Being a TCK: “Saudade”

Saudade is a unique Portuguese word with no immediate translation into English. It describes an emotional state of longing or deep nostalgia for something or someone that is not immediately present or may even be unattainable. Tied up in this is the idea that there can be no thorough resolution of this state, that the person experiencing saudade can not truly overcome this yearning. Only recently, did I discover this word and realize that it applies to me.

This word applies not only to me, but also to other TCKs, or “third culture kids.” I’ve mentioned before that although I am American (born here), I grew up across the continent of Africa–first in Ghana, then Chad, and then Kenya. My first memories are from Ghana, right around my second birthday. Cognitively, I know that I am American, but I feel African. No, that isn’t quite right either. I feel Africa. I yearn for Africa. I know that I am not African, but I know that I also am not American. I am part of a third culture that somehow mixes African and American and is both and neither at the same time.

Saudade, by Almeida Júnior, 1899
"Saudade" by Almeida Júnior, 1899

It is a confusing place to be.

There are many who can claim to be a TCK. My parents are missionaries, so that is my reason for living in so many different places, but other TCKs could be the children of diplomats, NGO employees, business men or women, or military personnel.  For those of us who are TCKs, who experience saudade, we find ourselves caught between worlds, all the while trying to be a part of both, attempting to reconcile sometimes opposing aspects of who we are.

For example, when the terrorist attacks occurred in NYC on 9/11, I was at my grandmother’s house in Orange County. She woke my sister and me up to watch the news because it was “history in the making.” I sat on the floor of the TV room, watching the news with bleary eyes, seeing video footage of the crashes that looked like terrible CGI, knowing I should be emotionally moved, and wondering why I wasn’t.

The outpouring of American nationalism following the attacks raised two conflicting voices in my head. On the one hand, I wanted to stand with my fellow American citizens in emotional solidarity. I knew people were hurting. On the other hand, having recently moved back to the U.S. from a predominantly Muslim nation, I felt that I understood the Islamic perspectives behind the attack. (Note: I don’t agree with violent extremism, but in this case, I understood the motivation.) Once the American nationalism changed from everyone flying the stars and stripes to enacting misplaced racial and religious hate crimes, I quickly silenced the American patriot in my head and my heart wished to be home, where I could wear a veil with my Muslim neighbors and not worry about being attacked for it.

Recently, fellow Persephoneer Olivia has been writing about her experiences in Kenya and Uganda. Her stories and descriptions brought about a return of my saudade, reminding me of Africa. We have a saying–those of us who have lived or visited Africa and fallen in love with it–that you cannot wash the dust of Africa from your feet. Africa stays with me. There are long stretches of time, especially now that I have been living in the U.S. for almost nine years straight, that Africa moves to the back of my mind. It isn’t that I have forgotten her, but she isn’t a present thought.

Then I’ll catch a whiff of cigarette smoke on a sunny day, and suddenly I’m transported to a West African beach, holding a dewy green glass bottle in one hand and listening to the skeletal rattle of the wind in the coconut tree fronds overhead. Or I bite into a perfectly ripened mango and I can see myself walking through an open air market, admiring the towering pyramids of tropical produce and haggling with an African Mama over the price of a length of batik cloth.

mandazi
Delicious mandazis! You could compare them, roughly, to beignets.

I go through periods of time where all I want is a good mug of chai (just water, milk, black tea, and lots of sugar) and warm, greasy mandazis to go with it. There are other times that the only music I want to listen to is in Swahili or Ewe or Xhosa. (I know the Kenyan national anthem in English and Swahili, but I struggle to sing the American anthem correctly.) Often when I hit these periods of saudade, I simply write. I have many journals and blog posts devoted to this pining, and every depiction and narrative seems to fall short of the tangible experience, the homesickness I feel for Africa.

How can I describe the feel of Saharan sand underfoot, or the warm press of flesh in a crowded street that reeks of humanity–a smell I eagerly inhale? How can I tell you that my eyes hunger for a bright clash of colors instead of the drab “chic” of western dress? How do I express the need for a slower pace of life, where people come before things and community is essential?

Looking at this near impossible task of describing my tie to that wonderful continent where my heart has made its home, I asked our very own Selena if I could write a series of articles on this tension of belonging and not belonging and all the joys and heartache that come with it. As I share my own experiences, I look forward to hearing what you all have experienced and/or your responses. Have you ever experienced saudade? How was it similar and how did it differ from my own saudade?

waving to a Chadian boy
Me, waving to a Chadian boy, while driving from N'Djamena to Moundou in Chad--picture taken by Stephanie Chandler

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Dormouse

Bilingual (and a half) white girl who spent thirteen of her formative years in Africa. She is a writer, mentor, coffee drinker, wife, cat owner, language lover, photography dabbler, aspiring speaker, and a lifetime student. She keeps her writing going over at ellayneshaw.com.

