What To Do About Third Culture Teens?

We were advised not to move overseas with our older kids. They were 12 and 15 at the time, and yes, they’re both good kids, but were still in the thick of preteen and teen drama and angst when we uprooted them. There were challenges for sure, and they didn’t have the luxury of growing seamlessly into their adopted culture, as they would have had we moved when they were 2 and 5. They remember home. They have distinct memories of the people, food, customs, and what it was like “before”, a very different situation than those kids who grow up early on in another culture. Did we make the right decision? I question myself on a regular basis, usually cry a bit, and then sit down with a big bowl of mango ice cream topped with a handful of sprinkles and a dollop of guilt.

Our older daughter went back to the States for her senior year in high school, and started college a few weeks ago. Whoa. Anyways, she had a hard time adjusting to being away from home, but now, in retrospect, she agrees that it was an amazing experience, and she’s planning her next visit here to her “adopted” country. Our son, now 15, is still here with us, and we’ve seen how he adjusts and adapts to all the changes that face all of us daily, even now, nearly three years later. Despite all the warnings, I have seen benefits of growing up in two distinct cultures, and being able to glean from both. Let’s just say, he has a particular set of skills. Skills that will benefit him in life, regardless of where he hangs his hat down the road. Here are 10 things older kids can learn:

1. How to eat anything and pretend to like it. Although I have caught the kids sliding chicken lungs and hearts onto my husband’s plate while our hosts weren’t looking, they learned early on that saying “no thanks” is just not an option. While lifelong third culture kids happily munch down their chicken intestines, older kids deal with a bit of a learning curve. When you are guests, and your hosts are giving you the best of what they have to offer, usually at great sacrifice, you smile, chomp down, and fight the gag reflex. And they understand and appreciate the effort and hospitality they are being shown. And, believe it or not, it gets easier over time. Balut? No problem. Dried fish? More please!

2. How to express yourself and communicate creatively. Although we live in an area where English is widely spoken, there are times when communicating resembles a game of Taboo…as in, “I need to explain myself…but I can only use these words”. Same for the kids. Charades and hilarity usually ensues. But so does a successful outcome! And if not, you just smile and eat whatever they bring you instead. (Refer to #1…)

3. Happiness comes in many packages. We are wrapped up in the idea that we need the house, car, blech…to be happy. That’s just one culture. Being immersed in a culture of poverty (at least by Western standards), our kids learn that billions of people are fine without the fancy house. They can live without the new car. Not to be confused with turning a blind eye to those in true, desperate need, but they see that in all honesty, our culture of consumption is the exception in the world, not the standard for others to measure themselves. Instead of feeling “grateful” that they have all this unnecessary crap, or feel “sorry” for the poor poor unfortunates, they learn that in fact, maybe they have too much material garbage in their lives.

So a suburb in the majority of the world looks a bit more like this...
So a suburb in the majority of the world looks a bit more like this…
...than this.  And guess what? It's absolutely OK. As long as they can deal with not having a walk-in closet the size of an Aeropostale. Perish the thought.
…than this. And guess what? It’s absolutely OK. As long as they can deal with not having a walk-in closet the size of an Aeropostale. Perish the thought.

Sidebar: One thing that drives me absolutely batty is well meaning Westerners bring their kids, especially older kids, on missions trips to “show them how fortunate they are”. Fortunate how? Because they have a computer and color TV in their bedroom, and never have to leave their room for human interaction? Grateful because they have more clothes than they can possibly ever wear? Don’t fall into the ethnocentric trap of thinking that the rest of the world would live like us if they could. Most of the world is doing just fine, even if it doesn’t look like “our” idea of success. OK, another topic for another blog…sorry… 😉

4. They see different types of government organizations at work. For better and for worse. They get to sit in immigration, hear tales of government payoffs and bribes. Does this happen in the United States? Of course, but a lot of it is done behind closed doors, not up close and personal, for all to see.

5. And while we’re dealing with government agencies and organizations, or trying to drive, or trying to communicate, they get to see that supermom and superdad are mere, weak humans. And we get frustrated and angry sometimes. And we say bad things. And we are still learning new things everyday. And, most importantly, we are dealing with changes and adapting right alongside them. I think they find comfort in knowing that when they feel out of control, they are in good company. Mom and Dad don’t always have their %^&#$ together either.

6. How to deal with unwanted attention gracefully. To go from a “normal” kid to a “superstar” overnight might sound fun, but to a teenager, who is already struggling with their identity, it can be taxing and awkward. Most kids who grow up overseas early on don’t know any better, and have just always expected that they will be the center of attention. The stares, comments, and giggles get old, but there’s no stopping it. There are a lot of aggravations and annoyances in life, and we can lash out at them, get irritated, or learn to ignore it. However, I have caught a smirk or two on Andrew’s face after being noticed by the young ladies.

