Living abroad sounds exotic, exclusive, and enviable to those who have not experienced it. International travel is not the same as living abroad. It is a very special kind of life, that you have to live to understand. Expatriates or Expats; on International Assignment or Foreign Posting – assumes you actually have a home country. There is however a group of people who are permanent forever foreigners wherever they go. You grow up, live, work and retire all over the world without actually having a place called home. Are you one of these globetrotting nomads? What makes you special, and why don’t you like to stand out?
Living Abroad: Forever Foreigner
When you move from country to country you quickly discover how the world is your home, but that you actually belong nowhere. You are a forever foreigner wherever you go. This is especially so if you are a second generation deportee that some call Third Culture Kid (TCK).
Most TCKs are children of international aid workers, foreign service or army personnel and have an upbringing that is exciting, different and utterly restless. Some survive it better than others.
Third Culture Kids
The childhood experiences are full of unusual experiences, languages and exposure to cultures that become part of what this child calls normal.
A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. – Ruth Van Reken
The Third Culture Kids was a phrase coined in the 1950s by Ruth Hill Useem, and the report rings as true today as it did then. If you are a TCK you know it from reading the first sentence of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and you smile – because here suddenly is someone who has understood.
Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. David C. Pollock
Growing up in different countries makes your mind as elastic as the cultures you swing in and out of. You have no sense that one is ‘better’ or that people represent anything but who they are. You grow up culturally sensitive, and have a hard time with non -TCKs who — you perceive — judge based on borders, colour or religion. You feel most comfortable when you are with others with similar world bouncing backgrounds.
Forever Foreigner: A Place called Home?
Growing up the options seem endless, and ‘home’ is an expression that the parents use. ‘Home’ is a very floating word. For most people it is a place, a street, a house, a smell were you belong. ‘Home’ for me, and many other international forever foreigners, is wherever we happen to live at any particular point in time. Things – material things – become very, very important as they represent the mementos of the many homes that we experience. A wooden spoon has the same value as if it as made of gold.
First Generation Country Hopper
If you are a second or third generation forever foreigner you will recognize this. Not so much if you are on your first assignment away from your home country.
The first generation start country hopping full of excitement. You have chosen this way of life, and see it as a way out perhaps. ‘Home’ may feel too small or closed, for ambitions, dreams and sense of freedom. This first pioneering generation is proud to have broken the fold, and revel in their newfound world — as well as encounter difficulties that they never thought possible. Life out there is certainly not all sunshine, palm trees and lions. It is a life of strange bureaucracies, unwritten rules that are hard to get, and languages that must be overcome. It is indeed like breaking new ground in a Virgin land.
Why Living abroad is not the same as International Travel
Your friends and relatives suddenly flock – and become frequent visitors. They love the fact that you have moved, and will not understand the difficulties that you go through. That is a small price to pay – they seem to think – for the simple luxury of living in such exotic places. You find yourself explaining that you do pay tax (to the UN, Country of Residence etc), and that you do not have the riches that visitors perceive Expats to have. Your expenses are multiplied by visits to ‘home’, and you rarely get a real holiday yourself as that would be seen as hurtful to the relatives at ‘home’.
You love to hate these visitors, as they burn up your electricity bill with all night air cons, ignore mosquito netting, and push open shutters in tropical climates with a happy delight over all the light they let in. You hate it when they leave too – as deep down you realise how well they mean, and how much they mean to you. You also have oversight and understanding especially because you will return the favour when you visit them in that place you are supposed to call ‘home’.
First Generation love of Home
As a first generation country hopper, you know well what ‘Home’ is. The attachment to ‘Home’ almost becomes stronger the longer you spend out. Chocolates, and bizarre cans from ‘Home’ are treasured treats hidden for special occasions, and you try to enthuse your children with your love of Midsummer – even when a tropical sun does not like smorgasbord and herring that much. Your kids seem somehow not as taken with the yearly event, as they would rather celebrate Jamhuri if they live in Kenya, since that seems more normal. As a first generation you worry about how your kids be affected, and why they don’t seem as attached to ‘Home’ as they should be.
Second and Third Generation: Forever Foreigner
If you are a second or third generation forever foreigner you have not chosen this way of life. ‘Home’ is a floating word that makes little sense. You feel ‘at home’ anywhere, everywhere and yet nowhere.
Normally a Settler follows a Pioneer – but that is rarely the case here as being settled is far from your reality. You choose jobs that allow you to have contact with other international globe trotters. You feel most comfortable when your dinner table is filled of several nationalities, languages and intercultural couples. You are protective of this global world you know well; endlessly defensive if you hear words that stand out as stereotyping, narrow-minded or as fearful of the unknown. You have little sense of what is trendy, ‘normal’ or rules that belong to your parents ‘home country’.
Living Abroad: Home is Everywhere and Nowhere
The fact is that you rarely feel more foreign as when you visit that ‘home country’. You speak the language without accent (maybe a bit old-fashioned but still) but the unwritten rules of this land are no longer understood. You speak too loud in the subway, and order foods in a different way – your experiences and upbringing make you stand out.
People in general are not that comfortable with what is different, out of scope and rules should not be broken. You learn not to stand out, and as a chameleon you slip in and out of cultures. Yet – in what is supposed to be your ‘home country’ you are a peacock in a pine forest.
As a strange bird you navigate through life more or less easily — and the simplest solution seems to be to continue the forever foreigner existence, and bring up children who evermore become part of this international plenty fora of breadth, multicultural understanding and restlessness. Home is the world, and you don’t feel foreign at all.
Does this sound familiar? Are you a Forever Foreigner or is the World your Oyster? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. 🙂
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Recommended and Related:
- TCK: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids
- What is a Third Culture Kid? – TCKID website
- International Living Expat Advice – international living.com
- Expat Living: Tips upon Arrival – Internations Magazine
- Must Read Book for TCKs:
Do feel like home is everywhere and nowhere? Please Comment:
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