Dear repatriating TCK

Recently I received a message from an 11 year old TCK. I had spoken at their school and while we didn’t meet, they knew I was talking about TCK stuff and thought I might be able to help them. Soon they will repatriate – return to live in their passport country – after three years abroad. They wrote to me about their mixed feelings regarding the upcoming move, asking for my advice. I’ve decided to share my reply here because I am sure there are plenty of TCKs around the world feeling similar things right now. (To protect privacy I’ve changed the countries involved to my own – China (Beijing) and Australia.)


Dear repatriating TCK,

I’m so glad you wrote to me. The way you’re feeling is very normal – a lot of people have been in your position before. You’re right: going “home” after making a home for yourself in a new place is really tricky, and there are a lot of complicated feelings that go with it.

There is a special word for moving to your passport country when you’ve been living somewhere else: it’s called “repatriation”. Repatriation is particularly hard and painful. In fact, for hundreds of TCKs I’ve interviewed, it was the most difficult part of their international lives. That’s because the expectations are different. People in Australia might tell you “welcome home” which might hurt when Beijing also feels like home, and you’ve had to leave it behind. People might not understand how much it means to you. But you’ve spent more than a third of your living memory in Beijing – of course it’s important to you! In a lot of ways you aren’t going “back” at all – you’re starting again in a new place.

You described the process of transitioning to China – how at first you were really sad about everything you left behind, but then gradually this became a place of joy for you, a place you’re glued to. This is really good! It means you’ve been able to enjoy your life here. The process of moving to Australia is going to be similar. At the start it’s going to be really sad, because you now have so much in Beijing that you enjoy, and have to say goodbye to. It will hurt to lose these things.

The pain we feel at saying goodbye is a good sign – it means we love something, or someone. It’s much better to have a life full of love, even though that means it hurts to say goodbye, than to be all alone everywhere you go.

You asked for some advice on how to process all of this. The good news is you’re already doing one of the most important things: you are listening to your feelings. Sometimes our feelings seem too big and overwhelming, so we push them away and try to ignore them. This doesn’t get rid of the feelings – it just creates a bigger pile of them we’ll have to sort out later. Very few things in life are all good or all bad – and the same with this move to Australia. There will be some exciting and happy things, and there will be some sad and painful things. The most important thing you can do is keep feeling those feelings – keep sharing them. Write them down, tell someone about them, draw pictures or sing songs – anything that helps you bring those feelings out in the open.

The next piece of advice I have is to say goodbye well. Take time to think about and say goodbye to all the people and places that have meant something to you in these three years. Say “thank you” to everyone, and everything, that has made Beijing a good experience for you. Sometimes you might actually say this out loud, or write it in a goodbye card. Sometimes it will be enough to take time on your own to think about and be thankful for each thing. Make sure you visit your favourite places, and eat your favourite foods. When you do, remember how much they have meant to you. Take photos of “ordinary” things, so you can remember them later. A photo of your street, your favourite noodle shop, the view from your window – anything that holds memories.

My last piece of advice is about what to do when you get to Australia. You will probably miss Beijing (your friends, your school, your whole life!) for quite a while after you arrive. When that happens, don’t forget that it was the same when you arrived in Beijing. It’s totally normal to be sad about the things you’ve lost. You are going to have new experiences and make new friends living in Australia, but that doesn’t mean you stop being sad about the people you left behind. The goal, however, is to start making new connections in Australia, so you can start to feel joy there and glue yourself to this new life. You don’t have to forget Beijing, and the people who matter to you, but at the same time, make space for new people to become important to you. It won’t happen immediately, but eventually you’ll find yourself living a new life that also makes you happy.

There’s one other thing I want to say. You said you thought you preferred Australia over China, but now you’re not so sure. The thing about living in different places is that ALL those places matter to us. It can be hard to choose one over another. But you don’t have to – you are allowed to have space in your heart for more than one place. And it’s okay if the way you feel about each place changes over time. You might be “from” Australia, but you have lived in China as well, and that makes it an important place to you.

