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.

Our love affairs with places

I recently wrote about my experiences at FIGT 2019 in Bangkok (the annual Families in Global Transition conference).

At the conference I presented a “lightning” talk – something like a short TED talk, lasting six minutes. I was fortunate to be the first of eight talks – fortunate because then it was out of the way, leaving me able to really listen to the rest. There were so many great talks, with a range of subjects and styles. One was a highlight of the whole conference, and received a standing ovation!

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If you are a member of FIGT, I believe video of all eight talks will be available on the FIGT website soon (other resources are already there). If you aren’t a member, I really suggest looking into it. In addition to the great annual conference, there are lots of excellent resources and networking opportunities in the FIGT community year-round.

But back to my talk. I spoke about relationships with place: our complicated feelings about the places we connect with, and using the language of love to explain it. The rest of this post is a script that’s pretty close to what I actually said on the day, with some pretty pictures I chose to go along with my story.


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Two years ago at FIGT in the Netherlands, we were asked to stand and gather in answer to certain questions – like, “who travelled here from Australia?” It was a great community building exercise, finding people we had things in common with. And it was a lot of fun! Until someone asked the question: “who fell in love this year?”

Well, I had.

Two weeks earlier I had decided to move to Beijing at the end of that year, to be with my boyfriend. It was still new to me, but despite how vulnerable it made me feel, I decided to stand up. There were two of us up there, while the whole FIGT community clapped and cheered. And suddenly my long distance relationship felt a lot more real!

I had no idea at the time, but a year later I would be living in Beijing with my now husband.

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We had an engagement party in Australia, a wedding in the US, and a reception in China. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, our story is much more complicated than that!

Relationships are complicated. Our emotions and experiences and interactions are complex.

We have so much vocabulary to help us describe different kinds of relationships we experience – especially the range of romantic relationships.

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We talk of love at first sight, falling in love, falling out of love, unrequited love.

There are flings, whirlwind romances, friends with benefits, long-distance relationships, polyamorous relationships.

There are even toxic relationships, loveless marriages, and affairs.

There are commitments without weddings, and even weddings without much commitment.

There are first dates, anniversaries, and break ups.

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Today I would like to suggest that this rich vocabulary we use to describe relationships between people can be used to better express our multi-layered connections to places.

But first, let’s take a moment to feel some of those complex feelings we have about people.

Think of someone you love…

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What feelings arise when you think of them?
Does a smile come to your lips?
Do you feel warm, or happy, or thankful?

But then again, maybe you haven’t seen or even talked to them for a while.
Perhaps you fought recently.
Maybe you’re missing them today.

Now think of someone you were close to a long time ago, but haven’t talked to in years…

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What feelings arise when you think of them?
Does a smile come to your lips?

Is there sadness over losing touch with them?
Or perhaps nostalgia for a part of your life now in the past?

Finally, think of someone you love dearly, but live far away from…

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What feelings arise when you think of them? Does a smile come to your lips?

Is there pain at the geography that separates you?
Is there guilt over choices you’ve made that keep you apart?

Our relationships with people are complicated. So are our relationships with places.

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And the reality is that we DO have relationships with places – emotional and legal relationships. So, what if we allow ourselves to use the emotional vocabulary of love and human relationships to describe our complex feelings about places?

Perhaps we will find clarity and comfort.
Perhaps we will gain ways to articulate why we feel what we feel.

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Now, I’m certainly not the first person to draw this connection.

Amy Medina wrote that living in a country where she is not (and cannot be) a citizen is like falling in love “with something that I can’t keep.”

Mariam Ottimofiore wrote something similar in her “break up letter” to Dubai – that living there was like falling in love with someone not looking for commitment. As she put it: “Nothing serious, please.”

(Later I also came across a piece by Dana Saxon in which she described “falling out of love” with a place.)

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They both helped give words to something I have heard from so many TCKs over the years, and I subsequently wrote a blog post about “unrequited love of place” – about feeling a deep emotional connection to a country in which you have no legal rights.

