My difficult experiences of going home

There are two countries I’ve returned home to, twice each. The country of my childhood, and the country of my adulthood.

I grew up in my passport country, Australia. But I spent two years of high school living in Connecticut, in the US. Then I went home.

Ar 21 I moved out of my parents house straight to China, where a study year turned into 11 years abroad. Then I went home.

Two very different repatriation experiences. Both difficult, in different ways. The first time I was desperate to go home and be normal and fit in, and was desperately discouraged to find those two years had changed me – that I no longer fit in, that I still stood out. The second time I knew what to expect. I knew all the theory, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, that I wouldn’t feel totally at home. It was still more difficult than theory alone could express.

I thought that season of my life was over – but I was wrong. I made two very different visits to China during my three year stint in Australia, and then moved back here (to Beijing). In a way, it was going home. But it wasn’t what I expected.

It’s those more unusual homecomings I am pondering today.

My first return trip to Beijing was unexpected, mostly unplanned, and rather last minute. There was a sale on plane tickets and I moaned to a friend back in Beijing about how tempting it was. I really couldn’t afford a ticket, even a cheap one, even if I could justify the expense for one week (the longest time I had free between commitments). Then that friend bought me a ticket. Again, I knew a lot of theory, and I thought I knew what to expect. It had been two years. I had changed. Beijing had changed. It wouldn’t feel the same. I thought that perhaps this would be a helpful goodbye trip for me, a chance to farewell this place that was such a part of who I am, that I still missed. Looking at my life logically, at where I thought I was heading, it didn’t seem at all likely to me that I would live in China again. I hoped I would visit, but it was only a theoretical hope.

Instead, as I moved around Beijing the feeling of HOME hit me so hard that I felt it almost viscerally. I felt a deep sadness that it was no longer my place – it FELT like my place; every fibre of my being wanted to be there. I thought that since so much of my community wasn’t there any more that it wouldn’t feel the same. I discovered instead that I felt connected to the PLACE itself, not just the people with whom I had shared it. The sights, the sounds, the colours, the smells. I feared that had I not had a close friend’s wedding to attend in Australia I would have struggled to get on that plane and leave again.

I had grieved leaving Beijing two years earlier. So I thought. In hindsight, I think I did a good job of grieving the people I was leaving, and the life I was leaving, but I didn’t grieve the PLACE in the same way. Upon my return, all those connections to place were still there, waiting to come to life, to shower me in grief – the recognition that I had left the place that felt like mine.

A year later, I made another trip to Beijing. This time, everything was different. I had started dating someone who lived in Beijing. A few months earlier I had decided I would move to Beijing at the end of the year, when I graduated. And now I was coming to visit the man who was about to become my fiancé. A very, very different trip!

This time, Beijing felt very different. It did NOT feel like home. It felt familiar, but also foreign. In the year since my first trip, I’d finally settled into life in Australia, started to feel at ease there. I’d connected to THAT place – and now felt disconnected from THIS place. The connections I’d recognised and grieved a year earlier weren’t there anymore. There was nostalgia, and enjoyment of place, but none of that visceral sense of deep connection.

It didn’t help that I was staying in a very different part of the city. It was where my partner lived, but it was a place I didn’t know, a place that had never been mine. During the whole trip I felt very disconcerted. I was going to move there in six months – and suddenly I felt really apprehensive about that move. I wasn’t going to be coming home after all. I was going to have to start again in a place that used to be home.

Having that realisation 2.5 years after repatriating, only a few months after finally starting to feel at ease in my passport country, was devastating. I was going to have to start that same process all over again. At least this time I’d only been gone 3 years, not 11 – maybe that would help. At least this time I would be recognised as a foreigner – maybe that would help. I would be with my partner, but he wouldn’t be experiencing the same transition with me. It left me dreading the turmoil I could suddenly see coming my way.

Now, people ask me how long I’ve been back in Beijing and I find it hard to answer. 6 months? But I’ve travelled in and out a lot, and lived in three different apartments. 3 months in this apartment – but I was gone for most of the first month. It’s only in the last month or so I’ve started to feel able to begin the process of settling into a new life and routine here.

Right now the best I can manage most days is just getting by. Take small steps toward building a life here. Celebrate tiny achievements. Look for little moments that encourage me, that tell me it’s going to work out and one day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life. Transition is hard. It’s exhausting. But it’s also worth it.


(This post was inspired by a prompt on Communicating Across Boundaries, in which Marilyn wrote about “Going Home”.)

Recommended Reading: July 2nd, 2018

Welcome to this week’s edition of Recommended Reading! This week I’ve collected a few recent posts on the theme of leaving the expat life. It seems fitting for this time of year, and after collecting this list I realised that my recent posts on transition and how to do it well are a good accompaniment to the rest of the list, not to mention my reflection on high school graduation for TCKs.

