The Way Home

Ellen MahoneyArticles16 Comments

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 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.

16 Comments on “The Way Home”

  1. Thank you Ellen. Your words brought me right back to home. As I sit at my computer Chicago, I feel I walked those memory steps with you today.

  2. Just beaitiful Ellen!!! I totally relate to every word you wrote as wonderful memories, images and smells slowly came back to me. I believe home is where the heart is and where your loved ones are… For me there’s many homes some of these I haven’t even lived in but have visited because my loved ones live there. My parents, brother, sister and I all live in different continents, we each live very different lives and are surrounded by different cultures, speak different languages but no matter the distance and the differences we are always connected.

  3. Wow. What a well-written piece. Gave me goosebumps. I went to ISSH too. Im a third culture kid too. I felt every word. Thank you. ♡

  4. And what a great job you are doing, Ellen, of helping countless others who share a similar story to find their own way back home as well. Great article. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. I left Tokyo at 13 also. But I did not return to my birth country, I was born in Japan. Nishimachi was my community. Now 29 years later I still struggle with being an American in America. Your piece struck such a strong cord. Thank you for sharing. I am finally going home in 3 months. Just bought the plane tix!

  6. I instantly recognized a ‘friend’ while reading this. My husband and I are both military Brats and our children are, as well. While reading this I thought mostly of our oldest son and the difficulties he encountered while adjusting to life ‘at home’. We spent 7 consecutive years of his childhood overseas, enjoying the culture and lifestyle that was similar yet very different to Americans. We loved our time in Den Haag and south, in the Limburg province. We’ve been back for 22 years now and sometimes it still feels more like home than our birth country.

  7. This essay brings back such familiar issues and fears, it’s not even funny. When you’ve been raised in an environment where you are safe, and the people around you are all polite, pleasant, and positive, It is truly terrifying when you are thrown into a kid culture that is 180° different . I was born in Japan and lived there for the first eight years of my life. I also returned for my sophomore year of high school, but this was in the 50s and 60s, so Tokyo was even more nurturing and safe . I admire that you’ve chosen a career that helps smooth the rough edges for ex-pats and their families. Bravo!

  8. Thank you for writing how I feel. I was born in the states raise on Guam then moved back at 25. Even though I am 58 I still believe I am from Guam. It is my home

  9. Your story resonated so comfortingly with me, too. I left ISSH in Tokyo just before I turned 14. i cried everyday for the first month of my freshman year in American high school, longing painfully to go back “home”. What a beautiful youth we were able to celebrate in Japan! My kids will soon be able to hold the Third Culture Kid title, as we will be transferred to a different continent, shortly. I’ll make it my joy to teach them to embrace their very special identity throughout life!

    Much love and gratitude,
    ISSH student 1975 – 1981

  10. Thank you Ellen for expressing my of my feelings and bringing back memories of similar experiences & walking home from ISSH past Azabu supermarket to our house near the French embassy. I was born & spent 18 years in Tokyo and am comforted in sharing my experiences with other third culture kids. Just curious when you left Japan?

    1. Thank you! I left Japan in 1989. It feels like a lifetime ago but I still carry Japan in my heart.

  11. Ellen

    I really enjoyed reading your post. When I went to college at a big state school in Massachusetts from a tiny high school in Chile, I felt like the 13 year old me that left New York for Santiago – frightened and alone.. In college, I never truly found my community. I wish Sea Change Mentoring was around at that time. I always felt that I settled on a career path that didn’t connect to my past and a large part of who I am. It is comforting to know that your organization can make a difference in the lives of other third culture kids.

  12. Your essay reminded me of walking home from school when I lived in Yokohama. One time I was almost run over by a small motorcycle on a small back street when the driver and I couldn’t figure out which way the other was going. Another time my foot was run over by a 3 wheel truck when I was standing on a corner waiting for the light to turn green in Tokyo. Walking and exploring Japanese streets was such a wonderful and stimulating experience that I still miss today. When I’ve visited other foreign countries with small streets I feel so comfortable – I think it gives me a sense of going home when I walk those streets, something I have never experienced in the USA. I too had an adjustment when we moved back to the states since we didn’t have as much freedom, because we had to depend on our mother to drive us around. We were lucky, our mother was good about driving us places, something many of my friends mothers wouldn’t do even though they’d never lived anywhere else. I still long for the days of going out the front door to walk to a local store or jump on a bus or train. Often it’s the small things that we miss the most, and are the things not thought of as a loss that later become the things we miss the most.

  13. I had a Japanese language teacher who was born in North Carolina to missionary parents but raised in Japan. She shared with us some of her re-entry experiences upon her family’s return to the States. When her American schoolmates asked her if she knew kara-tea she didn’t understand what they were saying until they mimicked some martial arts move. “Oh! You mean karate!”

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