This article is the result of an interview with Tina Quick whose experience and knowledge of the TCK’s transition to college have been invaluable. Tina is the author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition, the first and only book written to and for expat students and their parents. She is a cross-cultural trainer, writer and international speaker. An Adult Third Culture Kid herself, she has raised her own children across four cultures and continents.
Maddy was thrilled when she got the news: she was accepted in her first choice university back ‘home’.
After a nomadic childhood where she changed country and school three times in the last ten years because of her father’s job, she would finally go back to study in her passport country.
Her time at the international school was over. Her friends were leaving too, many returning to their countries of origin for the same purpose. They’ll now scatter around the world.
Thank God, there is social media to keep in touch!
Lauren, Maddy’s mum, is both proud and fearful to see her daughter go off to college thousands of km away. She doesn’t know exactly what to expect.
But if she’s truthful with herself, she’s more worried about how she’s going to cope than for her daughter. After all, Maddy’s going back home. Not to a foreign country. She knows the culture, speaks the language. Lauren made sure the family spent regular holidays at her parents’ place. Moreover, Maddy has been through so many transitions that she should be fine and adapt quickly.
So thought both mother and daughter…
In each situation, we’re prone to have expectations often based on previous experience. If the reality is different, we’re surprised. Depending on the turn of events, we’re either thrilled or disappointed, elated or desperate, reassured or doubtful of ourselves.
Repatriating can be treacherous. You think you’re going back to a place, a country, a culture you know. But when you’ve lived abroad for several years, one thing is sure: you have changed. You are different inside and this brings both advantages and challenges.
When chasing dreams though, who would want to listen to anyone that could squelch your excitement? Certainly not teenagers. They know everything, right?
But you, as a wise parent, need to have their back.
If you’re aware of the pitfalls:
- You’ll be prepared when your child struggles.
- You’ll offer guidance confidently.
- You’ll be supportive rather than reactive or defensive.
- You’ll save yourself unnecessary stress and sleepless nights.
When Maddy arrives on campus, it’s orientation week. Her college has organized games, parties, and sports challenges.
One evening at the canteen, the girl sitting next to her starts to chat.
‘Where do you come from?’
‘India’, Maddy answers.
‘No, India, the country.’
The girl gives her a surprised look and turns away.
End of the conversation.
A few days later, Maddy faces the same question. But this time, she has prepared a different answer: the place where her grandparents live, where she spent most of her summer holidays in the big family mansion.
‘Really? My best friend is coming from the same city. Which high school did you go to?’
She starts to dread any question related to where she comes from.
She looks like any other native student. She’s got the look, the regular student ID (not the international one) but she just feels so out of place!
Myth #1 Your Third Culture Kid Believes
‘I’m gonna fit right in: I’m going back home’
When Maddy lived in the expat bubble, hopping from one international school to the other, she never really questioned who she was because all other children around her were having the same kind of nomadic life and global experience.
Moreover, she thought – like her mum told her so many times – that her roots were in her parents’ passport country.
It’s a shock when she brutally realizes that she doesn’t belong due to her lack of shared experiences with her peers.
She questions her identity.
‘If this isn’t home, where is it really? If I don’t fit in, where do I belong?’
Identity is not a frivolous topic. Identity is one of the 9 fundamental needs of any human being, according to economist Manfred Max Neef.
Tip for parents: As an expat parent, you may have experienced yourself the throes of doubt about your identity. Acknowledging the crucial importance of this quest and providing a listening ear without justifying, advising, minimizing, blaming are two useful ways to support your child.
Maddy starts to regret her time in high school. She misses her friends, the sense of community she felt in her international institution, the view on the mountain, the smell of her favourite food.
She even misses the sound of the local dialect in her previous country. A dialect that she couldn’t understand.
She would never have thought so!
Myth #2 Your Third Culture Kid Believes
‘I’m done with the expat life and the mobile childhood.
This is now behind me. I’m going back home.’
Maddy tries to get some comfort by keeping in touch with her friends on social media but it’s not the same. And it seems that all the others are fine. They post great pictures and exhilarating statements.
Maddy is jealous. And she feels totally incompetent.
Is she the only one struggling? Is she the only one who wants to go back?
Every change means loss. Every loss needs to be mourned otherwise it’ll trigger unresolved grief that can haunt you for decades.
Grief is a healthy reaction to loss and there’s no loss too little to be ignored.
The losses need to be named, acknowledged and further internally processed. There’s no quick fix with grief.
Tip for parents: Children grieve like adults from 4 years old onwards according to British psychologist John Bowlby. The sudden exit from the expat world combined with the entry in adulthood can be a shock for many and a unique opportunity to grieve hidden losses during all the childhood period. Providing a listening ear without judgement during those painful moments is priceless. Parents can make a big difference in validating their child’s losses without judging and/or arguing.
Changing school every 3-4 years, Maddy is used to coming to a place where she doesn’t know anybody. From experience, she knows that the first week is the hardest. But she is not afraid to go out, introduce herself and break the ice.
After an hour of intense exercise at the gym the other day, she sighed.
‘I’d die for an edamame sandwich and a chai!’
Her roommate glanced at her puzzled. ‘What did you say?’
‘I’m hungry. I’d love an edamame sandwich… You don’t know what edamame is?’
There was an awkward silence.
Whatever Maddy tried, it always seemed to fall flat.
She starts to become insecure, stressed and over cautious. She can’t really be herself any longer. She feels so lonely.
Myth #3 Your Third Culture Kid Believes
‘Making friends? I’ve done it so many times.
It’s going to be a piece of cake’
Due to the lack of shared experience, third culture kids struggle to connect with people raised in a single culture. Sometimes the gap is so big that they may appear arrogant.
Another case in point is the way they’re used to forming new relationships.
Maddy knows it too well. Each time, her family was in a new place, they were never sure exactly for how long. There was no time to lose to make meaningful connections. She used to open up quite quickly and was used to others doing the same.
When she abruptly asked her neighbour in the college dorm if she already had a boyfriend, she was surprised that the girl withdrew.
Maddy got confused and lost all her self-confidence. Even making friends was now something she didn’t know how to do!
Tip for parents: It’s useful to know the discrepancy between how your child initiates relationships with each other – opening up quicker due to time constraint and starting from scratch – and how other people generally make meaningful connections – taking more time to observe and to confide in. This information can be precious to rebuild some self-confidence, keeping in mind that the third culture kid is not THE problem.
Maddy has got the blues. It’s not what she expected. After the excitement of orientation week and the settling in process, she thought she’d feel good.
The more she discovers, the stranger it feels. She struggles to relate to others, she’s disappointed in the society she uncovers.
She compares everything with what she had, what she took for granted, and sees the difference now in her home country. Racism, over consumption and squandering, she’s shocked. Some dismissive comments overheard from other students make her feel uncomfortable.
Myth #4 Your Third Culture Kid Believes
‘I’m going back home.
I won’t have a culture shock’
Maddy experiences reverse culture shock. She pictured in her mind an image of her country blended with idealization and expectations. Now she suddenly confronts reality.
As with culture shock, the emotional turmoil is big but unlike entering a new culture where you expect such a shock, the reentry process in your home country may come as a total surprise. You’re a stranger in your own land. Without any external sign of difference, any possible ‘excuse’.
Tip for parents: Experienced repatriates advise to treat re-entry as another expatriation experience. Being mindful of this fact can help reassure your child and normalize the experience.
Now your turn: What are you most worried about when your child leaves for university?
And if your third culture kid is already back home, what myth are they struggling with most?