…affiliation, acceptance, association, attachment, connection, union, integration, closeness, rapport, fellow feeling, fellowship, kinship, partnership…
I have just relocated to The Netherlands with my husband and 2 year old daughter. I’m a British citizen and it’s my 13th international move. And I believe, roughly, it’s 25 times I’ve moved in my lifetime. Shortly after arriving, I signed up for 2 talks; Bilingual Education and Mindfulness for Children. The second talk had information on how to help children relax in a fast paced, app driven and plugged in world. The speaker ended the talk with space for questions. The parents, all in their 30s like me, had valid concerns. Her responses were fluffy and she wrapped up proceedings by handing out her business cards. I was about to leave for the ensuing session when I overheard her saying…
“Yeah, your child is a third culture kid or expat kid…whatever…”
I joined the conversation, explaining that I felt there is a distinct difference. I am a third culture kid. I was born in Botswana and raised in Zimbabwe, France, the USA, Turkey and Switzerland. I was 17 years old when I first lived in England. How could I have been an expatriate child when I’d never once grown up in my passport country?
A TCK friend sent me an article and a lively exchange followed.
The article left me cold and we can start with the title. The child is not growing up abroad. The mother is living abroad. The daughter will be growing up abroad if she returns to the USA after a short time but she won’t be abroad the longer she stays away. She will be American in passport only and through what her mother can transmit. Nor will she be from any country she temporarily lives in. This is third culture and how it develops.
It was sometimes very lonely. Extraordinary experience can be isolating. Humans need shared experience. And there is no point pointing out how adaptive TCKs will be as a result. I know they are. I was endlessly adapting.
I do not disagree with the characteristics the mother wants the child to have. But I have seen them already in the Year 3 class I taught in East London. Many of those children very poor and had never travelled anywhere. You don’t need to live in the Marshall Islands to attain them. Another person commented on the article, remarking how it’s a good thing that children know no borders. If I turn on the news, the heart of every conflict in the world is to do with geographical and internal borders. Children are not little adults and need boundaries to create identity and foster self esteem. I was diagnosed with information processing disorder at age 14 by school counselors. I never had any explanation as to why I had it. But I’m certain there was a connection to the repeated physical displacement I endured. It was me who decided to repatriate at 17 and finish my education in the place where I was supposed to be from. I was exhausted and had had enough.
World citizens, I have also heard this term many times too. Children are already world citizens and they don’t need to endlessly relocate across cultures to be one. If a family continually moved in their home country, it would be seen as odd and unhealthy. Yet, people seem to think nothing of it happening internationally. I am told that my childhood was exotic and privileged. I am rarely asked about what it was like. And if I am and I’m honest, people shy away and don’t want to continue the conversation. The lifestyle is championed and promoted. Something to consider: would they say the same of a child who is an immigrant, migrant, refugee, transracial/transnational adoptee or one who grew up in foster care?
My parents and teachers did not know what a third culture kid was. The defining book on the topic, Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds was not published until I had already left school. Consider Article 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Article 7: You have the right to a name, and this should be officially recognized by the government. You have the right to a nationality, to belong to a country.
This right was mine too. A passport is attainable, belonging is trickier. As I’m putting my daughter’s books back on the shelf, I pause at The Ugly Duckling. I remember how favourably I responded to it as a child. And I understood that it was not only about how you look. Children know.
Not belonging has been the defining feature of my life. I am not made of stone, it is very painful and it never goes away. It dissipated when I settled in London. It was there, for the first time in my life, I had time to attach to a place. It returned, hitting me hard in my early 30s and especially when I gave birth to my daughter. Delayed grief will find you. I don’t know if it would have had I not become an accompanying spouse. There was no novelty in the role. I was not a person just starting out living overseas. And it triggered unwelcome feelings of starting over and being an outsider. I remember telling my husband that if we ever had children I did not want to raise them as third culture kids. And I won’t be. My daughter is 2 and already little things confirm how I don’t want her to be one. Why did tears smart my eyes when I saw her standing next to the packing boxes in our new rental? Why did I worry when we opened her colouring book to a page where it said to draw a picture of her friends? It is because I know what happens in childhood cannot be undone. And that what happens to children manifests in adulthood.
My daughter only cares about my proximity, how much I interact with her, learning to communicate through her stories and counting to 10. But in time, her extended family, friends, shelter, school, wider community and the shared wisdom of deep culture will matter more and more. These are the anchors that children attach to. They are also a child’s mother. This is how they begin to belong. That is the greatest gift I want to give her in a stable setting. A village cannot raise a child if you keep taking the child out of the village(s) And it doesn’t qualify that she will know nothing about the world as a result. Why would it?
I was sent an email this week from the same group of child psychologists who gave the talks with the following question:
What would you do when you do not truly feel at home anywhere? My guess is that this would also be a reason to become an expat as an adult, trying to find a ‘home’ someplace in the world.
I deleted it and clicked Spam and Unsubscribe. Today, I filter out those voices and no longer betray my intuition. I leave you with one of UNHCR’s campaigns that resonated. It was launched in 2014 and highlights the plight of statelessness. My father worked for UNHCR. Belonging matters. It is taken for granted until it is taken from us.