Third Culture Kids: Understanding Anchors and Mirrors with Ruth Van Reken | TNN09

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Episode Summary

Do you have an idea how it feels to be a citizen of one country but raised in another? If you are one of the people who were raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years, then you are a Third Culture Kid. Exposure to various cultures is a beneficial yet somehow traumatizing experience for children as they become confused with their “mirrors and anchors”.


In this episode of The New Nomad, Andrew Jernigan and Allen Koski are joined by Ruth Van Reken in talking about the benefits and challenges of the TCK experience. As a citizen of the USA raised for thirteen years in Nigeria, Ruth E. Van Reken is a TCK and openly shares her experience and stand when it comes to cross-culture upbringing. Our three nomads provided tips on how to cope with challenges and explain the repercussions of this rewarding though confusing experience to anyone, children and adults alike. It is definitely an episode not worth missing!

What You’ll Learn


[5:53] Born in one country, raised in another

[9:05] Dealing with repetitive cycles of separation and loss

[17:28] Raising awareness about TCKs

[21:04] First of all, your kid is a kid

[22:21] Of anchors, routes, and mirrors

[27:26] Not stupid, just out of my context

Show Transcript


Welcome to The New Nomad. We have a great guest today, Ruth Van Reken will join us and we’ll be talking about third culture, kids, children abroad, etc. And we’re gonna actually get it’s gonna be a much wider conversation than that about relationships, identity education, other sundry topics. But before we get there, I’m going to bring in my co-host, Andrew Jernigan and Andrew, when you were young, and travelling, what what was your first memory? And was this early memory one of the reasons why you’re somebody who who’s visited so many countries and been so travel-friendly over the over the many years of your life.



Young and travelling for me was those road trips across interstates in the US, where we would go for 18 hours straight on two lane roads, stopping at antique shops and, and stuckey along the way and you know, but when I was in my early 20s, or actually my freshman year in university, I did a service trip with a group called YWAM in Amsterdam, it’s called Christmas of Service. And serving soup in front of Central Station in Amsterdam. It was not long after I guess, on my next trip back to Europe, where I said, I will marry someone from another culture. And I there’s not a country I don’t want to visit. I think I wrote that in my journal that day. Allen, what about you?



Well, you know, I just think back to when my parents, maybe eight or nine years old, myself and my sister to Spain and Portugal. And you see there’s a different world out there. And it just opens your mind. And I don’t know about you, Andrew, I would I wish we had a magic wand and we could take everybody in the world and and they would have a trip to a place that they dreamed of seeing or visit another culture because I think that would help us on so many different levels. If people had a greater understanding out there of different cultures, different ways of doing things. There’s no one way of doing everything correctly.



Yes, you know, and we’re, we have a guest today that her experience of crossing borders and experiencing cultures was from birth. And then doing that with our own kids and then having virtual kids around the world that she has impacted. The those of us who’ve travelled see it from a different light than those who’ve lived non stop crossing cultures. So the cross cultural kid, third culture kid, the adult remnants of those that is the ghost of cultures past almost, is what we’re going to be diving into a bit as Ruth shares her perspectives, not of just like you mentioned, Alan, of if we could just send every citizen on an international trip, the world would be different. I firmly agree with that. I I’m passionately I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone. But yes. The flip side is they’re radically changed forever. Oh, radically. I mean, that’s not even powerful enough of a statement. So we’ve got an interesting show ahead of us today. And I’m glad everyone is listening, because we have some insight to be shared some thoughts to be heard. And hopefully, we’ll get some juices flowing that haven’t been before.



Well, let’s bring Ruth into the conversation. Ruth, welcome to The New Nomad. And I really would appreciate your insight today. You know, people tend to go overseas and not think about the effect on the family. They’re like, hey, I’ve got a great job, or I’m retiring. And we’ve always wanted to go to this location or I’m immigrating. But there’s a lot of people behind them, children, family members, etc. We’d love to have your insights on some of the ways so now that we can go more smoothly, but also even understand what’s ahead. So what is ahead for those folks.



Thanks for having me. I really appreciate your work here. And, of course, this is a topic and group of people in whom I am a part of the tribe. And I’m also deeply invested in trying to help us do it well. Just to put myself in context, my father I was born and raised in what was then Persia, which is now of course, Iran. My grandparents are both buried in Iran. My parents went to Africa, in 1944, right at the end of the war. So when you mentioned Portugal, they got as far as Portugal, they had to go, my mother was pregnant, and you people were having to leave their children behind if they were travelling, because the ships were being shot down and things like that. So they went with my mother pregnant, they got to Portugal. And then she waited until she had her baby. So my sister was born in Portugal. And then they proceeded down to Nigeria where I was born. And my siblings after me. So at the beginning, we had four people in my, in my family who were born in four continents.


