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Dear Parents Launching Your Third Culture Kids

Hey you, yes you, the one who just relinquished your child’s passport into their own hands to carry for the rest of their life all by themselves.

Yes you, the one who wonders how your child will introduce herself on campus. Is she from Minnesota? Africa? Kenya (which as everyone in Minnesota knows is the same thing as Africa)? Djibouti (what’s a Djibouti?)?

Yes you, who calls this move to his passport country an international move to a new, exotic, and slightly scary country.

You who has to not only turn around and walk out of their dorm room but who has to step onto an airplane in the international terminal.

You who will not be nearby, not even continentally (yes, that’s a word, I just made it up) nearby, on Family Weekend or on Thanksgiving or over Christmas break.

You who watched other kids move in with boxes of winter boots and hats and gloves and big, puffy coats, while your kids don’t own any of those items yet because they aren’t for sale in July in Minnesota and the winter gear they last owned (age two) won’t fit anymore.

I see you. Stumbling back to the car, wishing eyes came with windshield wipers so you could drive safely through tears, crying in the bathroom at the gas station or the airport or the borrowed house. You who aren’t even ‘home’ yet to cry into your own bed, or who are is crying alone because your spouse wasn’t able to make the international flight with you, or who is left to numb your sorrow with, I’m so sorry, airplane food and jet lag.

This is hard.

This is really, really hard.

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.

Or maybe they did, but when you heard it, perhaps at an orientation meeting, your only thought was, “This kid? University? Don’t they have to be potty-trained for that?!” And so, in the stupor of breastfeeding and surprise positive pregnancy tests and figuring out schooling options for kindergarten and worrying through vaccination records in multiple languages and multiple countries’ schedules, you didn’t listen. I know I didn’t. And now, here I am.

Let’s talk about it.

It is so right and appropriate and you’ve raised them for this, to be competent, generous, brave, tender, loving, creative gifts to the world.

You’re excited for them and for this new adventure. So much of life as expatriates has been an adventure into the unknown or into places that have stretched us outside our comfort zone. But you’ve done that together, with this kid by your side. Now they have to navigate it alone and you have to navigate this new stage without this particular child, without their take on experiences, their sense of humor, their insight.

You have a lot of questions about how to parent adult children and how to parent from a long distance.

I don’t have any answers, I’m winging it now. I’ve been winging it since they were born, like all parents, with the added twins times two thing happening. But maybe we can help each other.

What questions do you face now or did face when you sent your kids to university and returned to living abroad?

What hurts the most in this season?

What makes you the most proud in this season?

What wisdom have you earned through experience and time and perspective?

What do you wish your parents had done differently when you went to university? What did they do well?

Are Expat Families Really Any Different?

Quick link: But What’s So Different About Being an Expat Family, Anyway?

I wrote at Velvet Ashes about being an expatriate family and what that means for my kids. Honestly? I don’t know exactly what it means for them, they are going to have to figure that out on their own. I have some ideas and we have some conversations, but ultimately, as two of them are about to ‘launch,’ they will have to do some work in this area. From race to gender to wealth to faith, things have been different for my kids than they would have been had we stayed in suburban Minnesota.

My twins are seniors and our conversations have naturally turned toward university choices. For my family, of course, that includes conversations about America and culture, home and upbringing. We moved to Somalia when the twins were two and we’ve lived in the Horn of Africa ever since.

One evening, my daughter asked, “But what’s really so different about growing up here? How does my experience compare with that of a high school girl in Minnesota?”

How can I even begin to answer?

Read the rest of the essay here: But What’s So Different About Being an Expat Family, Anyway?

How Do Third Culture Kids Use Social Media?

Quick link: Third Culture Kids and Social Media

At A Life Overseas, talking about if TCKs use social media any differently than non-TCKs.

This summer, The Atlantic published a fascinating article called Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation? I encourage every parent, especially of tweens and teens, to read it and discuss it with your children.

I read the article with a particular mindset, that of a parent raising teenagers who also are Third Culture Kids. I wondered, how do these ideas apply to my own children? Keeping in touch is powerfully different for a suburban teen chatting with her friends from school than for a teen in Beirut chatting with her friends in Turkey or in Minnesota.

