Lessons from a Third Culture childhood, part 3: after “everyone leaves”

My first post in this series explored a “lesson” TCKs learn through growing up internationally: that everyone leaves. Next, I paused to address a very common response: “what about the internet?” The internet allows for relationships to be maintained long-distance, which is so very helpful! But it doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.

Now in part three, I am finally (delayed due to a month of ill health) getting to the “solutions”. Only after we stop to really hear the sadness TCKs experience can we start talking about what happens after everyone leaves. With that foundation under us, I’m going to work through a few ideas that can be helpful for anyone dealing with the life lesson that “everyone leaves”. The bottom line is this: you can’t change the past, but you can choose what sort of future to build. Understanding what we think, and learning new ways of thinking, can make a huge difference in this regard.

Change, transition, and goodbyes

While the focus of this post is dealing with the aftermath – the life lesson encoded from a childhood full of goodbyes – it’s worth taking a moment to consider what to do in the thick of things. It’s important to understand the relationship between change and transition, and the impact transition has on our daily lives – whether we stay or go. Understanding this process, leaving space for it, and practicing self-compassion during it, goes a long way toward encouraging future healing and growth.

Saying good goodbyes is also really important. I’ll write a full post about this at some point, but as a summary thought – anything that matters (a person, animal, place, group) is worth saying goodbye to. Any relatiosnhip that will be changed, any routine that will be lost, is worth marking. There are lots of ways to do this (parties, gifts, memory books, photos, last visits, etc.) but it can also be an internal process. I can stop and recognise the importance of each person/place, expressing sadness and gratitude, any time – even after the fact, even years later, when a good goodbye was not said at the time. This is especially helpful when a family moves unexpectedly – for both the ones who leave, and the ones left behind.

Living “everyone leaves” long term

What I really want to focus on in this post is what to do later in life, when the lesson that “everyone leaves” has sunk in and affects the way I think and act. As I’ve listened to and mentored young adult TCKs in particular (especially as I start preparation for my next book) I’ve found a few tools that help us reframe our thoughts – and take control of the future. Taking time to consciously understand how these very valid past hurts impact our present-day reactions allows us to stop the past from stealing the future.

Saying goodbye sucks. Losing friends sucks. There’s no point sugar-coating that. The reality of change and loss can be painful, and it can’t be changed. The past is what it is. But staying in that place of pain, and the helplessness and hopelessness that often goes with it, doesn’t change the past. We must acknowledge the truth of our lives. But we don’t have to be ruled by it forever. We get to choose what happens next.

Sunk costs

In business there is a term for money you’ve already paid: a “sunk cost”. It is money you can’t get back. You’ve already paid the rent, bought the inventory, paid the salary – whatever it is, good decision or bad, it’s done. The question now has to be what is the best way forward, given that you can’t get the “sunk cost” back. This rule means that sometimes the best decision for a business is to sell old inventory at a loss – because that’s better that having it take up space in a warehouse. Let me use a mundane example to explain. Imagine you’re at a restaurant, and having eaten 3/4 of your meal you are feeling very full. Part of your brain is saying you should eat the rest because you’ve already paid for it! A “sunk cost” mentality says that you pay the same price for the meal no matter how much you eat, that the money is already spent. So, would you enjoy the meal more by stopping now, or by making yourself sick eating too much? Forget what you can’t change, and make the best decision starting from now. Perhaps you can take the small leftover portion home to be a snack later. But even if that’s not possible, eating it all in order not to leave waste may not be the best decision.

I’ve found sunk costs an extremely helpful concept in my personal life. Something has already happened in my life. I can’t change that. So what am I going to do about it? I don’t need to “fix” something that’s already happened. Blaming myself for a bad decision, or blaming someone else for causing me pain, doesn’t change the situation I find myself in. Instead, I can look ahead and decide what to do next.

When it comes to the “everyone leaves” lesson, we can’t change what has happened. We can only decide what is the best way forward, all things being as they are. Yes, I have experienced many goodbyes, and that hurt. But what sort of life do I want from now on? What choices will help me build that sort of future?

Change happens

Change is a part of life everywhere – you can’t insulate yourself against it, no matter what you do. You may decide you want to settle down in one place for the rest of your life, to minimise the potential for change and loss. But anywhere in the world, your best friend might choose to move away, perhaps without warning. No matter what you do, you can’t eliminate change. To be happy and healthy moving forward, therefore, you must find a way to cope with change.

