If you are raising your children abroad, chances are you’ve heard the term Third Culture Kid. If you haven’t, you will want to pay extra close attention. If you have, this episode has something brand new for you.
Together with today’s special guest Dr. Ruth van Reken, co-author of the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, we explore grief, guilt, and identity as well as the pride and absolute joys of raising our children abroad. If you think you’ve heard this all before, wait: we cover new territory.
What You’ll Discover in this Episode:
- Ruth’s unique path that led her to dedicating her life to supporting families in global transition
- What most parents get wrong when their kids grieve the loss of their friends or sense of place
- An alternative model for supporting your own and your children’s grief
- A dangerous partner to grief that we need to bring out into the open
- What we should focus on instead of the international aspect of our lives
- What Ruth would advise parents after decades of supporting parents around the world, and more
Listen in to learn more about what Ruth means when she says, “unpack your bags, plant your trees” and her expert advice on what it takes to enjoy the journey.
Listen to the Full Episode:
Featured on the Show:
- Third Culture Kids book, Growing Up Among World’s from David C. Pollock, Ruth van Reken and now Michael Pollock.
Don’t miss this opportunity to get coached by Sundae – for FREE.
Full Episode Transcript:
Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour, this is Sundae Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-oriented coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations and I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
It was 2012, I was in Baron Switzerland, I had a tiny baby and an elementary student. Cozy in Switzerland after years of working so hard to integrate and establish myself professionally and my husband walks in one day and says, “Hey I applied for a job abroad, I think it’d be great for us to live and work abroad.” And I looked at him and I said “I do work and live abroad.”
And it put me in a tailspin where we ended up looking at moving our kids to a third culture, not my culture and his culture but outside of it. In fact a place so different that I didn’t know what it would be like for my kids. It ended up being West Africa. It could have been Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia as well. I was looking all these options and just like any mama who is worried about the future of their kids, I turned to one thing, and it was the Third Culture Kids book, Growing Up Among World’s from David C. Pollock, Ruth van Reken and now Michael Pollock.
I dove in and I scrambled through the pages looking for answers whether it would be ok from me to change my Cross-cultural Kids into the Third Culture Kids, did I know what I was getting into? Did I have what it took? Are there strategies that I can use to make it work?
Well fast forward to now, you know the answer that resource helped me say yes, and since then I haven’t looked back. And it is my absolute honor to have the co-author Ruth van Reken with us today, who has played such a huge part of my own story.
Sundae: So Ruth, thank you for coming to Expat Happy Hour today.
Ruth: Thanks for having me Sundae, I’m honored to be here and it is always a joy to find out that all those years in my basement made a difference for somebody, Thanks.
Sundae: So I should probably say Dr. Ruth van Reken because she just received an honorary degree doctor of letters for her lifelong and visionary advocacy for Third Culture Kids.
That’s not the only thing you’re celebrating, we’re celebrating that Families in Global Transition (FIGT) just won a really exciting award. Relocate Global had the Think Relocate Awards 2019, I believe just last night and Families in Global Transition (FIGT) came out on top for excellence in employee and family support, so there’s a lot to celebrate right now.
You are like the grandmother of this of this organization and now it’s winning awards and gaining recognition globally. So that’s really exciting. And I want to just share something, you know, most of the people when they hear your name, they know that you are a co-author of what many people call the “Bible” of TCKs and it’s that is where I think people associate your name. But one of the things I’ve learned about you, watching you connect at Families in Global Transition in 2018, and also in 2019 in Bangkok this year, is that you are amazing at connecting with others, and I don’t know if people have said this to you before Ruth, but you give people the feeling like you’re the only one in the room when they talk to you.
Is that something or someone has ever said to you before?
Ruth: Maybe not exactly in that way, but the issue is that people are important to me. I believe strongly that this topic connects us to some of our most basic levels of our humanity. The places where we all need relationships, we all need to sense of belonging, we all need to know somebody cares about our story, we all need to know we are understood, and as we kind of live these mobile lifestyles so often we lose the people that know our history. And so in traditional communities people kind of knew who everybody was, they all knew where the grocery stores were and you didn’t really have to explain too much about yourself. And when we live internationally and globally mobile lives we get to a new place and nobody knows our history, nobody can perhaps we think relate to that. But that’s the magic of this experience, is because as humans we connect in these places and we feel it when we move, we feel it when we don’t have friends, we feel it when we worry about our kids, we don’t even have to explain it to each other just like people might not have had to explain themselves in the old days, you know or monoculture experience because we are sharing an experience even if we’re not sharing the geographical space.