So that’s kind of what my life has been embedded in. I was raised in Nigeria, I loved it. I loved the lifestyle. To me, it was normal. Yeah, my friends were Nigerian, and other kids who were from other countries. And so it’s just the way life was I didn’t know anything different. What made it difficult, and this is what people maybe need to understand is when you’ve raised your children in different places, it’s a great experience. There’s richness, I learned all kinds of things, lots of food, lots of lots of things just as part of my life.


The challenge was when I came back to my own country, and my passport country, and this is a really crunch time for many people. Because in those days, it was pre integration. So I was in Chicago, I went to public school, I look like all the other kids. But my insight wasn’t anything like that. It had been shaped in a totally different contexts. And so they wondered why I was so strange. I was 13. I didn’t know who Elvis was, I didn’t know lots of things. And all the skill sets that I had, like I could bargain and market like crazy, but who cares? Now, you know, I could play soccer. Well, I didn’t those days, people were playing soccer yet. So I was ahead of my time. So suddenly, I was what we would call a hidden immigrant. If I had been, obviously from another country, people might have given me space. But since I was an American by passport, a US American, and I spoke the language. And I sounded like other people. The assumption was that my experience was the same.


So that was the first great challenge of my life. And I think that, for many who are raising kids cross culturally, it’s not that it’s wrong. It’s just that we didn’t expect. I didn’t expect it. And so it’s those kind of things. So that was the beginning of the story. And I could keep going. But maybe you want to ask me a question about whatever’s next. Because I think the things, the two things I would say, and you raise your children cross culturally, when you live that way, there’s two kind of overarching realities. One is that they’re growing up in a cross cultural lifestyle. They’re not just experiencing an extra thing, like you do on a vacation where you forget, you know, you have to change the money this week or something. But our lives are embedded. And that’s one of the skills we develop is that we could switch we can code and we can, we can be different things.


But then that creates an issue of who am I really? So identity becomes a real question. Where am I from? Who am I? Where do I belong? is a huge question for so many as life forms. And that, of course, is an existential question for every human is, where do I belong? And, you know, where do I fit. And then the other thing is, because of the cycles of mobility, every time we leave someplace, no matter how good it’s going to be, we also lose something. And so the issue, the repetitive cycles of separation and loss, form a whole another part of us. And again, it’s why we need to develop good ways to deal with it. But what happens and what happened for me, is that the ironic part was because it was so good, what I was going to I never dealt with the losses, I sort of, you know, just stuffed them. And I think you have to learn to live in paradox. And too many people have unresolved grief after they’ve left this many times and if they don’t deal with it, and that, that has some consequences, long term in terms of relationship and all that. So that’s why it’s important, understand it, do it well, while we’re doing it.



Well, you know, you you’re hitting upon all to a very difficult time, which is as during adolescence, there’s so many changes going on to begin And then you have somebody going across borders, leaving some of their friends behind. And you feel different inside relative to everybody around you. And I can see exactly where you’re coming from on that. And sometimes you know that that cross border mentality pays dividends many years later, but it in adolescence people don’t say, hey, that’s really cool. You’ve been all these countries, or you live these different countries, they just look at you say you’re different. And is is, and that’s kind of one of the issues. And I see Andrew, you’ve, you’ve got some thoughts on that, too.



You just said something you just said, You’re different. That that difference. And we had Tayo Rockson talking about using your difference to make a difference. Really, it’s you know, Tayo. And, and that difference that kid’s adolescence, as you referenced Allen, that difference Ruth actually co-authored a book that’s now in its third edition, called Third Culture Kids. And Could you briefly summarise that why you you two wrote the book, how it’s evolved today and what that means. I know that’s, that’s way too much for or it but Allen just hit on adolescence, and the difference that you faced with that. So can I prompt you there, Ruth?



Yes, thanks. The Third Culture Kids began when a sociologist and her husband refu seem and john went to India, in the 1950s. They wanted to see what was it like for businesses, who people came from different cultures, how were they going to do business together, it was the beginning of the multinational corporations and all that in post World War II. What happened for Dr. Ruth, you seeing what she became much more fascinated with looking at the children of these people who had come from another country, the whole country or the first culture, they were living in a second culture. But they had developed a subculture, a third culture that was familiar to those who are living in it. And it wasn’t like how they would live back in the States or whatever country they come from. It wasn’t like people lived in India. But it was a culture a way of doing life that was familiar to the people who were doing it.


