Thoughts on Entry, Reentry, and Third Culture Kids

by Marilyn on July 9, 2017


Every summer I begin thinking about change and transition, about reentry and culture shock. With the first warm breezes of the season, I am transported to places and times where this was my reality. And I begin to hear stories from others who are going through these transitions. The stories are told in photographs and short, often humorous, statements, hiding the tremendous impact of transnational moves.

When I began looking into information on reentry, I came across refugee resettlement and orientation programs for refugees entering a country. I was struck by how much the advice resonated with me as a third culture kid. While on one level the TCK and the refugee experience are worlds apart, the goals and the realistic expectations in refugee orientation programs are remarkably helpful.

Because orientation for the refugee is not just about theory and information, it is designed to give the refugee “the opportunity to develop realistic expectations regarding their resettlement, to consider different situations that might arise in a new country, and develop skills and attitudes that will facilitate their adjustment and well-being”*

The first thing I realized is that we, like the refugee or immigrant, don’t ‘reenter’. Instead we ‘enter’ a world that is not familiar, a world that calls up all of our flexibility and ingenuity to adjust. It may seem like a small thing, but the difference between those words is huge. 

So I began developing my own list for my tribe, the third culture kid tribe. I offer it here with hopes that both those who enter and those who re-enter may find a nugget of truth. I’d love to here your thoughts through the comment section!

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  • Realistic time expectations. Entering a new world is a journey and it rarely happens in three months or six months. We are moving to a new country, a new world. As such it deserves all the attention we would give to going into a totally different culture. Transitioning to a new life in our passport country is far bigger than spending a summer vacation there. Give yourself a minimum of two years, but don’t be surprised if it takes five.
  • Accepting that we are a combination of worlds. As TCKs, our worlds are woven together in a semi-formed tapestry. Many of us feel like completely different people when we’re in our passport countries. We are not chameleons and we are not impostors; rather we’re trying to make sense of our worlds and figure out what cultural adaptation looks like as we effectively transition to our passport countries. Yes – there is loss of identity. But as we work through these losses, our identities as those who can live between worlds emerge stronger than ever.
  • Understanding culture shock. We don’t go through reverse culture shock – we go through culture shock. Reverse culture shock means we know a culture, have been away from it, and are returning to differences we didn’t expect. In our case, we don’t really know this culture we are entering. We may think we know it, because our passports tell us we should, but we don’t. And while reverse culture shock is described as “wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes”, culture shock is having completely different lenses.
  • Giving voice to a longing. Struggling to give voice to our longings is enormous. Somehow it doesn’t feel valid. But giving voice to our longings is legitimate. Our world as we know it has ended. We may be able to visit our home, our adopted country, but we know that we must have a valid and legal way to stay there should we wish to go back.

    We will have times of intense longing and wistfulness for what no longer exists.

    This can be captured best in the word ‘saudade’, a Portuguese word that came into the existence in the 13th century. “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. ~ In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G. Bell”  Giving voice to ‘saudade’ helps take away its power and ability to control. The longings are there, they are valid, but if they control us we will despair. Our longings can be expressed through writing, through connecting to other TCKs, through the visual arts, through theatre, through faith, and through friendships.

