Our love affairs with places

I recently wrote about my experiences at FIGT 2019 in Bangkok (the annual Families in Global Transition conference).

At the conference I presented a “lightning” talk – something like a short TED talk, lasting six minutes. I was fortunate to be the first of eight talks – fortunate because then it was out of the way, leaving me able to really listen to the rest. There were so many great talks, with a range of subjects and styles. One was a highlight of the whole conference, and received a standing ovation!

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If you are a member of FIGT, I believe video of all eight talks will be available on the FIGT website soon (other resources are already there). If you aren’t a member, I really suggest looking into it. In addition to the great annual conference, there are lots of excellent resources and networking opportunities in the FIGT community year-round.

But back to my talk. I spoke about relationships with place: our complicated feelings about the places we connect with, and using the language of love to explain it. The rest of this post is a script that’s pretty close to what I actually said on the day, with some pretty pictures I chose to go along with my story.


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Two years ago at FIGT in the Netherlands, we were asked to stand and gather in answer to certain questions – like, “who travelled here from Australia?” It was a great community building exercise, finding people we had things in common with. And it was a lot of fun! Until someone asked the question: “who fell in love this year?”

Well, I had.

Two weeks earlier I had decided to move to Beijing at the end of that year, to be with my boyfriend. It was still new to me, but despite how vulnerable it made me feel, I decided to stand up. There were two of us up there, while the whole FIGT community clapped and cheered. And suddenly my long distance relationship felt a lot more real!

I had no idea at the time, but a year later I would be living in Beijing with my now husband.

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We had an engagement party in Australia, a wedding in the US, and a reception in China. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, our story is much more complicated than that!

Relationships are complicated. Our emotions and experiences and interactions are complex.

We have so much vocabulary to help us describe different kinds of relationships we experience – especially the range of romantic relationships.

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We talk of love at first sight, falling in love, falling out of love, unrequited love.

There are flings, whirlwind romances, friends with benefits, long-distance relationships, polyamorous relationships.

There are even toxic relationships, loveless marriages, and affairs.

There are commitments without weddings, and even weddings without much commitment.

There are first dates, anniversaries, and break ups.

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Today I would like to suggest that this rich vocabulary we use to describe relationships between people can be used to better express our multi-layered connections to places.

But first, let’s take a moment to feel some of those complex feelings we have about people.

Think of someone you love…

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What feelings arise when you think of them?
Does a smile come to your lips?
Do you feel warm, or happy, or thankful?

But then again, maybe you haven’t seen or even talked to them for a while.
Perhaps you fought recently.
Maybe you’re missing them today.

Now think of someone you were close to a long time ago, but haven’t talked to in years…

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What feelings arise when you think of them?
Does a smile come to your lips?

Is there sadness over losing touch with them?
Or perhaps nostalgia for a part of your life now in the past?

Finally, think of someone you love dearly, but live far away from…

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What feelings arise when you think of them? Does a smile come to your lips?

Is there pain at the geography that separates you?
Is there guilt over choices you’ve made that keep you apart?

Our relationships with people are complicated. So are our relationships with places.

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And the reality is that we DO have relationships with places – emotional and legal relationships. So, what if we allow ourselves to use the emotional vocabulary of love and human relationships to describe our complex feelings about places?

Perhaps we will find clarity and comfort.
Perhaps we will gain ways to articulate why we feel what we feel.

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Now, I’m certainly not the first person to draw this connection.

Amy Medina wrote that living in a country where she is not (and cannot be) a citizen is like falling in love “with something that I can’t keep.”

Mariam Ottimofiore wrote something similar in her “break up letter” to Dubai – that living there was like falling in love with someone not looking for commitment. As she put it: “Nothing serious, please.”

(Later I also came across a piece by Dana Saxon in which she described “falling out of love” with a place.)

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They both helped give words to something I have heard from so many TCKs over the years, and I subsequently wrote a blog post about “unrequited love of place” – about feeling a deep emotional connection to a country in which you have no legal rights.

No guarantee you can stay.
No right to return.

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Many expats and TCKs told me this was the first time they’d been given words to express how they felt. They passed my blog post on to friends and family, to help them understand an experience they’d never been able to explain before.

And THIS is what the language of love gives us – a way to articulate and SHARE the emotions we feel about places.

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“Unrequited love” describes one type of relationship to place, but there is an endless variety of ways to apply this concept.

For example, have you experienced “love at first sight” with a place? You arrive for the first time and something about that city, that country, speaks to your soul in a way you can’t intellectually explain. That was Bangkok for me, on one of my visits.

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Have you experienced the slow burn of falling in love with a place gradually over time, as its idiosyncrasies become familiar and comforting, and you become fond of its foibles?

Have you had a fling, or a holiday romance? A short and intense experience of a country that becomes a fond memory, but not a long term commitment.

