Spoiler alert for the young and in love . . . marriage is hard.
One more for anyone considering a life abroad. That’s hard too.
You read it here first.
My wife and I have been living both of those realities for a good, long time and to be honest we thought we were pretty solid on both. Oh we knew they were hard (we crossed those bridges ages ago) but we’ve pushed through that part. We’ve survived BOTH honeymoon phases and the crashes that followed. We’ve learned (through repeated trial and even more repeated error) how to be on different pages and stay in the same book. We’ve set up systems for everything from fighting better fights to dealing with my crazy travel schedule.
We’re good at this. That’s what we thought.
Until we found out that we’re not.
Here’s the thing — we recently discovered that our brilliant systems have been skillfully (if not consciously) crafted for the sole purpose of protecting us from the hard stuff.
We call a “time out” when things get heated to protect ourselves from saying stupid things that we don’t really mean (man, I wish we had known how to do that in our first year). We “switch modes” when Daddy travels so she can focus on home and I can focus on work (because both of those are really important).
They’re not BAD plans . . . but they’re not enough either.
Our systems protect us. They have us playing good, solid defense but the best case scenario in any ALL defensive endeavors is that you break even . . . and breaking even only happens when your defense is perfect. Ours is not.
We want more than a break even marriage AND we want more than a so-so life abroad.
So here is my Expat Husband’s Manifesto
My wife will be my first choice.
I am blessed. Super blessed. Hyper blessed. Hashtag blessed with good friends. I genuinely feel guilty sometimes when I think about the number of BFF’s that I have all over the world and I absolutely love spending time with them. They are worth every long trip and every late night.
But my wife will ALWAYS be the one that I pursue the hardest, invest the most in and sacrifice more for.
I will connect when we are disconnected.
I won’t turn our relationship off when we are apart. I won’t “check in” periodically but I will work so she knows that I have never checked out. I’ll tell her when something funny happens. I’ll let her in when I’m stressed out. I’ll text her pictures of things that remind me of her and I’ll do my dead level best with those emoji things.
If she is out of sight I will be intentional about keeping her in my mind.
I will make it real.
There are so many things in my head that rarely make it through my mouth. I will work to change that. She is so incredible. So beautiful. So smart. So creative. So fun. So many things that go unsaid and consequently never become real. I will choke the assumption that she already knows what my brain is thinking.
I will turn my best thoughts and my heartfelt intentions into tangible, touchable realities.
I will close the gap.
I travel for work. She stays home. I’m the extrovert. She’s the inny. I go places and I meet people and they become a part of my world. She has never seen those places or met those people. There is a whole part of my life that is a blurry fog to her.
We’re going to close that gap together. Not all at once and not in huge overwhelming doses but over time and as we are able I am going to take her to the far off places and connect the faces to the names.
I will get the order right.
Our marriage does not exist inside of our life abroad — or my job — or even our family. On the contrary, our lives together are the setting for all of the rest of it. The traveling, the adventures, the bumbling foreigner stories, the good things and the hard things are all side plots in a bigger story. Our story.
We could lose our visas tomorrow. “THIS THING” that we are doing could change a hundred times but we will still be doing this thing together.
I will stay on course.
We have set our trajectory towards “old and gray.” We have unanimously decided that, as we grow old, we want to do MORE of our lives together instead of less. We want to be THAT old couple who always go together.
We’re not there yet. We’re still in the crazy pace, divide and conquer, you pick up the kids and I’ll stop at the veggie shop phase of life . . . but we’re pointed in that direction. As we are able and on a consistently growing scale we are going to move towards doing more and more life together.
I will fall forward.
This would be so much better if I was already good at it. I would love it if I could just write words in a blog post and make it all true, unshakable and resolute — but we’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s not how it works.
I WILL ABSOLUTELY and UNAPOLOGETICALLY DO ALL OF THESE THINGS.
Until I don’t.
And then I’ll do them better the next day.
I love my wife and I love our life abroad.
There is nothing in the world like the beginning of a cross-cultural experience.
It is a jumbled, beautiful mess of every possible emotion, wrapped in giddy wonder, coated in absolute confusion.
Chances are, if you’re just beginning your expat adventure, you’ve read the books and the blogs. You’ve watched every Youtube video and you’ve tested the gracious limits of a been there- done that with endless questions like, “can I get ketchup there?” and “does Mcdonald’s taste the same?” Maybe you’ve even been through the training and learned all about cultural dynamics, dimensions, profiles and contrasts.
