Lessons from a Third Culture Childhood: in summary

Last semester I wrote a four-part series called “Lessons from a Third Culture Childhood”.  In it I expanded on two “lessons” I wrote about for a China Source article – that everyone leaves, and no one understands. I talk about “lessons” because what we experience as children is what we consider ‘normal’ and this teaches us what the world is like.

Here I’ve brought all four posts from the series together, with brief summaries and quotes. These were some of the most read and most shared posts I’ve written (each of the four made it into my list of most read posts), and I also received a LOT of feedback on them, both publicly and privately. I’m glad they hit home for a lot of people, and I hope they prove useful for many, both now and in the future.

Part 1: Everyone leaves

I start the series with one of the most common phrases I heard during interviews for Misunderstood: that “everyone leaves”. I explore how this affects attitudes toward relationships, and different ways individual TCKs may respond to this lesson. Here’s an excerpt:

“Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent…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. . .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.”

I did something a little unusual with this article. Instead of ending on a happy and hopeful night, I doubled down and asked my readers to stop and consider what it really means to grow up with this lesson. I share a lot of stories, both real and hypothetical (but rooted in many stories I’ve been told). Then I finished with one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to parents all over the world whenever I’m asked to speak about TCKs: they do not need to be fixed; they need to be heard.

“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.””

Part 2: What about the internet?

This was an unplanned diversion after I received several comments, publicly and privately, from TCKs and others, asking the same question: “What about the internet?” The point seemed to be that the internet provides the capacity to stay in touch with people in other places, which should take the sting out of everyone leaving. I find this idea quite unhelpful for a number of reasons, and I decided it was time to collect them coherently so I could share my thoughts on the subject. I cover four reasons the internet doesn’t solve the “everyone leaves” problem:

  1. The internet doesn’t erase loss
    When someone leaves a relationship changes. Even if connection continues, it will be a different connection – a different friendship must be negotiated.
  2. It’s not the same
    A long distance friendship isn’t the same as an in-person friendship. Not all friendships translate well to distance, and not all people find long-distance communication comfortable.
  3. It’s not just one person
    TCKs say goodbye to a LOT of people. So it’s not staying in touch with one person, it’s staying in touch with multiple people – and more of them every year. It’s just not possible to maintain that many close relationships.
  4. Who is in control?
    We’re talking about Third Culture KIDS – their ability to stay in touch with people elsewhere is often largely controlled by their parents (or friends’ parents). And no matter how old we are, there are always situations out of our control.

I finish the piece by concluding that while the internet is a great tool, and maintaining friendships over the internet is amazing, it’s just not that simple.

“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”.”

Part 3: after everyone leaves

In this post I offer four strategies to help TCKs manage the aftermath of absorbing the lesson that “everyone leaves”. These aren’t simple fix-it solutions, but suggestions of mindset adjustments that can be helpful.

  1. Sunk costs
    This is a concept I find really helpful: I can’t change what’s happened, so what am I going to do starting from now?
  2. Change happens
    Life involves change, no matter who you are or where you live. We all need to learn how to cope with change – running from it won’t keep us safe from the emotions that go with it.
  3. Pick your poison
    Most TCKs end up believing they have two choices: invest deeply in relationships and pay the price in grief when someone leaves, or keep things light and be safe from that pain. The point I make here is that choosing not to invest in relationships doesn’t save us from pain – it brings a different sort of pain. There’s pain involved either way – so which would you prefer? To grieve changing friendships, or to be always alone?
  4. And THIS is where the internet comes in
    No, the internet doesn’t solve the problem, but it provides a great middle ground. I grieve losing the in-person friendship I had, but I also get the opportunity to negotiate a new long-distance friendship, which can also be very rewarding.

“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.”

Part 4: No one understands

Finally, I got to the second core lesson TCKs shared in interviews: no one understands. This feeling is a very natural consequence of a cross-cultural childhood. Why is that?

“The Third Culture experience is about living in between – with connections to more than one place/culture. One consequence of this for TCKs is that throughout their formative childhood years, most of the people they interact with know only one side of them – only one of the cultures/places they know and are deeply impacted by. TCKs learn to turn on and off languages and behaviours as they move from one setting to another. In the end, however, there are few places in which TCKs can express all their pieces of self at once.”

