“I am sure you’ll be so thankful to be back home in your country” wrote my friend in a farewell card as all the cogs were in motion for us to leave the United States for our long considered move to France. Lavishly, empathy was extended to my husband for all the struggle he was about to face given a new language and culture. Thoughts were really kind and genuine. But, it was with a lump in my throat that I set the card aside and kept my anxious mind distracted, packing a box of kitchen items. In that moment, it was just too much to think about coping both with the grief and loss of all my bearings of this life we’d finally established in the U.S. over the past six years, on top of the grief of still being misunderstood by those closest to me.
Haven’t my friends understood me by now? No, in fact, it is terrifying to be uprooting our little family of five. It’s terrifying to live under the pressure of my old host culture needing to feel like home. And, it’s terrifying to be the main person carrying the weight of responsibility of an international move for my whole family.
I’m our resident adult Third Culture Kid (TCK) with a heart shaped like France, particularly when I am not in France. With an American papa and a British mum, I made France my home for a good part of 16 developmental years. I’m your typical adult TCK. Like my other friends of the Third Culture, it’s thanks to relationships that I define my sense of home and belonging. I used to have all of my relationships here in France, so yes, it was my home. And now, three babies later, we’ve left many vibrant relationships rooted in the United States. It now feels awkward to be told how great or easy it must be to finally go home.
When I am in France, I smile a bit too much, but otherwise, I’m a phenomenal chameleon. At the core, though, I’m a bit of a misfit. There are parts of me that feel comfortable and at ease doing life here. I get a rush negotiating more things into contracts or finding creative solutions to the bureaucratic nightmare of setting up a new life in France. I love France and (apart from a rude store clerk or two) I will always adore the people. Still, there are also parts that don’t belong. It’s all those parts in me that, like a river rock, have been shaped by a multitude of experiences. Through travel and motherhood and being gone for so long. Through a British mother, years lived in China, meaningful interactions with a Japanese-German couple and so on. Transformational experiences and interactions are what makes us adult Third Culture Kids and global families so multifaceted and flexible and interesting and yet turn us into forever hidden immigrants.
I’m not quite at home in my host culture yet… or was that ‘I’m not quite at home any longer‘?
As if I had an ongoing case of déjà vu, everything is strangely so familiar and yet so foreign. It’s oh so familiar: the pungent scent of the village creamery, the lush and jagged mountains, the chain of roundabouts, the crooked power outlets, the plumber on his endless lunch break. It should seem familiar: for the past three years, I was even tasked with guiding anxious families relocating to our new city. But it’s terribly foreign, that part where I left as a newlywed vagabond and came back with three little tender-hearted kids looking into my eyes, longing for security. They are bilingual, but not bicultural kids, looking for their bearings. The stakes are that much higher to process grief all over again, and work through my own sense of belonging so that I can help our budding Third Culture Kids do the same.
I’m not looking for guests at my pity party. Really, I’m not. But, I do ask to be released from the pressure of France having to feel like home. I’m asking that for myself and on behalf of other families we know “returning” this summer to one partner’s passport culture after a decade spent abroad. Consider German Tatjana and her American husband Brian leaving China to live in her small “hometown” in Germany. Even this past week, I heard her friends say things like “it’s okay, Tatjana is German moving from Asia after a decade but it’s just back to her country this time”. Let’s consider the ten years that changed her, a German national, and made her a Third Culture Adult. Those bringing along families to a country once familiar to them, face layers upon layers of responsibility and expectation and adjustment too. Sometimes, we even wonder if we’ve made the right decision to move across an ocean. If everyone will be okay in the end. If they won’t hate me for it for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps, I am also secretly looking for validation for us all, that this back-breaking, destabilizing move can be a struggle for us as well. That even those “returning” are going through their own versions of culture shock. The landing can be really harsh for returnees, because instead of approaching it like a new country with that childlike curiosity, we carry with us memories of the past. And of course, memories are misleading as they are, for better or for worse, conveniently distorted over time. They are often memories of a glorified life or of traumatizing pain. On the one hand, past pain inhibits our ability to put on the kinder observer glasses. We find ourselves frustrated quickly and judging a different value system. On the other hand, past successes give us a false sense of security. They fill us with expectation about how amazing life should be now that we have arrived here. It’s with all this baggage, that we slog through the move, desperately trying to be a cheer-leader of the transitioning family, facing the challenges of a new life.
Adult Third Culture Kids like me, and Third Culture Adults like Tatjana, both long for your compassion, when you kindly care for their families’ transitioning to a new place. We are the ones needing fresh eyes to see our old stomping grounds. We’re charged with the tall order of processing our affinities and our frustrations and our grief, so that we can walk freely ahead with our families. So that we can walk with our hands open wide, and discover what a new season might look like for our transitioning families in our old “home”.
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