I like to re-arrange the furniture. It is one thing that keeps me sane. But my problem is deeper than that.
“In the end, many TCKs develop a migratory instinct that controls their lives. Along with their chronic rootlessness is a feeling of restlessness: “Here, where I am today, is temporary. But as soon as I finish my schooling, get a job, or purchase a home. I’ll settle down.” Somehow the settling down never quite happens. The present is never enough — something always seems lacking. An unrealistic attachment to the past, or a persistent expectation that the next place will finally be home, can lead to this inner restlessness that keeps the TCK always moving.” — from Third Culture Kids by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken
I have finished school. I have a job. I purchased a home. I have a child. I am settled down. Or am I?
I re-arrange the furniture. I plan long elaborate trips all over the world. I pour over airline timetables. I read travelogues.
I lived in Russia for many years with the landlady’s furniture or no furniture at all. It drove me crazy. I would complain to my husband – “When are we going to be able to buy some decent furniture that is comfortable and just be in one place for a while?” I dreamed of living in a comfortable place that was my own where I could just RELAX.
I still dream about it. It is always someplace cozy and small and it is raining outside.
Truth is, I hate the rain. I find it confining.
I have moved 29 times, across town and across the world. It is a pain to move. Deciding what to throw out and what to keep. Purging. I find myself wanting to just throw everything out. When I left Russia 12 years ago we had six suitcases. I moved again eight years ago and even though I threw out half of what I had I still ended up with a truck full. Over the past eight years I have accumulated more stuff. It is the longest I have ever lived in one place and even though I try to clear things out from time to time, I still have way too much stuff.
I am on the move again. Move number 30. What was I thinking?
I have been re-reading “Hidden Immigrants’ by Linda Bell. In this book she interviews people like me who grew up overseas constantly moving. In one section she explores roots – Here Are My Roots. Most of us are not joiners. We don’t get really involved with local communities. We don’t identify with “place”. Where we are is always temporary. Our roots are in our friends and family.
Going back to Switzerland earlier this year felt like going “home” because I re-connected with so many wonderful old friends. People who had similar backgrounds. We didn’t have to explain who we were or where we were from.
“What ties do they feel are important as they enter mid-life?
The answer is people – friends, and often old friends….For it is those old friendships that validate their childhood, reaffirm those places for them and tell them something about who they were at that time. People are real –better than pictures, better than memories. Even if they only connect with these people once a year, or see them very occasionally at school reunions, or write or call them infrequently, these connection are the bedrock of their past.”—Linda Bell
I guess I am having my own flavor of mid-life crisis. I am heading to my roots. I’m going to spend time with family and old friends. This will take me to another city in another part of the country. A needed change and a new adventure.
My son was born in the US state of Minnesota. We were living in Russia at the time. Our first challenge was getting him a passport. We took a bunch of photos of him lying on a white bedspread. He would not be still so we had to work fast. We came up with a few we thought might work and went off to submit our forms. They were rejected. The photos were no good. They had a place in the building where we could try again. I held him up over my head so I wasn’t in the photo and more pictures were taken. Finally we came up with one they accepted. My thought was, he would look completely different in a couple of months so what difference did it make?
At seven weeks I boarded a plane bound for Moscow. It was a 12 hour flight with a layover in Amsterdam. Luckily he slept most of the way and the real up side was he proved to be a ticket to the head of the line at customs. Easiest arrival I ever had.
Dancing in the rain in Switzerland
Over the next six years I dragged him all over Europe. At eight months we went to visit a friend in Finland. We took him with us to see the movie Braveheart and he slept right through it. At 10 months we visited family in the US. At 18 months we went to Helsinki. Later we spent time in France, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. We took a road trip across the Rockies to California. At one point we were sitting in a restaurant in Amsterdam. It was late and we were enjoying a nice meal. There were two men at the table next to us. One of them leaned over and asked, “does your son always sleep at restaurants?”. I looked over and he was fast asleep with his head on the table. My answer was, “Yes he can sleep anywhere”. And he did.
The electric train in St Petersburg
I had some challenging plane trips during his terrible two period but otherwise he was a good traveler.
My childhood was much the same so I didn’t really think anything of it. Children might not remember the details of their early travels but they absorb the experience. They understand they are in an unfamiliar place and need to act differently. They hear people speaking different languages. They learn all kinds of things. I can vividly remember being six in a hotel room in Tokyo and seeing television for the first time. What struck me was I could not understand it. They were speaking a language I did not understand. I grew up speaking five languages, how could it be that there were more?
