How to Keep Living When You’re Drowning in Limbo

I packed a suitcase of thin fabrics, suitable for three weeks of tropical humidity and meetings in air-conditioned rooms. I hugged my husband goodbye, then texted him from the airport. It was early March 2020, and after a few months of restrictions in Beijing, I was looking forward to being somewhere other than our small apartment for a few weeks. The plane took off, and unbeknownst to me, I left my home in China for the last time.

18 months later I am living with my parents in my native Australia, and my husband is in our new home in his native U.S. I was able to visit him there for three months over Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time we have been living apart with no idea how long this situation will last. Last year we were waiting for things to change, and when it became clear nothing was changing, we began planning a move to the U.S. without me there in China to help. This year we’ve been working through the green card immigration process that will allow me to join him in the U.S.

That’s a lot of loss, a lot of limbo, a lot of uncertainty.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with the accompanying lockdowns, border restrictions, flight cancellations, school closures, work changes, and health crises, has created a lot of loss and limbo and uncertainty for many people – especially those of us with international lives. 

Drowning in limbo

Last year I had no idea how long I would be in Australia, when I would go home to my home and husband in China, and later whether I would go home at all. I had arrived in Canberra, the coldest part of Australia, with three weeks’ worth of tropical weather clothes – right as we went into winter. I lived in hand-me-downs from thrift stores, the local buy-nothing group, a friend, and a few things I’d left at my parents’ house because they were holey or otherwise less than optimal. It took me months to decide to buy adequate shoes and socks and underwear – because those purchases were acknowledgements that I really wasn’t going home to Beijing where I already had everything I needed.

And that is a perfect description of living in limbo. 

When you’re living in limbo, you’re in an intermediate state, and you don’t know how long it will last. You’re stuck. You can’t make decisions – you can’t even buy socks. You might have all the transition skills in the world, but it’s hard to use them when you don’t have a new place to settle into, when you’re waiting to arrive – or leave. This can be particularly hard for seasoned expats and other globally mobile individuals. We have strategies and skills, and we know how to use them. Then we end up in limbo, and our strategies and skills don’t work the way we’re used to.  

Last year, I wasn’t so much living in limbo as I was drowning in it.

This year, I’m living differently. My life is still full of uncertainty. I’m still living with my parents and unsure when I’ll see my husband again. But I’ve also found ways to keep afloat, to keep moving – to truly live in the midst of limbo. 

How to keep living in limbo

Uncertainty is a difficult state to live in. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know what’s coming. It’s hard to enjoy the moment when you know it could change. Impermanence isn’t a place where you can be at ease. 

Over the past 18 months I’ve learned a lot about coping with all the unknowns and creating peace and joy in the middle of uncertainty. Here are my four best pieces of advice – things that have helped me stay afloat through a life of uncertainty while I’m stuck in limbo: 

1) Invest in small comforts

Sure, you don’t know how long you’ll be where you are. But as long as you’re there, make sure you have what you need to relax and be at peace, whatever that means for you. Living in limbo is hard enough without having anything that you find soothing and comforting. Any money you invest in those small comforts is an investment in your mental health, your peace of mind, and your ability to cope in a difficult situation. If that situation resolves quickly and you find yourself with two of your favourite comfort items, that’s okay! You can save one for a rainy day, leave it at a place you visit often, or bless someone else with it.

2) Plan small anticipations

One of the hardest things about living in limbo is not knowing when your situation will end. It’s so hard to plan ahead, to have things to look forward to in a concrete way. There’s a vague sense of, “When this is over I’ll do __________,” but it’s difficult to be more specific. Anticipation is a source of joy, and losing the ability to anticipate near future events is problematic. We need markers of time and things to look forward to. My solution: create small anticipations for yourself. Create little routines, and luxuriate in the smallest of joys. 

One way I’ve done this is by throwing myself into my favourite reality TV shows. I watch them as they air (which is several nights a week for several months here in Australia) so that I can follow along on Twitter with everyone else watching live. It was a tiny anticipation in the grand scheme of things, but watching Masterchef with hundreds of strangers on the internet became a huge part of my days and weeks! It was something I looked forward to during the day. 

3) Be present in the moment

Find activities that keep you grounded, that allow you to experience joy in the moment. Joy and pleasure that is not dependent on your situation or your circumstances, but simply is. Notice small things. Perhaps it is natural beauty – sunsets, flowers, mountains, bird calls. Perhaps it is playing with small children, immersing yourself in the wonder they see, getting caught up in the magic they make with simple things like boxes and blocks and crayons. Perhaps it is a time of rest, with a good book, a cozy blanket, and a cup of tea. For me it has been all of these and more. 

4) Lean into the experiences you couldn’t have otherwise

What do you have access to because of your time in limbo that you wouldn’t otherwise? Usually the negatives of our situations shout very loudly. Those difficulties are real, and the pain they cause is real. The grief that comes from plans laid waste is valid and needs to be acknowledged and expressed. But it’s not the whole story. What can I access in my limbo life that I couldn’t access elsewhere?

In my case, two particularly significant experiences opened to me in limbo. Choosing to lean into them has brought me incredible benefits that have helped to redeem my limbo time. First, I’ve been able to access beneficial healthcare with a doctor I’d previously only seen for annual checkups, and the positive changes to my health have been dramatic. 

My second open door has been time with my young niece and nephews. The oldest is five; the youngest is nearly 17 months – he was born about 6 weeks after I arrived. I’ve been 15 minutes down the road from him and his older brother his entire life, and usually see them several days a week. My other niece and nephew live halfway across the country. Twice I’ve been able to live with them in their house for a full month, being a part of their everyday lives in almost every way. As a long-distance family member, these are joys I never dreamed I would get to experience. 

So yes, living in limbo is awful. Uncertainty is so hard to live with. There is so much about my situation I don’t like and wouldn’t choose. And yet, there are ways to make it easier to bear. There are ways to cultivate joy in the midst of heartache. If you find yourself stuck in limbo like me, I hope you will find these ideas helpful.

TCK Lessons: No One Understands

by Tanya Crossman

This series goes a little deeper into the key lessons of a TCK childhood. In part one I discussed the lesson that “Everyone Leaves.” I then wrote two follow up posts regarding that lesson: What About the Internet? and After Everyone Leaves. Now, in this post, I am finally tackling the big one: “No One Understands.”

 

Misunderstood
There’s a good reason my book is called Misunderstood. Very soon after starting interviews, I realised that the topic of feeling misunderstood, and the impact of this, was coming up repeatedly. I started asking TCKs I interviewed if they had felt misunderstood in certain ways and the floodgates opened immediately. Stories (and often tears) poured out of young people who desperately wanted to be known and understood but were hurt by misunderstandings, or even feared it would never be possible that another person could truly understand.

So, why is it that TCKs share this feeling of being misunderstood? Why do they fear that no one can understand?

 

Living in between
I surveyed 750 TCKs for Misunderstood, and (unsurprisingly) I asked several questions about the experience of feeling misunderstood. A third felt misunderstood by their parents, and over half felt misunderstood by extended family members. 41% felt misunderstood by friends in their host country. 67% felt misunderstood by friends in their passport country. The main reason for this? Most of the people in a TCK’s life know only one side of that life.

As I’ve talked about before, the Third Culture experience is about living in between – with connections to more than one place/culture. One consequence of this for TCKs is that throughout their formative childhood years, most of the people they interact with know only one side of them – only one of the cultures/places that they know and are deeply impacted by. TCKs learn to turn languages and behaviours on and off as they move from one setting to another. In the end, however, there are few places in which TCKs can express all their pieces of self at once.

