Ask adult TCKs about the most challenging transition of their lives, and they’ll most likely say, “College” or “University,” which I’ll use interchangeably here.
It’s not surprising, really. Where most young people entering higher education have left their home and family in another part of the country, TCKs have often left their entire universe behind—the sights, sounds, savors, customs, languages, mentalities and belief systems of places that have little similarity and relevance in this new world.
This degree of loss, combined with the oddness of re-entering a “home” culture that feels somewhat foreign, can create an emotional-cultural-transitional Perfect Storm.
It will only be successfully navigated with proper preparation and intention.
It’s to equip those cross-cultural “sailors” that I’ve outlined ten tips to help with transition. (Consider this the condensed version of my usual session on this topic!)
1. Submit to the process
It’s going to ebb and flow. One minute you’ll feel like you own this transition and the next you’ll feel like you’ve made no headway at all. There’s no avoiding the stop-and-go, and our healthiest posture is to expect it and accept it.
The same goes for those unavoidable faux-pas. As TCKs, we want to avoid failure and embarrassment. After all, we pride ourselves in our cultural savvy.
But there’s no such thing as a flawless transition.
This is particularly true when crossing several “borders” at the same time (like cultures, educational styles, independent living, financial autonomy…). It’s going to be messy and it’s going to take a while.
Be patient with yourself and give the process the time it requires.
Allow yourself to fail. One small misstep doesn’t mean you’re doomed—it means you’re trying and learning. Acknowledge and celebrate your successes. And give yourself grace for the inevitable mistakes. Both are part of the process.
2. Use your cross-cultural skills
If you were dropped into a primitive tribe in the Amazonian jungle, you’d find a way to weave yourself into its culture. After all, you’re a TCK. You’d overlook the “jarring” and invest your effort in understanding the whys and hows that make the culture tick.
Do the same with this new world. Enter it as if it were an exotic foreign land, using all the cross-cultural skills you’ve developed in your international life.
Ask questions, show mercy, be accepting—particularly if this is your passport culture. (As tolerant as TCKs are, we reserve a special reluctance for our “home” country.) Be inquisitive and adventurous, open-minded and forgiving, just as you would be in that primitive tribe. Analyze, adjust and adapt.
3. Know and respect this culture’s values
There will be aspects of this place that you won’t like, values you will deem misguided or demeaning. Remember this: a culture is designed for those who belong in it to feel comfortable. Initially at least, you’re really just a visitor—not the person for whom the culture is created.
So recognize its values for what they are and determine how you
will intentionally respond to them.
Some of them can be acquired—like manners, social norms and communication styles. Others, like religious zeal and hierarchical structures, may just need to be respected.
Honoring what is “normal” in your new culture will likely make connecting easier and faster.
4. Be aware of relational differences
This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of adaptation for TCKs—and it would take entire paragraphs to unpack it all here. Here’s the main thing:
TCKs dive deep extremely fast and people living in a single culture tend to dive shallowly and slowly.
Once we realize how foundationally that discrepancy influences our interactions, many of our frustrations with transition will lessen. Just click THIS LINK to be taken to the article devoted entirely to this difference between TCKs and mono-culturals.
5. Find a trusted Cultural Coach
You’re going to need to ask some stupid questions. There’s just no way around it. As you’re making friends and connecting with people, try to figure out who might be a good person to answer those queries.
How do you order at Subway? What purpose do cheerleaders serve? What’s a gallon in liters? Can you pass on the right? Can I keep my machete in my dorm room?
Some traits of a good Cultural Coach:
- Understands that you’re foreign in some ways
- Knows more about the culture than you do
- Will laugh with you—not at you
You may need different coaches for different areas of your life. Having them in place early will allow you to figure things out more quickly, and without unnecessary embarrassment.
6. Laugh at yourself
Seriously. Even with a stable of Cultural Coaches reachable on demand, you’re going to mess up. Laughing at yourself is a hugely important skill.
It’s our fear of doing something wrong that keeps us on edge—cautious and nervous.
Ridicule won’t kill you. Being looked at weirdly won’t either.
So if you mispronounce an Indian dish, accidentally sign up for your 9th credit card or discover that peeing by the side of the road is illegal in some locations, laugh at yourself. (Then pay the fine—seriously, that’s non-negotiable in most places!)
7. Debunk generalizations
Red-flag any statement about the culture you’re entering that begins with “All [inhabitants of this culture] are—” They’re all clueless. They’re all materialistic. They’re all shallow. They’re all fat. They’re all socially inept.
Nothing sets a person up for transitional failure more than a condescending attitude. Arrogance, even just perceived, is the most alienating of traits.
But if you give the people a chance—one by one, not as a whole culture—you may find individuals who are exactly the friends you’ve been looking for. They may not have experienced all you have. That’s okay. You may not relate entirely to their lives either. Relationship can transcend those differences.
Discarding generalizations creates space to be surprised by friendship.
8. Revise your vocabulary
The way this culture functions and the behaviors its inhabitants exhibit aren’t necessarily wrong, useless, weird or stupid.
Considering something “different” opens the door to dialogue and understanding.
Calling it “wrong” slams the door shut. So do words like “weird,” “useless” and “stupid.”
The attitude you bring to transition will, in great part, determine its outcome. And the words you use to describe what you don’t like or understand will influence your attitude. Choose them wisely, even if just speaking to yourself.
9. Acknowledge and address your grief
It is hard to leave one world and enter another. Where mono-cultural peers might be leaving their families and home towns as they enter a new educational institution or career environment, a TCK is typically leaving much more. It’s the Universe I referenced at the beginning of this post.
We miss more intensely. We long in a more visceral way because we haven’t just lost a location, we’ve lost what feels like everything—the places and communities that defined us seem as distant as the stars…so does the person we used to be when we breathed in those worlds.
Like transition, grief is a process. Like transition, it will ebb and flow.
Like transition, there’s no hurrying or avoiding it.
Admit grief to yourself and explore resources (like this article on Living with Grief) that might help. Then find someone to whom you can express it. The health of your Present depends on how healthily you process what you’ve lost.
10. Exercise gratitude
- Have a relative absence of stress and depression. (Woods et al., 2008)
- Make progress towards important personal goals (Emmons and McCullough, 2003)
- Report higher levels of determination and energy (Emmons and McCullough, 2003)
- Feel closer in their relationships and desire to build stronger relationships (Algoe and Haidt, 2009)
- Increase their happiness by 25% (McCullough et al., 2002)
As simple as it seems, this small exercise has the potential to substantially enhance your transition…and your life.
Transition is not for the faint of heart. Under the best of circumstances, it’s a challenging milestone. My hope for the TCKs attempting it today is that the wealth of resources available to them will help to prevent some of the predictable missteps and allow these Global Nomads to enter other spheres with fewer regrets and brighter victories.
I’ll end with the advice of a few American MKs who have made the transition:
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Excellent article. Many were things that I have found to be helpful. Great new ideas for me, were getting a Cultural Coach, daily gratitude, and careful labeling of attitudes toward the culture. These will be a tremendous help for those about to dive into independent adult living in their college’ or parents’ country.
Great help for me. I am getting ready to go back to the USA in March to prepare for college. There is definintly alot I can learn from this article.
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[…] while we’re introducing our MKs to healthy mindsets, transition strategies, relationship models and managing grief (all crucial topics!), let’s also be telling them that […]
Excellent! Thanks for doing this!