There’s a good reason my book is titled Misunderstood. It is not a hopeless message, that it is inevitable to be misunderstood, but a hopeful one – that understanding is possible. Understanding can be built!

“Many people in a TCK’s life won’t instinctively understand their experiences. And unfortunately, it’s also true that some won’t want to try. But for those who are willing, resources like Misunderstood can help close the gap. . .But more than that, there is hope in remembering that no one completely understands anyone else. We all have to share our stories, and try to listen to what another is saying about their experiences. What we all have in common are our emotions. We have all experienced loss, fun, joy, grief. It might look different, but the emotions underneath help us empathise. Learning to connect with and express the way we feel about things we’ve been through helps others go there with us.”

This is what my book, and ultimately all my work, is about: building bridges of understanding. Giving TCKs tools to understand and articulate their experiences to others, so they might be better understood. Sharing the perspectives of TCKs with those who care for them, that they might better understand.

Thanks for sticking through this long summary – I hope it (and the full blog posts) are helpful for you. That you feel heard, encouraged, equipped.

Lessons from a Third Culture childhood, part 4: No one understands

This series goes a little deeper into two key lessons of a TCK childhood, something I wrote about for China Source. In part 1 I discussed the lesson that “everyone leaves”. I then wrote two follow up posts regarding that lesson. Now, in this post, I am finally tackling the big one: “no one understands”.

Misunderstood

There’s a good reason my book is called Misunderstood. Very soon after starting interviews, I realised that the topic of feeling misunderstood, and the impact of this, was coming up repeatedly. I started asking TCKs I interviewed if they had felt misunderstood in certain ways and the floodgates opened immediately. Stories (and often tears) poured out of young people who desperately wanted to be known and understood but were hurt by misunderstandings, or even feared it would never be possible that another person could truly understand.

So, why is it that TCKs share this feeling of being misunderstood? Why do they fear that no one can understand?

Living in between

I surveyed 750 TCKs for Misunderstood, and (unsurprisingly) I asked several questions about the experience of feeling misunderstood. A third felt misunderstood by their parents, over half felt misunderstood by extended family members. 41% felt misunderstood by friends in their host country. 67% felt misunderstood by friends in their passport country. The main reason for this? Most of the people in a TCK’s life know only one side of that life.

As I’ve talked about before, the Third Culture experience is about living in between – with connections to more than one place/culture. One consequence of this for TCKs is that throughout their formative childhood years, most of the people they interact with know only one side of them – only one of the cultures/places they know and are deeply impacted by. TCKs learn to turn on and off languages and behaviours as they move from one setting to another. In the end, however, there are few places in which TCKs can express all their pieces of self at once.

Imagine a German kid attending an English-speaking school in Kenya. Most of his friends in Kenya won’t speak German or understand much of German life and culture. Most of his family and friends in Germany won’t know what life is like in Kenya, and how deeply in impacts him. In each place, a piece of self is quietly suppressed, to focus on the pieces the people around him can share. Then his family moves to Malaysia, and the complications continue.

“TCKs often feel they will never be known completely; at best they are known slightly by people all over the world. Each person only knows tiny snapshots of parts of their lives.” — Gabe, as quoted in Misunderstood, pg 25-26

The joy of being understood

When your baseline assumption is that no one will understand, the experience of being understood is powerful. I had two main goals for Misunderstood, one for each of the two key audiences. I wanted to equip parents and other interested adults with tools to better understand their TCKs; and I wanted to show TCKs that there are others out there who get it – that they CAN be understood.

When Misunderstood was nearly finished I sent excerpts of the manuscript to TCKs I had quoted, to make sure they were happy with how their words were being used. One of them summarised what I heard from many others, “I could have said every quote in here! I didn’t know so many people felt the same way!” Another, when reading the book herself, tried to guess which quotes were hers without looking at the name given. Over and over she thought to herself “oh yeah, that’s me” – only to discover that someone she didn’t know had expressed the same sentiment in words she would have used herself.

