The Bittersweet of Travelling as an Adult TCK

Malik Dieleman
May 09 2023

When I was 17, I returned to Canada and attended ReBoot, a re-entry retreat for Missionaries’ Kids (MKs). One lesson that stuck with me from that retreat is learning that our processes of transition and grief are not linear. Rather than a smooth line from point A to point B, our journeys of growth are overlapping squiggles that form what looks to be a messy plate of spaghetti. Though I am coming onto 7 years of being back in Canada, I still experience moments of being profoundly unsettled, and I am reminded that I am still amidst the process of transition and grief. Many of these moments occur when I travel, where I am given the opportunity to once again be in a space of limbo.

Dwelling in the in-between presents both comforts and challenges for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). On one hand, the familiarity we have with these spaces can be quite comforting. Sitting at an airport gate and overhearing unfamiliar languages, the international jumble starts to feel like somewhere I belong. In this place, I am not expected to fit into any cultural archetype. Yet on the other hand, as I look down at the CANADA on my passport, I wonder if it feels right yet. There’s a discomfort in not feeling truly like the citizen of any one country.

Image by Malik Dieleman

Growing up, I was so accustomed to my parents’ ministry determining what continent I would find myself in on any given month. As a big boy now, who must make his own decisions, I’m finding my relationship to travel to be evolving. This freedom to choose when and where I’m travelling has taken some getting used to.

Over the last year, I took more flights than I ever have within a single year. I’ve had more time to be in these liminal spaces than ever before. This has invited me to reflect more deeply on why I am where I am in the world, and how that continues to shape my identity. In these spaces I momentarily re-enter into the journey of transition and grief.

Image by Malik Dieleman

Never Nowhere

Last month, I had the privilege of taking a trip to visit some relatives living in San José, Costa Rica. Throughout my time there, I was reminded of countries I use to call home. I discovered that there are many things I had no idea I was missing so much while in Canada. Delicious fruit, sandy roads, warm weather, bright flowers, architectural designs, distinct cultural values … ­so many things took me back to childhood memories. I found myself seeing France and Senegal in the sights, sounds, and smells. And while my ethnicity and beginner-level language skills made me stick out as an obvious foreigner – these familiarities kept me from feeling quite like a tourist exploring an exotic land.

During one visit to a national park, there were loads of tourists following local guides who pointed out wildlife. Something about seeing these large numbers of tourists put me off – I so desperately did not want to be associated with them. The label of tourist for me reeks of cultural faux-pas, classism (sometimes arguably outright racism), and the need to overspend to enjoy oneself. Being a travelling MK/TCK can isolate you even from other travellers. If you belong nowhere and everywhere, how can you truly ever be a tourist?

Returning to Canada after this Costa Rica trip hit different. As the plane took off, tears welled up in my eyes. And no, I wasn’t emotional about returning to Canadian weather in February (although this certainly didn’t help). I was overwhelmed by the mixture of emotions that arose at once - the joys of having experienced so much new beauty and old familiarity, and the sadness of returning to a place where neither of those exist quite the same.

Image by Malik Dieleman

The past 6+ years in Canada have been the longest I’ve resided in one place at a time. I have established slow-growing roots and relationships that are now growing deeper and stronger each day. I’ve even started to have those dreaded thoughts that this may be the place I stay forever. But taking a trip like this one and stepping away from my day-to-day life, I realize there are still things that keep me from feeling like I’m quite at home here. I realize there are still parts of me that remain across an ocean. Perhaps there are still aspects of my childhood transitions that require some grieving.

Some Advice for the Travelling TCK

While travelling can bring things to the surface like memories of growing up years, it can also be a form of escapism. Travelling as a TCK can unintentionally be an unhealthy way to temporarily run away from whatever troubles we are facing. It can be tempting to blame our problems on the place we’re in. And travelling does scratch the itch to just ‘get away’. But, if there’s something I’ve learned about the many trips I took last year, it’s that troubles have no borders. We can say the grass is greener all we like, but every place has its weeds. It is possible to continue loving all the places you’ve called home.

Although it can be tempting to ignore our emotions, don’t be afraid to lean into them for a time. When you’re in those times of travel, of limbo, make time to process what feelings come up. Perhaps journaling or creating an art piece would help. For me, taking photos throughout my travels helps me take in my surroundings and capture some of the things I’m feeling.

When you’re back at home, it’s worth it to pay the extra money to get snacks from that international food store. It’s worth the time to keep reading and practicing using your second or third language. It’s worth the effort to stay up to date with the news from other parts of the world. Taking hold of the things you still can from your past homes doesn’t mean you aren’t transitioning well. In fact, the more you can make the routines of your life reflect your blended identity, the greater your transition will be, and the more authentic you will be to yourself.

Image by Malik Dieleman

For the TCK, there may never be a place in the world that feels just right. For me, this keeps me focused on the promised Kingdom, where I will one day experience a belonging like no other. In unity with my Creator, I will finally be at home. Until then, I focus on the land where I now stand and the glimpse of the road ahead.

Malik Dieleman is TCK (Third Culture Kid) who grew up in Marseille, France; London, Ontario; and Dakar, Senegal. Now he lives in Toronto! Malik first attended ReBoot back in 2016, when he was introduced to MORE Network, and has since been involved in ReBoot as a staff member. Malik works as the Digital Content Designer for MORE Network. Malik is an artist at heart and studied Photography at OCAD University. Outside of his freelance work, he loves cooking, playing volleyball, and watching reality TV.






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