And so it matters that we let each other know we understand, and to me every story is always interesting and it’s important because it’s a human story and displays of affection are there every time, I love it.
Sundae: Well, it’s evident when when speaking with you. You make people feel very special and that their story matters.
So do you mind sharing with our audience more of your story? Like how did you get to do this?
Ruth: It is a miracle to even to get this honor and award. It really comes out of my story, It doesn’t come out as my formal training. I was born and raised in Nigeria, my parents were teachers and worked with the mission group there. They started to school but my father had been born and raised in what was then Persia, his father had started a hospital there. And so I grew up as the child of a third culture kid before we had language, but I think of all the wisdom my father gave me from his experience, like the adage to “Unpack your bag and plant your trees no matter where you go because if you don’t you’ll never live.”
Sundae: Unpack your bag and your trees, what does it mean, plant your trees?
Ruth: He said a lot of times people who are living this way mentally and physically never unpack their bag and mentally and physically never plant their trees. So physically he planted trees and he said “Don’t be afraid to plant them even if you can eat from them, somebody will one day.” And so it was kind of cool because he planted orange trees and all kinds of trees around our house in Nigeria. And years later when I went back to visit and went back to see this house, that was such a mansion when I was a child was so tiny now I couldn’t believe it, but the trees were there and they had grown and the fruit with it and I thought “You’re right Dad, the fruit has lasted all this time even if you’re gone.”
So those kind of things, you know, were put in me early on and even his lesson he would say “Don’t ever ask somebody from another culture to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself because people of all cultures and races are valuable.” So that was the early lessons that I grew up with.
Then when I was fifteen I do remember one other thing he said was, he said, “You know, I don’t fit in anywhere.” and I said “Dad why? Everybody loves you.” I mean, he was the leader. He said “Yeah, but when I’m in these meetings I can see the organization side and I can see the Nigerian side when they’re trying to come together and both sides want me to be on their side. and so everybody’s mad at me.” and I thought “Oh?” Later I thought, “That was a cultural bridge”.
But anyway, those were the things of my childhood.
So, when I came to the States at the age of thirteen, I had left my life and I had thought I was normal, my peers were like me, I loved my trees, I loved perma tan, I loved soccer, I loved all these things. I’ve had what I would have considered a good life, at the same time I always knew I was an American so I wouldn’t be here forever and that was okay too that was kind of part of the way we did life.
So I expected when I went back to the United States that course I would be American since I was by passport, and when I hit that wonderful eighth grade year it was the worst year of my life. I couldn’t believe how out of it I felt, it seemed like I just didn’t know anything everybody else knew. At age thirteen if you’re not in the group, you’re kind of mocked, it’s not a good year for anybody. So that feeling of “What’s the matter with me? What happened?”
When people first asked me where I was from I would say Nigeria. Well, then they’d laugh and say “Well that’s kind of silly.” And so that was a tough year, and I decided that I didn’t know what to do with my African self and so I would just ignore her. And I started high school and didn’t tell anybody I’d ever lived anyplace but Chicago.
My parents went back to Nigeria for four years, so I didn’t see them then but a great gift of my life was living with my grandmother and my aunt so I could stay in my same school, I could stay in my same church community with my friends and you know, I had stability except for my parents being gone. And so I really thought it was no problem, that I had no issues, you know I was happy, I still have friends from high school. But then it was later on that I began to have to think about what some of these things were and the impact in my life.
Sundae: You know when you talk I find it so interesting because this was decades ago and this could be a story today of many children who are living outside of their parents passport cultures. It’s like, you know, the fish who swimming in water doesn’t name the water, you were there in Nigeria living your life and you were cognitively aware that you were, you know, air quotes American and then it hit you when you first got there.
Is that what drove you to share the story of third culture kids to spread the word of what a third culture kid is so other people were prepared?
