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The Hidden Shame of the TCK

TCKs are often referred to as cultural chameleons. They have a wonderfully complex ability to morph into the present culture, environment, and situation. They blend in in a way that makes them look like a native, though they are often anything but.

This trait is a valuable form of protection. It keeps them from always looking like the outsider (though it may not keep them from constantly feeling like one) and it helps them to be successful and accepted in any culture.

I have noticed in my work with TCKs, that it is typically between the ages of 13 to 25 that they take on the most chameleon-like form. In this time period, they are uncomfortably aware of the peering eyes of those around them (real or perceived) and they are simultaneously not yet comfortable in their own skin.

OR, they don’t even know what their own skin looks like because it has changed colors so often.

While this adaptability can be helpful, I have realized in my own life that the reason behind it, especially during those years, went far deeper then just wanting to fit in.

I was a chameleon because I knew that to be exposed, to change to the wrong color at the wrong time, to momentarily forget (or genuinely not know) how to go about life like a competent young adult in my passport culture would be incredibly shameful.

The underlying reason for mastering the trait of adaptability was shame.

For many teenage and young adult TCKs, this shame dictates their life. They put an incredible amount of energy and emotion into looking like they belong out of fear that they will be found out. Out of fear that they will misstep and someone will see it and mentally shame them for their cultural faux pax. Out of fear that people will silently applaud the inner voice that tells them they truly will never fit in.

Shame is not often talked about in the TCK world, though I believe that it is a significant issue for this growing population.

If you are a parent of a TCK, or are working with TCKs, consider bringing “shame” into your vocabulary. Spend a significant amount of time helping your TCK to wrestle through the things that are core to who they are. How do those core traits play out in their life? What do they do because it is a part of who they are, and what do they do out of fear of not blending in with everyone else?

As TCKs mature, they begin to discover their color - the color that doesn’t change out of fear of being found out, but instead the color that they are proud to be wherever they are.

Because of their diverse background, this identity may not look exactly like any one place or people, but it is instead a beautiful and healthy mixture of all the cultures that have made them who they are.

In my own life, this shedding of the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors has been an incredibly shame-reducing, self-esteem building process, but it had to begin with realizing the true reason behind my chameleon nature. Shame.

Let’s work together to expose and tenderly love-out the hidden shame of the TCKs in our lives.

Are We Really Signing Up for This?

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  My dear friend and her husband have recently become global workers and are heading overseas next year with their 18 month-old boy in tow. This past summer they attended a training where they spent two weeks with a great group of people from their organization, which included families with other little kids around the age of their son. They developed close friendships in this short time.

As they left their training, my friend called me and said, "It was so hard to leave people that we just spent two weeks befriending, knowing that we might not ever see them again. And then I realized, this is the life that we're signing up for. And not just us— this is the life we are signing our son up for as well."

Around the same time, we (CultureBound)  finished up our summer culture and language training for families. One of the little girls in my class, a 4-year-old, was having a difficult time during the first couple of days and didn't want to make friends. She had moved overseas and back to the US before, and though she is only 4, she knows what it feels like to make friends and then have to leave them. I think that she sensed this coming. But, sure enough, by the end of the week she was best buddies with the other girls in the class.

As she finally began to make friends, I felt the tension along with her. I was silently cheering her on, but also dreading the goodbyes I knew she would have to say in a few days. Her subconscious fears that kept her from making friends at first were not incorrect. In fact, they were incredibly accurate. 

This tension is very real. By choosing the TCK life for your children, you really are signing up for a life of goodbyes. There is no sugar-coating it. It is hard.

So how can I endorse this?  

This is something that I wrestle through regularly. Why do I think that this is a good idea? Why do I encourage parents who are signing their family up for this life?

In some ways, the TCK-life isn't something that I want to promote. Having been that child myself, I know how hard those goodbyes are. BUT, I also know that so many of the good things in my life can be traced directly to my time overseas.

I have experienced the most profound growth, the deepest relationships, the most incredible experiences, and the best opportunities because of my life as a TCK and nearly every TCK who I have met expresses a similar sentiment.

By signing up for a life overseas, and consequently signing your children up for the life of a TCK, you are not choosing the easy route for you or for them. BUT, you are choosing a life that will give your children a love for the world, for diversity, and for justice. It will give them a unique perspective, cultural savvy, great communication skills, and multi-cultural friends all over the world. Yes, signing up for a life of goodbyes is terribly hard, but if I had to go back and choose my own life trajectory, I would sign myself up for the TCK-life again. This gives me the strength and joy to encourage parents to do so also. 

 

Sentimental Means "Settled"...and I Don't Like That

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  My grandmother passed away last December. Though we lived most years on different continents, she was the most present grandmother during my childhood- especially before we moved to Africa. She was the one to pick me up from school when I was sick, she came to every performance (including backyard musical productions), and she loved to take me shopping.

She was a very sentimental lady who saved everything that I made her, collected anything that might one day be valuable, and made sure that her home was furnished with the finest things.

A couple of weeks ago, my parents flew to her home in Florida to clean out the house and drive the things of sentimental value back to Oregon in a U-Haul. She had left me some antique furniture and a few other things that were special to her, and that I'm sure she hoped would be special to me one day, too.

As I added some of her furniture to my home and started to pull things out of boxes, I had an uneasy, anxious feeling that I couldn't shake. What was it about this that was making me feel so restless? As I began to process through it, I realized that it was the permanence of it that was bothering me. 

For the first time in my life, I have stuff in my house that I can't just get rid of.

