Safe Passage – essential reading for working with #TCKs

“This book was inspired by Ota identifying an unmet need he saw in students during transitional periods in the school year – and from existing research findings indicating that moving creates havoc with student learning. Ota and his colleagues at the American School of The Hague (ASH) developed the Safe Harbor programme to address the unmet needs of expats students facing transition. 

This book is essential for any international school wanting to create their own transition program. Not only for schools though as I also found it a helpful read for expat parents. Ota offers parental tips aimed at easing your child transition – including assessing your own responses to making a new transition. In summary, I highly recommend this book to anyone working with third culture kids.”

Expat Arrivals

About the Book | Read the Review

Let’s Talk About the Weather

We see each other in the distance, but we act like we don’t. We just keep walking, gradually approaching one another. After all, we don’t know each other. But it’s also true that we don’t not know each other entirely. We’ve done this before, every day for nearly the last week.

Twenty meters to go.

I betcha he’ll stop this time.

Ten meters to go.

I betcha he’s thinking the same thing.

Two meters.

Eye contact.

“Good evening.”

“Good evening!”

“Gorgeous isn’t it?” he smiles, palms turned skyward.

“Perfect!” I reply, joining him in smiling at the heavens.

We’re at a campground outside Cavalaire Sur Mer on France’s Cotes d’ Azur. We’re talking about the weather. Ostensibly, at least.

In actuality we’re talking about a lot more than the weather. A seemingly trivial interaction like this might seem like small talk – and I wouldn’t deny that either – but peer beneath the surface, and it’s really about connection. Human connection.

Can I meet you? Can I connect with you?

Humans desire it. It’s written into our DNA. Evolutionarily speaking, being alone was dangerous, for the simple reason it increased our chances of dying and our DNA dying with us. Though modern comforts and technologies may have lulled us into believing we’ve shed our prehistoric pasts, the fact that computing these days proceeds in gigahertz has done nothing – and never will do anything – to alter the fact our genetic code evolved at a geologic pace, something we might dub geohertz. Our genetic code screams: seek connection.

Fortunately this scream gets filtered through personality (some people, like me believe it or not, are inherently more shy and reserved) and social etiquette, particularly at a campground (you probably wouldn’t want people constantly waving at you from across the valley, yelling “Hi! You want to connect?”).

But we do want to find common ground with our fellow man. And to do so, we must move up the ladder of abstraction until we find it.

When I see my wife, I can start at the lowest, most detailed level of abstraction: our children. I can ask her what she’s heard from our eighteen year-old son, who’s traveling through Vietnam by motorcycle right now. (Talk about ‘letting go.’ That will certainly be the theme of another blog.) Is he safe?

When I see my good friend Nic, I move up a notch on the abstraction ladder. I ask him about his preparations for his next bike trip, or how his work is going. To ask him if he’s heard from my son in Asia would be to start too low on the abstraction ladder. Nic and I don’t share my son; it’s not our common ground. What’s something one layer up that we share? Our passion for our work.

When I see my neighbor, I move up another notch. I can inquire about their vacation, what things were like in Switzerland, how the plants in the backyard held up during the hot weather. To ask him how his work is going would be to start too low; unless we gradually got into a deeper conversation, it would feel intrusive to him and invasive to me. We need a notch higher, something we share, like a similar backyard.

When I go to train at my running club, we talk about our training. I congratulate Quinn on his new PR, I ask Maarten what he’s training for next, and I ask JP how his calf muscle is recovering. To ask any of these guys how their plants in the backyard are doing would be weird. We don’t share that level of abstraction. Aim higher, at something we do.

So back at the campground, when the man I’ve passed for a week stops to chat, we’re not going to talk about our calf muscles, our backyards, how things are going at work, or our children in Asia. We need a level of abstraction we share, a platform we, as two human beings, can use as common ground.

That is why it’s sometimes important to talk about the weather. At the highest possible level of abstraction, meaning the sun and the wind and the rain and the elements, you know you’re talking about something shared. You know you can’t possibly be beginning too low on the abstraction scale. You have the common ground on which connection rests.

“Does a soul good, these blue skies,” says my campground acquaintance.

“This is what we came for!” I concur.

We smile and bid each other good evening, feeling just a bit more connected.

Douglas W. Ota

Safe-Passage-Doug-Ota-expat-books-tck

Doug Ota grew up between cultures. A Japanese father, an English mother, and their divisive divorce started Ota on a career wondering where he – and others – belong.

He studied philosophy at Princeton University, USA, and psychology at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. For many years, he was a counselor in international education. He now works in private practice with children and adolescents, individuals, couples, and families.

Doug consults with international organizations on how to build programs to address the challenges and opportunities of mobility (www.safepassage.nl). He is the author of Safe Passage: What Mobility Does to People and What International Schools Should Do About It.

No-No Boy

Writing a book is hard. People warned that the publication process is harder. They were right. Strangely, blogging in my mind seems the hardest. What is ‘blogging’? What am I signing up for? Where will this lead? Books are at least bound, their narrative arcs nestled reassuringly between a front and a back cover. Blogs offer no such reassurances. The very word ‘blog’ suggests some dark concoction of ‘blot’ and ‘smog,’ something spreading towards the future horizon, like Los Angeles.

