24 hours after placing an international call for the operator to call my parents back with their party on the line—or to tell them the call had failed—except when my father’s mother in Pennsylvania collapsed and died from a heart attack and the operator tried extra hard and put the call through in less than 3 hours?  When we would pile in the car for a weekend drive along the craggy, deliciously salty coast south to Portofino or west to Nice?  When a shopping trip downtown was a chaos of vegetable markets filled with eggplant and tomatoes and parsley, and butcher shops that reeked of blood and bone; countless men catcalling our 19-year-old Sophia Loren look-alike housekeeper whom I worshipped; long, narrow shops that smelled of dust and musk and captured my imagination, one more than the next; and the astounding brightly-lit modernity of the Rinascente department store.

I have one sibling.  Because we had no other friends in Genoa, my brother is the only one left who knows too.

In fact, there is no one other than my brother who knows what it was like for us not only in Genoa but in Santiago, Istanbul, Chappaqua, Geneva and the countless other places we lingered in along the way—the geography of the first ten years of my life.

A dear friend who grew up in one small town in the South and now lives in France asked me yesterday why this blog would be of any interest at all to him.  His reaction was a pitch-perfect example of why I, like so many ATCKs, feel so isolated…often even from people who have traveled and to whom I feel close.  And his directness stung.  But it’s true, and it’s the point:  It wouldn’t.  This blog is for and about a very special tribe: Adult Third Culture Kids.

c Bart
c Bart

We all need to be seen.  We all need home.


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