Painting Pictures: When an ATCK Does Not Choose a Life Overseas
Today’s Painting Pictures post is by Clara Wiggins, a Third Culture Kid who has made the choice, for now, of staying put. I love the way this parallels last week’s post by Jenni Gate: When an ATCK Chooses a Life Overseas. Clara somehow manages to write with an appreciation for both choices with wisdom, grace, and perspective. And honest, which is beautiful. She is working on a book about trailing spouses, see the bio at the end of the post for how to contact her and how to contribute.
When an Adult Third Culture Kid Does Not Choose a Life Overseas
A few months ago, we were faced with a choice. A very difficult choice. A choice that many people reading this will have faced themselves, often multiple times. A choice that I really, really didn’t want to make. And a choice that, once made, I knew that I would regret – whichever way we chose to go.
Following a couple of overseas postings, both terminated early for very different reasons, we had decided to settle back in the UK. My eldest daughter had reached Reception age and we got her a much-sought after place at our local primary. So local, you can see it from our house. Our other daughter started at the local pre-school. Both integrated immediately into their new lives, making friends quickly and being obviously much happier than they had been when we were abroad. My husband got an interesting job in a nearby city and I started training to be an antenatal teacher. It was a good life.
But just when we thought we were settled, my husband came home from work with the news that there were several family-friendly postings going begging at work. Places that as a single working woman I probably would have turned my nose up at, but that now sounded like the perfect place to move with school aged children in tow. However, trying to decide whether to leave our newly discovered settled lives behind and set off once more was not going to be an easy decision.
I myself am a Third Culture Kid. I grew up on pretty well every continent in the world – the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe – my father’s diplomatic postings took us almost as far and wide as it’s possible to go. It was (mostly) a happy childhood. I have particularly rosy memories of our time in the Philippines – a wonderful place for a (rich, privileged) child to grow up in the 1970’s, full of weekends at the beach and afternoons at the swimming club. I spent the parts of my teen years that I wasn’t at boarding school in Venezuela, a wild and beautiful country where we swam in the Caribbean, climbed the (foothills of) the Andes and explored the spectacular Llanos.
I have never lived anywhere longer than four years and by the time I was 13 I was at boarding school in the UK, happily negotiating long haul flights back and forth for the holidays. After leaving school, I did try and settle into a normal life. But late in my twenties my itchy feet got the better of me and I took off round the world with just a back-pack for company. A year later I returned to the UK, realised I couldn’t live in just one country for the rest of my life, and joined the Foreign Office. I was posted to Jamaica, met my husband, got pregnant with my first child and left the Office to become the accompanying spouse to my husband’s postings in Islamabad and St Lucia.
So why the problem with deciding to go abroad again? Well the problem wasn’t me, I would’ve gone in a heartbeat, as long as it was somewhere that this time I could work. My husband is coming to a natural end of the job he’s in and needs something new. He’s always loved living overseas. No, the reason we didn’t immediately jump at the chance of moving to the Hague or Lisbon or Warsaw was the children.
I realise that having outlined above how much I loved my childhood, it sounds odd to now say I don’t want my children to have what I had. I still believe deeply that travel doesn’t just broaden the mind, it explodes it. I think I am a better person for having had that chance to explore the world at a young age.
No, the problem isn’t that I don’t want my children to have what I had – it’s that I do want them to have what I didn’t.
Growing up, I was always different. It didn’t matter where I lived, I never fit in. In Manila, we were the minority Brits in a mostly American school. Back in the UK, I was the slightly weird one who kept leaving to live in exotic places no-one had ever heard of, and then come back and expect to fit in exactly where I left off. At school there were, luckily, other expat brats like myself. But there were more rich, spoiled kids who ruled the school. Even as an adult, I’ve always found my background and experiences have made me feel a little different from everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some amazing friends along the way and even living as I do now in a town in Middle England, I’ve still found people I can relate to on more than one level.
But what I didn’t have was a base. A home. Somewhere I could always come back to and feel safe. A group of mates I grew up with, who would be there every Christmas eve, to get together with no matter where we had been for the rest of the year. I want my children to feel they belong. To be settled and to not have this need to up and move on every few years. I want them to go right through school with the same friends. To understand British culture properly, to watch all the same TV programmes as the other people they meet as adults, to be able to recall the same moments of history – not to wonder why no-one else remembers the ‘thriller in Manila’ or can still sing the theme tune to Sesame Street when everyone else is discussing some random multi-coloured Saturday morning show.
I realise these things are not the be-all and end-all and possibly I am depriving them more than they will ultimately benefit. But you have to go with a gut instinct and for now, this is mine. It’s been helped by the fact that my eldest daughter, who didn’t settle well in either of our two postings, is adamant that she doesn’t want to move abroad again. But it’s not been an easy choice and things might still change. For now, though, that’s our choice. I was a TCK. My children have been TCK’s. But I have decided that – for now – they will be FCK’s (First Culture Kids). Or whatever a child who stays put is called!
Clara’s background is in journalism and diplomacy – she worked on regional newspapers overseas and in the UK before chucking it all in, traveling round the world and then joining the Foreign Office. The daughter of a diplomat herself, she has seen the “expat” experience from all sides, including during her own posting to Jamaica and more recently as a trailing spouse in Pakistan and St Lucia. She is now settled back in the UK and divides her increasingly busy schedule between looking after her two young daughters, working as both an antenatal teacher and in a part-time office role, and working on her next project – a “rough guide” to being a trailing spouse”. She loves writing and just wishes there were more hours in the day. She is looking for contributions for her trailing spouse book and if you would like to help her, she can be contacted at email@example.com.