To be honest, I’ve been avoiding to write this article for quite some time. As I look back, things could have been a lot easier. If I had known back then what I know now about transition, culture shock, re-entry shock and Third Culture Kids, and if I had received specialized support, then…! Then I would have been spared some detours and some very rough bits. And yet I am grateful for every single experience. I have grown enormously from them and I would not be the person I am today.
Hoping that you find something in here for yourself, I will now try to describe the first of my three re-entry experiences from my “younger self” perspective and then reflect on them with the knowledge and perspective I have today.
As a child of German parents, I was born and raised abroad. At home we always spoke German, I attended German schools for the most part and we spent the summer or Christmas vacations in Germany with my grandparents. I identified myself as a citizen of the world, with German being my dominant culture. I spoke German fluently and from my outer appearance I did not stand out very much from the crowd.
Only when I came to Germany at the age of 18 to start my education did it suddenly become clear to me: I was different on the inside. Pollock and van Reken describe this phenomenon in their book “Third Culture Kids – Growing Up Among Worlds” as that of the “hidden immigrant”. I had never danced to “Neue Deutsche Welle” music before, I didn’t know the traffic rules for cyclists and I simply didn’t understand many jokes because I grew up with a different kind of humor. In conversations with others, it became clear that I knew nothing about current social or political issues (it was 1991 and there was no internet back then!) and I felt vastly ignorant at times. Much of what I had learned in my life abroad and what I was proud of seemed to be completely irrelevant. My instinct to flee immediately kicked in: “I have to get out of here ASAP” and I wanted to go abroad again right after finishing my formal education.
In retrospect, this was in fact not a re-entry
Even though it was de facto not a re-entry for me, I had unconsciously developed the expectation that Germany must feel like home. But of course it could not. The only place-related feeling of home I knew was “being abroad”, that’s where I felt most at home. On the relationship level, my closest family was my home and, very importantly, my friends who had experienced similar things. We stayed in touch, travelled all over the country and abroad to visit each other, just to feel “at home” again. By the way, we still do that, just not as often.
I didn’t really settle down in Germany back then. All in all, those seven years I didn’t always live in the here and now. I was longing for the next adventure and always had some kind of exotic country on my mind.
Even though I felt very much at home in the cosmopolitan city of Hamburg, had an internationally oriented education, found wonderful open-minded friends, fell in love with the love of my life, landed an exciting first job and got to know the local culture, everything had an insipid aftertaste.
In retrospect, I know I could have enjoyed this time to the fullest. But there was one thing I hadn’t done: to consciously process those good-byes, my external and internal transition and my sadness about the losses. I did everything to keep myself happy with fun and new experiences until I could go abroad again. I believe this insipid aftertaste was owed to the fact that I was missing the exciting life abroad on one hand, but also because I was repressing and ignoring my deeper feelings so that I would not have to face the painful grief. At this point, I would just like to mention that the grief came many years later out of the blue and with double the force. And that is one of the things that I would have definitely approached differently with today’s knowledge.
So these are my reflections on my first re-entry, the next ones will follow soon. I hope I was able to take you along on my journey for a little while. Even though I experienced my return as Third Culture Kid, there are still some tips for returnees in general that I would like to recommend.
My 6 top tips for re-entry:
- Keep up to date with the news and media of your home country during your stay abroad
- Stay well in touch with friends and family at home, so that reconnecting will be easier when you return
- Ask yourself what your expectations for re-entry are and do a reality check
- Process your experiences and emotions consciously and seek support if necessary
- Reflect on how you can integrate the experiences and insights from living abroad into life at home in a way that feels good for you
- Look for other repats to exchange experiences and support each other
If you would like support with your own re-entry, I offer individual coaching and a brand new group coaching program. Feel free to contact me for a free discovery call or choose an appointment directly from my calendar.
For those of you who are parents of Third Culture Kids and are thinking about how to provide guidance for their re-entry, I offer informative sessions on the topic and will gladly recommend specialized colleagues from my network.