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Have you had a long-distance relationship with a place? Somewhere very close to your heart, often in your thoughts, but not where you live right now?

Have you experienced managing that distance, through visits and finding ways of connecting from far away?

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Have you experienced the sting of rejection, when a place you love does not return your desire for commitment? A visa renewal not accepted. A citizenship application rejected.

Have you experienced the slow loss of love, as you change, and the place you loved changes? The relationship you have changes and you fall out of love.

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Perhaps living in a country you don’t love, don’t feel that emotional connection to, could be compared to a loveless marriage, an every day loneliness due to lack of love for a place you are committed to.

Have you experienced a casual relationship with a place – you visit and enjoy it, but there’s no commitment on either side. Friends with benefits, perhaps?

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The complicated love of holding multiple passports might compare to a polyamorous relationship – you can be committed to more than one place, just as you can be committed to more than one person, but that doesn’t mean everyone understands just how you make it work.

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We connect deeply with places in which we live. We bond with places we visit.
But, as facebook might say, it’s complicated.

The language of love is powerful, and commandeering this language to describe our relationships with places gives us a powerful tool – one I hope you will very much enjoy using!

Unrequited love of place

In a recent recommending reading post I linked to Mariam’s “break up letter” to Dubai, the city her family just moved on from. There were some things she wrote at the end of her letter that I found particularly poignant and worth some further reflection:

Dear Dubai, my bags are packed, my goodbyes are done. My memories are now strewn all over your glittering skyline. Your streets will forever feel like home, your parks and beaches are the background of my kid’s childhood photos. How many times over the past four years have I posted pictures of you and me together on Instagram and used the popular hashtag “#mydubai”? But then wondered, are you really mine? Can you ever truly be mine?

Today I wonder, why does it hurt so much to leave a city that was never mine to begin with?

Falling in love with you Dubai, is like falling in love with someone who says “I’m not looking for any commitment. Nothing serious, please.” Once an expat in Dubai, always an expat in Dubai, because there is no path to long-term citizenship in the UAE.

This is why I have to break up with you Dubai. Trust me, it’s for the best. I need to move on. Some relationships are short like yours and mine, but it doesn’t make them any less meaningful. Better to do this sooner rather than later, when it will hurt even more.

This captures beautifully the tension felt by many expatriates, and especially by many TCKs. Relationships are not unilateral. There is a two-way street. Can a place ever be truly mine unless it embraces me, too?

An immigrant is a person who has this two-way relationship with a country. They have chosen the country, and the country has chosen them. There is acceptance in both directions.

Expatriates do not have this.

An expatriate is someone without a long-term commitment. For some, it is because they do not want a long-term commitment. They want to go back ‘home’ after their time is done. For others, the country they live in does not want a long-term commitment. There is no path to citizenship, no way to legally become a local. This is where the “unrequited love” of the post title comes from. There are many expatriates around the world who have fallen in love with a country that will never fully embrace them.

That’s my situation, in China. I love this place, I really do. But I can never become Chinese. Not legally, and not in the eyes of Chinese people. I must live with the uncertainty of a constantly changing visa situation, and never having permission to remain more than one year at a time.

Many TCKs live with this. The place of childhood becomes inaccessible. There is no legal rights to belong. There is no recognition of their connection. The place they love, and were raised in, does not acknowledge them.

Perhaps a better relational analogy for the TCK experience is foster care. Temporary guardians, not permanent family. Some foster situations are joyful and warm, others are difficult and even traumatic. Some can lead to permanent adoptive situations; I’ve interviewed a number of TCKs who were able to gain citizenship in the country they grew up in as expatriates. But for many, that is not an option – even for those who wish it was.

There is a particular pain that goes with unrequited love of place. To feel at home in, identify with, love, a particular place – but have no security there. A place that says, as Mariam put it: “I’m not looking for any commitment. Nothing serious, please.”

Amy Medina wrote about this feeling in a post I included in a different recommended reading list. She called it “forbidden roots” – creating those connections in a place you know won’t be forever. She also used relational terminology to describe it, writing: “It’s like coming to the realization that I’ve fallen in love with something that I can’t keep.

It’s hard to keep giving yourself to a place that won’t ever love you back, so to speak. To invest in a place that won’t invest in you. Mariam wrote of the choice to leave, before it hurts too much. Amy wrote of the choice to invest, knowing it will hurt much.

But here’s the crunch for TCKs, again – the lack of choice. This unrequited love of place is the result of choices made on their behalf. But as with anyone, in any life situation, all we can do is choose how we respond to what life has brought us. We can choose where to invest ourselves, our lives, our love – in this moment, and from now on.

Click here to read my Lightning Session on our relationships with places, which expands on this idea.

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This quiet back road was part of my regular commute during my first year in Beijing (back in 2004).