Some people want to be the one who initiates change, so they are in control of it. They may move frequently, change jobs, or locations. One adult TCK told me that she had lived in the same town (with her husband and two kids) for six years, but in five different houses. Most of those moves happened simply because she wanted to move. She would find a better area, look for a better house. It took her years to realise she felt uncomfortable staying put for too long; when work kept them in one place, moving house helped soothe her itchy feet. Having recognised this, she wanted to try addressing the underlying feelings, but in the mean time she was pleased she had found a compromise that worked for her – that kept her living in the same city, not running away.

Another ATCK finds moving stressful, but still has a deep desire to see the world. So he and his wife travel frequently, but always come home to the same house.

I think the important part of this isn’t how I cope with change, but that I do cope with change. That I am able to face my feelings about change, and make conscious choices about how to respond to those feelings – not be controlled by fears I avoid. Each of us needs to acknowledge that change happens, and we can’t avoid that – but it doesn’t mean
we don’t have choices.

Pick your poison

Many TCKs I’ve talked with over the years have laid out the two choices they have: either go through the horrible pain of saying goodbye over and over, or don’t invest deeply in people to begin with. For many, avoiding deep relationships seems like the obvious and logical choice. The problem is that it’s not a choice between pain or no pain, it’s a choice between two different kinds of pain.

Yes, getting close to people only to have to say goodbye, over and over, is painful. But going through life without those close friendships, without people who know you, without anyone to share life with, is also painful.

So this is the real choice: either enjoy the beauty of friendship while you can, and pay the price in grief when someone moves away, or swap that sharp pain for the constant dull ache of feeling isolated and unknown. There is pain either way. But one path leads to relational connection – pain with gain. The other leads to isolation – a more lonely and sad kind of pain.

Faced with the reality of this choice, most of us instinctively understand the benefit of continuing to take the risk of investing in people.

And THIS is where the internet comes in

Maintaining friendships via the internet helps with a middle ground here. There is still the grief when a friend moves, or something happens and I’m not there in person. Tthere is still the ache of not sharing everyday life. And yet, an ongoing bond through different life circumstances (in different countries!) can be rich and rewarding. My own best friend and I have only spent two of our 13 years of friendship in the same country. We both travelled across oceans to be in each other’s weddings. We come from different passport countries but have each visited the other’s family home, met parents and siblings.

I’ve had to grieve the changes in our relationship many times. But each time, I knew it was worth continuing to invest in her, and in our friendship.

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.

You can’t change the past – but you can make choices about what happens next.

Recommended reading: October 29th, 2018

More recommended reading about TCKs and expat life. This week tackles a few emotionally difficult issues – grief, attachment, loneliness, and how our physical state affects our ability to cope. But there’s also some lighter pieces as well. Whether heavy or light, each of these posts has something helpful to speak into our expat and TCK lives.

When Do You Grieve? Pre, Post, or Present?
Djibouti Jones
Fantastic piece from Rachel looking at grief with a real and tangible example – her twins finishing high school and starting university, and the three countries involved in that process. She describes, with detail you can see and feel, goodbyes that were both hard and sweet. And then she brings it all together with the theory on pre/post grieving – how we each process grief differently.
Knowing this about myself and my response has helped me not feel guilty for not crying in the dorm room. . .It also helps me understand my husband and our youngest, as we talk through how we are each doing. Helps us not compare our specific emotional states in time. Helps us not judge other parents. Helps us not judge ourselves. Helps us do the grieving so we can do the healing, too.

Third Culture Kid Relationships: Attachment & Trauma
Life Story
Rachel does a fantastic job in this post of explaining how the Third Culture childhood experience involves “trauma with a little ‘t’” and the way this impacts TCKs as they mature into adults. She links to some articles on attachment theory to help further explain this. She writes, as always, with great compassion and understanding of the TCK experience, including the resistance many have to accept that their background involved some difficulties, and the reality that some ATCKs really struggle as a result.
Your challenges are not simply the result of personal failings, but are instead normal responses to extraordinary circumstances. But where does this leave us? It leaves us in the uncomfortable position of inferring that certain elements of Third Culture Kid experiences as essentially traumatic. Traumatic because they interfere with the abilities of large portions of the TCK population to connect securely in their adult relationships. Of course, there is hope. Where we learnt self-blame, we can learn self-compassion…We can change behaviours learnt through painful experiences. Change is, after all, what we do best.

