The Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kids – a popular post!

I’ve explained before that I’m easing back into blogging regularly following an extended hiatus for health reasons. I said I’d be highlighting some posts that people interacted with a lot in 2018, but I’m actually starting with a post I wrote for another blog!

I wrote a series of three short posts for China Source outlining some of the basics about what it means to be a Third Culture Kid. The first of these posts was titled The Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kid – and it became one of the the top ten most read posts on the site in 2018! (It’s number four on their list.)

I think part of the reason this post resonated widely is that so many people are confused about what the “three cultures” are. In short, it’s three types of cultural influence – not a count of how many countries you’re connected to, or a combination of a passport country and a host country.

The article also includes a few short excerpts from Misunderstood – quotes from TCKs I interviewed, sharing about their connections to home, country, culture. Personal stories are always powerful. I’ve always believed one of the greatest strengths of Misunderstood is that it draws upon personal stories shared with me by hundreds of TCKs.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

But having a passport isn’t the same as having experiential connections. The experience of growing up in places where I do not have legal recognition has an emotional impact. The country I legally belong to doesn’t completely feel like home, but I am not accepted by the country that does feel like home.

Singapore has always been very foreign to me, but when people asked where I was from, I replied: “Singapore.” It was a reflex. In high school, when people asked where I was from, I still said Singapore, but I knew it simply meant the country printed on my passport.

Stephanie

Read the full post on China Source

Recommended listening

I’m not quite ready to jump into Recommended Reading reviews just yet, but I was recently interviewed on a podcast which I’m going to recommend to you. So I also made a list of a few different podcasts I’ve appeared on in the past year or so as some recommended listening until I return to a regular schedule of Recommended Reading.

Migratory Patterns

I recently had a great conversation with Mike Shaw for the Migratory Patterns podcast. We talked about a lot of things, but particularly focusing on Third Culture life, both for kids and adults. I also explained a little about my current research, and why I’m preparing to write a book for twenty-something TCKs.

“Most of my interviews were with twenty-somethings and so I was really into these issues and aware of it and it was informing everything that went into Misunderstood. I was talking about their childhood experiences from that perspective of looking back on them… But what happens for a lot of those kids is they get to university and it’s like they walk off the cliff. There’s no support for what they go through, because their process of growing into adulthood looks really different. They’re juggling all these different cultural inputs, these different attachments, so their identity formation takes a lot longer. Not because they’re behind but just because they have a lot more information to process. The decision of how to work out what you want to do with your life is a lot harder when you have way more options. When your idea of what success is – you’re not even sure what you think, because the answer for you has always changed depending on who you’re talking to. When you now have to decide for yourself, when it’s not “my environment is determining for me”. Where I have to, as an adult, make my own independent decision. That’s a new skill.”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Mike

Mo Sibyl

Podcaster Mo Sibyl is a Nigerian academic in the US with an interest in Korean culture – among other things! I really enjoyed talking with her – we turned out to have many shared interests, including a love of language and statistics! At one point she said: “This is now a conversation between two language nerds!

What I appreciated most was how she got me talking about my work. She asked different questions from interesting angles, eliciting interesting responses 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 my conversation with Mo

Go Ye There

The first podcast I was invited to speak on happened while I was still in Australia completing my studies. It is a podcast by/for missionaries, but our conversation is a great primer for anyone raising kids overseas. We go through the basics of the TCK experience – what “TCK” means, what the Third Culture is, how growing up overseas shapes a child’s worldview, and more.

“All expats live in the Third Culture, but adults and children experience it very differently. Adults are viewing their international experience through the worldview shaped by their own childhood. Whereas a a TCK’s worldview is shaped by an international childhood. And this determines how they view the rest of the world, including their home country. When you grow up with more than one culture as a child, it affects the way you understand life, and the world, and yourself… Your kids might not be “struggling” as such, but they’re absolutely affected, because childhood experiences shape who we are.”

Click here to listen to my interview on the TCK basics

TCK Summit

I recorded a ten minute talk for The Change School‘s TCK Summit shortly after Misunderstood was first released. The TCK Summit is a series of short talks hosted on youtube discussing different aspects of cross-cultural life, especially as it affects TCKs. The month I contributed to was themed “Cultivating the Mind”. Two areas The Change School focuses on are “developing a Global Mindset” and lifelong learning, so my talk included what this looked liked for me.

The core of my talk was about connection to multiple cultures, and why this requires cultivation of mind. There is stress attached to navigating differing cultural expectations, which can dim mental clarity. This is something that came out in a number of my interviews for Misunderstood – TCKs faced with the need to make a decision about the future often experienced anxiety they needed tools to work through.

“The influence of multiple cultures can be quite stressful at times. If you are influenced by two cultural systems that means double the information to take in, double the social rules to learn, double the means of communication to master, double the values to internalise… Knowing yourself deeply, consciously processing emotion, acknowledging difficulties, creating mental space – these are all strategies that make it easier for each of us to grow through our engagement with multiple cultures rather than become overwhelmed by all the noise.”

