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My name is Tanya Crossman and I am the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. I am now returning to more regular blogging after a hiatus while going through a lot of transitions in all areas of my life – perhaps appropriate for someone who writes and speaks about transition a lot!

On this blog I discuss different aspects of international life, with a focus on children and young people: how they feel about, and are shaped by, their global experiences.

Perhaps you have come here hoping to learn more about raising children internationally, or teaching such children. Perhaps you were raised overseas yourself. Perhaps you have read Misunderstood and want to know more. In each case, a good place to start would be my post on Third Culture Kids, which lays a foundation for a lot of what is discussed here.

However you found your way to this blog, I’m glad you’re here. I would love to hear from you, hear your story, and your questions. We’re all learning, and we all have something helpful to contribute. Please add your voice to the conversation!

Tanya Crossman
Beijing, 2018

Recommended reading: October 15th, 2018

This week’s Recommended Reading centres on corporate assignments: when a company sends an employee (and their family) overseas for a protracted period. I have a passion for supporting these families, and they were one of the key groups I had in mind when I wrote Misunderstood.

Business families often receive very little support, and kids of these families are (in my anecdotal experience) the least likely to know there is such a thing as a Third Culture Kid, and therefore the least likely to receive much needed support. These families often get far more cross-cultural support from international schools, should their children attend such schools, than from the company that sent them abroad. When they don’t have kids in an international school, many are left quite on their own. One mother told me of travelling 1.5 hours each way to attend a talk in another city because she was so desperate for any information she could get. My own family lived overseas for two years when I was a teenager due to my Dad’s job. There was no cross-cultural support for us, even though my Dad’s company tends to be more proactive than most when it comes to considering work-life balance etc.

Families don’t often need to be convinced of the need for resources and support. It’s companies (and HR departments) who most need information to demonstrate why cross-cultural preparation and support for the whole family is essential to making international assignments work – and how this affects the company’s goals (and bottom line). For this reason I’ve included a number of posts that help make these arguments. If you are considering taking a post overseas, or are looking for ways to explain to your company/HR department what your family needs, these may be helpful resources to consider.

How to Help Your Spouse Cope with Work Stress
Harvard Business Review
But first – a more general post about work stress, bringing it home, and how to deal with this in and with your partner. There are some great helpful hints in here, and some common sense which is always good to go back over. This is helpful for all kinds of families, not just expat employees!
There are two kinds of work stress. “There’s sporadic stress, which is the result of a bad meeting or a client project gone awry,” and there’s “chronic stress, which bubbles under the surface” for a prolonged period. Chronic stress, she says, is a signal that your significant other may “be in the wrong place.”

5 new trends of relocation that are changing the face of expat assignments
ACS International Schools
A short article which gives a broad overview of how expat assignments are changing over time. The piece is a little peppy, but has some helpful stats on the bigger picture. For example:
Prior to the 1990s, expat assignments usually lasted three to five years, according to Expat Focus. Today, assignments are much shorter, often just a year or even six months.

Out of Sight Out of Mind: Why are Expats Forgotten?
This is a great piece about a forgotten piece of the expat employee’s experience: going back. Repatriation is something talked about a lot for expats generally, but this is the first piece I’ve seen about the specific experience of going back into the same old workplace you left a few years earlier only to find you have a rocky adjustment!
This means that the organization considers the assignee to be on holiday. There is an implicit understanding that they will just fit straight back in when they return. When the assignee does return, their international experiences are dismissed, and the assignment is viewed as a perk. The repatriated assignee cannot describe any achievements or successes without starting the sentence, “When I was in…,” and as a result, they are not taken seriously.

Why 40% of Overseas Assignments Fail and What You Can Do to Prevent It
Another post from LeanLight, this time a good summary of the issue of overseas postings: the fact that many are considered failures, and what companies can/should be doing about this. Of particular note: specific issues of preparation that are overlooked, the need to be informed about the family’s issues and needs, and ongoing support.
Four in ten international assignments are judged to be a failure. And yet the number of overseas assignments continues to rise…To minimize the risk of such failure and to ensure the well-being of their employees, organizations must examine the key challenges facing expats deployed overseas, and determine the best way to prepare, support, and manage them during their time abroad.

How can employers reduce the risks when sending employees overseas?
Personnel Today
The above post leans heavily on this article (a press release from Punter Southall Health and Protection), which has helpful quotes explaining some of the same material. I was both shocked and not at all shocked by this statistic: “According to KMPG, only 38% of companies offer cross-cultural training to the assignees and family and 35% do not offer any cross-cultural training at all.” Shocked, because this seems like such a glaring oversight! Not shocked, because it sounds about right from my own anecdotal evidence, talking to expat families about their experiences.

The secrets to managing overseas postings for modern families? Start with the spouse
The Conversation
This won’t come as a surprise to most expat families: the success of an international assignment hangs largely on the family at home. If they don’t cope with the situation, it doesn’t matter how good the job is! And yet this is still a farily new consideration for most HR departments. This article gives a few thoughts and points to some research explaining why the needs of an accompanying partner are so important to a successful posting.
Career paths are no longer choices for a single breadwinner, but compromises between couples or within families. This means there are a number of stakeholders to consider when an overseas assignment is on offer. The dynamics between the various immediate family members play a major role in whether the assignment is a success.

