When I was your age — An Expat Dad’s Note to His Kids

when i was 13Listen up young lady.  You too young man.

When I was your age we knew the value of staying in one spot.  We planted roots and they ran deep.  We didn’t run off galavanting on some fancy schmancy airplane or traipsing through some foreign country trying to speak some crazy language that sounds like jibber jabber.

We were solid.

We were stable.

We were strong.

When I was your age things were different so listen up.  I need you to hear this.

I LOVE YOUR LIFE.

Let me tell you why.

I had roots but you’ve got more.  I can see them.  They’re not deep but they’re strong . . . and they’re all over the place.  In fact what I love about you is that you could plant yourself anywhere and still grow.

I sure couldn’t do that when I was your age.

when-i-was-8You won’t graduate with the same friends that you went to preschool with BUT when you graduate you’ll have friends in every corner of the world.

I never dreamed of that when I was your age.

I know it sounds weird to say but I love that you can’t answer the question “where you are from? . . . and you may not be able to pinpoint where home is  . . .

But you will ALWAYS know when you are there.

Back then I was either at home or I was homesick.  I love that you are almost always both.

Honestly I was a little sad when we came here because I was realizing that you would never really connect to things like fireworks on the 4th of July like I did when I was your age.

Oh my.

Chinese New Year.

I had no idea what people could do  . . . what they would do with tightly packed gun powder when I was your age.

I feel robbed.

I love that you’ve still got my holidays but you’ve got a whole new set of your own too.

I was afraid that you would get left behind on things like pop culture and maybe you have . . . a little . . . but you are miles ahead of me on culture culture.

Miles.

Such a good trade.

I NEVER had to say so many goodbyes.  That’s a hard one but I want you to know that there is NOTHING in the world like, “hello again old friend.”

You’ve got a lot of those coming.

img_4196When I was your age, four hours in the back of a Buick was a long trip.  Made me tired.  Needed to stretch.

Six hours was just dumb.

Ha.

I love that no place on earth will EVER be too far away for you.

I love that you see things through different lenses than I did.

You can look at a globe and it makes you think about people . . . real people . . . friends with lives and bossy older sisters and bratty little brothers.

When I was your age I just saw stereotypes with big funny hats and soccer balls.

I love that you hear things through a different filter too.

You understand the thickest accents and empathize with the struggle to communicate . . . I rarely even heard an accent and when I did I just mocked them . . . because that’s what we all did . . . and now I regret that.

I missed so much when I was your age . . . because I thought I already knew it.

when-i-was-3You have tasted bugs and sea creatures and plants and meats that I never knew existed when I was your age and I love that you always share your seaweed if you have enough to go around.

I had Taco Bell once when I was your age.

You’ve smelled the foulest, most repugnant stank and you’ve learned to wrinkle your nose and move on with your day.

I made a HUGE scene . . . and toilet jokes . . . and rude noises with my armpit for a week.

 

I do need to say though — 

I don’t love it when you fight like cats and dogs.

It’s not my favorite when you whine about your chores.

It drives me nuts when you leave your Legos on the floor.

And I question my competence as a parent when I realize that you would play video games for a solid week and eat nothing but ice cream if I let you.

But those are the golden, magic moments when I realize — you’re not at all different than I was when I was your age.

EVERYTHING around you is — but you and I  — we are the same — and even with all of the fancy schmancy airplanes and 36 hour trips. Through all of the mess and the moves and the hellos and goodbyes.

img_0793Through all of the transition.

Through all of the chaos.

We are solid.

We are stable.

We are strong.

Just like when I was your age.

I love you young lady.  I love you young man.

 

And I truly love your beautiful global lives.

 

tcks

 

Love your kids?  Love their lives?  Let them know.  Let the world know.

 

 

 

34 Comments

  1. As a third culture kid myself, I believe I’ve grown up with a marvelous advantage! Thanks for sharing this!

    Reply
    • Gabriele — YES! I love it that you have this perspective. I think we need to hear it more from people like you. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

      Reply
  2. This is absolutely spot on and so beautiful. I grew up like this as a TCK and even though my kids are more rooted than I was, my family would all relate to this.

