Cross-cultural education: advice for parents

In a previous post I wrote an overview of the cross-cultural education experience, and said there would be more posts to come. In the meantime, I wrote a post for China Source about the impact of school culture, and the cross-cultural experience this can be. I’ve received a lot of feedback from teachers, parents and educational consultants. It’s nice to hear that so many others also feel this is a significant and important topic, although it also reminds me how few families are well resourced in how to cope with the impact of school culture on their family.

This post covers some key advice I give to parents about coping with the stresses associated with cross-cultural education. It’s turned into a long post, but I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface! At any rate, I hope you will find these suggestions thought-provoking, encouraging, and interesting.

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1) Your child is learning two cultures and languages at once

Your child may seem a bit behind in some ways: lacking language skills or cultural awareness, on either side – or both! But keep in mind, this is because they are learning more than one language, more than one cultural system. They’re actually ahead! The places they lack something are reminders of all they’ve gained, in a different language or cultural system.

Related to this, as they grow, keep in mind that they are neither completely one nor completely the other. Remember that it’s both-and: they have two (or more) languages and cultures that they draw upon to develop their sense of self.

“I feel like a different person when speaking Finnish than when speaking English. Maybe because my Finnish is not sophisticated enough to allow me to express myself to the same level as I can in English. I feel frustrated when I’m away with friends, say for a week, and don’t get any chances to speak Finnish. Even though I am limited by my Finnish, I feel constricted when I don’t get to be my ‘Finnish self’.”

Elisa, age 19, as quoted in Misunderstood, page 265

2) Always assume the best about your child

When you and your child clash, and especially when you feel your child is disrespecting you, or your culture, try to assume the best about your child. Assume that their intentions toward you are good. Assume they are trying their best. Assume that there is a misunderstanding between you, and not ill-intent. From this assumption, try to ask questions – perhaps just to yourself about the situation, or sometimes you may actually want to ask your child.

Ask why the child is acting this way (after starting by assuming the child is not trying to be difficult), and in particular, if they are acting from a set of values they have learned at school. Would their behaviour make sense in the classroom or schoolyard setting? Are they working from connection to and affection for more than one country, culture, or language?

Ask what might be confusing or frustrating your child – is there language or cultural understanding they are missing, and need help with? Are your own expectations as a parent not clear? Might these be confusing for a child living with different expectations during the school day? Ask what extra information, support, love, attention, or skills you might be able to provide to your child, to help them relax and grow as they walk through two cultures and languages at once.

Also, keep in mind the impact of grief on TCKs, and whether this might be part of the equation.

3) You may need space to deal with your own grief

Speaking of grief, give yourself space as a parent to experience and express grief associated with what a cross-cultural education means your child does NOT have – and does not share with you.

You may need space to feel the weight of what you’re dealing with. That you as a family are navigating two cultures and languages. That this journey means your child is having a very different childhood than you did – and therefore, is becoming a very different person. Over time, you may see these differences leading your child down a different path, and you may feel upset about them being less like you. And sometimes, those gaps in your experiences may make you feel sad – as you see the things you don’t share with your child. It is okay – even healthy – to leave yourself space to feel those feelings.

Letting yourself feel that sadness, finding a safe space to express it, will help you not put this on your child. If you do not recognise and face any grief you experience, it will twist its way into your parenting unconsciously. You will be more likely to place heavy expectations on your child to conform to your own cultural norms. You will be more likely to require them to be like you in order to feel accepted by you.

4) Cross-cultural education was YOUR choice – not your child’s

This is a difficult lesson for some, but it is very important. Your child did not choose to be in this situation, and to have this cross-cultural educational experience. This happened due to your choices as a parent. Even when children are involved in decisions around family relocations and schooling choices, the buck stops with the parent.

Whether you are at the start of this journey, or years down the track, it’s important to keep in mind that this is the only experience your child has. They have nothing to compare it to. They may not know what makes them different. They may not know what they don’t know. When those differences and lacks become apparent to you, remember: you are the one who chose this.

This also means it’s unfair to place heavy expectations on your child to be like you, and to share your sense of home. You may not even realise you’re doing it – especially if you haven’t made space to explore your own grief – but your child will, and it can place huge barriers in your relationship.