You’re prepped. Ready. Excited. Confident.
But regardless of what you have done to equip yourself, the inevitable reality of stepping across cultural lines is that a significant dose of unpredictablity is waiting on the other side. It’s a part of the deal.
Here’s the good news — wrapping your head around the inevitable but unpredictable realities early on will lessen the impact that they have on your healthy transition.
So tuck these five things away for those irritating moments in the not too distant future when you’re feeling blindsided by the stuff they didn’t cover at the seminar.
ONE: It’s not what you thought it was
This place. These people. That food. The experience altogether . . . as it turns out is not exactly like you had it pictured in your head. It may be worse. It could be better but to be sure . . . it is different.
I know, I know — it’s a bit of a “well duh” point but you would be shocked at the role that the gap between pre-going expectations and first year realities plays in the overall success of an expat experience. The biggest problems happen NOT because we are wrong but because we still think we should be right.
This will save you a world of stress — when it comes time, be willing to acknowledge where you were off and adjust your expectations accordingly. To be fair, you can also adjust the realities but that requires tremendous energy that would be better spent elsewhere in your first year. Save that for later and be willing to adjust your own understanding first. That’s where the good stuff is.
TWO: The devil is in the details
I have never (not once) spoken to someone who is about to go abroad and would look me straight in the eyes and say “this is going to be easy”. They may be PAINFULLY naive and even irritatingly oblivious to their actual capacity to handle what is about to happen — BUT — NO ONE goes in thinking it is going to be easy.
However — there is a huge difference between knowing it is going to be hard and finding out HOW it is hard. The HOW is what get’s you. When the speculation materializes into actual problems it is a whole different game.
Humans in general tend to be both overconfident in our future capacity to handle problems AND oversensitive to our present state. The result is pre-goers who get strangely excited about the potential of a military coup and have a meltdown when their plane is delayed.
Brace for the details.
THREE: Relationships are harder than Culture
This one kicks people in the teeth. We come in thinking that the biggest challenges will be figuring out the quirky little cultural bits like when to hug and when to bow or what kind of gift to bring to a dinner party. So we focus our prep time on crash coursing high culture.
HOWEVER the big shocker often comes when we discover that the most painful part of cross cultural life can be the colleagues and teammates that speak the same language and come from the same place we do.
- The loudmouth expat who constantly gripes about the locals.
- The nosy neighbor who needs to know every part of your business.
- The over-helpful co-worker who thinks you’ll fall apart without him.
- The standoffish longtimer who has no space for newbies.
- The overreaching parent who yells at your kid.
- The judgy purist who thinks you’re not legit unless cancel your facebook account.
Am I getting close yet? There are more.
Be warned — people are hard — no matter where they are from.
FOUR: Adventures are boring
Maybe you never dreamed you would do something like this in a million years. Maybe this is just the first in what you fully anticipate will be a lifelong string of global journeys. You are a born explorer. A true thrill seeker. An adventure lover.
But guess what.
The dishes still need washed and dinner isn’t going to cook itself.
Sometimes, in the excitement of a whole new normal, we lose sight of the reality that real life stuff travels with us. There is a significant percentage of cross-cultural life and work that is just plain mundane.
That stuff never makes the brochure.
FIVE: Grief is a part of this
I tread lightly around this one for good reason. I would never draw direct parallels between standard expatriate transition and a major life loss like death or divorce. Those are different and they deserve a different space.
However — with that disclaimer established — there is a lot of loss that comes with cross-cultural transition. Often times, BECAUSE we can’t put a label on it (like “death” or “divorce”) we have no idea what is happening to us.
You let go of some things to do this. People. Places. Things. Memories. Experiences. Dreams.
That is legitimate loss and the natural result is grief. You don’t have to feel guilty for that and you’re not selfish simply because you are sad.
Recognize that grief is a heavy process. Talk about it with a trusted friend or write it out on a trusted notebook — regardless, don’t just carry it.
Three action points:
ONE: ADJUST YOUR PACE
Slow down. You’re not supposed to be moving at full speed in the beginning. It probably drives you crazy that it takes you longer to accomplish to simplest tasks. That’s normal and it will get better.
Go slower. Learn more.