Some of the pre-publication reviews of Misunderstood I most treasured came from TCKs themselves, who saw themselves in what I had written, and received that most cherished gift: of feeling themselves to be understood:

Misunderstood left me feeling refreshingly… understood! Compassionate and discerning, its blend of gathered narrative and insight left me with a sense of belonging as well as an appreciation for the many varieties of experience similar to mine. This is the guidebook I want to give people to explain my cultural upbringing.”
Christopher O’Shaughnessy, Author of Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures in Between

Misunderstood explains ME. Tanya gives words to internal feelings I could not have previously understood as a TCK. While I read, I found myself nodding with a sense of relief and recognition, ‘Yes! That’s what I felt. I’m not the only one.’”
Taylor Joy Murray, Author of Hidden in My Heart: A TCK’s Journey Through Cultural Transition

After Misunderstood was published and I started to hear from TCKs who had read it and felt the need to reach out and thank me for giving them this: being understood, and finding out they weren’t the only ones to feel this way. The very first letter I got was from a TCK living in Tajikistan. She shared some of her experiences with me and then said that reading my book was the first time since going through all this that she felt someone had understood her. My heart twisted – a combination of compassion for her, and gratitude that my words were able to bring her some comfort. I remember thinking at the time “for this one person, all the years of work are worth it.”

Two years later I had a letter from a young adult TCK who read my book after suffering a breakdown and discovering that they were a TCK. I heard that similar refrain – that it helped so much to know others felt the same way.

Understanding is possible!

The title Misunderstood is not supposed to be static – that TCKs exist in a state of being misunderstood that will never change. Instead, I hoped to do justice to the emotional experiences TCKs shared with me, while also opening a door to hope that it doesn’t have to be this way!

Yes – it’s true. Many people in a TCK’s life won’t instinctively understand their experiences. And unfortunately, it’s also true that some won’t want to try. But for those who are willing, resources like Misunderstood can help close the gap. It’s tiring, if not impossible, to be the one who advocates for yourself constantly, so giving TCKs a book (and other resources) they can put in the hands of people who do want to understand can take some of the load.

But more than that, there is hope in remembering that no one completely understands anyone else. We all have to share our stories, and try to listen to what another is saying about their experiences. What we all have in common are our emotions. We have all experienced loss, fun, joy, grief. It might look different, but the emotions underneath help us empathise. Learning to connect with and express the way we feel about things we’ve been through helps others go there with us.

The truth is, I know that there are many out there who are just like me, or at least can understand how I feel. There is a sense of isolation from others who are not TCKs, but I’ve always felt that in time most other people can at least comprehend the feelings we have. Loneliness is a universal trait among humans, whether it’s because you were always the weird kid at school or because you lived two thousand miles away from anyone who spoke English. While the reasons may be different, it’s the same type of pain we share.” – Eugene, as quoted in Misunderstood, pg 27

Now what?

If you are a TCK: you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who has felt what you feel. There are others out there. Not only that, but there will be people in your life who want to listen, to learn, to come to understand you.

If you care for a TCK: a great gift you can give TCKs is to read up on different TCK literature, to start to get an idea of what forces have shaped their worldview. Remember that every TCK is an individual – no book will tell you exactly what they are like. BUT these resources can give you a starting place, to show you where your blind spots might be, and give you ideas of questions to ask to open up different conversations.

I’m going to close by borrowing my own words – from the close of the introduction to Misunderstood. This is what my book, and my work advocating for TCKs, is all about:

“There is no one-size-fits-all explanation of how every TCK has felt and who they will become. Rather, this book is a window into how international life can affect the way a child thinks and feels about their world, and how this different perspective may manifest in the way they interact with others.

Reading this will not teach you everything about any individual TCK, but it will give you a head start in understanding their perspective. From there it will be up to you to take time to talk with the TCKs you meet, and allow them to teach you more about their unique life journeys.”

(From the introduction of Misunderstood, pg xxviii)

My TCK story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two key lessons from a TCK childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full post on China Source.

Update: I did indeed do some deeper dives into this topic – a series of four posts. Click here to read a summary of the series.

Recommended Reading: September 15, 2016

I’ve enjoyed some great articles and blog posts about expat life this month – here’s a taste of some of the best.

Life Lessons from Rapunzel
Taylor Joy Murray
Yet another fabulous post from the wonderful Taylor. I don’t know what I expected from a post referencing the movie Tangled, but it definitely wasn’t an elegantly accurate picture of the turmoil of transition. But that’s what this is – and you should really read it for yourself!

