Painting Pictures: A Third Culture Kid Talks About Raising Third Culture Kids

I spent a lot of parenting years under the assumption that if I were only a TCK myself all this would be easier, make more sense. I know now that isn’t true, it is a simple case of the grass is always greener or the desert is always browner, depending on which you love. And Marilyn Gardner makes this so clear in todays Painting Pictures post. Marilyn is an internet treasure, an Anne-of-Green-Gables kindred spirit, and finding her this year has been one of the best things about my blogging experience. This is one of my personal favorite’s of Marilyn’s pieces because of the journey she takes the reader on. Enjoy her wisdom, honesty, and perspective (and enjoy her work as a new regular contributor to A Life Overseas).

A Third Culture Kid Talks About Raising Third Culture Kids

Just being brought up by people who didn’t and still don’t feel fully here, fully present–that’s very intense,” ….. “It’s not just all about the house we live in and the friends we have right here. There was always a whole other alternative universe to our lives.” from Jhumpa Lahiri: The Quiet Laureate – Time Magazine 2008

If I could pick two words to describe my life they would be the words “Between Worlds”. Like a tightrope walker suspended between buildings, so was my life.  My tightrope was between Pakistan and the United States; between home and boarding; between Muslim and Christian.

Since birth I knew I lived in a culture between – I was a third culture kid.

I realized early in life that airports and airplanes were perfect places of belonging, because I was literally between worlds as I sat in airports, idling the time with my books and my brothers waiting for flights. Or sitting in the airplane, row 33D, buckling and unbuckling while settling in to a long flight.

I always knew I would raise my children overseas. In my mind it was a given. It made complete sense – it was a world I loved and my kids would love it too.

But there is a curious dynamic when an adult third culture kid moves on to raise third culture kids. First off, you transfer your love of travel, adventure, languages, and cross-cultural living. You don’t worry that they will be away from their passport countries, you don’t worry that they’ll miss aunts and uncles. You know theirs is a life that few have, and even fewer understand but you also know that in many areas the benefits outweigh the deficits.

So I was set. My world was a world of expat comings and goings, making friends with Egyptians, conjugating verbs in Arabic classes, and attending events at international schools. It was a world of change and transience and we were at home within that transience. We didn’t name the losses – we didn’t think there were any.

But then we moved. We left our home in Cairo of 7 years, our life overseas of 10 years, and moved to a small town in New England. A town that boasted community and Victorian homes, a small school and tidy lawns. A town with white picket fences and white faces.

And it was during this move that the dynamic changed, for I could no longer transfer that which I knew to my children. Instead I transferred insecurity and an over powering sense of being “other.”

Nothing in my background had prepared me for this move. No books, no language classes, no articles. – nothing. I was struggling to find my way in a world that I didn’t know and I was doing it with 5 third culture kids on my proverbial apron strings. And suddenly this adult third culture kid thing was not an asset – it was a deficit; a glaring deficit that manifest itself in insecurity and turmoil. I didn’t know how to cook with American ingredients or what to do at American public schools. Birthday parties and play dates were unfamiliar, and my background was a conversation stopper at every level.


What happens when the adult third culture kid finds herself raising third culture kids back in their legal passport country?

A whole lot of pain happens, a whole lot of insecurity, a whole lot of self-questioning and self-doubt. I hid all of this in a well-developed fortress of confidence dressed up in up-to-date outfits that would belie the out-of-date person I was. I worked hard to create a persona that would work. And all the time I was exhausted. I wanted to curl up with my own mom and cry until the tears could fall no more. I wanted to gather my children to my self and whisk them off where we would be safe – to Pakistan or Egypt, my safe spaces.

But I did none of those things. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, step by blistered step. I made curry and Kosherie, tastes of home in a strange land. I decorated with brass, copper, pottery, and a little double heart frame that stood on the mantel with pictures of Arafat and Rabin. We talked Egypt and Pakistan and slowly learned to talk small town New England. And the kids continued to say they were from Egypt – they were African American, they were ‘different’. Our home was, in the words of Jhumpa Lahiri, an ‘alternative universe’ that stood in stark contrast to the world where we had unpacked our suitcases.

While America was on the outside, we had a whole other world on the inside. We continued to live in the space between, the one where I was most comfortable – Between Worlds. We looked like everyone around us, but we were immigrants in our own right. This negotiating two worlds was more than slightly schizophrenic and at times impossible.

But I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids – and I wasn’t sure how else to do it.

But Grace entered the space between and slowly by slowly I began to meet people who wanted to hear my story, who shared our curry, who walked beside me. Slowly I began to trust these friends to be cultural brokers, liaisons who could explain American oddities to me so that I could feel more comfortable. And as I grew more comfortable, others grew more comfortable around me, around us. We no longer exuded a “We’re other, We’re better” scent. Instead, we could laugh and be content as other, be accepted as different but not bad.

It was years later that I read the following words in an article, words that reminded me of our story, that described what a third culture kid raising third culture kids needs.

So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.  Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story — many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.”  © Nina Sichel

That’s what I needed, that’s what they gave, and that’s how I healed.

Follow Marilyn on Twitter and read more on her blog: Communicating Across Boundaries.