On a Carousel in Paris
So my child learned to adapt and adjust and deal with things he found unpleasant. He went to a Russian school and hated it because he was the “different” one. When he returned to the US and went to school, again he knew he was the “different” one.
“Although the length of time needed for someone to become a true TCK can’t be precisely defined, the time when it happens can. It must occur during the developmental years – from birth to eighteen years of age. We recognize that a cross-cultural experience affects adults as well as children. The difference for the TCK, however, is that this cross-cultural experience occurs during the years when that child’s sense of identity, relationships with others, and view of the world are being formed in the most basic ways…… no one is ever a “former” third culture kid. TCKs simply move on to being adult third culture kids because their lives grow out of the roots planted in and watered by the third culture experience.”
From Third Culture Kids by David C Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken
After returning the US, my son had other challenges – adjusting to five different schools, his parents’ divorce, and his father’s death. His experience in Russia and traveling around Europe gave him unique tools to cope with these things. His father’s family was Russian and he now embraces his heritage with a balanced view. He knows the hardships that people endure there but he also knows about their rich culture and has memories of the wonderful people who helped care for him.
Nations Friendship Fountain, VDNK, Moscow
Now, as he goes off to college he will have new challenges to face. My main challenge in college was adjusting to my passport country and people I knew little about. My son is better prepared for the transition. He is comfortable with diversity and a wide range of people. He will do well.
My parents are always going through their things and trying to get rid of as much as possible. I was visiting them in April and among the other things my mother gave me was a book I read about 20 years ago. When I first found out about Third Culture Kids and discovered I was part of a tribe I tried to read everything I could find on the subject. Linda Bell wrote and published Hidden Immigrants, Legacies of Growing Up Abroad in1997. She was an Expat raising TCK children.
“The first time I realized I was in over my head was when my four-year old daughter, Amy, came up to me shortly before we were to depart French West Africa for “home leave” in the States.
“Mommy, what language do they speak in Ohio?” she asked. “Will they understand me?”
Right then I knew that “understand” might be the operable word….”
The book grabbed me right away. Linda interviews 13 people who grew up outside their passport country. She has chapters on Culture Shock, Living on the Surface, Here are my Roots, Costing Out the Pain. Her introduction for the section on Here are my Roots resonated with me. She describes it perfectly and it was so comforting to read all those years ago when I was just learning about myself.
” Children who move around a lot soon learn to be a quick study in order to survive. Socially they learn to make the first moves, quickly assess the movers and shakers, observe the group norms, and make friends. During the time internationally mobile children are overseas, they usually enter a kind of socially exclusive bubble where most other children they meet, usually in a school where they share a common language, also move frequently from culture to culture. They all realize their existence within a particular bubble is only temporary and that they, or their friends, will move on in time. Eventually, when these children enter local schools and institutions in their countries of origin, the bubble bursts. The entire social structure resulting from their mobility collapses. Sometimes — for the first time — they meet peers who haven’t moved, haven’t had to make new friend, haven’t learned how to adapt. As we’ve seen already, when internationally mobile children come up against this situation, they tend to withdraw, retreat, marginalize. Not only are they confused about their stays in the new situation, but also by their seeming inability to adapt quickly to it.”
Yep, that was me all right. So how does that tie in to Roots? The chapter is all about people. People are our roots. Family and friends. Most of the interviewees were still good friends with people from high school. Even if they only saw them once a year or once in a blue moon, they were still considered close friends and provided a feeling of “home”. I am that way. I have friends I haven’t seen in 20 or 30 years who I still consider close friends. Whenever I see them, we just pick up where we left off like no time had passed.
This is a book you can pick up and flip to any page and start reading. The last chapter is called Voices and each interviewee tells a story about their life that impressed them or stays with them. A couple of them lived through wars and were evacuated through war zones. I have a couple of friends like that myself. Some talk about how their past influences what they want for their children – tolerance, openness, adaptation skills.
Re-posting from Eclectic Global Nomad – read about Lisa’s one woman show….
By the time I was 18, I had only lived in the United States for a total of three years. When I started college in California, I experienced severe “reverse” culture shock. At the time I had no way of understanding it or preparing for it. Because I had grown up overseas, I had a completely different experience than American kids my age.
