Recommended reading: February 18th, 2019

This week’s Recommended Reading is a bit of an odd mix – some practical tips for cross-cultural parenting, some expat friendship, some big emotions, and lots of interesting stories. There really is so much great content being created around the internet, and I love being able to bring some of it to you – and maybe even introduce you to some writers and websites you aren’t already aware of in the process!

Finding the Right Words: Cultivating No-Fear Friendships In Your Expat Life
World Tree Coaching
Another powerful piece by Jodi, addressing the fear that can creep in and prevent us from engaging deeply in expat friendships. She encourages us to find words – values, really – to guide us in continuing to forge and maintain deep friendships. Intentionality really is important – and this is a great tool, a way of thinking that can help.
“I don’t want to oversimplify how very difficult it can feel at times to create new friendships when you’ve moved to a new place. It’s not just about building new relationships either; we carry the baggage of the friendships we’ve left behind with us too. We’re grieving what we’ve lost while also trying to build something new from what may feel like ruins. Even when we don’t want to, we compare the new faces with the old ones wondering if we can really create another bond that will survive the miles. Yet, research on the importance of strong friendships in our overall health is quite clear. Even when we find it difficult to build relationships, the task remains essential to our survival.”

Loving Our Kids Through Transition
Velvet Ashes
I’m constantly impressed by the quality content on Velvet Ashes, and how much of it is broadly applicable to expatriate families, even though its core audience is missionary families. This piece is no exception, and it has great practical advice on how to walk through transitions with kids – especially how to provide some constancy and tradition in a new country.
“I have tried to keep some constancy in our home décor. We’ve had to sell most of our stuff when we’ve moved, but I kept some of our Christmas ornaments, sentimental wall art and pictures. The delight on their face discovering those things, after months being packed up, has been priceless. We’ve prioritized exploring and making memories in our new country – even when it is a lot of work. It helps our kids to connect this place with the feeling of joy, togetherness and even at home.”

Tragedy and Our Souls
Travel Lite
Another piece from the missionary world, this one dealing with the powerful emotions surrounding grief at a distance. I don’t want to say much, but rather let you read for yourselves:
“One result of the leaving lifestyle is that we each end up with many dear relationships flung between continents and it is impossible for us to keep up with all of them. But when tragedy strikes it is as though time shrinks and we can see ourselves with that friend and memories come flooding back… we feel the impact of the grief and yet feel helpless to enter in, to do something in response. We can choose to retreat. Distance ourselves from social media so that we don’t even know when tragedy happens within our far-flung community. We can choose to post a condolence. We can reach out to those we know who were affected by the tragedy. All are valid options. But what do we do with our souls and the impact that these tragedies have on us? Where do we go with the grief? And are there ways that we can enter into the grief and tragedies that come upon our community even when there is this distance made by time and geography?”

How far being a banana got me
TCK Town
This is an amazing piece, full of vulnerable self-exposure, the story of an immigrant kid trying to fit into the majority culture, trying to fit into whatever group would bolster an external sense of self. It is a journey, toward self-acceptance – and learning the difference between fitting in, and belonging.
“I started focusing most of my energy into accumulating white friends, and felt proud to be the only Asian when we did go out together. While I didn’t shun my Asian companions, I didn’t want to identify with them or participate in any of “their” cultural practices… For years to come, as I migrated from one country to another, I would identify with cultural groups I deemed as priority to get approval from. I wanted to be the lads at the pub, the pretty boys getting stares in the club, the snowboarders smoking weed in the mountains, or the fashionistas on Instagram… Through my travels, I realised that I didn’t want to fit in. Rather, I wanted to belong. I wanted to be in a place where I wanted to be and associate with people who wanted me for me, and not because I can be like everyone else. I have been through enough to know that I am enough. To be able to love myself wholeheartedly and embrace my complexities.”

Walking The Spirit
The Black Expat
This post is an example of The Black Expat blog doing what they do best – telling fascinating stories about interesting people. Very much worth reading!
“If you ask Julia Browne how she came up with the idea for Walking The Spirit Tours, a customized tour company which focuses on Black heritage, she would tell you it was completely unplanned. But an encounter with a historian triggered a curiosity that led to the successful travel business she runs today. However to get the story of Walking The Spirit you have to start with her own… I very much felt my Canadian-ness when I was with my American friends. But then I was conscious of my North American self when I was with women from other parts of the diaspora [in France]. Then there’s just being treated differently by the French because you’re American, or Canadian. Canadian didn’t mean much for the French at the time. They just assumed there were no Blacks in Canada, so you’re American.”

