The Question of Re-culturing Third Culture Kids
My wife and I first went overseas to Romania in 1992. We had been married a year, and were childless. We pictured ourselves as heading off on a grand adventure for a two-year period, after which I would return to the job in Minnesota from which I had a leave of absence, and my wife would look for something new. It really was an exciting time to be exploring Eastern Europe. Communism had recently fallen in the region, and the area had not adapted to the current era. We found ourselves mesmerized as we hiked through mountains, staying at hidden mountain retreats, dining with nuns at Moldovan monasteries, and exploring the ruins of Vlad Tepeś(better known as Dracula), and other fantastic adventures. We tried to make the best of every moment believing it would be over before we knew it.
At the end of our first year in Romania, we were surprised to discover our family was expanding due to an unexpected pregnancy. While we didn’t anticipate the birth of our first daughter the next year would change our plans, it did cause us to start to consider the ramifications this would have for us. We began to reach out to friends back in the US who had recently begun similar transitions in their lives – not an easy task in the days before the internet when letters took weeks round trip, and we could only afford one phone call home per month. As the responses began to come in, we found ourselves feeling a sense of despair.
The news from our friends back home was not encouraging. One friend described a schedule of dropping their infant daughter off at child care at 6:30 each morning, driving to work, picking her up at 5:00 PM, getting home, putting together dinner, a few chores, and then bed. The weekends were filled with shopping, laundry, and more chores, with very little quality time with their daughter. Another friend described the cost of childcare as being similar to a second mortgage, while yet another, who chose not to work, described the financial burden their family faced. All in all, we were becoming very distraught.
Slowly, my wife and I began to question our decision to return home at the end of two years. The situation we would be confronted with there seemed too stressful – not to mention the limits it would place on quality time with our daughter. We kept thinking about what we had in Romania. There, we could hire someone to look after our apartment and take care of our daughter in our home for a small fraction of our salary. This would permit us to spend our time away from work with our daughter, as we would not need to run around as our friends were, nor look after the chores that consumed our friend’s time. Our time could be just about family. After careful consideration, we decided to extend our stay a bit to take advantage of this opportunity. We didn’t realize it, but we had just taken the first step toward raising third culture kids.
So, our two-year experience overseas has evolved into 24, at last count. Along the way, we’ve had three daughters, who have had the joy of growing up in Romania, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Cayman Islands, Qatar, and Venezuela. It must be said they’ve had some outstanding opportunities. At last count, they had visited somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 different countries combined. They’ve hiked the Andes of Latin America, engaged in service projects in Africa and Asia, skied in Europe, and attended classes with both members of royalty and scholarship students, and everyone in between. By the time they were each 15, they were competent enough to travel internationally on their own. They have truly developed the qualities common in third culture kids of empathy, adaptability, and open-mindedness (Druart, 2016).
Along the way, I have to acknowledge I’ve had some doubts. Early on, my wife and I decided to buy a home back in Minnesota to give our kids some sense of belonging. To a certain degree, this worked as the girls made neighborhood friends, some who even visited us in different locations, and they were able to build stronger connections with cousins. There did seem to be a downside to this plan though. For years, the girls romanticized their time in Minnesota. When they were there, it was summer. They ran barefoot through the neighborhood, played night games on the street, watched their friends play in soccer games, and enjoyed picnics and other rites of summer. In their minds, everything was magical. I have to admit there were a number of times my wife and I experienced twinges of guilt as we wondered if we were somehow cheating our kids of the type of childhood we had experienced and their friends back home were experiencing.
Any doubt we had came to an end when we lived in the Cayman Islands. In September 2004, the island of Grand Cayman was devastated when hit by a category five hurricane named Ivan. My wife and daughters joined the many thousands of people who evacuated the island before and after the storm. With little idea of how long it would take to rebuild, they journeyed home to Minnesota and the girls enrolled in school in the U.S. Ruth Druart (2016) recently interviewed third culture students ages 11-16 as a part of her master’s work. She describes students identifying a sense of belonging as being where their family is. This turned out to be true for us. As the girls went to school, they found the romanticism of summer was gone. School in the US seemed unfamiliar to them, and they felt they didn’t fit in. They very quickly longed for the familiarity that came from having our family unit together in one place, both at home and in school. When they returned to Grand Cayman several months later, any desire they had to live like their friends in Minnesota was gone, and with it any twinge of guilt my wife and I had felt.
The experience our daughters had during the hurricane evacuation is interesting. At the time, my wife and I sincerely believed our daughters had simply been dealt a dose of reality. Having only experienced life in Minnesota during the summer when the weather is great, friends are off school, and everything is wonderful, they were viewing life there through filtered lenses. We believed that when they found out what it was like when friends were in school, there was homework to do, and life was a bit more uncomfortable, they suddenly longed for the familiarity of home and family. It really didn’t hit us at the time that our kids were dealing with the challenges of re-culturing. That realization would come much later. For the moment, we were content to get everyone back together and feel confident in knowing the life we had chosen was okay after all.
Fast forward about a decade. We are now at a point where our kids are heading off to college. The first one went four years ago, the second this year, and the third still has a few more years at home. When our oldest daughter was preparing for college, she went through an interesting exploratory phase. At first she wanted to go to school in Europe, thinking she would feel more comfortable there. We explored a number of possible colleges there. Then, she decided she wanted to go to school in the US as she decided she wanted to feel what it was like to go to school in her own country and experience her home “culture.” She finally settled on a college in Minnesota to be close to family as well. However, the experience she had wasn’t what she anticipated.
When our daughter went to college, she began to feel she didn’t belong anywhere. When she initially arrived, she was placed with international students. She quickly realized she didn’t belong there. She felt she wasn’t an international student; she was from the US after all. She then tried to gel with other students from the US. She quickly realized she couldn’t relate to them either. Their life experiences just didn’t mesh with hers. In the end, she spent time putting together a friendship group that was a bit of a potpourri of different people, including some she meant during experiences abroad. She made it work, but it hasn’t been easy. Druart (2016) found that “it appears that having a sense of belonging to a particular country or even countries is an alien concept to TCKs (Third Culture Kids).” This was certainly true with our first daughter, and it now appears to be the case with our second daughter who seems to be having greater struggles with the whole process of re-culturing.
So, the question that must be asked is whether or not we have any regrets. I can say without hesitation we do not. I fully realize my children may never feel the same sense of pride in a country I had growing up. It is also likely they will always confront challenges with re-culturing. That said, I think they have something better. They see themselves as global citizens. They have the ability to adapt, to seek understanding, and to appreciate all cultures. Beyond that, they have a sense of belonging to family. That in itself is special, and something we all appreciate.
Druart, R. (2016). Where do I belong? International School, 18(2), 20-21.