When it became apparent that our family would be moving back to Canada after five years abroad, I set out to prepare my daughters for yet another big change in their lives. I encouraged them to talk about their feelings, doing my best to address their concerns and assuring them that their conflicted feelings were entirely normal. Together, we visited the people and places we knew we’d miss, took lots of photos, and said our goodbyes.
To my delight, my girls handled repatriation with aplomb, segueing easily from a dynamic lifestyle to a decidedly more static one. I half expected as much — kids are so adaptable, right? — but I held my breath anyway, not daring to exhale until the six-month mark, by which time it was clear they were adjusting beautifully.
Turns out I was right to worry — it’s just my timing that was off. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that the cracks started to appear on the surface of their “beautiful adjustment.”
My daughters are teenagers now. They careen wildly from elation to despair — often over the course of a single day — with precious few stops at the spaces in between. It’s not always easy to tease apart the different strands that contribute to the drama. How much of this emotional roller coaster is standard teenage angst? How much is related to the TCK experience? And most importantly, at what point should I sound the alarm?
Growing up as a Third Culture Kid has numerous benefits. I’ve already written about how Younger Daughter, whose extreme clinginess earned her the nickname Velcro Baby, blossomed overseas. Both kids exhibit remarkable maturity for their age, and have no trouble moving among cultures in our cosmopolitan city.
But being a TCK is not all sunshine and lollipops. In their book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, Ruth Van Reken and the late David Pollock discuss some less positive outcomes of being a TCK. Here are a few that I’ve noticed in my own household:
Identity Crises. Nothing surprising here: adolescence is a time of trying on and discarding various personas as young people try to determine who they are. But many kids who have spent their formative years between cultures grapple with a profound sense of alienation: identifying with multiple cultures without necessarily belonging to any, they’re neither fish nor fowl. Repatriating can intensify this feeling, since society at large expects TCKs to reintegrate seamlessly into their home culture, fitting neatly into the slot they vacated when they moved abroad. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t even realized Elder Daughter was struggling with this issue until she described her Me-Collage project, in which she laid bare her uncertainties as part of a school assignment.
Trouble Fitting In. Norma McCaig, the founder of Global Nomads International, referred to repatriated TCKs as “hidden immigrants,” a term that beautifully captures the disconnect between their outward appearance and what goes on inside. One of my girls, for example, is drawn to the immigrant kids at school — people who don’t look like her, but share her sense of outsiderness. Long after returning TCKs have figured out how to look, sound, and act like their peer group (or fake it, something TCKs are particularly good at), they might still find themselves sticking out like a sore thumb. They can’t help it: all those diverse cultural inputs have rewired their brain in such a way that their values, attitudes — maybe even their thought processes — don’t always follow the curve.
Lack of Commitment. Expats are a nomadic bunch, and sometimes expatriate life feels like a never-ending series of goodbyes. TCKs become so used to friendships ending abruptly that they may eventually begin to protect themselves by holding back in their relationships, unwilling (or unable) to commit completely. Even planning for the future feels tentative for kids who are never sure where they’ll be six months from now. That gut feeling doesn’t magically disappear just because the passport’s been retired; it affects repatriated kids as well.
Unresolved Grief. With every move, the losses pile up. Repatriating is a 3-for-1 deal: losing not only the people, places, and experiences of the last location, but also an entire way of life and a part of one’s identity. Because grief is a complex emotion that presents in many different forms, parents aren’t always aware of the depth of their child’s suffering. The child may not even understand that the feelings she’s experiencing — anger, sadness, and helplessness, among others — stem from mourning what’s been lost and what might have been. That unresolved grief can develop into depression is something every expat parent should know and guard against.
It’s a rocky road from childhood to adulthood, and nobody gets a free pass. My kids have stumbled, it’s true. But they’ve picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and continued on their journey. I’m so proud to be their mom.