“My family would take me to Syria every summer, but I never truly immersed myself in the Syrian culture. I never made real friends, I couldn’t speak the language…I feel a continuous frustration with my parents for their feeling of entitlement to their children’s sense of home. They just didn’t get that there would be a permanent gap between their perspective of Syria and mine. And that separation would never be closed.”

Dialla, 18, as quoted in Misunderstood, page 262-263

This is a really emotional topic for a lot of parents. When I talk about these things in seminars, I almost always look out to see tears. Often there is relief, that they aren’t the only one, or that they have an explanation for something, or that their child is “normal”. Sometimes it’s sadness, at finally understanding some of the dynamics in their relationship with their child, and wishing they could have done things differently earlier. Sometimes it’s gratitude, at finally knowing what to do, or feeling validated that they had made some good parenting choices already.

 

If you are feeling emotional after reading this, please give yourself a little time and space to sit with those feelings, whether now or later. You might like to comment on this post, ask a question or share a story. You might want to send it to a friend so you can discuss it together. Perhaps sitting down with a journal, or writing your own blog post in response, is more your speed. Reflection is an important tool, and one worth making time for, especially if this has struck a chord with you.

Feature in Beijing Kids magazine

I’ve spent most of the last month on the road, but I’m finally back home for the forseeable future! It’s very nice to be sleeping in my own bed, cooking in my own kitchen, and hanging out on my own couch (with my own husband!)

In the three nights I’ve been home, I’ve slept 8-9 hours a night instead of my usual 6-7 hours. I think my body is telling me something! So I’m taking it a bit easy, despite the pile of work clamouring for my attention. Sometimes self-care is housework, grocery shopping, and cooking meals.

Today’s self care means that instead of devoting time and energy to finish one of the many half-written blog posts waiting in my drafts folder, I’m going to point to something else – the May 2019 edition of the Beijing Kids magazine. I’m featured in it twice! The whole edition is full of great stories and advice for raising TCKs, not just in Beijing.

First up is an interview of me, a two-page spread as a Parenting Feature on pages 45-46. The article was written by the lovely Pamela Djima, and is called “Parenting Third Culture Kids: Who are they, and how can you help yours?”

Pamela and I spoke by phone when she interviewed me. We had a lovely conversation and I was impressed at how she skillfully boiled down the wide range of topics we discussed into an accessible piece of writing that covers a lot of ground.

“I was struck by how many parents feel guilty and are afraid that they are doing the wrong thing to their kids. My advice to parents is: Make the best choices you can with the information you have. If home is a safe space and you love your kids, that in itself will be a tremendous help.”

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Second, I am also quoted in a piece called: “Raising Third Culture Kids: Where is home?” (pages 51-53). The author of this piece, Siana Braganza, interviewed me with a special focus on the topic of belonging for TCKs. She starts her piece with my definition of a Third Culture Kid, and thoughts on home and belonging. She then shares the stories of an expat mum raising TCKs, and an adult TCK. The ATCK is actually someone I’ve connected with online – Mia Livingston – so that was a lovely overlap!

“Home is a concept that combines many things: nostalgia, childhood experiences, familiarity, comfort, security, family relationships, and more. I don’t think it’s essential to have a single place to call ome, or a strictly geographical sense of belonging. But, I do think that on an emotional level we all need some sense of home and belonging, even if the pieces aren’t all found in the one place or community.”

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You can read the magazine online, or if you’re in Beijing, grab a paper copy! I’ll have to try to find one myself, too…

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.

Listing countries

I am currently in South Korea, speaking at an international school in Seoul. This is my first visit to South Korea (despite having had many Korean friends and worked with many Korean TCKs over the years). Which means something exciting – I get to add a new country to my list!

Most people in international circles have a list. A list of countries they’ve visited. Everyone has different house rules – what counts? I’ve been part of many discussions where different rules were suggested and different situations debated. Lists went up and down in number with each decision agreed on. What can you put on your list? Can you count it if you land, but don’t leave the airport? What about if you leave the airport, but only to stay in a hotel overnight? What if you travel through a country on a train, but never step foot outside a train station? And yes, all those hypotheticals apply to me!!

Here’s my list, listed chronologically from first (non-debatable) visit, and skipping all repeats.

