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.
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.