TWO: CREATE SOME SPACE
Be as student of yourself. Know what it takes for you to recharge and be intentional about creating places for that to happen. Need down time? Make it a priority. Need people? Go find them. Need to take a retreat to a place where there are only familiar things? Do it but don’t stay there. Recharge and re-engage.
Take care of yourself.
THREE: GIVE GRACE
It is crucial to a healthy transition to recognize that you are not the only transitioner. Cross-cultural life is a transition that never ends so look around . . . it’s everyone. You are allowed to bumble your way through this but you don’t own exclusive bumbling rights.
READ The Transition That Never Ends: The ongoing cycle of expat Stayers, Goers and Newbies
Be good to people — even when they haven’t earned it.
If you are just getting started don’t be discouraged. It is hard because it is good.
If you’ve been doing this for a while, what would you add? Comment below.
If you know someone who could use this — pass it on.
Let’s start with a quick summary of this whole post.
This is a longer one (at least for a blog post) so let’s break it up. I’ll give you all ten questions up front and then you can work through the rest as you please.
There are lots of resources and extras below but first things first:
Here are 10 QUESTIONS THAT EVERY EXPAT (OR REPAT) PARENT SHOULD ASK ABOUT THEIR KIDS
#1. What are our ROCKS? (What stays the same when everything else changes?)
#2. What is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?
#3. If my kid were in Star Wars who would they be? (what is their personality profile?)
#4. What is my kid’s Love Language?
#5. When my child grows up how would I like them to finish this sentence: “When I was a kid, we always . . .”
#6. Same question, only flip it around: “When I was a kid we never . . .”
#7. What pictures (that I haven’t taken yet) do I want to someday show my grandchildren?
#8. What do my kids love about their international lives? (and do they know it?)
#9. What do my kids hate about their international lives?
#10. What is our family culture?
There you go. Feel free to chew on that or move ahead. This is a great conversation to have with your family, your friends and your community.
And Here is the long form version:
Raising kids with an international twist is hard.
Scratch that. Raising kids is hard – doing it internationally just adds an extra, very specific layer with specific challenges and specific benefits. I’m actually a big fan of the whole concept.
Read When I was your age: An Expat Father’s note to his kids
I love what my kids are getting out of this experience. I love what is being built into them. I love who they are becoming . . . but I’m not an idiot. This is hard.
It’s hard for us and it’s hard for them. So as a parent I want to be in touch with the realities — the specific realities, good and bad — of who my kids are and what they are going through.
Here are ten questions that every expat (or repat) parent should ask about their kids.
NUMBER ONE: What are our rocks?
It’s a simple concept. The lives of global families are marked by change (did I hear an amen?). Packing, moving, airports, new people, new places, new languages, new foods, new friends and old friends constantly running through the revolving door of expat community.
Even when you are not the one moving, life moves around you.
Here’s the thing . . . When everything changes, something needs to NOT CHANGE.
Those are your rocks. That’s where stability comes from.
Read Rock, Paper, Scissors: Helping Kids Thrive in Transition (part 1)
Knowing what your family rocks are frees you up celebrate them, emphasize them, debrief them and critique them. Sit down with a piece of paper (an iPad if you’re under 30) and ask yourself “what are our rocks?”
What are the things that you can do, will do and do do no matter where in the world you are? (I know . . . I said do do. Grow up.)
Think in terms of:
- RELATIONSHIPS: What people will be a ongoing presence in your children’s lives regardless of time apart or distance?
- STUFF: What physical objects (toys, pictures, blankets, collections etc.) can and will travel with you no matter where you go?
- ROUTINES: What do you do daily and weekly as a family that can be reproduced anywhere in the world?
- TRADITIONS: What do you do annually that can be reproduced?
NUMBER TWO: What is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?
I tread lightly here for two reasons. One, some of you have heard this so much you’re bored sick with it.
Fair enough — however, for many it is a brand new, mind blowing concept worth repeating.
Here’s the textbook definition (and the starting point):
“A TCK is an individual who has spent a significant portion of his/her formative years in a culture that is different from their parents.”
“A TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
Buy the book here: Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
This concept (and the narrative around it) has shed light and breathed life into global families that didn’t exist 30 years ago. It has given life-changing insight to befuddled parents and hope to kids who just thought they were weird.
It is brilliant. Genius. And good.
However (and this is my second tread lightly reason) like any culture TCK’s are fair game for stereotyping. If your kid is a TCK, learn everything you can. Read the books and the blogs. Go to the seminars.