Imagine a German kid attending an English-speaking school in Kenya. Most of his friends in Kenya won’t speak German or understand much of German life and culture. Most of his family and friends in Germany won’t know what life is like in Kenya, and how deeply it impacts him. In each place, a piece of self is quietly suppressed, in order to focus on the pieces the people around him can share. Then his family moves to Malaysia, and the complications continue.

“TCKs often feel they will never be known completely; at best they are known slightly by people all over the world. Each person only knows tiny snapshots of parts of their lives.” — Gabe, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

The joy of being understood
When your baseline assumption is that no one will understand, the experience of being understood is powerful. I had two main goals for Misunderstood, one for each of the two key audiences. I wanted to equip parents and other interested adults with tools to better understand their TCKs; and I wanted to show TCKs that there are others out there who get it – that they CAN be understood.

When Misunderstood was nearly finished I sent excerpts of the manuscript to TCKs I had quoted, to make sure they were happy with how their words were being used. One of them summarised what I heard from many others, “I could have said every quote in here! I didn’t know so many people felt the same way!” Another, when reading the book herself, tried to guess which quotes were hers without looking at the name given. Over and over she thought to herself “oh yeah, that’s me” – only to discover that someone she didn’t know had expressed the same sentiment in words she would have used herself.

Some of the pre-publication reviews of Misunderstood I most treasured came from TCKs themselves, who saw themselves in what I had written, and received that most cherished gift: of feeling themselves to be understood:

Misunderstood left me feeling refreshingly… understood! Compassionate and discerning, its blend of gathered narrative and insight left me with a sense of belonging as well as an appreciation for the many varieties of experience similar to mine. This is the guidebook I want to give people to explain my cultural upbringing.”
– Christopher O’Shaughnessy, Author of Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures in Between

Misunderstood explains ME. Tanya gives words to internal feelings I could not have previously understood as a TCK. While I read, I found myself nodding with a sense of relief and recognition, ‘Yes! That’s what I felt. I’m not the only one.’”
 Taylor Joy Murray, Author of Hidden in My Heart: A TCK’s Journey Through Cultural Transition

After Misunderstood was published and I started to hear from TCKs who had read it and felt the need to reach out and thank me for giving them this: being understood, and finding out they weren’t the only ones to feel this way. The very first letter I got was from a TCK living in Tajikistan. She shared some of her experiences with me and then said that reading my book was the first time since going through all this that she felt someone had understood her. My heart twisted – a combination of compassion for her, and gratitude that my words were able to bring her some comfort. I remember thinking at the time “for this one person, all the years of work are worth it.”

Two years later I had a letter from a young adult TCK who read my book after suffering a breakdown and discovering that they were a TCK. I heard that similar refrain – that it helped so much to know others felt the same way.

 

Understanding is possible!
The title Misunderstood is not supposed to be static, implying that the state of being misunderstood will never change. Instead, I hoped to do justice to the emotional experiences TCKs shared with me, while also opening a door to hope that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Yes, it’s true. Many people in a TCK’s life won’t instinctively understand their experiences. And unfortunately, it’s also true that some won’t want to try. But for those who are willing, resources like Misunderstood can help close the gap. It’s tiring, if not impossible, to be the one who advocates for yourself constantly, so giving TCKs a book (and other resources) they can put in the hands of people who do want to understand can take some of the load.

But more than that, there is hope in remembering that no one completely understands anyone else. We all have to share our stories, and try to listen to what another is saying about their experiences. What we all have in common are our emotions. We have all experienced loss, fun, joy, grief. It might look different, but the emotions underneath help us empathise. Learning to connect with and express the way we feel about things we’ve been through helps others go there with us.

The truth is, I know that there are many out there who are just like me, or at least can understand how I feel. There is a sense of isolation from others who are not TCKs, but I’ve always felt that in time most other people can at least comprehend the feelings we have. Loneliness is a universal trait among humans, whether it’s because you were always the weird kid at school or because you lived two thousand miles away from anyone who spoke English. While the reasons may be different, it’s the same type of pain we share.” – Eugene, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

Now what?

If you are a TCK: you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who has felt what you feel. There are others out there. Not only that, but there will be people in your life who want to listen, to learn, to come to understand you.

If you care for a TCK: a great gift you can give TCKs is to read up on different TCK literature, to start to get an idea of what forces have shaped their worldview. Remember that every TCK is an individual – no book will tell you exactly what they are like. BUT these resources can give you a starting place, to show you where your blind spots might be, and give you ideas of questions to ask to open up different conversations.

I’m going to close by borrowing my own words – from the close of the introduction to Misunderstood. This is what my book, and my work advocating for TCKs, is all about:

“There is no one-size-fits-all explanation of how every TCK has felt and who they will become. Rather, this book is a window into how international life can affect the way a child thinks and feels about their world, and how this different perspective may manifest in the way they interact with others.

Reading this will not teach you everything about any individual TCK, but it will give you a head start in understanding their perspective. From there it will be up to you to take time to talk with the TCKs you meet, and allow them to teach you more about their unique life journeys.”

Originally published here.
Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

TCK Lessons: After “Everyone Leaves”

by Tanya Crossman

My first post in this series explored a “lesson” TCKs learn through growing up internationally: that everyone leaves. Next, I paused to address a very common response: “what about the internet?” The internet allows for relationships to be maintained long-distance, which is so very helpful! But it doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.

Now in part three, I am finally getting to the “solutions”. Only after we stop to really hear the sadness that TCKs experience can we start talking about what happens after everyone leaves. With that foundation under us, I’m going to work through a few ideas that can be helpful for anyone dealing with the life lesson that “everyone leaves.” The bottom line is this: you can’t change the past, but you can choose what sort of future to build. Understanding what we think, and learning new ways of thinking, can make a huge difference in this regard.

 

Change, transition, and goodbyes
While the focus of this post is dealing with the aftermath – the life lesson encoded from a childhood full of goodbyes – it’s worth taking a moment to consider what to do in the thick of things. It’s important to understand the relationship between change and transition and the impact transition has on our daily lives – whether we stay or go. Understanding this process, leaving space for it, and practicing self-compassion during it, goes a long way toward encouraging future healing and growth.

Saying good goodbyes is also really important. Anything that matters (a person, animal, place, group) is worth saying goodbye to. Any relationship that will be changed, any routine that will be lost, is worth marking. There are lots of ways to do this (parties, gifts, memory books, photos, last visits, etc.) but it can also be an internal process. I can stop and recognise the importance of each person/place, expressing sadness and gratitude, any time – even after the fact, even years later, regardless of whether a good goodbye was not said at the time. This is especially helpful when a family moves unexpectedly – for both the ones who leave, and the ones left behind.

 

Living “everyone leaves” long term
What I really want to focus on in this post is what to do later in life, when the lesson that “everyone leaves” has sunk in and affects the way I think and act. As I’ve listened to and mentored young adult TCKs in particular (especially as I start preparation for my next book) I’ve found a few tools that help us reframe our thoughts – and take control of the future. Taking time to consciously understand how these very valid past hurts impact our present-day reactions allows us to stop the past from stealing the future.

Saying goodbye sucks. Losing friends sucks. There’s no point sugar-coating that fact. The reality of change and loss can be painful, and it can’t be changed. The past is what it is. But staying in that place of pain, and the helplessness and hopelessness that often goes with it, doesn’t change the past. We must acknowledge the truth of our lives. But we don’t have to be ruled by it forever. We get to choose what happens next.

