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That global vs. local tension

A friend of mine recently sent me a message with a question that got me thinking. He asked me how I developed a hunger for both local and global experiences, and if my husband has been influenced by this lifestyle or if we are “kindred spirits” in this area. Maybe the question was less about my personal experiences and more about how to achieve that “think global, act local” balance. Well, I can’t claim to have found the balance yet, but for what it is worth, what follows is a piece of my journey.

I am not actually sure I can point back to the first time I took interest in things around the world. Growing up in France, my American father regularly reminisced about his transformational peace-corps experience in Ghana or his interactions with the KGB in the former Soviet Union. My British mother casually talked about fleeing Albania as a Bible smuggler during the communist era. Or being 9 months pregnant and driving from Denmark to start a new life in Switzerland. This wasn’t a game of name dropping of countries but just the very normal life they led. Thinking back, my parents never feared “the other” and never hesitated to give up their home culture traditions in exchange for the gift of learning new ones. We’d have that Indian family over for Christmas or a Dutch bachelor join us for “Friday movie night”. This surely had a huge impact on my hunger for global experiences today. I love the world around us so much. We went to a small Algerian/Moroccan church in Paris and gave up Western hymns and Sunday roast at noon for bad acoustics and communal Tabbouleh that took over our whole Sunday. I didn’t love that part quite as much.

Perhaps as a result of this upbringing, language study in school was never ever a drag. It was my tool to communicate with peers in other countries. I think by adulthood, I had developed a curiosity of my own. Later on in life, along with the gift of moving cross-culturally, I got to meet people from all over the world. I don’t take credit for any bravery. Living in an international city allows you to go deep really fast with other expatriates, to get invited to their home and get a taste of their cultures. In that sense, you can “travel” to their countries just by meeting someone from another country. The beautiful thing is that the more fun details you know about a country, the more it helps you build a bridge to a land of more discovery. Everything from obsolete Schwäbisch slang or that Chinese cough-drop product to my son’s African name all become conversation starters.

The local question is a completely different one, with which I have struggled quite a bit. In all honestly, I have always found it really hard to invest locally. I wish someone had told me earlier that you don’t have to strip yourself of past experiences and future longings in order to engage locally. The pastor of the international church we went to in Shanghai said something that really stuck with me. He said that no matter how long you end up living in a city, it is important that you take the protective plastic off the furniture in your home to be able to feel the furniture. In other words, you can miss out that whole 3, 6, 12, 24 month experience if you don’t invest aggressively. And indeed, on some expat packages, equipped with the driver or the budget to shop at international grocery stores, one could fairly easily live in China without really leaving America, or Canada or whatever country it was that sent you. “What a waste!” I always thought. For types like me, it came fairly easily to invest locally in a faraway place like China. The far greater challenge as a Third Culture Kid was to invest here locally, in one of my home cultures after leaving it for some 20 odd years. I spent the first two years of life back in the USA, still living (and working!) “in China”. I assure you that it was a lonely place, in which I was hungry for relationship and felt sorry for myself. Apart from some very graphic entries in my journal, I sadly have very little to show for those two dark years of my life.

I still regularly grieve all I left behind. But today, I know that I have to live in the present, in my here and now, if I want to look back fondly upon this season. To be able to thrive anywhere you are planted is really the sign you are at stage four on the Third Culture journey – that of the Trans-Nationalist:

“He is not afraid of change. He is not afraid of stability. He can objectify his life and experience and he understands and accepts who he is. He is the new global citizen and he has a fantastic story to tell.”

I’m not there yet. That is the long and involved journey I am still on.

As for my husband, he certainly does have a real interest in the world around us. He has always loved and supported bringing the world into our home (and today he travels more than me, which is just plain annoying!). Being monocultural, he is also the one able to constantly remind us to invest locally in our community. He is the one pushing for involvement in local schools and neighborhood get-togethers. For all the challenges that this particular type of cross-cultural marriage implies, there is a healthy “give and take” that must coexist for both of us to have the ability to walk in stride. This is one of huge blessings and greatest challenges of this type of marriage.

It is really such a fine dance to celebrate and flood our home with the world, while investing locally. I don’t think I ever laid down roots until I gave birth to my son and realized that I needed a village: a community around me physically, not just virtually and over Skype/FaceTime. Maybe one of the greatest gifts of parenthood was the realization that as human beings (as infants but also as grandparents, as mothers, fathers, children), our core longings are the same whether we grew up in a monocultural setting or in a multicultural one. We all long for love, belonging, security, understanding, purpose and significance.

If you truly believe this, it will spark in you a whole new acceptance and love for people around you. The belief that we share core longings breaks down walls to even be able to learn from someone who has never even had the desire to leave their town. Imagine that.

Knowing us, we likely won’t live here the rest of our lives. Wouldn’t it then be a waste not to have experienced it fully and not to have learned from people with the same longings in this part of the world?

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