When asked where I’m from, my answer goes something like this: Well, my dad was a church planter, so we moved around a lot when I was a kid. I was 11 when my family moved to a small town called Shippensburg in Pennsylvania, but most people from Shippensburg wouldn’t consider me from there. My husband and I own a home in Williamsburg, VA, but we currently live and work in Burundi, East Africa. This simple question of where I am from has a complicated answer as it does for most of our Third Culture Kids.
B was born in Kenya, visits his parents’ “homes” in Michigan and Tennessee when his family returns to the States on Home Ministry Assignment but lives and attends school in Kibuye. M was born in Canada, currently lives and attends school in Kenya, visits Kibuye (the place she probably most associates with the familiarity of home) on school breaks, and occasionally travels to Canada for Home Assignment with her parents and three siblings. Bi was born in Ethiopia, was adopted into an American family, now lives and attends school in Kibuye but still returns to his American home (where grandparents live) for a time during the summers.
Even when an explanation of the physicality of our home is simple, home itself can feel complex. But when the explanation even of physical place where you are from becomes difficult to express, people feel a whole range of complicated longings and emotions. Last year, while watching a film with two of our middle school students, one of the main characters made a speech filled with expressions of national pride. One student remarked, “I wish I knew where I was from so I could make a speech like that.” This summer, my own daughter turned to me at a church picnic in America and said with panic in her voice, “Mommy, the boy next to me just asked where I’m from, and I don’t know what to tell him.”
“Just tell him what’s in your heart,” I said.
“But does he want to know where I’m from here or in Africa?”
“It doesn’t matter what he wants to hear,” I said. “Just tell him what’s in your heart.”
Bearing witness to my student’s longing and parenting through this moment of confused unease for my own child made me think of my own complicated answer to the question of home. Why can I not just say what’s in my heart and follow my own advice? What prompts me to give a lengthy explanation each time someone asks (for me this has been going on since college when I moved out of my own parents’ house - well before a move to Burundi)? These questions lead to other questions: why do I struggle to feel at home in a place? what does it mean to be from somewhere? when are you allowed to say that you’re from a place? how do all those other people come to feel at home and accepted? should I just give the simple answer (“I live in Burundi, East Africa”) or is the complex answer the one that is about me being who I am? (and now that I am parenting a TCK and teaching TCKs) if I can’t figure out what the disjointedness of place means for my life and my idea of home, how can I help others? what are the spiritual lessons we can all learn together from the complexities of our definitions of home?
At present, I’m still asking many questions, but I am certain that the answer lies in Jesus. Home is about a person, not a place - of that much I am sure. Home is about always being accepted and loved no matter what you’ve done or left undone. Home, like love, “is an ever-fixed mark” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 116). But while this answer is true and comforting and fuller than any answer that geography can provide, it is no less complex or easy for our hearts to accept and express.