 

Sunk costs
In business there is a term for money you’ve already paid: a “sunk cost”. It is money you can’t get back. You’ve already paid the rent, bought the inventory, paid the salary – whatever it is, good decision or bad, it’s done. The question now has to be what is the best way forward, given that you can’t get the “sunk cost” back. This rule means that sometimes the best decision for a business is to sell old inventory at a loss – because that’s better that having it take up space in a warehouse.

Let me use a mundane example to explain. Imagine you’re at a restaurant, and having eaten 3/4 of your meal you are feeling very full. Part of your brain is saying you should eat the rest because you’ve already paid for it! A “sunk cost” mentality says that you pay the same price for the meal no matter how much you eat, that the money is already spent. So, would you enjoy the meal more by stopping now, or by making yourself sick eating too much? Forget what you can’t change, and make the best decision starting from now. Perhaps you can take the small leftover portion home to be a snack later. But even if that’s not possible, eating it all in order not to leave waste may not be the best decision.

I’ve found sunk costs an extremely helpful concept in my personal life. Something has already happened in my life. I can’t change that. So what am I going to do about it? I don’t need to “fix” something that’s already happened. Blaming myself for a bad decision, or blaming someone else for causing me pain, doesn’t change the situation I find myself in. Instead, I can look ahead and decide what to do next.

When it comes to the “everyone leaves” lesson, we can’t change what has happened. We can only decide what is the best way forward, all things being as they are. Yes, I have experienced many goodbyes, and that hurt. But what sort of life do I want from now on? What choices will help me build that sort of future?

 

Change happens
Change is a part of life everywhere – you can’t insulate yourself against it, no matter what you do. You may decide you want to settle down in one place for the rest of your life, to minimise the potential for change and loss. But anywhere in the world, your best friend might choose to move away, perhaps without warning. No matter what you do, you can’t eliminate change. To be happy and healthy moving forward, therefore, you must find a way to cope with change.

Some people want to be the one who initiates change so that they are in control of it. They may move frequently, change jobs, or locations. One adult TCK told me that she had lived in the same town (with her husband and two kids) for six years, but in five different houses. Most of those moves happened simply because she wanted to move. She would find a better area, look for a better house. It took her years to realise she felt uncomfortable staying put for too long; when work kept them in one place, moving house helped soothe her itchy feet. Having recognised this, she wanted to try addressing the underlying feelings, but in the mean time she was pleased she had found a compromise that worked for her – that kept her living in the same city, not running away.

Another adult TCK finds moving stressful, but still has a deep desire to see the world. So he and his wife travel frequently, but always come home to the same house.

I think the important part of this isn’t how I cope with change, but that I do cope with change. That I am able to face my feelings about change, and make conscious choices about how to respond to those feelings – not be controlled by fears I avoid. Each of us needs to acknowledge that change happens, and we can’t avoid that – but it doesn’t mean we don’t have choices.

 

Pick your poison
Many TCKs I’ve talked with over the years have laid out the two choices they have: either go through the horrible pain of saying goodbye over and over, or don’t invest deeply in people to begin with. For many, avoiding deep relationships seems like the obvious and logical choice. The problem is that it’s not a choice between pain or no pain, it’s a choice between two different kinds of pain.

Yes, getting close to people only to have to say goodbye, over and over, is painful. But going through life without those close friendships, without people who know you, without anyone to share life with, is also painful.

So this is the real choice: either enjoy the beauty of friendship while you can, and pay the price in grief when someone moves away, or swap that sharp pain for the constant dull ache of feeling isolated and unknown. There is pain either way. But one path leads to relational connection – pain with gain. The other leads to isolation – a more lonely and sad kind of pain.

Faced with the reality of this choice, most of us instinctively understand the benefit of continuing to take the risk of investing in people.

 

And THIS is where the internet comes in
Maintaining friendships via the internet helps with a middle ground here. There is still the grief when a friend moves, or something happens and I’m not there in person. There is still the ache of not sharing everyday life. And yet, an ongoing bond through different life circumstances (in different countries!) can be rich and rewarding. My own best friend and I have only spent two of our 13 years of friendship in the same country. We both travelled across oceans to be in each other’s weddings. We come from different passport countries but have each visited the other’s family home, met parents and siblings.

I’ve had to grieve the changes in our relationship many times. But each time, I knew it was worth continuing to invest in her, and in our friendship.

This is the bottom line: you can’t go back. You can only go forward. Take the time to acknowledge hurts and grieve losses – then move forward.  Make choices about where you want to go, and who you want to be, rather than what you want to avoid. Invest in people, even though it means investing in harder goodbyes. Work out what you want from life, and start building toward that.

You can’t change the past – but you can make choices about what happens next.

Read more TCK articles by Tanya

Originally published here

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

TCK Lessons: “What About the Internet?”

by Tanya Crossman

In part one of this series, I explained the lesson “Everyone leaves.” This is something most TCKs “learn” through their experiences growing up internationally. I chose to leave space at the end of the piece to reflect on how this “lesson” affects TCKs, rather than jump straight to solutions. When we skip straight to “it’ll be okay,” we don’t stop to sit with TCKs in their sadness and grief. We miss the opportunity to act as witnesses, to listen, to say that their feelings about this are valid. It’s hard to listen to pain, so we don’t often take enough time to wait in that place. I wanted to create space, to honour the sadness, even in blog posts.

Now it’s time for part two – but I’m not jumping into the solutions just yet. I’ve decided to address something else first: What about the internet?

A really common response I hear from parents, and even older ATCKs, is that with the internet and social media, TCKs these days can stay in touch with their friends after a move. It’s not the same, but surely it makes things easier. A lot of TCKs I interviewed for Misunderstood had heard this, too. There’s a few problems with this idea, and I want to break them down.

 

The internet doesn’t erase loss
Most of the time these comments aren’t comforting for TCKs. It makes them feel that they aren’t supposed to grieve, or that they shouldn’t show their sadness. The ability to stay in touch after a move doesn’t take away the sadness of losing that person from their daily life. And there’s no guarantee, even with the internet. When a child says goodbye to a friend, they don’t yet know what that friendship will look like on the other side of the move – whether it will continue or not, whether they will ever see their friend in person again or not. Sometimes there will be reunions, but not always. It is so important for TCKs to be able to grieve friendships that change or are lost. Their feelings of sadness are real and valid and need to be expressed – and are worth listening to.

“‘Graduation’ was a word that most people in my grade did not want to say, because ‘graduation’ meant ‘goodbye’. I used to say this a lot to my parents but they just kept telling me that “back in my day we only had snail mail and you guys get email and Facebook and so many other opportunities to stay in touch.” I gave up trying to make my point – it’s not the same. If home is where the heart is then after we all graduate my home will be in Korea and America and other places I’ve never been to, because that’s where my friends will be.”
Katherine, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

It’s not the same
Friendship online is different to friendship in person, for many reasons. Also, not everyone is good at online connection. It relies on a different set of interpersonal skills, and sometimes a friendship that is amazing in person just doesn’t translate that well to long-distance. Lots of TCKs hold onto the hope that staying in touch online means they’re not really saying goodbye. It doesn’t end well. I’ve heard so many stories of ways TCKs struggle with delayed grief – because they thought staying in touch online would erase the problem. One mother told me she learned to expect the sadness to hit her son a year after being left behind. A teenage boy spoke to me of being deeply hurt by a friend not investing as much in maintaining their friendship online. A young adult woman found she was offending friends; she learned to tell herself this wasn’t really goodbye, so she didn’t have to be emotional about it. When a person leaves, the friendship as it has been ends. A new friendship can be negotiated thanks to the wonders of the internet, but it will be a NEW friendship. There is still sadness is losing what was, even when there is a continuation of connection.