Why companies supporting expatriate children have an edge
In a similar vein, this piece lays out a basic argument for the importance of companies providing effective support to employees’ families on international assignments. The lack of effective support for corporate families was a key motivator for me in writing Misunderstood. I interviewed a number of business kids who said their family received no information at all about how cultural issues might affect them. Many did not learn the term TCK until years after repatriating.
In a recent report from EY & NetExpat, “Children Issues” was among the top 5 most common reasons for failed assignment (in addition to “Partner Not Happy,” “Job Satisfaction,” and “Employee Performance”), and 65% of the people polled cited “Other Family Issues” as being among the most common reasons for not accepting an international assignment. Expatriation failure (or early repatriation), can represent up to 2.5 times the cost of the employee’s yearly salary.

Nurture Connections to Enhance Expatriate Success
Association for Talent Development
The post argues for the importance of relational connections to make for a successful overseas assignment, and gives practical suggestions for how HR/talent development support personnel can work to help this happen.
Connecting expatriates to social resources is an indispensable strategy for easing their cultural adaptation and supporting their effectiveness. Talent development professionals can apply strategies during each phase of an expatriate’s experience to promote social connections…Facilitating such relationships not only helps expatriates but also can lead to greater success for the organization that is sending employees on international assignments.

Expat Focus International Healthcare Update, June 2018
Expat Focus
This post includes information on different trends in expatriate health insurance, including rising prices, that insurance is required for expats in some countries but not others, and general information on health care for expats from around the world.

And finally, a few research resources:
2017 Global Assignment Policies and Practices Survey (KPMG)
Corporate Insights (infographic from 98 clients of Allianz)

Lessons from a Third Culture childhood, part 2: what about the internet?

In part one of this series, I explained the lesson “everyone leaves”. This is something most TCKs “learn” through their experiences growing up internationally. I chose to leave space at the end of the piece to reflect on how this “lesson” affects TCKs, rather than jump straight to solutions. When we skip straight to “it’ll be okay” we don’t stop to sit with TCKs in their sadness and grief. We miss the opportunity to act as witnesses, to listen, to say that their feelings about this are valid. It’s hard to listen to pain, so we don’t often take enough time to wait in that place. I wanted to create space, to honour the sadness, even in blog posts.

Now it’s time for part 2 – but I’m not jumping into the solutions just yet! In the next post of this series I will talk about how TCKs can grow beyond the sadness of “everyone leaves”, what other lessons there are to be learned, and how friends and family can support TCKs in this learning and growth. But first I’ve decided to address something else:

What about the internet?

A really common response I hear from parents, and even older ATCKs, is that with the internet and social media, TCKs these days can stay in touch with their friends after a move. It’s not the same, but surely it makes things easier. A lot of TCKs I interviewed for Misunderstood had heard this, too. There’s a few problems with this idea, and I want to break them down.

The internet doesn’t erase loss

Most of the time these comments aren’t comforting for TCKs. It makes them feel that they aren’t supposed to grieve, or that they shouldn’t show their sadness. The ability to stay in touch after a move doesn’t take away the sadness of losing that person from their daily life. And there’s no guarantee, even with the internet. When a child says goodbye to a friend, they don’t yet know what that friendship will look like on the other side of the move – whether it will continue or not, whether they will ever see their friend in person again or not. Sometimes there will be reunions, but not always. It is so important for TCKs to be able to grieve friendships that change or are lost. Their feelings of sadness are real and valid and need to be expressed – and are worth listening to.

“‘Graduation’ was a word that most people in my grade did not want to say, because ‘graduation’ meant ‘goodbye’. I used to say this a lot to my parents but they just kept telling me that “back in my day we only had snail mail and you guys get email and Facebook and so many other opportunities to stay in touch.” I gave up trying to make my point – it’s not the same. If home is where the heart is then after we all graduate my home will be in Korea and America and other places I’ve never been to, because that’s where my friends will be.”
Katherine, as quoted in Misunderstood

It’s not the same

Friendship online is different to friendship in person, for many reasons. Also, not everyone is good at online connection. It relies on a different set of interpersonal skills, and sometimes a friendship that is amazing in person just doesn’t translate that well to long-distance. Lots of TCKs hold onto the hope that staying in touch online means they’re not really saying goodbye. It doesn’t end well. I’ve heard so many stories of ways TCKs struggle with delayed grief – because they thought staying in touch online would erase the problem. One mother told me she learned to expect the sadness to hit her son a year after being left behind. A teenage boy spoke to me of being deeply hurt by a friend not investing as much in maintainging their friendship online. A young adult woman found she was offending friends; she learned to tell herself this wasn’t really goodbye, so she didn’t have to be emotional about it. When a person leaves, the friendship as it has been ends. A new friendship can be neogtiated thanks to the wonders of the internet, but it will be a NEW friendship. There is still sadness is losing what was, even when there is a continuation of connection.

“I had to say goodbye to a close friend knowing I would not see her for at least five years. I missed her so much. Immediately after she left, I could not make new friends. I think I was still sore from the goodbye. I still talk to her online but it really isn’t the same. I do believe I will see her again, although I know the relationship will never be the same. A lot can happen in five years, and people change.”
Joy, as quoted in Misunderstood

It’s not just one person

We’re not talking about one or two friends moving away – we’re talking about one or two a year. Or more. No matter how much time and energy you invest in online relationships, there will always be people you don’t keep up with. There’s just no way to stay in touch with that many people, especially if you’re also working hard to build new connections in person. While having the ability to stay in touch via the internet is amazing, and so good for TCKs, it also adds complications. The more time I spend investing in friends online, the less time I can spend investing in people nearby. And while it’s so valuable to stay in touch with friends who used to live nearby, it’s also important to continue building new relationships. The friends I stay in touch with from previous locations know certain parts of me, have shared certain parts of my life. But if I don’t invest in new relationships, I won’t have friends who knew THIS part of my life.