My baby has two cultures. Naming him wasn’t easy.
Washington Post
I thought this was an interesting piece – and perhaps one many international familes can relate to! When you and your partner come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, how do you choose names for your children?
“My wife is from Ohio. I was born in Pakistan and took a detour through Massachusetts. Northern Virginia is home, except when work takes us around the world — as it has for eight of the past 10 years. For our family, “Where are you from?” has a lengthy answer. The entanglements of cultures and languages affected our choice of baby names. Shake my family tree and Muslim-sounding fruit will drop at your feet. Her people are more diverse, if your idea of diversity is the expanse between “Tim” and “Will.” After weeks of looking for a name culturally appropriate for both sides, we began to suspect that none existed.”

Why Swedes Are Chiller Parents Than Americans
The Atlantic
This post is about a book – and way more fascinating than that headline suggests! The article is an interview with one of two authors of a new book about parenting – and economics! The theory being “that economic conditions have a lot of influence on the way parents raise their children”. There’s some interesting ideas and a little data from the research that went into the book. Here’s a taste of the author’s background, just to whet your appetite!
“Fabrizio Zilibotti was born in Italy and met his wife (who’s Spanish) in London. Their daughter was born in Sweden, where she spent some of her childhood before the family moved to the U.K. and then Switzerland. As he spent time in each of these countries, Zilibotti — who now lives in the U.S., teaching economics at Yale — became intrigued by the variety of parenting philosophies he encountered, from Sweden’s laissez-faire style of child-rearing to the U.K.’s more rule-oriented approach. Parents in every country, he reasoned, loved their children more or less equally, so it seemed a little puzzling that they had such divergent ideas about what was best for their kids.”

Far Away And Growing Old
One & Only
And here’s another parent-child relationships – the difficulty of caring for ageing parents from a distance. I particularly appreciate the final sentiment – that many parents appreciate seeing their children enjoying their lives. I’ve heard similar comments from several people just in the past few weeks. Now, not all families operate this way. This advice is coming from an Australian social worker, and Australia is a highly individual culture. But there’s still good advice here, and good thinking points.
“Each situation it unique and depends on specific family circumstances but Ana McGinley, an Australian social worker working with older adults, says the two common key words are communication and planning…But above all, stop feeling guilty about being away. Worrying about ageing parents is unavoidable. But if you are too hard on yourself, if you allow the distance to become a subconscious source of constant stress, it will have a negative effect on your own life. Parents want us to keep our lives moving forward. They don’t want to be a burden. Our decision to move abroad is always reversible – but giving up on life chances offered by expat careers is not. The best thing we can do is to take care of ourselves and share our successes with the parents to keep their spirits up.”

7 tips when you have more than one culture in your life.
Linked In
A short piece, but a good breakdown of some of the ways cultural differences can impact our relationships – and our assumptions about others.
“Don’t underestimate the cultural aspect. One might put disagreements down to personality differences, and that might be partly true, but there is also a cultural aspect that, if not neglected, could contain the key to smoother relationships.”

Interview with artist Nicole Pon Horvath
Me and My Crazy Mind
I’m ending with something different – an interview with an artist, an ATCK and expatriate who finds inspiration in the different countries she has lived in.
“The environment is crucial to the outcome of my works. The nature found in each of the places I have lived is all very different, but similar in the way that it affects me and my art. Each place brings about different inspiration in the colours and materials I choose to work with… I get my inspiration from the colours in the skies I have found in Japan, Nice and Amsterdam. They are a gentle reminder of my youth in Algeria.”

Recommended reading: February 11th, 2019

Another week, and another new Recommended Reading post. Lots of great content to choose from lately – great stories, great advice, and lots to reflect on! I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Nampa Newbie: Making the foreign familiar
Idaho Press
A family story of repatriation, and one mother trying to understand how her TCK children see (and smell!) the world they live in.
“They couldn’t quite define what it was that made that “America” smell, beyond “Christmas tree,” “clean” and “Nana’s house.” My son offered a possible explanation as to why they couldn’t break it down. “Maybe you can only smell it if you’re a TCK,” he suggested…It warmed my heart, actually, for them to speak with fondness about our new home. It’s not been an easy transition from Indonesia to America for us, especially for the kids.”

I Am Who I Am
Our Life Logs
A lovely reflection on the complications of a Third Culture childhood – and working through the hard parts to create an integrated sense of self. Really worth a read!
“Throughout different stages in my life I’ve felt confident, ashamed, or confused about my identity as a third culture kid. Sometimes it felt like a curse, other times a blessing, and often a hybrid of the two. For many people, knowing where they come from and who they are is a simple fact learned from childhood, though I’ve been on a journey to find the answers to those questions all my life…I know that the only time someone will come up to me and say, “I’m an Austrian-Taiwanese who’s a native English speaker” will be when I’m meeting one of my siblings. I feel envious when I hear people talking about going home for the holiday, because I don’t have a concrete place that I can go back to like that.”