BUT — Don’t forget that they are completely unique.
In fact . . . the books will all say exactly that. You’re kid may fit into the TCK category but don’t put them in the TCK box.
NUMBER THREE: If my kid were in Star Wars who would they be?
Don’t like Star Wars? Not a problem. You have a ridiculous number of options (hold that thought).
Let me pause and make my point before I jump down this rabbit hole. You should be a student of your child’s personality. It’s what makes them pop. It’s who they are. It’s how they process the world. If being a TCK is what connects them to a group then personality is what sets them apart.
There are a billion tools to help you define and assess a personality. Pick the one you like.
If you weren’t a Psych major and you just need a place to start then go with Myers Briggs (MBTI).
You can learn about it here.
You can take the test (for yourself or your kid) here.
It’s simple, insightful and people have gone insane expanding on it which makes it crazy fun . . . oh look, a rabbit hole.
It’s one thing to know your kid is an INTP but it’s way cooler to know that makes him like YODA.
Click here to find see the Myers Brigg Star Wars Chart
Now buckle up because this is nuts:
Click here to see the Harry Potter one.
And here to see Frozen
Or other Disney women
DC heros and villains
Marvel heros and villains
The Lord of the Rings
Phineas and Ferb
Pride and Prejudice
Parks and Rec
Big Bang Theory
Fictional book characters
Christmas show characters
And I kid you NOT — click here to find out which dinosaur personality . . . dessert personality OR SHOE PERSONALITY your kid has.
Have fun with that but learn something about your kid.
NUMBER FOUR: What is my kid’s Love language?
Love Language goes one layer deeper than personality. Knowing how your kid gives and receives love is golden insight into what motivates them. It is also likely to shine the light on your most common miscommunications.
In a nutshell the Five Love Languages are
- Words of Affirmation
- Physical Touch
- Quality Time
- Acts of Service
So if you keep telling your little girl how great she is but what she really needs is a hug, you’re missing something. And if your boy keeps bringing you a bouquet of weeds it might tell you something about how to love him back.
You can learn about Love Languages here.
Take the test (for yourself or your kid) here.
Get tips on Kids ages 5-8 here.
Ages 9-12 here.
Buy the books here:
The 5 Love Languages
The 5 Love Languages of Children
The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers
NUMBER FIVE: When your child is grown, how do you want them to finish this sentence: “When I was a kid we always . . . “
There are so many directions this could go right?
. . . we always moved around.
. . . we always fought.
. . . we always ate dinner together.
. . . we always stayed connected to Grandma and Grandpa.
. . . we always tried to guess which row of the airplane we would sit in.
. . . we always ate pizza and popcorn on family night.
Memory is a funny thing. It is selective and fuzzy and at the very same time vivid and emotional. If you ask this you are answering a question that won’t even be asked for years.
What do you want to be the FIRST THING that pops into their brain when they hear this question years from now?
Once you have the answer you can be intentional about moving towards it.
Here’s a tip — If you’re not sure how to answer for your future kids, try answering for your present self first. How would YOU finish the sentence about YOUR childhood? Do you hope the same for your kids or something completely different?
NUMBER SIX: Same question only flip it around: “When I was a kid we never . . .”
. . . we never traveled for fun.
. . . we never had family dance parties.
. . . we never ate out.
. . . we never missed a family night.
. . . we never played outside.
. . . we never listened to music.
Same basic concept but you’ll learn something new if you ask it this way.
NUMBER SEVEN: What pictures (that I haven’t taken yet) do I want to show my grandkids?
Someday your grandchildren may climb up on your lap and say, “what was my mommy like?” or “tell me about daddy when he was my age.”
Pictures are powerful story tellers but lives marked by transition tend to have missing chapters. In the chaos of consistent moves and constant changes you typically end up with the highlights (portraits, birthdays, Christmas and selfies in front of major global landmarks) but . . . the real life stuff gets missed.
None of these really answers the question — what were they like?
Build your list of pictures that tell the story. Family portraits? Sure. Eiffel tower and Pyramid selfies? Absolutely.
But don’t put the camera away when they’ve painted the baby’s face or thrown a ball through the window or fell asleep in the airport or created a superhero costume out of underwear.
Get the day to day stuff, the frustrating stuff, and even the painful stuff . . . it all tells the story.
Here’s a tip: Don’t keep everything.