  • debated countries in [brackets]
  • + debatable countries that stamped my passport
  • * countries started out as debatable – but then I went back and visited properly!
  1. 1982: Australia
  2. 1983: USA
  3. 1994: UK
  4. 1994: France
  5. 1996: Canada
  6. 1996: South Africa
  7. 1999: China
  8. 2000: Malaysia
  9. 2001: Vanuatu
  10. 2004: [Japan]+
  11. 2006: [Hong Kong]
  12. 2007: Thailand*
  13. 2008: [Macao]
  14. 2009: Cambodia
  15. 2010: Vietnam
  16. 2010: Singapore*
  17. 2014: Laos*
  18. 2017: [UAE]
  19. 2017: Netherlands
  20. 2017: [Belgium]+
  21. 2017: Ireland
  22. 2018: [Portugal]+
  23. 2018: Czech Republic
  24. 2018: [Russia]
  25. 2018: [Qatar]
  26. 2018: Tanzania
  27. 2018: [Kenya]
  28. 2018: Sudan
  29. 2019: South Korea

Huh, now that I count up like this, looks like South Korea is my 20th non-debatable country! That’s a nice, round number. I personally think three of my debatables are close enough to count. Hong Kong and Macau returned to Chinese rule before I visited either of them, but they are still treated very differently to mainland China. And Belgium – well, I traversed the entire country by train, and I had my passport stamped as exiting the Schengen zone from Brussels. The rest were all airport visits. I technically left the airport in Japan, but only far enough to go to an airport hotel for the night. But I do have a passport stamp so a lot of my friends say it counts. So – that gives me a count of anywhere from 20-29, depending on your rules. I’m going to go with 23. Maybe 23.5?

Fitting that the only Australian stamp I can find in two Australian passports is when I left to move to China. Also - not the stamp from Brussels, Belgium! Total list of countries shown: China, USA, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Tanzania, and Belgium.

Fitting that the only Australian stamp I can find in two Australian passports is when I left to really move to China. Also – note that I have a stamp from Brussels, Belgium! Total list of countries shown: China, USA, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Tanzania, and Belgium.

I can’t decide if it’s more funny or sad that I’ve never been to any of the closest countries to Australia – Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and New Zealand. I’d swum in oceans around the world before I ever visited the south coast beaches of Australia, a 2-3 hour drive from “home” in Canberra.

What about you? What’s your number, list, and what are your “house rules” for counting countries?

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

My own international tattoo story

When I wrote about TCKs and their tattoos last week it was hard to avoid noticing how many of the themes and comforts I was describing for tattooed TCKs also reflected my own tattoo experience. My tattoo doesn’t connect to a Third Culture childhood; it’s all about my young adult years in the Third Culture.

I’d been in living in China for nearly ten years when I started making plans to repatriate and undertake studies in Australia. I hadn’t lived in my passport country since I was 21, a full time student living at home with my parents and sister(s). There was a lot of emotion surrounding the decision, and the swiftly approaching new future. So I decided to really celebrate my ten year Chinaversary – a balance to the sadness of upcoming farewells a few months later.

As I reflected on marking my decade in China and preparing to leave the place that had been my home throughout my adult years, the idea of getting a tattoo starting creeping up on me. I’d never had any interest in getting a tattoo before this, but now the idea was insistent, and wouldn’t leave me alone. It took me a long time to decide what I wanted. I knew I wanted it to be in Chinese characters – connection to a place and a language that are very meaningful to me – but which ones? I felt that, as someone who can actually read and write Chinese, I should be somewhat complicated, to reflect my command of the language. But there was nothing that fit. It had to be something that would always be true, something that reflected the impact living in China had had on me.

The answer, when it came to me, was so simple I dismissed it for ages. My tattoo simply says 十年: “ten years”.

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Alongside those two simple characters was the other element I knew I wanted – a simple representation of red plum blossoms. There are so many reasons this is meaningful to me. China has four national flowers, one for each season, and plum blossoms are for winter. I’ve always had an affinity for winter; there are so many stories from my life attached to that concept. Red is also the classic lucky colour in China – good fortune, blessing, protection.

That’s the basic story, but in this post I want to go through the different elements I wrote about in last week’s post, and connect those general concepts to this specific tattoo. It’s a good way to illustrate how it all comes together in a real life situation. (I’ll be quoting from the original post on TCK tattoos as I go.)

