Lessons from a Third Culture Childhood: in summary

Last semester I wrote a four-part series called “Lessons from a Third Culture Childhood”.  In it I expanded on two “lessons” I wrote about for a China Source article – that everyone leaves, and no one understands. I talk about “lessons” because what we experience as children is what we consider ‘normal’ and this teaches us what the world is like.

Here I’ve brought all four posts from the series together, with brief summaries and quotes. These were some of the most read and most shared posts I’ve written (each of the four made it into my list of most read posts), and I also received a LOT of feedback on them, both publicly and privately. I’m glad they hit home for a lot of people, and I hope they prove useful for many, both now and in the future.

Part 1: Everyone leaves

I start the series with one of the most common phrases I heard during interviews for Misunderstood: that “everyone leaves”. I explore how this affects attitudes toward relationships, and different ways individual TCKs may respond to this lesson. Here’s an excerpt:

“Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent…Another common reaction is a highly developed ability to connect superficially – to be warm and friendly and welcoming – while holding back their deeper selves. There is great vulnerability in sharing my whole self when I know that the deeper a relationship gets, the more it will hurt when the (inevitable) goodbye comes. . .Whatever method a TCK develops to help deal with the emotional stress of goodbyes, the commonality is that this is an essential survival skill for them. The goodbyes and the losses that go with them can be very overwhelming to a child, especially because it is the only experience they know.”

I did something a little unusual with this article. Instead of ending on a happy and hopeful night, I doubled down and asked my readers to stop and consider what it really means to grow up with this lesson. I share a lot of stories, both real and hypothetical (but rooted in many stories I’ve been told). Then I finished with one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to parents all over the world whenever I’m asked to speak about TCKs: they do not need to be fixed; they need to be heard.

“Listening to a child’s hurt is HARD – it’s painful to hear! But it is one of the greatest gifts we can offer them. Listening well says “I see you. I hear you. The way you feel is valid. You’re allowed to be sad, and you’re allowed to tell me about it.””

Part 2: What about the internet?

This was an unplanned diversion after I received several comments, publicly and privately, from TCKs and others, asking the same question: “What about the internet?” The point seemed to be that the internet provides the capacity to stay in touch with people in other places, which should take the sting out of everyone leaving. I find this idea quite unhelpful for a number of reasons, and I decided it was time to collect them coherently so I could share my thoughts on the subject. I cover four reasons the internet doesn’t solve the “everyone leaves” problem:

  1. The internet doesn’t erase loss
    When someone leaves a relationship changes. Even if connection continues, it will be a different connection – a different friendship must be negotiated.
  2. It’s not the same
    A long distance friendship isn’t the same as an in-person friendship. Not all friendships translate well to distance, and not all people find long-distance communication comfortable.
  3. It’s not just one person
    TCKs say goodbye to a LOT of people. So it’s not staying in touch with one person, it’s staying in touch with multiple people – and more of them every year. It’s just not possible to maintain that many close relationships.
  4. Who is in control?
    We’re talking about Third Culture KIDS – their ability to stay in touch with people elsewhere is often largely controlled by their parents (or friends’ parents). And no matter how old we are, there are always situations out of our control.

I finish the piece by concluding that while the internet is a great tool, and maintaining friendships over the internet is amazing, it’s just not that simple.

“The internet is a tool, and a good thing overall, for most kids in most situations. But it doesn’t solve the problem of how frequent goodbyes through childhood affect a person. It adds different opportunities, and also complications. It changes what goodbye looks like. But it doesn’t erase the underlying lesson, that “everyone leaves”.”

Part 3: after everyone leaves

In this post I offer four strategies to help TCKs manage the aftermath of absorbing the lesson that “everyone leaves”. These aren’t simple fix-it solutions, but suggestions of mindset adjustments that can be helpful.

