Monday, October 7, 2013

When did I stop writing?

It’s October 2013, marking the three month anniversary of my shattered sense of belonging. Yes, I am exaggerating. And yes, I may even continue to do so throughout this post.

Isn’t life funny. And it knows it too. Flip the pages back six years from now and I was in exactly the same situation, just on the other side of the world. Having just moved from Denver to my parents’ hometown, Kabul, Afghanistan you can imagine the kind of culture shock I was experiencing. Torn from a life where everything comes easy and tossed into the world of a very naked kind of every day struggle is a recipe for experiencing shock. Except….I wasn’t….

Indeed I never really understood what culture shock meant; I read the definitions, the examples, studied the expats around me who were apparently “going through it”. I knew all the symptoms, but hadn’t caught the pox.

Now, I get it. Flip the pages forward. High school graduation from the International School of Kabul gave way to a flight back to Denver, where I could study college in the comfort of a town I should be familiar with (since I was born and raised here before the big Afghanistan move) and the support of extended family we had left behind. All that sounds fine and dandy and it sounded fine and dandy all the months leading up to the flight out of Kabul, and it sounded fine and dandy on the flight, and it sounded fine and dandy when I touched down in Denver six years after I’d lived there. Well let me tell you something.

SHOCK. LITERAL SHOCK is what they mean by “culture shock”. It’s like sitting through an icy cold blast of air pummeling straight into your face, giving you just enough breathing time to know you’re alive but not enough to be anywhere near comfortable. Who knew America was this scary? I thought I knew this place, but uh guess what? No. Now I’m in that strange place where I neither belong to Afghanistan nor to America. Now I’M one of those people that no one understands. Every day at college makes me feel  like one of those odd items found around the house that can’t be categorized and are eternally doomed to the “miscellaneous” drawer so people feel as if they’ve accomplished understanding it, when in reality they have no clue what the hell it is and are too afraid to ask.

One kid tried talking to me a few weeks into school, remarking on the new tattoo I have; the word “nomad” in Persian script. I had my shoulder adorned with it, sometimes wondering if it’s less like a defining characteristic and more like the brands you see on cattle.

Nevertheless, he boldly approached me, unhindered by the waves of “introvert” I was trying to radiate, asking me what my tattoo said. I mumbled something about nomad, and then realizing that it wasn’t in English, I added that it was in Persian script. And then I realized he wouldn’t understand why I would have Persian script on my body, and I decided to blurt out that I was Afghan, as if that would suddenly tie up all the loose strings for him. I added a feeble, “So yeah….” After which I decided to leave it at that and walk away awkwardly. If you have to look crazy, you might as well look full crazy. I gave him a piece of my life he neither asked for, nor knew what to do with, so I just left it there with him and he, mostly likely, left it out in that empty hallway.

That’s America for you. I was trying to describe to my father what’s missing from life here in Denver that I had in Kabul. All I could think is….I can’t find the color. I can’t find the color. What does that even mean? Either I’m psycho, or colorblind because Kabul is hardly the place anyone would describe as “colorful”. And yet I stand by the statement. Something very genuine and true is missing from the West. Some other Kabul friends and I sat down to lunch at an Afghan restaurant in Denver, as if suddenly the kabobs would be authentic and the bread wouldn’t be knock-off Indian naan and the tea would taste of musty, green tea gossip like it used to. We tried to pinpoint this color that was missing. It was a brown sense of community. I mean of course, as the world is well aware, we are a people of conflict. There are divisions between tribes, gender, even the different branches of Islam. But in times of need…when the chips are down, we become one. Every single person is a part of a living, breathing entity. A purpose higher than our little lives. Not divine, but rather very, very human. Vulnerable. Mortal. The country is like a thick-skinned mother, bruised and battered from victorious fights as well as those she has lost, wearing her scars proudly as if they were both a lesson to others, and a lesson to herself. She stands in the relentless wind, in the middle of the Hindu Kush, feet planted firmly upon the ground, chin set high, breathing steadily and assuring her children that the dawn is just over the horizon. That is what we are a part of. Were a part of….

So where does that leave me now. Stranded in a land where fashion is more important than compassion, money above matter, social rank more than social ties? The looming towers of commercial goods, so many choices that the choosing is no longer fun, a place where every day is a fight to step over someone else’s accomplishments, it seems the goal never reaches beyond the edges of the wallet.

And yet…

That kid who asked me about my tattoo addressed me by my name. In a class of 30 students, he still managed to remember that (the agenda behind that aside) it was an attempt to show me he thought I was important enough to remember. And me? I still don’t know his name. I didn’t even ask. I was so consumed by the “tragedy” of my own life that I couldn’t open my narrow mindset and learn to let America get to know me. Who’s missing “the color” now, Sabrina. Maybe in the end all our problems boil down to ourselves. It’s easier to sit back and judge than it is to point the finger the other way.

All I know is that I keep hearing that it will get better. And I hear that I’m not the only one. And I hear that others have it worse. I acknowledge all the advice, but it all kind of slips out of the place that should retain important information. That place is still drowning in memories. How do we reach in and dump out a piece of our heart to make room to embrace new memories? Does the soul have a set capacity from which we can’t exceed, are we obliged to empty out pieces of our past to make space for the future? Or do our souls expand to take in as much of life and the world as we choose to carry.

Time will tell.

