The interviewer looked me in the eye and smiled. "Where do you see yourself five years from now?"

"When will people stop asking me this ridiculous question?!" I groaned. "How am I supposed to know?! Anything can happen! Life can change dramatically in one afternoon, one year, let alone five! Having goals is one thing, but why do you have to put a timeline to it?!"

Alright, I didn't say that. Out loud, anyway. I certainly thought it.

There are two questions I never know how best to answer: "Where are you from?" and "Where do you see yourself in the next five years?"

From this article
I grew up moving between towns, cultures, and countries  I spent my formative years in England, South East Asia, and the United States. Thanks to my parents' work as pastors and missionaries, life could be shaken up overnight  an exciting, sometimes heart-breaking reality. Occasionally I wondered if I was alone in my struggle to answer questions about my origins and future, in my uncertainty about where exactly I fit, and in all the paradoxical pains and joys of my highly mobile existence.

Thankfully, an eye-opening read, and my Master's research and thesis which spawned from the book's inspiration, helped me to understand that I was not the only one with such an experience and its complicated side-effects.

This lifetime of moving around has left me a complex legacy, with both negative and positive aspects. Part of this is a contradictory desire and reluctance to establish roots.

I didn't plan to stay in London, for example. After leaving college in America, my idea was to come back for one year, get my Master's degree, and zoom off again (though where to was uncertain). However, to my surprise, and for no immediately apparent reason, as I neared the end of my studies, I deeply felt that I should stay longer. So I stayed, and I didn't regret the decision. (Besides, it was kinda nice not to have to pack and unpack again.)

London grew on me.

Yet even though I had decided to remain longer, it was never with a complete mental "unpacking." I wasn't trying too hard to put down roots, because who knows, I might leave at any time. Every few years, I get itchy feet.

I live with this paradox. On one hand, I know the importance of embracing everything and everyone you have now. Now is precious. Live and make the most of it. On the other hand, I know how everything can suddenly change, which can make it hard to establish plans. Sociologists David Pollock and Ruth van Reken explain it well:
"[Some] have difficulty in making a choice that involves a significant time commitment because they know a new and more desirable possibility may always appear. Signing a contract to teach in Middleville might be a wise economic move, but what if a job opportunity opens in Surabaya next week? It's hard to choose one thing before knowing all the choices. Experience has taught them that life not only offers multiple options, but these options can appear suddenly and must be acted on quickly or they will be gone. Yet the very fact that one choice might preclude another [can make it more difficult to or keep them from] making any choice at all." (Third Culture Kids, p. 107)

Living healthily with this tension has moved to the forefront of my mind again, particularly as a getting-closer-to-30 woman considering her future and thinking about accepting a new job (and with it, a career change).

"Pack, Unpack" by Katie Rodgers
In the context of life's uncertainty and my paradoxical desires, there is a profound quote that has guided and challenged me:
"Wherever you go in life, unpack your bags  physically and mentally  and plant your trees. Too many people never live in the now because they assume the time is too short to settle in. They don't plant trees because they expect to be gone before the trees bear fruit. But if you keep thinking about the next move, you'll never live fully where you are. When it's time to go, then it's time to go, but you won't have missed what this experience was about. And if you never eat from the trees, someone else will." (Third Culture Kids, p. 218)

How do I put this into practice? That's something I'm still learning. In some ways, I still struggle to let roots grow, and I keep one bag packed, in a sense. But there are a few things I have learned are helpful or necessary:

  • Make the choice. Sure, you can never know all the options which may or may not appear, but why miss out on opportunities that can be, or lead to, something amazing? I believe that everything ultimately can work out for good.
  • Invest in relationships. Yes, goodbyes are painful, but not every relationship ends in "goodbye." Even if you or your friend moves away and the relationship fades, you are left the richer for having known each other. And good relationships are ultimately what makes life the most beautiful, joyful, and meaningful. Relationships are worth the risk.
  • Write. Read. Hearing other people's stories can be a growing, even healing, experience. Reading is going on a journey that can even help stay the restless spirit at times. And writing has proved critical for knowing myself, recording my physical and emotional journeys, and enabling honesty, sympathy, and growth.   

Ultimately, I am discovering that putting down roots and unpacking bags is about not giving in to fear. For, after all, a life lived in fear is a life half lived.

I may not be able to say where I'll be in five years, but I want to be able to live every present moment in such a way that I can look back with no regrets.

I am writing from my experience as a Third Culture Kid, someone with a highly mobile upbringing who has lived in multiple cultures. If you are a TCK, or know one, or are just curious and want to find out more about us and how to support us, then I recommend checking out...
Book: Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth van Reken
Video: (Short TED talk with Ruth's story and insight into different kinds of TCKs or cross-cultural kids)


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