“I had to say goodbye to a close friend knowing I would not see her for at least five years. I missed her so much. Immediately after she left, I could not make new friends. I think I was still sore from the goodbye. I still talk to her online but it really isn’t the same. I do believe I will see her again, although I know the relationship will never be the same. A lot can happen in five years, and people change.”
Joy, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

It’s not just one person
We’re not talking about one or two friends moving away – we’re talking about one or two a year. Or more. No matter how much time and energy you invest in online relationships, there will always be people you don’t keep up with. There’s just no way to stay in touch with that many people, especially if you’re also working hard to build new connections in person. While having the ability to stay in touch via the internet is amazing, and so good for TCKs, it also adds complications. The more time I spend investing in friends online, the less time I can spend investing in people nearby. And while it’s so valuable to stay in touch with friends who used to live nearby, it’s also important to continue building new relationships. The friends I stay in touch with from previous locations know certain parts of me, have shared certain parts of my life. But if I don’t invest in new relationships, I won’t have friends who knew THIS part of my life.

“People who haven’t moved as much or as far do not understand that it is usual for TCKs to have more than one best friend. They are my best friend in this circumstance and this location.”
Callie, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

Who is in control?
Remember that we’re talking about children. They don’t have full control over their lives and ability to connect. Younger children especially can’t just stay in touch, because the ability to do so is filtered through their parents, and their friends’ parents. TCKs are heavily dependent on their parents to support the maintenance of friendships with people in other places. And even with parents’ support, it’s not always that simple. Time differences can make it really hard to coordinate schedules. Perhaps a TCK is living in an area without reliable internet access – or her friend is. Plus, I have heard many internet-age TCKs tell stories in which a friend moved away with little or no warning, and was never heard from again – especially if they were in primary school at the time. Staying in touch via the internet is great in theory, but it doesn’t always happen in practice – and TCKs often don’t have much control over that.

“Friendships maintained online helped and still help me a great deal. They served as a way to reminisce and share in the processes and challenges of life with other TCKs. My parents have been very gracious with making opportunities for me to visit friends – this includes driving long(ish) distances, being willing to host friends, and encouraging me to keep in contact. They make a point to ask about the lives of my friends who live far away who I talk to. I would encourage TCKs to be consistent and keep in contact with their friends online and through texting. But don’t let those relationships be the only ones, because they can take away from building relationships in person.”
Becca, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

The internet: worth it, but not without complications
A Third Culture childhood is a good thing overall, for most kids in most situations, but it is not without difficulties and complications. Erasing mention of hard things doesn’t solve the difficulties. The internet is a tool, and a good thing overall, for most kids in most situations. But it doesn’t solve the problem of how frequent goodbyes through childhood affect a person. It adds different opportunities, and also complications. It changes what goodbye looks like. But it doesn’t erase the underlying lesson, that “everyone leaves”.

Read more TCK articles by Tanya.

Originally published here.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

TCK Lessons: “Everyone Leaves”

by Tanya Crossman

The experience of living overseas as a child is very different to the experience of living overseas as an adult. The impact of childhood experiences last a lifetime. They are formative experiences – they teach us how the world works. We all internalise ‘lessons’ from our childhood experiences.

TCKs grow up between cultures, learning lessons from more than one cultural viewpoint. Often these messages contradict one another, and learning to navigate this conflict is part of what makes a TCK. The lessons they learn about how the world works, therefore, often come less from individual cultures and more from the fact that they juggle more than one cultural viewpoint. The experience of being “in between” greatly affects their understanding of the world.

As I interviewed hundreds of TCKs there were a lot of repeated themes, and even specific phrases, that became familiar. These were the lessons these TCKs had learned through their childhood experiences. In this post I’m introducing one of the most common lessons of a TCK childhood: Everyone leaves.

I heard the exact phrase “everyone leaves” in scores of interviews. Even when a TCK lived in one place a long time (even their whole childhood) most did not live fully immersed lives in their host culture, and were therefore affected by the mobility of other expatriates. That is to say, if TCKs didn’t move on themselves, they watched many of their friends leave. On top of this, most TCKs make trips to visit family in other countries, where they reconnect and then have to say goodbye. Or they attend conferences with their parents’ organisations, where they have friends they make and farewell every year. The end result is that goodbyes form part of the background of a TCK childhood.

It can be hard for adults to really internalise what this feels like for kids – how it shapes them. Perhaps a story will help. When leading sessions on transition with students, I ask how many times a close friend has moved away from them. Not just an acquaintance or classmate, but someone they felt close to. I get a lot of wide eyes and dropped jaws – how can anyone expect me to tally that number?? Some just roll their eyes and refuse to even try. One 10 year old lifted both hands and started opening and closing his fingers, representing an ongoing and endless number. One time, a 5th grade girl got a very determined look on her face – she was intent on counting to an exact number. She kept going while the class moved on to discuss another question. When she lifted her head again, I turned back to her and asked if she had her number. “Yes,” she answered, “it’s 23.” Before even finishing primary school, this girl had said goodbye to 23 people she felt close to.

It’s important to remember that different TCKs respond differently to this challenge. There are several quite rational responses to this experience. Some TCKs try to avoid the sadness of goodbyes, by denying that the goodbyes are real or painful. Others try to create emotional distance to blunt the pain.

“I lived with a mentality that ‘everyone leaves’. I just recently moved off to college and I had a really close friend get mad at me for pushing her away and trying to do anything I could to minimize the hurt I knew was coming. Honestly I still expect us to eventually lose touch anyway because people move on. That’s all I’ve ever known.” – Maddie, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I never feel sad until a half hour before the person I know leaves. It hurts too much, so I numb myself to the pain, block it out, and refuse to think about it until it’s actually happening.” – Faith, as quoted in Misunderstood

Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent – such as when they will be leaving soon, or the other person will. “Soon” being anywhere from six months to two years. Another common reaction is a highly developed ability to connect superficially – to be warm and friendly and welcoming – while holding back their deeper selves. There is great vulnerability in sharing my whole self when I know that the deeper a relationship gets, the more it will hurt when the (inevitable) goodbye comes.

“I didn’t want to devote myself to new friendships because I knew it would just be another goodbye at the end of the six months.” – Eve, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I remember feeling ‘popular’ but looking back, the majority of my friendships were quite shallow and superficial. I did not open myself up to the different possible friendships I could have had. I did not properly invest time or emotions in my ‘friends’. I was prepared to say goodbye to those people from day one.” – Siyin, as quoted in Misunderstood

Other TCKs dive deep into relationships as quickly as possible because they don’t know how long they have. This can create friction outside non-international circles, as they may come across as too eager, or be labelled as too intense.

Whatever method a TCK develops to help deal with the emotional stress of goodbyes, the commonality is that this is an essential survival skill for them. The goodbyes and the losses that go with them can be very overwhelming to a child, especially because it is the only experience they know.

I feel the urge to switch to something hopeful here, so I don’t depress you. But please stick with me a minute longer, as I offer a sobering reflection – to help understand how the “everyone leaves” lessons affects TCKs who don’t yet know there is any other way to experience the world.

Imagine you are 9 years old, and every year of your life you have said goodbye to a close friend, and had to make a new friend. In your world, friends only last a year or two. Is it really worth the effort this time?

Imagine you are 13 years old, and you’ve learned the skill of being warm and friendly and fitting into yet another new circle of friends, but you doubt it’s possible to be truly known by any one person. Am I going to be lonely forever?

Imagine you are 17 years old, your best friend is moving to another country, and this time you’re desperate not to lose them. You think about all the ways to stay in touch and plan around time zones, trying hard to ignore the sinking feeling that it won’t be the same.