I hope this helps you as you get ready to leave. Please write back any time, with any questions you have.

Tanya

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

The power of the second year

I am now in my second year living in Beijing (again). More importantly, I am in my second year living in this particular apartment/neighbourhood. I’ve wandered our neighbourhood this Spring soaking in sunshine and enjoying beautiful flowers. And as I’ve done this, I’ve had a strange but wonderful feeling. I’ve thought to myself – “oh, I’ve done this before!” I enjoyed a particular blossom tree in a particular spot – and remember enjoying it last year. I stopped to look at a magnolia tree on the way to the shops – and remembered doing that last year.

Those feelings I’ve had are, in a nutshell, the power of the second year.

Some pretty second-year blossoms. Seeing them with that background of the striped smokestack against the blue sky gave me feelings of familiarity.

Some pretty second-year blossoms. Seeing them with that background of the striped smokestack against the blue sky gave me feelings of familiarity.

People often ask me how long it takes to adjust to a new place – how long will the transition last? Obviously there’s no hard and fast rule, and there are different stages of transition. But I usually say it takes a year and a half, and that at the start of the third year you find yourself feeling much more your normal self again. This is because of the power of the second year.

So – what do I mean by “the power of the second year”? Well, it’s the beauty of what I’ve been feeling lately – the wonderful sense of “oh, I’ve done this before!”

When you are adjusting to a change – whether you’ve started in a new school, moved into a new house, said goodbye to close friends, or experienced a change in your health – you will encounter a lot of newness.

Perhaps the space you live in, or work in, is new.
Perhaps the people around you are new.
Perhaps the foods you eat are new.
Perhaps your daily routine is new.
Perhaps the way you unwind is new.

The first day, week, and month are full of firsts. In fact, through the whole first year there will be firsts. The first time you celebrate Eid, Christmas, Diwali, New Year, or numerous other holidays that are important to you, in this new place or routine. The first time you mark your birthday in this new life. Even the first last day of school is a first!

It’s only in the second year that everything becomes familiar – everything has been done before.

Now, obviously there are many things you will have done multiple times during your first year. That’s why transition is a gradual process. The power of the second year is that nothing is new. You’ve been through it all before. You can see what’s coming because you’ve done it before. You start to get a feel for the rhythm of the year – you’ve been through the whole cycle so now you can begin to predict it.

The power of the second year is that you start to feel comfortable.

You start to find people who are comfortable, place that are comfortable, routines that are comfortable.

Instead of being hit by wave after wave of newness, you can see the waves coming. You might even start to surf them.

The power of the second year also explains why frequent transition (moving every 2-3 years) can be exhausting, frustrating – or even appealing.

Starting again takes time, energy, and effort. Some people find this absolutely exhausting. Some are totally frustrated by having to go through the process over and over. Perhaps you’ve felt both of those. (In either case, my six tips for a good transition may be helpful!)

When you transition frequently, you don’t have time to hit your stride before you have to leave again. You are never at your best because you’re always coping with a new routine – or preparing to leave and start again.

Some people, on the other hand, find all this new information, all the new experiences, all the newness of starting again with people and places, quite exciting! For them, the newness is interesting. For some, however, all that newness also means not having to learn how to connect deeply, with places or with people.

There are things to learn from and enjoy in our transitions.

There are things to learn from and enjoy about staying and settling into routine.

The power of the second year is that you have been around the block already. There are things you know, things you recognise. You don’t need to think so much about what to do in different circumstances because you already know!

Familiarity is a wonderful thing; it’s one of the elements that makes a place feel like home. So wherever you are in your transitions – whether first year, second year, twentieth year, or even your last year – it’s worth taking time to savour those moments of recognition and familiarity.

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”.

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.