“People who haven’t moved as much or as far do not understand that it is usual for TCKs to have more than one best friend. They are my best friend in this circumstance and this location.”
Callie, as quoted in Misunderstood

Who is in control?

Remember that we’re talking about children. They don’t have full control over their lives and ability to connect. Younger children especially can’t just stay in touch, because the ability to do so is filtered through their parents, and their friends’ parents. TCKs are heavily dependent on their parents to support the maintenance of friendships with people in other places. And even with parents’ support, it’s not always that simple. Time differences can make it really hard to coordinate schedules. Perhaps a TCK is living in an area without reliable internet access – or her friend is. Plus, I have heard many internet-age TCKs tell stories in which a friend moved away with little or no warning, and was never heard from again – especially if they were in primary school at the time. Staying in touch via the internet is great in theory, but it doesn’t always happen in practice – and TCKs often don’t have much control over that.

“Friendships maintained online helped and still help me a great deal. They served as a way to reminisce and share in the processes and challenges of life with other TCKs. My parents have been very gracious with making opportunities for me to visit friends – this includes driving long(ish) distances, being willing to host friends, and encouraging me to keep in contact. They make a point to ask about the lives of my friends who live far away who I talk to. I would encourage TCKs to be consistent and keep in contact with their friends online and through texting. But don’t let those relationships be the only ones, because they can take away from building relationships in person.”
Becca, as quoted in Misunderstood

The internet: worth it, but not without complications

A Third Culture childhood is a good thing overall, for most kids in most situations, but it is not without difficulties and complications. Erasing mention of hard things doesn’t solve the difficulties. 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”.

Recommended reading: October 8th, 2018

Time for another addition of Recommended Reading! There are several posts from expats in this week’s collection, sharing their experiences abroad, and reflecting on issues of belonging and identity that affect anyone with a cross-cultural background.

The good, bad and frantic of raising kids overseas
While this piece is specifically about missionary families raising kids overseas, there are some really good insights about parenting TCKs in general. This, for example:
You can never be fully ‘present’ in your host country because at some level you’re always preparing your child to live in your passport country, either for home assignment, or for your eventual return. But then, you also aren’t parenting in your passport country so are influenced by your host country.

TCKs and Education
Diary of a Desi TCK
Long but interesting post from a TCK (and school psychologist in training) talking about some of the difficulties of changing schools – and hints to help families do this well.
I genuinely believe that being a TCK is one of my life’s biggest blessings (though sometimes I can see it as a curse, such as when I lose touch with friends due to the constant distance) and I think that any child who has lived a similar life is so lucky. Through our TCK lifestyle, we gain a unique and wonderful understanding of the world, one that I feel you can’t really get otherwise. You understand other cultures in ways that you can only if you experienced them for yourself. That said, sometimes certain things, such as TCK education (ie. the education of a TCK) can be negatively affected by this otherwise extraordinary lifestyle.

Rania – Reflections on Place, Work, and Travel
Communicating Across Boundaries
Marilyn continues her beautiful writing as she reflects on building a new home in a new country. This short post is a lovely tribute to the beauty (and cost) of creating home again.
I walk up the three flights of stairs to our apartment and unlock the door. I step inside and breathe a sigh of gratitude. No matter where you live, you need a home base. This is why the displacement and refugee crisis of our time is so important to care about. We are created for place. What happens to us when place is disrupted, creating fear and insecurity? This is the question trauma experts will be called on to answer for decades. This one bedroom apartment has quickly become our place and haven.

Expat Parenting: Learning to Leave it All on the Stage…and Teaching our TCKs to do the Same
World Tree Coaching
This post talks about redeeming one of the trickier parts of life for expats who move frequently. Those transitions can be overwhelming! But they also give a freedom to try new things: “Something turns out not to be what you anticipated? Who cares! Next year it’s a clean slate – new home, new friends, new school.” Obviously it’s not that simple, and this isn’t about whitewashing difficult experiences. Instead, there’s an offer to think differently – to reframe an experience, and see what you can get out of it.
I also reminded my son that it’s important to remember that sometimes things will hurt. You might feel embarrassed or regret a choice you make. Leaving it all on the stage is not about creating a myth that everything will work out fine, it’s about seeing that challenges are a normal part of our existence (no matter where we go) and that our lifestyle, in it’s extreme flexibility, offers the opportunity (and maybe even the anonymity) to recover faster when things don’t go your way. Leaving it all on the stage is the ultimate embrace of the inherent ambiguity and unpredictability of life – a reality that expats face over and over again, every day.

The Joy of Life
The Black Expat
Interesting post introducing Martine Ngo Nlend Manga and her wide range of international experiences. I particularly love these reflections on balancing global life nad the need for a place to be ‘from’. This can be a struggle for TCKs – when you have a less clear sense of ‘from’ centred in place.
Being a global citizen, at least for me, only works when you know where you are coming from. Because at some point, wherever you go, people ask you where you are from. And it can be complicated. . .Global citizen cannot be enough. Where can you go back to, if things get complicated? But I was born in Cameroon. There is a personal culture attached to it, even if I’ve had international experiences. No matter where I go, I will always be seen as Cameroonian, especially when encountering others from Africa. Even when welcomed with open arms, I’m from there. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing. But it’s a part of my identity and in [some] people’s minds it won’t change. And it’s a good part of my identity.”