At the very least have a file for “keepers” that is separate from the massive, multi terabyte wasteland of “every picture ever”. It’s the paradox of living in a digital camera age.
Think about how you want to tell their story and go get the pictures to illustrate it.
(Again, if it helps to frame the question, think of it this way — What pictures do you wish you could see of your parents now?)
NUMBER EIGHT: What do my kids LOVE about this experience (and do they know it)?
I’m pretty vocal about the fact that I love raising my kids cross-culturally. There is so much to love but a fair pushback goes something like, “well that’s nice, but do THEY love it?”
I think that question is unanswerable. It only has two possible answers and both are wrong . . . “YES” or “NO”. One way everything is perfect and the other they are falling apart. Neither is the case.
Some of this life is awesome and YES they absolutely love it.
Some of it is NOT.
As a parent I can’t answer, do they love living abroad BUT I can have a pulse on what they do love.
My kids love airports. They love going home in the summer. They love it when Dad gets to drive a car. They love their international school (even though they’re not thrilled about school in general). They love having friends from all over the world. They love eating seaweed.
They love a lot of things that are unique to an international life. Stuff that I never dreamed of at their age.
Here’s the kicker . . . they don’t think it’s international . . . it’s just life.
For me the contrast is huge but for them it’s just day to day stuff. Knowing what they love helps us as parents do more of it and do it well.
NUMBER NINE: What do they HATE about this experience?
Don’t be the Happy Stamper parent (I have to fight this tendency). Some of this is hard and it is hard specifically because you are living (or have lived) internationally.
You’re a foreigner — so are they.
Know what my kids hate?
They HATE saying goodbye over and over. They hate getting stared at. They hate not having a big house with a big back yard. They hate not having roller coasters nearby. They hate not having a car.
My daughter, who is ethnically Chinese, absolutely HATES it when people expect her to speak for our family. She hates it 6 levels deeper when they make her feel stupid because she can’t.
I hate that too.
And it’s ok.
Global life is not multiple choice. It is a sliding scale. My kids can love it and hate it at the same time but I should know where they’re at.
NOT so I can fix them — so I can know them.
NUMBER TEN: What is your Family Culture?
Hands down the greatest definition of culture that I have ever heard came from a 5th grade girl.
Ready? Here it is.
“Culture is the personality of the group.”
Simple. Brilliant. She said it one time and I will remember it for the rest of my life.
Read The Best Definition of Culture I’ve Ever Heard
Every group has a personality. They have distinct characteristics that set their herd apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Countries do for sure. Continents too. Churches. Schools. Rock bands. Basketball teams. Chess clubs. Protesters. Gangs. All of them.
Anytime people move together in a group they take on a personality.
That is their culture and your family is no exception.
Your family has a culture.
Why not take some time to deconstruct it?
- What are your values?
- How do they show up in your actions, your clothing, your language, your relationships?
- What makes you weird?
- What makes you the greatest family on earth?
- What about your history makes you proud?
- What would you rather forget?
- How do you celebrate?
- How do you mourn?
Any question you would ask about a country — ask about yourselves. It will give you a whole new perspective.
There they are. Ten questions that we should all be asking. They are not the only ten. There are many more.
What would you add? What questions have given you a broader, better perspective? Which conversations have strengthened your family in the context of global life?
Creativity changes things. It just does.
Data stirs things up. It makes us think. Opens our eyes. Boils our blood.
But it changes nothing.
I love Statistics. Especially the cultural ones. I geek out on the numbers that peel back the layers and show me something new about myself . . . my family . . . this life abroad.
Did you know that an expat moves every 44 seconds?
I’ve met that guy . He was exhausted.
Did you know that if you raise your kids abroad you increase their likelihood of staying married, getting a college degree, speaking a foreign language and desiring to raise their own kids abroad.
You also increase their likelihood of feeling rootless, restless, homeless, and like a foreigner in their own passport country.
Google it. The data is there. Tons of it. More now than ever before.
But knowing information doesn’t change anything. It takes creativity to do that.
I get to learn a lot about TCK’s and there are two very distinct forces that drive my understanding.
One — I teach this stuff.
Two — I have some living in my home.
On the one hand it is my job to know the data, stay up on the research and communicate the concepts to parents who are living or moving abroad. What I’m discovering though, is that I can know all about TCK’s and not know my own.
Someone needs to translate the numbers into real life stuff. Practical stuff. Actionable.