  1. Sunk costs
    This is a concept I find really helpful: I can’t change what’s happened, so what am I going to do starting from now?
  2. Change happens
    Life involves change, no matter who you are or where you live. We all need to learn how to cope with change – running from it won’t keep us safe from the emotions that go with it.
  3. Pick your poison
    Most TCKs end up believing they have two choices: invest deeply in relationships and pay the price in grief when someone leaves, or keep things light and be safe from that pain. The point I make here is that choosing not to invest in relationships doesn’t save us from pain – it brings a different sort of pain. There’s pain involved either way – so which would you prefer? To grieve changing friendships, or to be always alone?
  4. And THIS is where the internet comes in
    No, the internet doesn’t solve the problem, but it provides a great middle ground. I grieve losing the in-person friendship I had, but I also get the opportunity to negotiate a new long-distance friendship, which can also be very rewarding.

“This is the bottom line: you can’t go back. you can only go forward. Take the time to acknowledge hurts and grieve losses – then move forward. Make choices about where you want to go, and who you want to be, rather than what you want to avoid. Invest in people, even though it means investing in harder goodbyes. Work out what you want from life, and start building toward that.”

Part 4: No one understands

Finally, I got to the second core lesson TCKs shared in interviews: no one understands. This feeling is a very natural consequence of a cross-cultural childhood. Why is that?

“The Third Culture experience is about living in between – with connections to more than one place/culture. One consequence of this for TCKs is that throughout their formative childhood years, most of the people they interact with know only one side of them – only one of the cultures/places they know and are deeply impacted by. TCKs learn to turn on and off languages and behaviours as they move from one setting to another. In the end, however, there are few places in which TCKs can express all their pieces of self at once.”

There’s a good reason my book is titled Misunderstood. It is not a hopeless message, that it is inevitable to be misunderstood, but a hopeful one – that understanding is possible. Understanding can be built!

“Many people in a TCK’s life won’t instinctively understand their experiences. And unfortunately, it’s also true that some won’t want to try. But for those who are willing, resources like Misunderstood can help close the gap. . .But more than that, there is hope in remembering that no one completely understands anyone else. We all have to share our stories, and try to listen to what another is saying about their experiences. What we all have in common are our emotions. We have all experienced loss, fun, joy, grief. It might look different, but the emotions underneath help us empathise. Learning to connect with and express the way we feel about things we’ve been through helps others go there with us.”

This is what my book, and ultimately all my work, is about: building bridges of understanding. Giving TCKs tools to understand and articulate their experiences to others, so they might be better understood. Sharing the perspectives of TCKs with those who care for them, that they might better understand.

Thanks for sticking through this long summary – I hope it (and the full blog posts) are helpful for you. That you feel heard, encouraged, equipped.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from a Third Culture Childhood: in summary

  1. Whoa, these observations really hit me where I live. One of the things I’m having to come to terms with is the fact that: “In the end, however, there are few places in which TCKs can express all their pieces of self at once.”
    This I feel REALLY strongly right now. I have a partner I can express MOST of my pieces of self with; a mother I can express a lot with; a close friend who can hold some of the parts other people can’t. This selection of people is key, and working out who my network consists of, and who I can turn to for what, has helped me immensely. I have had to acknowledge that the only ONE person for me, with whom I can be everything that I am, including the conflicting aspects… is myself. And so it is vital that I allow those conflicting aspects to be expressed. Because if I don’t, how can I expect anyone else to?

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is all so good and so important! Finding the network who collectively “get” you, and constructing a life in which you really can express all your pieces of self. Thank you so much for sharing!

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  2. “In the end, however, there are few places in which TCKs can express all their pieces of self at once.”
    Wow. It’s never even occurred to me that that’s something I should be able to do! I guess I just got so used to not expressing my whole self – because what’s the point when you move every few years? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! It’s a natural conclusion when you grow up with that lifestyle. But makes it hard to develop an integrated sense of self that isn’t dependant on an external environment to determine your reactions.

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  3. Pingback: Two key lessons from a TCK childhood | MISUNDERSTOOD

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