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.
Life abroad is a trade off isn’t it? You give some things up. You get some things back.
Some would call it a sacrifice which is perfectly accurate for so many. I prefer the term investment for myself. Both start with letting go of something but a sacrifice let’s go with no expectation or hope for return.
Truly and entirely selfless. Those people are my heros.
I’m getting way too much out of this to think that I have genuinely sacrificed anything (especially in comparison to those people). I’ve given things up but I’m an investor and frankly the returns are phenomenal.
To be clear — I’m not talking money here.
My investment has been comfort, connection and confidence.
I’ve given up things like a room full of power tools, a bathroom that doesn’t smell like raw sewage and literacy. Those are trivial compared to the relational investments — sure would be nice to drop the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the day.
I’m whining a bit but I’m not complaining. The returns are not lost on me — I’m getting a bottomless adventure, a network of close friends from every continent (except Antarctica), kids who will never be held back by words like, “that’s too far to travel”, free language lessons with every taxi ride, fabulous family selfies, street food that would make your head spin and a chance to live out my calling every single day.
Seriously — not complaining — but I do miss my family. Especially this time of year.
The holiday season has me thinking about traditions. Are they an investment or a sacrifice?
I feel like many expats buy into the idea that when you live abroad you have to check your traditions at the airport. Just put them on pause until you get back “home”. A total sacrifice on the altar of “that’s not an option here”.
I don’t buy it.
Traditions, for the expat (and the repat), are one of the great opportunities for something solid in a life which is otherwise incessantly marked by change. Adaptation is required to be sure. Adjustment is essential. You can’t do this without some tweaks and twerks and modifications but rock solid traditions are worth the investment.
My family needs that. I need that.
So I’m investing in a solid set of traditions (holiday and otherwise) that can remain constant here, there or anywhwere.
sidenote: Twerks are probably less essential to this process than tweaks and modifications. Please consult a doctor before you include twerking in your family traditions. Please also consult your family.
When you squeeze the old, stable customs through the filter of expat realities you end up with a set of TRAVELING TRADITIONS that can go with you wherever you land.
I’m working on mine and here are some things that I’m considering:
Traveling Traditions should focus on people not places.
We don’t have the luxury of going to Grandmother’s house every year let alone going over the same river or through the same woods. Our stability will likely never be a place. It is people (namely us).
Traveling Traditions should be focused on what “can always” instead of what “can here”.
Every true tradition must be held to the test . . . could we still do this if we lived in Dubai or Moscow or Bangkok or Atlantis? If not then it always runs the risk of extinction with the next move . . . or the one after that.
Traveling Traditions should be focused on small and not large.
Ornaments travel. Trees, not so much. We are mobile people. Our traditions should not be tethered to “things” that cannot move with us.
Traveling Traditions are more likely to need “translating” than simply “transplanting“.
Traditions probably won’t ever move seamlessly between spots on the planet but discovering how to convert the heart of the old into a new location or culture is worth some thought. sidenote: something is always lost in translation which does not render it unworth translating.
Traveling Traditions should be firmly flexible.
I am 100% dead set, unflinchingly convinced and resolved that our traditions will move forward according to our plan, absolutely . . . until they don’t. Then I’ll be flexible. We’re expats so we’ve already learned something about flexibility. It keeps us from breaking.
Traveling Traditions should break the time-space continuum.
20 years from now I want my kids to finish the sentence, “When I was a child my parents always made us ______________”. Then I want them to wrack their brains figuring out how they’re going to get their families to love it as much as they did.
We have a wonderfully challenging, beautifully transient life. Things change regularly and rapidly even when we don’t go anywhere. We make more friends than we ever dreamed we would, engage more cultures than we even knew existed and say more goodbyes than we ever signed on for.
Considering the fact that pretty much everything changes on a regular basis for the average expat . . . something needs to stay the same.
Traditions are worth the investment but they are certainly not without return.