7 Ways Traditions Foster a Healthy Expat Identity
World Tree Coaching
I love this post! One of the big tips I share with expat families about how to help their TCKs feel settled and get the most out of their international experiences is to work hard at creating traditions that stick, no matter where you are. In this post, Jodi gives a lot of great practical advice on how to do just that!
We often think of the importance of traditions and rituals in the context of creating a home space or in building family unity, but for expats, there’s even more to it. When we move frequently from place to place, creating rituals, adhering to traditions and enjoying celebrations makes a globally mobile life more than just the transitions, baggage, and upheaval. It helps us define the very nature of who we are in the midst of those things. Traditions and rituals help us express ourselves fully in new spaces and remind us who we are in familiar ones. They can help us build community, learn new things about ourselves and create a sense of home no matter where we go.”

Physical Well-being and Cross-Cultural Adjustment
Communicating Across Boundaries
I shared this on social media already, but it bears sharing again! Marilyn talks about how “Physical well-being has a massive impact on our ability to adjust.” YES! Transition is hard. Transition when you’re unwell feels downright impossible. And often when we’re physically down we don’t have the energy to believe things will ever be different than they are in this moment. That’s when we need to read words like Marilyn’s.
Suddenly I questioned everything. Why did I think I had the capacity to make an international move? Who was I kidding? I was no use to anybody in my passport country, let alone a new place, new people, new job, new language. . .You are not a failure. You are human, made of flesh and blood, cells and vessels. Sometimes you get sick. This happens in countries where you know the language perfectly, and in countries where you don’t know the language at all. Take extra time to rest and get well.”

Tips How to Raise Global Citizens and Travel More with Kids
I’ve read posts with similar titles before, and found them trite or not terribly realisitc. This one is different! Katja explains how their family made travel a priority, and shares some tips on ways to stretch always limited time and money in order to prioritise travel as a family. Here’s one tip I found particularly interesting:
Here’s another secret. Family travel doesn’t always have to mean the entire family travels together. We have a tradition in our family that says that each child receives a special day trip for their 10th birthday and an even more special trip for their 13th birthday. Of course we prefer to travel with the entire family, but by doing it this way we are able to offer special trips for each child.

House Hunters International frustrates me. Here’s why.
The Expat Spouse
I was surprised by how much I appreciated this post. On the surface it might seem a bit silly – an expat’s perspective on a reality TV show. But there are some really good points! The disparity in the experience of “ordinary” things, like looking for suitable accommodation, in different places.
Funny storylines aside, what frustrates me is that it’s fundamentally an unrealistic conversation. Why isn’t anyone concerned about the closest metro or walking distance to a grocery store? It’s like everyone forgets that they’ll have to shop for food everyday (because they won’t get an American-sized refrigerator). They all talk about wanting to explore Europe, so why don’t they look for a house close to transportation hubs? Why this isn’t part of the conversation. I struggle with understanding why tv programs can’t paint a more realistic picture of an international house hunt. I think it would help to better prepare current or potential expats in their very real relocation. It would also educate the audiences on the true complexities that we as expats face. I’m think I’m looking for more authenticity of what we all go through. What’s wrong with being more honest about the challenges we face?

Lonely as an expat? Not anymore!
I Am Expat
An easy-read post with practical suggestions of how to handle the loneliness so many expats experience from time to time.
Being an expat can be a lonely journey. You are immersed in a completely new culture with a different set of values and way of life, you meet different people, you don’t speak the language, you miss your friends and family, but most of all, connecting with the people around you is really hard (especially in the beginning). You have no idea where to start, how to approach people, and most of all, how long it will take until you feel at home. . .Like all painful experiences we endure, loneliness can also be the catalyst of a productive period in our life; a wonderful opportunity to start working on meaningful relationships and a chance to build the life you want.

What’s it really like to move to a country where you don’t speak the language?
Absolutely Lucy
This piece reflects on the experience of moving to a place where you don’t speak the language – the challenges and the joys that go with it.
It’s truly humbling to feel so vulnerable and to understand what people from communities around the world must go through every day. It can feel isolating and lonely at times…but the loneliness is also inspiring, it is pushing me to learn as much as I can, it makes me want to learn for all the kind, thoughtful German friends I have made, the ones who try so hard to include me. . .There will be struggles and there will be times when you feel like giving up and going home, but I feel that the more prepared you are for dealing with these, the more likely you are to stick it out and make it work.

Talking about TCKs and expat life with Mo Sibyl

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been sick the last 2+ weeks, while also being busier than normal. This means I still haven’t finished the article I’d intended to post today. Thankfully, I providentially have something else to share with you! In a Recommended Reading post back in June I shared a piece by Mo’lanee Sibyl. Following that, Mo and I connected through social media and soon she invited me to appear on her podcast, More Sibyl. The episode we taped just went live, and you can listen to it here!