How hopeful would you feel, as you look ahead?

Every child’s experience is different, of course, but the weight of having to keep building new friendships, and negotiating long-distance friendships, is something most TCKs experience to some degree.

Losing friends hurts – and that’s okay. The best first step for helping TCKs, especially when they are young, is to validate feelings of loss. Instead of saying “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends” a far more helpful thing is to say “You’re right, this is really hard. It won’t always feel this way, but right now it’s totally okay to feel sad or angry.”

Instead of telling them things you hope will make them feel better, ask them questions that invite them to share how they feel right now.

Listening to a child’s hurt is HARD – it’s painful to hear. But it is one of the greatest gifts we can offer them. Listening well says, “I see you. I hear you. The way you feel is valid. You’re allowed to be sad, and you’re allowed to tell me about it.”

I plan to write more in future about how to help TCKs with this, but for now I want to stop here, with the truth that losing friends hurts – and that’s okay. We hurt because we’re losing something that matters. It’s a good thing to attach to someone enough that it hurts to lose them.

None of us can “fix” the pain of losing a friend. I can’t change that this friend is moving away, or that our company is moving us away, or any of the circumstances that cause a child the pain of loss. I can’t fix it. But every time I talk to groups of TCKs about this, they share that they don’t actually want someone to fix it. They know it can’t be fixed – and they don’t like adults acting as if it can be. They just want someone (especially their parents) to listen to them, and to say it’s okay to be sad. And that is something we can do.

 

In part 2 of this series, I will consider a common response to “Everyone leaves” – namely, “What about the internet?”

Read more TCK articles by Tanya.

Originally published here.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

Citizens of Heaven: Third Culture Kids and Kingdom Living

by Tanya Crossman

In my previous post, I discussed the importance of citizenship of heaven as biblical theology which brings hope and encouragement to TCKs. The knowledge that their hearts will one day rest in the comfort of a single home brings great peace. There is also great joy in knowing that this single home crosses the earthly boundaries they feel restricted by – that heaven will be a place of inclusion, where difference does not mean separation.

This was one of two findings from my research. The other was more of a surprise to me – that TCKs’ understanding of earthly citizenship provides an important springboard to helping them understand what it means to be a Christian.

 

Christians are expatriates on earth

Throughout the New Testament there are calls for Christians to live as those whose allegiance is first and foremost to the kingdom of heaven. (Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 11:13-16). We are strangers and sojourners in this world. Two Greek words often used in this context (paroikos and parepidēmos) have a meaning similar to the modern use of “expatriate” – those who are living long term in a place they do not completely belong to.

Those of us who live (or have lived) outside our passport countries can easily layer our earthly experiences onto this spiritual reality. We know what it feels like to live in a place we cannot truly call ‘home’. We live according to the laws and customs of the place in which we sojourn, while maintaining a different identity altogether.

The experience of TCKs, however, is an even closer parallel to the Christian’s spiritual reality. TCKs grow up far from the place to which they are legally connected. They know where ‘home’ is, but they grow up building emotional connections somewhere else. Is that not our spiritual situation? We are citizens of heaven, a place in which we have not lived, a place that often feels so far away. We aim to live out Kingdom values, though we are steeped in the values of this world. TCKs’ understandings of citizenship, therefore, have a lot to speak to the spiritual lives of Christians.

 

TCKs and Citizenship

The TCKs I interviewed did not feel a sense of belonging simply through shared characteristics – like ethnicity, nationality, work, or church. Belonging, they said, required integration. They needed a sense of shared purpose, working toward a common goal.

“It’s always a two-way thing, to feel like you belong. You can’t just be there and feel like you’re contributing but no one really accepts you, or feel like everyone accepts you but you’re not actually building anything while you’re there.” – Min

This idea of belonging as a two-way street bled through into their understanding of citizenship. While they recognised the legal aspect of citizenship (holding a passport) they also felt strongly that real citizenship meant personal involvement: shared values, understanding of culture/language, acceptance by locals, and contribution to the community. Yet these TCKs also know that no amount of felt belonging can grant one a passport. Legal standing is, to a very large extent, outside the individual’s control.

“You can quite easily be a citizen of a country without knowing any kind of cultural norms or history or the language even. . .citizenship, legally speaking, comes just like that with paperwork, but in terms of actual action it takes time, it takes years to really feel like you have become a citizen of that place. . .If you don’t have the piece of paper to prove it then you’re not a citizen of the place. Regardless to how much that person knows about that place or how much they are familiar with the place.” – Kaito

 

Citizenship and Soteriology

During interviews every TCK used ideas from their description of earthly citizenship to illustrate what they believed heavenly citizenship was. The conversation invariably turned to what makes someone a citizen of heaven – what does it mean to be included in the people of God? In other words, what does it mean to be saved? Suddenly their two categories of citizenship took on a new light, as they map to theology of justification and sanctification.

  • I am a citizen because the ruling authority declares it so – justification.
  • I respond to my citizenship by learning to act according to the culture – sanctification.

I am a citizen because a government accepts me. Citizenship is granted to me by that authority, a decision which is out of my hands. I can apply to become a citizen, but the country must choose to accept me. That declaration makes me a citizen, but there should be more. I should respond to that reality, connecting personally and engaging in the community, by learning language, understanding culture, and contributing to society.

I am a citizen of heaven because God accepts me, declaring me righteous on the basis of Jesus’ completed work, not on the basis of anything I’ve done. That declaration makes me a citizen of heaven, but there should also be a response from me. I need to learn the culture of this Kingdom, learn to live that way, and engage with the community I am now a part of.

 

Discipling TCKs as citizens of heaven

Earthly citizenship comes with both rights and responsibilities; so does heavenly citizenship. TCKs’ understanding of the former can enlighten their understanding of the latter.

I often hear a works-mentality from Christian TCKs – that they need to be good enough, need to learn more, need to work out what to do to earn their place among God’s people. TCKs’ understanding of earthly citizenship provides an open door to explain justification and assurance of salvation – they can be granted the passport, even if they don’t feel they belong, and don’t always act like they belong.

On the other hand, TCKs’ intuitive sense that there is more to citizenship than a piece of paper translates across to their faith: being justified and accepted by God makes me a citizen of heaven, but now I must choose to identify with this King and His Kingdom.

“We should live like citizens of heaven here on earth… For me it means to have a different mindset, a different set of values… You live here how you live when you are a citizen in heaven. You care for other people, you think that every human is equal, you respect each other.” – Yannick

The call to live as citizens of heaven, to live with that cultural mindset, is a challenge today just as it was when Jesus preached the counter-cultural values of the kingdom of heaven. Citizenship is an image that resonates for immigrants and expatriates and especially TCKs. New Testament writers used this imagery precisely because it connects with so many earthly experiences. We can do the same, and in the process speak both comfort and challenge to TCKs and others who live cross-cultural lives.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

Citizens of Heaven: Third Culture Kids and the Longing for Home

by Tanya Crossman

When I wrote Misunderstood, there were a lot of smaller topics that came up in interviews which didn’t really fit into the narrative of the book. I was recently able to spend some time on one of these side topics for a research thesis titled: “A place to call home: citizenship in heaven for TCKs.” I interviewed nine Christian TCKs aged 19-26 (from a range of backgrounds and nationalities) and surveyed another 92 Christian TCKs.

In this post and its sequel, I’m going to explain a little of the two main findings of my research. In short: knowing their citizenship in heaven brings TCKs comfort, and also provides a powerful tool for discipleship.

