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.