Monday, February 25, 2013

Turning over that TCK leaf

I know this will come as no surprise to you - because most of you interact with them all the time!

But TCKs... third culture kids... are nothing short of amazing. Don't you agree?

bi-, tri-, multilinguists

cultural chameleons

experienced world travelers

flexible, adaptable, go-with-the-flow -ers
(think "flow" with a long o sound!)

fascinating conversationalists

both sophisticated and naive all at once 

kids who still almost always somehow stand out in a crowd, 
even when they try their best not to

I don't think I can think about, talk about, write about or look at them in any way objectively. I don't think I can even try.

I know I'm far more than a bit partial. 

I'm a mom to 8 of these amazing kids and I also teach at an international school where most of the students come from expat families and are TCKs from all over the globe. I've usually have some collection of them hanging out at my house any given day of the week.

As we prepare to head back to the States, one key concern is helping my children prepare for this transition. So lately I've been doing a lot of reading about "re-entry" to the passport country and have been learning a lot about reverse culture shock and what it means to be a "hidden immigrant."

Reverse culture shock isn't a new idea. I've experienced myself. First stepping off the plane, of course I'm exhausted from the stress of packing up, saying goodbye and the marathon of travel, but I'm also excited to be home, delighted to see and visit with people I've missed, experiencing reunions long anticipated - whether it be a dear friend or a favorite restaurant. But then I have to drive on the freeway for the first time and each time an 18-wheeler flies by me at 70 mph (or more), literally just feet distant, my heart  in my throat and my hands gripping that steering wheel as tight as possible - holding my breath and waiting for the truck to make one of the predictably unpredictable maneuvers taxis in town make at least a dozen times every trip to the store. Running to the store to pick up a box of cereal, loaf of bread and some juice for breakfast overwhelms because there are too many choices. And then there's the awkwardness of recognizing that even the very best of the clothes that we brought home look faded, dingy and about 3 or 4 years out of style. No one of those things in and of itself is horribly huge or impossible to handle, but it does leave me daydreaming nostalgic about the comfortable cruise life in my country of service had become, especially as compared to the rushing tumult of what I know should feel normal but instead seems so strange and uncomfortable.

Thankfully, though, that season does eventually pass and I settle back into the rusty but eventually recalled, remembered  and once again mostly comfortable routine of life back in my passport country.

TCKs experience this same sort of reverse culture shock, but there is an additional complication. Whereas for me, adjusting is like getting re-used to a comfy but long unworn old pair of shoes that had been shoved to the back of the closet, the same is not true for my children. For my kids, it will be more like breaking in new pair of shoes. For this crew of mine who much prefers to run around barefoot, I'm foreseeing stubbed toes, blisters and sore feet - both metaphorically and literally.

That is because my kids will be "hidden immigrants." Once back in our home country, they look like they should fit in. They speak the language. But? They think differently about the culture, about many of the things that are normal, expected and assumed to be common and often have some different perspectives on life and the world in general. So they look like they belong. The people around them assume they feel like they belong. But they still feel more like an outsider or a person on the fringe. And it isn't just a matter of re-habituating; they actually must learn new habits and practices.

How do I help my children prepare for this transition? I'll be detailing that more specifically in a few weeks. 

One thing for sure? 

We talk - a lot. I have to be sure there is time for my kids to share what is on their heart.

And I try and listen even more, only rarely offering suggestions or giving advice unless pressed. 

I'm taking notes on those things that they want to talk about and what seems to be a priority to each one. For one, it may be the pets and what will happen. Another is already grieving those friends who aren't here and with whom, there won't be the opportunity for a face to face goodbye. A third has so many thoughts and questions about college and the next step, while our littlest one has no memory of ever having been in our passport country but asks lots of questions and wants to imagine.

How about you?

How do you help your children prepare for the transition to home assignment or a more permanent relocation back to their passport country?

What sorts of things do your children talk about when they contemplate leaving and returning to their passport country?

Other posts in this series of preparing to leave the field:


  1. This is so great, Richelle. I am thinking of and praying for your amazing family and the major transitions coming up. I love how much you talk/listen to your kids in things like this. They are blessed to have you as a mother!