So how do TCKs, specifically, use social media? Both positively and negatively? How can we help our TCKs navigate this fraught world with wisdom and grace? I did a little unscientific survey and asked some TCKs for their perspectives.

Click here to read the rest Third Culture Kids and Social Media

I Hear the Nomads Singing

I found this poem in a dissertation by Nathan Jurgenson. I couldn’t find any other references to the author, Sarah E. Gilbert, or the poem. If anyone has a link to her, please let me know. I love this.

I Hear the Nomads Singing

(in the style of Walt Whitman’s ‘I Hear America Singing’)

I hear the nomads singing, the earth wanderers’ melodies I hear,

The song of the one who delights in the hearts of a people not his own, and yet who are a part of him,

The song of the one who weeps in despair, he knows not who he is.

 

Some have said: “You are one of us, the brother from another blood,”

While others from his own land say: “You have returned to us,

your people!”

And all the while his own heart cries out its dirge: “Who am I?”

 

I hear the song of the one who is never content to rest,

The pegs of his tent are driven into the ground,

He reveals his heart to those he meets, or else builds a wall through

which none may pass,

But either way his heart turns to the road

His ear listens for the roaring “thrummm” of the plane

His feet ache to move again.

 

I hear the song of the one who knows people,

From every corner of the earth,

From the steaming, living green wealth of South America,

From wave upon wave of red roofed Istanbul,

From the cool, isolated majesty of the Pamirs,

And from the culture rich provinces of China

 

I hear the song of the one who has said goodbye

One hundred too many times,

I see the crowd of downcast friends, and the one who is leaving in the center,

I see the tears run down her cheeks

her pain is freely shown,

I feel her arms clench me, strengthened by the knowledge that this is the last time I shall feel them,

I hear her groan

half of weariness and half of pain,

The cry of a heart that has been bruised too many times by goodbye.

 

All of this I hear and they are my songs also,

Melodies of pain and of joy,

All twining together to become one song,

The nomad’s song,

My song.

 

Sarah E. Gilbert

a TCK, in high school when she wrote this poem in 2007

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Third Culture Kids and the Book You Need

Parents of Third Culture Kids, grandparents, schools, friends, aunts and uncles, TCKs yourselves, supporting organizations…you need to read Third Culture Kids.

You need to.

The third edition came out last week, full of all the old goodness but also addresses fresh issues that TCKs face today: from interacting with technology to facing cultural complexity. There are resources for parents and educators and kids themselves.

I reread this book regularly.

Marilyn Gardner posted an essay, in response to the publication of this new edition and I highly recommend you read it here. She writes about the joys and griefs, celebrations and losses, advantages and unique challenges of life as a TCK and as a parent of TCKs.

I will also repost an oldie, by Ruth Van Reken herself, about who are Third Culture Kids but if you don’t have time to read so many essays, just go get the book: Third Culture Kids

And Marilyn’s books as well: Between Worlds and Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith

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Ruth grew up in Nigeria as a USA citizen with an American dad who was born and raised in Persia (now Iran), she raised her own children in Liberia and her first grandchild was born in Ghana.

She says, “This topic is obviously important to me. However, because the term itself often seems to lead to confusion, I thought it might be good to set a clear foundation on who and what we are or are not talking about to hopefully expedite the important discussions that will follow.”

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Who are third culture kids?

In the late 1950s, Ruth Hill Useem, originator of the third culture kid term, simply called them “children who accompany parents into another culture.” While she did not specifically say so, all those she originally studied were in another culture due to a parent’s career choice, not as immigrants or refugees. Dave Pollock later defined TCKs as those who have “spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).” He then went on to describe them by adding “Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

This descriptive phrase seems to be part of where some confusion rests. It is absolutely true that any given TCK or by now adult TCK (ATCK) often personally incorporates various aspects of his or her life experiences into a personal world view, food preferences, or cultural expectations. That’s why many TCKs and ATCKs relate to the metaphor of “being green” that Whitni Thomas describes in her lovely poem “Colors.” There she writes how she feels both yellow and blue in her different worlds but wishes there was a place to “just be green.” Ironically, many TCKs do feel “green” when with others of like experience, as Pollock describes. This is where they don’t have to explain this desire to be both/and rather than being forced to choose an either/or identity.