When I arrived for my freshman year in college, I talked about traveling around Europe, hiking up Swiss mountains, and living in Africa. My college peers talked about football games, high school proms and television shows I had never heard of. I could not relate to them at all and they thought I was bragging about all the places I had been. It never occurred to me they would think that; to me my life was ordinary. To them I was like an alien landing in their dorm room and talking about visiting the rings of Saturn.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s, married, and living with my son and husband in Moscow, that I discovered a group called Global Nomads. Global Nomads are also called Third Culture Kids (TCK’s). The definition of a TCK is someone who grew up in countries other than their passport-country due to their parents’ jobs. I spent my whole life thinking there was something wrong with me and the founder of the group, Norma McCaig, described me in a detail nobody could have known. McCaig felt everything I felt. She had the same experiences I had. I didn’t think there was another person on earth who understood how I felt. It was truly my “ah ha” moment.
Years later I returned to the US and met Norma McCaig. Through her I learned about an organization that was just getting started called Families in Global Transition (FIGT). This organization, now 15 years old, “promotes the positive value of the international experience, and empowers the family unit and those who serve it before, during and after international transitions. FIGT believes in the capacity of the expatriate and repatriate family to transition successfully, and to leverage the international experience for all of its human and global potential.” (www.figt.org)
That year we took a trip up the Irrawaddy River on a boat that had a small cabin area, but was mostly open-air, with people packed onto it like sardines. We travelled to an elephant camp on Lake Indawgy, about 120 miles southwest of Myitkyna near the Chinese border. The boat stopped occasionally so people could get on and off which gave us a chance to visit a village or buy something from peddlers. We quickly decided exiting the vessel wasn’t worth the trouble because we had to either wade off the boat or try our luck on a treacherous plank.
There were six people in our group and everybody dined with the British captain in his private dining room except me because I was too young to be allowed to sit with the adults. All I remember eating were vanilla wafers and Lipton’s dried tomato soup. Yum.
At elephant camp, we stayed in tents and slept on cots with mosquito nets. I remember it was miles to the outhouse – at night we had to go with a flashlight down a rutted mud road—very scary for a five year old! We watched timber being cut by workers and then hauled by the elephants into the river where it flowed downstream. The elephants all wore wooden bells that were hand-made and had a unique melody. At night the elephants were left to wander the forest, and in the morning the handlers could find their elephants from the sound of the bells.
While kids in the States were probably learning to ride their tricycles, one afternoon I learned to ride an elephant. In order to get up onto its back, we climbed onto its knee and then to its shoulder and up its neck, behind the ears. We were supposed to go down the same way. My mother was impatient and decided it would be quicker to slide down the back, instead of waiting her turn for the elephant’s knee. You should have seen the look on her face. Elephants have long, stiff hair that stung her as she slid down. The highlight of the trip was one of the elephants had just given birth to twins and we spent hours watching them play.
It’s a rainy day here. Pouring down. Humid. Tropical. Wet. Somehow my mind drifted to Norma and this article she wrote and I am re-posting it just because…..
GROWING UP WITH A WORLD VIEW
Nomad Children Develop Multicultural Skills
By Norma M. McCaig
(As appeared in Foreign Service Journal, September 1994, pp. 32-41.)
I can still hear the wind from the dust storm that hit Delhi during the waning days of my trip this May. Powerful images of Tamul Nadu, further south, are equally vivid of 70 picnicking street children from the Madurai and Bethabia orphanage striking unsteady dancing positions and then collapsing in delight around me. Memories of this chance two-hour encounter near my childhood school in Kodaikanal five weeks and a world away from my Virginia home are a source of both pain and wonder. Pain at having said yet another goodbye and wonder at the circumstance that brought me to that moment.
I am acutely aware that had I not been given a childhood overseas, this melange of memories from the old and recent past would likely not exist. But they are indelibly part of my heritage as a “global nomad,” someone who has lived abroad as a child because of a parent’s job. These include the children of diplomats; other government workers, including the armed forces; business people and missionaries.
These children often live a privileged lifestyle, with exotic vacations, servants, large homes and private schooling, but the long-term benefits of this upbringing are unique and more far-reaching. In an era when global vision is imperative, where skills in intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy, and the ability to manage diversity are critical, global nomads are probably better equipped than others. A tendency to view the United States from the perspective of a foreigner is a trait common to many nomads. A nomad who spent much of his childhood in Africa recently commented, “I feel I am an American, but not to the exclusion of other countries, cultures and peoples.”
