Out of Place – Katha’s Story
He doesn’t know that he just made a big mistake. For him it might just be a harmless question in casual small talk; for me it’s the beginning of an identity crisis: “So, where are you from?”
Well, I’d like to know that, too.
Ten moves, three countries, countless nights in beds which weren’t my own – this summarizes the first twenty years of my life pretty well. Due to my parents’ adventurous spirit and faith, I have never lived in a place for more than six years; after a while, we’d pack our bags and move on. All across Germany, to East and Southern Africa, to the US and back. The fact that my parents have lived in the same place for seventeen years now is miraculous, maybe even boring.
People call us global nomads, expats, Third Culture Kids, but behind these fancy labels there are a lot of questions and the constant feeling of never really arriving and belonging anywhere. My passport says I am ‘German’ – but what does that mean if I’ve lost my heart to a small Ugandan village, to smiling South African faces, and to my Bavarian grandma? Black and white letters could never describe what I feel in my heart.
The search for home
The notion of ‘home’ causes pain and desire at the same time. It demonstrates oh so clearly what is missing in my life: a place where my story began and that I can always return to. A place that keeps my memories of childhood days on the playground, of playing ‘house’ with my friends, of my first crush or shopping sprees. People who know my whole story and can laugh with me about the ‘good old times’. A best friend since kindergarten who might one day stand next to me at the altar as my maid of honor.
Far too often I had to say goodbye to people who have walked with me for a while; to places which had just become home; to routines which had been my life. Saying goodbye always means leaving a piece of my story, a bit of myself, behind. And now, my memories are scattered across continents and I travel between them in pursuit of these fragments, in search of myself.
‘Home’ calls forth a deep desire for a place where I know the people, secret passages, daily rituals, and where I am fully known. A place where I can just be and don’t have to explain myself. A place where I can exhale and think out loud. A place where I am completely at home and the ‘I see you soon’ won’t be lost in the accelerating speed of our world.
I’ve struggled with these two emotions battling inside of me my entire life and on some days, it’s just too easy to sink into nostalgia and despair.
My first teaching job out of university is at a school in Southern Germany, where 70% of students have a history of migration: grandparents who came from Italy or Turkey in the sixties as migrant workers, parents who moved here after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the nineties, entire families who survived the traumatic flight across the Mediterranean Sea and refugee camps just a couple of years ago.
No matter how long these teenagers have lived here, they seem to be reminded how much they don’t fit in on a daily basis. While their teachers criticize their Turkish accent in their German, their Turkish grandmother at home scolds them for being ‘too German’. On the outside they try to appear cool and confident, but when you take some time to listen to their stories and thoughts, they reveal how much they struggle with their sense of identity and finding a place to belong.
This is when it clicked.
I could relate to these students and their struggles. While our stories might be different, we all share the same pain and questions. So I cut back on my normal curriculum and make space to listen to them. Together we explore the deeper layers of culture, the little misunderstandings that create so much tension and distance between people and how we can belong despite all our differences. Whenever I watch my students, I realize how much they can still teach me. They experience so much uncertainty and cultural confusion – and yet, they connect to each other and create belonging out of all these scattered pieces. We learn from and with each other.
Making space for others in the midst of our busy and complex lives has brought some healing for my wounded soul. Whenever I open up a classroom or invite people to my table, I offer a place where we can bring our stories and share our pain. We – our whole fragmented selves – belong here because together we make up life in all its colors.
I have learned that nostalgic longing for a magical home wouldn’t get me anywhere but to despair and sadness. However, I can use my time and resources in this moment and place to find belonging for myself – and maybe other wanderers along the way, too.
If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this series is for you! Every Monday, we’ll hear from someone who has also struggled to belong. Be sure to subscribe below to get The Scoop so you never miss a post! As a thank you, you’ll receive access to belonging-themed scripture cards and adult coloring pages in the free for you library!
Meet Katha von Dessien
Katha von Dessien has spent many years in different countries and cultures and now surprises herself by settling down in Southern Germany where she teaches cross cultural students at a high school. She is also an author and podcast host of strich;punkt, as she loves collecting stories of finding God in the midst of life, pain and questions. You can find out more at: www.thisiskatha.com or follow her on Instagram.