Mixed Up: ‘I used to pretend I understood Swahili out of shame and guilt’
Metro
Similarly, another story of a mixed kid working through cultural complexity to a place of integration and peace. This piece is an interview, and another really good read:
“My parents were never threatened by some sense of cultural loss or diluting if they were accepting of others, they always taught us that the best of our culture, and other cultures, was to be celebrated…Having spent much of his childhood in a state of identity crisis, Nadir has finally reached the point where he is comfortable with the complexity of his heritage. He will never be able to tick a tidy, singular ethnicity box on any form – but he has made his peace with that.”

Make Friends in Lexington, KY
Stapleton Relocation Consulting
On the surface this is a very local-intensive post – how to make friends in a particular part of a particular country. But the principles in it are really good, and applicable almost anywhere! It may be really daunting to start making friends locally after a big move, but the three points Adrielle outlines here are great – get involved (volunteer), find shared activities, and find shared values.
“After a big international move, it can seem like a big project to start building social support in your new city. Americans are busy and that can get in the way of making friends here. But plenty of Americans are open to new friendships with people who share their values or interests. So, how do you find them?”

Fostering the Relationships in a TCK’s Life
Taking Route Blog
This is a Christian blog and has content that won’t apply to all families, but there are really good thoughts on how to help TCKs foster relationships with family and friends, even when they’re far away. And while there’s a lot of good content in this piece, I particularly appreciate this sentiment from near the beginning:
“As I think about my children and the life they have as Third Culture Kids, I’m always searching and brainstorming and studying about ways to come alongside them and help them navigate the twists and turns that are par for the course in their life. In so many ways, their childhood is much different than my own. Because of this, I know I’ll always be learning something new when it comes to raising TCKs.”

Stewarding Yourself During Change
Velvet Ashes
Another Christian blog, but again, some really good content that’s widely applicable – especially as it comes to working through transition, and how difficult (and unexpectedly difficult) it can be. The author’s explanations and suggestions include both the physical and emotional which is great.
“In the lows of culture shock, I feel self-pity, overwhelmed, paralyzed, extremely tired, or confused. My capacity for stress is very small. Some nights, without clear triggers, I experience brief surges of panic as I am falling asleep. The adrenaline that has kept me going all day doesn’t know what to do when my body wants to relax. It is like change and transition are too much for my body to mediate. Here are some ways I am learning to steward my human limitations, my giftings, my fallenness, and my brokenness in this season.”

Learn From My Experience: 3 Ways To Ensure Expat Assignment Success
CEO World Magazine
An interesting piece that starts with thinking more locally in the workplace when on an expatriate assignment. Thinking locally, and acting in line with local practice, sends a strong message to nationals we live and work alongside – especially when done in humility. The author goes on to talk about different supports that improve the chance of success for a corporate expat assignemnt (something I’ve discussed before).
“They knew I was not a corporate tourist. I was fighting in the trenches alongside the “home team” to achieve our business goals…While my family and I were able to acclimate and earn success in all our overseas assignments, it was through trial and error. That’s how I learned to stay in Tokyo to help the local team through year-end. I did the right thing for the business while still making time for family holidays and vacations. Over time, we found a balance that worked for my wife, children and me.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Applied to Third Culture Kids
Cross Culture Therapy
A little piece looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how they might be applied in a TCK context. Food for thought indeed!
“The goal of this article was to act as some food of thought for Adult Third Culture Kids who are currently in a life-planning phase. The comments in this article may not be relevant to your situation exactly but for those of you wondering about the next couple of years in your life it may be good to look over Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and take each level into account as you plan your next step in life.”

Recommended reading: September 3rd, 2018

My latest collection of recommended posts about expatriate life and Third Culture Kids. This week includes topics such as transition, self care, identity, and ordinary expat life.

Dear Parents Launching Your Third Culture Kids
Djibouti Jones
A beautiful piece from the always lovely Rachel, this time describing the emotional storm of dropping her twin TCKs off at university – and leaving them there.
You feel alone. You look at the other parents, the ones who live in the same city or the same state or the same country and you are jealous or angry or feeling protective. You think no one understands all the questions and losses and griefs and fears racing through your mind and heart. You’re confused because no one told you raising TCKs would end up here, would end up with you on the other side of the ocean finally appreciating what you’ve put your own parents through all these years abroad. No one told you this would be harder than moving abroad in the first place.”

Never just a curry
Jo Parfitt
I love this! Food is so powerful – a memory trigger, a comfort, and so relational. In this post, Jo traces her family’s history of curry, across countries and continents – to the excitement of a new discovery.
For most of our 30 years of marriage, ask us what our favourite food is and we’d say Arabic without pausing for thought. But this week it hit me. It’s time we changed our answer – to Indian curry even though we have never lived there. I have not even visited. Curry has been a red thread through our lives abroad.

