Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which she has taken all over the country. In fact, she turned up as the convocation speaker at Carleton College on October 31st, where my niece, now a Carleton freshman, had the pleasure of watching her perform some excerpts!
Welcome back, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Nina Sichel, co-editor of the seminal TCK / global-nomad anthology Unrooted Childhoods, which includes essays by several famous TCK writers such as:
- Pico Iyer: “I fold up my self and carry it round with me as if it were an overnight case”;
- Isabel Allende (she fled her homeland for political survival); and
- Military brat Pat Conroy: “Each year I began my life all over again . . . and I think it damaged me.”
In addition, she co-edited the TCK / global-nomad anthology Writing Out of Limbo—to which I contributed. Thank you, Nina, for the hard work you did on my first published essay!
Nina grew up in Venezuela and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; she is a writer, editor, and leader of memoir-writing workshops in Virginia.
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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Nina. I understand that you grew up in a multicultural household as a TCK in Caracas—the daughter of an American mom and a German-Jewish dad. With Thanksgiving around the corner, my thoughts are turning to the upcoming holidays. Did any particular holiday traditions or celebrations take precedence over others in your household as you were growing up?
My father had to leave Germany when he was 11 and grew up in Uruguay. He seldom spoke about his childhood. He came to the U.S. for college, and, after marrying my mother, lived in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before settling in Venezuela. After all of those moves, his identity was not at all tied to nationality, and, like so many other choices in his life, citizenship was a matter of practicality. So national holidays were completely unimportant.
What about your mother?
My mother was a nostalgic American—more so when she was in Venezuela than when she was anywhere else. But she was an expat, and U.S. national holidays were not celebrated in that country. My parents’ friends were multinationals—our social circle was not defined by nationality. And, even though my father’s sister and mother, Uruguayan citizens by then, lived in Caracas, close by, we were secular Jews, only going to synagogue on the High Holidays and mostly not even then. We had an abbreviated seder, we lit candles at Chanukah. That Jewish identity, more ethnic, perhaps, than religious, was important to my parents. Yet we had very little religious training. I think things were assumed more than instructed… I remember going to summer camp in the States with Jewish girls from Long Island—and feeling I had absolutely nothing in common with them.
Did you celebrate other holidays?
We had a Christmas tree with lots of presents and sang carols. Santa Claus came till we were too old for him, but there were still gifts afterwards. We dressed up for carnaval, and the Easter bunny came to visit us. Hmmm… I’ve given you a long answer to what should be a simple question—but then, some things are not so simple. Like composite identities.
I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela…
Which brings us to your wonderful essay, “Outsider,” which appears in Writing Out of Limbo. You mention in that piece that there was a lot of turnover among your friends at your international schools. Can you tell us a little more about what that was like?
I never knew, from one school year to the next, which of my classmates would actually be back. I don’t remember ever talking about it; this was normal, nothing remarkable. I remember a few friends who left with advance notice, and I tried to keep in touch with them—pen pals during a time when letters would take one or two weeks to reach their destinations. Those friendships faded over time. Quite a few friends were sent away to boarding school once they reached high school; sometimes they’d be back for summer vacations, but by then I’d usually be in the States. There were also, of course, quite a few children whose parents would stay in Venezuela indefinitely, till retirement and after. And then there were the kids who rotated in and out every couple of years, many of whom were Americans. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the ones who stayed as long-term residents were from the ones who rotated in and out. And how difficult it is to make general statements about any of this—there are layers and layers of outsiderness, not just one sort of expat or TCK identity.
Have you still got friends from that period?
I’ve kept strong ties to some friends from my youth, and to me this is very special—they are more like family than friends now. I’ve learned to invest deeply in relationships I hope will last, perhaps because the chances are so fleeting. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be able to contact some people from my past via the Internet, and rekindle friendships from long ago, and learn how TCK life has affected them, their choices, their lives.
Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us…
After an entire adulthood in the USA, tell us what you still miss about Venezuela. I’m also curious to know how many of those things can still be found there, and how many are connected to memories of family and/or friends who are no longer there?
