On Welcoming the Third Culture Kid

by Marilyn on July 9, 2018

One last time

We are in the midst of summer, but I am already hearing and feeling the groans and pangs of how quickly the summer has gone. Summer flies by, especially when you are in transition.

Soon college towns will begin to see old students return and many new ones come in. Among those old and new are those who have lived as third culture kids, those who blend in with the crowd, even as their insides scream “other”.

Once I was one of them. I entered into my college years with hidden fears and insecurities, many of them because my insides and outsides were at odds.

Some of you are parents who are saying goodbye to your own third culture kids and the pit in your stomach is indescribable. Who will come alongside your kids? Who will walk with them in this next stage of life when you are a world away?

This is for those who work with third culture kids who are entering their university years or those who are welcoming third culture kids into their churches, communities, or families. 

DOs

  • Let them talk about their past. They have left so much, let them talk about what they have left.
  • Ask probing questions
  • Take them out to a restaurant that may serve foods from the country(ies) they called home
  • Seek to understand through the lens of cross-cultural adjustment. Don’t assume that they identify with their passport countries.
  • Offer space for them to process their grief
  • Encourage them to connect and find their safe spaces
  • Seek to understand some of the losses that they have experienced
  • Let them question their faith in safe ways
  • Understand that while there is a general TCK perspective, each TCK is unique and experiences the world and change in their own ways. Allow them to surprise you.
  • Help them to do it afraid. What do I mean by that? Tara Livesay in a blog post called Do it Afraid talks about feeling afraid, but doing things anyway. She gives the illustration of her son Isaac learning to walk, how even when he’d left his “wall of safety” and walked into her arms, he would still get afraid. But he did it anyway. Tara says this: “Practicing doing scary things doesn’t really make me perfect at it. I’m still afraid sometimes. I don’t know how to stop being afraid completely and consistently. I’m not finding ‘perfection’ as I continually practice facing both my rational and irrational fears.I only know that sometimes – I have to do it afraid.” So help them to do it afraid.
  • Help them “remember rightly.” We TCKs tend to go two ways with our memories and stories – either we remember them as perfect, or we dismiss them as absolutely horrible. It can be difficult for us to remember rightly. In my recent trip to Iraq, I was speaking to the art therapist about stories, and remembering our stories correctly. She said that as we tell our stories over and over, we have a tendency to embellish. Either we make them better than they were, or worse. The important thing is to remember them rightly; seeing our past with clear vision so that we can move forward in peace.
  • Gently challenge them on any visible or invisible bigotry. Yes, TCKs can be bigots. See Exploring TCK Bigotry for more on this.
  • Learn to speak the language of ‘elsewhere.’ It’s not that hard. There’s no grammar or syntax involved and there is no morphology. Prefixes, suffixes, or infixes are absent. You don’t have to worry about past tense, or present perfect or superlatives. All of us have spoken the language of elsewhere at some point – whether as a tourist or as a resident. This is the language that reaches across the divide and attempts to understand the one who is “other.”

DON’Ts

  • Tell them to “get over it already!” Instead pose honest challenges to them like: “What would it take for you to live more effectively in your passport country?” or “Western countries are experiencing more and more diversity. What might your TCK background offer to the community?”
  • Deny their experiences by saying “Everyone feels insecure in college. Everyone misses home.” Denying the experience of the TCK denies their life.
  • Let them wallow. There is a difference between honest grieving and wallowing in self-pity. The one heals, the other destroys.
  • Put a time limit on their adjustment and their grieving. We are all different. We grow and adjust at different rates. So don’t put time limits on the TCK. Allow them room even as you continue to love and challenge them.

I’ll close with this thought from Nina Sichel, author and adult TCK:

“So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.  Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story — many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.” from The Morning Zen: The Trouble with Third Culture Kids

Readers – what would you add to this list of dos and don’ts? 


Blogger’s Note: Elizabeth Trotter writes an excellent article using Physics to explain Third Culture Kids. Take a look at it here!

For more essays on third culture kids, take a look at Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging as well as the newly released Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

This post was adapted from a piece originally published in Communicating Across Boundaries. 

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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