Ruth: Absolutely it is, but let me go back one second to something that has happened since I last saw you at the FIGT in Bangkok. Last week. I got this paper from a classmate of mine way back in nursing school. After high school I went on to nursing and ultimately we went back to Africa, which I’ll tell you in a minute, but she this sent me this paper that was written in 1940 by Rosamund Frame who turned out to have been a cousin of my father, and she wrote about the difficulties kids who had grown up in China had when they came back to the States, and it could have been the third culture profile in a little bit older language that was unbelievable how precisely it was unmarked.
So you’re right. This has been going on a long time, but we didn’t have language, I didn’t have language. So I thought like many people, you know, “What’s my problem? The issue is me, I’m stupid, I can’t figure it out.” So you keep going.
Ultimately when my husband and I married and he was in medical school, we had a chance to go back during his schooling to do an elective overseas. We tried to go to Nigeria because my parents were still there, I was pregnant, so I figured I’d have my baby by my mother. Nigeria wouldn’t give us visas because there had been a foreign war and for whatever reason they decided not to give it. That was a shock because Nigeria was my sense of home in my African self.
So ultimately we went to Liberia and it was when I came back from Liberia that I had the first great depression of my life. I didn’t understand it. We moved to a new city, we moved to st. Louis so David could do his internship. He was gone every other night some of the time and I had a new baby so I couldn’t stay busy like I had always been and I hit a great depression.
Did you ever have something like that?
Sundae: Oh my gosh, well when I when I first moved to Switzerland, I had moments in the fetal position crying my eyes out on a Friday night. Wondering if it was a biggest mistake in my life.
So what I’m thinking of is just being a mother to a newborn and having your partner away is enough to put someone in a tailspin and then add those big questions about living abroad and what’s my identity would put anybody off their feet.
Ruth: Right, I think everyone has these times when you have this perfect storm. And so we were in a new town, long distance calls were very expensive and I didn’t have Skype and all the rest and so I found this person that I thought of as being very capable and spiritual and competent and you know, everything. Somewhere in the basement and I had no idea. Looking back I know what had happened is the Africa me, that curtain I had put down on that part of my life had been raised. Because when I went back to Africa, I thought “Oh my goodness, I forgot the oranges were green, I forgot people carry kids on their back.” And all the things that were old and I didn’t know what to do.
So anyway, those were not good years in that way, I mean eventually like everybody sort of come to some terms and make do. But then we moved, David was in the Navy and things got better and I thought everything was fine and we went back to Africa. By then, I had three kids and I love being in Africa, I love Liberia, I love my life there, I love raising my kids there. So everything was good again.
Then of course there were some political issues and long story short we realized maybe we needed to take at least a year off and see where things were going and my mother-in-law invited our oldest daughter to come back to the states and start high school with them so that she wouldn’t have to change any year, mentally that made sense, but emotionally I went back that depressed person who had been there.
Sundae: Right it’s like the wounds are coming back. You know what I’m listening to you. I hear that you said these are not good two years and I think back on my own story of the not good years, you know, I say that they were always good and never easy. I’m so grateful for that struggle now in hindsight because if it had been easy, I don’t think I could serve people because I get it like, you know what I mean? Like in my guts I get how hard that is and you and I have had a conversation offline about how you sometimes go through hardship to be prepared for what’s next and I hear that, that was unfortunately the hard preparation that I went through to really understand with your new body how challenging this can be if you are not supported in the right way.
Ruth: Well I think the other point is we need language, I didn’t have language for my story and so what happened was I finally thought okay, I have a process that I called “listen to life” when I’m having a reaction to something that is excessive to the event or what’s going on, then I stop and say “What else, is it something more than this? What does it connect to? So I’m having this problem reaction to my daughter leaving, which mentally I can work it out, it’s just a few months, no big deal.” And it was a big deal, so that was when I started saying, “Okay, what is this? And why does this keep popping up in my life?” And that took me back to thinking, “It must have to do with my own separation.” I went to boarding school at six.
And so one night, I decided to start journaling and I started writing to my parents as if I was the six-year-old, and suddenly I was the support and with huge wave of emotion of the six-year-old just completely overwhelmed. And so the adult me is trying to find the words of a child me and I could feel my stomach and you know, all the things I felt.
