I was an expat wife: Why being a Third Culture Kid sucks (sometimes)
Growing up abroad opens many doors but, as Maria Foley discusses, living between cultures isn't always the easiest path.
An international lifestyle involves a balancing act between gains and losses. While Third Culture Kids reap the benefits of expat life - including exotic travel, linguistic competence, and cultural adaptability - these global nomads are also confronted with problems that are unique to the TCK experience.
TCKs ask "where do I belong?"
Immersion in multiple cultures throughout childhood fosters superb cross-cultural skills and an ability to effortlessly adjust to new situations. Unfortunately for some TCKs, these useful traits are acquired at the cost of getting to know their home culture - and in some cases, their native language. This cultural void becomes a problem when TCKs return to their passport country for home leave, and especially when they repatriate. In fact, one of the biggest problems facing TCKs is their nagging sense of rootlessness.
In the book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds (which you should read immediately if you haven't already done so), David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken write that "home connotes an emotional place - somewhere you truly belong." Fifteen-year-old Bilal, a Pakistani TCK who has spent half his life in Dubai and Canada, couldn't agree more. "It doesn't matter where you're living," he told me. "If you're with your family, you can call it home."
Third Culture Kids wonder "who am I?"
The sensation of dread many TCKs experience when asked "where are you from?" stems from their impression that they're growing up between cultures. While they do feel intensely connected to their host countries, they don't necessarily feel they belong completely to any single culture.
The flip side of their amazing adaptability, according to Pollock and Van Reken, is their inability to switch off their cultural radar: consciously or not, they're always checking to make sure their behaviour is culturally appropriate. "In the end," write the authors, "TCKs may adopt so many personas as cultural chameleons that they don't know who they really are."
Searching for a place in the universe is part of the human condition. This particular crisis of identity, however, is especially widespread among Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs). Erin, a 16-year-old Canadian who has lived in Europe and Asia, feels this keenly. "Every time you leave somewhere, you say goodbye to the person you could've been," she explains. "No one knows every part of me, because I show a different side in every place I've lived."
Not only are TCKs confused by what Van Reken and Pollock call "the value dissonances that occur in the cross-cultural experience," but they're often forced to deal with conflicting values within their own families. With their seemingly infinite capacity for adjusting to novel environments, children far outpace their parents when it comes to cultural integration.
Bilal's experience with the clash of generations is familiar to many TCKs: "You move to this country and it's completely different from the last place [you lived in]. You want to fit in, but as you adapt, your parents have trouble understanding you, because you've changed. So the closer you get to your friends, the further you move away from your parents."
TCKs may have trouble making plans
It's not unusual for TCKs to feel that their lives are beyond their control. "You're left feeling utterly powerless about the direction your life is taking," says Erin. The unpredictability and instability of expatriate life cause many Third Culture Kids to stop looking forward to upcoming events because the announcement of the next move may well upset all their plans. "I do find it hard to make lasting commitments," Erin confesses. "Every plan I make for the future feels like a promise I'm going to break."
Unresolved grief is common when TCKs move on
Leaving friends behind is never easy, even in a world where technology and social networking make staying in touch as simple as pointing and clicking. Leaving a beloved place is similarly wrenching. Yet grieving TCKs aren't necessarily encouraged to express their sorrow. In the chaotic atmosphere of an international move, it may seem there isn't time to properly deal with children's emotions. Once in the new country, the process of acculturation takes up all available energy, and the heartache is once again pushed aside.
Children - even those as aware and communicative as TCKs - aren't always able to articulate their grief. Sometimes they choose to suffer in silence because they recognize their parents are preoccupied with their own issues regarding the move. But often Third Culture Kids simply don't grasp the fullness of their loss. It might be hard for children to understand that what they're mourning is the unfulfilled potential of a life that's no longer theirs.
Relocating every couple of years requires constantly dismantling and rebuilding entire lives. Yes, it sometimes sucks, and few TCKs emerge completely unscathed from the experience. But I'm more convinced than ever that their unique set of skills can make them leaders in our increasingly globalized world.
Maria Foley is a Canadian who lived and raised a family as an expat for many years. Aside from writing for Suite 101, Foley still writes about her expat life on her blog, I was an expat wife, and is currently working on a book about overcoming the challenges of repatriation. You can follow her on Twitter at @iwasanexpatwife.
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