Carolyn D. Smith, in her 1991 book, The Absentee American: Repatriates’ Perspectives on America, reports that for many adult nomads, living and working overseas is a lifelong goal. “A study of 150 repatriates enrolled in college who had spent at least one teenage year abroad found that none wished to pursue a career exclusively in the United States,” she wrote in the book. More than 50 percent wanted work exclusively or periodically abroad, 12 percent wanted job-related foreign travel, and 74 percent reported that they feel most comfortable with people who are internationally oriented.
Sociologist David Pollock, director of intercultural programming at Houghton College in New York, has studied the personality and psychological adjustment of what he calls “third-culture kids.” He defines them as “individuals who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develop a sense of relationship to all the cultures while not having a full ownership in any.”
These children become “cultural chameleons” early in life keen observers who modify their behavior so they fit in wherever they are. Many actually appreciate diversity, and seek it out as adults. The ease with which young global nomads roam the world can create for them an enhanced world view, a concept validated by the recent research team including sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, who pioneered research on third-culture kids in the early 1960s. Her study-in-progress documents that “About half (47 percent) of those who report volunteer activities include an international dimension.” Global nomads often serve as cultural liaisons and interpreters between U.S. culture and the rest of the world. They are the “prototype citizens of the 21st century,” according to Ted Ward, author of the 1984 book, Living Overseas.
Brian Lev, a Foreign Service child and now a computer network security analyst at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, spent five years in Chile and three years in Belgium with his parents. Although based in Washington, Lev works in an international community and travels abroad frequently. “I sometimes think everyone around me view the world in a terribly simplistic way,” he said. “Even my best friends often shake their heads and change the subject when I find their viewpoint too ethno-or Ameri-centric.” This sense of having the world as a learning ground is very common. Few global nomads interviewed said that they would opt to have been reared in Hometown, U.S.A.
And yet, anyone who has been either a child or a parent overseas knows that it is not uncommon for a global nomad children to feel rootless and out-of-step or marginalized. They sometimes appear indecisive and noncommittal or have difficulty establishing and maintaining long-term relationships. Occasionally these feelings are played out in the form of alcohol or drug abuse, eating disorders, depression or other dysfunctional behavior. Problems may appear during overseas postings, but are more likely to show up in the years between moving from a life abroad to a life at “home” in the United States. Many parents are surprised at the metamorphosis of their compliant, pleasant teenager into a rebellious, petulant, angry, withdrawn and irresponsible adolescent. Even more astonishing, but not necessarily uncommon, is this delayed adolescence in the twentysomething-year-old who is supposed to be beyond that age.
Usually, the Foreign Service or business career family abroad is better educated than the average U.S. family. Useem’s research findings show that 81 percent of grown global nomads earned, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree (vs. 21 percent of the general U.S. population) with fully half completing master’s and doctorate programs. Today only 40 percent of Foreign Service families consist of a married couple with children. Last year a random sampling of Community Liaison Office (CLO) reports suggested that more than three percent of the Foreign Service are single parents and many more are dual-career couples.
Parents go abroad feeling somewhat prepared for duty in a specific place, but many are less prepared to deal with multiple moves on two or more continents and the birth of one, two or four children, perhaps each in a different corner of the globe. Like many globe-trotting parents, their upbringing was probably geographically stable, a relatively monocultural upbringing. Global parents roam the world rearing children without a road map. Extended families and long-trusted friends are often inaccessible. To complicate things further, the children’s grandparents may actively disapprove of the routine uprooting of their grandchildren, spoiling them with an unrealistically privileged lifestyle, and exposing them to constant danger from microbes and terrorists. Other support systems need to be developed to supplant family and friends, such as the networks and resources from the embassy committee.
A unique characteristic of the global-nomad family is the high degree of interdependence of family members. Because the nuclear family is the only consistent social unit through all moves, family members are psychologically thrown back on one another in a way that is not typical in geographically stable families. Close family bonds are common. Siblings and parents may become each other’s best friends. Patterns formed overseas fly in the face of conventional theory about when children leave home, emotionally and physically. Kay Eakin, education counselor at State’s Family Liaison Office, writes, “Many [expatriate] children have gotten used to an international lifestyle and hate to give that up.” These “boomerang kids” have a need for a strong continuing relationship with parents, the only “home” they know.
