painting pictures1Today’s Painting Pictures post is by Laura Campbell. I love the way she is able to share her story honestly, including the pride that sometimes comes with being a TCK and how surprised she was to experience culture shock as an adult. Her words highlight an important issue for TCKs who choose to live overseas – the experience as an adult is not the same as it was as a child. And I am thrilled because (spoiler alert) next week’s post is about an ATCK who chooses not to live overseas. A beautiful and unplanned pairing of pieces. I’m especially interested in hearing your responses to Laura’s final questions.

When an ATCK Chooses a Life Overseas

I was born in the Nairobi Hospital in 1977 and spent my entire childhood in Kenya, with the exception of brief trips back to the United States. I always knew I was a “missionary kid,” a term that did little more than describe what my parents did. What I didn’t know was that I was also a “TCK,” a term that better explains who I am as a result of my overseas upbringing.

I graduated from Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi in 1995. At the time, Dave Pollack was coming to Rosslyn every year to do a weekend Reentry Seminar for the graduating seniors. This is where I first heard the term TCK, where I first learned why I am the way I am, and why there will never be an easy answer to “Where are you from?” The unique advantages that TCK’s have and the unique challenges they face were broken down, and my classmates and I were given many useful coping tips as we prepared to embark on our journeys back to our passport countries. I learned about the process of reentry and how to say goodbye in a healthy way. I still go back to Dave’s concept of building a RAFT (introduced to me at the seminar and explained further in his book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds) when I am facing a big transition.

I had an easy reentry experience, which I attribute in part to the preparation I received at the Reentry Seminar. Of course, there were other factors: I went to a small college where I was a face, not just a number; I plugged into a church right away; I had grandparents living in the area who were my home away from home. But I adjusted well, and fairly easily… so easily, in fact, that I began to wonder if culture shock and reentry shock were just way overrated. I assumed that they were basically the same thing. I was wrong, and I was about to find out just how wrong I was!

I was a senior in college and planning my wedding when my fiancé brought up the idea of going to work in Japan as English teachers for a few years. I blithely agreed, thinking “I’ve got this living overseas thing down. After all, I grew up abroad. I’ve gone through reentry and it wasn’t that bad. This will be a piece of cake.” Looking back now, I can see the absolute arrogance in my assumption that I wouldn’t experience culture shock, or that if I did, it would be mild or similar to what I had already gone through with reentry.

Two months after our wedding, we moved to Japan. My first six months there were not pretty. I hated it; I was miserable; my poor husband didn’t know what to do with me or how to help me cope. I cried on the phone to my mom one day, and after listening to me whine for awhile, she gently pointed out that I was experiencing culture shock. I was mad. “I am not!” I said vehemently. But I instantly realized, deep down, that she was right. And that was the beginning of my awakening to some very important truths about myself as a TCK now living the globally nomadic lifestyle as an adult.

Enjoying the plum blossoms with Oka-san, my “Japanese mother”

Enjoying the plum blossoms with Oka-san, my “Japanese mother”

  1. Growing up overseas is a different experience than choosing to live and work overseas as an adult. I had a pretty idyllic childhood – I played with my friends, I swam, I rode my bike, I went to school and church, we visited game parks and vacationed on the beautiful white sands of the Kenyan coast. I was sheltered from things like team conflicts, headaches with official paperwork, and political unrest, all things you have to deal with when you are an adult living overseas. My parents don’t remember Kenya through the same rose-colored glasses. Listening to them tell stories now, I begin to realize how different our realities were.
  2. Growing up overseas does not insulate one against culture shock. One of the oft-touted characteristics of TCK’s is their adaptability; however, adaptability does not necessari mean instantaneous adjustment. Since Japan, we have lived in Portugal, the U.S., and now Ecuador, and each time we move to a new country, I find myself struggling to learn and adapt during those first few months. It’s an uncomfortable period. I don’t know that it has gotten easier with practice, but I do know what to expect now, as opposed to those first few months in Japan.
  3. Growing up overseas does not mean you will instantly love every new country. Every country is different! Japan was nothing like what I knew of either Kenya or the U.S. The culture was unlike anything I had been exposed to before. English was not widely spoken, and as I spoke almost no Japanese when we first arrived, I was, for the first time in my life, unable to communicate, and also basically illiterate. Because I loved growing up in Kenya, I assumed I would fall in love with Japan right away, and when I didn’t, when I actually found myself hating it, I wondered what was wrong with me. (I eventually came to love Japan, and it is a part of my heart now, just as all the other places we have lived through the years, but it took time.) I have learned to be patient with myself, to give myself time to attach to a new place, and also the permission to dislike certain things about it.

I am an ATCK who chose a life overseas, and in the beginning, it was difficult. More difficult than I expected or imagined. My experience is by no means universal. I know many TCK’s who had very rocky reentry experiences. And many of them couldn’t wait to get back overseas and adapted well and quickly to the adult expat life. I remember reading once that expats who adjust easily to their foreign culture have a more difficult time coming home. I wonder if the same could be said for TCK’s? I wonder if the TCK’s who adjust easily to their “passport country” have a more difficult time when moving back overseas? And vice versa?

If you are an ATCK who chose a life overseas, what has been your experience? Do you think there is a connection between your reentry experience and your adjustment to life as an adult expat?

Laura Campbell is a missionary-kid turned missionary. She was born and grew up in Kenya and as an adult has lived in the United States, Japan, Portugal, and now calls Ecuador home. She is married to Rusty and is raising three TCK’s of her own, each one born on a different continent! Follow Laura via her family blog, The Campbell Chronicles or her Writing Project 365 blog