What have you learned about maintaining your traditions in a constantly changing life?
What are your favorite Traveling Traditions?
Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it.
A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery. That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years.
The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now.
The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.”
The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT. Keep dreaming chump.”
And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”
I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home.
But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.
(just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you)
I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis) and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:
• Issues can fly
• They expand when they land
The life cross-cultural can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure and the newness can serve as a great cover up for a good long time but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.
Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:
If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems non-available in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.
If your marriage is in the toilet — you may very well need some time away with your spouse and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.
If you have anger issues — That’s one thing when your life is compartmental. Blow up at work and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.
Whatever it is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).
Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.
Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out of control people and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.
This is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?)
If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be” don’t freak out
- Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
- Do everything you can to address them before you go — and set a plan to keep addressing them.
- Don’t be naive — Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
- sidenote — if your issues are actually going to crush you abroad it is MUCH better to discover that before you go
If you’re a half-jaded “Been There”
- Good news — you’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
- Say it with me — “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog)
- Become a master of seeking wisdom.
- sidenote — if your issues are already crushing you finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Do whatever it takes.
If you’ve been there, come through it and learned something along the way
- Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
- Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
- Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
- sidenote: Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.
Whoever you are and whatever your issues, add to the conversation and comment below.
Know someone who needs this? Pass it on.
I love living abroad. I really do.
Even the stressful stuff cracks me up.
Like the time I got 28 enormous hickeys on my back or the day I discovered I might be Amish.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Life as a bumbling foreigner makes me laugh — some days simply because the alternative involves some combination of thumb sucking, a fetal position and dents in my wall that match my forehead.
If you can relate — even a little — then you should read this new book:
“THE DAY GRANDMA GOT US KICKED OUT OF MEXICO (and other fun stories about life as a bumbling American foreigner)“
It’s a short compilation of my favorite and funnest stories, interactions and reflections over the past several years and it’s free.
This book is simply about stepping back and enjoying the expat ride . . . bumps and all. There is no moral to the story. No great self-help wisdom. Just a few light hearted thoughts from the perspective of an American living in China. Incidentally, it might even make a good read for a German living in Brazil . . . or a Kenyan living in Russia.
Probably not a Canadian living in Greece though. That’s pushing it.
Here’s how you get the book. Just sign in below and click on the big red button. Check your email to prove that you are a human (easier for some) and enjoy.
Thanks for reading . . . and for laughing at my Grandma. I hope to return the favor someday.
If you enjoy the book or you’ve got a fun bumbling foreigner story of your own I’d love to hear about it. Please comment share this post with your friends.
Hey expat. You too repat. When was the last time you laughed?
Like really laughed. Belly laughed until your ears hurt and you actually had to force yourself to think of something sad for fear that you might pull a muscle in your gut. Laughed so hard that you had to fight to catch your breath even after you stopped laughing . . . and then you snorted and started laughing all over again.
I’m not talking “lol” here. I mean “BWAAHAHA!”
How long has it been? How often does it happen?
Too long? Not often enough?
Why is that?
Let me guess. Life happened. Transition got real. Culture shock or re-entry stress hit you like a ton of bricks and you can’t even remember what gut laughing feels like.
In the economy of major life transition, laughter sometimes feels like a luxury that you can’t afford.
I’m right with you . . . but we’re both wrong.
It’s hard to find a better value proposition than laughter. Your investmentment is virtually nothing and the returns are astronomical. Try to get that deal from stress . . . or worry . . . or anger . . . or complaining . . . or overthinking . . . or even venting.
Bottom line? You need to laugh.
Laughing is healthier and tastes better than Kale
The only thing that disqualifies laughter from being classified as a superfood is that . . . well, technically it’s not a food (if you want to be all picky). However, the studies are in (lots of them) and all of the data points to the same conclusion. Laughing is actually crazy healthy. Physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.
Here are some of the benefits (not making this up).
