We Don't Fit In

When Lilly El-Jerby, 22, first started college in Indiana she faced not just the usual issues of settling into a new life in an unfamiliar environment, but the additional stress of having to adapt to a whole new country. The fact that she was an American national herself didn’t make things any easier as she just hadn’t ever lived there.

Lilly had, up until university age, been living in Saudi Arabia and is a “third culture kid” (TCK)—a child who is brought up in one or more countries other than the one on their passport. Some of these children live in their home nation for a while and are then taken overseas; others, like Lilly, spend little or no time there other than visits to relatives. But what is common for TCKs is that they eventually return home to attend University—and this is when things can get difficult.

For Lilly, this meant having problems making friends with what she called “regular Americans”—in other words, anyone who had not experienced the TCK life that she had. Not only did she find it hard relating to other students, it didn’t help that she is half Palestinian and her college was in an area without a lot of diversity.

“I felt I really needed another TCK to totally understand me and to be able to talk freely about my experiences,” she said. “I feel like I always need to filter my answers to questions. Where are you from? Where did you go to high school?”

I recognize Lilly’s distress because when I was nineteen I returned from where I had been living in Venezuela with my diplomat parents to my home nation of the UK to start university. It probably took me a good year to settle in—at the start, I just didn’t feel like I could identify with any of my fellow students, and I was lost. In all honesty, looking back I probably didn’t show my best side to my new friends, and I suspect I came across as aloof and unfriendly. But I remember sitting in student bars with drunken antics all around me feeling a lot older and more mature than everyone else. Many of these kids had never lived away from home, never traveled for longer than a week or two at a time. It’s not really surprising that I felt different to them.

My life experience set me apart at this stage, but the difficulties I felt could have been made easier had I understood that my TCK identity was part of the reason why I was so miserable. I think just a basic understanding of how living abroad on-and-off all my life set me apart from others would have helped me immensely. Thirty years on from my time as a student, I was fascinated to hear how others had experienced the same transition.

Zachary Rohl, 24, is another TCK who knows only too well what it’s like to be in this situation, having moved from Singapore to Texas for university. He had spent the past six years out of his home country. It was tough fitting in, and straight away he found it hard to connect with his contemporaries unless they had lived overseas like he had, or at least moved around a few times before college: “Even though I had lived in the US before, it was like I had moved to a brand new country, and this time I did not have my family to come home to,” he said.

“Most people that I talked to seemed so immature to me and so narrow-minded. I felt like I had to limit myself in order to communicate with others, so I mainly kept to myself.”

Although many of the students he got to know were curious about his background and where he had lived, few bothered to take the friendship further than the superficial. It took time for things to change and Zachary really only found getting on with his peers became a lot easier when they graduated and started transitioning into adult life. There is a nice footnote to this story: one of the other students he met and got on with at college was a fellow TCK who eventually became his wife!

Another student who found it difficult to settle into life when he first started University was Spencer Brown, 20, an American/Canadian national who is now at university in Ontario. Spencer had been living in Shanghai before moving back to Canada and found it hard to fit in because he looked and sounded Canadian but certainly didn’t feel it:

“While I held a passport from Canada and when overseas would say that I am Canadian, when I came to Canada for university I had never lived in Canada before,” he said. “I didn’t feel Canadian.”

This feeling was to dominate his early days of college life, as he found it hard to integrate with fellow students whose homes were at the most four hours away. He also found it hard to answer that question “Where are you from”—the question almost every TCK I know dreads. Like Zachary, Spencer found people couldn’t relate to him and his experiences, and in the end, he always gravitated towards others with international experience.

Of course, it isn’t just the students themselves having to deal with this difficult transition period, but also the parents back home worrying about them. Zachary’s mother, Kim, said she knew all three of her children who returned to the US to go to college had become fed up with “dumb comments” about where they were “from,” and all started just falling back on saying they were from Texas to make life easier.

“After the first two kids went back to the US, I looked for a TCK repatriation camp to send my youngest to in order to help him settle back in the US,” she said.  

“Unfortunately they have several of these camps for missionary kids, but I could not find one that was for other TCKs. I think this could have been a huge help to my kids.”

So is there anything TCK students and their parents can do to help get ready for this difficult transition? I asked Paula Vexlir, a clinical, registered psychologist who specializes in supporting expats and migrants through her private practice ExpatPsi (www.expatpsi.com).  Paula told me that many TCKs would find the adjustment to university in their home countries a particular challenge because not only would they be discovering their home country’s culture but at the same time they would be processing the grief of finding out they are not as American (or Brazilian or British) as they thought they were.

“For some people, this grieving might sound like a minor challenge,” she said. “But you need to take into consideration that, in many cases, these TCKs have built their identity saying that they are, for example, American. And then they finally move back ‘home’ and end up feeling that they don't fit in, that they don't relate to their fellow American classmates and feel more comfortable with the international students. Well, this makes them question not only their identity but also their previous beliefs about who they are and where they belong.”

Although this may be similar to the experience many expats have when they move home, a college student has to deal with this situation alone and in the potentially very charged atmosphere of a new college year.

So how would Paula suggest new students and their parents prepare for this experience?

“Knowing what to expect makes a huge difference in our lives, and TCKs are not an exception,” she said.

“Parents should explain what being a Third Culture Kid means and help them understand their uniqueness. It is important for them to understand both the benefits and also the challenges of being TCKs because it will help them make sense of what they will go through.”

She also suggested parents should discuss the phases of transition with their children so that they understand what they are going through. If this can be done before leaving for college, all the better—if they do need to go through the so-called grieving process described above, then better to do it while they are still at home and have the support of family around them.

“Prepare them for the sadness, the grieving, the challenges,” she said. “If you teach your TCKs that grieving is normal and the expected reaction to losses, then you are helping them not only with college transition but with their entire lives.”

Paula’s suggested reading on this subject—Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth van Reken and The Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition by Tina L Quick.

Clara Wiggins is a British writer and author of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Parent.co and other publications.