Over the past eleven years of raising kids in China, my husband and I have learned a whole lot about what it’s like to bring up children in a country other than our own. Some of this knowledge was passed down from educational experts or families with many years of experience. Some we’ve learned from observing and talking with other families. And some is from the first-hand victories and mistakes we’ve had in raising our own two TCKs (third culture kids). Here’s what we’ve learned.
1. There is no good time to go
Although I’ve heard parents debate the merits of moving overseas while their kids are at certain ages, the reality is, there isn’t a perfect time to go. I’ve seen friends move while pregnant with their first baby all the way through a family who moved overseas with a high school senior. There are benefits and drawbacks to each age and stage, and there’s no real guarantee that a child (or family) will struggle or thrive simply based on age. There isn’t a magic number.
2. There is no good time to leave
The flip side of this is also true. I’ve seen some kids thrive all the way through high school graduation on the field, while others do best with a return to their passport country right before high school (or even earlier). It’s not easy to predict what will be best for each child. Emotional challenges, health issues and educational needs of a child can all necessitate a family’s departure even if the child is very young. There’s no easy formula for figuring this out because every child is different, even children in the same family.
3. They will not necessarily like the host culture
Some TCKs will end up feeling more comfortable in their host country than in their passport country. Long ago, I just assumed that would be the case with all kids who grow up overseas. Wrong! Many identify more strongly with their passport culture, even if they haven’t spent much time there. Sometimes the need for international schooling in English or another language means never quite gaining fluency in a local language. Being different might make it tough to fit in with local kids, or make the TCK hyper-aware of being an outsider, especially in cultures that are not very accepting of outsiders in the first place. Even if a TCK likes the culture and fits in fine, I’ve still seen kids who dislike (or hate!) the local food, local schooling, or other major aspects of life in that country. It’s not a given that each child will love everything about the host culture and country.
4. The schooling question is never answered for long
Even if you have a plan to stay in the same place for a long time, using the same schooling system (homeschool, national school, international school, etc.), be prepared for that plan to change. You might need to move because of work, company policy changes, or political turmoil. Unforeseen issues may arise with your child that make you reconsider your educational choice. I never imagined that we would basically end up having to re-hash the schooling question every single academic year. There were a few school years that we even had to reconsider educational choices in the middle of the year. Many families are in the same boat, making plans along the lines of: “We can try this for now, then reevaluate at the end of the semester.”
5. It doesn’t get easier
You would think that the more years your kids live in another country, the more comfortable they would be in that place. Again, this turns out to not be an automatic outcome. Some kids get more and more uncomfortable in places as they grow. Perhaps they realize more clearly how different their life is from, say, their cousins’ lives, or how different they are from the kids around them. Even if your children are happy and well-adjusted in the host culture, they might be facing some hard transitions in the future. Many TCKs report having a tough time when they return to their passport country for college or jobs, especially when they’ve had little life experience in that country.
6. Loneliness is part of the package
Loneliness seems to part of every TCK’s story at some point, no matter what their family’s living situation. Some are lonely because they live in remote areas where it is hard to meet kids their own age. Some might live in an urban area and attend an international school, but they are the only child of that ethnicity or background (Brazilian, Dutch, Korean, You-Name-It). Or, they are nicely settled in with good friends for a season, but then those friends move away and there is no one to immediately fill that void. There are kids who have a great experience while living overseas, but then face the loneliness of going back “home” to their parents’ passport country for high school or university, where it’s difficult to find anyone who can relate to the crazy, exotic, nomadic life they’ve experienced so far.
7. Their health is never a simple matter
When my kids got sick in the U.S., I worried like any mom would. But even with catastrophizing a bit (like any mom would), I would only worry that we might need to make a trip to the ER. Living overseas creates a much longer list running in the back of my mind. It’s a slight fever now, but if symptoms get more troubling, do I take the child to a local hospital where facilities aren’t sanitary and doctors often give incorrect diagnoses? Will I need to make an emergency trip to a city several hours away that has a better hospital? Or a major city in another country? Which parent will go? Who will watch our other child? Will it be safe for the sick child to travel? Will the child even be allowed on an airplane? These worries are not unwarranted. We and many other families we know have faced situations where things escalated quickly from something simple like “Mommy, my tummy hurts” to an urgent medical evacuation.
On top of that, even routine things like annual exams, dental check-ups, and immunizations are generally a lot more complicated overseas. Can we schedule a well baby visit while we’re in the States for my cousin’s wedding? Should we get the dental exams done here or is that asking for trouble? Can we squeeze in a orthodontist trip during our visa run? If we bring back the next vaccine dose, can we keep it at the right temperature the whole flight, and can we find someone who knows how to give an injection? You get the picture.
8. They are more shielded…
Whenever we are in the States, we’ve usually been away long enough that I find myself shocked at what people wear (even to church!), the words they think are okay to use in polite company, and the images that are allowed in public places. It makes me feel like a downright prude. It also makes me realize that my kids are growing up fairly shielded from things like that here in China. (I guess it’s arguably an upside to living in a country where things get censored?) In addition, my children are somewhat immune to the “gimmes” that seem to pervade childhood in a wealthy, developed nation. When we walk through the majority of stores and markets here, there’s not very much that they are interested in buying. By contrast, just one trip to Target in the States is enough to turn them into hungry little consumers. From talking with other parents of TCKs, it seems like many of us feel that our kids are growing up a little more protected from the societal ills of our home countries.
9. …and yet just as exposed
At the same time, TCKs nowadays have access to so much more than TCKs of years past. Smartphones and social media open up a world of garbage that might have been closed off before. Another exposure TCKs face is seeing things their peers back home might never come in contact with: extreme urban poverty, the effects of war, the hardship of subsistence farming, and so much more.
10. They are amazing
Although much of this post has focused on the “challenge” side of things, there’s something else that I have seen over and over with TCKs. These kids are amazing! I knew some of this before we moved overseas, but a decade-plus of interaction with expat families has confirmed it. TCKs have a depth and maturity that you might not expect from their peers back home. Living in another culture stretches them in many ways and they are the better for it, even though the stretching is often tough. They have a rich perspective on life, politics, friendship, language, money…everything. And that is a great lesson for parents to remember.