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Change, transition, and why it’s hard

The past six months have been an insane season of transition for me. Comically enough, as I’ve been taking up speaking engagements in various countries the number one topic I’ve been engaged to speak on has been – you guessed it – transition. And now, of course, the northern hemisphere is in the throes of transition season – many people are moving on to new locations, and many more are watching them leave.

Transition is everywhere – all around us. But what is transition?

I find it helpful to contrast change and transition. They are related, but different.

Change is an event.

Transition is a process.

Change is an event. It is the moment in time when I go from this to that, here to there. It is when I leave, when my friend leaves me, when I start at a new school or new job, move into a new home. Transition is the process of anticipating and integrating that change.

As I wrote in Misunderstood:

Change is physical – a new location, a person who is physically absent. Transition is the process of handling the emotional fallout of physical changes

Change

Change is concrete. We can see it happen. We know what it is. But we still often underestimate the full impact of a change. One change is usually made up of a series of smaller changes. Perhaps hundreds of changes! And a big change, like moving locations, has multiple changes involved, each of which is made up of smaller changes.

For example, if I move to a new country, I experience a series of changes:

  • A new house
  • A new school/workplace
  • A new culture, and possibly a new language
  • A new environment
  • A new set of friends/acquaintances
  • A new way of living life

But each of these big changes is made up of a lot of smaller changes. For example, I often ask students to list the changes that are part of starting at a new school. They include:

  • How to get there – walk? ride a bike? bus? parent drop off?
  • What to wear – is there a uniform? what type?
  • What to eat – is lunch provided? do I bring my own?
  • Friends – the people you spend your whole day with
  • Environment – where do I play/hang out?
  • School layout – no longer familiar
  • Teaching style
  • Behaviour expectations
  • Language may be different, even it’s a different dialect of the same language (UK English vs American English, Argentine Spanish vs Colombian Spanish, etc.)

When I start at a new school, I am not experiencing one change – I am processing many different pieces of the new situation which are different. The same goes for a new house, a new neighbourhood, a new job, a new relationship – a new anything, really!

Transition

Transition is the process of adapting to change. A period of transition begins as soon as I know a change is coming. As soon as I learn that I’ll be changing schools, or as soon as my friend tells me she’s moving away – at that point my transition has begun. This means some transitions begin a long time before the change occurs. Sometimes a transition can actually begin AFTER a change, because I may not learn the change has happened until after the fact.

A period of transition continues until I am accustomed to and comfortable with my post-change life – when I have integrated those changes and my situation changes from “new” to “normal”.

As you might imagine, sometimes this can take a long, long time.

One of the problems many of us have with transition is we don’t accept how long the process can take. Adjusting to a new normal takes a lot of time, and in that period of transition life is a bit more difficult. Berating myself for not keeping up, pushing myself to “get over it”, or thinking there’s something wrong with me, only makes things harder.

Losing our automatics

One important unseen change that goes with any big change is that all the automatics are erased. In a new situation I don’t automatically know where to go, what to do, who to talk to, how to get things done. Everything I do requires deliberate thought and conscious effort.

Want to get dinner? Okay. How?

Want to cook? Okay. Where do you buy groceries in your new location? Are the same groceries available, or do you need to adapt? Do you have the language and currency required to buy groceries? Is the system of collecting and paying for groceries different to what you’re used to? Do you have the same cooking equipment avaialable, or do you need to learn to use a different kitchen? After sorting all this out, do you still have the energy to cook??

Want to order in? Okay. Who delivers in your new location? Is it food you’re familiar with, or will you need some guidance to order effectively? Do they use a language (and dialect) you’re familiar with? Do they require the use of apps or online payment – and do you have access to these? If they require cash on delivery – do you have enough local currency?

Want to go out to eat? Okay. Do you know any places to eat? Are they walking distance? Will you be comfortable walking (weather/safety/health)? If not, do you have transport? Then when you’re there you have all the same questions – familiarity, language, payment. ..