- Lower blood pressure
- Increase short-term memory
- Lower stress hormones
- Protect against heart disease
- Defend against respiratory infections
- Improve alertness and creativity
- Increase oxygen levels in your blood
- Increase pain tolerance
- Improve metabolism
- Make you blow milk out of your nose which makes other people laugh which resets the whole healthy cycle
Seriously. Kale isn’t even funny. At all.
Laughter is the opposite of everything that stresses you out
Important to note here. Laughter doesn’t SOLVE all of your transition challenges. It’s not going to magically infuse your brain with a foreign language or explain to your family why you’re crying in the cereal aisle. Laughter is not the answer to all of your pain but it might be the break that you need to STOP being consumed by the hard stuff. Even for a little bit.
A good laugh can be a great reset.
There are no Laughter Rehabs
People with issues (like you and me) want to detach. It’s what we do. Unfortunately the unhealthy options that offer a break from hard realities are as unlimited as the devastation that comes as a result of engaging with them. Laughter is all natural with zero negative side effects. So is kale but we’ve covered that.
A good laugh can give you a break without disconnecting or doing damage.
Laughter crosses cultural boundaries
Some of my most enjoyable laughs have been shared with people who speak about five words in my language (which is three more than I speak in theirs). To be clear . . . HUMOR does NOT often cross cultural lines.
Like, hardly ever.
Your jokes are probably not funny to the rest of the world. Sorry, but it’s better you find out here . . . from the guy who has learned the hard way.
HOWEVER — humor is not the only thing worth laughing at. If and when you find that point of connection with someone who is on the other side of a cultural line, it is golden. A good laugh not only crosses cultural barriers — it crushes them and builds a rapport that is hard to find elsewhere.
A note for repats — You’re crossing cultures too.
A good laugh can be a surprisingly great connector.
Laughing at yourself means you’re doing transition right
If you can’t laugh at yourself in the context of being a bumbling foreigner or returning “home” (and feeling like a bumbling foreigner) you are likely to do one of two things: Explode or Implode. Neither of those is good (just in case you were wondering).
There is only one reason you should laugh at yourself. Ready?
Because you’re funny.
Not so much in the brilliant, well thought out comedic genius kind of way. No no, you’re funny in the cat who falls off a ceiling fan kind of way. You’re making mistakes and falling down even though you look and feel like you shouldn’t be.
Frustrating . . . but funny.
Bumbling and falling can be a shot to your pride for sure — but laughing at yourself can be an indicator that your pride isn’t controlling you. I’m not talking about a self-loathing, self abusive, “I’m too stupid to do anything” laughter — but a healthy acknowledgement that you are not, in fact, the first person to do transition without falling down is a good sign.
A good laugh at yourself is a great gauge for transitional health.
Laughter is a good sign of things to come
Transition is a thief. It temporarily robs you of the comfort and confidence that you enjoyed back when you were settled. Remember those days? You had it all figured out. Now it’s just awkward. You don’t laugh when things are awkward.
Ok you might “lol” . . . but you don’t “BWAAHAHA!!”
So finding a way to genuinely laugh, even before you’re resettled, gives you a glimpse of something good that is coming.
A good laugh can be a great reminder that it’s going to get better.
One important disclaimer that could change everything:
It matters what you laugh at
All of this is out the window if it takes ripping someone else (or yourself for that matter) to shreds for you to laugh. You might still get the sugar rush but it’s not worth the damage you’ll leave behind (and carry with you).
So take some time and get intentional. Try this — Write down five times you can remember laughing til it hurt. Now start making connections. What do they have in common? Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? What can you recreate now? What can you not?
Even if transition has made it impossible to reproduce your most laughable moments, don’t give up on finding some new ones.
Why not start with a chuckle? — scroll up to the blue box at the top, right of this page and download my new ebook, “The Day Grandma Got us Kicked Out of Mexico.” It’s full of some of my most frustrating and enjoyable laughs as a bumbling foreigner.
You might relate.