Expat American Children After the Election

April 07, 2017

Morning Zen Guest Blogger ~ Nina Sichel ~

I am what some call a hidden immigrant.  I am a US-born citizen raised overseas, who came back to the US for college and never lived abroad again.

It was a complex thing, being raised an expat. I carried a US passport but my residency was in Venezuela. I didn’t feel completely American, but I knew I was only in Venezuela temporarily, until I went away to college.  I didn’t know what to call myself, so I opted for an explanation over a label.  I was  “American, but…”    I did not feel hyphenated — it wasn’t that simple or clear-cut — I just felt other.

It was especially confusing during flares of anti-US feeling — when I’d see the Yankee Go Home signs graffitied on neighborhood walls, or when our international school, empty for the Easter holiday, was peppered with machine-gun fire.  I wondered if I would have to take sides.  I wondered how I could, if part of me was this, and part of me was that.

How much of the American identity are we able to wrap ourselves in, if our childhoods are spent overseas?  Do we get to choose which aspects of being American we want to take on, or is it all or nothing?  Or are we simply defined by others, regardless of how we feel?  For many kids raised overseas, this search for national identity — belonging to or being from a particular place — can seem urgent.  For some, it is never resolved.

I found myself wondering recently how overseas American children are feeling now, especially after our contentious elections.  In times of turmoil, is national identity questioned more deeply?  Are the children being targeted as outsiders?

So I sent out the following query via various social media sites and asked parents to tell me what their children are experiencing:


To those of you raising U.S. families overseas, have you noticed any impact on your children of the recent U.S. presidential election? This is for a non-political piece I am writing. I am curious about any changes in emotional, psychological, educational issues and social situations.

Here are some of their responses.  Out of respect for privacy, I am not including their names or location.

Only one respondent wrote that there has been very little effect on her child; more, on her non-American classmates, who seem more passionate about the election and about President Trump.

Most wrote with serious concerns:

My ten-year-old has expressed concerns we might get in trouble when we repatriate because we have visited so many countries and may not be seen as loyal Americans anymore. (We’re a US military family stationed overseas.)

Our kids have reacted with fear to the recent election and at our international school they have had to deal with some teasing.  They have asked that we not visit America this summer and visit relatives in Canada instead.  We are American Muslims…  my children… no longer feel like Americans, and that makes them sad.

This election has shaken some key beliefs about the world we live in. I haven’t wrapped my own mind around it. Not sure what guidance and example I can give my children today.

Our family is due to relocate this summer, and one of the possible destinations is returning to Washington, D.C.  And although the kids are excited about the prospect of “going home” to friends, family, and clean air, they are worried about having to reintegrate into a society that seems to be so divided, polarized, angry, and intolerant.  They are worried about bullying at school, especially returning from a majority-Muslim country.  The uncertainty has created a lot of angst and anxiety, and they are wishing my husband could get a different posting…

What advice do readers of this post have to share with these parents, whose concerns no doubt reflect those of many?  How do you reassure your worried children?  How do you prepare them for a move back to a country which is theirs but which seems so changed? 

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ninaNina Sichel is co-editor of the collections Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011) and Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global (2004). She leads memoir-writing workshops in the Washington, DC area and continues to collect stories and research about international and cross-cultural childhoods. For more information on TCKs, readers can visit her Facebook page, which includes links to articles of interest, book recommendations, and connection with other TCKs.

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