Unfortunately most (not all) of the training and the seminars and the websites lean disproportionately towards reporting data and understanding theory versus practical application and creative solutions (I know mine has).
So let’s change that. Let’s soak up all the facts and figures that we can wrap our brains around and then say, “SO NOW WHAT?”
How can I balance what I KNOW with what I DO?
- If I KNOW my kids will probably feel rootless what can I DO to ground them?
- If I KNOW they’ll feel disconnected from the place I call home what can I DO to reconnect them?
- If I KNOW their lives are going to be marked by transition and change what can I DO to give them something rock solid?
- If I KNOW that they look at a world map and see real people (not just stereotypes) what can I DO to celebrate that with them? (because that’s pretty cool)
- If I KNOW that “goodbye” is always going to be a hard reality for them what can I DO to help them stay connected to their global network of great friends and great family? (because that’s pretty cool too)
- If I KNOW that they take pride in where they’ve been what can I DO when we cross the border to a brand new place that will mark that moment in their minds for the rest of their lives and remind them that borders are not boundaries?
I’ve got the answer . . . ready for it?
Here it is — start somewhere.
That’s it. Do something. One thing. Anything that goes beyond a cerebral processing of facts into a place of real connection with your kids and the things that make their lives unique. Do something that breathes life into the data.
- Have a conversation.
- Ask a question.
- Do a project.
- Write a song.
- Learn together.
- Go exploring.
- Draw a picture.
- Build a robot.
- Dance like you think you know how.
THEN — Tell someone else about it. Creativity is inspiring and frankly, those of us who get stuck in the data, could use a little inspiration.
I’ll go first (I’m actually pretty excited about this).
If you don’t know where to start but really want to connect with your kids. If you are convinced that there is something good about having a global family and want to make the most of it, sign up below and I’ll send you CREATIVE ABROAD: 10 Simple Ideas That Will Strengthen Your Global Family.
It is exactly what it sounds like. I’ve started with the data, the facts, the stats and the concepts and asked the question, “So now what?”
It’s a short little ebook and it’s FREE.
Promise me this . . . try one of them. Pick one. Doesn’t matter which — just start somewhere.
Tweak it. Customize it. Make it your own and then tell someone what you did. Inspire them.
- Comment below (I would love to hear your story).
- Share it with your friends, your team or your community.
- Post what you did on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever.
- Pass this post on to someone else.
Got another idea? Great. Share that too. There is a global network of people like us who have seen the data and have good ideas.
We should talk more — because creativity changes things.
It just does.
Subscribe below and get the book for free.
It’s the plague of the “TCK” isn’t it. Kids growing up cross-culturally have been branded with a scarlet letter R.
I get it. It’s an understandable, tangible way to illustrate some of the challenges that come with this life and on one level it makes tremendous sense. It goes hand in hand with all of the other bullet points in the “downsides” column.
- I can’t answer the question “where are you from?”
- I don’t know where “home” is.
- I move a lot.
- Even when I stay everyone else moves a lot.
- I say goodbye way too much.
- I see my grandparents like once every two years.
I MUST BE ROOTLESS.
I get it . . . but I hate it and I actually couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it’s a matter of semantics but if that is the case could we please reconsider the wording?
Let’s deconstruct it a bit.
ROOTLESS means “without roots.” Agreed?
So the metaphor presumes that we are talking about something that NEEDS roots and DOES NOT have them. We’re comparing TCK’s to a tree not a car . . . or a cow . . . or a crescent wrench.
That’s how metaphors work.
SO . . . if we are calling my kid rootless we are insinuating that they NEED some roots (I have no argument with that part of the point). But IF we are metaphoring about a tree which is rootless we have to stay true to the metaphor all the way through.
A tree without roots . . . dies. Period.
It shrivels up.
Falls down when the wind blows.
That, my friends, is where the metaphor breaks down. Why you ask? Take a look around. There are TCK’s all over the globe who are the polar opposite of shriveled. Not all of them thrive but MANY do. There are also LOADS of monocultural kids whose homebase has never once changed and are about as dried out and shriveled up as you can get.
There is so much more to having roots than staying in one place.
To be rootless means you have been cut off from what gives you nourishment, connection and strength. That’s the function of a root (you can look it up).
I would agree that my kids have been cut off from SOME of the things that CAN bring them nourishment, connection and strength . . . but not ALL. Not by a long shot. Not even close.
