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Prioritizing Family While Living Abroad

Quick link: Fight for Your Family

At A Life Overseas I wrote about putting your family first while living abroad, something you will have to be intentional, and sometimes aggressive, about. Do it.

Humanitarian, governmental, and religious organizations sending people abroad don’t always have the best interest of their internationally-located staff in mind. They think they do. They hope they do. Even (I think) many of them try to. But they are organizations, based back in the United States. They are staffed by people who have no idea of on-the-ground realities or of the nuance of daily life in a specific location. They think about broad vision, finances, promoting their brand, infrastructure, leadership categories, bureaucracy. There are policies in place, sometimes for decades, and no one can remember why they exist but they continue to be followed without criticism.

This can lead to decisions being delivered down from on high, or from back ‘home’, or from some western place, that make little sense to the person working on the ground. Some questionable decision include things like…

Click here to read the rest of Fight for Your Family

How Do I Pronounce Pieh?

My maiden name is Rachel Pieh.

I write as Rachel Pieh Jones.

Lots of people ask me how to pronounce Pieh.

For math geeks: think 3.14

For bakers: think apple

In other words, pi. Or pie.

Not Pee-eh

Not Peach

Not Pitch

Pi. Pie. Pieh.

Which means…today is my family day!

So nice of the world to celebrate us every year on 3.14, ie March 14, ie, International Pi(eh) Day.

Happy Pi(eh) Day and voila, that’s how to pronounce my name. And here’s my people.

A Box of Grace

Remember back in October when I went to New York for the premiere of Finding Strong?

The week was a whirlwind. I visited the satellite offices of Runner’s World, picked up a generous donation for the team from Saucony, watched Captain Phillips in an actual movie theater, ran the 5k through Central Park, used the Port-a-Potty right next to Shalane Flannagan. I shopped for something decent to wear, felt completely overwhelmed by culture shock on Halloween in Times Square (um, naked guitar-playing cowgirl and a girl dressed up as a penis aren’t things I see often in Djibouti), went to a Runner’s World/Saucony party, drank buckets of coffee, and reveled in the leaves changing color. I met with my agent. I went to Target. I acted like a tourist. And of course, I watched the movie.

It was an emotional week filled the things I love. My collegues from Djibouti, writing, running, travel, good food. But did I ever tell you all of my siblings were there?

There are four of us, I’m the second. My younger sister lives in Oregon and had work meetings in Boston that week and she planned to take the bus to New York City so we could catch seventeen hours together. When our older sister, who lives in North Carolina, heard we would both be in New York, she booked a ticket for herself and her newly adopted baby for the weekend. When our brother, the youngest, heard we would all three be together, he booked a ticket from Minneapolis.

pieh family1

Here comes my big confession.

At first, I didn’t want this. I didn’t want all my siblings in New York. I was there for work, sort of. I had to think about my book proposal, connecting with people I admired, networking on behalf of the team, simply trying to stay awake. And all the tickets were booked in a whirlwind, without time to talk about hotels or schedules or plans, everyone flying or busing to a different location on a different day.

My family is not about quiet or private or small. We talk fast, have strong opinions while always reserving the right to change them, laugh loud, and love deep. I knew that and I knew it would be such a short trip my brain might explode.

All of them were at the movie premiere. The movie was absolutely stunning. Next there was a chance to look at, and purchase, photos Brian Vernor had taken during the filming process.

My siblings listened to endless stories about the girls in the pictures. They met the two women who had come with from Djibouti, Lorraine and Cintia. My older sister asked which photo I liked best and I pointed at one Brian had labeled “Grace.”

It was a close-up shot of Nadia at her house. She wore a blue headscarf and stood in front of a sky blue wall the same shade as the scarf. She is half-smiling and beads of sweat are gathered on her forehead. A frayed thread from her scarf dangles down at cheek level. She stares straight at the camera. The photo is so clear it seems 3D, textured, as though I could reach out and brush the sweat, tuck the thread in.

I pointed at Nadia’s photo because of the title. Brian interviewed Nadia, and her mother, through translation, but he didn’t know her story, not deeply and not what happened after he left last summer. He didn’t know about her history, her family, her dreams. But I did. There had been such heights and such depths in our relationship with Nadia, there were tears and there was anger and there was delight. And it was all “Grace.”

My older sister and brother returned to the hotel while my younger sister and I finished talking  and then walked back on a chilly New York evening, enjoying being outside, enjoying the remaining few hours before she had to catch the bus back to Boston.

