I have wanted to write some essays on the re-entry process for a long time. It is a topic of critical importance in the world of the TCK, expat, missionary, and global nomad. I’m grateful that this week while I’m in Istanbul I have the privilege of posting a 3-part series on re-entry written by Joy Salmon, a fellow TCK from Pakistan who has done extensive work in this area. In this first post, Joy does a great job of putting our early adult experiences with re-entry into the context of development. I’d appreciate your feedback on this three-part series on Reentry by Joy Salmon. You can find out more about Joy at the end of the post, but for now take a look at Part 1.
What story have you told yourself about re-entering your home culture?
The stories we tell ourselves and others matter. They shape our lives. Our stories not only describe us, they also define us – they even give meaning to our lives. They’re useful, in that they make sense of our experiences and events that happen to us. In doing so, they influence our thoughts, feelings and life paths.
When I returned to the U.S. after graduating from high school at a boarding school in Pakistan, I was filled with excitement to be entering the next phase of my life – college, independence, adulthood. My dad had taught me how to open a bank account and write a check. My sister was waiting with open arms and a summer job. Family friends opened their home and moved me into my college dorm. What more could one want? I was prepared and connected.
But life happens. My sister moved away. I no longer was a known and valued entity. Nor were the people and world around me. Even those who were “like me” (re-entered TCKs from other countries) seemed “not like me.”
I told some not-like-me people stories about Pakistan that were really stories about my fear that they were not liking me and my misguided attempts to still be okay. One time, I said my miniature souvenir charpoy (a wooden framed, jute twine bed), which was 1/6 the actual size, was an exact replica of the beds Pakistanis slept on. I explained that the beds were small so there would be enough space for the many beds needed for large families who lived in one-room homes.
I cringe to admit that I laughed at their naiveté when I realized they believed me.
In time, I grew to hide my story from other not-like-me people because I wanted to avoid long explanations, disinterest or their not liking me by virtue of my differences. But it leaked out. One time, in a team-building exercise, we were asked to name a favorite farm animal that hadn’t yet been named. By the time it was my turn, farm animals typically found in the western world had been named, so I named a camel – to the bewilderment and amusement of other participants.
My misguided efforts to build myself up and hide out were based on the story I told myself that went something like this: You’re different. You don’t fit in. So there’s something wrong with you.
While there was a kernel of truth in my story, i.e. I did have different life experiences, my decision about what that meant took me down a path of incongruities: I set myself apart from others, while doing all I could to become the poster child for middle America.
What if I had known that my like me vs. not like me and my liking me vs. not liking me struggles were expected and typical parts of the story of everyone my age? That internal crises and emotional upheavals were inextricably linked to exploring possibilities, to discovering and committing to a strong sense of me, to becoming confident in my identity while still being able to connect with my peers. That the process of exploring and growing in the ability to have close, trusting relationships that are mutually caring and beneficial is often messy. That I was like my peers in these normal developmental tasks for young adults.
Perhaps I had some personal vulnerabilities that predisposed me to make these developmental tasks into internal struggles. And perhaps defining them as “struggles” changed their meaning – one that spoke more of an agonizing battle than a natural growth process.
What if I had embraced these seemingly adverse events as normal experiences for my stage in life. What if I had realized that these feelings and struggles were:
- Ones that nearly everyone experiences at this phase of life
- Ones that would be naturally resolved with time and effort, some new skills and strategies, and a little help from my friends and mentors
More specifically, what if I had known that almost all young adults feel uncertain of their belonging, and that these feelings wane with time. How might I have responded differently?
What story will you tell yourself – and others – about your re-entry to your home culture? If you’d like to explore this, here’s one way:
- Grab a pen and paper and describe in writing how your experiences are similar to my late-blooming realizations mentioned above. Let your thoughts and feelings flow, without worrying about writing style.
- Turn your writing into a paragraph or two you could share with others.
- Would you be willing to share your paragraph below as a way to help the transition of future re-entering TCKs?
In Part 2, we’ll look at how the cultural transition of re-entry adds a development task – reconstructing our lives.
Joy L. Salmon is a former TCK. She lived in Pakistan for most of her youth. Her dissertation research was on the early-adult experiences of third-culture kids (TCKs) who returned to the USA upon graduation from high school overseas. She is a licensed psychologist, with a Ph.D. In Counseling Psychology & Human Systems, and the founder of workwiselearning.com.
- Saudade – A Word for the Third Culture Kid
- Third Culture Kid Envy
- Homesick in Reverse
- Bringing home the TCKs (iwasanexpatwife.com)
- Planning for Third Culture Kids (TCK’s) (asiasurvey2013.wordpress.com)
- Are you an ATCK raising TCK’s? (expatsincebirth.com)
- How to Help a Third Culture Kid Make the Transition “Back Home” (thirdcultureteacher.wordpress.com)
11 thoughts on “Part I ~ Re – Entry: Oh the Stories We Tell Ourselves”
MK, you said: Well, of course I’m different from the average person who grew up in one culture!