Why Swedes are Happier Than We Are: An American Perspective
Swedish Freak
This post is an interesting example of what I consider to be one of the biggest benefits of living overseas – gaining a perspective that helps you evaluate your own culture more objectively. In this case, an American expat compares aspects of life in her passport country to that in Sweden, where she now lives.
This word is uniquely Swedish, and a direct translation does not exist in the English language, which is the best evidence of the purity of its genesis. Roughly translated, it means something akin to “not too much, not too little,” “sufficient” or “adequate”. For example, you can have a lagom number of meatballs, live in a lagom apartment and have your heating set at a lagom temperature. For me, this single word “lagom” encapsulates the entire Swedish socially-democratic philosophy on life: that everyone should have enough, but not too much (which is antithetical to the stereotypical American capitalist mindset).

Living a meaningful life abroad: identifying your values
Intentional Expat
Nice post about how identifying and living our individual values helps up to make the most out of life – even in the midst of frustrated plans and everything else that goes along with international life.
Values are unique to each and every individual. There are no right or wrong values. They are related to what you ultimately want your life to be about…being aware of our values allows us to enjoy the moment rather than being overly focused on completing our goals. Instead of being focused on arriving somewhere, we can also enjoy the journey. We don’t need to wait until we achieve our goal to start living a rich and meaningful life, we can find small ways to live in accordance with our values each and every day.”

Gidday, Ni Hao, Kia Ora……Can You Have More Than One Hometown?
Mint Mocha Musings
Nicole took a trip to her birth country, the first time she’d been there in 15 years, with family along for the ride. In the light of this, she reflects on the power of place to stir our memories and emotions:
“...memories are cued by the physical environment. When you visit a place you used to live, these cues can cause you to revert back to the person you were when you lived there…Does our birth place hold a piece of our heart, indefinitely?

CurrencyFair Vs TransferWise | World’s Best Compared
Another random finance-admin post, this time looking at two international transfer services that skip the banks (and their fees). I’ve used TransferWise before but CurrencyFair is new to me. This article does a good job breaking down and comparing the different aspects of each service. Helpful and interesting – for me at least!

7 Helpful Hints for Raising Kids Overseas

This week I’ve written a post for Expatriate Specialist, sharing 7 Helpful Hints for Raising Kids Overseas:

“Don’t you wish there was a step-by-step guide to successfully raising a family abroad? Or anywhere, for that matter! Unfortunately, no one has all the answers. What I can offer, however, is years of experience listening to young people who were raised overseas. I’ve learned a lot about what their parents did to help (or hinder) them along the way. These 7 helpful hints for raising kids overseas will point you in the right direction, whether you’re thinking about a move, starting out, or years down the track.”

One of the things that motivated me to write Misunderstood was wanting to support parents who worry about whether they’re doing the right thing for their kids, and how it will all work out long term. Yes, raising kids overseas complicates things, and every kid is unique. That said, there are things any family can do to help smooth the way through some of the harder aspects of international life, and set kids up with tools for future growth.

In this piece I give short summaries of several key pieces of advice I regularly offer to parents. I talk about the comfort of familiarity, emotional health, building connections, and recognising the difference between the experiences of children and adults. Please take a look, and let me know what you think!

Read the full post on Expatriate Specialist

National Day holiday in China

Today is National Day in China – the start of the October Holiday Golden Week. (There’s a whole long story about how public holidays are scheduled in China. I wrote about it on my personal blog five years ago if you’re interested in that side story!) There are national flags and flower displays everywhere, and clean skies as everyone goes on holiday.

One of hundreds of flags around our neighbourhood this week (and probably millions around the city!)

One of hundreds of flags around our neighbourhood this week (and probably millions around the city!)

The National Day holiday marks the anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949. I really hope I’m in Beijing for October 1st next year, because then I’ll have been here for the 50th, 60th, and 70th anniversary years! (My first visit to China, as a teenage student and tourist, coincided with the 50th anniversary in 1999.)

I don’t have a regular day job to take a holiday from this week, but I’m trying to create some extra space anyway. (Not something I’m good at, but I’m trying to get better at rest!) One way I’m doing that is by giving Recommended Reading a break today. I’ll be back next Monday with a bunch of posts about Third Culture Kids and expat life for you! In the mean time, if you haven’t checked out my latest post on the TCK lesson that “everyone leaves” I’d love for you to take a look. In only a few days it’s become the most read post on this site, and I’m honoured to see that it’s striking a chord with TCKs and expat parents around the world. I have follow up posts in the works, too – so stay tuned!

Lessons from a Third Culture childhood, part 1: Everyone leaves

As promised, I’m starting a series that looks a little more deeply at the two key lessons from a TCK childhood which I wrote about for China Source.

The experience of living overseas as a child is very different to the experience of living overseas as an adult. The impact of childhood experiences last a lifetime. They are formative experiences – they teach us how the world works. We all internalise ‘lessons’ from our childhood experiences.

TCKs grow up between cultures, learning lessons from more than one cultural viewpoint. Often these messages contradict one another, and learning to navigate this conflict is part of what makes a TCK. The lessons they learn about how the world works, therefore, often come less from individual cultures and more from the fact that they juggle more than one cultural viewpoint. The experience of being “in between” greatly affects their understanding of the world.

