Guest Post: Aging TCKs

Today's guest post is by Jenni Gate. Jenni Gate is an accomplished wanderer and aspiring writer. Born in Libya and raised throughout Africa and Asia, Jenni’s upbringing as a global nomad provided a unique perspective on life. As a child, she lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Washington DC area. As an adult, she has lived in Alaska, England, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Much of her work draws on her extensive experience in the legal field. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. To read more about Jenni's adventures around the world, visit her blog at Nomad Trails and Tales, like her page on Facebook, and follow her on Pinterest.

When I first discovered I was a TCK, a third culture kid, everything clicked. It was liberating. All of a sudden, instead of belonging nowhere and everywhere at the same time, I was part of a tribe, part of a group of people who could understand me and my global upbringing the way no one else could. I read everything I find about the subject, recognizing myself in the pages. I learned that we TCKs share many traits, that our differences often lie in the extremes of our experiences, and that the people we feel most at home with are other TCKs. It felt like I had found community and a place to belong for the first time in my life.

Yet, my “issues” did not go away with that knowledge. Years of self-protective behaviors after repeated moves had become ingrained. Learning about the traits global nomads share helped, but I had a long way to go to feel fully adjusted.

According to studies by John Useem and Ruth Hill Useem and others,{1} as a group, global nomads share many traits:

As a group, we are well educated in our adult lives.  Yet many of us take a circuitous route to achieve our educational goals. In education and in other aspects of our adult lives, many of us feel out of step with peers in our passport countries. These differences can be emotionally distressing, but the distress lessens over time.Yet, most of us never fully adjust to life in our passport countries. We find niches, we find ways to work in careers that make us feel connected to our nomadic childhoods, and we make and maintain friendships within the international community and with others like us. We are able to relate to people from all walks of life, often leading to careers on the fringes of mainstream. We are not corporate animals, preferring to work outside big, impersonal organizations. We often have differing views from the mainstream of our passport countries and an outsider’s perspective on events.We keep up with events in the countries we once called home. We are creative, seeing unique solutions to problems, carrying within us multiple ways of seeing the world and multiple ways of being. Most TCKs or global nomads believe that their highly mobile childhoods have had a positive impact on their lives.

The studies don’t tell us much about what happens in mid life and later. What happens when we face the big stressors of life such as divorce or death of a spouse, parent or sibling? In my own experience, and in discussions with other TCK friends who are my age or older, new situations can often bring our childhood traumas to the surface.

Raising children of our own can be tricky. Do we expose them to the wonders and joys of a nomadic lifestyle or do we give them the gift of a single place in which to grow up? Rootless childhood or rooted childhood? And will we always feel guilty about our choice?

When we go through a mid-life crisis, our reactions can be extreme. We may want to run from the situation or feel powerless if the situation prevents that.  The rootless and restless patterns established in our childhoods flare up and threaten to overwhelm our sense of stability. We long for change, for travel, for excitement, yet also crave stability, a sense of belonging, a place to call home. When stressed, we bounce back and forth through these contradictions like a tennis ball.

Loss of a parent, spouse, sibling, or close friend can leave us feeling as if we’ve lost the force that grounded us, gave us a home or a sense of home, or stabilized us in a lifetime of instability.

Facing a major illness, such as cancer, can be more complex for us than for others. We may feel resentful about not having the time to reach our full potential. Old, unresolved conflicts rise to the surface. Illness limits our movement, ability to travel, and sense of freedom. The range of emotions experienced in major illness is more profound for a TCK than for others.

Moving, after a lifetime of moves, can suddenly become a challenge. As we age, it is harder to say goodbye, harder to make friends in a new location. Moving becomes less an adventure and more a chore. We still search for that elusive concept called “home.” Personally, I still don’t know where “home” is. I know I feel more at home in some cities than others, but where I will spend my retirement years is a mystery.

In our childhoods, we faced repeated goodbyes and the loss of whole worlds with each move. As our children grow up and leave the nest, the cumulative effect of a lifetime of changes and losses may rise to the surface like a flood.

The keys to resolving these mid-life problems also lie in our past and in our shared traits. It is worth bearing in mind that we have developed a better ability to manage change than our mono-cultural friends. Awareness of the issues that motivate us is part of the solution. Getting through the mid-life issues we all face requires recognition of our unique creativity, our ability to transition and problem solve. We do, eventually, get through the dark times, and knowing this is part of the solution. Talking with other TCKs who have gone through similar issues is invaluable.

We are a subculture with a common set of strengths and some common needs and challenges. As we age, we draw on those strengths while developing ways to meet the challenges.

[1] Studies published by Ruth Hill Useem and Ann Baker Cottrell, Newslinks – the newspaper of International Schools Services, May, 1993; Vol. XII, No. 5, Princeton, NJ.

To read more about Jenni's adventures around the world, visit her blog at Nomad Trails and Tales, like her page on Facebook, and follow her on Pinterest.

Tayo Rockson

Tayo Rockson is a storyteller, cultural translator, and brand strategist for change-makers on a mission to use his difference to make a difference.  He is a 4x TEDx speaker, the CEO of UYD Management, and the host of the As Told by Nomads podcast. In addition to that, he's been named a "Top 40 Millennial Influencer" by New Theory magazine. His book Use Your Difference To Make A Difference is based on how to connect and communicate in a cross-cultural world.

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