Today, Boston College had an orientation specifically for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Expatriate kids are finally getting the attention they deserve! I was delighted to give the key-note address. I presented some findings from my research on TCKs, which explores the factors that affect psychological well-being, but also some personal stories and some food for thought.
I’d like to share a few of the take-home points. These do not come from research or statistical analysis, but are ideas that I have been thinking about for a while.
Treat repatriation like an assignment ~ What would happen?
Third Culture Kids are great at adapting, except, it seems, when it comes to repatriation. Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists all suggest that the heavy expectations of going “home”—only to find a place does not feel like home—can make repatriation very hard. I’ve often wondered if TCKs would fare better if they treated repatriation more like an assignment, even if only as a mental tool to deal with difficult situations. Maybe it would be easier to use the adaptation skills they learned on previous assignments to deal with the move. If a TCK expects Americans to be “foreign,” would it be as difficult to make friends? Of course, all the issues would not disappear (i.e. people might still wonder why he or she is using “lift” instead of “elevator”), but maybe a TCK would not mind quite as much.
National and Communal Identity ~ A Matter of Perspective
There are two aspects of identity that I’d like to highlight: nationality (in the sense of national identity) and a sense of belonging (communal identity). Obviously the two concepts overlap; nationalistic people are probably more likely to feel a sense of belonging to their country. For instance, during the last election, I was proud to be an American and felt a strong sense of community with Americans living in Canada. However, national and communal identity CAN be mutually exclusive.
Third Culture Kids may have a strained relationship with their national identity; I’ve interviewed TCKs who express feeling especially American while abroad, only to feel completely foreign in the United States. Some continue to call themselves American and really believe so, while others only call themselves American only because “it’s the easiest answer that raises the fewest questions.” Sometimes it helps to take a different perspective on national identity—some of the interviewees refer to themselves as TCKs or Global Nomads, or simply say, “I’m nationally challenged… because Americans seem to like the ‘challenged.’” They have a positive view of their background that takes into account their international experiences. A TCK’s national identity may take time to develop, and that’s okay! Chances are, their sense of national identity will be a much deeper one than most.
Regardless of their national sense of identity, TCKs can still feel a sense of belonging in their community through their religious beliefs, leisure activities or sports clubs. In this high-tech age, courtesy of Facebook and DIY websites, there are even online TCK communities. (In the past, finding a TCK community was especially difficult; after repatriation, TCKs spread out and often become invisible, or “hidden immigrants”). Finding a community, a group of people with a shared interest, can help a TCK settle in and give them a support network. The point is not to connect with other Americans or non-Americans, but to connect. At the end of the day, we are all people.
TCKs might need extra support, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. By the time a TCK is 19, she or he will have had more than a lifetime of experiences to absorb and process. It’s not going to be easy. More and more, counselors and advisors are becoming aware of TCK issues. TCKs should not be afraid to use counseling services offered at universities and colleges to help deal with any issues they may face.
Every person takes a unique journey… You might as well enjoy yours!
TCKs have amazing opportunities to experience the world, traveling, understanding new cultures and gaining different viewpoints, but all that can be hard to remember during difficult times. Take time to remind yourself of the good times you’ve had abroad and the benefits you’ve reaped from living a global life.
~ A special thank you to Laura Saylor and Boston College for inviting me to speak! ~