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Moving to another country has a permanent impact. Your child won't become a native of their new home, but will never again feel fully at home in the place they left behind. Are third-culture kids global citizens or perpetual foreigners?

Life's messy and twisted path brings numerous families to new countries. Those families will be labeled many different things, "expat", "immigrant", "migrant", and "refugee" among them. They'll make the move for countless different reasons under countless different circumstances, some planning on staying forever, others planning to return to where they came from, and yet others sequential movers or "global nomads". Some will arrive in their new countries (of residence) with fairly established social networks already in place, while others will know nobody. Some come for opportunity, others to escape. Some return to their own countries of origin (if they have them), where their children will look, but not feel, the part. 

The only thing they all have in common is the "moving abroad with kids" part — and under whatever circumstances a child arrives in a brand new country, it is fair to say that the fact that they do will change them forever. 

Global Citizen Or Perpetual Foreigner?

Whatever you call us, folks who have moved internationally have some key advantages. You will probably raise bilingual children who are also multiculturally literate and who may thrive during times of change. Being "international" is not all flowers and sunshine, mind you.

"Where are you from?" or "Where's home?" is, I'm told, among the most innocuous questions a person can ask — right up there with weather-related small talk. Though this is clearly not a simple question with a simple answer for everyone, the very fact that it's so ubiquitous seems to indicate that many (most?) people are still able to answer it with a single and straightforward answer, despite an increasingly globalized, well... globe. Moving abroad, permanently or for a significant amount of time, strongly tilts your kids' odds in the direction of never being able to be one of those folks. 

An "international" acquaintance (who'd have referred to herself as an expat) who married a guy from another country and raised her kids in a third pointed me in the direction of an essay called "I am a triangle" years ago. (I think this is it: [1]) The gist? With the help of shapes as analogies, the essay explains what those who have lived this life feel every day in very concrete terms:

  • Living in a new country changes you. Permanently. The experience will not turn you into a native of your new country, but it will cause you never to be as fully a part of your original country as you once were or would have been if you'd have stayed there. (The first country is a circle. The second a square. Congratulations — you are now a triangle.)
  • Moving back to your original country won't make things go back to the way they were. You'll now be "neither this nor that". (Yup, still a triangle.)
  • There are also people who don't even have an original country to start off with. (They're not circles or squares, and not triangles either.) They're born in Britain to Pakistani parents who moved "back" to a place that was never fully the child's to begin with during their teenage years. They're born in Saudi Arabia to one US and one Guatemalan parent only to move to the Ukraine when they were 10. They're born in the US to a Korean adoptee and a later-deported Mexican. They may even be born to mostly Croatian parents in Croatia, but after those parents spent most of their lives abroad, their "triangle-ness" rubbed off on the child. These kinds of people are dubbed "stars", which invokes a nice self-esteem filled picture, the other side of which is that their pointy edges are bound to cause some friction.
Seeking a sense of belonging is a primal human instinct, one on which life used to depend [2] — and one that is still central to identity formation. Do these "triangles" and "stars" belong nowhere, or do they belong everywhere? Are they global citizens or perpetual foreigners? 

One book with an altogether too long title, The Multilingual Mind: Issues Discussed by, for, and about People Living with Many Languages [3], discusses some of these issues. It points out that these "stars", also called "third-culture kids" or "TCKs", won't be among those people who consider "Where are you from?" a quick and innocent question. They may become restless, constantly seeking change or the place where they truly belong. They may be seen as Japanese by Americans, and American by Japanese people (insert any other countries of your choice here). They may also be culturally literate in more than one place and quickly feel at ease among people of widely varying backgrounds, not to mention speak more than one language.

Personality, I suspect, has something to do with whether a person appreciates their global-ness as positive or experiences it as a source of pain. So does how parents approach the child's acculturation, and of course the age of the child (adolescence is hard on anyone). Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here, and research does indicate that many third-culture kids, though they tend to be more open-minded and culturally empathetic, do experience lower degrees of emotional stability [3]. Cultural fluidity commonly causes some pain, in other words. 

If you've concluded that I, as the author of this piece, must be a "star" with all its sharp edges, you're right. After my fair share of wandering and searching, I know that I'm both perpetual foreigner and global citizen. I'm simultaneously at home in a few different places, and at home nowhere.

I still hate the "Where are you from?" question, but love the diversity of the world, and the fact that no matter what else we are, we do have our humanity in common. My kids, in turn, are stars among stars, global citizens among global citizens, and perhaps escaped the perpetual foreigner part, because when there's several of you, it's not quite that foreign anymore and rather becomes its own subculture. In this modern world, our ranks are growing [4], and we're not that unusual anymore.

OK, This Is Getting Ridiculous — I Came Here For The Practical Tips!

Right. You'll have to find your own way, I'm afraid, but you can still learn from studies and the experiences of others. 

After moving to a new country with your child or children you can:

  • Help them integrate into their new society by supporting them as they learn the new language, encouraging plenty of contact with people who were born and raised in the country, learning about its history, eating its food, soaking up its climate, and respecting its people. 
  • Be aware that the transition is a process, not a single event. Thriving in a new classroom after moving schools takes time, especially if your child is starting school in a new language
  • Help them stay rooted in the culture or cultures you as parents are part of. Language, holidays, religion rituals, contact with relatives, information about genealogy, meeting others from a similar cultural background, books, history study, and all sorts of other things help with this.  [5]
  • Help them develop their unique identity as a migrant, third-culture kid, star, global citizen, nomad, or whatever applies, by sharing personal experiences, creating opportunities for your children to meet similar children (if from totally different backgrounds!), and modeling an appreciation for the world and human cultures in all their varied splendor. 
Immigration has been an integral part of humanity since its dawn. The world may have been in constant flux, but the fact that we move around (as well as that this can have complex social consequences) has always remained consistent. As a family raising kids in a new country, you're part of a whole new generation of globetrotters. As common as immigration, in all its various forms, is, you'll also know that your kids will have unique experiences that will enable them to contribute to the world in unique ways. With your help, they can value their multicultural identity as the gift it is. 

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