“Cadeau, madame, cadeau! [Gift, ma’am, gift!]” the small children chimed in chorus, their voices eager as they reached dirty hands out to grab at mine.
“Je n’ai rien [I don’t have anything],” I apologized, wishing that the allowance I was given at my boarding school in Kenya was accessible from this street in N’DjamÃ©na. I looked to my dad, but he was already fishing out some coins for the boys and girls that clamored around us.
As we got in our Toyota Land Cruiser and headed home from our shopping trip, I looked out on this dusty city that was my sometimes home, this place with its mix of Arabic and African cultures and all of the problems that came with being in Sub-Saharan Africa – tribalism, desertification, religious conflict, and corrupt government to name a few. Even though I only lived in Chad for a few months out of the year, it still tugged on my heart whenever I was there.
In Africa, indeed, in most non-Western locations, it is very common to see street children, beggars, and many others with severe physical ailments and deformities. Genocide, rape, and poverty are often the norm, and if I sound callous for speaking that way, let me assure you that I say that not to take away from the suffering, but because if I were to allow myself to be brokenhearted for every tragedy that occurred around me growing up, I would be unable to get up in the morning.
One of my friends – who currently works in the Democratic Republic of Congo – put it very well: “I find it so difficult to judge others or ignore their hardships. I used to work with the homeless in Tulsa while I was attending University. I was shocked by the response of my fellow classmates. They almost always responded with thoughts like don’t help them you’re just enabling their laziness. I guess I just have a clearer understanding that I am where I am by chance. I could have just as easily been a child born into extreme poverty.”
However, hand-in-hand with this great capacity for compassion is the necessity of developing the thick skin that I mentioned above. This same friend attends at least one wake per week, and she says that there is also “at least one serious tragedy that strikes per month (someone murdered, raped, a wife beaten so badly she is hospitalized, etc.” The way that many of us TCKs learn to deal with so much tragedy is that we cope by letting go of the bad and embracing the good. There are many “bad” memories of Africa that I have, and sometimes when I think of my home, I have a hard time not dwelling on the tragedies.
It reminds me of when my sister and I were back in the US, taking a class at the local community college, and the professor showed a film called Kandahar, which tells the story of an Afghani woman whose family fled to Canada before the Taliban took root. As an adult, this Afghani/Canadian woman chooses to return to Afghanistan to find her long lost sister. As she makes her way through the war-torn, desperate landscapes of her home country, the viewers see the desolation, but are also privy to seeing humanity’s inner strength to rise up and find hope in the midst of oppression. My sister and I were actually encouraged at the end of the movie, but our classmates only saw BURQA and tuned absolutely everything else out.
The point I’m trying to make about this duality of compassion with concurrent thick skin is that this comes with life experience. Most people develop this over time, this resiliency in the face of tragedy, but because TCKs are exposed to so much life experience from such early ages, we end up with mature attitudes towards these events.
The last aspect of being global nomads that I would like to discuss is that of the innate restlessness from which so many TCKs seem to suffer. We are used to packing up our lives and moving on to a new place frequently – approximately every three years – so when we have lived somewhere for “too long,” we itch to pick up and go. I was fortunate to travel about every other year in college, or I might have gone crazy. Most of the TCKs that I know have moved at least 30 times in their lives, with many of those having moved even more than that!
Frequently moving does have its perks of gaining lots of life experience and honing our adaptability, but it can also result in indecisiveness. Many TCKs struggle to pick an educational or career path with the mentality, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do now, but what about next year?” Change is so much a part of our DNA that the idea of constancy can occasionally be intimidating. Planning ahead feels like an act of futility because how can we predict that any of these plans may come together?
As you can probably tell by now, being a TCK is a mixed bag of blessings and curses. Yes, we have rich life experiences, but we have our own struggles as well. There are times that I wish I had lived a “normal” American childhood and adolescence, and then there are other times that I wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world.