Interview by Catarina Queiroz
Michael Pollock. Son of Third Culture Kid (TCK) pioneer David Pollock. Middle child. Teacher. School head. Coach, trainer and presenter. Also father of three, husband and Adult TCK. Describing himself as an introvert but undoubtedly a great networker, Michael was born in Long Island, New York. Before he was eight he lived in three different states and by the time he turned nine Africa was his home. He knew early on he wanted to do something that meant using his cross-cultural skills to connect with people. Teaching felt like the best option. “I also thought it would be a very flexible profession regarding where I would end up on the globe,” he elaborates. After getting married in 1990, he took a teaching position in Baltimore and from there the whole family moved to China for nine years. He repatriated in 2012 and now lives in Michigan, US working as Director of Daraja, providing transition support and leadership formation to cross-cultural young adults.
‘Place of the Wind’
Michael recalls fondly the part of his childhood spent in Kijabe, Kenya. Meaning ‘place of the wind’ in Maasai, Kijabe is a town on the edge of the Great Rift Valley at an altitude of 2200 m. With a lot of coves to explore, wild animals to chase and general beauty to admire, Michael describes it as “a great place to be a kid”. He lived at a mission station and attended an international school, so there was no shortage of children to play with. His father taught at a Bible college and put a lot of work into the Kenyan church, while his mother – Betty Lou – worked at a nursing school. They were supposed to be there six years, but their stay was shortened to three due to changes in his father’s work. “This was one of my disappointments,” Michael confesses. He did have a chance to revisit Kenya on and off throughout the years, however, and is still in touch with friends there.
One trip in particular, part of his senior college year, brings back vivid memories. He went to live in a Maasai village for a month, to benefit from a cross-cultural experience. What did he do there? one might wonder, at a remote African village, cut off from the world. “I just did whatever they were doing!” he exclaims. “I helped herd cattle. I roasted meat. I attended two weddings,” he explains, before concluding: “They really embraced me!”
His eyes are dreamy as he recalls one particular incident: “We walked home one night through the lion country and realized the lions were hunting. I was worried and asked ‘what will we do?’ They replied: ‘We’re just going to pray and walk!’ It was an 18 km walk. There was a full moon and when the zebra ran the dust was flying up,” he describes, painting an image with his words. “We made it!” After this “very formative” experience he went back to the US with a full heart and ready to dive into his teaching work.
Life in China
Michael's move to China practically coincided with his father’s death, in the spring of 2004. For the next couple of years, he did presentations on TCKs. “I was sharing his legacy and of others like Ruth van Reken, Ruth Useem and Norma McCaig,” he says. His role as an educator also shifted from elementary education teaching, curriculum development and school directing to supervising a project that linked international schools together: The Odyssey ISC.
The goals of this project were twofold:
1. Bring together what the schools were doing independently, and
2. Build character, develop leaders and serve the community.
Michael had a double role of advocacy and planning at Odyssey because he was responsible for communicating with the board of directors and planning the projects that united the schools. He trained people on different campuses to create community programs. For example, one of the Chinese schools began a relationship with a Philippine school and from there they developed common goals. As always in the case of International Schools, the biggest challenge was continuity because of the high mobility turnover. The experience Michael gained from Odyssey was invaluable and later applied to his Families in Global Transition (FIGT) and Daraja work.
China was also the place where the family grew. After two years living there, everyone spoke a bit of Chinese and felt more or less adjusted. His kids, Abigail and Steffen, attended the International School and Michael’s wife, Kristen volunteered at a local orphanage. There she found an amazing little girl they all fell in love with. Through a truly miraculous process involving a lot of bureaucracy and goodwill they managed to officially adopt RoAnna Mei – Mei for ‘beautiful’. Several happy years went by after that. In 2012, however, things began to change. The two older kids were looking into college, some health issues came up for Michael, his wife wanted to consider new work options and both were faced with the issue of ageing parents. It felt as if the circumstances were pulling them in only one direction and they decided it was time to repatriate.