At the hotel I headed for the elevators, completely exhausted, but she saw the others sitting in big, cushy chairs near the front windows. A square box sat on the table between them.

“Oh good,” I said. “They got a pizza. I’m so hungry.”

We sat down and my brother slid the box toward me.

“Are you guys hungry, too?” I asked.

“Open it,” my older sister said.

I lifted off the top cover and inside there was no pizza.

There was Grace. Nadia, staring straight at me out of the box, out of her blue scarf and blue wall. They had bought the photo for me.


I started crying, the kind of crying where you can’t talk and you can’t explain why and the moment is so rich, so full, so want-to-remember-this-forever that the only response is tears.

The three of them sat in their chairs and watched me cry and listened as I shared why this picture meant so much. I blubbered some more and eventually we moved to other topics but while we laughed and talked about important, life-changing things, Nadia’s picture stayed in the middle of the table.

I was so wrong to think it would be too much to have a running, writing, and family weekend in New York. I had been afraid I would explode, burst at the seams, but I hadn’t considered how love keeps a person together. I hadn’t thought about how my siblings would watch the movie and see it as people who loved someone who loved the girls in it with everything in me, and that this would make them love the girls, too.

I hadn’t thought about how beautiful it is to look in an elevator mirror and see four noses that belong in the same family or about how musical it is when we laugh together at something that isn’t funny to anyone but us. I hadn’t thought about how profoundly I miss the sense of belonging, of knowing beyond a doubt that I fit here, with these people or about how I feel that with my siblings, down to the corest core of my being.

We walk alike, Cintia said so later. We gesture alike. We all knew we had to stop at the Pie restaurant on the corner and take a photo for our dad because that’s what he would do and would bombard us with photos in our inboxes so big it would take minutes to download them. I had been selfish and wrapped up so tightly in loneliness that I couldn’t even see how badly I needed to be loved the way my siblings loved me that weekend.

I’ve gotten too used to living in isolation from people who love me like this, gotten too used to living away from people I love like this. Oh, people in Djibouti love me and I love them, but not with blood or genes.

I don’t know that I ever felt so loved by my family, or so broken about the challenges our runners face, or so held together as I did when I opened the box of Grace. I’m crying right now, I have to lean back so the tears don’t drip onto the computer. That’s not the kind of love that makes a person explode. It is the kind of love that holds a person together when all around things explode.

Nadia now sits on the corner of my desk, watching me write about her, about the team. Every time I look up from the computer, her eyes meet mine and I am embraced by grace.

*image courtesy of Soul Brother

What To Do With 15 Things I Want to Tell My TCKs, Follow-up and Links

I never expected the post 15 Things I Want to Tell My Third Culture Kids to explode like it did. I almost didn’t publish it.

So many emails and tweets and comments and Facebook conversations about how it encouraged you and you know what? All those tear-stained words have created something powerful. There is now, in the comment stream and in my inbox, an almost unbelievable testimony to the challenges and the joys of being or loving a TCK.

Thanks to this post, I (we) now have over 170 comments and dozens of emails that remind me I am not alone. That remind me of how incredible TCKs, and the people who love them, are. These comments are priceless. I have already returned to them, to draw encouragement and to gain perspective, and I expect I will continue to read them over the years.


As a follow-up to the post that blew up this blog, here are some ideas for what you can do with 15 Things. Many of these are ideas you sparked.

  1. Read the list out loud to your TCKs.
  2. Write your own, specific to your kids and read that one.
  3. If you aren’t a wordy-person, make a list in photos and frame it or put it in a Shutterfly book.
  4. Give the list to whomever it is that you want to understand you better: spouses, roommates, teachers, a support group, friends.
  5. If you are a TCK, write a list for your parents.
  6. Use it as a prayer list for the TCKs you know and love.
  7. Use it as a conversation-starter, to move things beyond the surface to deep waters.
  8. Share it with fellow TCKs or fellow parents and talk about your experiences, your fears, your joys.
  9. Use it to launch a 15-things styled list for a different category of person. Perhaps your homeschooled kids or your refugee friends. Something to bless and encourage and demonstrate with-ness, togetherness.
  10. Keep writing to me or on your own about your stories, I’m still working on this too and have so much to learn from your wisdom.

Thank you for sharing your hearts and your tears and your laughter, for saying that it isn’t easy and for saying that you wouldn’t change it, for holding your experiences and your children with tender faith, and for encouraging me and other readers. On the “I don’t think I’ll survive this” days and the “We must be crazy” days, I will remember your words.