 

Home and Belonging

The TCKs I interviewed talked about ‘home’ in the context of emotional connections. Home means loved ones, especially immediate family members (34%) and communities they belong to (11.5%). Only 16.5% of those surveyed connected home with a single place.

“For TCKs the word home is more of a concept, as opposed to a place.” – Nadia

“Physical location can be important, but the familiarity of a place is more often than not defined by the people and the interactions you have. For me, that is home.” – Lee

Since home is something that is connected to people, home can move – whether you like it or not. Home is something that can be lost. A community disperses, and so does the sense of home. A family moves on, and suddenly a place that was home is no longer accessible.

“I lost my home, where I used to be. I have many places I could have called home, but now there’s no core community there, it simply wouldn’t feel like home anymore.” – Kaito

Many TCKs go through life aching for a single place to call home, and knowing that what they long for is impossible. There is no earthly way to bring their experiences of home together in a single place.

“To [my passport country peers] home is a familiar place, but to me my family is home. My home is not here, because they’re not here. When I go visit them it’s not really familiar either. I miss places that I’ve never been to, or not been in long. . .My home is literally in three or four countries now, maybe five sometimes.” – Min

Citizenship in heaven answers a deep felt need in TCKs for something that does not exist for them on earth: a singular, comprehensive source of home.

 

The hope of heaven as home

77% of the TCKs I surveyed identified with feeling foreign on earth. The idea that there is a home for them located outside the complications of earthly allegiances is powerful. 80% said citizenship in heaven is comforting. This comfort was strikingly demonstrated in interviews, where some of these TCKs considered for the first time what the idea of heaven as home means for their transition-weary hearts.

“As a TCK or someone who is searching for their home or where they belong, having concepts like citizenship in heaven help us, or give us hope that one day we will belong somewhere.” – Nadia

“Heaven is my home so it’s okay that I’m so confused about where my home is, because maybe there isn’t one here, there’s one there. It’s a huge relief. If you don’t feel like you’re at home, that’s okay, because God is your home.” Alexis

Although heaven is a place not seen, even this connects with the TCK experience. TCKs grow up in a place that isn’t ‘home’ – knowing that somewhere else, on the other end of a long journey, is a place that is really ‘home’. A place they know through the stories of others, rather than in their own experience. TCKs’ complicated relationship with ‘home’ on earth makes heaven as home a powerful truth.

“Currently I’m a citizen of Singapore, that may change, but the constant of being a citizen of heaven is always reassuring to have. . .It’s an overwhelming thought, especially as someone who doesn’t really have a home to go back to every time. It’s nice to know that in the future, in the long term, in the prospect of eternity, I actually do have somewhere I do belong.” Min

 

An inclusive kingdom

There are no distinctions between Christians; all are fellow citizens, with the same rights and responsibilities (Ephesians 2:19). This beautiful truth is powerfully illustrated in Revelation, where people from every earthly place and allegiance gather together to worship the One God (Revelation 5:9-10, 7:9-10). Heaven embraces and includes peoples currently divided by geography, ethnicity, and language.

Several TCKs I interviewed picked up on the idea that heaven is inclusive: a place where people of all nations and languages are bound together as a single people in a single place, where there is distinction but no division. What comfort this brings to the 62% of TCKS who said they feel at home in international or multicultural communities. The place they long for, the place they know doesn’t exist on earth, is real – and it is their eternal home.

“I have this dream of a country that’s completely multicultural. . .I do think that it should be stressed how much relief it brings me, knowing that I’m going to get that… because it’s something that you’re always aching for, and never think you’re going to get, and then realising… I’ll actually get it when I go to heaven. And when you’re 13 and you’re 14 and you don’t belong anywhere, and you feel that there’s no place that’s home, it would have been nice to know, to have this as a curriculum, and to know that it’s completely fine if you don’t have a home…I don’t belong anywhere. But there is somewhere, and that’s great!” – Alexis

The hope we have in Christ comprehensively answers the longings of human hearts, and a key longing for TCKs (one they often feel is hopeless) is for home, a place to belong. The kingdom of heaven is what their hearts long for – and this is a powerful message.

This comfort alone makes citizenship in heaven an important piece of theology to teach to TCKs. This was where I thought my thesis might end, but I discovered another important way that TCKs interact with the concept of citizenship in heaven. Stay tuned for my concluding post to learn more.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

Making home an emotional oasis for your TCKs

by Tanya Crossman

I receive a lot of questions as I travel and speak about TCKs, but the question people most often ask is this: “If there was one thing you would recommend parents do to help their TCKs, what would it be?”

My short answer? Make your home an emotional oasis for your TCKs.

By that I mean creating a safe space for your TCKs to express the whole range of feelings and preferences stemming from their varied collections of cultural influences.

One reason the family unit can provide this space is that most families travel together. Home can therefore be a place where all the sources of an individual TCK’s linguistic and cultural adaptations are known.

An example of this is the phenomenon of sibling languages. 40% of TCKs born after 1985* reported sharing a unique dialect with their siblings, made up from the mix of different languages they had been exposed to. For one family, it was a mix of their native Finnish, the English they spoke at school, and the local language of the country they lived in. For others, it was favourite phrases picked up in five or more countries that peppered their speech.

The one place these TCKs could speak freely, knowing their words would be accepted and understood without question, was with their siblings.

 

A place to simply be themselves – and learn who that is

Daily life for most TCKs involves navigating two, three or even more different sets of cultural expectations as they move between home, school, and their host country. That’s in addition to any picked up in other locations. This means many TCKs grow up learning to adopt different cultural identities in different situations, shifting between them effortlessly as a natural life skill.

There are many advantages to this! A downside is identity confusion. Am I all of these pieces? One of them? Something completely separate? A 19 year old TCK from France explained it this way:*

“Because I always had to control what I said and what I talked about so I’d be accepted by kids my age, I still struggle to understand who I am. I have no clue what my true personality is and what is a habit I learned to fit in…I’m not sure how to untangle myself from years of camouflage, because I don’t have a clue where I end and the fake begins.”

Making your home an emotional oasis is about recognising this struggle, and creating a space in which your TCKs can remove their camouflage. It is about working to give them a place in which to work out who they are without it.

 

A place they can say anything

Almost everywhere TCKs go, there are opinions they can’t voice, languages they can’t speak, loves they can’t share. Making your home an emotional oasis means creating one safe place in which your TCKs can say all the things they must hold back elsewhere. It means letting them know that you, of all people in the world, will hear what their hearts are saying.

Making your home an emotional oasis means making a commitment to see life through your child’s eyes. To hear what they say, and ask questions about where they’re coming from.

To hear not “I hate this country” but rather “life here is hard for me”.

Not “I don’t like your language” but rather “I can’t express my whole self in any one language”.

Not “This move was a mistake” but rather “I am grieving what I have lost”.

Making your home an emotional oasis does not mean you can never gently correct a child’s negative attitude. It does not mean a child should be permitted to speak with wanton disrespect. But it does mean making your starting place an assumption that the difficult things your child says are meaningful, once you uncover the emotion behind them.

For one family I spent time with, this meant recognising their daughter’s uncharacteristic outbursts of anger as an expression of grief, as she struggled to adapt to life in a “homeland” she had no memories of. For these parents, creating safe space meant telling their daughter she was free to speak whatever language she wanted at home – in this case, the English she was more familiar with – rather than trying to help her practise the “mother tongue” she stumbled over everywhere else.

 

Now for the bad news…

While this sounds lovely, reality can be a challenge. This is because a true emotional oasis needs freedom.

Freedom to speak different languages.

Freedom to express opinions about different countries – both positive and negative.

Freedom to share emotional reactions to various events – or have no emotional reaction.