Some of the posts on this list are about TCKs repatriating, either after finishing high school or with a family. Others are about expats generally. Some are about decision making, some offer practical advice, and some reflect on the emotion of it all. I’m so glad there are so many different voices out there for us all to listen to and learn from – we need all these perspectives!

When “Home” isn’t a Place– The Challenges of Repatriation for Expat Kids
Expat Kids Club
This piece provides a great foundation for considering the emotional impact of repatriation on TCKs. Kate reflects on six aspects: identity, role, change, culture, grief, and benefits. It’s hard to pick a single quote to share – it’s all good, solid stuff!

Arriving “Home”: an Expat Paradox
Taking Route
I love this thoughtful piece on all the little things that contribute to the beautiful mess that is returning “home” after time away.
The first few days are a firehose of new information, new places, new smells, new tastes — and varied emotion. It’s crying over things that broke in the suitcase and fretting over stuff you’re sure you packed somewhere. It’s being thrilled with a restaurant just down the street and being disappointed when something should taste familiar and doesn’t.

Leaving well when leaving well is not possible
The Culture Blend
I really appreciate this post. There is a lot of talk in the expat/TCK world about how to leave well. It’s something I write and talk about myself. But in this piece Jerry stops to reflect on a painful reality – sometimes leaving well is simply outside our control. This whole post is worth taking time to slowly read and reflect on. Here’s a couple of little gems:
Sometimes leaving is a mess, not a choice. . .Plans get made — sometimes they work. When they don’t, here are some things to consider. . .Leaving is a process — not a moment. . .PLANE RIDES DON’T end relationships. Soak in that for a moment.

Third Culture Kids, College, and Culture Shock
A Life Overseas
Rachel reflects on college visits with her twin TCKs who are now preparing to repatriate and begin their university studies. She talks through some culture shock moments – such as vocabulary, wardrobe choices, and what is considered interesting and important. The aspect I most appreciate about this post is the way Rachel points out that the misunderstandings and judging go both ways – and gently warns TCKs to watch out for their own attitudes.
Yes, some people think Kenya is a city near Africa. Even college-bound people. And correct, no one knows what a Djibouti is. Again, sorry. And again, try not to judge. Remember how you didn’t know what broomball was? . . .Everyone has a lot to learn and that’s a huge part of what college is for.

15 Things I Want Tell My Graduating Third Culture Kid Seniors
Djibouti Jones
And another post by Rachel, this time with thoughts and advice for her kids as she sends them off into new lives. Lots of good stuff in here, with thoughtfulness that shows an understanding of some of the difficult aspects – as well as the opportunities – of repatriating for university. For example:
Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help. People might think it is strange that you don’t know something they think is normal American life, but most of the time, they will also enjoy helping you and you never know what friendship might come of it. Be humble.

Culture shock in the same country
Bonnyville Nouvelle
This is a sweet little post about how transition stress goes with any big change – even moving to a new place within the same country! Author Robynne was an international orientation leader while at university, so she understood about culture shock etc. But she was surprised to find these lessons apply to HER as she processes a recent domestic move.
“I originally didn’t think the move would be that big of a deal for me, if I’m being completely honest. Unlike the international students at UOIT, I wasn’t leaving the country, I was just going over a couple of provinces, and driving through a couple of time zones. No big deal, right? Wrong. . .I realized that there was going to be an orientation period for me once I got out here, but I had no idea how much I would doubt myself during this transition.”

How To Welcome Her Back for the First Time
Velvet Ashes
Amy reflects on her first time visiting her family in her passport country after living abroad. Then she offers advice on welcoming well. There is a gentleness about this – the suggestions of leaving space, expecting change, accepting where the person is at. While this is a blog for missionaries, this post was full of helpful reflections for expats generally, as well as their passport country friends and family.
You all have changed. You all are changing. And you all are still the same because you are friends and family. This, of the first visit back, is rich with paradox.

The Last Week – A Graduation Story for the TCK
Communicating Across Boundaries
In this lovely vignette Marilyn reflects on her own high school graduation as a TCK. She introduces the piece with these poignant words:
We [Third Culture Kids] are not only leaving a school – we are leaving a home, a community, and a country. While most kids can go back home without a reason, the third culture kid cannot. The third culture kid does not only say goodbye to a school, they say goodbye to a life. Graduation for the TCK is a type of deportation.

Seven things expats should consider before moving back home
Expat.com
This is a simple but helpful piece with a list of things to consider when thinking about repatriation. There are no easy answers, but a solid guide to some of the things that may affect your life after repatriation, and how to take these into account when considering a move “home”.

Six Tips for a Good Transition

Last week I wrote about change and transition. I explained that while change is an event, transition is a process – and a very difficult process at that. We lose all our automatics and have to re-learn how to live life in a new way.

In this post I’m going to share my six tips for a good transition. They aren’t difficult or complicated. Mostly they revolve around recognising that we need extra time and care during a time of transition. Unfortunately, this is something we struggle with! We want to do and be busy and fix things. But while we do need the forward momentum of this activity, if we only ever push through the chances are the stress we ignore will catch up with us eventually. Doing transition slowly, with care and kindness, is healthier in the long term.