I really enjoyed our conversation, and reliving it by listening to the finished podcast was lovely. Mo and I found we had a bunch of shared interests, including a love of language and statistics! (At one point she says: “This is now a conversation between two language nerds!”) We kept finding new tangents to chase, and shared experiences and perspectives to exclaim over and laugh about.

What I appreciated most was how she got me talking about my TCK work. She asked different questions from a different angle, and got a different response from me in return. Even if you know me well, have talked to me about what I do, there’s probably something new in this. Here’s a few excerpts:

“A lot of what I do is translating the TCK experience… Articulating things that they aren’t able to… Because of what they’ve been through, this is how they see the world, and here are some ways we can support them and understand them better. . .Over ten years I developed a set of tools that work. So now what I’m doing is sharing with parents and teachers the tools I developed on the ground.”

Click here to listen to the whole conversation.

Recommended reading: October 22nd, 2018

This week I have a rather eclectic mix of posts for you, with different windows on the experiences of expat and TCKs. Lots of emotions, raw experiences, and how to frame the things we go through.

Two Types of Cultural Adjustment
China Source
This short post explains that when we adjust to a new culture, we have to adjust both to the things that are strange to us, and also adjusting the things in ourselves that are strange to others! I also appreicate this explanation of adjustment as an ongoing process:
I’ve always found this definition to be helpful because of its focus on cultural adjustment being a process, not an event. As long as you are residing in a different culture, you will be adjusting, whether that length of time is two weeks or twenty years. There will never be a point at which you say (in totality), “there, I’ve adjusted.” As long as you are there you will be encountering things that are different and that require you to adjust either the way you behave or the way you think.

The thriving multicultural society of the UAE
Friday Magazine
A story about TCK best friends from different cultures. This is one of the fun parts of international life – meeting and learning from people of different backgrounds. For many TCKs this is a formative childhood experience that helps shape their understanding of the world. While the post overall has some peppy multicultural society success talk that I take with a large pinch of salt, the stories of these young TCK best friends is worth the read!
The four pairs of cross-cultural BFFs (best friends forever) we spoke to echo this…their friendship’s most teachable moments were when they realised that different ethnic and racial backgrounds, parenting methods they were raised with, lifestyles and even religions didn’t alter the unalloyed truth that they shared core values of honesty, respect, familial bonds and charity…Their shared values balance out their complex equation and maintains the friendly chemistry that first sparked between them as eight-year-olds.

Stupid Expat Days and How to Love Them
The Culture Blend
I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a Jerry Jones post I didn’t love. Somehow I managed not to share this one earlier – and I don’t want you to miss out! He talks about “Stupid Expat Days”- days that, as he says “expats have to live but normal people never do“. The sorts of crazy errands that just wouldn’t happen in your passport country, the hoops you have to jump because you aren’t a local – all those fun things. But as he talks through a recent particular Stupid Expat Day, Jerry begins to reframe the experience.
Normal people don’t GET to do this stuff. It was a holiday not a waste of time. Special expat father and expat son bonding, just me and him…Loving Stupid Expat Days is not simply putting a happy stamp on the hard stuff and it runs far deeper than just “looking on the bright side”. It was a long, long, long day but we found the best bits and we chose to hang out there. I love passport days and my hope is that because I choose celebration, even in the context of the irritation my kids will too.”

Becoming Madame: Realities of an expat life
In this lovely post an expat talks about the specific experience of landing in a new country “with a completely blank slate before you”. This is different to the family or individual who takes a work assignment for a few years, because there is a sense of attached purpose, and a sponsor organiation behind the move. The blank slate is more like my own story, and she gives really great advice to those considering, or starting out, with this sort of experience. Sense of purpose, starting in a new language, needing humility, discovering more of yourself. It’s hard to choose a single quote to share here! But I think this is really important:
If you’re like me, you’ll know no one, not a single soul, when you walk off the plane. Periods of extreme loneliness are inevitable. The key is to get yourself out of your apartment and just keep going: get up each day, and get outside no matter how intimidating it is to walk into a world of confusing mumble-jumble all around you. Take baby steps, but just keep taking them.”