The strength of this family bond works to the benefit of children when parent-child communication is good and the overall family dynamic is healthy. It can be devastating when it is not. Compared to the geographically stable child, the global-nomad child is inordinately reliant on the nuclear family for affirmation, behavior-modeling, support and above all, a place of safety. The impact, therefore, of dysfunction in this most basic of units in exacerbated by the mobile lifestyle.
Constant unresolved family tension can become chronically debilitating. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, sometimes prompted by adult alcohol abuse or depression, may go unnoticed or unacknowledged by others for a variety of reasons, such as misguided notions about “respecting privacy,” or fear of repatriation or family disgrace with colleagues. Finally, parents may be unaware of abuse of a child by a household employee, sometimes prompted by different ideas of discipline and affection than those of the U.S. family. Good communication between parent and children is key.
When parents step on the plane with their children for a life abroad they become a bicultural family, one which may well be on its way to becoming a multicultural family even when each member holds the same national passport. Why? Because the context of the parents’ upbringing and that of their children may vary vastly. A first child may teethe in Uganda, tie a first shoelace in Belgium and come of age in Thailand. In the process, of course, the child is observing human interaction in a variety of cultural contexts, of which the parents’ is only one.
Cultural influences include schools, the caregiver’s culture, host cultures, the parents’ cultures of origin, the expatriate community culture, and the culture of the sponsoring community, in this case the Foreign Service. Considering the variety of cultural influences on a child at just one post and multiplying these by the three-plus posts, indicates how the children’s hearts, souls, minds and identities are shaped by a multitude of factors.
Brian Lev, now in his mid-thirties, recalls home as “made up of those memories and emotions I have collected over time from which I draw comfort and strength as needed. In effect, home is the place where I can go in my mind where culture is a mix from many places and belonging can be taken for granted. … It’s as if we [global nomads] have replaced the physical home of non-nomads … with an internal home we can go to when we need a respite from the world. I think of us as looking out at the world from a place inside that we share with other nomads.”
Schooling demands close attention from parents. Curricula designed to meet the needs of a specific national school system reflect different academic standards, cultural norms, languages, learning styles and patterns of thinking. Thus children who move from one education system to another need time to adjust and may require tutoring and extra classes. But the adventure-child who is innately more flexible may respond well to, and indeed benefit from, experiencing more than one educational system during a childhood abroad.
However, choosing one system and maintaining it from post to post is of particular importance to a child who finds adapting to new situations and contexts difficult. This includes the learning-disabled child for whom resources at many international schools are limited. In this case, a U.S. boarding school with special facilities is an option to be considered.
The degree to which a child is affected by the host culture depends on the length of stay, the degree of contact with the local culture, and most importantly, the parents’ attitude toward host nationals. Perhaps the strongest connection a child can have to a host country is through a caregiver. Often it is this person who shares the culture’s language, behavior, and, to some degree, values. Of greatest influence on the [expatriate] child is the impact of the [expatriate] community itself . . .
In general, parents can adopt a four-tier strategy for coping with the challenges of raising global nomads. Communication: Keeping the lines of communication open is important, not only between parent and child, but also between spouses. Get the issues out there and work them through. Children are like lightning rods for parental discord and family tension. A 1993 study by State’s Office of Medical Services showed that children who allowed to fully express their feelings and concerns make a better adjustment to moves.
Encourage children to talk about their lives, reactions, feelings, and observations. Learn to accept or challenge what they say in the spirit of developing their skills in critical thinking rather than as a means of judging or controlling them. Gently get them accustomed to communicating with you when times are good, so they will do the same during bad times. Keep reminding yourself about the difference between discipline (guidance) and punishment (power) and the effects of each on parent-child communication.
Collaboration: Give your child as many real choices as you can. Many global nomad children, as do some spouses, feel that they have little control over their lives. For example, withholding knowledge of an impending transfer from children until shortly before the packers come does not spare them pain, it magnifies it. There is no time to adjust to the thought of moving; what should be a normal international move feels more like an evacuation.
Transfers can, in fact, make the global nomad child feel like a piece of luggage carried on and off planes at regular intervals. Whatever life has built up, whatever feelings of attachment have been formed, can seem devalued and considered expendable by parents. Eating disorders, particularly anorexia, are for some global nomads a manifestation of the need to control something in their lives when the stress and ambiguities of an international lifestyle are too overwhelming. Unwillingness or inability to commit or set goals in later adolescence and beyond may be related to early feelings of powerlessness. One way to deal with that is to include the child as much as possible and as early as possible in a family decision-making process at an age-appropriate level.
