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.

Recommended reading: August 6th, 2018

My latest collection of recommended posts about expatriate life and Third Culture Kids.

Thoughts on Citizenship from Around the World
Velvet Ashes
Really interesting piece, which collects four vignettes from different women around the world reflecting on their experiences of citizenship – as affected by expatriate living, cross-cultural relationships, and adoption. I particularly like this little thought, which resonates with many conversations I’ve had during interviews:
I was becoming part of the fabric of life here in a way that just sticking to my role would never have achieved. And isn’t that part of being a citizen? Beyond passports and visas, I realized I started to feel like a citizen of this place when I began to be invested beyond my little niche.

The Labeling of Self
TCK Town
This is a fascinating, uncomfortable, important piece of reflection. It largely follows a conversation among a group of expatriates from various countries, as they negotiate ethnic labels and how they do or don’t self-identify, and who they do and don’t include in those identity umbrellas. It makes me stop and think. Something that international life has provoked for me is the way I have included people in umbrellas they don’t identify with, how easily I can make assumptions about others’ experiences. This piece sits in that discomfort, and invites readers to listen, and reflect on their own use of labels.
We all came out of the park with our egos a little bruised and worse for wear. Instead of peeking into our sandwiches, we had spent the hour delving into conceptions and misconceptions of labeling our identities.

Ex expats from NL: Dutch repatriates – how does it feel to be home?
Dutch News
An interesting piece on repatriates to the Netherlands, with quotes from several repats with different stories. They share different difficulties they’ve experienced, that will ring true with many expats/repats.
“People who’ve lived abroad for a long time, she explains, learn to look at the world from a different perspective. ‘You have seen a lot. That uproots you from your own country.’”

Phoenix Rising: Reflection on Expat Resilience and Health Crisis Abroad
I Am A Triangle
An interesting piece reflecting on a patient experiencing a health crisis while abroad. Carolyn uses one person’s experience as a springboard to consider the emotional resilience for expatriates generally. It is a longer piece, with several sections looking at different aspects of the experience of coping with this sort of situation. These include self-care, emotional support, multi-faceted healing, and adaptation.
Normal emotional and stresses that come with illness or injury are compounded by his being so far from loved ones and by his difficulty communicating with healthcare personnel. He misses his three children and the normal routines they share together. Creating a support system doesn’t happen organically for him in this setting. The language barrier prevents the casual rapport-building that would normally take place between strangers brought together by a common denominator. He misses the simplicity of these types of human connections and consciously searches out other English-speakers within the hospital.

Dear Dubai, Can We Please Part as Friends?
And Then We Moved To
Mariam pens a break-up letter to Dubai, her home of the past four years. It is sweet, thoughtful, emotional, and insightful. It starts like this:
Dear Dubai, If you and I were in a relationship on Facebook, I’d choose the relationship status “it’s complicated.” You know it and I know it. We have had a love/hate relationship since day one, and four years later, its still messy to describe my feelings for you or the way I affectionately refer to you…

Tips for Strengthening Families in Transition
Our Goodwin Journey
This post is written by a missionary and so there are a few assumptions from that perspective, but the general content is really helpful for all families experiencing transition. There are practical ideas, covering topics such as being proactive, dealing with emotions, and maintaining relational focus.
“For our family, we all sense the next transition and begin feeling the effects about 2 months prior to the move. We all feel the emotions building. We all experience the mixed mental challenges of being here and being there at the same time. So many decisions, goodbyes, frustrations, to-do lists and challenges come into play each day through a cross cultural move. Stress rises, tensions escalate and tears flow. Random meltdowns for kids and parents alike are normal for families in transition…But what can we all do to help families in transition get through the moving season in healthy, good ways?”

The Expat Blues
The Expat Mummy
One “trailing spouse” wife and mother reflects on the depression and purposelessness that can strike after moving to a(nother) new location. She knows the right things to do, sees the progress on paper, yet struggles with identity. This post doesn’t offer a lot of answers, but offers validation of the struggle. I really appreciate that.
“So why mock that ever so helpful list, after all the tried and tested remedy for loneliness is the same the world over and it’s not wrong. My problem with the list is that we aren’t always looking for advice, sometimes what a trailing spouse needs is recognition.”

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”.

Recommended reading: June 4th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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