Other TCKs easily understand because many feel the same way, no matter which country their passport says is “home” or which countries they have lived in. But putting various pieces of different cultures together is not the third culture itself, although it is a very common (and wrong) way many describe it.

What is the “third culture”?

If the third culture isn’t a mixing and matching of various cultural pieces, what is it? Another common misconception is that somehow it means something related to the “third world.” Or that it measures the number of countries or cultures someone has lived in. Many have said to me, “Well, I must be a third, fourth, or even fifth culture kid because I’ve lived in…” and they list the extraordinary number of places they have lived or the cultural complexities within their family structure.

Perhaps having a simple definition of the original concept of the third culture itself would be helpful. A starting point is remembering that culture is something shared, not an individualistic experience. So how does that relate? Easily! In the late 1950s, two social scientists from Michigan State University, Drs. John and Ruth Hill Useem, originally defined the third culture as a way of life shared by those who were internationally mobile because of their career such as international business, military, foreign service, or missionary work.

The Useems noted those we now call “expatriates” had left the country their passport declared as “home” (the first culture) and moved to host country (the second culture). They noted that this community formed a way of life that was common to them but was unlike either the way they would have lived in their home cultures or how the locals were living in this host land. They called this an ‘interstitial” or third culture. Those who lived in this community may not have shared nationalities or ultimately, the same host cultures but there is much they share.

Then, as now, all who live this globally mobile lifestyle for reasons related to career choices live in a world of truly cross-cultural interactions. Entire worlds and cultural mores and expectations can change overnight with one airplane ride. High mobility – personal and within the community – is the name of the game. There is some level of expected repatriation as compared to a true immigrant who plans to stay. Often there is a strong sense of identity with the sponsoring organization. In time, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem because particularly fascinated with studying the children who grew up in this particular cultural milieu and named them third culture kids or TCKs.

So why do these distinctions make a difference to anyone but a high powered academician? Because it helps us normalize the results of a globally mobile experience for all. In particular, if we understand the difference between the TCK and the third culture itself, we can see more clearly how and why the typical characteristics of the TCK profile emerge. They do not form in a vacuum.

For example, if TCKs are chronically negotiating various cultural worlds in their formative years, no wonder they often become cultural bridges in later life and careers. Interacting with others from various cultures and world views hopefully develops an understanding that there are reasons and values behind how others live and hopefully helps TCKs and ATCKs clarify the reasons they hold the values and practices they do.

On the other hand, if the normal process of identity development occurs in conjunction with how our community sees and defines us as well as our inner perceptions, we can understand why frequent changes of our cultural mirrors can complicate the process of defining “who am I, anyway?” If relationships and the normal attachments that come with them are chronically disrupted by high mobility, no wonder there are often issues of loss and grief to attend to. We can also understand the isolation some TCKs ultimately feel as it seems pointless to start one more relationship if it will only end in another separation.

Better yet, once we have understood the “why” of our common characteristics, we can figure out the “what” we need to do to help deal effectively with the challenges so the many gifts of this experience are being maximized. And then we have to see how we will do those things. That’s the stage we are at now. I call it TCK Phase 2.  All over the place, new books are coming out telling us how to do better school transition programs, how therapists can work more effectively with this population, how parents and educators can work well with adolescents TCKs. I’m sure you will be hearing from many of these emerging experts in the coming blogs.

Personally, however, the reason I feel so passionately about keeping our terms clear is so that as we understand the “why” of the TCK story, we can begin to apply some of these insights and lessons learned to others in our globalizing world who are also living and growing up cross-culturally and with high mobility for countless reasons now than simply a parent’s career choice. But I’ll save those thoughts for another blog when I can hopefully share how lessons learned in the TCK experience relate to other cross-cultural kid (CCK) childhoods as well.

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Ruth’s desire, and mine, for this series, is “the normalizing of experiences and then the empowering of TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.” Follow Ruth on Facebook and keep up-to-date on her writing, speaking, and other offerings of wisdom on her blog Cross Cultural Kids.

Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing updated, 2012, by Summertime Publishing

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