Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 October 2020

For ‘third culture kids’, it’s not easy to say goodbye to their friends

The departure terminal of the Rafic Hariri international airport during its re-opening in Beirut, Lebanon, 01 July. EPA
The departure terminal of the Rafic Hariri international airport during its re-opening in Beirut, Lebanon, 01 July. EPA

Last week was a week of long goodbyes. The end of the school year is often the most convenient and least disruptive time for families to leave the country. This year, however, there was no seeing people off at the airport as Covid-19 has even affected the way we bid farewell.

Some years ago, I took my daughter to the airport to say farewell to her best friend from school who was leaving the UAE. I was struck by how she continued waving goodbye long after her friend had vanished beyond passport control.

"You're going to miss her, aren't you?" I asked.

"Yes, baba. But I'm used to it, all my friends leave."

Her reply was nonchalant, concealing the extent of her grief. That was the first time I glimpsed what it means to be a 'third culture kid', a child growing up outside of their parents' home culture.

This is a tough time of year for third culture kids all over the world, including the UAE. Soon my youngest daughter will follow her sister in seeing off three of her best friends, and this after four long months of physical distancing.

Research on life experiences of third culture kids began in the 1950s. Much of this work is discussed in David Pollock and Ruth Van ­Reken's seminal book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Findings suggest that TCKs often face adjustment difficulties, culture shocks and threats to their social identity and sense of belonging. The frequency, intensity and nature of these challenges places some of them at a heightened risk of stress-related mental health problems.

The third culture experience, however, also has many upsides. Research indicates that, among other benefits, third culture kids show high global awareness, cultural sensitivity and open-mindedness. Former US president, Barack Obama, having spent four years of his childhood, from age six to 10, in Indonesia is often held up as a TCK poster boy.

Fomer US president  Barack Obama is the poster child for Third Culture Kids, having lived in Indonesia from age six to 10. In this Sunday, July 17, 2011 file photo, former US President Barack Obama, walks with wife family, Michelle Obama, and their daughters Malia, third from left, and Sasha from St. John's Episcopal Church, to the White House in Washington. AP 
Fomer US president Barack Obama is the poster child for Third Culture Kids, having lived in Indonesia from age six to 10. Seen in this July 17, 2011 photo with wife, Michelle Obama, and their daughters Malia, third from left, and Sasha. AP

One of the downsides of this life, though, has to be the chronic cycle of loss and separation. The all-too-frequent farewells mean regularly losing touch with childhood friends. The peer networks of these young people are in constant flux, with good friends lost as families relocate or repatriate all across the world.

Unlike the death of a loved one, many of the losses that the TCKs face are not always clear-cut. Psychologists call them ambiguous or existential losses. In general, there is a pressing need to focus on the mental health of TCKs. They make up a significant part of the population.

If leaving one's home country can be hard, returning 'home' can be harder still, especially when contact with 'home' has been minimal

Globalised markets have increased opportunities for overseas employment and with it, given rise to the number of third culture kids. According to the market research company, Finaccord, as of 2017, there were an estimated 66.2 million expatriates worldwide, with the figure projected to reach 87.5 million by 2021. This emerging multicultural subpopulation is already being catered to by several institutions.

Some forward-thinking universities and colleges in the UK and US have launched initiatives to identify and support the returnee TCKs with college-based counselling and support services tailored to their needs and developmental experiences. According to the American Foreign Service Association, as of 2017, Beloit, Lewis & Clark, Wooster and the University of the Pacific all offer supportive programming designed specifically for TCKs.

In an article published in the Journal of Research in Personality, the authors argue that the trend of educational institutions catering to this subpopulation is set to continue. They suggest that mental healthcare professionals will increasingly find themselves encountering third culture clients who face challenges of 'reacculturation' — that is, difficulties getting used to life back in the home country.

If leaving one's home country can be hard, returning 'home' can be harder still, especially when contact with 'home' has been minimal. Furthermore, for these children and teenagers, born in the host nation, returning home can be a huge deal.

Psychologists have coined the term "reverse culture shock" to describe the impact and difficulty some TCKs have adjusting to life when they return to the home nation, the passport nation.

This generation's contact with their motherland has often been kept alive through once a year visits during the summer and perhaps during winter school holidays, depending on families.

Similarly, the yearly visits that grandparents, cousins and other family members make to host countries can revitalise connections with the old country for those living away. For many families, such visits will be on hold this year.

I can only speculate about the uncertainty third culture kids leaving the UAE this summer with their families must be facing. Imagine starting a school or college in a new city, in a new and largely unfamiliar country, while your best friends and your support network are back in the UAE.

To make these transitions to new lives and adjust to new friends and unfamiliar environments, parents and educators need to do more to strengthen the resilience of young people.

In my personal and professional experience, mindfulness training can be helpful for some. In the words of the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, John Kabat-Zin: "Make sure you weave your parachute every day, rather than leave it to the time you have to jump out of the plane.”

A regular mindfulness practice goes a long way to equip youngsters to have a better handle on such challenging life experiences as these summers of long goodbyes.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: July 12, 2020 08:28 PM

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