7 Thoughts for Graduating TCKs {A Life Overseas}

by Elizabeth

Dear Graduating Senior,

This spring I hugged you. I cried with you. I said goodbye to you. And then I looked into the faces of your parents as they said goodbye too. How can I express the depth of my love for you and your parents? I don’t know. All I know is that if we were sitting down to coffee again, these are the things I’d want to tell you.

They’re the things I’ve mostly stumbled across on my journey as an Adult Third Culture Kid, though they’re by no means comprehensive or applicable to all people. Much like every other human on the planet, I’ve had to sort through my childhood as an adult, and these are the things that have helped me along the way. I hope they help you too.

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1. IT’S OK (AND NORMAL) TO HAVE DELAYED ISSUES

When you were young, home was where mom and dad were (or perhaps where grandma and grandpa were), and most likely, you were almost always with one of those people or in one of those places. But TCK angst is something that tends to catch up to people later in life. That’s the way it was for me, anyway.

Issues of home, belonging, and identity are all higher level, more complex topics. And now that you’re launching out on your own, your old idea of “home” probably won’t be as accessible. The Third Culture world of your childhood will be out of reach, and these issues might come crashing down on you. All of this is OK.

Maybe you felt settled in life before, but feel unsettled now. Maybe you thought life was good or even great before, but feel lost now. Maybe you were part of a happy, healthy family as a child and now find yourself dealing with some thorny emotional issues as a young adult. Don’t worry; it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.

Or perhaps you’ve already experienced a lot of transition and upheaval in your life, and you’ve already had to grapple with issues of belonging, identity, and home. That’s ok too. You’ll probably still find that TCK issues pop up in your life over the next several years, often when you’re not expecting them. This is normal. It’s part of the process of growing up. I just don’t want you to be surprised by it.

2. SYSTEMS ARE A HELPFUL LENS

Growing up as a military kid, I didn’t have a vocabulary for what was happening in my life. For example, why was civilian life so different and so hard for us?? Answer: because we had suddenly exited a military system (or culture) and entered a non-military one. I didn’t know that back then, but I know it now, and the idea of viewing the TCK experience through the lens of a system has been very helpful to me.

This is one way to explain the idea: your parents made a conscious choice to enter a system (whichever system it was), but much of your TCK experience was then dictated by that system. Even graduating from high school and having to leave your childhood home — as painful as that can be — is dictated by the system you’re living in. You can even be part of more than one system. There’s your third culture system with other TCKs. Then there’s your parents’ organization’s system. And there are probably more.

Being able to see my life as part of a system (or systems) with a lot of moving parts has allowed me to look at some of the TCK issues I’ve faced as an adult without faulting my parents. Yes, the many moves were traumatic for me (and in ways I didn’t realize, feel, or fully understand until I was an adult), but I don’t see that trauma as being inflicted on me by my parents. Yes, they chose the military, but it wasn’t their fault when the military moved us mid-school year. It wasn’t their fault when kids at my new school didn’t accept me right away. Rather, it was a result of the system I was in.

The ability to have conversations without shame or blame is vital to moving forward. And the more we can understand the systems we’re in, the easier it is to talk about our experiences and make connections instead of disconnections. So remember that you’re living in (and have lived in) a system. Remember that accepting your TCK experience doesn’t mean you have to become estranged from your family. Admitting that you struggle to find belonging or to define home or self doesn’t mean you’re labeling your parents as “bad.” These things are results of your systems.

3. ALL PEOPLE ARE SINNERS, SO REMEMBER TO GIVE GRACE

While it’s true that you don’t need to blame your parents for the challenges of TCK life, it’s also true that they are human beings. They’re sinners, just like you and just like me. And they may have made some mistakes in life as well as in parenting. Forgive them.

There’s no way around the fact that human parents do hurt their human children: all humans hurt other humans. So while you don’t have to carry around some burden of thinking your parents “ruined your life” with their nomadic choices, you probably also need to forgive them for things. All children — mobile and non-mobile alike — are faced with this question.

I love my parents deeply, and they deeply love me, yet we still found it necessary to have these kinds of conversations. We avoided it for a long time, perhaps for fear of conflict or discomfort, but the healing never came until we did. So talk to your parents. Have conversations with them. Process through the painful stuff. Wade into the murky waters, and find healing and wholeness together. Your parents are invested in your continued health and healing, so let them be a part of it.

Your situation may be more complicated than what I’ve just discussed. Someone may have hurt you deeply, even abused you. In that case, you need more than simple conversations with your parents or other trusted adults. You also need to get some outside help. You need to find trustworthy, compassionate counseling. Both Lisa McKay and Kay Bruner have good insight on how to find a counselor in general and while living overseas. I pray you find someone to guide you through the healing process.