As I interviewed hundreds of TCKs there were a lot of repeated themes, and even specific phrases, that became familiar. These were the lessons these TCKs had learned through their childhood experiences. In this post I’m introducing one of the most common lessons of a TCK childhoood: everyone leaves.

Everyone leaves

I heard the exact phrase “everyone leaves” in scores of interviews. Even when a TCK lived in one place a long time (even their whole childhood) most did not live fully immersed lives in their host culture, and were therefore affected by the mobility of other expatriates. That is to say, if TCKs didn’t move on themselves, they watched many of their friends leave. On top of this, most TCKs make trips to visit family in other countries, where they reconnect and then have to say goodbye. Or they attend conferences with their parents’ organisations, where they have friends they make and farewell every year. The end result is that goodbyes form part of the background of a TCK childhood.

It can be hard for adults to really internalise what this feels like for kids – how it shapes them. Perhaps a story will help. When leading sessions on transition with students, I ask how many times a close friend has moved away from them. Not just an acquaintance or classmate, but someone they felt close to. I get a lot of wide eyes and dropped jaws – how can anyone expect me to tally that number?? Some just roll their eyes and refuse to even try. One 10 year old lifted both hands and started opening and closing his fingers, representing an ongoing and endless number. One time, a 5th grade girl got a very determined look on her face – she was intent on counting to an exact number. She kept going while the class moved on to discuss another question. When she lifted her head again, I turned back to her and asked if she had her number. “Yes,” she answered, “it’s 23.” Before even finishing primary school, this girl had said goodbye to 23 people she felt close to.

Reacting to this lesson

There are several quite rational responses to this experience. Some TCKs try to avoid the sadness of goodbyes, by denying that the goodbyes are real or painful. Others try to create emotional distance to blunt the pain.

“I lived with a mentality that ‘everyone leaves’. I just recently moved off to college and I had a really close friend get mad at me for pushing her away and trying to do anything I could to minimize the hurt I knew was coming. Honestly I still expect us to eventually lose touch anyway because people move on. That’s all I’ve ever known.” – Maddie, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I never feel sad until a half hour before the person I know leaves. It hurts too much, so I numb myself to the pain, block it out, and refuse to think about it until it’s actually happening.” – Faith, as quoted in Misunderstood

Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent – such as when they will be leaving soon, or the other person will. “Soon” being anywhere from six months to two years. 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.

“I didn’t want to devote myself to new friendships because I knew it would just be another goodbye at the end of the six months.” – Eve, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I remember feeling ‘popular’ but looking back, the majority of my friendships were quite shallow and superficial. I did not open myself up to the different possible friendships I could have had. I did not properly invest time or emotions in my ‘friends’. I was prepared to say goodbye to those people from day one.” – Siyin, as quoted in Misunderstood

Other TCKs dive deep into relationships as quickly as possible because they don’t know how long they have. This can create friction outside non-international circles, as they may come across as too eager, or be labelled as too intense.

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.

Looking for hope

I feel the urge to switch to something hopeful here, so I don’t depress you! But please stick with me a minute longer, as I offer a sobering reflection – to help understand how the “everyone leaves” lessons affects TCKs who don’t yet know there is any other way to experience the world.

Imagine you are 9 years old, and every year of your life you have said goodbye to a close friend, and had to make a new friend. In your world, friends only last a year or two. Is it really worth the effort this time?

Imagine you are 13 years old, and you’ve learned the skill of being warm and friendly and fitting into yet another new circle of friends, but you doubt it’s possible to be truly known by any one person. Am I going to be lonely forever?

Imagine you are 17 years old, your best friend is moving to another country, and this time you’re desperate not to lose them. You think about all the ways to stay in touch and plan around time zones, trying hard to ignore the sinking feeling that it won’t be the same.

How hopeful would you feel, as you look ahead?

Every child’s experience is different, but the weight of having to keep building new friendships, and negotiating long-distance friendships, is something most TCKs experience to some degree.

Losing friends hurts – and that’s okay

The best first step for helping TCKs, especially when they are young, is to validate feelings of loss. Instead of saying “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends” a far more helpful thing is to say “You’re right, this is really hard. It won’t always feel this way, but right now it’s totally okay to feel sad or angry.” Instead of telling them things you hope will make them feel better, ask them questions that invite them to share how they feel right now.

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.”

I plan to write more in future about how to help TCKs with this, but for now I want to stop here, with the truth that losing friends hurt – and that’s okay. We hurt because we’re losing something that matters. It’s a good thing to attach to someone enough that it hurts to lose them. None of us can “fix” the pain of losing a friend. I can’t change that this friend is moving away, or that our company is moving us away, or any of the circumstances that cause a child the pain of loss. I can’t fix it. But every time I talk to groups of TCKs about this, they share that they don’t actually want someone to fix it. They know it can’t be fixed – and they don’t like adults acting as if it can be. They just want someone (especially their parents) to listen to them, and say it’s okay to be sad.

And that is something we can do.


In part 2, I consider a common response to “everyone leaves” – namely, “what about the internet“?