“Some TCKs deliberately choose very obvious places for their tattoos, because when they are noticed, they give a reason to share part of their story. Others put them in less easily visible locations, to serve as a reminder that this part of their lives others don’t see is still real. Tattoos can serve as public identification, and as private consolation.”

I chose the location of my tattoo very carefully – I wanted to see it often, but I wanted the choice over whether anyone else could see it. I chose to place it on my right thigh, high enough that it rarely shows. When it is seen, the simple explanation that it says “ten years” for the ten years I lived in China is a nice thing to be able to share.

Most of the time, however, my tattoo serves as “private consolation”. During the first few months of overwhelming transition to life in Australia I was amazed at how much comfort it gave me to see those two simple characters etched on my skin. This life-changing experience – this whole other LIFE – really happened, even when no one around me knows or understands that.

“A tattoo representing a place a TCK feels a strong connection to gives them a TANGIBLE connection. A permanent mark. The place that is invisibly etched on their heart is now visibly etched on their skin. This can be an incredibly comforting thing. . . A tattoo in a language that is meaningful to a TCK gives them a permanent, tangible connection to that language – even if the place is far away, or their language abilities fade.”

Obviously, my tattoo has connections to both place and language. It’s literally counting the years I spent in a particular place, using the language of that place. A language I can read and write and speak – even though no one looking at me would expect me to be a Chinese speaker. There’s also the added element that I got the tattoo done in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the third place in the world that is very important to me. But underneath all that, my tattoo is much more of a value-based tattoo.

“Value-based tattoos often serve as reminders of values TCKs cherish and want to hold on to, no matter what the life they currently live looks like. They can serve as reminders of experiences they’ve had or lessons they’ve learned at different times in their international journeys.”

My tattoo is a reminder of a time that changed my life. A season of life in a particular place and language, yes, but what is more important to me is how that time (and place, and language) changed me. I am a different person because I spent those ten years in China. When I got the tattoo, I thought it unlikely I’d be living in China again, and certainly not any time soon. But I knew that even if I never went to China again, even if I never used the Chinese language in any meaningful way again, those ten years had marked me forever.

And that’s why it made sense, to me, for that to be a tattoo. The fact of those ten years will never change. My husband once joked that I might need to add an 二 eventually (to make it twenty years) and you know what, if I make it here that long I would consider it! But regardless, this current season of life in China is very different to my first ten years. Those first ten years were my young adult life – age 21 to 32. It’s not accurate to say I “grew up” here, but it feels true. Perhaps it’s better to say that China is where I came into my own. This is where I learned who I am, and who I want to be. This is where I made choices about my life’s direction – and created an utterly different life for myself than anything I’d previously imagined. This is where I began the work that has become my passion; this is where I wrote my book. This is where I met and got to know my husband (though when I got this tattoo I hadn’t expected us to stay in touch, let alone that I’d move back here to marry him only three years later!)

Shortly before I got my tattoo, I had to return a legal document to China. I was taken by surprise by the wave of melancholy that arose in me as I let it go! As I wrote at the time: “It symbolised the life I had lived in China; it was proof that that life really happened.” That’s exactly what my tattoo does – but permanently.

Moving to Australia, looking and (mostly) sounding like a normal Aussie, was a strange experience. In China, my dual connection was obvious. No one looking at me would mistake me as Chinese. But many people listening to me speak Chinese assumed I was – until they saw me! In Australia I don’t stand out. Don’t get me wrong, I really like being able to blend in! But it means that no one understands there’s this whole other side of me and my life, unless I specifically tell them. Coming home after a long day of transition and engaging with people, it was a big comfort to see those ten years branded on my skin.

In some ways I felt like Dorothy, finally home in Kansas after her adventures in Oz, no one knowing this other place existed, let alone how deeply it had marked her. But when I had those moments, I also had the comfort of a literal and physical mark on my body. Often I would stroke my tattoo, remembering that all of it was real. The 十年 on my skin reflects the ten years in my heart.

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

TCKs and their tattoos

A couple of times in the past two weeks I’ve stumbled into discussions on one particular topic: tattoos, and TCKs who get them. Over the years I’ve heard lots of tattoo stories from TCKs around the world. I’ve come across a lot of shared tattoo trends, and thought it was time to write a blog post to share what I’ve learned about TCK tattoos.

The TCK tattoo trends I’ve observed fall into three general categories, representing different connections: to places, to languages, and to values. Often these sorts of tattoos combine elements of all three.

