How to Help a Third Culture Kid Make the Transition “Back Home”

"But you don't look Japanese..."

“But you don’t look Japanese…”

A Third Culture Kid’s life never really stops moving. Life for us revolves around transitions, but the toughest one can be when it’s time to move “back home.” My own personal transition to my home country was a confusing one. I was eager to move back to the country “where I came from.” Little did I know that my time of being a foreigner was not over yet.

Tip #1: Let them start a new school in the middle of the year (trust me). In the beginning of a school year, everyone is inevitably worried about their own issues and catching up with their friends, causing your TCK to get lost in the crowd. If your TCK is “the new kid” in, say, February, when students are bored and dying for something new and exciting, your child will be the talk of the school, especially if word gets around that they “lived in (insert foreign country here).” This might be embarrassing for your TCK at first, but they will find that students are fascinated and will want to know more. This opportunity for a TCK to share their experience in a positive and proud way is vital in their process of reintegration into their “home” country.

My experience: My family moved from Japan to Minnesota in April. Since we weren’t sure where we would live right away, I ended up being the new girl twice that spring. In both schools, I was assigned an escort, and I have to admit, I felt a bit like a celebrity. Classmates had been told that I had “lived in Japan” and couldn’t wait to ask me questions. I had to forgive a few of them (ie. “So if you lived in Japan, then how do you know English?” or “But you don’t look Japanese…”) but in general, I was welcomed with positive enthusiasm from my new classmates.

Tip #2: Sympathize. Understand that even though you, the parents, might feel like you are finally returning “home,” your TCK does not. Your TCK feels like they are leaving their “home” behind. Returning to the home country is a very confusing time for TCK’s, especially when they expect to be able to “fit in” since they are returning to a country of people just like them, right? Wrong. It may not happen right away, but your TCK will begin to realize that their new friends may look similar to them (often a new experience after having lived overseas), but have extreme differences in life experiences. Be sure to remind your child that these qualities that make them so “different” can be what drives their success and passions in the future.

My experience: I came back to the U.S., expecting to finally feel like I was “back home.” Instead I came to a world where I was behind on all of the pop culture of the day, everyone had extended family living in the next town over (mine was across the country), and no one seemed to understand that sushi does not have to consist of raw fish. These people all looked like me (brownish blonde hair, light skin, light eyes), but there was no denying it: I was different. I also wanted everyone to know that I was different. I became a screamer.

Tip #3: Let them scream. Or whisper. Or just blend in. When transitioning back to the home country, TCK’s often adopt one of these three personas:

  1. The screamer, who wants everyone to know their story.
  2. The wallflower, who just wants to keep a low profile and observe.
  3. The chameleon, who wants to blend into and adopt the habits of their new surroundings.

TCK’s may change personas while transitioning, or may only adopt one of these. The key is to give your TCK this time period. They need it. And no, these personas will not be permanent, but they are necessary.

My experience: Like I said, I became a screamer. Maybe it was because my new classmates had been so receptive to my “unique” background, or maybe it was because I felt so different, but I wanted to be able to explain “why” I was different and therefore somehow justify my apparent “different-ness.” Whatever the case, I was proud of my childhood in Japan and it became a part of my identity; the main part of my identity, essentially. This confidence did not adopt overnight, however. I believe that I began as a chameleon in my earliest transition days, then realized that just wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t hide who I was.

Though the transition back home may seem like the hardest part yet of being a TCK, it is probably the most important. This is the time when your TCK gets to sift through their hodgepodge of cultural experiences and determine which are going to become the essence of their identities. Sounds like a big deal, right? It is.