4 Myths Your Child Believes About Going Back ‘Home’ for University (And Why You Should Know About Them)

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’. 

happy third culture kid to college

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.

‘Sorry, Indiana?’

‘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?’

Maddy reddens.

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?

 

Credit picture Depositphotos Credit Music Piano Society

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Comments

  1. Great piece, Anne.
    My daughter spent 6 months in our home country – not for studying at the university but just to try to be there at other times than during summer vacation. She ended up taking a lot of diverse classes related to her major all the same, and I am sure she could relate to this experience.
    Fortunately, many of our friends back home have been abroad themselves and could relate to her feelings of being an outsider. That is one of the upsides of being involved with the home country diaspora – you get an increased number of international connections now living in the home country again who need no explanations; they have already walked a mile in the same shoes.

    For this student I would have offered this suggestion “my family is from xx city but I went to high school in India.” That explains both that you are not a foreigner but also why you haven’t seen the same movies and generally have a different frame of reference for what high school is like. That said, for somebody to turn away because you say you are from India is just plain rude – and a great if hard learning experience for the student.

    • Thanks so much Charlotte for your insights. Much appreciated and great story with your daughter 🙂

    • Charlotte, I stopped saying that I’d grown up in India because people often responded with “That must have been an interesting experience.” Or “What was it like to grow up in India?” a question that baffled me. It was too big, too vague and I wasn’t convinced that the asker really cared. I once responded with “What was it like to grow up in Indiana?” (that person really did grow up in Indiana). He got my point.

  2. Anne,
    Thanks for sharing these great insights. It’s so difficult to anticipate the pitfalls awaiting our students. Funny how “where do you come from?” is such a qualifying statement. Reverse culture shock is so hard to anticipate, you fantasize that life at ‘home’ has stood still while you are off exploring the world. Great post!
    –Sarah

    • Thanks a lot, Sarah for stopping by! Much appreciated 😉 I wonder whether the ‘single culture’ students who want to study abroad – and whose health you’re concerned with as a travel medicine specialist – are aware of ‘culture shock and reverse culture shock’ effects.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful article, very timely, as our daughter is looking at colleges back home. I can tell that there would be difficult times, as well as the frustrating distance, and we are deciding which choice would be best, here or there. I appreciate the reassurance and sense of direction in your essay.

  4. Hi Anne,
    Great article. We’re 18 months from the big moment and I am really curious and already a bit nervous. So far my African-Canadian-Australian boy says it is all “no big deal”. He’s just been elected to student council so that’s a good sign of acceptance. But he’s going ‘back’ to Africa for the first time in January and it will be a HUGE shock. He’s never really seen poverty. One thing that I think may be helpful in the long run is that we have been hosting foreign university students in our home over the year, for about a month each. So far they’ve all been Asian, and it has been partly his job to make them feel at home and to help them understand what is happening around them. I’m hoping this will help to prepare him for some experiences he’ll have as ‘the outsider’ if he does choose to go ‘home’ to Canada to study. Either way it is a good experience, putting us all in the shoes of locals! Thanks for your sharing, Anne. Such good thoughts.

  5. Thanks for this article, Anne. I recognize some of the details!
    It brought back lots of memories of what it was like to arrive in the States for college, especially feeling like I didn’t fit in. Sure, I looked like the other Caucasian students, but I couldn’t relate to a lot of their experiences and I stopped talking about many of mine. I’m grateful that the National Council of Churches invited many of us TKCs — in my case missionary children — to a weekend where we could talk about adjusting to life in the States.

    • Very grateful for your contribution, Marilyn and for sharing your experience as missionary child, a context that entails in itself its own set of challenges. Thank you!

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