Guest post – Growing up Between Worlds: Who Am I?

I am delighted to introduce Christie Wilkin today through this excellent guest post. I loved interacting with her through comments and emails, getting to know more of her life living thousands of miles away from where she claims citizenship. For those of you who are raising kids between worlds, this post gets to the heart of what so many parents have experienced as they work toward helping their kids understand more about who they are; more importantly whose they are. You can read more about Christie at the end of the essay.

For other posts on Third Culture Kids click here.

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Christie Wilkin - who am I

‘Mummy,’ I heard my six-year-old son call as he entered the kitchen. ‘I’m not American anymore!  I’m Australian!’ My eyes met those of my Canadian-born husband.  ‘Where did this come from?’ we asked each other.  ‘How should we respond?’

Our other three children joined us at the table, and as dinner progressed, it became clear that James was tired of being asked about his American accent on the school playground.  Two and a half years of living in Melbourne had erased all but the faintest traces of it as far as I could tell.  He was not satisfied however.  He wanted to be exactly like his Aussie schoolmates.

When my husband and I made the decision to move our family of six from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Melbourne four years ago, it never occurred to us that our biggest dilemma would ultimately prove to be moving them all back home again.  Understandably we focused on the trauma of uprooting them from their native soil, away from their grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends.  We spent considerable time weighing up the difficulties inherent in helping four children settle into a completely new life in a foreign country.  We must have assumed that if we could make the transition to Melbourne successfully, we would have put the difficult aspects of an international relocation behind us.  How wrong we were.

We have since discovered that changing countries means something very different for children than it does for their parents[1] Adults who have grown up in their passport country are able to move overseas with fully intact national identities.  They are able to live on foreign soil and appreciate its differences while not having to wrestle with the question of identity in the same way that children must.  Children are still answering the important question “Who am I?”  Children also have less capacity for feeling at home in two different places.  Most prefer to see the world in black and white.  They prefer to think, for example, “I’m either Australian, or I’m American.  I can’t be part of both.”  This was the dilemma facing our son.  His six-year-old self concluded that he was weary of straddling the divide.  If he had to choose, he would rather be Australian.

We decided to downplay our son’s assertion of an identity change at the dinner table that night.  We told him it was fine for him to be Australian, and for the moment he was satisfied.  Many months and many conversations later, he has realized that changing his nationality is not so easy.  Today he will tell you that he is an American who would prefer to live in Australia the rest of his life, but that he must move back to North America in order to be closer to family.

As his parents, we recognize that his transition back to Pittsburgh next year will likely have its difficult moments, as it will for his older siblings.  The majority of his remembered life experiences have been formed on Australian soil.  He is passionate about Australian Rules Footy, loves to watch the cricket, and to eat meat pies with sauce.   He can make change with Australian coins, but does not know the difference between a dime and a quarter.  He is used to addressing adults by their first names, wears a jumper to school every day, and thinks that Christmas should be spent at the beach in his singlet, shorts and thongs (i.e. flip flops).  Pittsburgh culture will no doubt come as a shock to him in spite of the fact that he was born there.

We are thrilled that our children have had so many unique experiences during the three and a half years they have been privileged to live in Melbourne.  We wanted them to be changed by living on the other side of the world, and indeed they have been changed.  At the same time we now recognize that we unwittingly tampered with the formation of their identities.  They will never feel quite the same as their American counterparts who haven’t spent time living overseas.  Part of their hearts and lives will be left behind in Australia, and this could well be a source of grief for them for some time.

So what is a family to do who has asked this of their children?  This question has given us much to think about.  For starters, we have had many conversations with our kids about their identity.  They need to know first and foremost that their parents love them fully and without condition and that we always will.  Indeed, we have sensed a growing bond in our family as together we face the prospect of moving back home.  More importantly, we have reminded them as Christians, our true identity is to be found in Jesus.  We are Christians before we are Canadians, Americans or Australians.  What a blessing it is that our faith transcends national, ethnic and cultural boundaries.  The fact that many of our dearest Australian friends are Christians as well means that our good-byes, painful as they may be, will not be forever. We have the hope of seeing them again.

We have also done as much as we can to foster ties with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins back in North America.  Our children are fortunate to have many family members who will welcome them back home with open arms.  We have made plans for them to attend the same summer camp they enjoyed before we moved away, and we have discussed exactly whom we will visit and when during our first few months back on American soil.

