“I feel like a fish out of water” – what ‘third-culture kids’ feel when they return to their homeland!
How ironical is that?! To feel like an outsider in your own country. Yet this is exactly what third-culture kids feel when they finally return ‘home’ – a home and culture they don’t relate to anymore.
‘Third Culture Kids’, a term coined by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, for children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland.
This blog piece is a heartfelt one for me as I live these feelings today with my children, 16 and 11, having spent most of their formative years in Dubai – a land of multi-culturalism and acceptance for all, and as they pave their way onto life in Mumbai!
Searching for a ‘home’ in the universe is part of the human condition. We all do that and strive to create that wherever we go. This crisis of identity, however, is specially common among third culture kids and adults.
You really need to be in their shoes to understand how they feel. That is not easy! It’s not unusual for them to feel that their lives are beyond their control. And they are left feeling totally powerless about the direction their life is taking. This can be a hard pill to swallow in today’s volatile job market when parents’ work situations can change without any notice to the children!
In their new setting, these kids may seem like other kids at first glance, and they may appear to merge very well with their new environment on a superficial basis but on closer observation, one can tell that they are not quite comfortable in their environment. They may even appear angry and tense, or frustrated and unable to make friends easily. They may even be alone and withdrawn.
Leaving friends behind is never easy for anyone, even in a world where technology and social media makes staying in touch so simple. Leaving a beloved place is similarly heart-wrenching. Yet, grieving third culture kids aren’t necessarily encouraged to express their sorrow.
And that is precisely what is needed!
It’s hard for children to understand that they’re mourning the unfulfilled potential of a life that’s no longer theirs. I read this somewhere and it really struck a chord – “When you leave somewhere, you say goodbye to the person you could have been”.
‘Keep them busy!’, as a friend suggested. I am a big fan of routine and structure, but I am not of the opinion of keeping busy at the cost of their emotions not being addressed. ‘Keeping busy’ to me is sometimes brushing things under the carpet, either because there is no time or no bandwidth to deal with such emotions.
If there is anything that will smoothen the transition for children like them (and I am sure most expats can relate), is just lots of holding space.. lots of quality time, presence and undivided attention.. and of course, the cuddles and hugs and occasional laughter!
I, for one, love having some old routines when everything else is changing.. the weekend game night or an evening meal of their favourite cuisine so we all hold onto something familiar..
The good side, however, is that these kids bond more easily or intensely with their parents as the only people who have also lived where they have.
If the life experiences and stressors are handled well, Third Culture Kids have immense potential as LEADERS. Their adaptation skills have been put to test and they develop a mindset which is exceptionally tolerant and understanding.
They truly believe that people of all backgrounds are full and equal participants in any given situation. Because they often develop an identity that’s rooted in people rather than places, they tend to be more open-minded and empathetic.
These unique set of skills really prepare them for our increasingly globalized world.
So hang in there parents.. one day at a time.. you will soon see the purpose behind everything and who knows, one day look back and thank the universe for all those experiences that shaped the children’s personalities