Now, without further ado, here are my six tips!

Tip for Transition #1: Remember, transition is hard.

Recognise that transition is big, and hard. Understand that it will take time and energy to do well. And probably more of both than you’d like. If you find yourself struggling after a big change, that’s not just okay, it’s totally normal! It’s difficult to re-learn how to do normal things, and re-write all your brain’s automatic choices. The hardest part is that so much of what makes a big transition difficult is invisible. It’s all those little things, things that people around you don’t notice. Things that you yourself might not consciously recognise. Making lists of changes, thinking through all the ways life has changed, or will change, is helpful because it makes you more aware of what it is that you’re going through.

Tip for Transition #2: Be patient and kind to yourself.

When you understand that transition is hard, that it takes time and energy, it is easier to be patient with yourself as you go through it. When you look at the people around you and wonder why life seems harder for you – remember that, first, you don’t know what anyone else is dealing with inside, and second, that transition takes extra energy. You won’t have the capacity you’re used to – you’ll get less done, your brain will feel foggy, or you’ll feel emotional and overwhelmed. Maybe, like me, you’ll experience all of those things! And that’s okay. Be patient with yourself. You’ll be yourself again one day, it just takes time. Instead of getting frustrated with yourself, stop and recognise that you’re doing something difficult, and choose to be kind to yourself. And be patient with the process of settling into a new life, which will likely take a lot longer than you’d like.

Tip for Transition #3: Persevere – do hard things.

Once you get into a new routine, and fill your new life with new relationships and new activities, things will get easier. Yes, transition is hard. Yes, you need to be patient with yourself and kind to yourself. But you also need forward movement. Sometimes things happen naturally and automatically. Sometimes they don’t. In any case, it’s unusual for your new life to simply snap into place; it will probably take time, and effort, on your part. So persevere.

Start building the connections that will eventually form your support network. Accept invitations, go to events, ask that person if you can catch up for coffee. And when you feel discouraged, that you’re not getting anywhere, that nothing is like it was, remember to keep going. Things will get better eventually.

Tip for Transition #4: Leave space to be sad.

Change involves loss, and transition is the process of adjusting to change. That means transition also involves grief – processing losses such as a place, a community, a position in that community, particular people, your place in your family, your identity as a person who knows things, and so much more. It hurts to lose things. That’s natural, but it’s not fun. Understandably, a lot of us try to avoid unpleasant feelings like sadness and grief. But during a time of transition we benefit from space to be sad about what has been lost.

So yes, go out there and do hard things, create new routines and relationships – but alongside all that good hard work out there, leave space to do the hard work inside. (Similar to the “water work” I linked to in this week’s Recommended Reading.) Let yourself have a few pockets of time in which to stop, feel the sadness, and the tiredness. Acknowledge that those feelings exist, that they are real. Do whatever works for you to let those feelings out. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is that you create that space, that your feelings are expressed rather than suppressed.

Tip for Transition #5: Maintain old friendships.

This might seem counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to ‘move on’? Won’t hanging onto the past make it harder? Well, yes and no. During a big transition the need for support is higher than normal, but there may not be much support available in the new environment. Even if you make good friends quickly, it takes time to build up the level of closeness you enjoy with existing friends.One of the best ways to transition well, therefore, is to lean on your established relationships while you’re starting out.

It is so helpful to remember that there are people elsewhere in the world who really do know you and appreciate you and are there to support you – especially if you don’t have friends like that in your new location yet. An important thing to keep in mind, however, is that online relationships are qualitatively different to in-person relationships. Try to think of long-distance support as scaffolding that will hold you together while you build up the foundations of a new support network in your new location.

Tip for Transition #6: Seek professional support.

Flight crews run through a safety demonstration on every flight while the plane is still on the ground. They want to make sure people know what to do if there ever is an emergency, but they don’t wait for an emergency to occur before giving out that information. In the same way, I think it is really helpful to look into professional support services even if you don’t think you need them. Know what resources are out there and how to access them so that if a situation comes up, you already know what to do.

Often we think about medical resources – where is the hospital, finding a new doctor, looking into whatever specialists we may have need of. Some families are also proactive about looking into educational support. But the main support I urge families to look into are mental health services. This is something few of us think to consider until we are already in crisis. Also, as with most things, prevention is cheaper and easier than cure – so you may want to consider how support services like counselling could help you find and maintain balance that will prevent a crisis situation occuring. There are lots of good options for expatriate focussed professional counselling these days, including counsellors who do online session via video chat, which are really helpful for a lot of people.

So that’s my six tips for a good transition. The bottom line? Transition is hard! So give yourself a break, and take advantage of any help you can find to make the journey easier.

Click here to read more posts about Third Culture Kids, transition, and expatriate experiences.

