A client shared with me recently how they had been looking for accounts of Third Culture Kids repatriating, and how little they had found to very little to inform them. This challenged me in more ways than one – first to consider why the narrative of TCK repatriation was so hard to find and second, to ask myself why on earth I hadn’t written on this topic myself?!
We don’t tend to talk about repatriation as Third Culture Kid adults, do we? Not in a, “I choose this and it’s working great for me” kind of way. Something I found while I was reading as much as I could for my doctoral thesis was that there was a pervasive narrative around “returning to the passport country” being not only challenging, but also hopefully temporary. There were voices that even went to far as to suggest that TCKs who settle “back” in their passport country are wasting their experiences. I’ve seen how this thought is echoed in my work with adult TCKs who feel the weight of putting their global experiences “to good use” and struggle with the idea of settling and living like a local could ever be enough. More to the point, to do so – to repatriate and live locally – was often felt as a kind of personal failure.
A failure to what? To “make it” as a global expatriate worker, like our parents? To live an extraordinary life abroad, having adventures on a global scale?
But what if it wasn’t failure? What if repatriation could be considered as an equal on the option list?
If we could consider it as a viable option for our adult TCK lives, then perhaps we could begin to meaningfully explore what we would need to do repatriation well. I need to be clear here – I’m not saying repatriation is a beneficial choice for all TCKs, just that for many who see it could benefit their longer term goals, it’s often a choice that is layered with shame (“I shouldn’t want this”) or fear (“I don’t know how to do this”).
We already have a well documented transition aid, presented by Pollock and Van Reken (2001) to help TCKs learn to leave well. They laid out RAFT as an acronym for the steps required for leaving well. They noticed that in all the losses that TCKs faced throughout their lives, that a process was needed to facilitate conscious transition from place A to place B.
What we don’t have is a process for repatriating well. Here I propose another acronym: ANCHOR
I personally prefer the idea of being anchored, over being rooted. As a TCK who works with TCKs, I think I feel confident in saying that one common fear is that if we “settle”, we’ll never “get out” again. It’s a fear that often leads to charges of “fear of commitment”. I propose it’s less fear of commitment and more a fear that we’ll get stuck in sameness.
Many of us grew up seeing change as something that happens to us, after all, rather than being something we can generate for ourselves in a positive way. Anchors can be lifted as well as dropped, and I like this reference as a reminder that using power to settle is not dooming ourselves to being trapped in the same spot forever. The fear of choosing “wrong” has led many of us, after all, to never dropping anchor at all.
So ANCHOR –
A – Acknowledge where regular mobility or living outside your passport country may not be working for you anymore. I’ve heard a lot of TCKs wrestle with a desire for community, for long term friends, for stable financial situations – and just noticing where your current life situation isn’t working for you can be hard. It’s a courageous thing to sit with the pain and sense of lack, but a critical first step towards being able to name what you might want or need instead.
N – Non-judgemental consideration of what you might want for your next chapters. I’ve heard TCKs express a lot of shame about considering repatriation. We can carry a sense of failure lent to us by subtle messages we’ve received over the years – “You are so lucky to have grown up seeing so much of the world” teaches us that settling is second choice. “You have such a cosmopolitan and informed worldview because you’ve experienced so much” tells us that people without travel are less informed, less aware, more “monocultural”. “You’ve lived such an adventure” suggests adventure comes in a limited form – that people who stay are missing out on adventure.
I’ve heard more than one TCK (myself included) express fear of becoming like “them” – the settleds, the “monoculturals”, the parochial living mundane, small lives. This fear can block us from being able to access solutions to the very needs we might have acknowledge needing for our next chapters – because we judge the situation that meets these needs as “less than” somehow. Non-judgmental observation of need and ALL the possible options for meeting that need is the way we give ourselves real choices – and I want choices for you.
C – Community. Many TCKs grew up in tight knit communities. The shared experience of being expats abroad often leads to a greater sense of interconnectedness and interdependence for families living outside their passport countries, and while this can be a mixed experience for TCKs, it’s often the template of what close community looks like that we are carrying. This can be a hard need to meet, as it often takes more time to build in settled communities than it takes to build abroad. In fact, many of us recall community being more of a landing pad, just “there” by virtue of shared residence abroad, rather than something we saw built up over years.
Because of this, repatriating TCKs need a strategy for building community, one that helps them remember “the long game” of community when the immediate loneliness feels all too present. It’s important to make use of the various community groups available to us, all the more accessible due to the digital age, and to join things. We won’t find community in all that we join but, like the lottery, “you have to be in it to win it”. For many of us who grew up being given positions of leadership at a young age, it’s worth observing how comfortable we are “joining” in.
We aren’t likely to find our local communities full of other TCKs, but the more varied our own interests, the more opportunities we have to meet others with shared interests. Local volunteering, community groups, choirs, interest or hobby groups, or even regular community litter picks offer opportunities to feel connected with the people we share our habitat with. And this sense of connection is crucial to the building of community.
H – Happiness. Knowing what makes us happy is a crucial element of successful repatriation. I’ve heard a tendency amongst us TCKs to focus on finding our purpose, our life’s meaning. All good things, of course, but I would offer that the pursuit of happiness is the crux of making a meaningful adjustment to our passport countries. Daily joys contribute to mundane meaning-making. Finding our new favourite local coffee shop, the best dog walk, a seasonal rhythm to our garden – these are sustaining moments that anchor us where we have decided to settle.
O – Object Permanence. Piaget’s (1999) idea about child development was that as a child ages, they begin to grasp the idea that an object being out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s gone forever. Can you see where I’m going here? For many of us, especially in our early years, moving meant irreparable loss. Friendships, schools, pets, homes, languages even – all gone and all it took was a plane flight or two. I’ve often blamed my own tendency to forget names to the sense that, in the absence of seeing the person in question recently, my brain will assume they (or I!) have left the country and will never see them again. The name is archived and I look heartless the next time I see them. I’m not heartless, I’ve just gotten used to losing people.
Successful repatriation needs us to remind our brains that those parts of our stories set in other landscapes are still ours to claim. We need to remember them, and the who we are in them. We can do this in our homes – pictures, artwork, the scent of incense or favourite foods. We can do that by seeking out continuity in how we have learnt to love our landscapes – hikes may move from desert dunes to Scottish highlands, but we are still hiking. We intentionally move from compartmentalised chapters to a stitching together of an ever-expanding life; settled but not stagnant. Our other parts, our other places are not quite gone, we decide, just hidden from view.
And finally, R – Remember what repatriation is doing for you. Remind yourself why you want this. Having a clear sense of why you have make this incredible decision to repatriate, to settle, is important. This remembering centres you, encourages you, and motivates you forward as you invest in a whole new chapter for yourself.
Remember your story so far. Remember a new chapter is just beginning. Remember repatriation is a choice, as full of opportunity as any other. And remember what those opportunities are that you are gifting yourself.
ANCHOR – Acknowledge, Non-judgemental, Community, Happiness, Object permanence, Remember.