On Expectations and Finding Home

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It was around two years ago that Rachel Pieh Jones did a series on her blog called Painting Pictures – Third Culture Kids Series. She hosted a variety of people with a multitude of thoughts and perspectives and the series was excellent. Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg* contributed an essay to her series called “A Whole Self.” She began that essay with these thoughts: 

The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.~Ruth van Reken

“I don’t really know how to answer that,” said my friend, also a psychologist, in response to my question, “Where’s home?” To be fair, I knew it was a loaded question for him because I am familiar with his background. His father is English, his mother Lebanese/French and he was born in Qatar. He has lived in several different countries in his life, eventually settling in Beirut with his wife. He went on to say that he feels there is a fundamental difference between himself and his wife. “She has her place. Beirut is ‘home’ for her, and I know she has a settledness that I lack. I don’t know where ‘my place’ is, and that internal restlessness is always with me. It feels like a sore spot that I can’t help but keep poking to see if it still hurts. It always does.

There is a lot more to that essay and I urge you to take a look but what I want to post today is the writer’s response to a question I posed through the comments:

What have you found with ATCK’s (Adult Third Culture Kids) who go on to raise TCK’s? I seemingly went through none of this [trying to find home] as long as I was living overseas, but it hit so hard when we moved to the United States….why did all of this not surface earlier overseas? What have you found in your work around ATCK’s who stay in one place after being raised globally vs. ATCK’s who move from place to place?

Her response was wise and insightful and so I wanted to share it.

Many of the issues of being a TCK don’t show up while in the formative culture because the “Mental Supervisor” that governs our processing is almost always on duty. We are mindful of the fact that every encounter has the potential to blow up into something ugly/huge/shaming/insulting/whatever, and we monitor our responses accordingly. On a subconscious level, we never forget that we will never be Korean/Indian/Whatever. (It’s part of the reason that many TCKs/ATCKs experience a sense of ‘freedom’ in flying away from the foreign country. The Mental Supervisor goes “off duty” and there is a sense of relaxation/relief.)

We often have a grace for ourselves in the formative culture that we do not have in the identified culture. In other words, we have completely different expectations. This is also true of others in both the formative culture and the identified. We will be excused for our cultural mistakes in the formative culture much more readily than in our identified culture, and so we experience a sense of criticism, judgment, and censure that may be more obvious and open than it is in the foreign place.

In my work with ATCKs, I’ve found that they tend to fall into two camps – those who cannot tolerate being too long in one place and who usually end up overseas again, and those for whom the idea of moving overseas makes them feel physically ill. This group looks for a place of permanence, a place to belong – to make home. This doesn’t mean they don’t continue to feel lonely or unconnected, but this group tends to eventually find a measure of security, both mentally and emotionally in the feeling of permanence – as in, “I’m NOT moving.”

The former group become almost perpetual nomads, and it is this group that I see most often because they are endlessly looking for something that they have never defined. Until they do, of course, they won’t find it.

On finding a therapist: I always suggest to people who ask me this that they ask the therapist how much work they’ve done with refugees & immigrants. Not second or third generation, but people who’ve come to America (or in my case, Canada) within the last 10 years. If they’ve not had any exposure to this demographic, I suggest they keep looking. The other alternative that has worked is to ask the therapist to read the book Third Culture Kids. If the therapist is willing, then very likely, working together will be beneficial. If the therapist refuses, keep looking.


I will close with her words at the end of the article she wrote for Painting Pictures: 

We, you and I, work together to build a balanced perspective of the formative culture, the current culture, and the values common to both. We explore how many people confuse principle and practice, and thus become rigid or inflexible, incapable of adapting to new situations and circumstances. As you identify the values that are important to you, we then figure out how those values are manifesting in the current culture. We talk about unresolved grief – a lifetime of losses, accumulated mostly without the opportunity to mourn. We make Stones of Remembrance. We laugh. We cry. I am witness to your rage of letting go. Not only of the hurts of the present, but also of the wounds of the past, never truly acknowledged in the effort to be accepted in the formative culture. Together, we clean out that deeply buried reservoir of the flotsam and jetsam of relational fractures, wounded self, and thwarted or bent dreams. And the whole time, we keep coming back to the work of defining ‘home.’

Now its your turn! I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Whether you know an ATCK, are one, or work with them, what are your thoughts on giving grace in the formative culture, and withholding it in the identified culture? 

With thanks to Rachel Pieh Jones for her series Painting Pictures and to Dr. Susannah for her thoughtful response to my question!

*Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg is a Canadian behavioural health psychologist traveling the world on a busman’s holiday. Bossy from birth, compassionate by choice, and funny by accident, Dr. Susannah writes about anything that catches her attention. Follow her on twitter.

15 thoughts on “On Expectations and Finding Home

  1. Feeling “at home” and grounded is deeply connected to my 5 senses. What I smell, taste, hear, see around me. Indonesia is a long way from Canada, but I *can* visit Mexico and feel more at home there than anywhere else this side of the Pacific.
    I am blessed by that opportunity. ❤


  2. I was many times thinking about this and it’s really hard to give an objective answer. I’ve lived in a foreign country and no matter how much time it passes and how good you learn the language there is no other place where you feel so relaxed and so confident as your home land.