    Reply
    • Love it. Thanks Phoebe.

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  3. This is beautiful. Thank you!! I’m raising three young kids in the US, in the Bay Area, where their friends are from all over the world – but sadly often leave and move away to continue their expat lives elsewhere, so they say goodbye a lot here, as well as every time we leave our home country after visits. We were back in our native Sweden over Christmas and I met my old friends that I’ve known for 35 years, and I mourned that my kids won’t have that, so I desperately needed this text today. Thank you for putting it out into the world. This big, boundless, beautiful world that our kids call home.

    Reply
    • Well said Karin. Goodbyes are, hands down, the worst part of this whole awesome thing.

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  4. Well written Jerry, rings true to my feelings bringing up children as an expat.

    Reply
    • Thanks Daniel.

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  5. Thank you so much for this. We are in year 3 of ex-pat life in Hungary, and sometimes feel so sure that we are messing up our kids for life. Your words were exactly what this Momma’s heart needed this morning. So reassuring and inspiring. I have seen amazing change and growth in our kids (now ages 10 and 9) in these years abroad, and, like you, I am dumbfounded at the opportunities and exchanges and relationships that they have been given as a result of our time here.
    The constant transition is something I don’t think I’ll ever be ok with, but I am learning that that’s ok, too… I thank you wholeheartedly for your blog. It has made a huge impact on how I “do” life in this amazing place.

    Reply
    • Hey thanks Nikki. If you ever need some encouragement just take a look at how screwed up the “normal” (monocultural) kids are. It’s way too easy to blame transition and life abroad for all of our issues but we could have those issues anywhere. I really do love what my kids are getting out of this experience. My seven year old son speaks with a thick accent to match whoever he is speaking to. He even uses horrible grammar to be understood. It makes me cringe at first but then I realize I cringe because if I had done that when I was his age I would have been mocking. He’s just expressing empathy and trying to communicate clearly . . . I didn’t teach him to do that but that’s a skill that can take him anywhere.

      Reply
  6. always love your words and your perspective Jerry xox

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    • Thanks Annabelle.

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  7. I really loved this. I have to share this with my 14-year-old who spent 11 of his first 14 years outside the U.S. He is now going to school in Hawaii and I am so happy that he continues to have a global friend pool at his school here. He says he will never live outside the U.S. again, but I wonder . . . won’t he get bored with the sameness? Time will tell. I grew up with sameness and now variety is very important to me. I think his international childhood was a great gift – I hope he one day agrees.

    Reply
    • Time will tell indeed Joan. I am not looking forward to the college days. I would prefer to just keep traveling the world with my kids for the rest of our lives.

      Reply
  8. Thanks Jerry! Every word you wrote was on the money.
    I’m a TCK–started the expat life when I was seven and a half. I would not change my growing up years. They were a blessing! I married a monocultural and we have lived most of our married lives as expats. Our four grown children would all relate to what you wrote. They now have their own families and the gift of their internationalness has infused their children with a love of living and a different take on everything : people and moments matter more than things.

    Reply
    • Love that Melanie. I would love to see research on what percentage of TCK’s actually see their upbringing as a great thing. Thanks for reading.

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  9. Thanks for this – sometimes I feel guilty about keeping my kids overseas away from the rest of their extended family. Inside I know it is a good thing, a GREAT thing, and this helped me to reaffirm it.

    Reply
    • Thanks Hauser. We all feel guilty sometimes AND it is a great thing. Ahh paradox.

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  10. THANK YOU!!!! My husband and 2 boys spent a total of 8 years in the Middle east…Even though we are now back in the states I will NEVER forget….We learned and gained SO MUCH!!!! And those hellos again, my friend moments are the best…My family is all Better off for what we did….Even though I went kicking and screaming….I came to my senses….And I hope our expat lives are not over yet….:-)

    Reply
    • Yvonne — I felt that same way when we were back home for a couple of years. Surely we will be expats again right? Now we are and I love it probably even more than I did before. There’s something about re-expatting. Hold on to that thought.