    We are just stepping into the reality of TCK life as our kids are just now getting old enough to realize that they are different, both here in Russia, and "home" in the US. Our re-entry struggles are minor since we only go back for shorter trips and our kids are all ages 7 and under(things like helping them know what to expect when going to American Sunday school, getting used to American food, understanding that the communal attitude of toy sharing that we have on the playground in Russia doesn't exist in the same way in the US...). Here, though, they are starting to realize that they have to work a lot harder just to be "normal," especially in their schools. The oldest two attend Russian kindergarten and first grade, and there is no such thing as Russian as a Second Language and they are the only non-native Russian speakers in their classes. We've been helping them realize that they have a lot to be proud of as they navigate school in Russian as non-native speakers. This has helped because they often don't seem to grasp why things can be so hard. They don't know anything different, so they don't even recognize the extra effort required of them to do the basics as compared to their Russian friends. It has been encouraging for them to realize that they are learning and doing well, despite some unique hurdles in their lives. These issues have been some of the starting point of helping our kids understand who they are as TCKs.

    1. i think the craziest part of the challenge for us is that our kids span the gamut, really: ages 4 to 17 and a whole bunch in between. it is different for each age, as well.

      our oldest 6 have all spent time in local schools - but here everything is french as a second language because most kids first language is a tribal one. so in that sense, they were in pretty much the same boat.

      i think it is hard as they realize they are different. but it is also hard when they realize they aren't different, as well. we saw that in one of ours, when she switched over to the expat international school after attending local schools or school as an mk back in the states. she didn't like blending in so much! our oldest has struggled with college choices - at first he was leaning towards one where he knew he'd know some of the other mks attending. he finally went with one that had the better academic program for what he wants for the future - but he knows that that comes with a cost. praying it has been the right choice.

      i love listening to my kids as well - i think i get so much more from our conversations than even i have a clue. after His Word, God speaks to me most often through these kiddos.

      thanks for your sweet, encouraging words, ashley.

  2. I love the way someone put it, "When we are on the plane to America, my husband and I are going home. When we are on the plane back to Turkey, my kids are coming home." Richelle, I think talking with your kids is the best thing to do! Bless you while you seek to do that with 8 of them!!!

    When we went home for our first-ever year long furlough 3 years ago, my kids were dreading it. My daughter cried every night our first month back stateside. I listened to her until I thought I'd go crazy from exasperation! But amazingly, they did adjust and ended up having a great year. I got my kids involved in church youth and other activities as quickly as possible to get them involved in life stateside.

    1. that is true. my older kids struggle with the fact that there are parts they call home in both places, but i do think life in africa feels more comfortable.

      we did the shorter, more frequent furloughs at first - but the mere fact of moving a family our size that frequently made it totally not a good idea for us. :-)

      we also encourage our kids to get involved - but it is a bit of a balance between encouraging involvement and recognizing their need for retreat and space as well.

  3. I guess we get out a bit easy because our trips back are shorter--only a couple of months. We still have issues with adjusting, but knowing it's for a fixed time helps everyone keep it in perspective. "We only have a few more weeks, we can do this!" etc. Because our kids are teen girls, the reverse shock is in how much emphasis their peers are putting on guys and fashion and girl drama. And trying to catch up to current events like singers or movies or TV shows that all their friends will be talking about. A little internet research ahead of time helps us all catch up a bit. (Some things we'd rather remain "lagging behind" on... haha) Prayers for y'all as you dive into it!

    1. having a definite limit/specific date of return or something concrete certainly helps. we've spent much of the past two years not knowing - first if we'd be able to stay and then second, what will happen and how long we'll be back in the states. so we've definitely spoken frequently with our kids on this - bringing up the topic, but then letting them lead the conversation if they want to talk.

      my girls show nothing but disdain for the boy crazy culture they run into in the states - as well as all of the concern about clothes and specific styles, etc. thankfully, at least with the oldest two, they are quite comfortable in their own skin and seem to have found a niche that they like the person God is making them to be, eccentricities and uniqueness all rolled into one. fb has also been a great tool because sometimes, it allows their two worlds to mix and cross.

      thanks for those prayers!

  4. Hey guys, I just found this blog although I have known Ashley since we were both newly marrieds! I would appreciate any advice as we are going on our first real furlough in April through late August . My kids will go to American school as it is required for them to advance to the next grade in Bosnia. Help!


    1. Hi Taylor ~

      Does this mean that your kids will only be in school April - June of this year while you are on furlough? And what are your kids' ages?