Football, Children, and Culture: Not Just a Game
Multicultural Kid Blogs
In this post a mother of TCKs talks about creating memories for her sons that connect them to the country that formed her, a country they have not lived in. A lovely read.
There are so many memories wrapped up in Watford football matches for me. And as I sit next to each of my sons on the terraces where those memories were made I am carefully unwrapping some of them and passing them to my sons for safe keeping. At the same time, my dad and I are making childhood memories for my sons – ones they will never forget. . . It’s hard for my children to imagine I had a life elsewhere before I ‘turned Dutch’. These trips are a small window into that life. They see the town I used to live in, they see a part of the life I had before I moved to the Netherlands and became their mother. They get a glimpse of the culture that has formed me, and them too.

6 Essential Practices for Hard-to-Reach Stressors
World Tree Coaching
Another great post from Jodi, this time exploring background stress and what we can do about it. This all rings very true for me at the moment! Life overseas pretty much IS background stress. There are so many little things that are different or difficult, so many small uncertanties and stressors, and they all add up. Background stress is one of those things we slowly adjust to until we’re drowning and don’t quite know why. The self reflection required to keep on top of this, to recognise the background stress of life in a different setting, takes a lot of conscious effort.
To deal with the challenges that hit at our egos, our values and our sense of purpose – it’s important to develop habits of self-reflection and insight. Taking the time to look more closely at who we are and how we fit in the world can be difficult. Sometimes the effort can feel daunting. We may not be sure we’ll like what we find there. On the other hand, deep down most of us know it’s important to do this type of inner work so that we can grow and develop into our full selves. One way to cultivate a more reflective state is to develop practices that naturally foster paying attention to our experiences. These skills can help us turn towards what’s going on inside and around us, giving us more information about the source of background stress.

Staying Healthy Overseas: Emotional and Mental Wellness
Taking Route
This is another good post in the same vein – looking after ourselves well enough to not only get through life but actually enjoy it, expat bumps and all.
It is easy to get burnt out while living overseas. I know that, you know that, but are we doing enough to make sure we don’t get burnt out? The answer for me is almost always “no.”…This article is not really a guide on how to do wellness overseas as much as it is a letter to myself to prioritize my emotional and mental wellness while living abroad.”

Redefining French Identity
The Parent Voice
This is a really interesting post – a story and reflections on identity, translated into English alongside the original French. Anissa talks about her experience of identity – two passports, from Canada and Tunisia, and being born in France but never having had French citizenship. She talks about the chameleon and the salamander as metaphors for changeable identity. For her the chameleon adapts by blending in, whereas the salamander cuts away pieces. She also talks about active vs passive – when I make the choice to adapt myself, rather than changing in response to the perceptions of others.

Simple pleasures: grocery shopping
Stories from Tanya
And finally, I’m sharing something from my other (more ordinary) blog, where I recently started writing again after a two year hiatus. I realised that this particular post is the sort of thing I would share as recommended reading if I read it elsewhere, so I figured I’d add it to the list this week! In it I deconstruct a trip to my local Chinese market, and why the experience was relaxing for me. It touches on transition, language, culture, and stopping to appreciate the lovely in ordinary life.
I don’t like standing out as a stranger, but I don’t mind so much when it happens less randomly. If I’m interacting with someone for a separate reason, and they remark on my foreign-ness and command of Mandarin, that doesn’t irritate me. Most of the time, I enjoy these little interactions. The person is not encroaching on my existence, they are sharing it for the moment that we are involved in a task together. . .I succeeded in being a local member of my community, for a few minutes on a sunny Monday morning.

Phantom pain: feeling the pieces of self you leave behind

While I’m living in Beijing again now, four years ago today I left – for good.

I left Beijing with very little expectation that I’d return. I hoped I’d visit, but I really didn’t think I’d live here again, and certainly not so soon. I wasn’t ready to say I’d stay in Australia, either, for that matter. But there are other countries. One thing expatriate life has taught me is that there are always options you haven’t begun to dream up yet!

Near the end of my first year back in Australia I was talking to a friend about my feelings about leaving China, my home of over a decade, and moving to Australia. I am an Australian citizen and my family all live there (albeit scattered around the country) but Australia didn’t really feel like home. Not completely.

I had settled into a routine, I had made friends, I liked the place I lived. But something didn’t feel right. I could still *feel* another place, a place that felt like part of me. I could feel the person I’d been there, I could feel the routines I’d had there, I could almost smell and taste the place I’d left.

And I said the words, without thinking: “It almost feels like phantom pain.”

Later I went looking for information about phantom pain, beyond my general layperson concept. It turns out that “phantom limb syndrome” affects about three-quarters of amputees. They feel as though the amputated limb is still there (although it may feel shorter) and this can be accompanied by severe pain.

Once I made the connection, it made sense. Something that had been such a big part of my life for over a decade was gone – out of my reach – but it still impacted me. That piece of me, the person I was in that life, was cut off. But I still felt like her, still felt like that was me.