      Reply
    • Thanks!

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  11. I could really relate to this. I grew up in the same house in Illinois and didn’t move until I went to college. Later, my career saw me living in ten foreign countries and raising three TCKs. They are so much more aware of the things that all humans share, so much more culturally attuned and adaptable than I ever was. They are empathetic world citizens without racial, ethnic or cultural biases. They can feel at home wherever they go. Moving to a new school or ordering food in a foreign language just comes naturally to them. They’re not stuck up about it — it’s all the know! Two of them are now grown and have such a deep understanding of the world that I had not developed by the time I was their age. You will find that your kids will have a lot of advantages due to their international experiences. Thanks for posting!

    Reply
    • Thanks Robert. It’s true isn’t it. I love who my kids are becoming because of this. Thanks for commenting. Go Illinois.

      Reply
  12. My dear daughter moved straight from university to Singapore. She has been many other places since, but lives in singapore again. Of course, so do my grandchildren. My heart is warmed by the wonderful opportunities provided to my grandchildren due to the ex- pat lifestyle. Their self confidence and acceptance and understanding of the world and other cultures is invaluable in their lives. I don’t like they are so far away, but I the advantages outway anything else and it is very cool having friends in all corners of the world.

    Reply
    • Great perspective Cheryl. It’s hard when you are the one who gets left. I’m sure it means a ton to your daughter that you can see the value in her life. Not everyone can. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  13. Really great to read this. My kids were born in the middle east and raised in the middle east, traveled around the world, go to hotels with swimming pools, been in deserts, jungle, forests and lived in big cities and small towns. They are still as British as I am and have lost many friends along the way but with Skype kept them going. As an expat parent my main worry has always been thinking, will they have a stable life? Will they get upset or depressed at losing so many good friends along the way. But you know, they are still the same happy, excited, passionate kids that they always have been and live life to the fullest. Making friends with people of all sorts of nationalities and understanding customs and cultures so diverse. What a learning experience and life!

    It would be great to hear from more people like me who have lived abroad for over 17 years away from the UK and such things. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
  14. Although I was born in California, the only home I’ve ever known is in the Middle East, my father went over in the early years and brought his family with him. I left 14 years later and never got to go back, when people hear where I’m from I get either people who are amazed or people how are shocked to angry. I was lucky, I got to see a lot of the world that most people only dream of, I created two beautiful children that have the wandering spirit because of listening to my adventures as a child growing up as a third world child. I also made friends over there that continue on today.

    Reply
  15. This was so powerful! It took some of my deepest insecurities about being a TCK and made them beautiful. I struggle with the issue of “home” sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything. The idea of being at home and homesick almost always is spot on. Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply
  16. First of all i want to apologise if this comment offends you in any way.
    I apologise if i am gonna sound harsh or overcritical, I apologise for my english where it is not perfect, and I hope you´ll be able to see the point of what i am trying to say, and accept to play along the rules of making part of your life public, therefore opening yourself to comments and criticism.

    This post gave me a lot to think about.

    I am an expat myself, i have been for 13 years now, moving across different countries in Europe, and I have 2 kids.
    Since they were born we haven’t moved anymore.

    I see so many people commenting: “thank you for this, i am an expat and i always felt guilty for my kids, this made me feel better”. Exactly. We feel guilty and for a very good reason.
    That´s where we should start from. Acknowledging the guilt and fixing the problem should make us feel better, not choking it under an emotional post that reminds us what WE love about our kids life, instead of making us aware of what THEY hate or will hate about it.
    Because THEY have all the good reasons for doing it.
    Even if YOU love them all instead.