So that became a process, and in the middle of that two things happened. My mother sent me an article she’d seen about third culture kids, I had never heard of the term and had no idea what they were and I thought “Oh that might be me?” And then I also got a survey to do for our children and their educational needs and whatever and there was going to be a this conference at this International conference for missionary kids in the Philippines and Dave Pollock was sponsoring that and I didn’t know him. But I completed the survey and then I wrote, I said, “What are you doing for the adults? I’m thirty nine, nobody ever mentioned the re-entry seminar and blah blah blah and maybe I’m the only one but if you want to know what one person is trying to figure out I’ll send you what I’m writing.” Because I wasn’t going to share it, it was just my journaling.
So that’s really what started the whole program here. I found out it had a name and a conference and I realized “Oh my goodness, there’s really a big deal out here.” It legitimised it.
Sundae: Well, it legitimises your experience, you were saying, “It’s my problem, I’m doing something wrong, it’s just me.” if you if you can’t look outwards and find a name for it, you look inward.
Ruth: And I think the other really big thing for me was as a nurse I had gone to conference by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross when she was first doing her work on the stages of grief that she called on death and dying and I kind of internalized so I wasn’t thinking about it consciously, but as I began to journal I touched the grief that I had never allowed myself to feel before. Because if you’re a six-year-old we try and survive, so you have to push that away and all these places of loss that I had never acknowledged or seen, because the losses were hidden. Until I was journaling I never realised my world died the day I left Nigeria because we took an airplane ride and I lost everything that was my world, but I didn’t know that then, I just thought I was going to America.
Sundae: When you share that story, I’ve got hair that’s standing up on my arm because I’m thinking back to when we were in Burkina Faso between 2013 and 2016. So my my youngest was one and he turned four right when we left and we left suddenly we had about 10 days until we departed there was you know, a series of things that happened in a terrorist attack and we chose to live separately. I was in Switzerland the kids and my husband was in Burkina Faso and it went fast I solo-parented for, I don’t know 10 months in Switzerland, my husband was in Burkina and then we came to South Africa after right after that.
So we were driving the car and my, what five or six-year-old then we were coming back from a party and out of nowhere Ruth my son goes “I miss Ouagadougou.” So it was like here’s my son who I, you know, I’m an Intercultural transition specialist, I’m doing all the things I’m creating the bridge. We’re doing the goodbyes and hellos, all the things that I know we should do and out of nowhere my son sees something and is pulling grief from his heart. And this has happened other times where you know, I’m reading a story and he’s lying next to me in bed and he goes “I miss Louise.” That was the nanny, the nous nous, that we had when we were there. And this idea of you know touching grief, how do we help our kids recognize how much grief when they’re six and seven and not when they’re thirty nine so that the grief can move?
Ruth: Well I think one of the first things is recognising it, because one of the problems that we have in our wonderful way of life is that it is a wonderful experience at so many levels and I think I always felt that if I talked about grief, first I didn’t even recognize it, but if I would have I was negating the good instead of affirming the good the only reason I missed it was because I like to and I love Nigeria. So that’s the first thing parents should not be afraid and we shouldn’t be afraid for ourselves of the grief word because it’s actually an affirmation but I think the other thing that I learned by doing that was the difference between comfort and encouragement.
When I sent the letter to David Pollock saying, you know, “Maybe I’m the only one,” and so forth. He wrote me back and he said “No, you’re not the only one.” and he sent me the same or a letter from a counselor Sharon Wilmer would worked a lot with TCKs. He had asked her what were the issues she saw and she said the first one was a lack of comfort. And when I saw that I just started to cry because I thought I didn’t even know what I was actually writing about when I was doing my journaling and I thought that’s it. I was encouraged to death. I just think about “Oh, it will be fine, we’re going to do this and they are happy happy things.”
Sundae: Right and you know what? I have this metaphor I’m working on in my head right now about grief and our children’s transitions. As a parent I want it to be a faucet right like “Your grief is on and I want to help you turn it off because I’m really uncomfortable when I know you’re in pain.” So we treat grief like a faucet that we turn on and off and even if we’re doing a good job in transition, we’re like, “Okay now it’s time for grieving, on. Okay now, let’s move on, off.” We really we do treat it like that and I don’t think I’m the only one.