Continuity: Three elements come to mind, in a addition to the family itself, in considering continuity during a life abroad. These include things (furniture, favorite possessions and toys), photographs and family rituals. Hang on to the first as much as possible from post to post, take lots of the second, and create and maintain a good number of the third. Rituals are the visible signs of your family’s heritage, the glue holding the pieces of former lives together with those found in new places. In our family, we could always count on having waffles on Sunday night, wherever we were. Three decades later, each time we use the little syrup pitchers we each had I am taken back to a different home.
Single parents and tandem couples should tenaciously guard their time with their children. Relying too heavily on a nanny can heighten a child’s sense of abandonment. Although a number of social events may seem to be “mandatory,” take a good look at missing some.
Friendships in a highly-mobile lifestyle sometimes seem short-lived, yet many adults report that the renewal of old friendships is a source of unexpected joy and continuity. To reinforce the notion of maintaining friendships over time and space, on birthdays some parents give their children the gift of a free telephone call to a friend anywhere in the world. Such efforts encourage children to view their life using other than conventional constructs: they are not rootless, they are rooted in a different way through people rather than places.
Global nomads recognize each other. Regardless of passport held, countries lived in, sponsoring agency differences or age, nomads have a sudden recognition of kinship, a sense of homecoming that underlines the powerful bond of shared culture. Universities and colleges, such as George Mason University, Duke University, the university of Virginia and at least 10 others in the United States encourage the forming of global nomad clubs on campus to reinforce this community.
Closure: This is a critical part of the journey. With as many uprootings and replantings as internationally mobile families experience, many parents are either unaware of, unwilling or afraid to address the need for closure good goodbyes before moving on. Yet the reality is that many global nomads go through more grief experiences before the age of 18 than others do in a lifetime.
Sometimes parents struggling with their own feelings of grief find it difficult to address similar feelings in children. But when one’s sense of loss is unacknowledged, a natural emotion process is thwarted. Repeated often enough, it can kick back in the form of diffused depression, anger or another dysfunctional expression.
Well before leaving, parents are urged to talk about the new destination to get them used to the idea of leaving. Giving children permission to express their sadness at leaving their caregivers, treasured friends, pets and places is key, as is sharing your own feelings with them.
Small wonder also, then, that the global nomad child often finds transition to the country of passport to be a startling experience at best. It is at this point that differences in cultures and expectations between parent and child become most apparent. Parents returning to their country of origin are coming home; their children are leaving home. No doubt parents are changed by international travel and experience the impact of reentry, but they are usually on more familiar cultural and geographical ground than their offspring. Children step off the plane “riding on their parents’ mythology,” as global nomad Timothy Dean, now a TV-producer, remarked. Noted another mother, the spouse of a World Bank executive: “For my children, home is just another somewhere.”
Children often feel and function like hidden immigrants when they reach home shores. Because they look and talk as if they should belong, their outlook, actions, and lack of knowledge of local cultural trivia are often bewildering to others who either don’t know they have lived abroad or don’t care. The child is left on the outside looking in, skirting the margins of the group along with the druggies and geeks.
In terms of timing, research indicates that transitions during the early adolescent years from age 12 to 14 can be particularly tough for children. Their re-entry can be made easier by parents and extended family who can accept that these children are really of another culture and who are realistic about how long it will take the children to adapt.
The long-term cultural identity of children presents perhaps the greatest challenge and potential conflict between generations. Foreign Service life dictates that U.S. diplomats maintain their “Americanness” for properly representing the United States. On the other hand, their children are absorbing a wider environment, one that emphasizes cultural flexibility and an expanded world view. Other cultures may fit children’s personalities and values more than does the U.S. culture. Children may also continue to identify with the mobile expatriate life and seek that in adulthood or conversely, they may rebel against such rootlessness and seek a stable stateside life.
“Even now I find myself reacting to the world as a nomad,” says Lev. “I have no room in my basement because I can’t make myself throw away all those perfectly good packing boxes. I still get a really bad case of wanderlust every four years or so, and the dirtiest word I know is ‘goodbye.'”
On a cultural continuum with total identification with the United States at one extreme and total identification as a world citizen at the other, each child may choose to alight at a different point. To name a few: a dual-culture marriage with a partner of a different passport, different race or different religion; a different country of residence (children may not be going “native,” they may be going home); staying in the United States but not feeling fully at home.