No guarantee you can stay.
No right to return.

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Many expats and TCKs told me this was the first time they’d been given words to express how they felt. They passed my blog post on to friends and family, to help them understand an experience they’d never been able to explain before.

And THIS is what the language of love gives us – a way to articulate and SHARE the emotions we feel about places.

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“Unrequited love” describes one type of relationship to place, but there is an endless variety of ways to apply this concept.

For example, have you experienced “love at first sight” with a place? You arrive for the first time and something about that city, that country, speaks to your soul in a way you can’t intellectually explain. That was Bangkok for me, on one of my visits.

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Have you experienced the slow burn of falling in love with a place gradually over time, as its idiosyncrasies become familiar and comforting, and you become fond of its foibles?

Have you had a fling, or a holiday romance? A short and intense experience of a country that becomes a fond memory, but not a long term commitment.

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Have you had a long-distance relationship with a place? Somewhere very close to your heart, often in your thoughts, but not where you live right now?

Have you experienced managing that distance, through visits and finding ways of connecting from far away?

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Have you experienced the sting of rejection, when a place you love does not return your desire for commitment? A visa renewal not accepted. A citizenship application rejected.

Have you experienced the slow loss of love, as you change, and the place you loved changes? The relationship you have changes and you fall out of love.

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Perhaps living in a country you don’t love, don’t feel that emotional connection to, could be compared to a loveless marriage, an every day loneliness due to lack of love for a place you are committed to.

Have you experienced a casual relationship with a place – you visit and enjoy it, but there’s no commitment on either side. Friends with benefits, perhaps?

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The complicated love of holding multiple passports might compare to a polyamorous relationship – you can be committed to more than one place, just as you can be committed to more than one person, but that doesn’t mean everyone understands just how you make it work.

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We connect deeply with places in which we live. We bond with places we visit.
But, as facebook might say, it’s complicated.

The language of love is powerful, and commandeering this language to describe our relationships with places gives us a powerful tool – one I hope you will very much enjoy using!

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.

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.

Are immigrant kids TCKs?

Continuing my series of posts looking at commonalities and intersectionalities among Cross Cultural Kids, today I’m tackling a question I hear a lot: “are immigrant kids TCKs?”

I have been approached a number of times by people who immigrated as children, saying they really identified with a lot of the content in Misunderstood. Some really grabbed onto the vocabulary of being Third Culture Kids, even though they did not technically fit the description. I think this is largely because there is a similar but opposite dymanic happening for the immigrant kid and the TCK.

In both cases, the child is caught between two cultural influences and allegiances: the place in which they live, and the place from which their parents came (before or after having children). Both immigrant kids and TCKs experience the tension of differing expectations – which country is their “real” home? Which country are they really “from”? Questions from others – friends, family members, and strangers – can all add confusion and a sense of pressure.

Both immigrant kids and TCKs have dealt with living between these different countries, cultures, and expectations. There is a great deal of emotional resonance between their experiences. And yet, they are not the same. Children of immigrants, and child immigrants, are absolutely Cross Cultural Kids – they belong to the wider umbrella of cross cultural childhoods. But there is a distinct difference as well, so I would not call immigrant kids TCKs. (Although there is definitely a segment of Cross Cultural Kids who are both TCKs and also immigrant kids.)

But this is an example of why I think it’s so important to shift the conversation to discussing Cross Cultural Kids generally, not just TCKs. The overlaps in the experiences of Immigrant Kids and TCKs are real, the resonance in their emotional landscape is real. It means that resources ostensibly for TCKs may be really useful for some immigrant kids, and resources ostensibly for immigrant families may be really useful for some expatriate families. Widening our view of what it means to grow up cross culturally allows for the inclusion more people, and for connection between more people through shared experiences.

Now, in this example, how can understanding the similarities between the experiences of immigrant kids and traditional TCKs (without ignoring the differences) help both groups?

Both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs share the conflict of expectation to connect to their parents’ cultures, while living in a different culture.

