I was 25 the first time I chose a goodbye.
I’d had plenty of goodbyes before. They were painful, but they seemed inevitable. For a third culture kid, I was relatively stable, which still meant moving: to Tanzania at age 2, to Illinois at ages 11, back to Tanzania at 13, to Kenya at 16, to Minnesota for college, then back to Kenya. Teachers, best friends, and family friends rotated out every two years.
I couldn’t do much about it, so I made the best of it. I made friends with the neighbors for the two years we lived in Chicago for my dad’s PhD, for the three months we staying at my uncle’s in the US, for the three days we stayed in a guest house going home. I was never going to fully fit in, but I dressed right and switched my accent. I became intentional about how I said goodbye, marking it with thank-you notes, scrapbooking, farewells, and poems. I learned to talk to my one constant friend, God.
Home. Stability. Belonging. Those weren’t things you had control over – right?
I’m sure non-TCKs can relate. Maybe it wasn’t international moves but switching school systems or states. Maybe it was the divorce of parents or the loss of a loved one. There are lots of ways that kids don’t get to choose all their goodbyes.
When I moved back to Kenya after college, I didn’t know how long I’d be staying. But I didn’t waste time investing. I poured into a new church, knowing I didn’t fully belong but determined to make it my community. I even ended up dating someone from church, and invested in that relationship too.
Although it wasn’t all these relationships represented, I think part of me wanted stability and belonging… even if I kind of had to force it, even if I had to shape-shift a bit to fit the mold.
Until I hit a breaking point.
I realized I’d fit in too much. This shocked me. Usually I’m a very stubborn person who refuses to compromise on my convictions and has no problem expressing my tastes. But I guess my longing to belong was deeper than I thought.
I would quietly notice differences and take note to hide parts of myself that might cause conflict or be judged. I’d tell myself it wasn’t the right time to bring up gaps that only I saw. I’d bring it up later if it persisted. This outsider wasn’t going to change them. I was the more adaptable one in cross-cultural situations anyway, right?
It hit me once when someone asked me a question that revealed they didn’t know me at all.
For several other reasons I won’t get into here – I chose a goodbye.
My church was a place where people knew my family and would ask about them. It was a place where I could interact with people of all ages. I was part of its inner workings and behind the scenes. I was in a position of leadership. It was my community, the one I’d invested in. There was a whisper that I could belong.
In my relationship we had discovered new sides of each other, formed selfie-worthy memories, and opened up our hearts. There was the possibility of permanence.
And I wasn’t leaving Kenya. I didn’t have to leave. The ending wasn’t inevitable. No external force was imposing these goodbyes. I chose it.
That meant I didn’t have anyone else to blame. The pain of the breakup, the long awkward transition period to find a new church, I was bringing all this upon myself.
The agency came with the weight of responsibility. Stubborn me was giving up after all I’d invested. Was I really sure?
But the choice also came with a sense of hope. Those glimmers of home had felt like they came at a cost. Like it was conditional on me being who they thought I was or seemed to want me to be. By choosing an ending, I was believing in a better future. That I wasn’t stuck just making the best of it. That I might not have to trade my authentic self for belonging. That there might be goodness in this goodbye to others if it meant not saying goodbye to myself.