And I think another way that we need to start thinking about it is like we are midwives of grief. We’re in pregnancy, sorry the labor has started, like there’s something bigger happening here and you need to stick with it until well you’ve birthed the grief. And I feel like as a parent one of the other issues is, we want to turn it on and off and simply stick with it and be midwives of our kids’ grief.
Tell me where I’m wrong?
Ruth: No you’re not wrong, I think one of the other issues is we are in grief ourselves and when we were leaving Liberia it almost killed me because I didn’t know if we’d be back, my kids were in grief. I’m just starting to be aware of the topic and when my daughter is crying in the airplane because she’s left her best friend on the other side of the glass in the airport and won’t put on her seatbelt. I realize it’s embarrassing but it’s also terribly painful to me because, “Am I killing my child?” I mean and it’s killing me. So you want to shape up or ship out but I thought “Okay, let’s stop here minute.” And I said, “Okay you have to put your seat belt on but you can keep crying.” And she kept crying all the way through every night. And I thought “Oh my goodness is this going to work? Maybe we just need to shape up.” and I realized why people want to, because it’s terrible as a parent to watch your child suffer, but finally she’s kind of stopped.
About a year later, I thought she was doing fine and she just said “Mom I really miss Liberia.” And I thought “Okay, let’s go back and hug and comfort not encourage. Encouragement is important later but first we have to sit it out. So I said, “Okay, well, how do you feel about being here now?” And she said “Well, I really like it here and I really miss there.” And I thought that’s the paradox, we live in paradox in the situation, but also everybody in the family can be in a different stage of grief and so some are in denial, some can be in anger, or some can be in depression. Some can be you know, adjusting and doing fine. And so that’s another thing that is complicating is that we don’t all do it like you said on a smooth trajectory. We don’t all do it at the same time. We’re going to do grief and so we need to give each other some space and some love and some understanding. And especially when I was out of anger because it can come out in anger towards you if you’re the parent or you as a parent can be angry your child, you know, and so it’s a complicated process.
But that was what I began to discover in doing my journaling that I had this mountain of grief. I had never ever dealt with, a lot of anxiety, it had come out in anger, It had come out in depression instead of grief.
Sundae: And I wanted to bring up another G word, right? We talked about grief and I’m going to I’m going to bring up guilt. I think that when we’re watching our kids suffer, when we move them. I mean, I’ve been there I’ve watched my nine-year-old tearfully hug, you know his best friend and they grip onto each other and my heart breaks in pieces. I know that when we’re grieving when they’re grieving, it is so easy for a parent to feel guilty for their grief and feel like we’re the ones who are hurting our kids by exposing them to these kind of transitions, right?
So I feel like the other G word I think we need to talk about is guilt, because when you feel guilty you feel responsible and then I also think that some families make snap decisions based on that. Of “Okay, forget it, this life is too hard, I’m gone.” And they they bail out on whatever lives that they’ve been living or they compensate with other things to make up for the guilt. So maybe even now today they give their kids more technology. “Oh his misses his friend, ‘ll let him be on the iPad all day.” or “He’s grieving, and I feel bad about that, so I’m going to let him behave badly.” Do you know what mean? I think guilt is a thing that comes in.
Sundae: That’s a really important word and concept to remind ourselves about because I know we’ve all been there with this lifestyle. I remember one time we were back in the States and visiting some friends and we couldn’t visit at her house because kids had swimming lessons and so we went with her and she said, “Oh they could go in the pool with my kids and that’ll be fine.” Well, the instructor made my kids get out because they didn’t swim well enough. And I sat on the pool and I just cried because I never learned to swim. And so that was always a shame in my life that when I came back, I mean, we hadn’t had swimming pools so, you know, you go to gym class and where this terrible person speaks that you can’t go in the deep water because you know, you’re an idiot, that’s how I felt.
So it hit a particular button but it also hit that deeper sense of “Am I destroying my children’s lives? and losing all these opportunities and going and so forth.” Somewhere in the moment, I came to some sort of sense and I thought “Well no child gets to do everything in this world, nobody can do everything. And these kids in the pool have not been to London and they haven’t been to Paris and they haven’t been to Holland and they haven’t been to these places.” That we would have different experiences that they have that other people don’t and the same thing with loss.
