Tips for Third Culture Kids Going “Home”

This week I had a piece published on A Life Overseas: The Missions Conversation. I wrote about my experience as a third culture kid returning to the States for college.

That post, and some conversations that arose from it, got me thinking. What helped me adjust when I went back to the U.S.? What could I have done better?

My heart is to support other third culture kids (TCKs) in their challenges and journeys. So here are a few thoughts on getting through the process of going “home.”

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1. Surround yourself with people who “get you.”

This is especially critical in the beginning, when you’re most likely to feel overwhelmed by the changes. Develop a network with other TCKs, expats or foreigners. Find out if there are local communities of people who have immigrated from the country you left. If you can’t find people with similar experiences nearby, find or stay connected to them online.

When I first went back, I lived with a family who’d served on the mission field for years. One of my closest friends had travelled extensively and spent a few longer periods of time overseas.

These individuals understood reverse culture shock and the struggle to find a sense of home. They didn’t judge me for the battles I had over worldview and even my beliefs; they knew I’d just landed in a new culture, surrounded by different values than I’d grown up with. They also understood that most Americans assumed I was glad to be “home,” while in reality, I was homesick for Ukraine and struggling to find my place.

2. Build a support group for practical help.

Like many TCKs, you might feel stressed over needs like insurance, finding a job, setting up a phone plan, buying a car (or getting along without one), and the list goes on. Most of us who grew up overseas have become fairly independent, able to get around on our own and knowledgeable about handling daily life.

But daily life and its needs vary greatly from one country to another. I was a perfectly capable and confident young adult when I left Ukraine; when I arrived in the States, I felt like I’d digressed about ten years. The pre-teens around me seemed to have a better understanding of this life than I did. Every question I asked made me feel stupid.

Two or three close friends, who fully knew my situation, were lifesavers in practical needs. They sat with me for hours and answered questions about insurance, where to look for jobs, how to create my resume, etc. They gave me a safe place to learn about this new life without making me feel like an idiot.

Find a few people nearby who are knowledgeable, who know your situation, and who will create that safe environment for you to learn.

3. Keep an open mind about people you meet.

A vivid memory brought me to this tip.

I was in my early twenties, in the States for college, and I was wrestling over questions about life in different places. More than anything, I was struggling to understand why some people and some countries have so much, while others have so little.

Life in Ukraine had grown more comfortable over the years, but it was still clear to me that the average American had more. I didn’t judge my American friends for what they had, but I felt sorrow for parts of the world that have much less.

In those moments of wrestling, whether over poverty or some other question, it’s important for you to have an understanding friend who will let you vent. Someone who will remember your situation and listen without judgment. I’m not saying TCKs should be free to think whatever we want or judge the values or lifestyle around us. But we look at life through a different lens, and a good friend will take that into consideration.

 

4. Remember that money is just money.

Like many TCKs, you might have lived in a place less expensive than your home country. When I first went back, I was paralyzed over how to afford things in America. But a wise friend told me, “Nicole, money is just money. Don’t be stupid with it, but remember that it comes and goes.”

Third culture kids, like anyone else, need to be wise about budgeting, saving, and spending. But you can also learn to relax a little and be willing to splurge here and there without guilt. There’s a difference between being a saver and a miser.

5. Tell people your stories about living overseas.

Sometimes I was afraid of sounding arrogant or drawing too much attention. And there’s some truth in that; we shouldn’t become “me monsters” about our experiences. But in general, people want to hear about your life as a third culture kid. And when you tell your stories, it’s a way of debriefing and honoring the experiences you’ve been privileged with. It’s interesting for others and therapeutic for you as a TCK.

How about you?

If you’re a third culture kid or an expat who has returned to live in your passport country, what tips would you give others for getting through this time of adjustment?

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