FIGT: Exposure, Advocacy & Connection
Historically, Michael’s collaboration with FIGT started in 2012, when he returned from China. He was invited by Ruth van Reken to go to the conference in the fall, but was unsure about it. Nowadays Michael feels a debt of gratitude towards Ruth for pursuing him. “I am deeply grateful for the open welcome of FIGT, for the chance of meeting so many wonderfully gifted individuals that want to help globally mobile people,” he says.
Michael sums up FIGT’s mission in three core concepts:
- Exposure: FIGT is about sharing the questions we have and the research that still needs to be done. It’s important to reflect on how this can be achieved: “Where can those be shared and drawn together for the greater good of the globally mobile everywhere, in such a way that this replicates within the global community?” he asks.
- Advocacy: Transition care and tools are key. “My role in FIGT was also the advocacy for care,” he states, recalling how dear this concept was to his father and others involved in global mobility support. We should set aside time to consider the flow of care in global transition: “How can we care well for mobile people? What do they need?” are some of the questions we should be bringing forward.
- Connection: “FIGT is a nexus organization,” Michael explains, emphasizing the Latin word for ‘binding together’. “Who do we bind? What can we accomplish together better than on our own?” he questions, pointing out Doug Ota’s Safe Passage project as a good example of a ‘nexus’ initiative. It’s also good to ask “who’s missing from the FIGT table?” For example, are immigrants and refugees represented?
Michael ended up settling in Michigan, next to the lake, strategically close to his wife’s parents and his mother. He was surprised to find out there is a good number of TCKs in the surrounding area, all the way up to Chicago, only four hours away by car. Back in his home country, he felt the urge to start working on an additional vision, caring for young TCKs who recently graduated from high school and are thinking about the next steps. This turned out to be a real need because nothing similar was being done in the US.
The big challenge this project brought up was finding ways to partner up with organizations in the passport country to help students through this very specific transition phase. So after a year of reflection and planning, Daraja was born, providing services like one-to-one transition coaching for students and organizing events for TCKs like re-entry retreats and seminars, among other initiatives. After a pilot run, the organization of a bridge semester is currently being considered and tested. For Michael, Daraja is the natural culmination of his life story and work and what he wants to dedicate himself to at the moment.
Advice for TCKs
Using the 3D glasses metaphor, Michael gives TCKs some valuable advice: “Don’t ever let someone put you into a box that’s only challenges and needs! There is also wonderful potential and gifts.”
It’s important to be three dimensional when you analyse your mobile life story. Seeing things in a flat 2D perspective will leave you stuck and maybe even bitter. In Michael’s words, “we must catch a glimpse of the whole picture to bring depth to our experiences and future. Look into the challenges and into the gifts – ‘and’ is the binding element!”
Michael finishes the interview with an anecdote: “Recently I had an offer to move to another city and work at a university.” This opportunity made him realize he doesn’t feel like going mobile again at this stage of his life. “I turned it down and ended up coining the term ‘transition fatigue’,” he says. “Transition fatigue…” he repeats with an enigmatic smile. “I’ve seen the expression turn up in a couple of blogs since I first used it! It’s not that I’m tired of moving, I’m just tired of the transition process in itself,” he explains. And that’s ok – some people need to grow roots in order to help others who are still floating around!
For more information on Daraja www.daraja.us
Ruth Van Reken’s website www.crossculturalkid.org
Families in Global Transition website www.figt.org
Doug Ota’s website www.dougota.nl
Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing, Ruth Van Reken, Summertime Publishing, 2013
Safe Passage: How Mobility Affects People and What International Schools Should do About it, Douglas W. Ota, Summertime Publishing, 2014
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Ruth E. Van Reken & David C. Pollock, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2001
Catarina Queiroz was born in Portugal but spent her childhood in South Africa and Botswana. She was in her early teens when her family returned to Portugal, where she went on to major in Philosophy, becoming a trained high school teacher. After getting married and having her daughter she traded teaching for freelance writing, translating and coaching, and joined her husband for a two-year adventure in the Netherlands. She is now back in Portugal, enjoying reverse cultural shock yet again, writing on her blog and working as an Expat Partner Consultant. In her free time, she loves reading and travelling. www.bycatarina.com