I have seen so many families that never moved and their losses in their life, whether sometimes it’s from divorce, sometimes it’s an accident, sometimes you have a disease. You know, there’s things that happen in life and you can’t avoid that, you can learn how to process it. And one of the gifts I hope we have is how to process grief for more than just physical transitions when we’ve learned in this way.
But you’re right, the guilt is real for all of us right at various points.
Sundae: And when we talk about this, what’s striking me is how important it is for us to do our own work. For me, my Philosophy is for me to show up as a good parent I need to show up for myself. I need to take care of my health, I need to do my own calling myself on my crap that comes from my head that needs to go away. Like I need to do my own work so that I can show up for my kids better. And I know that in transition, I know that in grief, in abrupt transition, I think so we’re so focused on our grief and we forget that the key is actually looking and taking care of ourselves so that we have much more power away with our kids, it is easy to get swept up.
Ruth: I think it is easy to put our grief on the kids, and so instead of acknowledging what we are doing, it’s transferring in a way. It’s a displaced kind of grief and so we put it out on them instead of just sorting it out for ourselves like we need to. So I am agreeing with you.
Sundae: Yep, it’s exactly what we do.
So I’m curious, you have spoken to parents and kids around the world with every sort of composition of a traditional, TCK where the person spent most of their, you know, early adult years outside of their parents passport country. You’ve also talked to see CCK’s, Cross-cultural Kids.
What do you think is on the minds of the parents most?
Ruth: That’s a good question, I think for some the worry, and like you say “Am I doing something well for others?” the almost denial of “Is this any different than how I grew up?” And so, you know, “We’re not even going to think about it.” And then there’s all kinds of parents that are in the middle of who really understand there’s terrific gifts that they’re offering their children, very few third culture kids that I know of regret their life when they reach adulthood, and they want to know how to do it well.
Sundae: I want to pause there, because I am a monocultural kid. I grew up, you know born and raised in North Dakota. I’m raising third culture kids. So Ruth van Renek had just said she doesn’t know many third culture kids who regret growing up as a third culture kid.
I’m just going to say that for every single monocultural parent, because every time I sit at a table with an adult third culture kid, and they tell me how much they loved their life, it’s like balm for my soul. Like “Yes, I know in my body this feels like the right thing to do and now I have confirmation.” So I just wanted to to put that out there for those who are doing it, like me who didn’t grow up with models like this who didn’t have this as their childhood. This is evidence right here that there are gifts in our global lives, even though there are challenges that help us grow in ways that are stretching. So I just wanted to make sure everybody heard that because it is important for us monocultural adults who are raising third culture kids.
Ruth: Well you can say it all you want, and I think even the one or two who may have expressed regrets, and it’s much more tied into the complications in their family. So I do also want to make the point that third culture kids, first of all they are kids right? They want what every kid wants, they want parents that love them, they want the sense of security, and that can be given on the move and parents that give that and know the traditions that and build that sense of “This is who we are, and we can do this in different places.” There is that core stability that that can come within that child so they can receive those different gifts.
But one of the things that I do see for some parents, particularly those maybe from mono cultural backgrounds, I don’t know, is when the child does not relate in their sense of identity to the parents passport culture or where the parent came from. They can be kind of surprised. My father wasn’t but my mother was shocked when I said some time that I didn’t necessarily feel I was from Chicago. And she said “Why that is where I am from?” I said “I know but that’s not where I grew up.” So particularly if you’re from a very strong mono cultural kind of a community where all the generations have been doing it one way and then you take your child around the world and they don’t have that same sense of national identity that you might. Be kind, don’t think that you failed, you can let the child be many. I think that’s what is important.
Also Daniela Tomera was saying it’s the FIGT conference how in her family each of the children have a different sense of national identity almost because of the different places in ages where they’ve been. And so I think as parents we don’t have to be intimidated or scared, your child is also an American. Even though I didn’t feel as American as some other people but I also have a strong connection to my International self and to my African self, and just we can we have a bigger maybe more non-traditional way of finding our sense of identity, and that I think is what parents can offer to their kids, is the permission to start with who they are human beings and know that they can relate to others because of this place of being relational, emotional those things. And they can also be unique because every person is unique. So how you express that within your cultures come out. But also we really do belong to a large group, we belong to a community that may not be geographically in one place, but experientially we have a lot of people we can relate to and that gives me the sense of achievement. That then gives me confidence to go people of other communities and learn from them and makes life really interesting.