A favorite singer writes, “I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart.” Indeed, all of us do. All of us kids thrown around the world on an adult’s whim. Here’s to the ones who have it worse than I do for they are plenty.
Here’s to the kids who don’t have the gift of family like I do to guide them through this journey. A second for my classmate who cries herself to sleep two states over. A minute for my friend on the East coast who won’t be seeing her family for months to come. An hour for my friend near the South who tells me, “Let’s all go back” in a sad voice I don’t recognize on him. A decade for my girl whose life has been packed into a suitcase for the millionth time, looking dejectedly into my eyes and saying that she thought she’d eventually be numb to the goodbyes.

Here’s to us all and our thick skins and our elastic hearts. Three months in, we haven’t snapped yet.


  1. thanks Sabrina, another thing I need to distract me from my midterms

    1. Keep writing...your posts are genuine and there are many who need to hear more stories like what you have shared. Thanks for putting your thoughts and feelings out there.

  2. "No No Boys" that's what they called them because they were neither Asian nor American. Yet, they were who they were and proud to be like nomads always searching the vast land of life, always exploring the infinite, trying to search for an identity. After a long struggle of soul searching they realized that their identity was not something static but constantly evolving wherever they camped. Along the way it was the constant exploration of new horizons, new opportunities, and new relationships that defined their identity. Life is beautiful when you see the vast horizons from above. (dad)

  3. Stunning, Sabrina. Beautifully expressed . . . YOU are beautiful! Miss you, friend.

  4. Hi Sabrina, thanks for sharing your story! It's so true it all is a real shock. I grew up in Africa and moved from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands (my passport country) to study. It was a great shock, not only was the weather cold I found the people "cold". I'm glad to read you have found an Afghan restaurant in Denver, but beware the food and the smells can make the ache and homesickness for Kabul worse....
    Remember you are the "hidden immigrant", you may look American but you feel quite different and for sure you think differently. If you have time do hop over and have a read on my blog. greetings Janneke (TCK out of Africa).

    1. Thanks so much for the read and I'm glad that you can relate to my situation. I will for sure check out your blog and thanks again for sharing with me. :)

    2. Thanks so much for the read and I'm glad that you can relate to my situation. I will for sure check out your blog and thanks again for sharing with me. :)

    3. Thanks so much for the read and I'm glad that you can relate to my situation. I will for sure check out your blog and thanks again for sharing with me. :)

  5. I grew up between Papua New Guinea and Montana, back and forth every couple of years. It's been eight years, now, since I left PNG last, and sometimes this horrid ache still comes roaring past. I have a tattoo comprised of parts of the PNG flag (despite being born there, I can't have dualc itizenship) on my back, and getting comments on it is always a terrible moment of indecision as to how to respond. Pride, anger, loneliness, frustration, not being able to explain, not knowing how to explain, dreading the "Oh that's such a cool thing" when all you do is hurt... oh, dear one, it will get easier. Practiced. You'll have ways to manage the hurt, you find ways to embrace the positive things around you, loving things for what they are and what they are not, letting your new environment change you in good ways instead of the loss of your old environment change you for the worse... This is a journey, this feeling now is not the end result! <3
    You'll be in my thoughts!

  6. Dear Sabrina,
    I don't know why you did stop writing. Keep writing. You express yourself beautifully. I am a writer myself as well as one who grew up across continents. It has been ten years now since I left my last countries of residence and came here for college. Unlike you, I had never lived here until that point, but I think that may be where our differences end.
    I know for myself, I kept many blogs over the last ten years. One was even the good old days of Xanga. My sisters and I poured our thoughts and questions out into this abyss and found echos coming back to us from the world, people saying we are not alone, people sharing their stories, too. Writing as therapy. I hope you come back to it; it helps me process so many things--realise, even, just what all I have been thinking.
    I firmly believe that you can make space for all of the places. For years I struggled thinking I had to choose one. I fought adjusting for fear it meant letting go of the other. I strove so hard to find my place and maintain my identity and figure out what that was or meant or should mean. Questions few others here, around us in college, ask themselves. They flit around joining clubs and doing their thing and missing talking to their parents or seeing them "last weekend" and you are trying to figure out what to do with the taste of salt at the back of your tongue and your hunger for wind that smells like curryspice and red earth (or grey!). For people who have a different dimension. You have a different dimension. It is alright.
    I think for each of us it is a path we have to wander to find our own answers, but for myself, the answer was not to choose a place from which to be after all but to think of myself as a great tree with roots delving into the soil of all the places I have lived and loved and will love and live in time to come. They are all a part of me in seen and unseen beautiful remarkable unique ways and cannot be sorted out or cut off for the grief of seeming loss and present separation. We carry our worlds within us and so they are not as lost to us as they feel in the beginning, when we are gone from their presence and cannot find the colours we seek.
    Feel free to visit me on my blog, too. I'd love to keep in touch. :)

  7. My name is Ronan Collver I am a graduate student under the direction of Eric Van Duzer at Humboldt State University. If you know of anyone besides yoruself that would be wiling to assist with my research, can you please pass this along as well?

    The purpose of this study is to describe the cultural disconnect Third Culture Kids experience upon their return to the United States and evaluate best practices for educators who have these students in class.

    A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009, p.13).

    I would appreciate a few minutes of your time to complete the following survey. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.


    TCK Survey:

    Educators of TCK:

    Parents of TCK:

    Ronan Collver