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!

Recommended reading: May 13th, 2019

Welcome to another week of Recommended Reading! I’m catching up on some great posts after my month of travel, so this is a mix of newish and oldish posts – but all worth a read!

Blind iftar anyone? Meet new people and enjoy iftar with this cool Ramadan concept in Dubai
Gulf News
Ramadan has begun, and Muslims around the world are fasting, reflecting, and celebrating – including many who are expats! This article features a fun concept happening at a housing complex in Dubai, connecting families who host iftar dinners for their non-muslim neighbours to experience and learn about this Ramadan practice. What a lovely way to build community in the diverse expat world.
“When you share food, you share love and the bond grows automatically. Sharing a table gives us time to talk to each other. The Swedish family had so many questions about Islam and Ramadan. They wanted to know why we fast. And I explained that fasting helped us value life, people, food and to not waste. And iftar is the best way of bringing people closer. It was fun, informal and we had a healthy, informative exchange. I cooked traditional Jordanian food”

6 Reasons Short-Term Friendships Are Worth Your Time
Taking Route
Great post summing up a lot of my own thoughts and arguments about why it’s important to invest in relationships wherever you’re living, no matter how short a time you’ll be there. Seriously, if you’ve ever felt that friendship fatigue, that it might not be worth the effort to make new friends AGAIN, then this is a great post to read. And if you’ve never felt that way before, especially as an expat, I can almost guarantee it’ll happen to you one day – so this is still a great read!
“When you’re an expat, it seems like all your friendships start with a timer. How long until one of you moves? Is it really worth putting the time into building a friendship when there’s already an expiration date on the horizon? Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep acquaintances casual, so it’s easier to say goodbye? Having experienced times of short but good friendships, and also times where I eschewed making new friends in favor of a simpler or quieter life, I can give you the answers up front: Yes, investing in a friendship for a short season is worth it. And no, it isn’t easier to spend a year or two without friends, preparing for the day you’ll move again.”

Rediscovering Myself as a TCK
TCK Town
I loved reading this story of a TCK learning what a “TCK” is for the first time! I’ve heard this story from dozens of TCKs around the world – the moment they realised they belonged to a wider tribe of scattered individuals who GET IT. This can be an incredibly powerful realisation!
“My discovery of the concept of the TCK transformed me. After learning about the existence of others like me firsthand, I felt I firmly belonged to a community, a feeling which I had lacked ever since I started to question my identity, and a feeling that I realized was important. I now feel I am not alone and have people like me with whom I can identify. In short, I feel like I am more firmly part of the world. More importantly, after learning about TCKs, I formed a sense of identity. Now I can describe myself as a TCK, who doesn’t necessarily classify as belonging to a single traditional culture but to a particular global community of people who are “citizens of everywhere and nowhere.””

Third Culture Kids Aren’t a Triangle – They’re a Wave
Wine and Cheese (Doodles)
This is a fascinating piece considering the impact of growing up among cultures – from the perspective of a mother wondering how this will affect her TCK children long term. Great reflections, and well worth a read!
“A recent conversation sucked me, feet first, into the black hole of expat doubt. And by doubt, I really mean: “What the hell is going to happen to my kids at the end of this experiment?”. . . They’re soaking in some weird cultural slop, made up of ingredients from our respective cultures, plus the one they live in, plus the stuff they pick up from living in an international community. And so here they are, teetering on this no-citizen’s-land, picking and choosing what they like and getting rid of the rest. Perhaps in an age when we’re increasingly recognizing gender fluidity, cultural fluidity is not far behind? When my kids go to the US for summer breaks, they morph and flow until they find a comfortable wavelength to inhabit. The same when they do when they reside in Denmark. Or when they go to the UK. A while back there was an excellent commentary about expats and immigrants and their life as a triangle; when you no longer fit where you came from, but not exactly where you live either. The more I think about it, the more I believe that triangle is too angular. It’s too rigid. Perhaps instead of a triangle it should be a wave, fluid and ever-changing. Culture, for my kids, is now a spectrum rather than a shape. It’s a wavelength they exist upon, altering as they see fit.”

Keeping Kids Safe
Expat Parenting Abroad
A short post raising an important topic: child safety. What conversations do you have with your children, to help keep them safe despite engaging in different cultures with different cultural norms – different lines for what is considered normal/appropriate behaviour?
“From the outset, let me just state that nothing sinister happened… but there is learning here nonetheless. . . Someone in a trusted position asked my children to keep something from me!!! Our girls, as you are probably well aware by now, have grown up in Asia spending most of their lives in India. And it is well reported, that girls don’t always receive the same respect in India as other countries and the rates of sexual abuse are quite high. When you live there, it’s reported daily in the local newspaper and more often that not the perpetrator is in a position of trust.”

What’s ‘culture’, anyway?
Tertiary
Really appreciated this little reflection on what culture is, and how it impacts our interactions with others. Dani asks good questions, and invites readers to engage with their own experiences.
“The uncomfortable part is that a lot of cultural indicators are subliminal: you might not even realise that you think or behave in a certain way, because it is so deeply ingrained in your experience of life. . . So it’s no wonder moving to a new country, or working in an international company, or marrying into another culture is so hard! We are all human, we are all valuable, and we all function more or less the same way, but we are all wired a little differently. Out cultures have gifted us with different perspectives and traditions and ways of being, and sometimes those cultures contradict. . . But here’s the key. Your culture is not right. It’s not wrong, by any means, but it is human and that means it’s complex. It means it’s changing, evolving, and adapting to the circumstances around it. The same goes for other peoples’ cultures.”

3 Ways to Improve Your Cultural Fluency
Harvard Business Review
And on the topic of culture, here’s an interesting piece looking at the importance of cross-cultural competency in a corporate setting. Good thoughts, and the lessons apply across many sectors.
“Doug worked with his coauthor Jane, a global leadership strategist, to learn how his behaviors reflected the culture in which he was brought up. He learned that his perspective was heavily influenced by being male and by his American-based value system. Doug had been interpreting situations based on his version of “treating people with respect” without a deeper understanding of how those behaviors landed with his audience. . . Over time, he discovered that people from different cultures (in and outside of the U.S.) interpreted his zealous approach as disrespectful. This discovery led to an ongoing exploration of how to shift his behaviors when engaging with colleagues from diverse backgrounds. After a few years, his cultural fluency in leadership visibly improved.”

Expat Story: “Less is More”
Expat Nest
This piece talks about essentialism – like minimalism but different. What are the things that are essential to you physcially, financially, and mentally? What makes your life easier and less stressful? A great idea when facing yet another international move.
“Like many expats, it sometimes feels like my life consists of moving… right now I’m on eight moves and counting! I don’t enjoy the process of moving, even if the end result is living in a great new country. Just the thought of putting every single thing I own, one by one into boxes, and then having to unpack each item again is daunting. Right before my most recent move, however, I discovered something that might seem scary at first, but that helped me through the packing process and even saved me money: essentialism – the little helper that makes the expat’s life easier. As opposed to minimalism, essentialism is all about owning the essentials, not owning as little as humanly possible. So please do not picture an empty white room!”

My Dearest Switzerland
Remfrey Educational Consulting
And to finish, a sweet little letter written by an expat to the country she lives in. This is a great exercise! Perhaps you might like to try it yourself…
“Switzerland, you have made us one of your own. We are truly and completely yours. We promise to continue to learn more about your culinary abundance. We will continue to discover more corners of your overwhelming landscape through hiking and skiing. And most of all, Switzerland, we will continue to enjoy your company every day.”