And when we talk about culture, some people say, well, third culture is just I take from little bit of this, a little bit of that, and I put it together, but culture has to be shared. And what was shared at that point in history was it was cross-cultural, it had high mobility, either the people themselves were moving. Or the court the group that they were working with was moving, there is always somebody shifting. It was also there was an expected repatriation that made it different from an immigrant experience, where people went with expectation that one day I will return, quote, unquote, home. So the parents are trying to keep the kids ready. And that’s where international school started, because they want to keep them ready to go back to their country. And then often in that point in history, there was a system identity to people she was originally studying came from military, corporate missionary, foreign service, maybe education. Of course, the world has evolved since then. But that was where the term came from.


Then Dave Pollack had gone to Kenya and saw that there was something different about the kids in the international school, he was working with, that there were some places they were way ahead in maturity than the pears had worked, the team to work with at home. And in other ways, they were maybe not quite as up to speed. And that’s why when Dave made his definition, he talked about people who were growing up outside their culture, in outside the passport culture in the developmental years. And the years when we’re learning our identity, our language, how life works. And so that was he came up with a whole profile, which is in the book. And then long story how I got to connected with him and wound up writing the book with him, and then he died in 2004. So we’ve had to two edition since then. And the last one, his son joined me to try and keep expanding this topic.


And I can say one thing. What I learned was, as we talked about third culture kids, and some of their characteristics, so many people came up to me and they said, Well, I didn’t do it that way. My parents didn’t go overseas with that type of a job. But I relate to what you’re talking about why? And every time I would talk to them, there was some cross cultural aspect in their lives. Maybe their parents were from two countries. Maybe they had been international adoptees they were their parents were immigrants or refugees. And so I developed a term called cross cultural kid. And third culture kid is one way we grew up cross culturally. But there are many ways that are happening in this world. And many people are in multiple circles. They may be a third culture kid, but they’re also a child of an immigrant. And it just goes on and on. So it’s a fascinating topic to me and a fascinating world. But then it adds complexity in so many ways. And so how do we do it? Well, it’s a question.



Have things got more complex in the last few years. As you as you’ve gone from a different edition and yours have moved on, you know, we hear you know, about loneliness and some of the mental health issues etc. are you feeling that that people are getting more support with their children when they cross borders? And or is it still a an area of great difficulty?



Well, I think there’s no question there’s infinitely more resources. Jo Parfitt has a whole publishing house summertime publishing. And she has a whole expat bookshelf and one whole bookshelf. And there’s third culture kids, others are on the spousal issues. And so there’s huge resources that were not there even 20 years ago. So that is great. We started families who will transition . And this is a group of people from all over the world who gather virtually, and we used to gather in person but and share this life experience and the resources and the how you do transition. Well, what are the stages of transition? What we’re trying to do is normalise this process because I don’t think it’s as much the process the process has challenges. But when we normalise it and we understand, I didn’t need to think I’m crazy at 13, I could have thought okay, I’ve just changed cultures, I have to learn something new. And so I think a lot has happened.


But what shocks me is how many people are living it and still don’t know it. They don’t know there’s language, they don’t know their resources, they don’t know. All the things that you guys are doing to to give people language and resource. And so I guess my mission still feels like trying to raise awareness. And there’s a whole nother generation coming in with infinitely more complexities and interest. There’s third culture kids, TCKs of Asia, who talked about the difference of going into school in a Western culture when they go to international school and coming home to an Asian culture. And it’s just it’s fabulously interesting. But there are many, many resources now and seminars and podcasts. And how to do this. Well. How do you say goodbye? Well, so you can say hello? Well, that’s a big part of it. How do you teach kids that it’s okay to be all of the above instead of one of the above? We kind of need a global shift and how we even define identity that it’s not just extra, but there are different ways. And what are the hidden diversities that we’re experiencing in our world that we haven’t recognised before? So there’s a lot of work to be done. But there’s a lot of work that has been done and is is being done. And I’m just so encouraged all the time with what’s happening from 20-30 years ago when people frankly didn’t even believe this was a topic.