This means many can identify with each other’s similar struggles in this area, such as accusations of “betraying” one culture by attaching to the other (and perhaps vice versa).

Both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs bridge the two cultures (the parents’ culture and the host culture) due to their parents’ decisions on behalf of the family.

This means many can identify with each other’s feelings about being born/brought into a situation of cultural complexity beyond their control.

And, as with all Cross Cultural Kids, both immigrant kids and traditional TCKs share the experience of navigating lives of cultural complexity – with all the innate pros and cons that come with it.

There are limits to the overlaps in their experiences, however. An immigrant kid has legal status in the country where their family now lives. A Third Culture Kid, however, generally lives in a country they know they will leave, and may not have the option to stay. This “unrequited love” is a feeling immigrant kids may well be able to deeply sympathise with, but do not share.

Both may share the experience of being seen as “foreign” in a place they love and are very familiar with – but Third Culture Kids don’t often deal with being seen as “foreign” in a country that legally recognises them. (Unless they have the intersectional cross cultural experiences such as being part of a minority group, etc.)

These differences mean it is also important to recognise the distinctiveness of their different cross cultural experiences. In Misunderstood I collected the experiences of a wide range of TCKs – different parents’ work (missionaries, foreign service, corporate, educators), different schools (international school, local school, boarding school, homeschool) and different experiences of transience (a long time in one country, frequent moves, first move happening in high school). It was important to recognise the distinct differences in these different types of Third Culture experiences. But it was also helpful to express their commonalities.

In the same way, while immigrant kids and traditional TCKs are distinct experiences – they are not the same – the commonalities they share as Cross Cultural Kids are real and worthy of recognition. If an immigrant kid finds TCK resources like Misunderstood helpful – fantastic! That’s great to hear. The more resources available, the better. But I also hope to see more resources developed for Cross Cultural Kids generally that will openly include the wider and more nuanced range of experiences that exist among CCKs.

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

Cross cultural intersectionality

As I wrote in a previous post, I’m currently writing a series of articles looking at the intersection of different cross cultural childhood experiences.

One thing I did in Misunderstood was start to highlight the intersectionality of cross cultural childhoods – some of the ways in which different cross cultural experiences can overlap. One can be both a TCK and also an immigrant kid, for example. These experiences are similar, but distinct. To call a person who is both immigrant and TCK just a TCK is to erase (or at least overlook) key pieces of their particular cross cultural experience.

In this post I will be offering a quick look at the three intersections I specifically addressed in Misunderstood. I plan to write more about these, and other intersections, in the future. But this is a start.

TCK + Mixed cultural/ethnic heritage

I talked to a lot of TCKs who had parents from different cultures and/or different ethnicities. Multi-cultural and multi-ethnic families are two different experiences, although related ones. Often if a family is one it is also the other, but not necessarily. One TCK I interviewed had parents from Finland and the US – very different cultures, but both parents were caucasian. I also interviewed TCKs who had parents from different ethnicities but the same passport country. (Often there was a minority culture in play as well.)

The key difference is visibility. A child of mixed ethnic heritage may find they look “different” no matter where they are – that they are obviously, visibly “other” no matter where they are. As I wrote in Misunderstood:

“Biracial TCKs in particular spoke of feeling their outward appearance did not match how they felt inside. While this is a feeling many TCKs express, biracial TCKs carry their difference on the outsdie. One biracial TCK (with an African father and Asian mother) told me she felt she had to ‘prove’ herself to both sides of the family, that she stands out in every family gathering, no matter which side of the family she is with. There is an upside, however. Another biracial TCK told me he has come to like this ‘different’ appearance because it reflects the cross-cultural life has has lived as a TCK.”

Several TCKs I have spoken to said they appreciate their “ethnic ambiguity” – using it as a way to blend in as local in different contexts, or to give a reason for their difference that others will readily accept.

