Morning Zen

Expat Families Coming Home

May 29, 2016

Morning Zen Guest Blogger ~ Nina Sichel ~

They come tumbling out, personal stories of having to relocate, to move on, cascades falling from websites and blogs into a growing pool of expat memoirs. The ones I have seen tend to praise the expatriate life, even though it is often made up of cycles of goodbyes, cycles of hellos, and lots and lots of starting over. Starting over with everything if they are the ones moving on; starting over with new friends and sometimes a whole new social circle, if they are the ones left behind. They tell of the challenges of life outside the home country, the comparisons to former homes, the accommodations to the new one, the languages and customs and food and expectations they need to adapt to, often over and over again every two or three years. They tell of the way coming home on furlough or summer vacation can be a welcome break, though just a temporary stay.

Sometimes they experience a reverse culture shock in returning to the familiar. They come home and they’ve changed, or home has changed — they don’t know if they can slip back into the old identity like they can the old bathrobe, still hanging on its peg in a parent’s closet, their childhood bedrooms turned into guest rooms, and now they are the guests. Their friends and family might ask about their time overseas, but they have the feeling they don’t really want too many details. So they step gingerly around the questions, concerned they might sound like they are bragging about their international experience, concerned about seeming to lecture, worried that others might feel judged for their lack of worldly expertise, attuned more, sometimes, to the feelings of others than to their own. This is one of the things they’ve learned as expatriates, a sensitivity to how others might regard them, as foreigners.

They think they’ve prepared their children for this return as well. They believe they have immersed their children in their own home culture, so that it should be familiar, it should seem theirs. The children have heard the stories, myths and history growing up. They’ve learned the home language and celebrated the home holidays. They’ve been led to believe it is their culture, too, that despite their moves around the world, this is their real home and this is where they belong.

But their children experience a very different return because for them, it isn’t really coming home. It’s coming to their parents’ home. Home for these children, raised on the move, is not a place, it is a context. After the initial excitement — similar to the way they feel at every move, in every new place — they are anxious to leave again, dive back into the mobile stream. Because for them home, really, is the place where they swim with others like them, not rooted in a particular geography but floating among international, mobile communities.

Sometimes it is when the children finish their school years and are ready for college or the workforce that the strongest shocks are felt upon return. It is often at this time that the return is considered permanent. Their lives have reached the point where they can no longer trail their parents, and they must set off on their own.

Repatriation is foisted upon them. Sometimes it is when they turn eighteen and, as military kids, they are sent away from the bases where they lived, their resident privileges taken from them. Or they are no longer included in their parents’ embassy circles, or missionary communities, or the corporations with their social networks, or other groups living in expat bubbles.

Moving back for these kids can be overwhelming. They call it reentry, as though they are plunging back to earth from outer space. It can be the toughest move they’ve ever had to manage. Many struggle with feelings of invisibility — they are used to being different, recognized as other outside their country of origin and bound to others like them. And here they are, apparently just like everyone else, except that they know they’re not. They’re expected to be native, but they feel more like immigrants. It’s a kind of isolation they have never known, it’s a different kind of move, and there is no community to relate to.

Some international organizations have begun to look more closely at reentry, and to provide the kind of support for returning families that they offer for those relocating overseas. Some colleges and universities have begun programs to identify and support these particular students. Skills assessment, career and personal counseling, academic and workplace adjustments, assistance in establishing new networks, all are helpful.

Above all, it is important to remember that reentry is another transition, and that these children, unlike their parents, are not moving back. They are moving on. Raised overseas, they are moving once again to a new environment, and this transition, like all the others, will have its rhythms and tides. They will be experiencing similar ups and downs and cycles of adjustment as they adapt to this, their new place. It is a profound change, this plunge into new waters, and the children, more than any others, need to be buoyed up till they learn, again, how to float, and then to swim.

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Nina 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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