Comments 11

TCK Confessions: I dissociate

Leaving my schools on my last days felt heavy. I knew as I put my indoor shoes in my bag for the last time that I wouldn’t ever come back as a teacher, met by smiling faces and cheerful greetings. Bidding goodbye to a now pristine and empty house, the warm tears stained more than my cheeks. But my imagined final parting with my friends was far from anything I could’ve envisioned.

One canceled flight only began the frustrating process of leaving my most recent home. I’d expected painless, even enjoyable, hours spent in my home airport. Instead, endless waiting in line replaced any hope of mindless chatter with hurried dining and nonstop time-checking. So much for my heartfelt goodbye. After even more frustration in the next airport’s immigration, I felt my only real goodbye to Japan was during takeoff.

Sitting in the window seat, I kept my eyes locked on the illuminated airport. On my left was a Japanese-American kid, no older than 10, with his mother on his left. I felt him staring out the window, although probably with a different mindset. For a very brief instant I tried not to cry as the pilot pulled the plane off the ground. But as Narita Airport dwindled quickly, I couldn’t care less. Goodbye Japan. Goodbye Hokkaido. On and on I bid goodbye to people, places, and events, no longer trying to restrain my tears. Let them be seen, sadness is no shame. Too quickly, my home vanished beneath the cloudy night sky and I closed the shade, locking in feelings and branding memories. I will never forget.

Even though I’d been aching for at least four months to leave rural Japan and the immediate stardom it propelled me into, I hadn’t been ready for a sudden job offer, especially one from France! Needless to say, feelings and emotions tangled into one big, messy blob. But watching Tokyo’s light fade into the engulfing darkness while silently saying a final goodbye was too much.

If you know TCKs at all, you’ll agree we love getting on airplanes, country hopping and exploring any and all things – cities, local joints, touristy and non touristy spots. Our goodbyes are often temporary. But in those parting moments peppered with teary-eyed see you laters sometimes we can’t handle it any better than our non-TCK counterparts. I’m fine when parting with people. It’s only when I’m on the plane, seeing the country disappear beneath the clouds, that the tears come.

Returning to France felt like this: Welcome, foreigner.

Colleagues here praise my French, my mother tongue, like my colleagues praised my Japanese. I find myself comparing everything to Japan. It’s been a month and a half, and I still believe everyone’s driving on the wrong side of the road. I hate having to look where to step because I’m so used to clean streets and walking with my eyes glancing forward, not around. Strangely enough, I have the opposite problem with politeness levels here than in Japan: I’m a little too formal. Tipping in France might be an actual nightmare: apparently, sometimes it’s okay to tip, I just wished they told me when.

France is by far the most stressful when it comes to grocery shopping. Not only do cashiers not swipe the card for you, they generally don’t put the change in your hand, and you have to rush to pack your groceries yourself. Congestions guaranteed.

It’s only been a month and some, and already I miss speaking and hearing Japanese. Long grain rice tastes weird to my palate and the Asian aisle in the supermarket makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It’s been a long and hectic month of apartment hunting, luggage hauling and stressful, hurried lesson planning. I’m really feeling the loneliness of moving to a foreign country, and even though I probably started with only one friend in rural Japan, I surprise myself by already longing to return and half planning trips back.

How much harder can it be to make friends in a country I’m supposed to feel at home in, speaking a language I didn’t have to study?

Apparently, very.

I catch myself repeatedly drowning my loneliness online, especially when I realize I have no real interest in watching episode 12 of whatever TV show I started yesterday, but I watch it anyway because I need a distraction. I need something to make me forget, even for a moment, that I have to start over again.

I discovered a new term a few weeks ago: dissociation.

It describes a “wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience.” This rings a familiar bell. What I previously labeled as procrastination looks like a coping mechanism.

Last night, I dreamed I was packing so last minute there was nothing useful in my suitcase, and especially no clothes. Wet towels, yes. Random junk? Check. Passport? Nope!

I had to change from pajamas into actual clothes in this old Japanese lady’s tiny apartment. After I got on the plane, which was strangely not taking off, a little Japanese girl on her dad’s shoulders stuck her head in through a window and talked to people from my group. She smiled at me and said “Harro Merinda-sensei.”

A dream dictionary says that passports represent “your identity and your ability to traverse through various situations. You may be going through a period of self-discovery.” So, by not having my passport, does that mean I’ve lost my identity and am currently self-discovering my ability, or inability, to travel through “various situations?” It sure feels that way sometimes.

And if a plane taking off “suggests an idea or plan is about to ‘take off’ and be put into action,” does that mean my ideas or plans are taking root rather than taking off? I don’t see either happening yet.

I woke up disoriented with feelings sputtering around, and with more questions than the dream answered. I believe dreams show us bits of ourselves in relation to our current, or past, experiences. It’s a messy and confusing puzzle, but so is life. Maybe I’m just relating this nonsensical dream to my life, but there lies the magic of dreams.

