On Welcoming the Third Culture Kid

passport with quote

The last week in August is upon us, and lamentations of “how quickly the summer has gone” can be heard all around.

It’s the time of year when college towns begin to see old students return and many new ones come in. Among those old and new are those who have lived as third culture kids, those who blend in with the crowd, even as their insides scream “other.

Once, I was one of them. I entered into my college years with hidden fears and insecurities, many of them because my insides and outsides were at odds.

Here are some things I want to say to those who are welcoming and working with third culture kids who are entering their university years:

DOs

  • Let them talk about their past. They have left so much, let them talk about what they have left.
  • Ask probing questions
  • Take them out to a restaurant that may serve foods from the country(ies) they called home
  • Seek to understand through the lens of cross-cultural adjustment. Don’t assume that they identify with their passport countries.
  • Offer space for them to process their grief
  • Encourage them to connect and find their safe spaces
  • Seek to understand some of the losses that they have experienced
  • Help them to do it afraid. What do I mean by that? Tara Livesay in a blog post called Do it Afraid talks about feeling afraid, but doing things anyway. She gives the illustration of her son Isaac learning to walk, how even when he’d left his “wall of safety” and walked into her arms, he would still get afraid. But he did it anyway. Tara says this: “Practicing doing scary things doesn’t really make me perfect at it. I’m still afraid sometimes. I don’t know how to stop being afraid completely and consistently. I’m not finding ‘perfection’ as I continually practice facing both my rational and irrational fears.I only know that sometimes – I have to do it afraid.” So help them to do it afraid.
  • Help them “remember rightly.” We TCKs tend to go two ways with our memories and stories – either we remember them as perfect, or we dismiss them as absolutely horrible. It can be difficult for us to remember rightly. In my recent trip to Iraq, I was speaking to the art therapist about stories, and remembering our stories correctly. She said that as we tell our stories over and over, we have a tendency to embellish. Either we make them better than they were, or worse. The important thing is to remember them rightly; seeing our past with clear vision so that we can move forward in peace.
  • Challenge them on any visible or invisible bigotry. Yes, TCKs can be bigots. See Exploring TCK Bigotry for more on this.
  • Learn to speak the language of ‘elsewhere.’ It’s not that hard. There’s no grammar or syntax involved and there is no morphology. Prefixes, suffixes, or infixes are absent. You don’t have to worry about past tense, or present perfect or superlatives. All of us have spoken the language of elsewhere at some point – whether as a tourist or as a resident. This is the language that reaches across the divide and attempts to understand the one who is “other.”

DON’Ts

  • Tell them to “get over it already!” Instead pose honest challenges to them like: “What would it take for you to live more effectively in your passport country?” or “Western countries are experiencing more and more diversity. What might your TCK background offer to the community?”
  • Deny their experiences by saying “Everyone feels insecure in college. Everyone misses home.” Denying the experience of the TCK denies their life.
  • Let them wallow. There is a difference between honest grieving and wallowing in self-pity. The one heals, the other destroys.
  • Put a time limit on their adjustment and their grieving. We are all different. We grow and adjust at different rates. So don’t put time limits on the TCK. Allow them room even as you continue to love and challenge them.

I’ll close with this thought from Nina Sichel, author and adult TCK:

“So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.  Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story — many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.” from The Morning Zen: The Trouble with Third Culture Kids

Readers – what would you add to this list of dos and don’ts? 

Blogger’s Note: Elizabeth Trotter writes an excellent article using Physics to explain Third Culture Kids. Take a look at it below! Also remember to enter the GoodReads Giveaway for Between Worlds! 

4 thoughts on “On Welcoming the Third Culture Kid

  1. I love that quote from Nina Sichel: “don’t ask her where she’s from…..ask her where she’s lived….” That’s brilliant. I love that. Good post Mare my dear!

    Liked by 1 person

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