Recommended reading: June 4th, 2018

I’m still playing catch up in sharing great things I’ve been reading lately, so this is mix of new posts and posts I read in the past month or so. There’s so much good stuff being written every week! This includes a lot of topics that are especially helpful at this time of year, where so many expats are dealing with transition – whether they are leaving, or friends are leaving. Which brings me to the first post I’m recommending today…

We’re moving…again! Our big news about a big adventure
And then we moved to
While this is a post about one family announcing an upcoming move, it’s also so much more. In her typically wonderful style, Mariam invites us into the difficulties of making the decision to move – the ideas, the suggestions, the possibilities, the living in limbo, the offers, and how to make the decision. Her “Three Phases of ‘We Are Moving'” are brilliant. There is so much here to help any family who is in the process, or knows it will be coming their way in the future.

To My Adult TCK self: I See You
A Life Overseas
This is a hauntingly beautiful piece, reflecting on some of the hidden layers of an adult TCK – the ways an international childhood overlays an adulthood in which those experiences may be invisible. So much of this echoes words, phrases, and feelings I heard in many interviews with ATCKs for Misunderstood. A highly recommended read.

The Magic Quilt of Expat Life
Wine and Cheese (Doodles)
Lovely post reflecting on the sadness of saying goodbye (repeatedly) in an expat context, and one woman’s change of mind – that crying during these sad times is good. She beautifully captures how those endless goodbye parties can feel, but also that there is such beauty in the recognition of relationships that have become deep.
These ritual goodbyes and all the emotions they evoke is a kind of exquisite torture. It’s incredibly poignant to hear stories and reminiscences, to look at years worth of pictures, to see the evolution of expat friendships play out in celluloid. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a child growing up. . .So many times those stories start off with feelings of loneliness and isolation, feeling stranded and out-of-place, nervous, unsure footing on choppy seas that are taking you far away from everything you know. And then the magic: one day, one coffee, one conversation, one friend. The tide begins to turn. The seas calm.

HALT – Four Simple Questions for Expat Stress
I Am A Triangle
This one hit home for me! Frequently in the past few months of transition and upheaval and never being quite settled in anything I have hit huge emotional speed bumps. The temptation to question every decision and hate everything comes on strong in those overwhelmed moments! I’m definitely planning to keep  Jodi’s HALT acronym in mind for next time. It will be good to have a few tools in my toolbox beside telling myself “it’s transition, and tiredness, you’ll feel better tomorrow””.

So, You Want to go Back ‘Home’?
Communicating Across Boundaries
Marilyn penned a beautiful piece about the inherent tension in visiting a place you once lived, and place that is an important part of your story. Trying to pick a single quote was impossible, so instead of trying to explain how valuable this post is, here is just a handful of many powerful words from it:
The words ‘Visit’ and ‘Live’ are worlds apart. . .While in a sense we are going ‘home’, in another sense we are just visiting. We have changed, as have the places that we love so dearly. My daughter once wrote that we belong to these lands where we lived, but they do not belong to us. . .Going back is a critical part of your story. Embrace it, don’t waste it, Because this I know, and I know it well: More difficult than a visit would have been no visit at all, far harder than facing my current reality would have been dreaming of the past in a country far removed and never getting to experience my beloved places again.”

Expat Life: Where is Home When You Live Abroad?
Migrating Miss
I really like this little reflection on ways overseas experiences change us, and change the way we experience the world. There are lots of good little lines I considered sharing, but this is the bit that stuck out most as something I think many of us (myself included) can relate to:
I find that being an expat can almost be like being two people at the same time. Each life feels comfortable and familiar when you’re in it, but there’s always a little something missing too. It’s an otherworldly feeling to think that your two lives can never ever merge into one, no matter how much you wish they could. . .Each home I’ve had abroad has changed me in some way.

Self-Compassion and Helping your Child Thrive During a Relocation
Expat Kids Club
I appreciated this little post from Kate about self-compassion for TCKs. “Helping expat kids build self compassion not only has positive effects on those around them, but also helps to build their own ability to be kind and resilient in the face of life’s challenges.” I especially appreciate her recognition that in this, as in so many things, it’s vital for adults to model the emotional tools we want our kids to pick up.

How to Drive an Expat Crazy: 10 Ways to Irritate Someone Who Has Lived Abroad
The Culture Blend
And here’s a somewhat lighter (but all-too-real) note on which to finish: another brilliant piece from Jerry Jones. (Honestly, if you aren’t already a regular reader of The Culture Blend, you probably should be.) A tongue-in-cheek look at the well-meaning but ultimately frustrating things many expats experience at the hands of loved ones during a visit ‘home’. Such as number six:
Ask, “How was that?” That’s it. One simple question. It’s like magic. “Wow, Zimbabwe for 12 years . . . how was that?” Then stand there and watch them try to summarize ALL of the joy and pain before you lose interest. They LITERALLY CANNOT do it. Classic.”
But the real beauty of this piece is the alternative advice offered – “Ask smaller questions that leave room for nuance. Find out about a typical day in their lives, their struggles with language or what community was like.

