I have been grateful for so many encouraging comments and emails about traveling with small kids, multilingualism, and cross-cultural living on social media. Then, almost out of nowhere, this one popped up on my Instagram feed:
“If you raise your kids overseas or just all over the place, without roots, or a place that is really home, one day they’re gonna wake up lost and confused, unsure of what home really is, and their country of origin will be no more than just a passport country (identity crisis) and they’re gonna hate you for it. Trust me I know. Raising kids overseas sounds fun or cute or whatever you thought, until your child wakes up one morning unsure of who they even are. And they are going to feel like they are nothing without a proper place to say they are from, and that’s the worst feeling in the world feeling like your nothing. Not from here or from there just nothing.” – [username withheld]
For a while now, I have been meaning to address this comment that was written by someone I actually don’t know at all. Sadly, I have no background information on this person to know what triggered this reaction. When the comment came in, we had just had finished doing fun activities on our first ever multicultural advent calendar, we had just taken the kiddos on a road trip from the Rockies in the USA to Mexico and now they were dressing up for Spring Festival wearing traditional outfits. They were just loving being part of this year’s Chinese New Year celebration, expressing their love for the experience to me in French (son) and in non-descript babble (daughter). Sounds like our pretty average mumble jumble of cross-cultural love, right?
Still, I had to check my motives against what this person was telling me. Are my children really confident in who they are? Do they need to feel a sense of belonging to a country or culture? Are they going to hate me for bombarding them with books about Mama Panya making pancakes in Kenya or on what kids eat around the world, letting them sing with the Chinese kids at church, for teaching them French in the middle of America and learning bits and bobs in Spanish at the library story-hour?
My kids seem to be thriving now, but they are too young (3.5yrs, 18months, and baby—three- in-the-making) for me to tell you if this little exposure to the world will rock their sense of belonging. Upon further investigation, I realized that my son doesn’t even recognize the American flag and is unable to tell me which country he lives in. Oops. He just knows he takes a blue and white airplane to visit his grand-parents, UPS delivers packages from abroad in a brown truck and that he greeted Chinese cab drivers saying “ni hao shi fu!”. So, yes, you are correct thinking they have little sense of belonging, at least this far, to a country. But is that truly a problem?
Before I attempt to address that, I want to first acknowledge something to this mother. If she is reading this blog post, I want to say that I am so deeply sorry for the rootlessness that either you or your children are experiencing. I can only think that for you to take the step to write this statement to a stranger on a public platform, it implies that you have gone through a great deal of pain yourself. My mama’s heart really aches with you and my Third Culture Kid upbringing allows me to feel the pain of not always belonging, and the grief of loss of relationships along the way. I really mean that. I am not sure where you live but I have an American friend who grew up in Seoul, Korea and has become a stellar therapist specializing in Third Culture issues. He developed a fantastic international therapist directory so that any expatriate or highly-mobile family can process and make sense of their past. Maybe you might like to look him up? If so, just click over here. If not, no pressure at all..
Hanna Cheda, a fellow multicultural family blogger, responded to the above comment in Instagram saying: “I don’t agree at all. Kids who live abroad maintain close relationships with their families, travel to their parents’ countries to visit them and it’s up to the parents to pass on the heritage language and culture to the kids. The parents I met on #mkbkids are more aware of the importance of heritage and self-awareness for the kids than anyone I know. Moreover, the most successful and bright adults in my group of acquaintances are those who lived abroad as kids, they’ve always been more mature and open-minded than others.”
I have to agree with Hanna in saying that while I can’t tell you how my children will turn out, I have seen many positive examples of kids alive in their cross-cultural experiences and of adults thriving in using their rich heritage in their professions. Think of these famous TCKs and more (hello, Obama!). These kids, exposed to other cultures during their developmental years become highly flexible and adaptive, they have unprecedented bridge-building potential, are often empathetic and often develop a strong family bond – just to name a few of the benefits.
I might not be famous, and I just write from my own experience as an Adult Third Culture Kid. I have processed so much and am coming out on the other end to tell a beautiful story. Now, I work alongside a cross-cultural transition expert, I have studied the Third Culture at length, and I blog here about all different aspects pertaining to the Third Culture. Processing my past gives me so much insight into this journey we are on and gives me invaluable tools to identify warning signs in my own children as they grow up. Multicultural living has been a huge positive for me, once I worked through where I belonged and rekindled the love for my passport countries. Maybe it is rather those parents who struggle the most in their own identity that pass on a sense of malaise?