So most kids living overseas do have to learn to deal with attention at any age, I know this is from the pre-teen years, but I absolutely love this picture, one of my all time favorites of Andrew on the beach in Sri Lanka.
Most kids living overseas do have to learn to deal with attention at any age. I know this picture is from the pre-teen years, but I absolutely love this, one of my all time favorites of Andrew on the beach in Sri Lanka.

7. How to roam independently. OK, this one depends on where you live. Don’t email me saying you stuck your kid on a subway in China because I said it would be a good learning experience and he wound up in India. We live in a very safe city. Anyways, Andrew can get around town by way of jeepneys, tricycabs, motorbikes, and on foot, all on his own. Honestly, we think nothing of it at this point. But, when we have adult visitors, and they freak the first time we climb aboard some multi wheeled contraption strapped to a law mower motor, I can’t help but feel a bit of pride, knowing that my kids have no problem using public transportation that is a bit unconventional. I’d better not find them riding on top of a jeepney in a recliner though…

Not exactly built for my six foot tall teenager, but he makes it work. Remember, it's about flexibility! (physical and mental...)
Not exactly built for my six foot tall teenager, but he makes it work. Remember, it’s about flexibility! (physical and mental…)

8. A slight combination of #2 and #7, they can learn how to be self sufficient in an emergency, or if the unexpected happens. We did a fair bit of traveling in the United States when the kids were younger, and always discussed with them what to do in the unlikely case that we got separated, if they got on a subway during rush hour and we didn’t, and so on. One day, while on a neighboring island, I began to drill Andrew about what he would do if something happened, and he ended up stranded on another island with no way to contact us. The thought of my 15 year old with limited language skills stranded with a large body of water between us was an anxiety inducing moment, but he sighed, and listed off about 5 different, viable solutions. As I fired “what ifs” his direction, he had a calm, reasonable solution for each one. Except for what to do if his ferry was swallowed by a large whale, but in that situation, I guess we’d have bigger issues to deal with. Living in an environment that is just more prone to “what ifs” forces creative, logical thinking skills.

9. It’s not “all about them”. While the common western mentality pushes “you can have/do/be whatever you want”, it doesn’t ring true in the rest of the world. They learn to be very flexible and forgiving when things don’t go their way, which is a lot of the time. Yes, it’s frustrating to plan a fun, relaxing day, only to get to the mall, and discover that the movie schedule changed. And then the restaurant ran out of half of the items on the menu. And the construction crew randomly closed the most convenient way home. Life happens, whether it inconveniences you or not, especially in the developing world. Whereas the western world will usually offer Plans B-Q, Plan B is sometimes to go home, pop in a DVD, and hope it will work out another day.

An all too common site, especially during
An all too common site, especially during “normal” business hours. Patience Young Grasshopper!

10. How to “Live in Rome”. Teenagers are smart. They see glaring differences and gaps between cultures. You can tell them over and over that we are all just the same, which in a lot of ways in true, but they see and experience differences firsthand that can’t be explained or denied. This is really beyond the basic thought of “they live in another culture, so they understand multicultural living”. If a younger kid grows up in another culture, regardless of what their “home” culture is, they will lean toward the one they were raised in. When a teen moves to another culture, they have stronger ties to both. When they go to their home country, it doesn’t feel foreign. When they return to their overseas home, it doesn’t feel foreign. No matter where your teen travels from here on out, they will know that things will be weird, quirky, fun, and different everywhere they go. And it’s fine, and they will respect the differences. Unfortunately, this is a skill many international travelers, of any age, have yet to learn.

Am I recommending that you wait until your kids are older to move overseas? Not necessarily. Given the choice, we probably would have moved earlier, but it just wasn’t God’s timing. But, will moving your teenagers to a new area or culture ruin them? Will they grow up resentful and hurt? Maybe, but it’s doubtful. Entering a new culture later in childhood gives this unique demographic a unique perspective. Just be sure to take lots of pictures!

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2 thoughts on “What To Do About Third Culture Teens?

  1. After reading your post I am feeling much better with the idea of my son traveling alone to a foreign country to stay with a fily I have never met. So proud of Matt and his heart for wanting to serve our Lord in missions. I am looking forward to the opportunities and awesome experiences he will have in the Philippines. So thankful he is going to a ‘safe’ place. Thank you for taking him in your home.

  2. Great post! Randomly came across your blog searching for tricycab pictures to show a friend . I lived in the Philippines for about 7 years, post marked by grades: K, 5-8th, and 11-12th. I graduated from MICA (pre-FAI) in 2002.

    Your post was spot on and resonated with my memories of my teen years in Davao. I know of a few kids that held resentments about living in a foreign country but I loved it. I have a 5 month old now and looking forward to showing her the world. Hoping to one day live overseas but waiting on God’s timing.

    Say hello to Shannon Farlin and Janine Meisner if you get a chance. (Followed your link to Hope Created and saw some school pics).

    Thanks again for the post.

    -Matt Perry

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