Parents having chosen their children’s childhood lifestyle, need to provide affirmation and support as they try to make the pieces fit. As one established adult global nomad put it, “I don’t feel different, I am different.” For global nomads, these feelings are not a phase, they represent a state of being. Provided an environment that acknowledges and values their global background, [expatriate] children can and many will make positive changes in the world.
Growing up as a Third Culture Kid, I never really identified with my home country. I celebrated the holidays of my host country or my school’s country. I grew up in Mexico City and went to a British school. I celebrated the Queen’s Birthday, and Mexico’s Independence day on the 16th of September, and of course the Day of the Dead. I didn’t feel nationalistic about anyplace but was happy to celebrate with everybody. I don’t ever remember celebrating the 4th of July although I do remember dressing up on Halloween a few times. I just didn’t have anything to identify with. I knew very little of US history and even less of its culture.
When I went to live in the US after high school, I was in for a rude awakening and had severe reverse culture shock. It wasn’t until my Junior year in college that I started to learn about the USA. I was living in Boston and a friend took me under wing and taught me about the history of the area and the people who lived there. For the first time I started to feel something for my home country.
The longer I stayed in my home country the more comfortable I became. As I moved from state to state I leaned new things about its diversity. I learned about the holidays and what they stood for. And I learned to criticize what I didn’t like about it.
I continued to travel outside the country with a slightly new perspective. I started to compare other countries to my own and see what the differences and similarities were. I started to appreciate things. I saw that compared to many countries, women in the US were much better off. I learned how important freedom of speech really was. Although this country had a lot of problems and I didn’t always agree with what our government did, I always had the right to express my dissatisfaction openly.
As I grew older, when living overseas, I could be very critical of the US and their foreign policy and many of their actions. But when Fourth of July came around, I always cried overcome by emotion when I heard the Star Spangled Banner.
1. a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.
2. the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.
3. an institution for the homeless, sick, etc.: a nursing home.
4. the dwelling place or retreat of an animal.
5. the place or region where something is native or most common.
1. abode, dwelling, habitation; domicile. See house.
2. hearth, fireside.
For Third Culture Kids or Global Nomads, it is an ongoing topic. The eternal question – where are you from? Where is your home? These are not easy questions to answer. Home is here and everywhere. I am from here and everywhere.
That very last word is my favorite. Asylum. The place where you feel safe. That is where home is. That is where home should be. What makes you feel safe? People you trust. People who love you. Mutual understanding and respect. Comfort. Growing up, my home was always where my family was, unless I was with them, and then it was wherever we were. It didn’t matter if it was a hotel room or a house or an airport. As long as we were together and had a pack of cards nearby, we were at home. A good card game could get us through anything. Some of my fondest memories are of blackouts during torrential rainstorms playing cards by candlelight.
We all continue to search for the elusive “home” but I think we know where to find it when we really need it.
“The strength of this family bond works to the benefit of children when parent-child communication is good and the overall family dynamic is healthy. It can be devastating when it is not. Compared to the geographically stable child, the global-nomad child is inordinately reliant on the nuclear family for affirmation, behavior-modeling, support and above all, a place of safety. The impact, therefore, of dysfunction in this most basic of units in exacerbated by the mobile lifestyle.”
Excerpt from GROWING UP WITH A WORLD VIEW By Norma M. McCaig
**TCK’s are people who lived outside their passport country as a child
Yesterday I went to the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference. I had been looking forward to it for a while. It is a support group for expat families and third culture kids and they have a conference every year where people come together to share their work and ideas and provide information on resources available.
Anyway, I woke up very early because I had about a 45 minute drive and it started at 8 am. I felt awful. I had a scratchy throat, I was achy, I was spaced out. How could this be? A cold? I hadn’t been sick in years. Great! Well, that wasn’t going to stop me. I dragged myself out of bed, dosed myself up with pain killers and hit the road.
The conference was non stop, session to session, from 8 am to 5:30 pm. By the time I got out of there I was exhausted. I left right after the last session and while trying to maneuver downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, I must have take a wrong turn or not taken a turn or something because I was totally lost. I don’t have a GPS in my car but I do have an iPhone. I pulled over and tried to figure out where I was. For some reason I couldn’t get it to find my location. I must have been in a bad area because the maps were loading really slowly and I was not getting results.
So in a panic I called my son. Help! Luckily he was home and guided me to a place I recognized and I made it home an hour later. Needless to say, I went to bed early.