It all clicked for me when I found out that TCKs typically form a great sense of belonging in relationships rather than in places. What a gift that is. Indeed, interacting with this Indian couple or that Algerian family in my youth has impacted my outlook on life forever. Each and every interaction has shaped who I am and simply made me insatiably curious about the world. I look at a country and I mostly don’t think in terms of flags or national anthems but through the lens of people I have met from those places. Lessons from my Australian co-worker, a Chinese boss, a Dutch bachelor we took in or a Ghanaian family have made me who I am today. Presenting this to my kids isn’t “cute” to me, it is just an extension of who I am. Don’t we parent based on who we are? Perhaps it would be like raising a little football/soccer fan kid because you are a complete fanatic yourself. Kids watch and observe and replicate what they see. In our case, they live with a passionate lover of the world.
As they grow up, I would especially like our children to learn the beauty of the particular places they have lived in, been to and where they have family – yes! My monocultural husband has a fairly solid understanding of his cultural values and which of them he/we want(s) to uphold in our home. As for me, my values are like me. They are simply put, the sum of the experiences I have had.
At the end of the day, if our children fail to see a great sense of identity in culture then quite frankly, that is perfectly fine to us. Come to think of it, not having a strong sense of belonging to one or more countries avoids so much confusion about identity. We must all find our identity beyond our nation or else, we are nothing more than swayed by whatever politician takes power, whatever national and foreign policy decisions are made in that country and so on. I believe that we have plenty of nationalists and patriots, but we desperately need more bridge-builders.
11 thoughts on ““They’re gonna hate you for it””
I hear what’s she’s saying. I’ve had adult friends who’s parents traveled with military and/or work growing up and have heard they “hated it” its certainly not everyone. However, one avenue to look at could be the involvement of the family in the cultures they are traveling and living in and how they can use that to glue themselves as a family through the experinces (which by the way is a lot of work, I don’t care where or how you live) as an adult who’s now living in my fourth country and travels the world extensively with my daughter I think these experiences only enrichen us a family. I don’t do any formal education, we just involve ourselves in whatever’s going on to be as close to the culture we visit or live in and let that be our teacher as a family.
At the end of the day I think what gives us indentiy comes from within us as we discover who we are and in part the family we grow up in, the world is full of people with an extensive array of experinces, we can feel displaced and question our identity multiple times in our lives and have lived and grown up in one place. I don’t need to tell you that I value you as a mother and the lessons you teach your family, their sense of indentiy goes far beyond a flag or a language, you have given them languages, culture, experinces that will travel with them for the duration of their lives that creates backbone and we need that to maneuver through live as the world becomes a closer knit melting pot.
Living in Germany I look to Costa Rica and the U.S. as they both are a large part of my indentiy, but they have had their turn and now Europe is changing and shaping me each day and I can promise if I were to leave here I would look to Europe and long for it in the same way.
I truly believe that my experinces of living in the South Pacific and Central America with two parents who spoke three languages contribute to my comfort in the world, it’s a beautiful place to call home. Your kids may one day (like mine) say they are ready to stay put and and they need other things and you’ll address that because you are enough to give them their home, no matter where they are. X
Thanks, Adriana for your comment and wealth of experience (wow!). Your statement: “I truly believe that my experiences of living in the South Pacific and Central America with two parents who spoke three languages contribute to my comfort in the world, it’s a beautiful place to call home” gives me the goosebumps and confirms that “home” doesn’t have to be defined in terms of places…especially when that place changes.
I would love to hear more about your daughter. Are you planning on “unschooling” her as she becomes more school-age (in which case I would ask if you are considering leaving Germany as I remember homeschooling is illegal) or is this the lifestyle that you have chosen for her pre-schooling years? As a side note, I really admire you in taking such drastic measures to slow the pace down from your big city life to live a life well lived near land, country, family. I would love to hear more about that one day…
So many questions. What about Third Culture Parents, which you are now and we are as well. Living in Africa for almost 3 years at 22 years old, I learned so much about the love for other cultures. But my Peace Corps buddies, 220 of them, were oh so cool anti-American, and I was an American patriot, which is almost not politically correct today.
I was anchored in my past, but flowering in my present environment. Eating a goat head in a stew in Ghana has to do something to your cultural shock or understanding and adjustments. However, I was never in an environment that hated my passport country. That is yet for me to think about a lot. Muslim Algeria served goat ribs in a roadside cafe, and nothing was better tasting. Food is one thing, but strange food has discouraged not just a few cross-cultural teams and put them off. Being linked to friendships in other cultures, not food, is the anchor point that is able to move me from tourist to a life-long cultural rooting into the culture. The people are everything.