Those whose parents are of the same ethnic background but from different countries do not have the experience of visibility – they do not wear their mixed cultural heritage on their skin. Several told me stories of feeling hurt that their mixed heritage was overlooked, downplayed, or even ignored by others. On the other hand, others appreciate the lack of visibility, and the ability to choose how they want to present.

There are clearly additional complications of identity for this group of intersectional Cross Cultural Kids – but they have one big benefit other TCKs lack. Even when these TCKs did not have citizenship in more than one country, most had a sense of ownership in another country or culture. Their cross-cultural identity is generally more readily accepted by others than a TCK whose cultural and ethnic heritage was centred in their passport country.

TCK + Immigrant

In Misunderstood I coined the term Immigrant Expat to refer to families who experienced both immigration and subsequent expatriation. These families are connected to the parents’ original culture, the naturalised passport country, and the culture(s) they live in as expatriates.

In Misunderstood I looked specifically at Korean-American expats as an example of this type of intersectional cross-cultural experience, but I have talked with Immigrant Expat TCKs from a variety of backgrounds.

“My parents were born and raised in Korea and moved to the States after high school. They took what they thought were the best parenting methods from both their backgrounds (Korean and American), and employed them hand-in-hand., My siblings and I were raised to respect out elders, but to not be afraid to question their decisions where we saw fit. We celebrated both American Thanksgiving and traditional Korean New Year. We visited relatives both in Korea and in the States. And all this happened as we grew up in China.”

I also looked at what I called Returned Immigrant Expats – families who returned to the parents’ original country, but now with foreign citizenship. The group I used as my example for this section were Chinese immigrants who had returned to live in China (from various passport countries) though I also spoke to TCKs who had this particular experience in other countries.

“These families have an interesting dynamic. The parents may feel China is home, but they no longer completely belong as both they and the nation of China have changed. Their children, on the other and, usually feel completely foreign. The difference in their experiences can create conflict.”

In many cases, both types of Immigrant Expat TCKs found they had a stronger connection to the language and culture of their parents’ original country than cousins who were immigrants but not also expatriates. Living in international communities meant Immigrant Expat TCKs felt more at ease expressing a multi-faceted cross-cultural identity, and less pressure (or desire) to assimilate into the majority cultures of their passport countries. Instead, these CCKs often feel quite comfortable identifying with and expressing elements of all the cultures to which they feel connected.

TCK + Cross-Cultural Adoption

As I interviewed TCKs who were cross-culturally adopted for Misunderstood, some common questions and reactions became apparent. I started to look for these intersectional CCKs and ask them about their experiences. I was especially interested in the experiences of young people who lived as expatriates, foreign passport holders, in their birth countries. I included a list of comments made by many of these CCKs, which included wondering about people around them – the people they were genetically and historically connected to – and common experiences of looking local, while next to parents who did NOT look local.

I also wrote about three common reactions these TCKs had to their situation, while also noting that some TCKs experience a mixture of all threee at different times.

The first common response: avoiding or refusing to identify with their birth culture. This may involve refusing to learn or speak the language, lying about their heritage or history, or exhibiting extreme patriotic or nationalistic sentiment about their passport country/culture.

The second common response is the opposite – wholly identifying with their birth culture and distancing themselves from their passport country/culture. Again, this may include language, lying, and strong cultural preferences, this time in favour of the birth culture and against the passport culture.

Finally, the last common response is “to get stuck in questions of identity and belonging“. For these CCKs there is a deep insecurity related to their sense of identity and identification with the various cultures to which they are connected. They may fear being made to choose, or feel anxious about where they belong.

“These reactions are ways in which adopted TCKs process their situation and the conflicting emotions they may experience. As they work through these issues, they can come to integrate the different aspects of their cultural identity – allowing for celebration in place of conflict.”

Something I’m very excited about is that since the publication of Misunderstood more research into the intersection between TCKs and adoption is underway. To learn more, check out this interview with Lynn Kogelmann, mother to a cross-cultually adopted TCK and long time counsellor in international schools.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to cross cultural intersectionality. If you want to know more about these overlaps, pick up a copy of Misunderstood – paper or digital!