I wasn’t in China, and as far as I knew I wasn’t going back. But I still FELT my China life. And sometimes that feeling came with pain. Pain of not being that person any more. Pain that no one in my new life knew me in that way. Pain of losing a place I loved – even for good reasons, even by my own choice. Some days it was mild nostalgia, but some days it was really painful.

I’ve felt a mild version of this the last few months living in Beijing again. Those three years in Australia changed me. I made a life for myself there eventually, a life I enjoyed. There were people and places and activities that mattered to me. I was a different person there than I am here. I was known differently. And just as it sometimes hurt that Australian friends couldn’t see or understand my Chinese side, who I was in my Beijing life, I sometimes feel a longing here, too. My friends in Beijing, even those I’ve known a decade or more, don’t know me in that Australian setting. I miss college life, living on campus. Don’t get me wrong – I was ready to go (and my anxiety has decreased markedly since I left such a hugely social environment)! But there are pieces of me that came alive there which aren’t exercised here.

I suspect anyone who moves around has the potential to develop this kind of phantom pain. The pain of sensing a part of yourself missing – a part of you which only exists in one place, one context. Losing a language, a role, a position – something you were or had becoming invisible, unreachable. Perhaps this is an inevitable (or at least highly likely) part of connecting deeply in and to more than one place. Another price we pay for this life.

sydsunset

One thing I miss from Australia: regular glorious sunsets, no filters required.

Recommended reading: August 6th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My difficult experiences of going home

There are two countries I’ve returned home to, twice each. The country of my childhood, and the country of my adulthood.

I grew up in my passport country, Australia. But I spent two years of high school living in Connecticut, in the US. Then I went home.

Ar 21 I moved out of my parents house straight to China, where a study year turned into 11 years abroad. Then I went home.

Two very different repatriation experiences. Both difficult, in different ways. The first time I was desperate to go home and be normal and fit in, and was desperately discouraged to find those two years had changed me – that I no longer fit in, that I still stood out. The second time I knew what to expect. I knew all the theory, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, that I wouldn’t feel totally at home. It was still more difficult than theory alone could express.

I thought that season of my life was over – but I was wrong. I made two very different visits to China during my three year stint in Australia, and then moved back here (to Beijing). In a way, it was going home. But it wasn’t what I expected.

It’s those more unusual homecomings I am pondering today.

My first return trip to Beijing was unexpected, mostly unplanned, and rather last minute. There was a sale on plane tickets and I moaned to a friend back in Beijing about how tempting it was. I really couldn’t afford a ticket, even a cheap one, even if I could justify the expense for one week (the longest time I had free between commitments). Then that friend bought me a ticket. Again, I knew a lot of theory, and I thought I knew what to expect. It had been two years. I had changed. Beijing had changed. It wouldn’t feel the same. I thought that perhaps this would be a helpful goodbye trip for me, a chance to farewell this place that was such a part of who I am, that I still missed. Looking at my life logically, at where I thought I was heading, it didn’t seem at all likely to me that I would live in China again. I hoped I would visit, but it was only a theoretical hope.

Instead, as I moved around Beijing the feeling of HOME hit me so hard that I felt it almost viscerally. I felt a deep sadness that it was no longer my place – it FELT like my place; every fibre of my being wanted to be there. I thought that since so much of my community wasn’t there any more that it wouldn’t feel the same. I discovered instead that I felt connected to the PLACE itself, not just the people with whom I had shared it. The sights, the sounds, the colours, the smells. I feared that had I not had a close friend’s wedding to attend in Australia I would have struggled to get on that plane and leave again.

I had grieved leaving Beijing two years earlier. So I thought. In hindsight, I think I did a good job of grieving the people I was leaving, and the life I was leaving, but I didn’t grieve the PLACE in the same way. Upon my return, all those connections to place were still there, waiting to come to life, to shower me in grief – the recognition that I had left the place that felt like mine.

A year later, I made another trip to Beijing. This time, everything was different. I had started dating someone who lived in Beijing. A few months earlier I had decided I would move to Beijing at the end of the year, when I graduated. And now I was coming to visit the man who was about to become my fiancé. A very, very different trip!

This time, Beijing felt very different. It did NOT feel like home. It felt familiar, but also foreign. In the year since my first trip, I’d finally settled into life in Australia, started to feel at ease there. I’d connected to THAT place – and now felt disconnected from THIS place. The connections I’d recognised and grieved a year earlier weren’t there anymore. There was nostalgia, and enjoyment of place, but none of that visceral sense of deep connection.

It didn’t help that I was staying in a very different part of the city. It was where my partner lived, but it was a place I didn’t know, a place that had never been mine. During the whole trip I felt very disconcerted. I was going to move there in six months – and suddenly I felt really apprehensive about that move. I wasn’t going to be coming home after all. I was going to have to start again in a place that used to be home.