Sundae: What I think about that is being a monocultural can be, before I even went abroad with my kids. I remember I made chocolate chip cookies for my eldest and he at this point was speaking better Swiss than English, and I thought “Okay now I get to introduce this cultural icon to my son.” And I you know, I’m not a very domestic at all. So I actually was in the kitchen, I was baking, I was super proud of myself and I make these chocolate chip cookies that my friends brought in, you know chocolate chips from abroad and it was a very sacred thing. And I gave him the cookie and he takes a bite and he goes “nid gärn” which is in Swiss German, “I don’t like it.” And in that moment, I felt rejected, It was like rejecting me. and you know, I’ve done the work on that, when I think about identity, when you look in the Third culture Kid book and you see the identity mirrors, I’ve learned over the years that our kids are forming identity through their community, through places and through family. Their identity doesn’t have to overlap completely with me. But there are going to be some mirrors where we are connected, so instead of you need to like me, It’s like, where are we connected in our identities and that helps I think for people who are monocultural or very traditional and want to preserve their traditional culture that helps too. Because there’s no a hundred percent overlap doesn’t mean there isn’t deep connection point
Ruth: Well, I want you to write that down, we are developing that new concept onto the mirrors and the anchors and you’ve added a new piece right now so thank you.
Sundae: Well, I’m glad, that is a compliment. But that’s how I see it, where are we overlapping, and we get to overlap on place, we get to overlap on family. But maybe on language or maybe the way our national identity doesn’t overlap. But there are some places that will inevitably overlap and that’s where we have to take solace that that’s where we connect.
So the other question I have for you is, you have so much wisdom you’ve spoken to so many people, and as I said at the beginning of our podcast you are so present for each and every person’s story, there is this wisdom that you have inside. What would you like to share with every parent who is either currently living abroad and or thinking about it? What sort of gift do you want to place in their heart that they can know for sure?
Ruth: Don’t be afraid, and realise your child is not you, If I had one thing I wish I had understood better, is that my children had different gifts from me. I have a daughter who is a list maker and I am not a list maker and she she tells me now it was always a little confusing as she never know what was going on in our house, and I thought that was just the fun of it. And so the older my kids have grown the more I realise how individual they are. And so you can’t even make the TCK cookie cutter for them. We have these principles, but nobody does the story the same way. So it’s go back to basic parenting. Who is your child? How do they fit?
I knew one family, they were marvelous. They had a child who had a learning disability and they realised that child could not make these kinds of international moves. And so they localized for some years till he could be in a school where he could get help and then they took off again. And people say to me “Well, I can’t, you know do this because of my child.” Well, they took a sacrifice in their job, but they knew that child couldn’t fit even in the gift part of this because it was too stressful. So they made a choice that was good for him. He is successful now as an adult, they got to travel again and I give them so much respect because they paid attention to who the kid was.
Other kids, you know are just fine and they can go anywhere and they love it. So we don’t want to compare them to each other, but we want to pay attention and find out within the dynamics of each of our families how do we make this beautiful thing called family work? And how do we make the decisions that are good for everybody as best we can. And sometimes decisions are out of our control. Like you said you’re in a terrorist situation or something, then how do we make the best decision then.
But I guess the biggest thing I say is, enjoy the journey. That’s what I’d like to enjoy the journey. It’s really rich, It’s filled with so much good, your kids are learning skill sets, they don’t even know yet about intercultural communication and move towards wherever you live. That’s what I think my dad meant about unpack your bag, plant your trees. Live fully where you are instead of waiting for the next move, learn about that culture, learn the languages you can those are the gifts you give your kid. So enjoy the journey.
Sundae: Totally and it makes me think about what we’re creating in our family. We are creating children who are comfortable, connecting and going towards people who might seem different but are able to find commonalities. And that is creating kids who are super prepared for this global world that we have.