This is why a period of transition can be so very tiring.

Not everything will be this complicated – but they can be. If you move to a place where things are done very differently to the way you’re used to, almost everything can be this hard. Life in these big transitional phases is exhausting!

It takes much more time and mental energy to get simple things done, because they aren’t simple any more – and it will take time to learn the new ways to do things, and for basic tasks to become familiar and, eventually, simple once more.

Something I often struggle with during a period of transition is learning my new calming strategies – what will help me find peace, relax, enjoy life. The things I can do in Sydney, for example, are very different to the things I can do in Beijing. Many of the old options simply aren’t available to me any more – I have to find new ones. More than that, I have to create new ones. This is can be difficult and tiring and, more importantly, time consuming. I might try something, realise it doesn’t work, and have to start again trying something new.

So what do we do?

Next week I’ll share my Six Tips for a Good Transition. The sneak peek, however, is simply to be kind to yourself. Work to adapt to change, but be patient with the process.
Acknowledge that transition is hard, and takes time, and be okay with not being at your best for a while – and probably for longer than you’d like!

Graduation season

In the northern hemisphere it is graduation season, and around the world lots of TCKs are leaving countries that feel like home.

Some will be moving to countries they have a passport for, but feel foreign in.

Some will be moving to countries they consider home, and long to return to.

Some will be moving to new countries, in the familiar role as “foreigner”.

Some will become part of the visible majority for the first time.

Some will stand out for their appearance in a way that hasn’t happened before.

Some are focused on logistics – on preparing paperwork and possessions.

Some feel stuck in the grief of all they must leave behind.

Some are excited to launch out into a new life.

Some are terrified of all the change that is upon them.

Some feel the finality of this move. Life will never be the same again.

Many are overwhelmed by all the goodbyes – leaving people and places they love.

Most are a jumble of mixed emotions.

Several TCKs I interviewed for Misunderstood said high school graduation was one of the most difficult experiences of their lives.

One said: “Graduation was, to date, the hardest thing I’ve been through. Everyone around me kept saying that college would be the best years of my life, but I couldn’t see how that could be true.

Another said: “The biggest and longest period of grief I have experienced is when I graduated high school. I knew that I was not only leaving a place but a lifestyle.

And finally, one last quote: “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.

So what do we do with all this? How do we help the TCKs we love as they move through this season full of goodbyes and hellos? I could write (and have spoken) about this at length, and maybe in the future I will write about it here. For now, however, I’m going to lean on the wisdom of others. I’ve pulled together some resources from various places that I think may be helpful both for graduates and for those of us who love them:

Graduation Gifts for your TCK (Communicating Across Boundaries)
This post was part of the inspiration for mine. In it the always wonderful Marilyn brings together a wealth of gift ideas along with reasons they can be helpful. I was honoured to see Misunderstood listed as one of eight excellent books on her list of suggestions.

The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition (Tina L. Quick)
Marilyn includes this book in her list, but it’s worth its own mention here as well. This is a book I recommend a lot, and it includes lots of great practical advice for TCKs heading toward university.

7 Thoughts for Graduating TCKs (A Life Overseas)
Elizabeth writes to graduating TCKs, sharing seven really helpful things to keep in mind – such as delayed processing, accepting paradox, grief, and the need for grace.

You are not special – a graduation address (Michele Phoenix)
This is a wonderful (fictional) graduation address for TCKs as they go out into the world. It sounds harsh, but it’s really not. Michele points out a potential pitfall TCKs can fall into and explains that “it’s easy to confuse being fortunate with being better.”

Third Culture Kids – From Overseas to Undergrad (RNG International)
Helpful insights into what the transition may look like on the other side for those going into university after high school, with some practical suggestions and thoughts from TCKs.

And finally, a good resource that applies to some is Interaction International – who run re-entry seminars for TCKs moving to the US.

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

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.