Yeah, last week, I was on the phone Ruth with a family that and I told them to buy your book, Third Cultural Kids. Because they’re they’re wealthy, they sold a sold multi, multimillion dollar business, they’re going to be yachting around the world. worldschooling never heard of never really engaged mentally with how it’s going to affect their kids. They just thought my kids are going to be so much better by this experience. And they had one that was 10 and a half and one that was 13. And said, Oh, we never expect to live in the US again. We’re just going to jump from country to country. And they all have their own Instagrams, they all have their own revenue streams now. And they’re thrust in this social world, but jumping in and out of cultures. And of course, they were contacting us saying, okay, what’s the best insurance to get for this new lifestyle? But my whole conversation is wait, are you aware that you’re raising kids, that it may not be the best lifestyle for them and they’re going to go through puberty and adolescence and thinking, where am I from and where are my friends and those people back home aren’t like me and and the impact that it’s going to have on.


So there are so many dynamics of this new education system that online that for many, it’s been that way for centuries, not exactly online. But with books and not in a classroom, not in a one room schoolhouse or in a with the teacher travelling with more however in in older times, from just learning from apprenticeships, etc. So this isn’t exactly new, the unschooling approach, but yet the impact on kids, I think, and I’m guilty of it as well, at times in my life, where I’ve thought, Oh, it’s just going to enrich my kids. Where now that I’ve lived through it, it wasn’t exactly enriching in many seasons, it was damaging.



your grades, every really important point, Andrew and that is there’s there’s age factors in this lifestyle. Because never forget, the first point is your kid is a kid. Before we put TCK on them, or CCK, or anything else, they’re a child. And children have developmental tasks. And part of it is, you know, you learn the culture from your parents, you’ve learned that sense of belonging. If I had my little PowerPoint, I show you the roots, the mirrors, and the anchors are, traditionally we’ve been anchored in family and community and place. And those, those three things also give us a mirror to tell us who we are. We define ourselves by our family. And, you know, hopefully, our family tells us we’re wonderful and we’re loved. And the community traditionally would know who we are, and we don’t have we work in this place. You know, what are the sports that are done, wherever the How does life work in this place.


And throughout most centuries, people have grown up where that’s pretty steady. So then you learn those rules as a child, you kind of internalise them, while you test them as an adolescent. And that’s part of the process of internalising them so that by the time you’re 18, in traditional ways, or somewhere in that area, you kind of have a fairly strong sense of who I am, where I belong, who is thus and fell. In the lifestyle that many of us have lived. Those anchors and routes and mirrors, keep switching. And so when I was six, and I went to boarding school, my family mirror changed because I left them I my community changed by place changed. And I had to relearn a whole way of life. And that’s what happens to kids here.


It’s not that we can’t. But like you said, Andrew, when the kids are teams wanting to belong is a normal developmental task. Now, in the international schools, the whole school is kind of in that. So we’re sharing a lifestyle. And parents can even think, well, kids doing fine, they’re doing fine. But that’s why when you go back for somebody, it isn’t so shared, you know, then you kind of grown up with this identity as an international maybe. And then you go back and people see you as your, you know, passport country person, but it is also really important to realise that kids do need these things. So if you’re going to be doing this, how do you find that place, that peer connection for them that place where they they know they belong?


When the most important things is for parents to understand that family is often that one place that’s sort of universal, and the family dynamic, the family building portable tradition. So no matter where we go, this is who we are. This is who we are as a family. And some of these trips can be part of how you build your family history. But you know, learning and how do we nurture that sense of us so that no matter where we are, there’s always that place of I can come home, wherever my parents are, is home in that moment, even though, you know, there’s other ways we define ourselves too. But that’s a huge thing for parents, to never forget is how important and nurturing that that sense of community in the family is and with the extended family and so forth. So how do you keep connected? How do you do those things are part of the story too?



building that story keeping connected in a globally homeless culture. When many are nomadic, they’re proudly homeless. And that is so harmful to the child. And so Wow, there’s there’s so much we could do here with these conversations. So many places that we’d love to go and and get your insights on this time is of the essence. And we’re so glad that you everyone is tuned in listening to us today. I think, Allen, you had a question. On the tip of your tongue go, yeah,



yeah, you know, Ruth with your very background and what an exciting life, the different countries etc, you must have come across an overlooked person, place, experience that you would suggest that our listeners discover and we found out as many of the people listen to this podcast are adventurous, are curious. So we’d love if you could share perhaps an overlooked person place or experience for our listening public?