In fact I think they are tapped into sources that I never dreamed about in my monocultural childhood. Beyond that they are FAR MORE transplantable than I ever was. You could pick them up and drop them anywhere and they will thrive.
THAT IS NOT ROOTLESS.
My kids (and TCK’s everywhere) are ROOTFUL. Filled with roots. Lot’s of them. Fast growing, healthy roots. So much so that they will never dry out moving from one spot to another. There will be challenges to be sure, but that’s the thing about roots . . . challenges make them stronger.
They still need to be tapped into the things that feed them . . . AND THEY ARE.
- A family that looks and acts the same in any living space, airport, hotel or hemisphere.
- Routines and traditions that don’t change and can travel anywhere.
- Solid friends that they have met along the way and stay connected to.
- Core values that drive every decision.
- A deeper grasp of fluid community than they ever would have picked up elsewhere.
I love geographical stability (being planted in one spot and never moving). It can and does produce some really solid lives. In fact some of my greatest nourishment, connection and strength has come as a direct result of being tapped into people who have barely moved in their lifetime.
It’s a good way to do things well . . . BUT IT’S NOT THE ONLY WAY.
Living cross-culturally CAN be every bit as rootful.
Here we go again.
We’re ramping up for the annual reminder that expats say “goodbye” an awful lot — Some because they are leaving and others because they are not.
It feels different this time though. All of the same old repatriation dynamics apply but there is a LOT going on in the world right now. Current events are screaming (even more so than usual) for the attention of the masses who are in turn screaming for the attention of the current events.
Homegoings are bound to be impacted.
One quick clarification: I’m not a political commentator nor do I desire to be. There are plenty. Regardless, though, of where you are from, where you are going and what you feel like screaming about . . .
Here are 10 Tips for going home when everything has changed:
ONE: Brace for impact
Re-entry can be kind of like when you’ve been sitting by the pool in the hot sun for a while and all of your friends are saying, “come on, the water is perfect”. Then you dive in and . . . PHUUUAWWW!!!
Instantaneous hypothermic shock.
There are multiple variables but one of the most significant is that you expected something different.
Repatting is most challenging when it is a surprise. Do your best to know what you are jumping into.
THEN jump in.
Bonus tip: Know yourself — Are you a diver-inner or a toes firster? Plan accordingly.
TWO: Anticipate the Eclipse
You’ve got stories to tell. Exciting ones. Grand adventures of far away lands, awkward moments and likely something that involves a toilet.
On a regular day one of the most commonly shared frustrations among repats is the sense that no one is listening. Add to that a dominating narrative or news event (local, national or global) and it’s probably a safe expectation that your stories could get trumped (no pun intended).
Be patient. Eclipses don’t last forever.
Bonus tip: Superlatives lie. Just because a lot of people aren’t as interested as you thought they might be does NOT mean that NO ONE is.
THREE: Find Your Safe People
Every repat needs a place to be understood.
You’ve got some catching up to do but that is not going to make sense to everyone. You need someone who gets it and will stand as a buffer between you and the rest of the well-meaning welcome homers who can’t fathom why you have broken down crying in the cereal aisle. Someone who has been there and felt that is a great option but don’t shut the door on someone who hasn’t.
If they get it — they get it.
More than anything look for someone who lets you be ignorant without making you feel stupid. The right safe person can help you make sense of the things that just don’t.
Bonus tip: Let people who “get it” help you engage (not hide from) people who don’t.
FOUR: Lay it on the table
Repats are a strange breed. So are expats but at least their strangeness makes sense. When you were a foreigner you had your foreignness to fall back on. There was little question as to WHY you were such a bumbling mess and you weren’t expected to be completely caught up on politics and pop culture.
Not so for the returnee. You’re supposed to be normal, up to speed and happy to be “home”.
However, it is unfair to expect anyone who has not experienced what you are going through to miraculously presume that you feel more like a foreigner than you ever did abroad. Give them the benefit of vulnerability and let them know what’s going on inside.
Bonus tip: Repatriation is not a disability. Don’t confuse being vulnerable with making excuses for bad behavior.
FIVE: Become a Master Asker
Asking questions is an art form on so many levels. Not everyone is gifted at shutting up, listening and probing for deeper understanding but it is a skill that can be honed.
Of course you have an opinion and something to say. Look around. EVERYONE has something to say and they are all saying it (loudly) at the same time. Being intentional and genuine about asking questions first will give you a MUCH deeper grasp on what is really happening AND earn you the right to be heard.