‘Blind Spots’ and Other Problems in Globally Blended Families
The Wall Street Journal
While I find the title a little negative, this is an excellent article on biracial families and the experience of mixed race children. Author Tracy Slater includes quotes from several people who have had this experience, and most reflect the same emotions I heard in my own interviews. (There are a few lines very similar to things I wrote in my subsection on Bicultural Families.) One example from Slater’s article: “the hardest part of growing up mixed was not fitting easily within the ethnic identity of either parent.” I particularly appreciated the focus on the different experience of parents who grew up in a racial majority group, and mixed race children growing up as a minority.
“Globe-trotting parents in mixed marriages who grew up in the majority may be aware of racism and may even have faced it themselves, but most still lack a deeper understanding of racism during a child’s formative years.”

My experience is a constant longing for connection
SBS
I really enjoyed these reflections from ATCK Natasha. Her words evoke colour and emotion and the experience of living in between. Here are two of my favourite parts:
“I was always chopping and filtering parts of my identity. Trying to find ways to belong in two worlds and drowning under the rejection from both.”
“Both my homeland and my birthplace are dots on the horizon. So far removed from where I am.”

How to Say Goodbye
Inkwell Insights
This is a really wonderful reflection on the process of saying goodbye – not a list of items to check off, but an attitude toward the world around me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it put so well into words before, in a way that I resonate with so deeply:
“Goodbye is a perspective. It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.”

Creepy Critters We Have Known
The Foreign Service Journal
I love this collection of “creepy critter” stories from around the world! I particularly related to the gecko stories – I have a few of my own gecko stories from Cambodia…

How to Travel Light as a Family
Knocked Up Abroad
Great practical post with travel tips for young families. Actually, some good tips in general. Some of these are things I do and I don’t even have kids!

Books on moving and transitions for TCKs
Kid’s Books without Borders
This is a really fantastic resource – a long list of books suitable for children of varying ages, most of them illustrated. The post also gives short descriptions of each one. This site itself is also a great cause: “The purpose of Kid’s Books Without Borders is to send books to families living overseas who have little or no access to bookstores or libraries with children’s books in English.”

 

What do you think of Misunderstood?

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks – Misunderstood was released and people around the world started receiving their own copies. I have received a lot of messages from people telling me they just ordered theirs, or just received it, and even photos of people showing me it had arrived! Thank you all so much – it is an honour to know my words are there in your hands, all over the world.

misunderstood-arrived2.jpg

Copies of Misunderstood in Australia, Cambodia, China, New Zealand, the UK and the US!

Even more exciting, I’ve started to hear from people who have been reading Misunderstood. I really believe in the message of Misunderstood, but it’s very different hearing it from people with no need to say so.

For those of you who have already started reading, I have a favour to ask. Could you write a short review of Misunderstood? It doesn’t have to be long or detailed, but reviews help people hear about books and choose to read them. If you are finding Misunderstood interesting, helpful, or otherwise useful – someone else will too. Please help them find it!

So, you’re willing to write a review – now what?

You can start by writing a sentence or two to answer these questions:

  1. Who do you think should read Misunderstood?
  2. Why do you think they should read Misunderstood?

For example:
I recommend Misunderstood to ____ because ____.
Misunderstood is a great book for ____. It ____.

If you even write that much, it will be helpful! If you want to write more, try to explain why Misunderstood matters to you – how it made you feel, something you learned from it, what resonated with you.

Now you have a review, the next step is to share it!

There are lots of ways you can share your review. Here are a few ways to start:

  • Post your review on Amazon. Even if you bought your copy of Misunderstood another way, you can still post a review on Amazon. If you did buy from Amazon, sign into your account so it shows as a “verified purchase”. (You may even receive an email inviting you to review your recent purchase.) Amazon’s main website is based in the US, but there are lots of country-specific sites as well. While the main site is the best default, if you live in/bought from a particular country, it’s also helpful to review on that site. See <
  • Post your review on Goodreads. A lot of online sellers sources reviews from Goodreads, so posting your review here not only helps people on Goodreads hear about Misunderstood, it also reaches much further!
  • Post your review where Misunderstood is sold online. Amazon is big, but there are lots of other sellers – and I know some of you are using them! This list will take you to the Misunderstood page on many online sellers.
  • Post your review on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn – anywhere!) Don’t forget a link to Misunderstood – either tag the Misunderstood account on the platform you’re using, or link to the website. This helps people find the book if they want to know more.

Thank you so much for your support and encouragement! I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts as you get a chance to read Misunderstood.