We keep our vulnerable side partially hidden, as if concealing our moments of pain was as harmless as a spout of rain. But rain can carve mountains, and unacknowledged feelings have a way to bubble to the surface when we least expect it. Daydreams can hold us together when we’re browsing for cheap airline tickets or a random summer adventure, aching for past homes. But the dreams we experience at night remind us there’s more to our desires than we acknowledge, and show us no matter how much time goes by, we won’t forget the places we still call home.


  1. Franciska says

    Hi Melinda, I was wondering if it makes a substantial difference to you whether to call it dissociation, rather than procrastination. The latter can also be perceived as a coping mechanism, maybe?
    I like that you ‘listen’ to what your dreams are trying to tell you. I recognised a lot in your story, merci. Ciska


    • Melinda says

      Bonjour Ciska!
      I don’t think it makes a substantial difference in my day to day life, but the discovery was just an enlightening moment. Procrastination is definitely a coping mechanism, for more than one thing, and still struggling with it regularly (unfortunately).
      I’m glad my story spoke to you. Thanks for commenting! 🙂


  2. David says

    Hi Melinda. Your description of trying to cope would apply to many – or most? – people like us. Thanks for writing about your situation because I hadn’t realised I’m the same until I read this, and now it makes sense.

    It’s two years later now. How have you managed?


    • Melinda says

      Hi David,
      Thanks for reading! I’m glad you can identify, and agree that many/most TCKs can probably relate.

      Two years later indeed, and I moved to Australia in between. The move was slightly different (went back to grad school), and aside from my regular homework-induced procrastination, I don’t feel the (mild) dissociation as much. Having a great friend network probably helps coping – although sadly not always. A lot of factors might play into this, but I feel a general idea of where my life is headed helps? Or maybe I’ve just given up to forever “go with the flow” (yeah right)… Live and learn, as they say. 😉


      • David says

        Hello again. Thanks for your reply! I’m in Australia too, in the Kimberley, which is why I keep reading and re-reading these sorts of stories because I never meet any other TCKs up here and so, socially, it’s very isolated. Not to mention a lot of TCKs are as shy as cats, and also Aussies have a hard time with anyone who has on odd accent and a baffling past, so it hasn’t been easy. I’ll bet you went to one of the big cities? I think that would make things easier.

        Yes, I think it’s a lifelong thing we’re dealing with . . . so I guess you just have to keep dealing with it, (along with all those other TCK things as well!).


      • Melinda says

        No way! Talk about a small world! 😀 I had to google the Kimberley, and even then, it seemed Google couldn’t make up its mind. Is that in WA? Yeah I was lucky in the sense that I went back to school, so making friends was easier, and yes in a big city. It definitely helps.

        Definitely! No easy ‘cure’ for anything, but it’s quite fascinating how we’re continuously shaped and reshaped by life and all our crazy experiences. 🙂 Best of luck, and know that you’re not alone!


  3. David says

    Poor confused Google. Yes, it’s the top end of WA. Perfect for the TCK trying to avoid making yet another pathetically doomed attempt to try and merge into a mainstream society! I guess it’s either being somewhere like here, or right downtown in a big city with lots of other weirdos oops I mean people with interesting and varied backgrounds.

    The best of luck to you as well, and Thanks!


  4. Hi Melinda,

    As a TCK i write and ‘hear’ my dreams a lot… boy do they speak. that unconscious, as you describe. And also, this, which ties in to the rivers that flow deep beneath our TCK surfaces: “We keep our vulnerable side partially hidden, as if concealing our moments of pain was as harmless as a spout of rain. But rain can carve mountains, and unacknowledged feelings have a way to bubble to the surface when we least expect it.”

    Among many things, your story made me think about how we can have language fluency… in a country we have no cultural fluency.

    Thanks for that epiphany!


    • Melinda says

      Hi Sarah,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and even glad-er it helped you have an epiphany!

      Best of luck in your future travels~ 🙂


  5. Hi Melinda, thank you for sharing your story and helping us TCKs feel like we’re not alone.

    It hit hard when you described being on that plane and not being able to control the tears as you took off and saw a home and a life you dearly loved disappear. Your entire post was all too relatable. Four years ago, I suddenly left Europe and moved back to my passport country after 12 years away. And although I’ve become accustomed to life here, the dissociation was very real for a very long time. It’s odd to feel so foreign in a place that is supposed to be yours.

    “We keep our vulnerable side partially hidden, as if concealing our moments of pain was as harmless as a spout of rain. But rain can carve mountains, and unacknowledged feelings have a way to bubble to the surface when we least expect it… But the dreams we experience at night remind us there’s more to our desires than we acknowledge, and show us no matter how much time goes by, we won’t forget the places we still call home.

    That was beautifully touching and impactful. Thank you again for sharing something so personal. I know it has been some time since you wrote this piece and I do hope that you are doing well.


    • Melinda says

      Hi Danielle,

      Thank you for your lovely comment! Isn’t it ironic how we feel so completely alone sometimes? I *literally* have friends all over the world! And yet…

      That must’ve been a painful parting for you, and quite the reverse culture shock! Do you still feel foreign even now? I would presume (possibly wrongly) that a small part of ourselves will always answer “yes.”

      I’m glad the piece resonated with you, and hope your resilient self has now adapted (again) to your situation. All the best! 🙂


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s