In a few weeks’ time, we will be heading to the US for our much-anticipated annual home leave. Once a year, our organization covers the cost of flights to our “home on record.” Though our last physical address was in Oregon, our permanent address is my mom’s house, in a suburb near Seattle.
It’s the place where I grew up and where I usually say I’m from, even though I haven’t lived there in nearly two decades.
For our kids, home is here, in Dili. This is where their stuff is, where their beds are, and where their friends live. Although they don’t really remember our life before we moved to East Timor, they do know that they aren’t from here and will occasionally ask “Mommy, where am I from?”
I usually tell them that they are lucky enough to be from two places: England and America, just like one of their friends is from Sweden and Vietnam, and another friend is from Italy and Germany. Still, it’s a pretty abstract concept to a three-year old mind.
Both, my husband and I, grew up with a very stable sense of home. We spent the majority of our childhoods in one house, went to school with the same kids year after year, and grew up in a close community of neighbors. This stability rooted us both and gave us each a strong connection to the places we came from. However, our own kids will probably have a very different experience.
At this age, their sense of identity is more about self and less about place. And yet, this particular place and their future experiences in the world will likely have a big influence on their developing sense of self and identity. Because my husband and I are from different countries, I imagine that it will be an ongoing struggle to get the balance right—for the kids to feel equally at home in both places. Adding a third country into the mix only complicates things.
I believe that raising kids abroad can be a unique and wonderful experience, but I am also very aware of the challenges and sometimes wonder how it will affect our kids in the long run.
Will their somewhat rootless childhoods create a longing for a more settled future or will the opposite be true? Will the transient nature of this life foster adaptability or instability? It’s impossible to know.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources available for parents like us, including books about parenting global nomads, memoirs of growing up internationally, and guides for families who are returning home.
In browsing some of these titles I was struck by a term I hadn’t heard before: Third Culture Kid (TCK), or “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”
It is not a new idea but the experience does seem to becoming more and more common in our increasingly connected world. While this lifestyle can bring benefits like learning foreign languages and experiencing different ways of life, it can also have disadvantages. TCKs often have a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time and tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with kids living in their home countries.
I have noticed this tendency among some of the older students at school here and in other contexts. In a small place like Dili, the tribe effect can be a good thing—difference is embraced, friendships are tight, and cultural fluency is encouraged. Faraway from mainstream marketing, most kids here are blissfully unaware of the latest toy, music or fashion trends.
There isn’t much to buy or much to do (in the over-scheduled Western sense), so the school-aged set tend to make their own fun. It’s almost idyllic, until these kids return home for a visit (or forever) and feel utterly out-of-place amongst their peers. It is one of the many trade-offs.
At this point, I can only theorize about how this lifestyle will shape our own children, especially since our path is not yet defined. But, it is something I think about a lot.
I often come back to a quote that was on the wall of my childhood home: There are two lasting things we give our children. One is roots and the other is wings. I figure that if we can pull this off as parents, regardless of where in the world we find ourselves, then we will be doing the very best job we can.
For at least another year or two, Dili will be our home. But after that, we have no idea where our next posting will be. We will weigh up the various decisions as we go along—and as long as the kids are happy and healthy, I’m okay with this flexible future plan. One day we’d like to have a home in the traditional sense of the word, in England or America. But right now, home is where we are.
This summer, when people ask our kids where they are from I will be smiling when I hear the proud twin chorus: “We’re from Dili!”
How has your family’s experience shaped your children’s sense of home or identity? If you are part of a multi-cultural family or have raised kids abroad – do you have any advice for others?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Shaula Bellour in East Timor. Shaula can also be found on her blog, Notes From a Small World.
Photo credit attributed woodleywonderworks via flickr (Creative Commons license).
We purposely moved so that our kids would have two sets of grandparents in their lives.(OK, so we had two sets of babysitters around!) So I’m not much use to you on this one, Shaula. I do believe that the more connected young kids feel to their parents and the more free play they have, the more they are able to cope with whatever life throws at them as teens and adults. I think you have a marvellous opportunity being in Dili and experiencing a real cultural difference from home. That will enrich your children’s lives, I’m sure.
Thanks Karyn! I fully agree with you on the importance of connectedness and free play. Our kids’ sense of home starts with our family…I do envy your proximity to the grandparents — this is definitely the hardest part for us. Can’t wait for all of the family fun (and babysitting;) this summer.
“Roots and Wings”… what a great way of putting it! I am sure it is great for your children to be able to experience different cultures – and as long as they get to experience it with their parents I can’t imagine that it will be anything but positive for them! What an adventure you are on – myself, I moved closer to my parents/babysitters when having a kid, but I sometimes wonder if we should move elsewhere so that the wee lad gets to expeirence more of the world. Oh well – I guess we just have to plan long holidays for now.
Thanks Asta. With a mom like you, I’m sure your wee lad will get to experience all kinds of worlds, near and far. I do believe our experience will be a good thing for our kids, but again, there are definitely trade-offs. Enjoy your nearby family!
The sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere can be difficult, and I thinks can and will verbalize this. I think your children have the right kind of balance, and that’s what it’s about isn’t it? Have a safe trip.
Yes, it will definitely be interesting as our kids get older and can express their own views on this experience. I like to think that they have the right kind of balance in their lives, but it’s definitely a juggle!
I had a fairly nomadic childhood myself because my Dad’s international banking job took us all over the place. I think growing up that way made me more adaptable than I would have been otherwise, and it didn’t affect my ability to form long-standing friendships. I grew up with itchy feet, and before my “married with children” days I did a lot more traveling than I think I would have done otherwise. I honestly don’t know if I would have taken the plunge and moved to Canada if it weren’t for my traveling background.
Travel safe and enjoy your trip!
Thanks for sharing your experience as an adult TCK. It’s reassuring to hear about the good ways it influenced you. Most people I know who were raised similarly are really positive about the experience – and most are still traveling…Hard to shake the itchy feet thing!
My daughter is born and raised in the U.S., but her dad’s family is all from England. I think it gives her more of a sense of the world. It also gives us reason to teach her about the globe, and a reason to get her traveling at a young age.
Shaula — I enjoy living vicariously through your experiences of raising your children abroad!
Thanks Veronica. I enjoy hearing about how you balance the British/American thing in your family and agree that it’s a great way to share the world with little people. Though my in-laws were somewhat mortified (in an amused way) to hear our kids’ American accents when we saw them recently, I do love that they have equal access to both cultures and hope they have lots of opportunities to explore both.
I really connected w/ your post Shaula since our family is in the same boat battling w/ the same concerns yet rejoicing in the same joys. My own sense of identity has been a mixed bag all my life due to moving around a lot as a child, but much like Kirsten, I’m happy w/ my ability to adapt and face change. Coming into the foreign service, I was told over and over again that our children will be very close to us as parents bc we will be their continuity from post to post. But whether moving around or growing up w/ deep roots, I believe that the love and support of us as parents will ultimately serve our children well. Enjoy your summer!
Yes, we definitely live parallel lives my friend☺ So interesting to hear about your own experience moving around and how it affected you. I completely agree that at the end of the day, the most important thing is the love and support of our own little family (especially since we’re so far from the rest of our families). I do think that having two same-age kids has made it a little easier. I used to shrug it off when people would say “well, at least they have each other”, but it has been (mostly) a nice thing. Enjoy your summer too — and good luck with the big move!
Hey Shaula, like Veronica, I live vicariously through your tales of living and raising your kids abroad. When my husband and I met 10 years ago, our mutual dream was to live overseas and raise global kids. Yet here we remain very close to where we met, in a highly educated part (Boston) of the country but a fairly homogeneous one. Recently we came to terms with the fact that though his company is growing very quickly, including several overseas offices, it would be imprudent for him to seek a transfer. So, here I suppose we’ll stay and rather than seeing the glass as half-empty, I’ll continue to view it as half-full and look for as many opportunities as possible to keep us all on the go. (as an aside, there’s a two-story yoga studio in my neighborhood called Roots & Wings, obviously a very grounding place)
Thanks so much. I admire moms like you (and others here) who are raising global kids wherever they are. I may be out in the world, but your backyard is just as diverse (probably more!) and you are exposing your kids to so many amazing things. You never know, the perfect overseas opportunity might just happen one day. But in the meantime, if you ever want to visit an unspoiled tropical island, you know where to find us ☺
I agree I believe every child should know about every culture. It allows them to respect everyone!! Great post!
The roots and wings quote is one of my favorites! I remind myself of this often, sometimes daily. I think it is perfect for what we want for our kids.
It is these kinds of things, like living in Dili, that build character, inspire us and make us interesting, who we are and who we become. Your perspective also influences how they will perceive things and I think you have a great take on things. I admire your ability to live so freely and not let more main stream views change or cloud what you are doing. You are inspirational!
Hi Shaula! I loved your post, and of course I can totally relate. One of the things that really encourages me about raising my kids overseas is that the older “TCK” children of my friends are some of the most delightful, grounded, and mature teenagers I have ever met. I really hope my two boys turn out like them.
-Gwyneth (from Eritrea!)
Thanks Gwyneth! So cool that you found me here. I agree with you about the older kids and hope the same for our duo. Too bad our Seattle trips didn’t coincide, but maybe one day…So glad you’re blogging again — love that sweet family of yours. All the best from Timor!
Interesting post! I had never heard the term “third culture chid” before. I look forward to reading more.
Hi Shaula! Thanks for this post! Even though I was a third culture kid myself, only recently did I hear of the term. I met a woman here in Brazil whose husband is American and whose two boys spent part of their lives here and part there. She had participated in a support group for parents while she lived in the US and suggested a book called “Third culture kids: growing up among worlds”.
I think my experience was positive in many ways, but the downside is a feeling of not belonging anywhere. – I have been in Brazil for over 30 years and I still feel like an outsider sometimes . Now that we are thinking of spending some time abroad, I think of how stable our kids’ life has been up to now and I confess it scares me a little…