Saudade: a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. –A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912
“Airports feel like home to me,” Victoria, an ATCK who spent many of her childhood years in Indonesia, tells me. She is quiet and soft-spoken, with a knowing smile and a gentle expression.
Hands wrapped around her Caramel Macchiato, Victoria stares into her cup, her blue eyes pensive.“When I moved back to the US, I longed for Indonesia. For my family. For all the things I could no longer return to. On days I felt particularly lonely, I drove to the closest airport, curled up on one of the benches overlooking the runway, and cried. I felt at home at the airport. I didn’t have to know where I was from. I would close my eyes and let the memories flood me.”
I’m a TCK too. These intense pangs of longing mirror my own. With each wave of melancholy, we are both transported into another time and place: to what was but can no longer exist. Victoria was experiencing Saudade. For places, yes. For people, always. But also, for who she was when she was “other.” For the parts of her that lay dormant. The bits of her personality cultivated in the country of her upbringing that she has quietly tucked away. They no longer fit in her current context. They are neither recognized nor valued in the culture she now lives in. And so Victoria has changed. She’s different than she used to be. Sitting at the airport, she grieved herself.
The Ever-Changing Me
This is one of the most difficult aspects of Saudade. As TCKs integrate into new cultures, we adapt to our surroundings. We observe the characteristics and personality-types favored in our new country, and we slowly conform.
My “other” side is not always welcomed or understood in America, my passport country. Eight years in Japan has created in me a quiet nature and a soft voice. I’ve been called Asian, despite my blonde hair and blue eyes. Americans call me ‘shy.’ They urge me to speak louder. I feel pressure to become more outgoing and independent. With effort, I learn to raise my voice. I learn to smile confidently and shake hands firmly instead of bow. My reserved nature recedes to a more culturally-pleasing one.
This process is necessary for TCKs in transition. But adaption can cause feelings of rootlessness, as Sarah, an expat of two years, so accurately describes. She recently visited her home country for the first time since her international move. For one week, she slipped back into her old life: into the job she once had, surrounded by the people she once knew deeply.
“Returning to the old me felt like putting on my most comfortable clothes and then realizing they don’t quite fit anymore,” Sarah reflected. “My world had gotten bigger. I realized I had become a new me.”
Her experiences abroad had changed her perspective and mannerisms, merging with her old self. Sarah’s heart now felt pulled between two homes. She had become a fusion of two cultures, her personality a unique combination of both worlds.
Embracing the Fusion Within
Perhaps this is why ‘home’ is so difficult to pinpoint for TCKs. When overwhelmed by a swift and startling moment of Saudade, I struggle to voice my longing. My throat catches. Wistfully, I yearn for home. But my identity has become a melding pot of cultures. My connections and feelings that represent home are scattered across the globe.
TCKs’ childhoods are vastly different than most. Our earliest memories are formed from the sights, sounds, and smells of many homes. Some of which we will never see, hear, or smell again. Our character traits and personalities are slowly being molded by the customs of many cultures.
Like most TCKs, I have an external self and an inner self. My external self continues to change and conform to my surroundings. My inner self, like drawers in my heart, store the bits of my personality that don’t “fit” in my new culture. I adapt by adding, pulling out, or storing these character traits.
TCKs are indeed a fusion of worlds. But will we choose to embrace this fusion within us? Or will we grasp for one home? One personality? One way of life?
I was recently told a story about a group of immigrants who moved to the United States thirty years ago. They experienced a painfully difficult transition. Longing for their home across the ocean, they were caught in the memories of their past.
Instead of accepting their new circumstances, they created pockets of community with other immigrants. They surrounded themselves by others just like them, eating the food only from their birth culture, speaking only their birth language. Sadly, they refused to change, adapt, or integrate into their surrounding society.
Now, years later, their heads are sprinkled with grey. Isolated and filled with regret, their wistfulness has turned to bitterness. They feel lonely and depressed because, instead of claiming two homes, they have no home to call their own.
As TCKs, sometimes it seems easier to simply tie our identities to one home, similar to these immigrants. I know from experience: adapting is hard. We are faced with two choices: we can cling to our past and risk having no place to call home. Or we can accept this fusion within us, rooting ourselves in many homes.
If we choose to adapt and integrate fully into each new culture, we will continue to change. Parts of our personalities will lay dormant. But that’s okay. As we tuck these memories away to treasure, our hearts grow bigger, our worlds broader, and our lives more vibrant with new relationships and memories. We are a fusion of cultures. And this stays the same no matter where we go.
The Power of Saudade
Embracing the fusion within us is key in order to change and grow as TCKs. But this act of courage comes with a risk: by accepting that pieces of ourselves will lie dormant as we move across cultures, we risk forgetting who we truly are.
These hidden traits we’ve stored inside can become buried so deep, that we can sometimes forget their existence.
Perhaps this is what hindered the immigrants in the story above from embracing their fusion. Fearing the loss of their identities, they refused to store the bits of themselves that no longer fit in their current context. They refused to change. Instead, they tried to recreate the past in their present.
As TCKs, the risk of embracing our fusion can sound daunting. But we must not forget the power of Saudade.
These swift pangs of longing that overwhelm us are beautiful, counteracting the risk. For the briefest moment, Saudade opens up the “stored” parts of ourselves that we’ve tucked away. As we begin to reminisce, we are reminded of who we really are.
During an extended stay in America earlier this year, I went to a sushi restaurant with my sister and aunt. We took our seats, laughing and talking as we studied the menu. After a few minutes, an Asian waitress came to take our order. She was reserved and quiet, with perceptive eyes and a lowered chin. My heart lurched when our eyes met. A pang of Saudade hit me unexpectedly.
Why? I reflected later that evening. The realization was startling: she reminded me of me.
For the briefest moment, the quiet, reserved side of me that I had stored in my heart opened. I was reminded of a core part of me that I had briefly tucked away while readapting to my home country.
You see, I needed Saudade. I welcomed this longing as a reminder of my true identity. As TCKs embrace our fusion, Saudade becomes a catalyst for our true selves to come alive. This is a powerful gift for TCKs. Through these defining moments, we become more self-aware and holistic. We can better integrate into new cultures. And we can rest assured that the pieces of ourselves we’ve tucked away may lay dormant, but are never lost.
Republished with permission from Among Worlds Magazine