An expat, a repat, a lovepat and a TCK walk into a bar…
…and spend hours laughing, sharing, commiserating, understanding and learning.
Not exactly a joke-worthy punch line, but actually something much much better: real life.
I was fortunate to attend the recent Families in Global Transitions (FIGT) Conference earlier this month as it was held in my current hometown of The Hague. This conference has attained a sort of mythical status amongst those in the globally mobile community and so naturally I was curious to see what it was all about. The name itself was enough to lure me in: ‘families in global transition’…Yes! That’s me!
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Would it be mostly dry presentations on the ins and outs of relocation, akin to the many (unhelpful) cultural orientation sessions I’ve attended in my life as an expat? Would I benefit from attending? And on a more personal level, would I be able to walk in not knowing anyone and find a smiling face?
I was not disappointed. The spirit of this conference was unlike anything I have experienced. Academics, transition coaches, trailing spouses, psychologists, councilors, career coaches, authors, bloggers and teachers converged from far and wide to share a space for three short days in which we talked and learned, listened and shared, safe in the knowledge that although we were all different on the surface, we were inextricably linked by our experiences as ‘people who move’. We were treated to informative, inspiring, and sometimes eye-opening presentations which struck a good balance between research based outcomes, professional expertise and personal experience. It was also really wonderful to finally put actual faces to the online personas I’ve come to know over the years. The online expat support community is small and there are names that crop up time and time again on blogs, in webinars, Facebook groups and community forums in which I am active. It’s a strange feeling to meet someone for the first time but already know so much about them!
One thing I was clear on from the beginning was that I was there to listen and to learn. I wanted to ask questions, listen to other people’s opinions, witness how they created the story of their mobile lives and try to understand if and how my internal processing differed from theirs. Here are some of the main takeaways that resonated with me:
Connection above all else.
The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Building on the basics: creating your tribe on the move’. We’re all looking for community, for a connection to a person, an idea, a movement. We want to feel that we are a part of something. Naomi Hattaway, founder of I Am a Triangle gave a wonderful keynote presentation about building your tribe and the importance of showing up. She reminded us that as we make our way through the world there are three things we need to build our community: a smile, an open mind, and patience; principles she definitely lives out in her own life.
This spirit of connection was something I felt throughout the conference. Yes, we all go about our daily lives in whatever country we currently call home, and whilst this may at times feel isolating, there is always a community within reach if you just reach outwards instead of inwards. Reach out. Don’t be shy. Be vulnerable. These are things expat life teaches us every day but it was good to be reminded.
The importance of being connected to your history.
This theme of connection also resonated with me in another way: the importance of staying connected to your history. The mantra ‘don’t live in the past’ has become commonplace in our lives, but I’ve always felt that it doesn’t apply to me. As someone who has moved around the world since childhood I need to live in the past sometimes, because when I find myself in a foreign country, totally adrift, not knowing where to even begin, my history keeps me grounded. My history reminds me who I am when nothing else in my external world makes sense.
I found Anne Copeland’s keynote address absolutely fascinating, and I had so many ‘ah-ha’ moments as I listened to her findings. The topic was: ‘Do Third Culture Kids (TCKs) Have Unique Skills? The Childhood Experience of Being Different and its Impact on Expatriate Living.” As an adult TCK (ATCK) I’d suspected there was a connection between how my childhood experience of moving may inform how I move as an adult, how easily or uneasily I settle in to a new place, but I didn’t realize just how important this connection was. My experience of moving as a child felt like a massive upheaval at the time, but looking back I wouldn’t say it was a negative experience. According to Dr Copeland this has probably impacted on my ability to feel settled as I move around as an adult. Even more interesting is her finding that children who had a negative experience of moving, as adults experience lower levels of satisfaction with the expatriate experience, but showed more integration into expatriate culture. The conclusion of which is that through the practice of innate self-reflection that happens as we mature, we are able to re-frame the impact of difference in childhood that reflects in our habits and attitudes as an adult expatriate.
Put another way: no matter how many times we moved as children, or how ‘different’ we felt to those around us, the emotions connected to those experiences impact us more than the experiences themselves. Fascinating!
Raising TCKs is challenging but there are benefits too
I am constantly worried that moving around the world is messing up my kids. How will it impact their identity, their sense of belonging, and their ability to form lasting relationships? Is being rootless setting them up for failure?
The two sessions I attended on raising TCKs helped put some things into perspective. Gabriela Santacruz’ session titled “Helping TCKs Develop a True-Self: How Psychoanalysis Can provide a Framework to Support TCKs Emotional Development” highlighted how important it is that kids growing up abroad connect to their true-selves. She encouraged us to use storytelling to create lasting connections in our childrens’ lives. Create stories around houses, friends and experiences. Ask them what they think and how they feel. For younger children retell their stories in a linear time sequence so they start to form the history of their lives in a logical way. For older children, encourage them to write a journal, or create videos of where they are living.
The second session on raising TCKs I attended was ‘Raising Global and Mobile Children: Challneges and Solutions for International Families” presented by Kristin Louise Duncombe. Major takeaways included the importance of the parent’s role in establishing a sense of connection to the local environment, of minimizing the cultural disconnect experienced by children who are experiencing the loss of their social context and peer supports. Basically, try to escape the expat bubble and interact with the culture around you.
The idea that my child’s identity may differ from my own is another important issue, and one which I am already experiencing with my boys. Kristin’s message is simple: use sequential storytelling to give your children a sense of their history; create opportunities to discuss how your children feel; jump at every teachable moment (love this one); and be real with your kids, be multi-dimensional, show emotions, talk about how you feel without glossing over the ‘bad’ parts. If your kids see you verbalizing the difficult parts and coping with them, they learn to cope with their own challenges in a healthy way.
The necessity of reinvention.
Many if not most of the women at the conference have reinvented themselves. Many, like me found themselves abroad with no set career path and not much support. Reinvention is a part of transition; we add to our story, incorporate lessons learned along the way. We reinvent ourselves each time we move to a different country, each time we move through a personal transition, and many times we reinvent ourselves professionally too. It was absolutely inspiring to meet women who have channeled their creativity and passion into building a meaningful life and career for themselves abroad.
So, did I find a smiling face? Absolutely. Hundreds of them.
More information about Families in Global Transition can be found at www.figt.org