Still there is likely to be grief and bewilderment ahead for our children that we did not fully anticipate.  We would prefer to shield them from pain, but since this is not fully possible, we will grieve along with them, assure them that there are others who know how they feel, and seek to help them as much as we can to reintegrate into their passport culture.

What about you? How have you helped your children reintegrate into their passport culture? If any readers of this post have other suggestions, I would love to hear them.

Christie WilkinAbout the author: Married to a man who loves nothing more than the prospect of a new location, Christie Wilkin has lived in four countries spread out over three continents. A teacher, writer and lover of books, she is currently pouring her energy into helping her four children prepare to move back to their hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after four years of living in Australia. She blogs about her family’s experiences at plungedownunder.com.


[1] Pollock, David C. with Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids:  Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition,

For other posts on Third Culture Kids click here.

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13 thoughts on “Guest post – Growing up Between Worlds: Who Am I?

  1. Hi Christie. Really appreciated what you had to share as we’re in the midst of that exact same type transition with our kids. And I don’t know what you can do other than make sure you are there for your kids, more ready to listen than to talk, working really hard to not tell them how they should feel (which can be really hard, sometimes, as a parent). On the good days, we join them in their celebration and laughter. on the hard days, we ask permission to cry with them – which isn’t hard to do because as parents, we miss their “home – ” that land we adopted as a family. When it was so hard to leave and we were just making a home assignment trip or returning from one – we tried to keep the perspective that grieving goodbyes also means hilariously happy hellos. That hasn’t changed – we just can’t foresee what the hellos – physical as well as opportunity wise – will look like.

    And… we’ve been fortunate. Our TCKs have been remarkably adaptable and adventurous, have learned to depend upon each other, and sometimes have just chosen that a hug or a cuddle can soothe them, even on the hard days.

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  2. I grew up as a missionary kid in rural Thailand. Have just started a blog about it. Wouldn’t swop it for the world.

    htp://monsoontreasures.wordpress.com

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  3. A very interesting article on a topic that most likely would never cross the minds of the general population. I really like how you tied in that our identity should come from Christ rather than our social environment. I wonder if missionaries feel similar when they raise kids in other countries. I never thought about it before.
    I am sure Australia will always live in the hearts of your kids and Australian Footy will be a forever favorite but hopefully in a few years only the joys will be recalled of this relocation. :)

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    1. Thanks Suzanne. I have read similar thoughts and feelings from missionary kids, and from their parents, and in fact the book that I cited in the article refers to them frequently. Like you, I never would have thought of this aspect of missionary life before I moved my own kids overseas.

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  4. Growing up as a TCK, we were lucky that my parents understood how difficult the moves could be and they were always there for us. The truth is, transition will always be hard, but we are quite resilient, so your kids will find their way despite the initial shock. It’s possible they will always find themselves torn between worlds, but as they grow they’ll understand the difficulties and embrace the beauty of those sentiments.

    The most important thing is to be there for your children and to make them feel that although everything around them is changing, the family is constant – you are there for each other, and you are together. For us, that made the world of a difference. From what I’ve read here, you’re already doing that – being aware of the complexity of the situation for them and doing everything you can to help them is the best you can do.

    Although I am older than your children and have returned to my passport country (USA) as an adult, I have been going through the readjustment of coming back here. One very important lesson I learned: don’t assume it is simply a “re-entry” for them, as it may be just as big a change and just as foreign to them as moving to Australia. To you it may be a re-entry, but to them it may feel like another ‘entry’. It took me a while to realize that, but that small differentiation changed a lot for me… I wrote a post about that not too long ago – even if the situations are different, perhaps it can be of interest (http://tcknextstop.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/to-enter-or-to-reenter-that-is-the-question/).

    Apologies for the very long and wordy comment, but it is a topic that really hits home for me. I wish you the best of luck in your return to the U.S. and I’ll make sure to stop by your blog to read more posts!

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    1. Thanks, Dounia, for your very helpful reply. I really appreciate your thoughts about re-entry and I look forward to reading your post. I especially appreciate your words of hope: “but as they grow they’ll understand the difficulties and embrace the beauty of those sentiments.”

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