What if your child says they prefer the way things are done in your host country to your passport country? What if they prefer the language they speak at school to the language that is most familiar to you? What if they don’t enjoy your comfort foods and places? What if they don’t seem to appreciate the cultural values you grew up with? An 18 year old TCK from Zambia explained this struggle, saying:*

“I feel my passport country is my parents’ country, not mine. I refer to it as the ‘motherland’, not my homeland. My parents tried to make me eat traditional food and expected me to know the language, but it’s really hard.”

The cost of making your home an emotional oasis is that your children might use that freedom to say things you don’t like, things that highlight the gap between their experience of the world and your own. Even when parents are deeply committed to making safe space for their children, this can be hard. There’s a sacrifice involved. It’s painful.

It’s okay to be sad that your child doesn’t feel what you feel, that you can’t share everything with them. In fact, it’s really important to recognise that sadness. There’s a grief in not being able to share all your emotional connections to “home” with your children.

For one mother I know, this meant slowly coming to terms with this grief as one of the consequences of an international life. She realised that it wasn’t that her children “didn’t care” about her home country and home town, but that they didn’t have the same emotional attachments she did. She learned to allow herself to feel sad for their lack of shared connection, without trying to force her children to act out something they didn’t feel.

 

The reward?

Making your home an emotional oasis means providing a space for your children to truly be themselves. When you as a parent are the one providing this space, it means you will get to know your children in a deeper and truer way than many people in their lives. This is a precious mutual gift – one you give to them, and one you receive from them.

 

* Statistics and quotes come from Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century

 

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and occasionally at her website.

Parallel Lives: TCKs, Parents, and the Culture Gap

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By Tanya Crossman

Something I’ve heard a lot of expat parents say is that their whole family is “in it together” or that they are “called” together. The basic assumption is that all members of the family go abroad and live overseas together – they are bonded by the same experience. When I hear this, however, I think two things:

First, I am so glad you and your kids are on the same team!

But, are you aware that you aren’t sharing the same experience?

To explain what I mean, I need to define some confusingly similar acronyms: TCK, ATCK, and TCA.

TCK stands for Third Culture Kid – a young person who has spent a significant part of childhood outside her passport country.

ATCK is Adult Third Culture Kid – an adult who had a TCK childhood.

TCA is Third Culture Adult – an adult who has lived outside his passport country, but only as an adult.

An important thing to grasp is that TCKs (who become ATCKs) begin their expat journey as children, while TCAs do not live abroad until adulthood.

It might sound subtle, but the difference is actually very significant. The children of expat families are TCKs – but the parents are usually TCAs. They are living in the same country, but while parents experience and process the challenge of cross-cultural living as adults, TCKs grow up and form identity in the middle of it.

Expat parents have parallel experiences to their children – in the same places, but qualitatively different.

You live in the same countries.

But it affects you differently.

Overseas life is different for TCAs/TCKs in a few ways. These differences do not mean the TCK has a better (or worse) experience. If these differences go unnoticed, however, they lead to misunderstandings between parents and children. This leaves many parents feeling frustrated and many children feeling unheard.

I’ve worked with TCKs for 11 years (I lived in China for most of that time). And I’ve spent the last three and a half years working on a book that explains the TCK experience of life to those who care about them. I interviewed nearly 300 TCKs about their experiences (and surveyed 750 TCKs). Most were aware that they experienced their host countries and passport countries differently to their parents; many felt their parents were far less aware of the differences. In fact, one third of the 750 TCKs I surveyed said they felt misunderstood by their parents.

I am going to outline three of the differences between what a TCA and a TCK experience overseas: connection, identity, and choice.

 

Connection

A TCA moves abroad having experienced comprehensive connection to one country as a child. A TCA has deep emotional connections to her passport country because a large percentage of her life was spent there. These emotional connections are experiential – memories of lived life there.

A TCK, however, experiences multiple countries/cultures during childhood. Two-thirds of the TCKs I surveyed first moved abroad before age five, 58% spent more than half their childhoods abroad, and a 30% spent less than three years in their passport countries. Most TCKs have more time in their host countries than in their passport countries, so that is where most of their emotional connections are made.

Why does this matter?

Your TCK children will not have the same emotional connection to the people, places and activities of your country (and your childhood) that you do. Things that mean the world to you may not mean much to them. They may dislike your comfort foods, find your favourite sport boring, or be unmoved by things which bring you to tears. They may intellectually understand that these things are supposed to matter, but not feel a connection to them. If they fear disapproval, they may learn to “fake it”. Giving your TCKs space to feel differently, even if it is sad or disappointing to you, is vital to maintaining open communication and strong understanding between you.

 

Identity

A TCA comes abroad with a fully formed sense of self, connected to a particular country – the place that is “home”. A TCK grows up caught between two places that are both “home”. Most TCKs develop personal identity against a backdrop of frequent change. TCKs are not just experiencing life overseas, they are trying to make sense of the world (and themselves) while doing so.

The events of international life certainly affect TCAs, but they affect TCKs much more deeply – becoming part of the bedrock of their emotional worlds. For example, many TCKs I interviewed spoke of learning that “everyone leaves”. Watching friends leave, or moving on themselves, affected how they saw the world. Woven into their sense of self was the knowledge that nothing is permanent.

Why does this matter?

TCKs are individuals, and they deal with international life differently. But regardless of how they process the experience, living overseas will impact how they see the world, and the people in it – leading to what may be very different worldview to your own. When your child’s view clashes with your own, take time to understand why they think what they do, rather than trying to “correct” their perspective.

 

Choice

Being an adult, a TCA has far more control over the decision to live abroad. No one becomes a TCK by choice. Not that it’s a bad thing (quite the opposite – 92% of MKs surveyed were thankful for their experience) but it happens because a decision has been made on the child’s behalf. Even when a child (especially an older child) is consulted about moving abroad, it is still the parent who has the power to actually make the decision.

While a few MKs I interviewed said they felt they as children were missionaries alongside their parents, that living abroad was their own “calling” as well as their parents, most did not share this feeling. A few expressed strong resentment that these choices were made on their behalf (12% of MKs surveyed felt resentment about their childhoods).

Why does this matter?

All parents make decisions on behalf of their children, but the decision to take a child overseas means giving them a very different childhood. It is important for parents to understand their choices have created a culture gap. That gap is not evidence of a bad decision – it is a natural consequence of a different cultural upbringing. Denying it or trying to “fix” it does not change the situation. What does make a difference is recognising the gap and taking steps to listen to the child’s point of view.

You live abroad together.

But the impact of that life is different.

 

My book is called Misunderstood because that is how many young TCKs feel. Having spent years helping expat parents understand their children, I wrote a book to do what I do – give insights into the perspective of TCKs.

When parents (and other adults) recognise the difference between an adult’s experience of life overseas and a child’s experience, it is a huge step toward the sort of understanding that encourages and comforts TCKs.

You are on the same team.

You do experience life abroad differently.

But with awareness and care, you can still understand each other deeply.

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TC_headshot-sqTanya Crossman went to China to study for a year and ended up there 11 years, working for international churches and mentoring Third Culture Kids (her book about TCKs releases this week). She currently lives in Australia studying toward a Master of Divinity degree at SMBC. She enjoys stories, sunshine, Chinese food and Australian chocolate. |www.misunderstood-book.com | facebook: misunderstoodTCK | twitter: tanyaTCK

Misogyny in Missions {part 2}

by Tanya Crossman

I love writers who get me thinking – whose words promote discussion and exchange of ideas. I often have that reaction to Jonathan’s writing, and his thoughts on the “Billy Graham Rule” (and the thoughts in the post he referenced) definitely stirred a lot of ideas in me, reflecting both on Scripture and on how this works out in practice – especially as a single woman in ministry.