Well that’s it for this edition of Recommended Reading – more coming next week!

Homesickness, and the price we pay to be expats

I read an article a couple months back in which an Australian living abroad talked about how to deal with homesickness as an adult. As an Australian who has spent most of my adult life overseas, there was a lot in it I related to! Author Kate Leaver beautifully captures the tension of loving the life I live, while still missing the things I’ve left behind.

I am settled here, in my new London life. I am contentedly nuzzled into life and love and work here. And yet – and yet! – I find myself, recently, feeling homesick. Some days, I can feel those 12,500 kilometres in my heart. Especially when something happens to someone I love back home

She also articulated something I hadn’t thought through properly before: “homesickness feels kind of silly as an adult. It seems like the kind of thing you grow out of, the kind of thing you leave behind in childhood“.

Wow – reading that I felt the truth of it. It’s hard to leave space to accept and process our homesickness when we feel somehow weak or childish for feeling that way.

She goes on to share advice from psychologist Doctor Perpetua Neo. The advice she gives is simple but solid: be kind to yourself, get involved in life where you live. These are, simply stated, two of the six tips for transition which I offer in seminars I teach. This advice applies to expats generally but also the repats – those of us who go through the wringer of returning to a ‘home’ country after an extended period abroad. It applies to the person who leaves, and applies to the person who stays.

The price we pay

There’s one thing I’d add, though, when it comes to feeling homesick as an adult expatriate: this is part of the price tag.

By that I mean, recognise that by living overseas you pay a real price, and keep choosing to pay it. Take the time to acknowledge what you lose by being far away – those losses are real! But don’t stop there. Remember why you chose to be where you are. Meditate on all the things you gain, think about the life you have, think about what you’d lose if you weren’t where you are. Yes, living overseas comes with a cost – but we pay that price because we gain something else in return. Say to yourself “knowing this is the price I must pay to gain all these things, will I willingly pay it?”

(Years ago I wrote about learning this myself in my late twenties, as I wrestled with my changing accent.)

There are two sides to this. First, the cost is real. The fact that I choose to pay the price doesn’t change the fact that it costs me something – something real. In my first years overseas, expressing my sadness at this cost often led to comments from my sisters about how “you chose this!” That was true, but it didn’t change the fact that I was sad about missing this event, or seeing that person. (Strangely enough, those comments stopped after they each moved across the country themselves!) They were right – it was my choice. But my choice came with a cost, and it hurt, even as I chose to pay it.

Secondly, it is a choice, and that reframes the loss and pain of paying the price. I don’t just lose something – I have given up something good (many good things) in order to gain something I have deemed better.

When we hold these two things together – both the reality of the cost, and the reality of my choice to pay it – we can integrate these difficult emotions, and come to a place of peace. A space where feelings are recognised as valid, and given expression, but also seen within the perspective of decisions made for good reasons.

How does this work for TCKs?

One last thing that’s worth mentioning here: this outlines one of the big differences between the experience of adult expatriates and that of Third Culture Kids. A TCK moves overseas due to a parent’s choice, not their own. They don’t have the comfort of knowing they chose this themselves, for a good reason. They may see and understand their parents’ decisions – may even have been consulted in the decision making process. Even when they agree with the decision, however, there is a powerlessness in having had this childhood chosen on their behalf.

That is the reality of all children, really – whether a family chooses to stay in one place or move, both miss out on the other experience. But still, the fact that the power to make the decision rests with parents means that TCKs experience international life differently. They did not choose to pay a price in order to gain something else – growing up overseas is simply the childhood they were presented with. It is their normal.

Click here to read more posts about Third Culture Kids, transition, and expatriate experiences.

Recommended reading: May 27th, 2018

Wow I’m behind on sharing my recommended reading! But I’m in transition and, as I tell everyone else, that takes more time and energy than any of us give ourselves credit for. So I’m going to go ahead and post these thoughts I wrote a month ago and managed not to post at the time and I’m *not* going to feel bad about that delay. One day I will find myself some sort of regular routine, but since this week is my first chance to BEGIN that process, it’s totally fine that a routine doesn’t yet exist!

So, without further ado (or excuses for lateness) here are some great posts I read last month!

Two suitcases, maybe three… and the gift of lettuce
Notes on a boarding pass
Poignant reflections on leaving – the overwhelming list of farewells and changes that add up; thinking through what will be left behind, and lost; the extra stress in not knowing what will happen next… This is wonderful writing, the kind that helps the reader see and feel another’s experience. I ached with the familiarity of my own recent transitions and months spent living out of suitcases.

When you’re a local again, don’t forget the expats
The expat partner’s survival guide
A lovely vignette, and a good point! We who know what it’s like to be the new person, the outsider, the one struggling in a new place, language, or culture – we above all others should be quick to reach out and welcome others.

