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)