Recommended reading: September 24th, 2018

Time for another edition of Recommended Reading! Most of this week’s posts are tips for moving overseas and raising kids abroad – with some lovely personal stories, too. But before I launch into this week’s round up, just a quick reminder: this is the LAST WEEK to apply for scholarships to attend the FIGT annual conference in Bangkok on April 26-28, 2019. It’s also the LAST WEEK to apply to speak at the conference! There are all sorts of presentations – speaking to large groups, sharing with small groups, coordinating a panel discussion, or even creating a poster. FIGT stands for Families in Global Transition and it is an amazing event and, even more than that, and amazing community. Read my post about why I’m excited about this event, or go to their website to apply for a scholarship or submit a speaking proposal. I’m going to be there, and I’ve applied to speak as well!

And now, on with this week’s Recommended Reading! The first two are about TCKs as young adults, and support for them on the journey. Since I’m currently working on a book for young adult TCKs, I lovelovelove reading this sort of stuff!

Third Culture Kids and the Growth Mindset
Life Story
Another great post from Rachel, with another helpful and hopeful idea for TCKs as they grow into adulthood. This one talks about growth mindset – the idea that we can continue to grow and learn skills throughout life, it’s not a case of either you have it or you don’t. Rachel points to a particular way that a false growth mindset like this can impact TCKs:
We can sometimes form this false growth mindset, believing that because our childhood primed us for adaptation and flexibility, that we are innately gifted at ‘fitting in’ or getting on with varied groups of people. In adulthood many TCKs experience isolation or a sense of ‘failure to adapt’, especially to settledness or host country communities. This experience jars painfully with the belief that they are ‘good at’ adapting and growing as individuals. It’s your classic double whammy – first it hurts that I feel socially isolated, second it hurts that this hurts! I should be good at this! After all, isn’t adapting what I’m all about? But there is hope! A true growth mindset is one that we can cultivate, at any time of life.”

Monday Morning Musings #10 – When You Know to Offer Them… Home
Monday Morning Emails
I love this piece, about expat parents of adult TCKs and the power of being able to offer them a home – somewhere. Also, this lovely paragraph about the power of the book Monday Morning Emails, which Jo and Terry Anne wrote together:
In Monday Morning Emails, Jo and I were honest about the challenges that our children have experienced. Often, the messages sent to us privately ask, ‘How are the ‘kids?’ In truth, they are young adults, and we both knew it was important to share their journey of depression/anxiety and struggles with identity. Why? With the hope it might help other families experiencing similar issues and as a parent, you are never truly at ease until your children are well.

Parenting Third Culture Kids: Identity & Belonging
The Premium Nomads
This is a great little post about TCKs, the confusion of place/belonging/identity, and a few helpful hints for parents. One of the main reasons I’m including it, however, is the following quote. It is one of the best descriptions I’ve come across as to why the Third Culture can be such a powerful place for TCKs:
Their experiences have been spread out between places across borders, and those places became connected to stories, life phases, friends in particular places, and their emotional connection to it all. Ultimately, they make up their own thread of life, laced with the pearls of their unique TCK memories, which they carry with them everywhere they go. And maybe that’s exactly where their belonging starts to manifest: the space where they meet others who carry the same beads, who have gone through the same experiences and with whom they feel a little bit more at home, because none of them really do, and paradoxically, that’s where home is.

Love ones left behind: understanding their emotions
The Home Wanderers
A poignant and powerful post about the other side – how our friends and family members may feel when we decide to move away from them. Far, far away. The author actually talked to her own best friend about this – about what the experience of being left was like, and advice she would give to expats and those who are planning to head out overseas.
Leaving your loved ones is one of the hardest things you will do and there are negative consequences of that action that affect not just you but the loved ones that stay behind. That person is happy with their life and having you nearby. By moving country, you are taking one of their comforts away from them and they feel powerless when faced with this unwanted change. Their resentment that ensues can therefore be frustrating and upsetting for the person moving away, however it is important to understand where they are coming from and treat them with kindness and consideration despite how negatively they react. Your friends and family ultimately want you to be happy and content.”

How to settle into life in Dar es Salaam from a family’s perspective
International School of Tanganyika
The story of one expatriate family’s transition. I really appreciated the two tips this mum shared for getting settled into a new location quickly – things I often advise myself! 1) make home cozy, a comfortable and homey place to retreat to; 2) get stuck into routine quickly. Also – this quote was an important one! Expectations of what a move will look like can really throw us:
Tanzania surprisingly took the longest time of all the countries I had moved to [to feel comfortable]. I think it was because I had expectations. The last time I had lived in Tanzania I was a teenager, now I arrived with a family, which was quite different.

Moving countries: why I am more with less
Moving a lot really encourages you to pare down your *stuff* (especially if you don’t have a job package that includes packing and shipping services!) This post gives a few simple but really helpful hints of ways to divest yourself of belongings along the way. I really love that the first tip is “keep the unique and special”.
Souvenirs from my travels and memorabilia items such as a shell from a summer holiday, a pack of letters from my pen friend, a dried flower from my first love, are my weakness when it comes to my efforts for minimal living.”

Cross-cultural awareness: more than just a different country
This post looks at three aspects of change and difference that impact expats: physical surroundings, specific cultural differences, and changes in self-perception. It’s not an in-depth post, but a good starting place especially for those considering a move abroad.
One thing you can be sure of? No two-week holiday – however authentic – can prepare you for working in another country. That would be like saying babysitting a few times prepares you for parenthood.