Perhaps you can see now why I’ve contemplated blogging for years, without writing a single word.

no no boyWhy now? Because of No-No Boy, by John Okada (1976).

I’m not exactly certain when my journey with this book began. Did it begin when its enigmatic cover drew me to its opening pages, only to reveal a story that felt unmistakably like the depiction of my own Japanese roots?

Or did it begin on March 17, when the book arrived as part of a shipment from my aging father, in which he bequeathed to me fifteen years worth of research and efforts to get his mother’s second novel, the unfinished Palanquin, finally published?

Or did it begin during a car drive at eight, when I innocently asked about my father’s Japanese ancestry and got met with a snarl, as if to say, “Don’t go there don’t you ever dare go there stay away”, a snarl that would propel me into psychology, wondering why there were caves where one couldn’t go, wondering if it were really true that one couldn’t enter.

Or, as I describe in Safe Passage, did it begin in kindergarten, as I looked around at the other new pupils and wondered why nobody was helping me with the question that was really on my mind, namely why their skin was white, and mine wasn’t?

Or did it begin on December 7, 1941, after the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning, when – in a blink – thousands of Japanese-American citizens went from being seen as loyal Americans to being seen as denizens of the enemy?

Okada’s book has arrived in my life like a newly discovered diary from distant kin. Never mind that the book is fiction, written by somebody (as far as I know) unrelated. The book feels like family. It tells the story of a nisei (second generation) son named Ichirio who is, along with thousands of Japanese-Americans, first divested of all rights by being interned in an American concentration camp, and then faced with a horrible choice: will you be drafted into the American army to fight the Japanese?

If you don’t twinge at that question, then put yourself for a moment in Ichiro’s shoes so you can feel the diverging loyalties. On the one hand he was born, raised, and educated in the United States, and considered himself every bit as American as his Italian-American or Chinese-American classmates. On the other hand his parents had never really left Japan emotionally; they spoke little English, they fully intended to return to Japan someday, and they expected unflinching loyalty and respect from their children. Ichiro’s choice was an impossible one. By remaining loyal to his parents, he betrayed his country, and he (and many like him) ended up in prison for several years for treason. Society labeled him and his kind ‘no-no boys,’ to denote that they belonged neither to America, nor to the Japan of their parents. They belonged nowhere.

My father worked his way to the top of educational and corporate America, but he could never change the phenotypical expression of his genotype: however Harvard educated he might be, he couldn’t change the fact that the face staring him back in the mirror was Japanese. Whatever corporate or board presidencies he might have established for himself in the white, affluent neighborhoods of Connecticut, Southern California, or Massachusetts, he couldn’t change how others, with all their prejudices, might – consciously or unconsciously – perceive him.

How did those loyal citizens of Japanese descent feel about the society that had put them on the wrong side of the barbed wire, as they shivered in forsaken places like Manzanar? When one professes loyalty to a society that never fully accepts one in return, what kind of a no-no boy might that turn one into? Was my father a no-no boy of sorts too?

In my struggle for belonging, be it in the color of my skin or in my life as an adult TCK with American and Dutch passports, am I a no-no boy as well?

Psychologists ask tough questions. Honest ones pose these same questions to themselves. This blog will likely be a forum for exploring themes of home and belonging, themes that life has etched on my soul.

These themes weren’t mine for the choosing. They date easily as far back as Pearl Harbor, and easily as far back as July 1, 1896, when my great-grandfather purchased his freedom from the sugar plantations where he’d arrived, a poor contract laborer shipped from Japan. Little did my great-grandfather know that his oldest great grandson, my firstborn, would be born exactly one hundred years – to the day – of his purchasing his freedom.

As I read No-No Boy, I began to dimly perceive patterns in the broader fabric from which my family’s stories were cut. It would seem the stories of the Otas are interwoven with the tales of other Japanese, like the Okadas. On the back of No-No Boy, it says Okada’s novel states that “Okada died in obscurity, believing that Asian America had rejected his work.”

My writing this – and your reading it – would seem to be an act of reconsidering that statement.

Or, better said, restorying it.

Douglas W. Ota

Safe Passage

Doug Ota grew up between cultures. A Japanese father, an English mother, and their divisive divorce started Ota on a career wondering where he – and others – belong.

He studied philosophy at Princeton University, USA, and psychology at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. For many years, he was a counselor in international education. He now works in private practice with children and adolescents, individuals, couples, and families.

Doug consults with international organizations on how to build programs to address the challenges and opportunities of mobility (www.safepassage.nl). He is the author of Safe Passage: What Mobility Does to People and What International Schools Should Do About It.

Q&A with Dr. Doug Ota and Book Review of Safe Passage

Safe Passage is an excellent resource for international families and schools to help with positive transitions. Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, comments:

“As one who has lived this globally transient lifestyle since the moment of my birth, and worked with countless others… I cannot recommend this book highly enough…  principles here will apply in countless other arenas of life.”

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