Having that realisation 2.5 years after repatriating, only a few months after finally starting to feel at ease in my passport country, was devastating. I was going to have to start that same process all over again. At least this time I’d only been gone 3 years, not 11 – maybe that would help. At least this time I would be recognised as a foreigner – maybe that would help. I would be with my partner, but he wouldn’t be experiencing the same transition with me. It left me dreading the turmoil I could suddenly see coming my way.

Now, people ask me how long I’ve been back in Beijing and I find it hard to answer. 6 months? But I’ve travelled in and out a lot, and lived in three different apartments. 3 months in this apartment – but I was gone for most of the first month. It’s only in the last month or so I’ve started to feel able to begin the process of settling into a new life and routine here.

Right now the best I can manage most days is just getting by. Take small steps toward building a life here. Celebrate tiny achievements. Look for little moments that encourage me, that tell me it’s going to work out and one day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life. Transition is hard. It’s exhausting. But it’s also worth it.


(This post was inspired by a prompt on Communicating Across Boundaries, in which Marilyn wrote about “Going Home”.)

Recommended Reading: July 16th, 2018

Welcome to this week’s edition of Recommended Reading! I don’t have a particular theme for this week. Instead, here’s a collection of posts I’ve read recently that I feel have something of value to offer expat and TCK communities around the world.

A Letter to the Stayers
Aylssa Cowell
I love this! We absolutely need to recognise the impact of STAYING in transient communities. Whenever I do transition seminars with students in international schools I ask how many times people have moved, how many schools they’ve attended – but I also ask how many close friends they’ve watched move away. Every time I ask that questions there are students who refuse to answer – too many to count. It’s a real and deeply difficult experience, and one that is often overlooked.
We don’t really talk about the emotional hardship, of the loss felt by those who stay. We know it is hard for those who leave. But for those who stay some of you will have lost 4, 5, 6, 7… countless people who were close to you. The school is the same but it’s not really the same. . .Look out for each other out there – if you are lucky enough to have your friends stay – look out for those who don’t. Invite them to sit with you. Say hello in the corridors. Ask them if they are okay. Our words are powerful and you should never underestimate the impact of a small gesture.

I Think It Is Okay to be an Alien
Velvet Ashes
What happens when you stand out in every situation, everywhere you’ve lived, your whole life? What happens when they places you consider home consider you an alien? Erika writes about making peace with her alien status. But I think what I appreciated most was how she so adroitly summed up the “misunderstood” feeling that undergirds much of my book:
As a third culture kid, I tried on many identities. Like most of my MK friends, I went through a “proud Canadian” phase, through a phase of “I’m from all of North America” and a “nothing but Mexican” phase. None of them worked. I found I could relate to people from all of these places, but none of them — not even family — could relate to all of me. And that made me alien.

My top tip for parenting through transition
Meet Jesus at uni
I was so touched by this piece! One mother articulates the guilt and struggle of seeing her young children wrestling to find a way through transition – again. “I do things to help them through transitions…Those things help, but they do not fix anything.” But then she remembers – “the normal initial adjustment period for humans after trauma or significant change is 6-8 weeks“. The best thing she can do is keep remembering that it’s going to get better – to relax and be patient and kind to herself and her kids as they adjust yet again. (Sounds like something I said recently!)
“This happens every time we do a transition. Between 4 and 6 weeks, things come to a head and I panic as I hurt for my little boys and the mama guilt overwhelms me. I wonder if the crisis versions of my sons are simply who they are now. But if I can remember that 8 weeks is our usual adjustment time, and if I can tolerate it until then, my little ones start to know themselves again. I just have to hang in there with them. And be ready to do it all again in the not-too-distant future.”

How Having A Name That No One Can Pronounce Taught Me Who I Really Am
Huffington Post
In last week’s recommended reading I included a piece in which the author reflected on wrestling with identity through her name – how it defined and separated her, especially when peers could not pronounce it. This piece shares a similar story: “I’ve always felt like a part of me was lost in translation. My name, so beautiful in my parents’ native Tamil, doesn’t quite fit my flattened American accent.” I really appreciate the telling of how her frustration shifted from one object to another over time. She ends by acknowledging the stress while embracing the different influences that make her who she is – name and all:
“Today, I still get a little shy before I introduce my name. I still stress out about the logistics.. But now, I️ understand that I’m not Indian or American, but both. I might be a product of my ancestors, but I am also the speaker of my own name“.

The New 11 Commandments of Relocating Overseas
International School Community
Good piece with solid advice for those who will be relocating abroad. There’s a lot of overlap with things I suggest in my Six Tips for a Good Transition. One piece of advice from this post I particularly appreciated was the suggestion of combining old and new – mixing new experiences with familiar comforts. What a great approach! “try to combine an appreciation of new cuisine and dishes with some of your old dietary staples.” My summary of these “11 commandments” is as follows: Be positive, be flexible, be teachable, be lighthearted, be understanding. Expect the adjustment to take a long time. Look for encouragement and comfort – both here and there. Lean on supports.