Bonus tip: Asking questions can also be a science (if you are more inclined in that direction). Develop a formula and ask away.
SIX: Flip the coin
Know what makes me mad? When someone rips on my host country.
I’ve lived in China for the better part of ten years so the “chingy changy” jokes or the cracks about dog meat strike a nerve especially when they are followed by the elbow of presumed agreement.
You’re talking about my friends. They are actual people.
Know what I forget? There are two sides to every coin and my home country is full of real people too.
I generally stick my foot in my mouth at least three times before I remember that life abroad doesn’t make me an expert on all things domestic. My “home friends” deserve the same respect that I insist they give my “far away friends”.
Bonus tip: Respect does not equal agreement.
SEVEN: Adjust the volume
Repatriating can also be like when the sound is not good on the Travel Channel. You crank the volume up to 85, put the subtitles on and scoot closer to the television.
Then you flip back to the news and nearly blow your eardrums out.
It’s ok if home feels loud at first. Sensory overload happens when you suddenly hit the switch and simultaneously understand more AND less than you have in years. There is no shame in pacing yourself.
Unplug when you can and even if you can’t, do your best to lower the volume.
Bonus tip: Scheduling things that you have never scheduled before could help. Start the timer on news intake, social media and binge-watching. When the buzzer buzzes . . . walk away.
EIGHT: Don’t lean on your ability to unpop balloons
A perfect storm is brewing. If you are going home, you have some wonderful things to look forward to but transition comes naturally with tension.
If you are stacking the typical repatriation tensions on top of an extra set of transitional tensions (for example your friends are adjusting to a new job or a new leader of the free world) the odds of conflict go up.
They just do.
People say stuff. People that you have known and loved for your entire life might even say things that make you think, “who ARE you?”
This is important: No one is the best version of themselves in transition.
When emotions are flaring and core values are being challenged from every angle people do and say whatever they can to make their voice heard.
Take a deep breath. Work hard to NOT say what can’t be unsaid or do what can’t be undone. You will still love these people when the dust of current events has settled.
Bonus tip: There is a world of difference between disagreement and personal attack.
NINE: Study Yourself
Living abroad changed you. You knew that already but have you considered HOW it changed you? Specifically.
This is a great time for you to become a student of you. The more you know about yourself the less confusing the tensions of re-engaging will be. Knowing yourself won’t alleviate challenges but it may shed some light on why they frustrate you so much.
Here are some questions to think through:
- How has my view of my own country changed?
- How has my view of my host country changed?
- How has my view of the world changed?
- How have my politics changed?
- How has my faith been strengthened, stretched or challenged?
- How has my perspective on wealth/poverty been effected?
- What has changed in me that I wish had not?
- What is different in me now that I hope never goes away?
Get alone with a piece of paper and figure yourself out. Better yet, have this conversation with your family, or your safe people.
Bonus tip: Physically writing is a powerful way to discover things that you may not have even known existed . . . in your own brain.
TEN: GIVE GRACE ALL AROUND
Count on this as you prepare to go “home.”
• There WILL be moments that make no sense at all.
• There WILL be people who say stupid, stupid things.
• There WILL be days when you feel incompetent, irrelevant and marginal.
There will also be great moments of joy and celebration. Your transition does not need to be defined by the tensions or the rough bits BUT . . .
When they happen and you’ve run out of options, patience and steam, consider giving grace like you have never given grace before.
- When your brand new friend says, “you lived WHERE?” . . . “WHY?!” give him some grace.
- When your best childhood friend says, “You must just be glad to be away from there” . . . give her some grace.
- When your second cousin makes an ignorant stereotype joke about your host country . . . grace.
- When your dad forgets which country was your host country . . . grace.
- When your favorite people say painful things.
- When the noise is deafening.
- When the news is depressing.
- When every conversation comes back to the exact same topic and none of them are about you . . .
GRACE. GRACE. GRACE.
Not because it is the best weapon but because it leads to a better place.
And here’s a bonus tip: When you fall apart in the cereal aisle — take some grace for yourself. Lot’s of it.
Transition is temporary.
Know someone who is headed “home”? Pass this on.
Are you a “home-goer” yourself? Share your thoughts . What excites you and makes you afraid?
Been there and lived to tell about it? Give us your wisdom. Comment below.