    Now, I know you love your kids and that they have all the love and support they need from their family, and by no means i am questioning this.
    But:

    -“I truly love you beautiful global lives”.-
    Thing is, it is not about you, it´s about them.
    No home, no roots, no long term friends.
    YOU love it, we got that. Do they?
    It´s what they feel today that will shape the human beings they will be tomorrow. Not what WE THINK, but what THEY FEEL. For real.

    -“You won’t graduate with the same friends that you went to preschool with BUT when you graduate you’ll have friends in every corner of the world.”-
    Ok, again, YOU love this, but have you asked if THEY do? Would THEY choose this option if they could? Are you sure it´s better to have 900 FB friends from all over the world than a good solid buddy who grew up with you and lives next door?

    -“I know it sounds weird to say but I love that you can’t answer the question “where you are from? . . . and you may not be able to pinpoint where home is  . . .”.-
    This gave me goose bumps. Really? YOU love this? And THEY? Do they? And should they, for real?
    Ask any sociologist, they will tell you.

    -“I NEVER had to say so many goodbyes”-
    Lucky you. THEY have to instead, and most probably hate it, and for a good reason. Luckily you don’t love this one too. Because this is horrible and it does NO good at all (btw, no child of an expat that crossed my path in my childhood ever came back to visit, come on, that simply does´t happen).

    What i see here is just a father stating again and again what HE loves, but i can´t stop wondering do THEY? That´s all that matters. All what you describe is only cool if seen with a grown up mind. But they are children, just children, and they would rather play hide and seek or nintendo with the same buddy for 15 years rather than having to fetch a new one every few years or so. Because that is not good, even if YOU love it.

    We have responsibilities toward our kids future.
    Having a global mind is fundamental today, but having a childhood with no roots is not the way to archive that: we should´t use it as an excuse (i am sorry but the story of having roots not deep but strong…? That really is not the way it works).

    That´s it, i said it all.
    I wish you and your family good luck (i already apologised for being a little harsh right? Yes good, sorry :).

    Reply
    • Raulo, I think you make excellent and valid points about the post. Nonetheless, what I think this post does extremely and movingly well is to offer 3rd culture kids clear reasons to be positive about the ‘expat childhood’ and to see its good points as well as its bad. Everything comes at a price, but losses come with trade-off too.

      Reply
      • As always, there are trade offs. I have struggled with this lifestyle at times, but wouldn’t trade it for the world. One is not better than the other, but why not find the beauty in each lifestyle? My parents grew up in one place and they are strong. I’ve grown up in many and I am also strong.

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  17. This is beautiful! Thank you for helping us to take the time to appreciate our international lives. So many points to celebrate and what great timing, considering how most of us will be saying goodbyes at the end of another school year so soon.

    Reply
  18. Im loving reading your blog. As the mum to a couple of TCK it can be a worry, are they missing out because they dont have the same stability and roots as I had and loved, but to hear them talk about how lucky they are to travel and discover new people and cultures (at 10 and 6) I think we have a good balance. I ask them how they feel and try to find out their positives and negatives about their lives and we reflect often on the similarities and differences between our lifestyle and that of our friends who are based in one city. We stay in touch as much as we can and visit often. My kids introduce themselves as Shanghainese and Chifranglish which is amazing in countryside France or Manchester but not so much here at home.
    I work with adults who grew up as TCKs and they seem on the whole like they are ok and have grown to be as normal as the rest of us…..
    My husband lived in the same place all his life and doesnt have any friends still from his school days or local kids. HIs oldest friends he met post school. Not moving house doesnt always make for deeply rooted friendships or contentment. And lets just reflect on recent political events – in UK and America and consider the different outcomes that would be likely if even half of those voting had lived overseas for a couple of years.
    Expat life isnt perfect. Neither is living in the same place all your life! I think loving your life, loving your kids, supporting and understanding them and helping them understand the world they live in is what it is all about. There will always be people who hated being an expat and who hated growing up in their hometown. Grass is always greener but as a parent we have to do what is the best for the family as a whole too.

    Reply

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