CCKs: Cross Cultural Kids

More and more, in both my speaking and writing work, I talk about Cross Cultural Kids more than (or at least in addition to) Third Culture Kids. A Cross Cultural Kid is anyone who has meaningful interaction with more than one culture before age 18. TCKs are a sub-category of CCK.

In the revised edition of the classic book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds is a discussion of the wider umbrella of cross-cultural experiences, and this helpful diagram:

cckmodel_thirdculturekids_pollock-vanreken-1.jpg

Ruth van Reken’s Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK) Model, from Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (2017), p44

I use this diagram (with the gracious permission of its creator, Ruth van Reken) in almost every seminar I run. This concept is so important! It also explains a lot.

For example, a number of ATCKs wrote to me after reading Misunderstood (which includes an earlier version of this diagram) to say they finally understood why they were drawn to certain groups of people, as friends or through advocacy work – people such as immigrants, refugees, those of mixed ethnic or cultural heritage, and those of ethnic or religious minority groups living within a mainstream culture. Seeing this diagram and reading the brief discussion of the Cross Cultural Umbrella concept provided a light bulb moment for these ATCKs: what drew them to these people, as individuals or groups, was a sense of shared experience.

One ATCK who wrote to me works in refugee advocacy, and said she had always felt a deep sense of affinity for refugees, both those who became her friends as well as the group as a whole. She had always assumed it was compassion for those in a difficult situation, and found it inexplicable why others did not so readily empathise with their plight. As she read about the Cross Cultural Umbrella she finally understood. While she had never been a refugee, she did have a cross cultural childhood. She had experienced trying to learn a new way of living in a new country and language. She had experienced the conflict of feeling love and affinity for more than one place. There were many refugee experiences she did not share – but there were some she did. Her sense of affinity was deeply personal, drawing on her own childhood experiences.

Another ATCK talked about bonding with what seemed to be quite an eclectic group of friends at university – they were different ethnicities, studied different subjects, and came from different socio-economic backgrounds. After learning about the Cross Cultural Umbrella he recognised that every member of their group was a CCK. Suddenly their sense of affinity and mutual understanding made sense. They could relax with each other in way that was unusual in most environments in which they found themselves.

Several ATCKs have told me they feel more comfortable mixing with minority groups rather than within the mainstream cultures of the countries they live in. (ATCKs from several different passport countries have made this same remark.) The Cross Cultural Umbrella explains this affinity as well – those who grew up in a minority culture are also CCKs.

There are similarities between these different cross-cultural childhood experiences, hence the wider umbrella to group them together. Yet they are also distinct experiences. This means that it’s important to address intersectionality – what happens when a person falls into more than one of these categories. Many of the TCKs I interviewed for Misunderstood were intersectional CCKs, falling into more than one category. Some of the CCKs I am interviewing for my next book might not fit the technical description of a TCK and yet they are absolutely CCKs.

This intersectionality between different types of cross-cultural experiences is something I’m planning to address in a series of posts over the next few months. Hoepfully this short introduction to the Cross Cultural Umbrella has given you a little taste of some of the concepts and stories to come!

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

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

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

Stephanie

Read the full post on China Source

Recommended listening

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

Migratory Patterns

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

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

Click here to listen to my conversation with Mike

Mo Sibyl

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

What I appreciated most was how she got me talking about my work. She asked different questions from interesting angles, eliciting interesting responses from me in return. Even if you know me well, have talked to me about what I do, there’s probably something new in this. Here’s a few excerpts:

A lot of what I do is translating the TCK experience… Articulating things that they aren’t able to… Because of what they’ve been through, this is how they see the world, and here are some ways we can support them and understand them better. . .Over ten years I developed a set of tools that work. So now what I’m doing is sharing with parents and teachers the tools I developed on the ground.”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Mo

Go Ye There

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

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

Click here to listen to my interview on the TCK basics

TCK Summit

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

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

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

Watch my TCK Summit talk on youtube

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