4. GET COMFORTABLE WITH PARADOX

As you pack up your boxes and your suitcases, there’s one more thing I want you to pack. That thing is your ability to accept and even embrace paradox. Most likely, your life has been neither one hundred percent good, nor one hundred percent bad. The truth is, TCK or not, no one’s life is one hundred percent one thing. So resist the temptation to spin the story of your childhood in only one direction, either all good or all bad. Don’t pit the good and bad against each other in a futile effort to discover which one outweighs the other.

You don’t have to minimize the bad in order to accept the good. And you don’t have to minimize the good in order to accept the bad. Simply hold them both in your hands and in your heart, and accept them together, side by side, as the things that have shaped you into the person you are and as the things that are continuing to shape the person you are becoming.

We can’t strain the bad out of the good or the good out of the bad; we can’t separate them like cream from milk. They’re a package deal, a paradox, the “and” of this life. So let’s agree together not to outlaw the good or outlaw the bad. Let’s accept all the parts of ourselves, even the parts that make us (or other people) uncomfortable.

5. GRIEVE YOUR LOSSES

About those negative experiences . . . I know this has been talked about before, but it’s so important I’m going to say it again: you’ve got to grieve your losses. List out your losses, and then mourn them. Grieve the hard things that happened to you.

Maybe it was leaving your passport country to move to your host country, or moving between host countries, or within the same host country. Maybe it was losing a close friend or teacher to transition or even death. It’s probably graduating and leaving your host country this summer. Regardless of the cause, there have been so many goodbyes in your life, and you need to acknowledge how hard they’ve been for you.

Grief follows us wherever we go; we can’t outrun it. So spend the time now, on the front end, to grieve your TCK losses. You need to learn this skill because you’ll have to use it again later. We live in a fallen world, and bad things will keep happening to you, whether you’re living cross-culturally or not. That means the need to process grief is ever-present, regardless of who you are or where you live.

Learning to grieve well now will help you for the rest of your life. And you might have to grieve some of your losses more than once. You may feel old losses cycling back around again, and you’ll have to stop and re-grieve them. That’s ok. Be gentle with yourself and grieve them again.

6. GET SOME OUTSIDE HELP: TCK COUNSELORS AND MENTORS

I personally used to think something was wrong with me. Why did I have all these problems fitting in? Why did I feel so rejected all the time? I thought the problem was me. Then — and this only happened a couple of years ago with a counselor who specializes in TCKs — I began to see that the trouble I had fitting in was a consequence of something that happened to me.

It wasn’t me that was the problem; it was all those moves and having to fit in someplace new over and over and over again. But learning how to fit in takes time, and there’s always a period of uncertainty before friends are made and acceptance is granted. I cannot even explain how much that realization helped me. I felt less like a broken object and more like a person who’d had experiences that shaped me but who wasn’t inherently and eternally screwed up. I had previously faced a lot of insecurity and social anxiety in my life, but when I started seeing their roots in my nomadic childhood and addressing them that way, the fear and insecurity stopped trailing me so doggone much.

Likewise, you may need a counselor who is familiar with the TCK world. In fact, in her book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile, author and counselor Lois Bushong tells us that a counselor who is not familiar with TCK issues may not know how to treat an adult TCK struggling with depression. In actuality, he or she is probably dealing with unresolved TCK grief, a completely normal response to a globally mobile childhood. (Incidentally Lois is also responsible for my understanding of systems.) So if you are in any way “stuck” in your emotional, mental, or spiritual life, consider finding a counselor who understands TCK life. 

Counseling has been massively helpful in my life, both for TCK-related issues and non-TCK-related issues, and I highly recommend counseling to all people who are breathing. But sometimes you just need someone to talk to, someone who will listen to you and empathize with you and even pray for you. Just talking to an older, wiser adult TCK whom you trust can be very helpful in sorting through your thoughts and feelings. In fact, I’ve done that a lot with Marilyn Gardner, fellow writer and editor on this blog. So if you do nothing else, find a fellow TCK friend to talk to.

7. YOU SHOULD PROBABLY EXPECT SOME FLARE-UPS

I can give you all the advice in the world — advice you might even follow — but you might still turn around one day and be taken by surprise at the intensity of your feelings of loss and isolation and lack of home and belonging. When this happens to me, whether it’s triggered by the yearly May & June goodbyes or by feeling the sting of some rejection, my husband usually asks me, “Is your TCK acting up again?”

Yes, I tell him. The answer is almost always yes. Yes that my TCK is acting up again. Yes that events from my childhood creep into my adulthood. Yes that from time to time issues I thought were settled and resolved feel suddenly unsettled and unresolved.