As testimony to my Peace Corps co-workers who were anti-American, they remained rootless and open to the lower moral standards or life in order to “identify” with nationals. It seemed some form of imperialism to show moral leadership, especially when Ghanaians expected the Peace Corps to be moral leaders.
Shoe-horning into another culture, for a Christian, calls for a marriage of cultures, acceptance of the new “hardships” and hindrances, but maintaining a moral high ground so that the marriage is not a surrender of values in order to be considered as disarming and accepting. Also, your country of origin just can’t be rejected, because it isn’t Christian to be hateful and off-putting of monocultural people who haven’t seen or experienced what you have learned to love. I remember going through phases of putting down France (no longer), putting down American mono-cultural people (no longer). Now I’ve learned to be known as principled but also known as most loving and most open to helping others in need, and to seek out help from others.
I quite like the statement “I was anchored on my past, but flowering in my present environment”. Shouldn’t that be the way we each move on in life regardless of location and upbringing? You raise some really good points on discovering a new culture, yet since I know you, please allow me to add that there is a subtle difference here in that you weren’t a child who left his country but you did so as an adult. While there are many things in the cross-cultural experience an adult would share with TCK dynamics, the Third Culture Adult (not to be confused with the grown Third Culture Kid: The Adult Third Culture Kid!) has a firm sense of his ownership to a country when he leaves (whether he likes his country or not). I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not patriotic loyalties are good or immoral. 🙂 The TCK leaving a passport culture in his/her developmental years has different dynamics to deal with in that the loyalties linked to passport and host countr(ies) are often unformed and blurred. Their identity must be forged in a very different way, which is all this processing I refer to in this post. TCKs still wrestle intensely with judgment until they come out on the other end and become global citizens, able to thrive in their passport and host countries…but how can you possibly hold patriotism against them? There is no reason for them to be loyal to a country they sense little or no ownership to. Their sense of belonging is often in people sharing the same experience.
On my bed in England (I am in Finland at the moment) I have a pillow that says “Home is where the heart is” and I always add “… and the heart can be in many places” and reading your post and the comments I will from now on extend my addition with “… and with lots of people”. My girls have only lived in Finland and the UK (in both of which they, like me, feel very much at home) but have through several visits also learnt to embrace their grandparents’ place in India as home. We haven’t travelled as much as your family but I could not agree with you more that having a strong connection to a specific geographical place is not a requirement for a clear identity or for having roots. We indeed need more bridge builders and global-minded people who are able to communicate across cultural and geographical borders and who have their roots firmly in then world as a whole.
Thank you so much, Rita for your input. I appreciate your blog and your thoughtful writing on multilingualism so much (loved your recent ‘Passing on a non-native language to your child’ article) and it is really helpful to hear from parents who have gone down this road before us, also in this multicultural identity area.
by Dave and Ruth Van Reken . It happens that my hubasnd is also a Dave and so for any who read this and assume that the Dave mentioned there is Dave VanReken and not Dave Pollock, please know my Dave isn’t my co-author but Dave Pollock definitely is. This is a mixup that has happened at times over the years so I like to keep this all straight! But you are write, he was a life changer for us all and a huge loss to us all when he died. He is also a great example of the impact one person can have on the world when he or she follows their calling and vision one step at a time. Thanks again for the blogs and this tribute to Dave Pollock.
Thanks for clarifying, Vikas!
I understand where the lady is coming from. I am a TCK and I have a hate towards my mum for doing this to me. This hate makes me feel even worse because she didnt do it intentially. For me it was differnet just how it is different to every other TCK in the world. I went to a boarding school, when I left boarding school I went back to my place of origin due to mandatory military service, which I had never really lived in before. As soon as I moved I lost my home and began questioning my identity. I spent so much time in boarding school and enjoyed it so much that for me it became my home. It was just stripped away, everything, my room, friends, guardians, and environment, just gone. A year later I visited the school again to see my old teachers and friends who were still there and it made me even more sad. I had to wear a visitors badge. That badge hit me extremely hard, what once was my home I am today a stranger. My mum moved back to my place of origin but I today go to uni in the place I grew up. I go home for summer holidays because I have no toher choice really. I hate being at my place of origin, which I also thinks influence my hate towards my mum. I dont usually get stressed or angry in life, but when im here I do, and this is the only time in my life I see my mum, which has an impact on our relationship. I love your article, but I think its different for every kid. For me the importance isnt just home, but also relationships, and I would advise to make sure not to strip both.