Watch my TCK Summit talk on youtube

That’s it for today! I hope to be back with some Recommended Reading catch up next week.

Some initial results from my survey of ATCKs – and how you can help!

I’ve written before about my new project for twenty-something TCKs, and the survey I launched as a starting place for looking into issues that affect them.

I had to put my research on hold for a few months due to illness BUT the good news is that means I’m still looking for more ATCKs to complete my initial survey! If you lived overseas as a child and are now an adult (especially if you are between 30-50 years old!) I would LOVE to have your input. Please do share this around with anyone you know who might be interested.

Click here to go to the survey

300 ATCKs have completed the survey, and over 100 have indicated a willingness to be interviewed. So far there are 55 different passport countries and 134 countries of residence represented. All of this is really exciting!!

Are all your countries represented? I’ve included the full list of countries below – take a look and see!

I’m also going to share with you a few inital results from the survey – the story so far. The survey is still open and so these results may shift, especially if the demographics of participants evens out. Currently there are more females than males, more under 30s than over 30s, and more missionary kids than other demographics. So, with the understanding that these are very provisional results, here are a few statistics from the survey so far:

  • 46% lived 10 or more years of childhood outside their legal culture/s.
  • 20% lived in four or more countries before age 18.
  • 32% currently hold legal status (passport or permanent residency) in two or more countries.
  • 43% have given up legal status (passport or permanent residency) they previously held.

A lot of this survey asks which issues are/were a struggle, to help me understand what issues and information will be most helpful to discuss in a book for twenty-somethings. Here are a few of the issues that many ATCKs are responding to:

  • 80% have struggled with maintaining friendships long-distance.
  • 73% have struggled to find a sense of belonging in their passport countries.
  • 72% have struggled with putting down roots.
  • 70% have struggled with a fear of connecting and then leaving/being left.
  • 69% have struggled with making a place “home”.

I also asked questions about mental health and support services. This is something I get a LOT of questions about, and I want to make sure the new book has solid and helpful information. This is a simple survey based on self-reporting, but the statistics on how mental health issues have affected ATCKs are still worth paying attention to:

  • 78% report being affected by unresolved grief.
  • 76% report being affected by anxiety.
  • 70% report being affected by depression.
  • 26% report being affected by self-harm.
  • 14% report being affected by substance abuse.
  • 36% have never received any type of mental health support.

Finally, here is the long list of countries represented by the 300 people who have completed the survey so far! Are all yours here?

55 Legal Cultures
These are the countries survey participants have/had a passport from or legal permanent residency in.
Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Côte D’Ivoire, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Guyana, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Senegal, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States of America, Venezuela, Zimbabwe.

134 Geographic Cultures
These are the countries survey participants have lived in. 123 of these were childhood homes! (This list includes 10 territories*; I include them as they are geographically/culturally very different to their governing nations.)
Afghanistan, Akrotiri and Dhekelia*, Albania, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba*, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cayman Islands*, Central African Republic, Chile, China, Colombia, Congo (Rep), Congo (DRC), Costa Rica, Côte D’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Hong Kong*, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macao*, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norfolk Island*, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Pitcairn Islands*, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico*, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, South ‎Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Virgin Islands*, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Update: to learn more information from my research as I continue working, please consider supporting me on Patreon. $2 a month gives you access to extra insights arising through the research process.

Easing into the new year

As I wrote in my previous post, over the past month (nearly two) I’ve taken a break from working on my various projects. Now it’s January and I’m beginning to ease into the new year. I am taking my huge to-do list and breaking it down into manageable pieces. I’m trying to prioritise which projects need to be completed now, which could slowly use a little attention, and which can wait. I’m trying to balance passion and practicality – while keeping a firm hold on my health.

One decision I’ve made is that while I want to get back to posting regularly, I will not try to write new blog posts every week in January.  Instead, I am going to highlight some previous posts that have been popular. I will share some of the comments I’ve received from readers.

I also plan to start sharing the backload of Recommended Reading, but to begin with I may end up with simpler comments rather than full summaries and reflections. I need to start somewhere, and I’m trying to start small.

After that, however, I want to get writing again! And I’d love to know what you’d like to see me writing about. Do you have any questions about TCKs, the Third Culture, expatriate life, what it means to grow up cross-culturally, or anything else? Send me your questions! I may not have all the answers, but that will just give me more to learn so I can share it with you.

What would you like to learn about?

What would you like to share?

What do you want to know?

What do you wish others knew about your experience?

My inspiration for writing has always come from people. Sometimes it comes from listening to struggles – parents who feel guilty or discouraged, TCKs who feel confused or misunderstood, expatriates who feel alone and disconnected. Sometimes it comes from listening to joys – celebrating lives of cross-cultural confusion and joy, finding your own way through international life, or fondly reminscing over a time and place and community that may no longer exist outside memory.

Whatever is on your mind, I would love to hear from you.

I look forward to hearing your stories, as I always have!

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.

