On Expectations and Finding Home

Stories with quote

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.