18 thoughts on “Being a TCK: “Saudade””

  1. Before I moved to South Africa for study, my counsellor told me that I would fall in love with it and would always want to return to it.
    And maybe it’s because my mom also has a history there or I just learned so much being there by myself, but it’s true. Most of the time I feel more ..care and passion for South Africa than the place I was born or the place I live. And I’ve only been there twice, not even a year in total.

    I like to see ‘Saudade’ for the most part as a positive thing though. To know that you have so much space in your heart and mind that you can fit multiple places and people into it, to be open enough for different worlds.

  2. I’ve spent about a year and a half here in South Korea and sometimes I get so homesick I could cry, but I know as soon as I return to the US in February, I’ll be itching to leave again. Pretty convenient that I plan on doing grad school in the UK. I have a feeling this will be my life from now on. Wanting to return home but finding it changed and needing to leave again.

    I also spent a grand total of two weeks in Sierra Leone about 5-6 years ago and even with that short amount of time, all I’ve wanted to do is go back. Never washing the dirt off my feet indeed.

  3. This is a really interesting concept. Since I was born and raised in the US, I don’t really have this. The closest I could probably describe is when I was studying abroad in China, and I had those moments where all I wanted was Americanized Latin American food.

    Of course, now every once and a while I have an intense longing for the wide varieties of dumplings I ate while in China. That and bubble tea. I also miss the parks. Parks in China felt extraordinarily alive. It was such a different experience.

    I don’t know if all that is as strong as what you’re describing, though.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more articles about these topics!

      1. I wish there was a place that sold bubble tea close to where I am. Then again, I would spend far too much money on it.

        It was a really great opportunity and a wonderful experience! Language barriers were a problem, but it was nice actually staying somewhere rather than just touring. Touring can be so shallow. It is so much more fulfilling to try to truly experience a place and a culture.

  4. I’ve experienced this on a much gentler (less distinct cultures) level, because as a very small child I lived in Germany and then moved to the UK, and a lot of my cultural identity has always been tied up in being at least partly German (My mother’s half-German, but more importantly I’ve had a lot of contact with my German relatives, and often felt more connected to them than to my British ones).

    All in all, Germany and the UK are more alike, I would say, than they’re different. The sense of humour is wonderfully the same, much of the food palate (heavy carbs, creamy desserts, cider and beer and lager) overlaps, but there’s still a sense of “Germanness” I get when I go back to Germany. One vivid reminder of my German ancestry and identity was when I visited some of the battlefields of the First World War – I have far more German relatives in those graves than British ones (mostly by class and quirks of fate).

    All debates about recent European history are also altered, to say the least.

    It’s a weird mix, though I’m benefited by the emergence in Europe of the collective European identity – even if the UK is markedly more reluctant to take that on than most. Brits seem reluctant to call themselves European until they think about what the alternative is…

    I get it, though. I can’t imagine not being able to readily access the place I feel a partial affinity for.

    1. I’m glad you can go between both places! It is interesting to me how much the places of our earliest memories can cement our identities. My husband was devastated as a kid when his family moved across town, and he comes from a small town!

  5. It’s interesting, I was thinking of something like this last night. I was writing a short post about storytelling and The Moth, and I was trying to describe my response to a well told tale. If I had known the word saudade then, I would have used it, because it perfectly describes the yearning I feel when I see a good storyteller or exceptionable live acting. I don’t even know what I long for, do I want to be telling the story? do I want to be in the story? I don’t know, I just know I want something and I’m not going to get it sitting in the audience. I ended up leaving that part out because it was too intangible for me to describe.

  6. This made me cry. I’m also a TCK (grew up in South Africa, but also spent a few years in Hong Kong and Kazakhstan respectively). I miss Africa SO much that it hurts sometimes. I love that the “third culture kid” thing is getting more attention, recently–it feels so good to know there are others like me out there who don’t know who/what the hell they are. I miss the expat community in general–it’s really difficult to be back in suburban America, where I don’t have people around me that truly understand my experiences and my problems with identity.

    I actually just handed in my undergrad thesis, which is a memoir about my experiences as a TCK–the whole culture and community are infinitely interesting!

    Thanks so much for this.

  7. Yeah, I feel it a lot. As an American in Oz, I get those longings frequently. On the surface, things are the same, but sometimes things happen and all you can think about is, “Wow! This really is another country!” Or I’m in the grocery store and I come across something a brand I know from home and I’m always surprised by the memories I recall. I can understand how you feel.

    And then it’s complicated by the longing I have to travel again. Just to be immersed in some place entirely unfamiliar. I could easily be labled an adrenaline junkie because I love/miss/crave the excitement of the unexpected. It seems the more I travel, the less any one place feels like home. To travel has been both a blessing and curse: on one hand, my life has been enriched; on the other hand, I’ve never been so depressed with stationary life.

    Saudade– it’s good to have a word for it.

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