For the least of these
Velvet Ashes
Beautiful piece from missionary mum (and adult Missionary Kid) Joy, writing about the importance of connecting with her kids, not letting them get lost in the pressures of ministry life. Many MKs I interviewed spoke of feeling less important than their parents’ work, and in this piece Joy focuses on something so important for these kids: “It shouldn’t be a surprise that MKs struggle with our relationship to God. After all, God is the one who is responsible for the repetitive losses throughout our lives. It is essential that I am intentional in building the foundation of attachment and trust, so that, when the time comes to question their faith and their God, they will be absolutely assured of their value.

Expats beware: losing confidence in your mother tongue could cost you a job
Conversation
Interesting piece about language attrition, and how this impacts adults. A key point is that language changes over time. Our use of language, especially spoken, changes rapidly. If you have been away 20 years, the rules that govern what is appropriate may well have changed. This is a concern for immigrant kids, too – many learn an “outdated” version of the language, based on how it was spoken decades earlier when the parents left. I particularly appreciate Monika’s first tip for those concerned about manage attrition: “”Always have all documents you submit checked by a fully competent native speaker who is currently living there.” That last phrase is key – check your command of the language against someone currently living in the place, with that instinctive knowledge of how it “feels”.”

Smells like home
The New York Times
A lovely little piece considering the powerful trigger of smell in conjuring up a sense of ‘home’. I love this quote in particular: “I remember my mother’s comment about how the smells of my childhood would remind me of home, and home, I now know, is a place that exists not on a map but in my mind, ready to appear in its full, smelly glory at any moment.

How To Connect With Your Multicultural Community
Multicultural Kid Blogs
I loved this piece on connecting to multicultural communities, wherever you live! Johana points out some key reasons we don’t do this: “I have noticed that it is actually quite hard. For one, our cultures can seem very segregated, by languages, color, or social class. Secondly, we are constantly busy with our everyday lives and obligations. It is easy to go home after a hard day and immerse yourself in only the things that are immediately around you. It is a comfort zone.” Then she outlines some great practical advice on how to get out there and broaden your (family’s) horizons.

A History of Nomadism
Colorado Review
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this longform piece by Megan Harlan, but I am oh-so-glad that I did. In it she reflects on what it means to be a nomad, both in the traditional desert-dweller sense, and in the modern TCK sense. She makes fascinating comparisons – similarities and contrasts. She expresses poignant thoughts on the impact of her own nomadic childhood. She ponders the nomad’s dilemma: “how to sculpt from rootlessness an identifiable, meaningful universe? Or, put more unnervingly: how do we attach meaning to constant change?” It is a long piece, and worth making the time for a long, slow read, considering and savouring the different elements she identifies and reflects on. Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:

Like traditional pastoral nomads, my sense of home was as temporary as a campsite. But unlike them, my family’s “campsites” — our homes — were never revisited. No seasonal structure directed my family’s movements; no terrain was deemed ours. . .So like any nomadic child, I learned to apprehend places differently than settled people. During all the travel, as each of my homes was replaced by another, again, another, again, those seventeen times, the world loosened for me into flexible components: the view from another kitchen window, shadows cast by unfamiliar trees, my self refracted through more strangers in a new classroom. Patchwork, scraps, jumble—these fragments pieced into a perspective that lacked a solid middle distance; that place we take for granted to be “real life” kept disappearing on me. . .When people ask where I’m from, my answer is always in some way a lie, not that I mean it to be. I don’t know where I’m from, but who wants to hear that?

My visit to the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam

I spent last week working with students, parents and staff at the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I really enjoyed my time there. I was warmly welcomed and had interesting conversations with a lot of people.

I appreciated the school’s efforts to farewell each student who leaves, and welcome new students. The primary school has boards with photos of each student arriving and leaving, along with a little information. I loved seeing children’s handwritten notes describing what they would miss. I had conversations with teachers who described different cross cultural issues that arise and ways they are trying to understand and address the individual students involved. I spent time with librarians working hard to make diverse and helpful resources available for children of all ages. I talked with parents who see some of the difficulties that come with the international life their children experience, and are trying hard to understand and support their kids the best they can.

I particularly enjoyed spending an hour with the Tanzanian teachers aides at the primary school. We talked about culture, cross cultural issues, and how this works in a classroom setting. They offered great insights into the cultural differences they notice in the international school setting, and shared stories of ways they have seen young children wrestle with this. I was able to encourage in them the benefit their different cross cultural insights bring to a cross cultural classroom.

This is one of the things I love best about what I do. I love coming alongside – providing encouragement and resources to parents and teachers who are doing their best and trying to do better. I hope to offer comfort abc reassurance to parents who feel weighed down by guilt that they aren’t getting it right, or that they have burdened their children with the negative aspects of international life. Yes, there are difficulties, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad! As children grow and learn to integrate their experiences, to appreciate the good without ignoring the bad, the vast majority sure thankful for what they gained through a less ordinary upbringing.