Though I have lived my adulthood in the U.S., my parents remained in Venezuela, and I went back often to visit until they passed away. The place changed—all places do—and I also changed. My memories now are interwoven with nostalgia for what was or might have been. But there are also tangible things. Venezuela is a beautiful country, and there are things about nature I miss. I miss smells—that thick Caribbean salt air, the tangy grass. I miss tropical light, and will miss it more and more now that we’re approaching winter here.
Nowadays, do you feel at home in the United States?
I do feel “at home” in the States in general; just not rooted in any particular place. As you know from my essays, I’ve lived in several places. I lived in a small town in upstate New York, then Manhattan; I lived in the Deep South two different times; in rural Michigan; in West Palm Beach and then urban Miami; and now I live outside Washington, DC. In the smaller towns, what I missed was diversity—of language, ethnicity, experience, culture. I had to seek it out in the people I befriended and the kind of work I chose to do. But even in the cities, I felt outside the mainstream. Remember, coming to the States was not coming home for me; it was immersion in a different culture.
In Unrooted Childhoods, your co-editor, Faith Eidse, writes about her yearning “for thick gumbo-limbo roots.” Do you sometimes wish your roots were deeper in this country?
I remember being fascinated by a friend’s roots in the Deep South that went back many generations. As my family does not have that history, it was something new and rather foreign to me, an oddity. But it was not something I wanted, as it felt too confining, to be defined by your predecessors that way.
Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or are you the kind who prefers to have a home base and travel only for pleasure?
Yes yes yes. All of the above. o I have to choose?
You mentioned longing to find other people with the experience of having lived overseas. Have you found that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs in creative fields—or does it really depend on the individual and what s/he evokes in you, whether it’s a resonance that’s artistic or political or personality-related or life-experience related, etc.?
I tend to fall in love with people, with aspects of people, and am constantly surprised that all my friends don’t automatically feel the same about each other as I feel about each of them! So, yes, I think it’s about that resonance that you mentioned, but it’s a different resonance in each person, a different connection I respond to. In any case, I never knew about TCKs or ATCKs until I began to work on Unrooted Childhoods.
I want to choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here…
Like other ACTKs including myself, you were drawn to the craft of writing as a means of self-expression. Is there a particular piece that you think expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? And where can we read it?
I’m not going to choose among my babies, but anyone who is interested can read my essays in Unrooted Childhoods and Writing Out of Limbo. I also wrote much of the introductory material in both books. There was an essay of mine published recently in Brain, Child Magazine, titled “Leaving,” which many of the readers of this column will surely respond to. And I’ve been posting short blogs on the Children’s Mental Health Network website, to inform readers about issues concerning TCKs.
We both lead workshops for people who want to write about their own lives. Tell us what got you started as a memoir workshop leader.
I’ve always felt torn between creative expression and nurturing others—as though I had to choose, as though the work I’d always done (teaching, counseling, raising children) wasn’t already a combination of the two. When I moved to the Washington, DC area, I developed the memoir and other writing programs I currently offer and am always expanding the menu of choices. The workshops are theme-based, and range in topic from creative change and transformation to intercultural exchange to turning points to writing about place to parenting to… I had a program that I developed once specifically for au pairs, which I’d like to offer again at some point. I keep the workshops small, intimate, supportive. We do not engage in critiquing—most of my writers are beginners in memoir, and need to both give and receive positive feedback to grow into the writers they are becoming. I feel honored by their trust, in bearing witness to their journeys.
It’s wonderful that you enjoy helping others make the most of this genre. Of course a good example of that is Unrooted Childhoods, which is a book of memoirs by people who grew up in multiple countries.
Memoir is a wonderful genre, open to many forms, and helping writers find their voices, their unique expression, their subject, is a joy for me. There are strands in life that one thinks of as separate, and I have figured out a way to braid them together. There is so much self-discovery in the process—I can’t tell you how many times students have told me, “I had no intention of writing about that. And I’m so glad I did.”
Where can people find those workshops?
My regular memoir-writing workshops are offered through Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, outside Washington, DC. I’ve offered other types of reflective writing programs in various community and art centers in the area, and am open to offers elsewhere. I’m happy to share more detailed information upon request.
Thank you, Nina, for sharing the story of your creative life with readers at the Displaced Nation. So, any questions or comments for Nina? Be sure to leave them in the comments!
*All subheds are quotes from Nina’s essay for Brain, Child Magazine, “Leaving” (April 2014).
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