When I turned thirteen, and moved from Japan to the United States, I was terrified of losing my way home. At night before I went to sleep, I would go over the route from school to my apartment, over and over again, visualizing every turn along the way. My family and I had left the vibrance and constant mystery of Tokyo for a quiet and pristine suburban town in Connecticut. Tokyo had been my home. It was where I completed all of my elementary school, where I learned to ride the subway, where I made my first real friends. It was a safe place for me to explore, let my imagination loose, and become an independent city kid.
Now, in my birth country, I was living in a foreign land. The kids at school played by different rules, talking back to teachers and laughing at jokes I didn’t understand. Instead of impromptu long city walks or cramped subway rides, my mother had to drive me places when she had the time. My peers found my background so confusing that the best strategy, it seemed, was to tease me or avoid me altogether.
The adults around me were wrong. I was not home. I was far from home and I was so scared of never being able to find my way back.
So each night, as if reciting my prayers, I’d visualize running down the hill from the International School of the Sacred Heart and passing the teenagers at LadyDog, the local hotdog joint. I’d cut through a tiny alley where some of the last traditional Japanese homes in the area still stood. I’d visualize the stone steps that led through the narrow path and I would steal a glimpse of old women through open shoji screens.
Turning right out of the alley, I’d remember the school boys, dressed like little sailors, reciting English song lyrics through bursts of shy giggles. At the flower shop, the florist would greet me with a smile, knowing exactly what I wanted. I would exchange a hundred yen for a discarded flower or two from the bouquets he made during the day.
I’d visualize getting to the bottom of Arisugawa hill, passing by the Swiss chocolate shop, the Baskin Robbins, and National Azabu, where all the western expats got their groceries. Then I would reach my second destination, the West German embassy. Every afternoon, I would run up to the bullet proof glass and say “konnichiwa” to the guard. Through a small window, he would practice his English and we would chat for a handful of minutes until it was time to go. After making it up the gigantic hill, I’d visualize turning off the main road and skipping down streets that got smaller and smaller until I finally arrived home.
After years went by, it was impossible to hold onto those crisp images. My memory of that time became faint and unreliable. And yet I still longed to find my way home. I have moved nine times in my life and it seems that home has always been a faded photograph, a chapter in a book I misplaced.
That is, home was always elusive until I was older and realized that home would not be found in a single physical place but in a community. I learned of the term Third Culture Kid and discovered that there were millions of others like me. Millions of men and women who, as children, walked home from school everyday in their host cities of Paris, Bangkok, or Santiago. Millions who went “back” to their birth countries and were suddenly lost, who clung to memories of places far, far away. Who, today, interject foreign slang into their conversations and who carry passports that are stuffed and worn.
At parties, airport lounges and hotel lobbies, I meet them. I recognize the awkward pause when others ask them where they are from. I know there are hundreds of stories within them, hundreds of losses and adventures. When we meet, we slide into perfect understanding. Through that joy of recognition, strangers become neighbors and we give each other the permission to share stories of the countries we’ve lived in, the schools we attended, the friends we made. Those shared moments are bursting with joy. They remind me that I do belong to a community, and that this community is colorful, sensational, and unique. I am grateful for them and grateful that I found my way home.
Ellen Mahoney is the founder and CEO of Sea Change Mentoring, a program that provides mentoring to expats and repats between the ages of 16 to 23. Mentors around the world help young adults explore careers, prep for university and adjust to the next big move. To apply for a mentor, apply at www.seachangementoring.com by October 30th, 2015. Additionally, Ellen serves on the board of Families in Global Transition. When she is not on an airplane, she is based mostly in San Francisco and The Hague.