Here are some links people have shared (disclaimer: a link does not mean endorsement of entire sites):

Life as a TCK, 20 Years Later

What I Wish My Mother Had Told Her Homeschool Kids

15 Things I Want to Tell My Third Culture Parents

Homeschooling and the Parent/Child Socialization Divide

A YouTube video about being a TCK in rural what-was-then Zaire (in French with English subtitles)

The Things I Want to Tell My Kids

If the article inspired you to write something and I haven’t posted it here but you’d like to share it, would you mind posting the links in the comments so others can find them?

Survival Tips for When Dad Travels

If dad is the one with the job that turned your family into expatriates, he often needs to travel a lot. Same for moms holding the job. And it falls upon the other parent to single parent, now without the back-up of, quite possibly, the only other person in the vicinity who speaks your language or eats your food or lets you cry.

In our family, unless Tom is gone more than two weeks, life just sort of continues limping along and I don’t notice that I miss him until he comes back (more on that below). But if I browse social media sites long enough, I’ll stumble on posts by moms while dad is traveling and they would have me believe I should be much more exhausted, much more desperate, that I should have a calendar marking down the days with a pamper-me date in permanent marker the day after his return, and that I should tremble with fear about all the possible things that could go wrong while he is away.

I have no such calendar and no such date.

Maybe I’ve gotten used to it? Maybe I can’t be fearful the entire time, every time? Unless he calls from the plane just before takeoff and says the wings are on fire (true story), I usually don’t worry.

Here are some tips based on how we roll when dad travels.

Meals don’t need to be real food. Macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly or pancakes or the same thing three days in a row for lunch. Popcorn and apple slices for dinner. Or cereal, with or without milk.

Exercise becomes something worth fighting for. Already important to me, when Tom is gone, I need the workout even more. I enlist help – a neighbor to watch Lucy for an hour. Or I order myself to believe that it isn’t too hot to go after she is already at school and the sun is screaming. Or I bring out the Insanity DVDs and scare our house helper.

Stay up late. I’m a morning person but sometimes staying up late feels delicious so, since I won’t be running before sunrise, I bask in an extra hour of reading before bed.

Hog all the pillows. This makes the basking during my extra hour of reading even more enjoyable.

Forget how to dress. I wouldn’t say that I dress up for Tom but somehow when he is gone I go into sweatpants mode (not real sweatpants mind you, did you forget where we live?) and suddenly, I find myself at the grocery store in a ratty University of Minnesota t-shirt (go gophers!) and stained army-green pants. The same thing I wore the day before. And slept in.

Listen to music. Loud. Or, to borrow a tip from Laura Parker, watch an entire season of a television show your spouse would despise. The only way I can handle watching TV is if I’m working or exercising at the same time, so this doesn’t work for me, but I understand the sentiment. Basically, find a way to check out for a little while each day or to enjoy something the other doesn’t.

on a trip to Somaliland

on a trip to Somaliland

Prepare for something to break. Cars or electricity or water pumps or outlets that start electrocuting people (with 220 voltage) or bank cards or refrigerators, butt plates, kid’s heads stuck between iron bars. (Side note: When mom travels someone is bound to get sick. Chicken pox, the barfs, diarrhea, ear infections.)

Focus on a spiritual practice that feels life-giving to you. Now is your chance, with no one else to talk to late at night, to pour out your heart to God. You may have less interruptions while you sip your morning coffee and can concentrate on meditation or reading. Use the opportunity to recognize how you could grow in dependence on God rather than on your spouse.

I act all fine while he is gone but then I get mad at Tom within the first hour after he comes home. I say something snarky or am cold and mumbley. I slam doors. I decide I don’t want to talk about how the week was, that I don’t care about the meetings he attended. I am seriously working on curbing this, possibly by investing in a muzzle.

What I think it means though, is that while I enjoyed the loud music and the lazy lunches and the ugly clothes, I was also lonely. I think it means that I’m rather attached to this man, that I would prefer to use fewer pillows if it means he is home. That, as independent as I pretend to be, I don’t think I could breathe in Djibouti for long without him.

How do you survive when your spouse travels?

(When I reread this, it sounds like I’m advocating being a lazy bum. I guess kind of, but really in my mind, the main sentiment is one of taking some pressure off in certain areas when the pressure is upped in other areas while bearing the parenting, house, and work alone)