I also love spending time with young CCKs – hearing their stories and giving them tools for the journey they’re on. I always feel the weight of their stories – what a privilege it is when a young person shares with me something that matters to them.

I spent time with all the grade 4-10 students at IST, each group doing one of three workshops I offer on storytelling, transition, and grief. In each group, through different questions, I was privileged to hear dozens of stories of these young people’s experiences with change, loss, and identity. Different groups reacted strongly to different prompts. One 8th grade group had a long discussion (almost a debate, back and forth) or whether it’s harder to say goodbye or say hello. Lots of groups really engaged with the question: “have you ever been unable to say goodbye to someone?” Stories poured out of them – about friends leaving without warning, of relatives or close family friends passing away in a different country, of thinking they had more time. One 5th grader spoke about a friend who left in kindergarten and how he never found out what happened.

These stories mark our kids. The regular loss of friends is part of the pattern of life they learn through childhood.

Rainbows and rivers by 7th grade students

Rainbows and rivers by 7th grade students

Hearing pieces of their stories through drawings and poems was another highlight. They brought different countries and languages and loves together into colourful rainbows, unique rivers, and evocative poetry. I’m always surprised at the depth of insight that can come from seemingly simple exercises. It was a delight to see these windows into their experiences. To hear a single poem with different verses written in different languages – the appropriate language for each place that is part of “home”. To watch children read with delight a poem in a mother tongue they rarely get to share with their classmates – and then watch them receive a warm round of applause. No one understood the words, but they all recognised their significance.

Rainbows and hearts by 4th grade students

Rainbows and hearts by 4th grade students

As I said, I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I’m still travelling and visiting schools, so stay tuned for more thoughts after I’m back in Beijing!

Recommended reading: April 9th, 2018

rec-read-thumb.JPG

Now that I’m getting back into the swing of thinking and writing in the TCK/expat space, I’m also doing more reading around the internets. Here’s some of the best stuff I’ve read lately.

Alone in a Crowd (Again) — The Second Wave of Expat Isolation
The Culture Blend
Such an important post by the always great Jerry Jones. I’ve seen this pattern in my own expat life and in so many friends’ experiences. There’s great advice here for the expat who feels alone after all their friends have left. Again. “The inevitable cycles of a cross-cultural life naturally bring seasons of deep connection and unexpected isolation — if you’re feeling stuck in that — try something unnatural. Intentionality moves the needle.”

Unresolved Grief – Hidden Losses of a Third Culture Kid
Jezmeralda
Poignant reflections on the hidden griefs that come with international life, especially as a child. “My lifestyle brings the wildest opportunities; nonetheless, unresolved grief has been one of my main challenges along the way.” I particularly appreciate that she addresses the difficulty of processing grief when “there are no recognized ways to mourn these hidden losses – primarily because most people don’t see them.”

Taking the Hypocrisy out of Home Ministry Assignment
A Life Overseas
This is an important discussion for the mission world, by fantastic MK advocate Michéle Phoenix. She tackles the pressure many missionaries feel to present a perfect face when visiting on home assignment – and the negative consequences this has for their TCKs.

An Overseas Assignment: Are You Doing the Right Thing By Your Kids?
Globally Grounded
Great piece by Jane Barron from Globally Grounded discussing lessons she’s learned from various greats as well as her own experience. She goes through three important things for expat parents to know/do in order to strengthen their families. The short answer to the titular question is that creating a strong family is what is best for your kids, wherever you are. A strong and healthy family unit who communicate well support kids through the difficulties of life – whether at home or abroad.

The Other Expats: Chukwudi Barrah – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Black Expat
Great interview with Nigerian expat Chukwudi Barrah in Malaysia, who started a platform for the “Other Expats”. I really appreciated his insights, and saw similarities with things African friends have experienced in China. It’s a good read, and always so important to remember that there are many different expat experiences out there.

The Hierarchy of World Language – My experiences from the expat trail
And Then We Moved To
An old post, but new to me. Linguistics is one of my fascination topics, and I love this post from the perspective of a multilingual expat family and how EIGHT different languages are part of their shared global experience. Mariam mentions the “majority language outside, minority language inside” rule which I’ve come across in other multilingual families and find a really helpful tool. She also learned German in a direct method classroom (where only the target language is spoken) which is something I found daunting but extremely when helpful learning Mandarin in China.

Even if you’ve forgotten the language you spoke as a child, it still stays with you
Quartz
Another post on language, this time from a few months back. The piece talks about first language attrition – losing full command of your mother tongue. The discussion ranges from the emotional consequences, to what’s happening in the brain, and the journey to recapture a language you were once fluent in.