Forbidden Roots
A Life Overseas
I was deeply touched by this piece which boldly faces the problem that comes with putting down roots in an adopted home: one day, I will have to leave the place I have made my home.
I am not a citizen, or even an immigrant. My passport is still American blue; Tanzania is not my country…Yet the thought of leaving someday fills me with an intense grief, knowing that it will tear away part of my being. Not just a loss of place, but a loss of who I am. The experience has become real life. Which is a good thing, of course. It’s what every expat should want to attain. But it’s also a tragic thing. It’s like coming to the realization that I’ve fallen in love with something that I can’t keep.

Dig Deep and Shine On
I Am A Triangle
A hopeful and encouraging post about the ongoing need to build relationships when you live a life full of transition.
Eighteen months into my repatriation and new home, new perspective washes over me…I’m in a new place, making new friends (some are international friends) and loving new experiences. AND, it’s taken eighteen months! Over these past months to learn, grow and dig deep, I’ve made friends, added life experiences, and taken several trips. . .One of my people secrets is say “hello” to anyone within three feet of me. Some will return the “hello” and some may not. My personally coined mantra: people are faces until they’re your friends.

Sri Lankan expat enchanted by Ramadan in UAE
Gulf News
And finally, a little piece I appreciated, in which a Sri Lankan expat reflects on his first Ramadan in the UAE. Going from a muslim minority culture to a muslim majority culture made it a very different experience for him: “It gives a sense of togetherness as everyone becomes part of our fasting, iftar and suhour.

Six Tips for a Good Transition

Last week I wrote about change and transition. I explained that while change is an event, transition is a process – and a very difficult process at that. We lose all our automatics and have to re-learn how to live life in a new way.

In this post I’m going to share my six tips for a good transition. They aren’t difficult or complicated. Mostly they revolve around recognising that we need extra time and care during a time of transition. Unfortunately, this is something we struggle with! We want to do and be busy and fix things. But while we do need the forward momentum of this activity, if we only ever push through the chances are the stress we ignore will catch up with us eventually. Doing transition slowly, with care and kindness, is healthier in the long term.

Now, without further ado, here are my six tips!

Tip for Transition #1: Remember, transition is hard.

Recognise that transition is big, and hard. Understand that it will take time and energy to do well. And probably more of both than you’d like. If you find yourself struggling after a big change, that’s not just okay, it’s totally normal! It’s difficult to re-learn how to do normal things, and re-write all your brain’s automatic choices. The hardest part is that so much of what makes a big transition difficult is invisible. It’s all those little things, things that people around you don’t notice. Things that you yourself might not consciously recognise. Making lists of changes, thinking through all the ways life has changed, or will change, is helpful because it makes you more aware of what it is that you’re going through.

Tip for Transition #2: Be patient and kind to yourself.

When you understand that transition is hard, that it takes time and energy, it is easier to be patient with yourself as you go through it. When you look at the people around you and wonder why life seems harder for you – remember that, first, you don’t know what anyone else is dealing with inside, and second, that transition takes extra energy. You won’t have the capacity you’re used to – you’ll get less done, your brain will feel foggy, or you’ll feel emotional and overwhelmed. Maybe, like me, you’ll experience all of those things! And that’s okay. Be patient with yourself. You’ll be yourself again one day, it just takes time. Instead of getting frustrated with yourself, stop and recognise that you’re doing something difficult, and choose to be kind to yourself. And be patient with the process of settling into a new life, which will likely take a lot longer than you’d like.

Tip for Transition #3: Persevere – do hard things.

Once you get into a new routine, and fill your new life with new relationships and new activities, things will get easier. Yes, transition is hard. Yes, you need to be patient with yourself and kind to yourself. But you also need forward movement. Sometimes things happen naturally and automatically. Sometimes they don’t. In any case, it’s unusual for your new life to simply snap into place; it will probably take time, and effort, on your part. So persevere.

Start building the connections that will eventually form your support network. Accept invitations, go to events, ask that person if you can catch up for coffee. And when you feel discouraged, that you’re not getting anywhere, that nothing is like it was, remember to keep going. Things will get better eventually.

Tip for Transition #4: Leave space to be sad.

Change involves loss, and transition is the process of adjusting to change. That means transition also involves grief – processing losses such as a place, a community, a position in that community, particular people, your place in your family, your identity as a person who knows things, and so much more. It hurts to lose things. That’s natural, but it’s not fun. Understandably, a lot of us try to avoid unpleasant feelings like sadness and grief. But during a time of transition we benefit from space to be sad about what has been lost.

So yes, go out there and do hard things, create new routines and relationships – but alongside all that good hard work out there, leave space to do the hard work inside. (Similar to the “water work” I linked to in this week’s Recommended Reading.) Let yourself have a few pockets of time in which to stop, feel the sadness, and the tiredness. Acknowledge that those feelings exist, that they are real. Do whatever works for you to let those feelings out. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is that you create that space, that your feelings are expressed rather than suppressed.