Some TCKs deliberately choose very obvious places for their tattoos, because when they are noticed, they give a reason to share part of their story. Others put them in less easily visible locations, to serve as a reminder that this part of their lives others don’t see is still real. Tattoos can serve as public identification, and as private consolation.

“I have a sleeve involving all the flags of the countries I have lived in. It’s helped me have a better understanding of moving around and trying to find my place in everything.” – Noah

Connection to places

Part of the TCK experience is connecting to places – usually more than one place, usually at least one place where you are not legally connected (no passport), perhaps a place where you are visibly foreign, perhaps a place you haven’t been to in many years. Whatever the reason, it’s very common for TCKs to have at least one place they feel a strong connection to which is not seen as a legitimate connection by others. A place that feels like home, but which they don’t feel completely justified calling home.

A tattoo representing a place a TCK feels a strong connection to gives them a TANGIBLE connection. A permanent mark. The place that is invisibly etched on their heart is now visibly etched on their skin. This can be an incredibly comforting thing.

Examples of place tattoos I’ve come across include:

  • longtitude/lattitude or GPS coordinates
  • maps (a country/region outline, subway diagram, stylised road map, etc.)
  • a list of countries/cities
  • passport stamps
  • flags
  • symbols of place (a local flower, native animal, etc.)
  • location/s in which tattoos were inked (rather than the content of the tattoo)

“My tattoo is a Chile flag wraparound a heart. The meaning was my heart will always be for Chile. It’s a constant reminder that while I have left the country and the culture my heart still wants to be in Chile.” – Alicia

“The outline of your spirit is etched on my skin. The grid that runs through my blood.” – Lara

Connection to languages

Language is a huge part of how we communicate with each other, and therefore it’s unsurprising that we often have strong emotional ties to languages. A language-based tattoo highlights a TCK’s connection to a particular language. It can also bring multiple languages together.

Not all TCKs are multi-lingual. Some carry guilt, sadness, or regret over languages they don’t speak (or don’t speak as well as they think they “should”). Even those who do speak more than one language spend much of their lives compartmentalising each language to certain people and places.

A tattoo in a language that is meaningful to a TCK gives them a permanent, tangible connection to that language – even if the place is far away, or their language abilities fade.

Examples of langauge tattoos I’ve come across include:

  • a word/phrase from a language the TCK feels a connection to
  • a single word written in several langauges/scripts
  • their own name, in one or more different scripts
  • names of places in the language of that place
  • a quote from one culture written in the language of another culture

I have one that that means “to have found the place you call home” in Gaelic – very meaningful to carry a bit of home around with me on my arm!” – Iona

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“After growing up in the city of 长春 in Northeast China from when I was 1-18 years old I decided to get this tattoo before I left as I did not know when or if I would ever be back.” – Daniel

Connection to values

Tattoos can also show the importance of certain values a TCK holds, values which may set them apart in certain settings. This is a category of tattoos that may not be location or language specific, but still connect closely to childhood experiences and emotional connections developed through international life. Those experiences create connections to certain concepts and values.

Value-based tattoos often serve as reminders of values TCKs cherish and want to hold on to, no matter what the life they currently live looks like. They can serve as reminders of experiences they’ve had or lessons they’ve learned at different times in their international journeys.

Examples of values tattoos I’ve come across include:

  • the value of having roots (shown with trees, or plants)
  • the value of travel (plane, airports, world map, compass)
  • cultural values
  • relationships (especially family)
  • “group” tattoos (where several closely connected people choose to get the same tattoo, expressing shared locations or values, as well as the importance of their relationships with each other)

“My tattoos are focused on what has impacted my life: my family, my Chinese origins, and Texas. I particularly love my Chinese Hanzi, which roughly translates to ‘loyalty to family’ with extremely strong character meanings. The placement was also carefully picked along the symbolic weakness of my Achilles tendon.” – Abigail

I had heard these sorts of stories and seen these sorts of tattoos for years before it became way more personal – because I got a tattoo of my own, combining all of the elements I’ve described here! It’s not something I talk about much, especially not publicly (mine definitely falls more in the private consolation category). But writing about this now – yep, it’s definitely time to tell my own tattoo story. So stay tuned for that next week!

Click here to read the story of my own international tattoo