I say: Yes. We all are different than the average person who grew up in one culture. And that is both our strength and vulnerability. It helps me to think of belonging as something I create for myself with others who are like-hearted (vs like-minded).
Thanks for weighing in.
I think you are correct in saying that much of what a TCK experiences upon reentering their “home culture” is experienced by other young adults out on their own for the first time. However, I also think that the TCK’s experiences are compounded and perhaps more extreme. Just a few examples from my own life… When I returned the States for college (born and grew up a TCK in Kenya), I recognized that others were around me were struggling with homesickness, same as me. However, they could go home on weekends and holidays, whereas I could not, being 10,000 miles and a very expensive plane ticket from home. They could call home as often as they wanted. I was limited to one costly 30-minute phone call per month (this was pre-Skype and other lovely recent technological advances). I recognized that others struggled with identity formation and fitting in; however the large gaps in my knowledge of U.S. pop-culture made my own struggle more acute , my attempts at forging connections more awkward.
I was very blessed to have been given lots of tools to deal with my re-entry experience. When I was a high school student, my high school brought in Dave Pollack (yes, THE Dave Pollack) every year to give a weekend seminar for the graduating seniors. Perhaps because I knew what to expect, and knew that it was normal, re-entry didn’t completely overwhelm me.
You said: I also think that the TCK’s experiences are compounded and perhaps more extreme… my own struggle more acute, my attempts at forging connections more awkward.
Yes, Laura, therein lies the difference from many of our peers. That’s what Part 2 is about. And I love that you knew what to expect and knew that it was normal.
Do you think there’s value in immersing ourselves in the similarities to our peers – even for just a moment? Could it offer a means of connecting?
YES!!! Definitely. The ability to think outside ourselves, to realize that others are going through similar struggles, even if they are less extreme, allows us to find a point of reference and connect with people. I think it also keeps us from becoming too self-absorbed. When we stand apart from people, they begin to see us as aloof or arrogant (2 things TCK’s are often accused of being). Attempting to find those points of connection, even if they seem shallow to us in the beginning, smooths the way to authentic friendships and deeper relationships. At least, this is what I found to be true for myself.
Joy, thanks for this food for thought on “reentry”. While I can certainly agree that all young people have to find their way into adulthood I disagree that the experience is the same. The North American high school graduate struggles to find who they are in the larger context of community and culture. They have pegs to hang their questions on. They have boxes to sort through their questions of identity and belonging. The returning TCK left those pegs and boxes behind too. They are at a loss to even begin to sort through it all.
It doesn’t change the fact that each young person has to figure these things out, nor does it change the reality that each young person is expected to resolve these questions responsibly and turn the corner into adulthood. But I would argue that the TCK’s experience in resolution is different, not necessarily harder, but certainly different.
I wonder how this specific thinking on “reentry” for the young adult differs from the “reentry” of the middle aged person who returns to their passport country?
I agree that the experience is different. However, I think it’s the same and different. I think it’s important to remember that some things are the same – the early-adult developmental tasks, ie forming identity (like me vs not like me), and a sense of belonging and intimacy (liking me vs not liking me) is the same for both TCKs and our home-country peers. (And, yes, these developmental tasks can recycle back through over the course of our lives.) In Part 2, I talk about what makes the experience different. I’ll be interested in what you think. And thanks for sharing your thoughts, Robynn!
I agree that the experience is different. However, I think it’s the same and different. I think it’s important to remember that some things are the same – the early-adult developmental tasks, ie forming identity (like me vs not like me), and a sense of belonging and intimacy (liking me vs not liking me) is the same for both TCKs and our home-country peers. (And, yes, these developmental tasks can recycle back through over the course of our lives when triggered by events.) In Part 2, I talk about what makes the experience different. I’ll be interested in what you think. And thanks for sharing your thoughts, Robynn!
PS I should have added that this eries is focused on re-entry of young adults.
I was 15 upon “reentry” to the USA, but it wasn’t really REentry~as i was born in Taiwan and that was HOME except for 2 furloughs when I was 4 and 9~It was quite a culture shock at an age when all adolescents in “our” culture are struggling with identity and all~but since then I have moved every few years, and now that I’m in my 50’s I STILL struggle with feeling accepted/belonging. An unkind former acquaintance who blocked me from messaging her on FaceBook this past year told another person that I had always been “different.” Well, of course I’m different from the average person who grew up in one culture! I don’t think I will EVER feel I truly belong anywhere until i arrive at my eternal, heavenly home…then I will finally feel a real sense of community like I had a taste of back at missionary school~Those 5 yrs of my life at Morrison Academy, grades 5-9 were so much fun. Yes there were minor cliques, but nothing like kids here have to endure in school state-side…It can be brutal.