Tip for Transition #5: Maintain old friendships.

This might seem counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to ‘move on’? Won’t hanging onto the past make it harder? Well, yes and no. During a big transition the need for support is higher than normal, but there may not be much support available in the new environment. Even if you make good friends quickly, it takes time to build up the level of closeness you enjoy with existing friends.One of the best ways to transition well, therefore, is to lean on your established relationships while you’re starting out.

It is so helpful to remember that there are people elsewhere in the world who really do know you and appreciate you and are there to support you – especially if you don’t have friends like that in your new location yet. An important thing to keep in mind, however, is that online relationships are qualitatively different to in-person relationships. Try to think of long-distance support as scaffolding that will hold you together while you build up the foundations of a new support network in your new location.

Tip for Transition #6: Seek professional support.

Flight crews run through a safety demonstration on every flight while the plane is still on the ground. They want to make sure people know what to do if there ever is an emergency, but they don’t wait for an emergency to occur before giving out that information. In the same way, I think it is really helpful to look into professional support services even if you don’t think you need them. Know what resources are out there and how to access them so that if a situation comes up, you already know what to do.

Often we think about medical resources – where is the hospital, finding a new doctor, looking into whatever specialists we may have need of. Some families are also proactive about looking into educational support. But the main support I urge families to look into are mental health services. This is something few of us think to consider until we are already in crisis. Also, as with most things, prevention is cheaper and easier than cure – so you may want to consider how support services like counselling could help you find and maintain balance that will prevent a crisis situation occuring. There are lots of good options for expatriate focussed professional counselling these days, including counsellors who do online session via video chat, which are really helpful for a lot of people.

So that’s my six tips for a good transition. The bottom line? Transition is hard! So give yourself a break, and take advantage of any help you can find to make the journey easier.

Change, transition, and why it’s hard

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

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

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

Change is an event.

Transition is a process.

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

As I wrote in Misunderstood:

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

Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transition

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

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

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

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

Losing our automatics

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

Want to get dinner? Okay. How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do?

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

A revealing review of Misunderstood

misundertood-3d-cover.jpgRecently Expat Bookshop published a lovely review of Misunderstood by Youth Intercultural Transition Specialist Jane Barron of Globally Grounded.

Jane does a great job of explaining what Misunderstood is: who it’s for, what material is covered, and the flow of the content.

What struck me most about her review, however, is how she went to the heart of the intent with which I wrote.

What sets this book apart from others in the global transition genre is the way Tanya brings research, perspective and solutions together. She identifies the challenge, fear or feeling “many TCKs believe others cannot, or will not, understand,” then underpins it with research and wisdom from experts in the field and articulates it using anecdotes from TCKs and Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs). For each challenge, Tanya provides solutions and strategies for parents/ caregivers to support their TCK, so those challenges do not become traumatic but instead serve as springboards for growth.

She’s hit the nail on the head here. I wholeheartedly believe in the many advantages and opportunities that go with an international childhood. I am also all too aware of the corresponding challenges. My goal is to equip carers (and TCKs themselves) with tools, and a perspective, that will help them tackle those challenges effectively – so they aren’t left as speed bumps to trip them up, or land mines coming back to create trouble later on.

But the most striking part of Jane’s review was her clear understanding of the book’s title. I had planned to write a blog post of my own talking about this – but maybe I don’t need to anymore!

The title of the book, Misunderstood, may lead readers to assume the contents are negative in nature but in fact it is very balanced. This word, misunderstood, was repeated over and over in interviews and conversations Tanya had with TCKs yet the book provides an insight into the heads, hearts and souls of children growing up overseas to dispel any misunderstanding. It bridges the gap between TCKs feeling misunderstood and adults trying to understand. TCKs reading this book will identify with the words ‘spoken’ by other TCKs and perhaps find a vocabulary to express their emotions and find a sense of belonging. Parents, educators and other caregivers will gain the understanding TCKs desperately need and want in order to encourage, equip and support them to “develop into emotionally mature adults,” either abroad or at home. Misunderstood is a book of hope and one I would highly recommend for all TCKs and those who care for them.

Yes, yes, and YES. I felt strongly that the title “Misunderstood” was the best way to stay true to the stories that were entrusted to me by hundreds of TCKs. But that title is not a curse, and it is not the way things must inevitably be. It is instead a starting point: that of stopping to acknowledge the way so many TCKs (young and old) feel, or have felt, as a result of their international childhood experiences. To understand TCKs, we must first listen to them, to their stories. We must stop to hear their feelings – even if they are uncomfortable. Only then can we begin to move from misunderstanding to understanding. Yes, Misunderstood is intended to be a book of hope – that no TCK need always be misunderstood, and that non-TCKs really can learn to understand how TCKs see the world.

Read Jane’s full review on Expat Bookshop.