Up until this point, all of our furniture, and pretty much everything other than what could comfortably fit into a few suitcases, are all things that I don't have any personal attachment to. A better way to say it - I could sell everything in my house tomorrow, move across the world, and not be sad about leaving the "stuff."

Not having sentimental things gives me a sense of freedom. We could pick up and move if we wanted to and could fit everything sentimental in a few 50lb bags. I like that.

But, now I have these large pieces of furniture that are genuinely special to me, that don't fit in a suitcase, and that I hope to pass down to my own girls one day. That makes my TCK-self incredibly uneasy. It ties me down and goes against my adventurous, minimalist, flexible, pick-up-and-go nature.

But, I am learning to settle. I am learning to be content rooting myself for a while. Learning to invest in friendships and to plant trees - both of which need time settled in one place to see grow. And, I'm learning to appreciate a house that now contains pieces of my history and furniture that still smells a bit like my grandmother.

I am learning to value the sentimental- even when it doesn't fit in my suitcase. 

 

5 Things for TCKs to Consider When Choosing a University

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  Last week, my husband, myself, and our two kids traveled to the Midwest to visit family and attend the wedding of a good college-friend of ours. The wedding took place near where my husband and I both went to university and this was my first time back to that place since our college days several years ago.  

There is something about going back to a place that makes you see it in a new light - through new eyes. If I'm being honest, my memories of our college town are stormy and dark. The thoughts of my time there have always been accompanied by an anxious, sick to my stomach, thank-goodness-I'm-not-there-anymore feeling. If I'm being honest, I was really dreading going back to that place. I was excited for the wedding and elated to see old friends but was not thrilled with the geographical location.  

But, Indiana surprised me. As we spent the weekend exploring Indianapolis with our kids, I kept saying to my husband, "Wow! Indiana isn't as horrible as I remembered!"  

So why did I remember it that way? Why did I picture a dark, dreary, lifeless place when I would think back on my time in Indiana?  

While I do believe that I was exactly where I was supposed to be for university and wouldn't trade the great friendships and amazing husband that I found there, I realized that there were some things that made my college experience very difficult. Things that I never would have considered before arriving at college. Things that I think are likely relevant to most TCKs.  

So now, when I talk with parents and their TCKs who are starting to think about and apply for universities, these are the things that I recommend that they explore.

1. A school with a TCK program or group. Because I went straight from Africa to school in Indiana, I was considered an international student. I quickly realized that, in that group, I was the odd one out. The international students were those who came from different parts of the world, but were not American and had, for the most part, never lived in the United States. I, on the other hand, was very familiar with the United States and knew how to grocery shop, open a bank account, dial 911, et cetera, so it was hard to be required to attend these "American Life" classes. While there were great people in that international student group, I didn't feel like I really fit, and it seemed like they didn't think I fit with them in either. Likewise, I found it hard to connect with the majority population of the university who were mostly from the midwestern states and hadn't traveled outside the country. These were the main two groups and I didn't feel like I really belonged in either one of them. Though I did end up making some great friends, it was a difficult process trying to figure out who I was and where I fit. I later found out that there were a few other missionary kids at the university who had similar experiences, but we never crossed paths during our college years because we were all TCKs trying to blend in. I think that things could have been so different for all of us, had we had a TCK group to associate with.  

2. A diverse population. Having lived in international communities overseas, I missed being surrounded by people from all over the world. The university had some international students, but there were not very many, and the American student population was not very ethnically diverse. I would also have loved to have had professors from different parts of the world who could offer a more globally-influenced perspective on the topics they were teaching. 

3. A multiethnic location. Along with the previous point, the Midwest is not incredibly diverse. Location wasn't something I had ever considered when deciding on a university, but I wish I had. I think that I would have felt more comfortable and less of an outsider had I been in a city that was more culturally diverse. The fact that I had to drive an hour to find an international grocery store and that ethnic restaurants were few and far between, was painful. 

4. An option that minimizes debt. Most TCKs end up going into a helping profession, according to David C. Pullock and Ruth Van Reken, (Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition, 2017). Unfortunately, many helping professions are not the most financially lucrative. This works fine for TCKs (who are generally not interested in wealth), but it does create a problem when they graduate from university with an average of $60,000 in student loans and a career path that can't pay those off in fewer than 25 years.  

The bigger issue with this, and something that I wish I would have considered when choosing a university, is the fact that student loan debt ties your feet. Tied feet is many TCK's worst nightmare. No longer are you free to travel, because you have lead ball of student loan bills chained to your foot. Paying bills requires a job, and maintaining a job requires sticking around long enough to avoid looking flakey on a resume. I ended up switching to a community college and finishing up at an online school to reduce the amount of student loan debt I accrued, but if I would have thought to do that from the beginning, I could have significantly reduced the debt that I graduated with and thus would be more financially free to travel. 

5. A school and major that allows for travel. I didn't consider, as a young college student, the fact that my TCK-self would have a need for change and travel. If I had, I would have chosen a school and major that required some sort of overseas study program, or an overseas university entirely. I would have also made sure that my degree was one that would yield a career that allows for travel. I ended up changing my major and now am in my dream career that does involve travel and cross-cultural work, but, if I was to go back, I would have started with that trajectory from the beginning- considering that I would want to travel.  

 

 Third Culture Kids experience an intense and challenging transition when they leave their globally-mobile lifestyle and head to university. Considering these few things could have eased that transition for me and allowed for a university experience that catered more to my TCK nature. If you are a TCK or parent of TCKs starting to think about university, keep things things in mind as you sift through your university options. While they may not be essentials for all TCKs, I do believe that they are worth considering, exploring, and having conversations about.