Tennis Star Naomi Osaka Perfectly Answers What It Means To Be Biracial
Finally, in response to current-ish events, here’s a post reflecting on Naomi Osaka, and her representation of biracial and cross-cultural identity.
This response is brilliant because in a semi sarcastic way, Osaka replied that while she is made up of all of these cultures, it doesn’t make her less Japanese or less Haitian or even less American nor does her identity have to be heightened in a way to create a storyline she has yet to write.

Expat guilt: being far from family

I’ve written before about homesickness and the price we pay to be expats. Anyone who has lived overseas for an extended period knows there’s not one price tag – there’s many. One of the biggest ones, and a contributor to expat homesickness, is being far away from family.

I’ve spent countless hours and dollars visiting family. And while I’m very fortunate to have family who have made the trip to see me more than once (something not all my long term expat friends have experienced) I’ve definitely spent more time and money visiting them. But that’s how it goes, because I was the one who left them.

And yet – I miss out on so much.

My choice to live overseas means I missed my grandpa’s funeral. I missed two cousins’ weddings. I wasn’t there when each of my parents went through cancer diagnoses, treatments, and all-clears. I have cousins I’ve never met. I have two nephews I haven’t met yet – one is 9 months old, the other is 3 weeks old! (I’ll see them in 11 and 12 weeks – not that I’m counting!) And let’s not even get started on the list of friends’ milestones missed.

Spending three years in Australia recently gave me the opportunity to spend more time with family. I could go on outings with my aunt, getting to know her as an adult. I could drive to visit my grandparents for the weekend. For the first time I could be an adult child who visited my parents easily, readily. Go home for my Mum’s cooking, or have lunch with her when she was driving through my city. I could call them up and say “so, I need to come run an errand this weekend, I’ll see you in five hours”. Seeing my grandparents was very important. During my three years in Australia their health declined markedly and it was such a relief to be nearby, to be able to help, to pitch in, especially with me living a few hours closer to them than my Mum. It was a blessing to have time with them before, and even while, things became more difficult for them.

While my sisters lived on the other side of the country, I still had more opportunities to see them than I would have otherwise. Plus there were so many events to celebrate with them! One sister got engaged, then married, then pregnant. Somewhere in the middle of that my other sister gave birth to my first niece. I was more connected to them and all these huge life milestones than I would have been were I further away.

But now I’m far away, again.

Somehow, that makes it harder.

Video chats are amazing but they don’t take the place of cuddling a niece or nephew, of interacting with them in person. I am so thankful for sisters who work to make sure I’m a part of their children’s lives, but I still miss being able to see them in Real Life. I know what it’s like to see my grandparents in person, and how very not the same it is to be far away – especially when they don’t use the internet at all, and now struggle to keep up with even a phone call.

And then comes the guilt.

Knowing that I can only blame myself. That I’m the one who decided to go. That I could be closer but chose not to be. Knowing I valued something more highly than being near the family members I love so dearly. That’s a hard truth to face – and yet also a hard one to escape! In a recent recommended reading post I linked to a really good post about the guilt of distance. It’s something a lot of expats (if not all of us) feel, at least sometimes.

To be honest, I wonder if I would have so readily made the decision to leave Australia again this time if I hadn’t become engaged to a man who was not Australian and did not live in Australia. To be even more honest, part of me thinks “Phew! Glad that stopped me getting trapped in one place!” And it does give me a pretty solid and good and guilt-free (or at least reduced guilt) reason to be far away. And yet…

I think the guilt can be like homesickness – coming in waves, rather than constant, sometimes taking you by surprise.

I was recently reminded of my grandparents by a simple scene – a decorative planter box outside a burrito place we often go to, in which was growing the unusual combination of begonia flowers and fresh mint. My grandfather grew lots of begonias (among tonnes of other flowers!) and he taught me to grow them from cuttings. We would select them, wrap them in wet newspaper, and after the 6 hour drive home I would plant them and tend them until they bust into vibrant patches of colour. My grandmother had big tubs of fresh mint outside the house (I suppose she still does?) which would go on boiled baby potatoes, in sauce for roast lamb, and into ice water with lemon. So many memories wrapped up in those two plants!

This happened shortly after I read several messages about the ongoing situation with my grandparents, their health and capacity, and wanting to work out what’s best for them. And while nothing had changed, there was also a comfort in those plants. I carry them with me. I carry all the people I love with me. They are a part of me, no matter where in the world I am.


Recommended reading: September 17th, 2018

I read some great articles by TCKs over the (northern hemisphere) summer and decided I needed to do another TCK perspective special! There’s something special about hearing TCKs share their own experiences, in their own words. Although if you’ve read Misunderstood, chock-full as it is with TCKs telling their own stories, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that! So here is a selection of posts written by TCKs (or featuring interviews with TCKs) that cover a range of topics and experiences – including  belonging, grief, racism, and identity. And there’s a range of TCK voices – from countries including Cape Verde, Jordan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, the UK, and the US. Enjoy!

A Missionary Kid’s Perspective
In a few short paragraphs, this missionary kid illustrates the tension and weariness of not fitting in – whether abroad or “at home”. The emotional burden of being rejected by peers and misunderstood by parents is captured perfectly. This particular individual eventually integrated these experiences and saw beauty in the parents’ choices, and followed them in their faith. This isn’t the case with all missionary kids. I still highly recommend reading this post, to get a sense of how it can feel for a child straddling expectations and struggling to fit in.
Did she really understand what was going on? I already spent most of the school day either being bullied or rejected, and so after school I stayed away from the other children when I could.

