Identity: how living overseas shifts self-perception

15 Apr

I read an article about identity on China Expat recently. It looks at how an expatriate experience, an international relocation, can affect one’s identity. It struck me both as an adult living a longterm expatriate lifestyle, but also really hit home more about the TCK experience.

When we hear the word “identity”, we know what it means but would find it difficult to answer the question who am I? To be sure, we all have an identity and all assume that we know who we are when, in reality, few of us regularly take time out to consider that all-important question.

Identity is a major issue for most TCKs. They struggle with living between worlds, and not fitting in completely in either one. Some TCKs live between three or four worlds. Many live in a sort of holding pattern during adolescence, juggling different identities for their different worlds. They may have a family persona, a home country persona, a host country persona, a school persona… Whatever the case, for many TCKs it is when they return “home” (especially when this is for tertiary studies following a childhood abroad) that identity issues really kick in. They are forced to live in ONE place, usually without the support of family and other TCKs who understand.

“Our identity is construed in and by the contexts in which we live and breathe,” explains Doug Ota, expat psychologist. “Our friends and neighbors know us as a particular personality; we have track records at work and school that make our every move, gesture, and even joke somewhat predictable.  We don’t ‘know our identity’ any more than we are ‘known as’ a certain person. International relocation confronts the individual with the absence of the latter, ripping from us the context that provided witness to who we are, much as a planet would be gasping for air if its atmosphere were removed.”

This really struck me. If identity is the measure of how we are seen by others, how does a person who moves frequently develop an integrated identity? The markers of the identity (the observers of their lives) change constantly. What happens when your “every move, gesture and even joke” is not at all predictable to those around you? Instead of identity growing over time, it restarts with every move.

It’s not that simple, of course, but I hope I’m painting a picture of the difficulty there is for a child who moves frequently to develop identity in an organic way. Family relationships become very important – they are the only observers who are always there. I frequently hear TCKs say that their siblings are the only ones who have been longterm friends, or the only ones who understand. I suspect that strong sibling relationships help a TCK enormously. I also suspect that dysfunction in family relationships (and there is dysfunction in every family) affect TCKs more deeply than the same problems would affect a monocultural child.

It’s that space in between how we see ourselves and how we’re seen that an expatriate lifestyle shines a bright light on. If we’re lucky, we can use international relocation as an opportunity to reflect upon who we are and to ground our identity in terms more meaningful than gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Even for those who have reflected on their identity, international relocation, especially from the West to a country like China, can shake one’s foundations.

I love this quote, but there’s a double-edged sword here. For the adult who leaves their home country searching for identity, the expatriate lifestyle can indeed be illuminating. For the child who leaves their home country without having forged a clear personal identity, international relocation shifts the ground beneath them – metaphorically, not just literally. If relocation shakes the foundation of a grounded adult, imagine what it does for the child who hasn’t yet developed his own foundation.

While it is a great idea to be able to ground one’s identity “in terms more meaningful than gender, race, ethnicity, nationality,” the reality is that these labels are the ones the majority of our world uses to sort people. When you are confused on several of these generic labels, it’s hard to feel like you belong anywhere. Imagine the confusion of someone with gender identity issues – a dramatic subculture, frustration and despair, and the sense that no one understands. Now consider a Third Culture Kid, who is confused about their ethnicity and nationality.

Taking on a label means that you belong with others who share that label. If I am Australian, then I belong with other Australians. If I’m not sure which country I can claim as my own, there is no label for me. This is why the TCK label can be so valuable – it gives confused kids a place to belong, and a safe starting place from which to explore their identity.

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Posted by on April 15, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs


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