Well, that’s a hard one, of course, my whole life is about the overlooked child who is not who you think they are. But beyond that, I guess the thing that I would enjoy, I was thinking one thing would be fun for everybody to go to someplace where you don’t speak the language. Because I think a lot of times when people don’t speak the language, and they’re around us, we think they’re stupid. And if you haven’t ever experienced being in a country where you can’t read a sign, and you can’t understand the language, I’ll feel stupid. And, but more than that, I think you should realise how people are treating you and you’re thinking I’m not stupid, I just don’t know your language. And I don’t know how life works here and that’s a good experience, even though it’s painful. Because I think it helps us understand that the people who are in our worlds, who have come from other places who we think they’re just ignorant, many of them were very bright people.


We lived in Liberia, and we saw people who used to be ambassadors, presidents of college come here as immigrants and refugees, and wind up, you know, cleaning in the hotel or something. And I thought nobody knows who they are, because they’re not in their context. So it’s not bad to go there, someplace where you don’t know anything. And find out what it feels like and realise that the people around us here are much smarter, and and very able, in their own context. We just don’t haven’t seen them in context. So that was like, maybe something fun to do. It’s not fun, but it’s fun, right?



Wow, that brought up a simple application for us in daily living to me. And that was, you don’t know who the person is in the grocery store line. Right? They may look just like you, they may be so different than you. But they may be. They may be your neighbour, they may be the president of a country. That may be just normal, though, that needs a hug. But we need to just view everyone as someone we care about and can look through a lens differently than we do. In the first five seconds of our thought about the person behind us in the grocery line. That person stuck in a hotel room that really is president of university, or a professor at a college back in their home country that is respected by their students, but yet, in a different context, in the grocery store, or in another country. They’re just another person. Thank you, Ruth, this has been so much fun.



Thank you for having me. And when you say that I just would remind every everybody has a story. Sometimes we’re upset that people don’t want to know ours, but we can ask them there’s and we’ve learned so much. And the humanity that we share is their cross culturally, cross border, and it makes life wonderful. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.



You bet. And Ruth beyond finding Third Culture Kids, which would be an excellent book for folks to to find and read, what else would our listeners if they want to find you? Where can they find you? Because I’m sure there’ll be folks who listen to this podcast and want to learn more.



Well, you can write me at I also have a website that’s not as up to date as should be. It’s and say it again. And so come look for me, and I love interacting with people personally. And if you have questions, you can write me an email, or you can. I’m also on Facebook Messenger so you can try that. Fantastic. I’m not so anyway, hello. To interact with people, that’s how I learn. I hear your stories, and I grow.



Thank you. We really appreciate your time today, Ruth. So Andrew, we’ve we’ve learned a lot today. And you know what’s interesting. It just, it ties back to Ruth mentioned about wanting to belong. I love the anchor in the mirror. I think that’s, that’s tremendous. The other thing that I just wonder, and this is kind of a broad based question is, there’s a point in somebody’s life, especially when you’re young, that friends are probably more important to you than family. If you keep this lodging and moving, you keep leaving friends behind. Now, ultimately, people come back to that, but I’m just saying that all of us who are parents, and I’m in that category, too. So I get the feeling that when they come to me, Hi, Mom, Hi, dad. And then they’re immediately off with with their peer group. And that’s got to be really hard as you move across borders, because your peer group keeps changing. Or you don’t have one if you’re the new person to town. What do you think about that, Andrew?



Ah, oh, my thoughts on that are too long. Because we don’t even grieve this these losses. And we don’t allow those who have had that we’ve left behind to process that. And this, this actually was driven deep within me by the guests we had on today, Ruth, she’s she it was over 20 years ago when I heard her speak, and I’m tearing up as I answer your question, because yes, those thing those she wrote a book called Letters Never Sent. And those people that we leave behind, those relationships have such a deep effect on ourselves and others. So everyone, thank you for joining today. Join us again, subscribe, like, follow and join us because we’ll have other impactful folks on this podcast. Thank you everyone.



So if you want to catch up to us again, please look online at either or stay well and keep sharing with others. Take care.

60f75dfc048fdbf5ae45e9fd_Ruth Van Reken2

About the Guest

Ruth E. Van Reken is a second generation adult TCK and mother of 3ATCKs. She speaks nationally and internationally on issues related to global family living. She is co-founder of Families in Global Transition. In addition to other writing, Ruth is co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. At the age of thirty-nine, Ruth began journaling. Eventually this journaling became Letters I Never Wrote, later re-published as Letters Never Sent. Through that, she not only looked at her story, but Ruth met and interacted with countless TCKs and adult TCKs (ATCKs) of all backgrounds and nationalities as well.

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