Opinion: It’s Okay to be Third Cultured Kids
The China Post
I really love this piece by a Korean TCK attending an American international school in Taiwan. The author shares the internal wrestling that goes on, trying to live and identify between languages and cultures. Any easy answers belie a deeper truth.
If being a “third culture kid (TCK)” was counted as a privilege, I’m certainly not idle, sitting quietly halfway. At the top, I’m proud of my multicultural identity, but below it, I’m confused, frustrated, and utterly in angst, of how loosely my identity is set in stone.”

My black community accuses you
TCK Town
I really appreciate this very honest piece, with the story of one TCK recognising the prejudices he was absorbing and living and then embarking on mindest change.
I ran into a huge problem when I moved back to my passport country, and I wasn’t prepared for how long it would take me to adjust. I got caught up in being racist. Over the next several years, I would need to train myself to not have averse feelings for my own race. I would need to learn not to discriminate simply because they did not speak or act like me.

Dear America, We’re Breaking Up
TCK Town
I decided to add another, more recent post from TCK Town. I really enjoyed Molly’s reflections on her sense of connection (and lack thereof) to her passport country.
I think the question “Where are you from?” will always elicit some anxiety and internal questioning. I’m not ashamed of being American, I’m just frustrated that I don’t feel like I belong here. Part of being a TCK is that we are forever searching for some sense of belonging. At least I am. I may not find that in one specific place, but I know I haven’t found that in America. Home means something different for everybody.

You Can’t Go Back
A poignant and important message from an adult Missionary Kid. This might be difficult for some to hear, but it’s so important. There are great things that come with growing up overseas – but there are struggles, too. Pretending those struggles don’t exist, trying to only focus on the good, does a disservice to families.
When you belong to two places, you really belong to none. That is what they don’t tell you at the transition seminars. Why did I feel that I could not share this information with this missionary? The Christian community has by and large decided that MKs need to focus on the good parts of their experience- you know- all the adventures, and in the process it becomes taboo to talk about the trauma that comes along with growing up in two different cultures… When someone is not allowed to grieve properly they will engage in avoidance behavior. They will tell themselves they feel OK, or will try to bury their sad feelings. This is unhealthy!

The Boy Who Didn’t Cry Wolf
The Black Expat
Edgar first grew up in his father’s country (Cabo Verde) before moving to his mother’s country (Mongolia). This post shares some of his experience of living between countries and ethnicities.
When asked what is home to him, Edgar says that the idea of ‘home’ and ‘stability’ are not terms that apply to him the way they do to the rest of the world. Now living in the US, Edgar is fluent in Portuguese, Creole, Spanish and Mongolian – and of course, proud to be a very unique Cape-Verdean-Mongolian man.

Who are the burger kids?
Gulf News
A series of short vignettes from TCKs (from Pakistan, Philippines and Jordan) living in the UAE. They share some of the ways they are labelled as “other” when in their passport countries. This is portrayed as “good natured ribbing” and the TCKs being interviewed give it a lighthearted treatment, but I think it’s worth remembering that these experiences can also be painful – having your peers at “home” tell you so clearly that you do not belong.
I think growing up in culturally diverse cities and being immersed in all those different cultures forces you to be adaptable, and it teaches you tolerance and acceptance, knowing that there, literally, is a whole different world outside of your backyard…The challenge is knowing the word ‘home’, but not having a feeling to attach to the sound of it.

I Am a TCK, but Who Are We?
Noggy Boggy
This is a long read, but it gives a really good foundational explanation of what it means to be a TCK, written by a TCK. Aneurin covers the importance of culture, the TCK experience of belonging, the disconnect of being misunderstood by others, as well as building relationships nd cultural bridges. A long read, but very worthwhile.
If you haven’t experienced it for yourself, cultural differences can be all-encompassing. The surface level discrepancies are simple enough to identify, such as food or clothes. But there are much deeper and significant ones; perception of time, understanding of mathematics, or whether football or American ‘football’ is a better sport (seriously, there is only one winner here). Despite having a British passport, I am not British. I am a TCK. I belong to a cultural group which is not bound by time or place, but experience. It is unlike other groups and was once rare, but now has millions of people.

Two key lessons from a TCK childhood

Last month I had a guest post on China Source called Two key lessons from a TCK childhood. We all learn lessons about how the world works based on our childhood experiences. Therefore, the international experiences of a TCK shape how these young people see the world.

“The experiences we have shape our understanding of life and people. Each culture teaches us answers to certain questions, which together form a worldview. How do I show respect to others? How do I show gratitude? How do I express politeness? How do I express love? What does success look like? What are the most important things in life? The answers to these questions, and more, are supplied by the families and communities we grow up among.

TCKs grow up with different answers coming from different cultural influences. Sometimes these answers contradict one another! An action considered polite in one environment could be considered very rude in another. TCKs tend to understand intuitively that there is more than one way to see a situation—more than one answer to each question. The foundational worldview TCKs construct, therefore, is strongly influenced by the experience of living in between cultures.”

That experience of living between cultures is formative for TCKs. It shapes their understanding and expectations of life.

In this post I share two of the most common things TCKs expressed in my interviews for Misunderstood: everyone leaves, and no one understands. These are lessons ‘learned’ by the childhood experiences of life in-between.

I am going to be writing a bit more about these two ‘lessons’ in the next couple of weeks, unpacking a bit more of what I summarised in the China Source post. So stay tuned for that!

Click here to read the full post on China Source.