American Weirdness: Observations From an Expat
The Atlantic
This post hooked me in the first paragraph. How many expats have experienced that dazed shock, staring at the selections in a supermarket aisle after a long flight from Far Away? I had a panic attack one time. After that I learned to take a friend with me the first time I tried to go shopping after arriving!
Sometimes it begins with the toothpaste. Whenever I go back to the United States from Europe, where I’ve lived for more than half my adult life, I’ll often find myself in a jet-lagged fog at a huge American drugstore staring at the toothpaste aisle. Why? I ask myself, or anyone who’s around. Why are there so many kinds of toothpaste?

The Truth About Moving: Expat Anxiety…Insomnia and Ikea
Making Here Home
A touching post full of the raw feelings and experiences of starting again in a new place. The author is genuine and cheerful as she describes the inevitable problems and anxieties and lost things. And she concludes beautifully – with a reflection on what expat life gives, more than is lost.
I just think it’s true that the first few days always feel awkward and stuff goes wrong. Like you arrive in Germany on a Sunday and all the shops are shut and you can’t buy any food. Or you get to your new house and accidentally set off the alarm and have to explain to the security company that you do live here, you just don’t know any of the alarm codes yet…it’s no wonder our minds go on overdrive – there are so many things to do, to remember, to sort out, to avoid. It’s hard. And on top of that, there’s the pressure that we feel like we should be enjoying it…It takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and make your home in a new country.

Kosovo-Albanian pop artist Ilira talks debut single ‘Whisper My Name’ and the awkwardness of growing up as a ‘third culture kid’
This is an interview with a musician about her debut single. I noticed it because the artist is a TCK, and she mentions this in the interview. She describes music as a refuge she turned to to help her be herself in the midst of feeling misunderstood. I believe so very strongly in the power of the arts to help TCKs manage the stresses of international life, and process identity issues. Lovely to see this TCK sharing her experiences!
As a third culture kid, I’ve often felt misplaced with people mocking me for my dreams and aspirations. Music has been my safe haven ever since. It created a space for me where I was able to break free and grow.”

The hardest question for a third culture kid: Where is home?
Finally – something different. A podcast! Okay, I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I recently started listening to PRI podcast The World In Words – and imagine my delight when I stumbled on an episode in which they talk to a TCK about her experiences! There’s an interview with Ruth van Reken, and mention of their call turning into a personal therapy session of sorts – which totally sounds like the ever lovely Ruth. She’s amazing!

My TCK story

I recently wrote a guest post for Cross Culture Therapy, in which I was invited to share my own TCK story. Here’s a taste:

“There were so many cultural clashes for my family and I upon moving to the US, but very few people around us saw the cultural gap. We spoke English (though with “cute” foreign accents) and looked similar enough. There was a subconscious expectation that we knew the ‘rules’ for life in this new context. Yet so much was different! Being a teenager isn’t easy anywhere. Being a teenager while negotiating another culture (with peers who don’t understand that’s what you’re doing) was really tough! I met really lovely people who befriended me, but I still felt confused much of the time. I found everyday life very stressful. My accent also meant everyone knew I was “the Australian girl” as soon as I opened my mouth. But even the friends who were fascinated with my language struggled to understand that there were fundamental differences in how we saw the world.”

As I prepared the post, I realised that I have written very little about my own experiences as a TCK. I think there’s a few reasons for that. In large part it’s that my focus as an author and speaker is on advocating for, and amplifying the voices of, young TCKs around the world. I don’t want to drown out their stories with my own. But part of it is also that I didn’t know what a TCK was until ten years after my own experience. I didn’t have language to explain and express what I went through. And later on I fell into the oh-so-common trap of downplaying my own experience – I was only overseas for two years so I’m not *really* a TCK.

I made a similar comment to Ruth van Reken the first time we met in person. (We’d corresponded by email previously, and she’d already written the foreword for Misunderstood.) She stopped me and said that I didn’t need to dismiss my own story. I shared that experience of living overseas, and I could claim it. That was a surprising thought to me.

I’ve considered it more over time. I still don’t completely identify as a TCK. My childhood experiences were largely rooted in Australia, and my identity as an Australian. My experience of being “in-between” was short-lived as a child. My life as an adult expatriate is very much “in-between” and this forms a key part of my identity – but I have chosen this life. I often feel I fall somewhere in between a TCK and TCA experience. I’m glad for the ability to stand between TCKs and the adults who care for them, to understand each experience (to a degree).

All that to say, writing this guest post was a good chance to reflect on my own experiences. Perhaps sometime in the future I’ll go back and write a little more about my personal experiences as an Australian teenager living in the US. For now – this guest post is a start.

Click here to read my TCK Story guest post on Cross Culture Therapy

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 negotiated 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!