Amphibians, Chameleons, and Cross Cultural Kids
Communicating Across Boundaries
A lovely little piece by the ever wonderful Marilyn Gardner, reflecting on “amphibians” and cross cultural kids: “Cross cultural kids can be active negotiators – taking both sides of a story and finding space for agreement. It can be a lonely space, but it’s a vital one.”

How knowledge about different cultures is shaking the foundations of psychology
The Conversation
Interesting piece pointing out the impact of culture on psychological studies, and our understanding of human psychology. “Clearly culture has a massive effect on how we view ourselves and how we are perceived by others… The question is to what extent it will inform psychology as a discipline going forward – some see it as an extra dimension of it while others view it as an integral and central part of theory making.”

Featured on Expat Files – my Classroom of Diversity

This week I’m featured on expat author Cinda Mackinnon’s blog, as the 19th instalment in her “Expat Files”.

I wrote about one key way that expat life has affected me. Living in diverse communities in my early twenties influenced my understanding of several things, among them: my concept on beauty, my values, and my path forward in life.

I had a literal “classroom of diversity” (my class at a Chinese university – with students from Columbia, Indonesia, Germany, South Korea, Thailand and the United States). I also had a wider classroom of experience that shaped me in many ways.

Read the full article here:

The Classroom of Diversity: Expat File #19

The unending season of transition

Miusunderstood was published in August 2016. The two years leading up to its publication were a crazy torrent of transitions – moving from Beijing, to Phnom Penh, to Sydney. Leaving the job I’d been in for four year to begin three years of graduate study. Going from expat to local – and my first time living in my passport country as an adult. Riding the rollercoaster of repatriation while studying an intensive full time program, living in community with a lot of new people, and completing my book. If you ever need proof that I’m crazy, that last sentence is basically it.

When the book came out, I thought I would finally relax. I could focus on study, get involved more in my local area, actually finish settling into my new life in Australia. Little did I know what the next 18 months held for me…

Shortly before Misunderstood was released, I visited Beijing for a week – a last minute, hardly planned trip. I expected Beijing to feel different, that it wouldn’t feel so much like home any more, that I would be able to let go. I had no intention of moving back to Beijing. I had a list of reasons I thought made it very unlikely, and possibily unwise. But as soon as I arrived I felt like I was home. I felt comfortable in a way I hadn’t in the nearly two years since I’d left. I was taken by surprise at my deep and almost visceral reaction. It wasn’t about the community I’d left, though I loved reconnecting with friends there. It was my connection to Beijing itself – its sights, smells, and other peculiarities. Instead of letting go of the place that had been important to me, I found it grabbing hold of me. I was completely unprepared for the strength of those emotions.

bejiing-sights-2017b

Amazing how simple scenes can have an emotional impact…

Another surprise was reconnecting with an old friend – someone I’d once been very close to, but hadn’t spoken to in years. I remember talking to him about the way I was reacting to Beijing, how I suddenly didn’t want to leave – and might have had trouble getting on the plane back to Australia if I didn’t have a good friend’s wedding to attend when I got there! But that I still considered this a “farewell tour” of sorts. I had no idea when I might be back again, but was fairly certain I wouldn’t live there again, certainly not any time soon.

Fast forward 21 months: we’re now married and living in Beijing.

Every time I think I have it down, the crazy twists and turns of life, the knowledge that the unexpected is the most likely to happen – nope! I’m still hopelessly unprepared for all the changes thrown at me.

After Misunderstood was published, I began an unexpected career as an international speaker. In the past year I’ve spoken to groups in Australia, China, Ireland, France, and in a few days I’m leaving for Tanzania and Sudan. This all happened while finishing my degree, including working on a thesis with more original TCK research. Somewhere in the middle of that I got engaged, adding international wedding planning and an international move to my list of transitions to plan and process.

Now, just to really throw me off course, I visited Beijing again. This time, instead of feeling at home, I felt off centre. In the year between visits I had finally started to feel at home in Australia, and now felt out-of-step with Beijing. More friends had moved away, and I stayed in a part of the city that was new to me. It was disappointing, and unsettling, but at least gave me warning of the magnitude of the transition I was embarking on. Leaving Australia was difficult, and arriving in Beijing felt uncomfortable. I never second guessed my choice, and I am feeling much more at home here now, but it wasn’t easy.

There has been so much change in my life in the past few months. I’ve stayed in 12 different places in the past 4 months, always moving my suitcases with me. Africa will be my 5th continent in 3.5 months – although this time I have a home to come back to afterward! Everything I’ve ever written and presented on transition (and change, loss, grief, and repatration) has become sharper and clearer for me. Keynoting a transition conference for high school seniors soon to graduate (and, for many, repatriate) while going through all these transitions myself was poignant – requiring me to stop, reflect, and address what I too was experiencing.

Transition isn’t fun, but it is part of the price we pay in order to move forward, to grow, to become.

Given where I am now, despite the bumps and uncertainties, it is most definitely a price worth paying.

Click here to read more posts about Third Culture Kids, transition, and expatriate experiences.