But simply naming it can take the edge off the pain. Then I can go back to the truths I’ve learned about myself and about God. And you can do that too. When you find your TCK acting up again, name it. Grieve what you need to grieve, and then remind yourself of the truths you’ve learned over the years. Be kind to yourself when this happens, and remember to give yourself some time to recover.

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Even though there was pain, I don’t regret my TCK experience. For me every experience (in the end) brought me closer to Christ. Though at times it might have seemed a wandering path, every wound was a road leading straight back to God. The relationship I have with God primarily because of painful TCK “issues” is something I wouldn’t give up for anything.

So take heart. If you let them, the questions of home, belonging, and identity that your TCK childhood has asked you to answer can take you deeper into the heart of God than ever before. If you’ll take the time to look for Him, you’ll find Jesus on the other side of every question you have. Only Jesus can help you live an unhindered life. His is the face of love, and He is the answer to every question you’ll ever ask. So go with Him: there is redemption on this road.

Originally appeared at A Life Overseas.

Failing at Fatherhood {A Life Overseas}

Jonathan is over at A Life Overseas today, talking about how moving abroad ruined his parenting.

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I sat on the floor, weeping.

I was two whole days into living abroad, and I was already losing it.

Those tears portended more, and in our first year overseas, the thing that knocked me down the most, the thing that discouraged and distracted and depressed me the most, was the sense that I was failing at fatherhood.

I loved being a dad. It was a very core part of my identity, and something I really cherished. Moving to Cambodia, I had expected cross-cultural stress. I had expected transition tension and unmet expectations. I had even expected conflict with other missionaries and nationals. But I never thought I’d feel like my identity as a father was being shredded up and burned in the furnace of a cross-cultural move. That was a surprise.

We moved overseas when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three.

I suppose my fathering style could have been characterized as, um, B I G. I loved playing with our kids in wide open spaces, throwing things, kicking things, climbing things. We played loud and we took up a lot of space, and that’s how we liked it.

And then we moved to a concrete box with bars on the windows in an urban capital of a developing country. No grass. No yard. No large spaces.

For me, the shift from wide open spaces to urban jungle was rough. I had to adjust, but first I got depressed. Often, it’d happen on a Saturday; I’d wake up just wanting to go outside and throw a football with my kids.

And with the clarity of thought that overwhelms at times like this, I felt like I had moved from a garden to a prison. A prison that was 95 degrees and thick with humidity!

I had traded acres of green for walls of grey. En Gedi for Sheol.

I watched my kids hang from metal bars on windows when they used to hang from giant limbs on oaks. They were happy, but I was dying.

I missed being able to step outside and kick a soccer ball. I missed our fire pit on cold autumn nights. I missed our porch swing. I missed our yard. I missed the way I used to father.

But thank God the story doesn’t end there, with a depressed dad missing what once was. No, the story definitely doesn’t end there…

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Particle Physics Finally Explains Third Culture Kids! {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today, offering a science metaphor for Third Culture Kids (and anyone who lives or has lived cross-culturally).

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Some of you know I’m a science lover. Our friends back in the States know this too, and a couple times a year they send us a package with their old science magazines (along with other treats). I love Magazine Arrival Day.

Earlier this year I cracked open the September 2014 issue of Discover magazine and read about neutrinos – tiny, subatomic particles I don’t even pretend to understand. I’m a chemist, for goodness sake, not a physicist. My scientific understanding only goes down as small as protons and electrons, and not a quark smaller. Neutrinos are smaller than that, and also, extremely secretive.

As I read (largely uncomprehendingly) through the article, one particular section caught my attention, and I paused. Are we sure we’re talking about tiny subatomic particles here?? Because to me, this paragraph sounded more like the description of a fellow Third Culture Kid than anything else. Or, to enlarge the conversation a bit, it sounded like a Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) or Third Culture Adult (TCA) — terms I first read about in Lois Bushong’s insanely helpful Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere.

Finish reading here.

A Prayer For My Third Culture Kids

Earlier this week I shared my expat parenting philosophy on Velvet Ashes. Today I’m linking up with The Grove on Velvet Ashes with a prayer for my TCKs. ~Elizabeth

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I remember reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond together and feeling such a kinship with the main character Kit. She’d lived a life of privilege with her wealthy English grandfather on the island of Barbados, but when he died, she discovered his large debts. In order to pay them all, she then sold all his belongings.

After that she didn’t know what else to do, so she booked a passage to New England, where some of her Puritan relatives lived. Her cousins’ conservative lifestyle and religious customs were completely alien to her. When the ship docked on the shores of Connecticut, Kit realized “There was something strange about this country of America, something that they all seemed to share and understand and she did not” — a TCK moment if ever I saw one.