  • Understand the shaping of our worldview. While our parents went overseas with already developed worldviews and through their interactions in their host countries had their worldviews affected, ours began developing in our host country. Our first memories may be the sound of the Call to Prayer or a dusty road and traffic jam involving a buffalo, two donkey carts, and our parent’s jeep. They may be of a crowded and colorful bazaar filled with colorful fabrics and bangles. Our experiences shape our worldview this will probably differ markedly from those of our parents and those of our peers in our passport countries. Having realistic understanding and expectations on differing worldviews helps us to not expect or demand that others understand us.
  • Faith can be complicated. For many of us, faith is paramount to who we are. But it gets tangled up in our adjusting to life in our passport countries. It’s particularly difficult if we feel we can’t question God, express disbelief or doubt, or change denominations because it feels disloyal to our parents.This can inhibit our honesty as it relates to our faith journeys. Perhaps doubt was never a part of our faith journey before, but now that our world has changed the doubts surface. A question emerges: “Will the faith that sustained us through our journey thus far be big enough to get us through this crucial juncture?” It’s an important question and often we need to find people beyond our parents who can hear and understand us, speaking truth into our faith and our doubt.
  • The importance of cultural brokers. Often there emerges someone who doesn’t share our background but understands in a way that defies our understanding. This is a gift. This is the person that explains life to us, that walks beside us. This is the one that looks through our high school yearbook and says“Now who’s this with you? And did you go on that camping trip where you got in trouble for sneaking over to where the boys were sleeping before or after this picture was taken?” This personal interest helps us understand what friendship, listening, and cultural brokering look like. So learn from them. Look to them. But don’t put undue burdens on them.
  • Place is significant – significant physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As humans, at our core is a need for ‘place’. Call it ‘belonging’, call it ‘home’, call it anything you like. But all of us are integrally connected to place. We are incarnate beings and so when those places are taken away, we suffer from a “disruption” of place. It is clear that the TCK has a disruption of place – and often multiple times in their lives. If the disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology. The late Paul Tournier, a gifted Swiss psychologist, calls this a “deprivation of place”. He says that to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. Many of us downplay this connection to place by over spiritualizing it or underestimating its importance. We need not dismiss it, we need not idolize it; we must only acknowledge it and recognize it as valid.
  •  The yearning heart. All of us have a heart that yearns for belonging, for acceptance, for love. This is the human condition. It’s a fundamental truth and it is not unique to the third culture kid. What is hard is tying this in with all of our TCK experiences, life story, and worldview. It is easy for us to mistake our yearning for only that which we left, instead of remembering that we had a heart that yearned before we ever left our passport countries. If we can grow in an understanding of our hearts, what is global and universal in our yearning, and what is specifically tied to being a third culture kid, we are in a good place.  A desire for place is universal, a desire for our particular place, whether it be Buenos Aires or Bolivia or Cairo or Lebanon, is specific to our TCK background.
  • The need for grace. In the midst of all of this, it is so easy to want grace, and so hard to give grace. Yet all of this is about grace. The grace that we were given by our host country, the grace of others who walked beside us as kids, the grace of our parents in caring and loving even when they don’t fully understand. Those of us who ‘get’ grace will find it easier to give grace. Can we give grace to those who we feel dismiss us, hurt us, misunderstand us, or don’t like us? Can we give grace to the people who we misunderstand, who we don’t like, who we dismiss?

None of this is a formula and it is not a list of stages. Although there are similarities that bind us together as TCK’s, ultimately we each have our own unique story.

Walking through the entry process and emerging on the other side is one more chapter in that story, one more pattern in the ever-evolving tapestry of our lives.

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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.
  • RaVonne Rhodes

    This was good for me to read. Especially since I’m in a place of searching for that belonging and place to feel connection. My family is moving at the end of this year, and even thinking about adjusting to life in America looks overwhelming.
    Thanks for your words!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      A huge move… Thinking of you as you transition and find a new place of belonging. So glad you came by!

  • Pingback: Entry, Reentry, and Third Culture Kids – Missionary Mamas()

  • Lisa Enqvist

    Thanks, Marilyn once again for giving us words to try to express the feelings many of us TCKs have lived through. I’m 70+, and I’m trying to put into words the longing and yearning I felt from early childhood – a homesickness for a home I did not remember. Saudade is a good word to add to my vocabulary.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Saudade is a good word! I found it about five years ago when I first began to write and reflect on the between worlds experience. It serves those of us who live between well! Thank you for reading!

  • Thomas Speckhardt

    Thanks for an excellent article- another word our family uses to describe the longing is the German ‘Fernweh’, literally ‘farsickness’ or a ‘longing for far-off places’. Your point about allowing for longer periods of time is right on. Would you mind if this is reposted on youthcompass.org?

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yes! ‘Fernweh’ is another one! Elizabeth Trotter did a piece on that word a while ago. And I believe a Welsh word “Hiareth”. Would be honored for you to repost.

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