In spike of my set backs and panic attacks, I did have a great day. I met interesting people, attended sessions where I learned new things, and had that warm fuzzy feeling I always get when I’m around my fellow TCK’s.
Here are a few highlights.
The first session I attended was called:
Living Whilst Surviving – an Anatomy of Hope and of What Kept Them Going
This was a story of a family who faced great adversity during war in Europe, were separated, deported, jailed, sent to camps, and yet they had great resilience and managed to keep going during all of it, finding small things to make them happy. “They did not forget, they forgave. They did not say ‘Why me?’, they said ‘What can I do’?” They found ways to make things better.
She transitioned this to her current life as an expat in the Netherlands. The take away I got from this session was about the children. She commented on the expat children in The Hague. They are privileged, with nannies, good schools, all kinds of gadgets – iPods, iPhones, they have drivers, and travel the world. Yet, many of them feel isolated and unhappy. In some cases their mother is unhappy with her situation, living abroad, feeling isolated. This transfers to the children. Often her coping mechanism is to keep the children busy and away from her.
There should be more of a support group for both the wives and the children but nobody wants to talk about it. They feel guilty because they know they are privileged and don’t really have anything to complain about.
A friend of mine refers to these problems as “first world problems”. And she is right.
One thing Eva emphasized more than once was how damaging it is to over book a child. They are constantly busy with dance lessons, soccer practice, piano lessons, French lessons. They don’t have time to themselves. Time to think. Time to dream. Time to imagine. Time to just be.
I wanted to tell her about my son. Many years ago he took a pen that didn’t work and it became his weapon, his gun, his rocket launcher, his airplane, his truck. And all these years, he has spent hours with that pen. It is a joke now because if he loses his pen, we all have to panic and look for it. But it really doesn’t matter, because we can always find another pen that doesn’t work. He has had several.
Let them just be.
The second session I went to was:
In Search of Identity: Awakening your Authentic Self
This was about communication and specifically Neuro Linguistic Programming. Something I had never heard of. What I got out of it was that most of the things we do, we do out of habit. But we can choose to do things differently. So if we look at two different types of people who are trying to communicate with each other, oftentimes there is conflict because they are not communicating on an equal level.
For example, one person is “introverted” and one is “extroverted”. The introvert takes his cues internally. He is very sure of himself and knows what he likes and wants and doesn’t need a lot of external input – i.e. advice, terms of endearment, hugs. While the extrovert takes his cues from the outside and needs a lot of input in order to make a decision or feel good about himself.
If people understand these differences, they can learn to communicate with each other in different ways that reduce conflict.
A very interesting topic but it would take a while to fully understand it (in my opinion).
The third session was:
Unpacking Our Global Baggage for Creative Expression: Writing your TCK Memoir, Solo Show, or Essay
Elizabeth is an actress and writer. She performed a segment of her one-woman multi-character show about growing up as a dual citizen of mixed heritage in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East, and New England. If you live in the LA area, I suggest you go see her (see link). I could identify with most of what she said.
In high school I spent a long weekend in Rome with my best friend, Pearl. We hopped a train in Lugano and arrived in Rome after dark. Pearl had grown up in Rome and her godmother was going to put us up. We had to wait a while before our ride showed up and the Italians were swarming us trying to fix us up with a cheap hotel. A woman who was traveling with us went off with one of them. We wondered if we would see her again.
We wandered around Rome for a couple of days seeing the sights. St Peter’s, the Pieta, the Vatican museum, the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum. But our most favorite thing to do was walk down the Via Veneto and eat gelato.
On one occasion we ended up at the Spanish Steps. We were thinking about climbing them when this guy came up to us and said,
“Where are you from?”
Not a good question to ask us. We were both Third Culture Kids who had lived our entire lives moving from one country to the next. Pearl had grown up in Rome, was half Japanese, and currently called Tokyo home. I had already lived on five continents and currently called Nigeria home.
“We’re not from anywhere”
“Come on, you have to be from somewhere. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Tokyo”
“I’m from Nigeria”
“Okay…. Hey I’m from California!! The greatest place on Earth! California is the best!”
Pearl and I looked at each other, turned, and walked away. The last place we wanted to be was with a loud American who though he was great.
So we didn’t climb the Spanish Steps.
But we did enjoy an amazing 5 course meal in a packed restaurant where we never heard a word of English. I remember the tortellini soup to this day.