  3. I believe that this is a very interesting but also complicated topic. As a general kids don’t like moving because they really need a steady environment where they will feel safe and will see many familiar faces.. but in cases like this with kids who grew in mixed cultural environments it is really hard to say because some of them probably will adjust to changes easier than others ! Thanks for sharing! Really interesting article!


  4. Another clue to finding a counsellor or therapist who has cross-cultural awareness is if they have a question on their intake form that asks have you ever spent a significant amount of time living outside your passport country?


  5. I also disagree with the mental supervisor thing. I am definitely more comfortable being foreign. People in my adopted culture “think” that I am American but because they themselves are not American they don’t really know that I am also NOT American. And so I can be whoever I want to be except when I go to the USA.


    1. That is exactly how I feel. You have no idea how much I was nodding as I read your comment. SO true. I get off a plane in a place I’ve never been and feel far more at home than in the U.S.


  6. I agree with Kacie above. I am a TCK and now raising 4 of them (having lived on two continents since my oldest was born 7 years ago). I H.A.T.E living back in the USA (my home country) because my identity is “foreigner.” When I am an expat, I am more at peace because my outside matches my inside. But when I am back in the USA, my outside doesn’t match what is inside. If I have a mental supervisor, it comes on when I fly BACK home because there it is exhausting to either 1) pretend like I think like everyone else or 2) spend the time to explain why I don’t. I much prefer to have it be obvious why I am weird. I am so much more relaxed as an expat


  7. I agree with Kacie above. I am a TCK and now raising 4 of them (having lived on two continents since my oldest was born 7 years ago). I H.A.T.E living back in the USA (my home country) because my identity is “foreigner.” When I am an expat, I am more at peace because my outside matches my inside. But when I am back in the USA, my outside doesn’t match what is inside. If I have a mental supervisor, it comes on when I fly BACK home because there it is exhausting to either 1) pretend like I think like everyone else or 2) spend the time to explain why I don’t. I much prefer to have it be obvious why I am weird. I am so much more relaxed as an expat


  8. Ha I contributed to Rachel Pieh Jone’s series (is it really two years ago??) about why we weren’t taking our daughters overseas again… And here we are preparing for our next move! From now on it’s definitely never say never. As an ATCK I definitely fall into the can’t stay still camp. My brothers though, two in particular (well my eldest brother when he was still alive) are definitely very firmly in the find one place and stay there camp.


  9. You know, I agree with the way tcks feel when they move back to the parent’s culture. But I think I disagree with the way the “Mental Supervisor” description of being overseas. I think for many of us, while we know we may never be a member of the culture where we dwell overseas, we grow used to it. It is our normal. What is strange is arriving back “home” and no longer being seen as foreign, but actually still being foreign.

    After five years of life back in the US, I moved to the heart of the Ukrainian Village in Chicago. My neighbors were all Russian and Ukrainian. The stores and businesses barely spoke or advertised in English. I have never been anywhere near Russia or Ukraine, but I suddenly felt SO comfortable, because I was foreign again, and that is what I am used it. There wasn’t a mental supervisor… rather… I felt I could relax, because if I was strange and different that was totally okay and expected


    1. I have to say I hear you on this and I agree. The more I ponder the “mental supervisor” piece, the more I think that is more referring to adults who move cross culturally.. I NEVER felt a sense of relief leaving either Pakistan or Egypt. I was usually excited if I was going on vacation but otherwise, those places were home. There were no sighs of relief to breathe. Have to think more about this but really appreciate your comment.


  10. I think it is easier to live in the formative country because it is “temporary”. Everybody sees it that way – both you and the people of the formative country. And it is OKAY. You are there for a limited time and then you will move on because that is what is normal (doesn’t really matter if you move on or not). In the identified country everybody around you sees you as permanent. You are an American, therefore it is normal for you to live in America. So if you don’t fit in or act like they do or want to move often, it is NOT OKAY and you end up having to explain yourself or withdraw. I think once you realize it doesn’t really matter where you are, everything is temporary and change is inevitable on some level or other, things get better.


  11. I’m not a TCK (raising two of them) but as a military spouse I have moved every three years for my entire adult life both around my home country and between there and overseas. I have been thinking about this topic myself and came to the conclusion that in my own case when I move overseas or when I move to a part of my own country which is significantly different to the rest I make a conscious effort to enjoy it, or make it home etc and create interest in being there and what the place has to offer and by doing so I open myself up to new opportunities. In contrast I feel when I am in my home country or move to somewhere typical of my home country I am more closed to these opportunities because I don’t approach the location in the same way. We are due to move again at the end of the year and although we don’t yet know where we are going I am committing to moving there with an open mind and a sense of excitement and interest even though on the surface it may appear quite “normal” and “ordinary” and “boring”.


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