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“All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6:12, 10:29)

This is a great guideline for Christian behaviour. Just because I have the freedom to do anything does not mean I should use that freedom to sin, or cause others to sin. In regard to gender separation, some people would argue that the BGR (Billy Graham Rule) is a small sacrifice in order to protect a greater good. Sure, I could have lunch with my opposite-gender coworker, but it’s a simple thing to not do, in order to protect my reputation/purity/spouse/ministry/whatever. The problem I have with this idea is that it implies (or even says outright) that cross-gender friendships are not beneficial. I realise that some cultures do have strict taboos, but theologically I take issue with making this part of Christian culture. Humanity, male and female together, was made in the image of God – we need each other in order to have full expression of our God-reflection.

We desperately need this full expression in the church. Too often in the church women don’t advance or have their voices heard because no one in power will talk to/meet with/befriend them – for the sake of propriety. If we limit cross-gender working relationships, our churches will lack the insight single women have to give. As a single woman in ministry I met one-on-one with pastors and bosses and coworkers – most of whom were men, and often married. If my male coworkers had time with the pastor we all worked under but I didn’t, that would have spoken volumes about my value/worth as an employee – or my relative lack of it.

It is possible to do this well, with integrity, without restricting the access and influence of women. Our meetings weren’t secret. We usually met in public (lots of cafes!) during business hours – part of the work day. In most cases I knew their wives well and we socialised together outside work. When single coworkers married I usually got to know their wives and they became part of my social circle. While I had less time with the pastors, given that they did not have an intimate mentoring role in my life (though often their wives did invest in me more deeply), I still felt very valued and heard, and one-on-one time was an important part of that.

“Reject all appearance of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:22)

A big reason given for BGR type restrictions is to “avoid the appearance of evil” as a Biblical command – but that’s not what the Bible says. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says to reject all kinds of evil – “appearance” was a mistranslation which has been corrected. But even if we accept the “appearance of evil” translation, what is it about cross-gender friendship that we think looks evil? What is wrong about a man and woman having a conversation, or a meal? If I lack the ability to recognise innocent (and beneficial!) friendship, the problem is in my own mind and heart.

Many times Christian friends have told me sincerely that a man and woman cannot be close friends without at least one of them developing “feelings” for the other. That isn’t true in my experience, certainly not as a blanket rule. Sure, there is a place for wisdom – and Jonathan’s call to honesty is crucial – but there is nothing inherently evil about a cross-gender friendship! A man and woman talking together are not on the precipice of potential sin. And where does this leave our same-sex-attracted brothers and sisters? This seems to tell them they can’t have friendship at all – not just no romantic attachment, no family life in their future, but no close friends. What a horrible, isolating message. We are built for intimacy – and when we reduce intimacy to sex, we all lose.

I realise that concern with “appearance” is often connected to protection from false accusation – if everyone knows I never spend time with someone of the opposite gender, they won’t believe a false rumor should it crop up. I actually went through a period of extreme caution around any one-on-one time with men, in response to a specific “threat” – a former leader in the ministry spreading slander alleging impropriety among the remaining leadership. In this case there was a clear “danger” of false accusation and guarding against that protected a vulnerable ministry. I relaxed my extreme precautions when the threat was over. The problem with this as an all-the-time precaution is it does nothing to address issues of mind and heart – it only addresses how others see me. There is a dangerous sense of safety in being a “whitewashed tomb” – but if my heart is clean and honesty keeps me accountable, there is no need for legalistic rules that don’t fix anything.

Strict BGR restrictions can actually fan the flames of heart issues. If I buy into the appearance-of-evil thing, that it is somehow potentially sinful for a man and woman to spend time together, I will look at any interaction with suspicion. It may stroke my ego – that this person has something else on their mind when they look at/talk to/think about me. It may stoke my paranoia – that this person may be dangerous to me, may want something from me. It may stir gossip – that the two people I see talking must be doing something more in private. In each case, it makes me feel wary of cross-gender friendship – I can’t trust people, as they may be snares, predators, or deceitful. Instead of encouraging healthy relationships within the church, such separation and legalism encourages suspicion and gossip.

“A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.” (Proverbs 16:28)

Sometimes we as the church just need to calm down – enjoy healthy friendships and be family to one another without making a fuss about it. As a single woman I have become annoyed on multiple occasions at assumptions made (and gossip spread) by and among church people. If a man and woman are seen having coffee, suddenly people are talking about them and whispering that they’re an item. We can’t see two people together without making huge leaps, big assumptions. Why is that? Why do we assume that if a man and a woman are talking, there is something “going on”? Can’t two people having lunch be, you know, eating? Yes, we all know of situations in which there was something nefarious going on, but the problem wasn’t in public – it was in private.

One issue I have with this sort of gossip is that it can push what should be a healthy friendship underground – if meeting publicly occasions gossip, is it better to meet privately? But as Jonathan pointed out, secrets are a bigger problem. And imagine what this does to dating – it’s impossible to get to know someone without the whole community being engaged, watching with bated breath, making it much more pressured. Community involvement in a relationship is good – but until there is commitment, let’s leave space for healthy and innocent friendship.

A note about abuse

I know many women who have a paranoia response as a reaction to past abuse – and far too many women have experienced abusive, misogynistic or exploitative treatment. This is an important reason that the church needs to demonstrate healthy relationships between men and women. We need to know – and show our children – what this looks like! I need to see what healthy interaction looks like (both in and out of romantic relationships) so I can identify unhealthy/abusive interaction when I see it. Radical separation of genders can leave people more open to abuse. We learn that certain people are/aren’t safe, rather than certain types of behaviour/interaction are improper. I think it can also play into the sense of entitlement connected with rape culture – all women are sexually “dangerous” and therefore any woman who gives me a little of her time must be “up for it.”

“Don’t cause another to stumble.” (Matt 5:29-30, Matt 18:6-9, Rom 14:20, 1 Cor 10:31-32)

This concept appears several times in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus and the writings of Paul. There are two concepts – to prevent oneself from stumbling, and to protect others from stumbling. To prevent myself from stumbling, Jesus advocates radically removing from myself that which is a problem. If I have trouble being in a room with another person without seeing opportunity for sin, the problem is not the other person – it is my own heart. I need heart surgery, not to remove the so-called “opportunity”. Removing the opportunity does nothing to address the problem.

Paul depicts believers with different convictions in fellowship with one another, neither group needing to be “corrected”. So while I disagree with the need for strict gender separation, and will happily engage in respectful discussion about this practice, I will also do my best to respect the consciences of those I interact with. If a couple has decided between them that they will not be alone with a member of the opposite gender, I will not seek to break their trust.

Conclusion

I think strict BGR behaviour stirs fear, lack of trust, and assumptions about the thoughts/motives of others. I also think it means we miss out on full and free fellowship – we lack what the other half of our community has to offer. There are great benefits to cross-gender friendships which we lose when we create legalistic rules as a huge buffer from actual sin. Instead, wouldn’t it be great if we all cultivated healthy friendships with each other? Let’s practice being family to one another, with innocence and purity, calling out the best in one another.

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TC_headshot-sqTanya Crossman went to China to study for a year and ended up there 11 years, working for international churches and mentoring Third Culture Kids (her book about TCKs will be released later this year). She currently lives in Australia studying toward a Master of Divinity degree at SMBC. She enjoys stories, sunshine, Chinese food and Australian chocolate. | www.misunderstood-book.com | facebook: misunderstoodTCK | twitter: tanyaTCK