You know, one thing you said in Bangkok was, that this is all a great experiment, we haven’t had time to see what happens when we take Cross-cultural Kids and throw them into a third culture environment. Everybody gets all mixed up and we move around the world and you know anywhere from missionaries to corporate, foreign service to International school teachers, all of this everybody mixed up together.
What do you think about this experiment? Where do you think we are heading because we’re in this weird moment of globalization and polarization. What role do you think the TCKs have in the future.
Ruth: I think when we think about the larger picture, we are talking about the refugees, the immigrants. We are talking about the children who now go to different schools and have different cultures when they go home. So that’s part of the whole dynamic.
For me, I believe that the gift of my life is enjoying people from different cultures, not being afraid of them. And surely that is a message that is needed in our word. That, that person who may have a very different story than you, who may have a very different look than you, is still a person at their core. They also want respect, they want to be in relationship. And I don’t have to be afraid to move toward them, to hear their story, I want to know their story because in that their humanity also becomes evident.
And I just think that those who had the privilege, and it is a privilege to grow up among the differences and yet connected this core hopefully can be voices and advocates for a world that right now doesn’t know how to do it, because traditionally we stayed in our separate groups. And in this mixing many want to pull back to that separate group because they don’t know what to do with the quote-unquote other.
So it’s a difficult time but I think it’s also a great opportunity to meet and embrace fellow human beings who have very different stories but who at the core share this experience of being human. And the needs that we all have and the joy, we all have and all these things. So I have hope.
Sundae: And I where I connect with that too is, you know, when we’re going through hard times, it’s the end of the school year soon, we’re going to have a few hearts broken when friends move away. And when we’re going through that tough time, to keep that perspective of the big why like “Why is this worth it? What are we gaining as a family? That when you know in your heart that you are preparing children who are going to move towards others, who are going to be uniquely equipped to connect with others who are different. And to see the humanity, to have the shared stories and be voices of the future. That is something that keeps me going.
So, I know our time is limited Ruth, this has been such an honor to have you and such a joy, and I hope it’s the first of many conversations.
If people want to find you, The book Third Culture Kids is an obvious place to start. But where else can people find you if they want to learn more about you and the work that you’ve done?
Ruth: I have a website I don’t keep up too well, it’s called crossculturalkids.org. but they can also write me at firstname.lastname@example.org if they would like. I am happy to write people and connect in anyway that’s helpful. Or through Facebook and messages, those are always ways that I try to interact with people.
It is true that each story matters to me and I don’t want anybody to feel alone in this world because there are people who can understand the story, and if you’re not right where you live in this virtual world we can find each other.
So thank you for having me today Sundae, It’s been a great privilege to get to know you in person, I love what you’re doing and keep up your great work. And to all who are listening to enjoy the journey.
Sundae: Thank you Ruth, you can’t see me right now, but I actually have tears in my eyes. I hope I don’t start crying. When I met you in Bangkok I didn’t expect to be because we had met a year before right so I didn’t expect to be impacted by you in such a strong way as I was. And one, you have an amazing sense of style, just got to say you raised the bar on what it means to look good, you have got a great sense of style.
But what you did for me personally, is you raise the bar for how I want to show up in my community and the impact I want to make. So for that I want to say thank you. And for everybody in my community, I want them to say thank you to you because you did something. There was a shift in me that happened just by watching you engage with people, so there’s that.
Thank you Ruth.
Thank you for everybody who’s been listening to Expat Happy Hour today. I have so many takeaways, I don’t even know where to begin. But the things that are sticking out for me right now that I will not forget is about unpacking your bags and planting the trees, never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself and that we need to give ourselves and our children language so that they can work through their experience, watch out for the 2G words grief and guilt, work on helping our kids work with our loss rather than turning it off like a faucet and comfort before we encourage.
The final thing I’m taking away is by really centering all of the work that we do with our kids and our experiences abroad on connecting through people’s stories and the common humanity.
So thank you for listening to Expat Happy Hour, this is Sundae Bean.
I’m going to leave everyone with a quote that’s inspired by something that Ruth has said to me about, all of us are on this path to putting the pieces of a puzzle together on global life and how we can make the most of it and it’s from H.E.Luccock “No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.”