Kit suffers intense culture shock. She’s already grieving the loss of her grandfather, and she now doesn’t fit into Puritan culture. In some ways she’s even rejected by the community. She doesn’t understand their religion or their worldview, and friends are hard to find. Her uncle is particularly cold towards her, and she’s never performed such difficult, backbreaking labor before. New England winters are brutally cold and long. She misses leisurely tropical island life in Barbados: the heat, the sunshine, swimming in the ocean, her grandfather’s extensive secular library.

But she grows to love her extended family. She even grows to love the beautiful fields nearby. Towards the end of the book, Kit attends a wedding. She thinks about how she doesn’t fit in in New England, even though she loves the people and the place: “An almost intolerable loneliness wrapped Kit away from the joyous crowd. She was filled with a restlessness she could not understand. What was it that plagued her with this longing to turn back?”

wbbShe had previously decided to return to Barbados and search for work there, but as she continues reflecting on both her old life and her new life, she realizes she can’t go back to the way life was with her wealthy grandfather. Her two cousins have both fallen in love, and she realizes that she has as well — only the man she loved wasn’t a Puritan permanently rooted to the Connecticut soil. He was a sailor, a migratory man, a man of good character, a free spirit like herself. And he loved her back. “Home” for her would be anywhere he was. Marrying him would mean continually traveling between Barbados and Connecticut, always on the move, but always with him. Literally, and not just figuratively, she was going to live in the In Between.

Our Sonlight curriculum chose this novel for its relation to the Salem Witch Trials in early American history, but for me it turned out to be a metaphor for the life of the TCK. Crossing cultures, never completely identifying with one culture, never fully belonging, always grieving a loss of some sort, but needing, so desperately needing, someone to love, care for, and understand her. So with that story in mind, I offer this prayer:

 

My child, I’m well aware that in this life, not everyone gets married.

But should you happen to marry, first and foremost I pray you will marry a fellow lover of Jesus.

And then — oh then I pray you will marry someone who feels at home in the In Between spaces, who knows how to live in the margins of life, who’s comfortable crossing over and blending in, even if never quite fully.

I pray you will marry someone with a wide view of the world, who doesn’t think you’re crazy for your wide view, either.

I pray you will marry someone who looks to God for full identity and belonging, someone who will understand your need to do so as well.

I pray you will marry someone who understands the pain of separation and of goodbyes, someone who shares your yearning for heaven.

I pray you will marry someone who understands that love is the best kind of medicine for a hurting heart and who knows how to give it.

That person doesn’t have to be a TCK, though they might be. Your Papa isn’t a TCK, but he understands loss and living in the fringe. He understands love and nuance.

So I pray for you to experience what I have experienced myself: that your heart will be fully understood and accepted, fully loved and wanted, fully celebrated and cared for.

I pray you will have many years of adventure together, tasting of a perfect heaven here on a very imperfect earth, each year growing ever closer to our God and to each other.

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“God is Disappointed With Me” {A Life Overseas}

Elizabeth is over at A Life Overseas today, continuing her series on Timothy Sanford’s book “I Have to be Perfect” (And Other Parsonage Heresies). Whew! These last three lies are intense. Don’t miss the end of the post where she offers several resource ideas for combating these lies.

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I grew up hearing sermons about the “goodness and severity of God” and about God not hearing the prayer of the sinner. Girls Bible study times were filled with questions like, “If women are to remain silent in church, is it a sin to whisper in church to ask someone the song number if I didn’t hear it announced?” and “How long should my shorts be?” So by the time I entered ministry at the age of 19, no one had to tell me I needed to be perfect; I already knew I needed to be perfect. And not only did I know I needed to be perfect, I knew everyone else needed to be perfect as well.

At the same time, I knew everyone wasn’t perfect. As a teenager, I knew my church friends were being physically and sexually abused at home, but no one would ever dare talk about that at church, where their dads were leaders. This taught me that the families around me weren’t perfect; it also taught me that they needed to appear that way. Furthermore, it taught me that the rest of us needed to treat them as though they were perfect. The appearance of perfection mattered more than actual righteousness.

Those are my stories; your stories will be different. Yet our collective stories may have taught us something dark and devious: that ministry and missionary families are (or should be) holier than everyone else. Our stories may have taught us that in order to serve God, we need to be super human. At the very least, our stories may have taught us that we need to project an image of perfection. Sometimes we extend this expectation to others and become judgmental of their non-perfection; other times we require it only of ourselves.

Finish reading the post here.