In part 4 of this series, I take on the second big lesson of a TCK childhood: “no one understands”.

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”.

In Part 3 of this series I talk about what comes next. What is the impact of absorbing this “lesson” and what can you do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone leaves

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

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

Reacting to this lesson

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

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

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

Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent – such as when they will be leaving soon, or the other person will. “Soon” being anywhere from six months to two years. Another common reaction is a highly developed ability to connect superficially – to be warm and friendly and welcoming – while holding back their deeper selves. There is great vulnerability in sharing my whole self when I know that the deeper a relationship gets, the more it will hurt when the (inevitable) goodbye comes.

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

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

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

Whatever method a TCK develops to help deal with the emotional stress of goodbyes, the commonality is that this is an essential survival skill for them. The goodbyes and the losses that go with them can be very overwhelming to a child, especially because it is the only experience they know.

Looking for hope

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

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

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

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

How hopeful would you feel, as you look ahead?

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

Losing friends hurts – and that’s okay

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

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

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

And that is something we can do.

__________

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

Recommended reading: September 17th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milestones! A celebration and a survey

Yesterday was a day of celebrating round numbers: the Misunderstood facebook page passed 1,000 page likes, and the survey of adult TCKs I’m running passed 100 completed responses! So for today’s blog post I’m going to share about both of those things.

First up – the 1,000 likes.

A bit under a month ago facebook sent me a notification about having passed 900 likes, and would I like to write a post to celebrate? Instead I decided 1,000 was a better number and set up a prize draw to celebrate when it happened. I wrote a post announcing this at the time. Yesterday, when the page got to ONE THOUSAND likes, I used a random number generator to pick a winner from the 25 people who entered. And the lucky winner was….

Helen! Helen just moved from the UK to the US with her family and is looking forward to learning more about the international world she is now raising her children in. She says she can’t believe she won; it was so fun for me to tell her the news! I’ll be posting her signed copy to her this week.

And next – the survey!

Two months ago I announced that I’ve started working toward a second book, this time for twenty-something TCKs – support for the journey from international childhood to independent adulthood. During the time in between I’ve had several conversations helping me clarify what I want to do, but mostly I’ve been working on a survey. I was stalling out on how to start my research, and finally realised what I needed was to do two separate surveys. I’d always planned to do a big and comprehensive survey to provide data for the book, but I realised I first needed some more foundational information to get me started, and give direction to interviews and the structure of writing.

survey-imgI spent the last month or so creating and testing different versions of this survey (thank you to the 30 people who helped me test the drafts!) and last week I posted the final version online.

Most of the survey asks for reactions to different issues that twenty-something TCKs I’ve talked to and interviewed over the past few years have struggled with. The goal is to see which are the most widespread and deeply felt. There are also some optional open-ended questions, to catch what ATCKs feel is missing, and hear their advice for others. I’ve been blown away by some of the thoughtful and insightful comments that have already been left! Most comments reflect items already in my breakdown of themes and issues to covers, and have served as confirmation and additional layers on those. Some have raised additional issues I can see should also be included.

A few people have expressed concern that the list seems quite negative. I thought this was worth addressing publicly. The goal of the book is not to say that being a TCK is bad and ruins your life. I absolutely do not believe that! But I do recognise that life is rarely all good or all bad. There are huge positives to international life, but there are also difficulties. A big focus of my work in general is recognising those difficulties and providing support for working through them effectively so that TCKs can more freely enjoy the benefits of their experiences. I strongly believe that ignoring or covering over negative feelings/experiences is a mistake with long-term repercussions. A large focus of the book I’m working toward will be acknowledging that certain struggles exist, talking about how to face them and overcome them, and assuring ATCKs that they can (and will!) find a way through, and create lives they enjoy.

As I said, I have now received over 100 completed responses, and more than half of those have indicated a willingness to be interviewed individually for the book. I’m so encouraged by this level of support! My goal is to get responses from 300 ATCKs in their 20s, 200 in their 30s, and 100 in their 40s. I’m well on the way to that, although so far I have fewer responses from 30-somethings and from men generally, and I have a higher number of responses from the mission world. Hopefully as word continues to spread those demographics will even out a bit more.

And, because I’m a bit of a nerd, I’m going to finish this post with a little stastitics fun. Looking at the demographics of the completed responses, I can see that:

  • 27% currently have citizenship/PR in more than one country
  • 13% lived in 4 or more countries before age 18
  • 47% spent 10 or more years overseas before age 18
  • Combined, they have lived in 53 different countries before age 18
  • Combined, they span 26 passport countries, from all 6 passport-issuing continents:
    • Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, PR China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Rep of Korea, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Tanzania, UK, USA.

Will be fun to see how this changes and expands as more data comes in!

Update: click here for more recent (though still preliminary) results from the survey!

If you know anyone who spent at least a year living overseas before age 18, please pass this along to them! I would love to reach a wide range of people, from different parts of the world, with different international experiences.

You can take the survey (or just read the introduction to it) by clicking here.

Or scan this QR code to go straight there:

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