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The importance of networking for expat youth workers

I recently listened to an interview with Chris Brooks on the power of networking in the lives of youth leaders.

Networking has been an important part of my experience as a youth leader. Out of this experience has grown Youth In Asia. As a youth leader in Beijing, I was blessed to be part of an informal network of volunteer and paid youth workers. This type of support is unusual for international youth workers, who are often isolated whether they are paid or volunteer. As we recognized that this network and the support it provided was unique and valuable, we began to dream about  how to share this kind of community, and what it might look like if it spread across Asia.

Brooks addresses what could potentially be obstacles in networking. I can relate to both the obstacles named: lack of time, and not making networking a priority even if we do have time. Another challenge can be the transience that accompanies international work. Networking can become challenging after several years abroad. For those of us who are full time youth international youth ministers, we are often the only paid staff in the area, which can be incredibly isolating.

Part of this stress can be dealt with by connecting with others in international schools or churches who are passionate about creating a positive experience for international youth. I also believe YIA can provide a valuable space to support and resource one another especially in regards to issues unique to youth ministry.

Brooks also talks about a benefit of networking being that it can provide a sense of the big picture of youth ministry. Networking has an important role in supporting youth leaders so that they can remain on the field. One of the sentiments I hear when describing what I do to others is “that’s so important to keeping missionaries on the field”. While I agree that what I do does keep missionary families on the field (and I’m excited about the far reaching impact what I do has on my host country) I also remind people that what I do has value because God cares about the youth I minister to as much as locals. By coming together as people passionate about ministering to expatriate youth, we can encourage one another in this ministry.

A third question that was raised was about the role of technology in networking. The interviewer asked about the supposed conflict between technology and relationships, and asked if  Brooks  saw a conflict in networking that was relational in nature and technology which sometimes has the reputation to harm relationships  Brooks was quick to respond that those of us on the ground know the power of technology not to diminish the value of relationships, but rather to facilitate them. I see the role of the YIA blog as a great example of how we as youth workers spread across Asia can be connected because of the advances of technology.

I am feel so privileged to work with the youth that I do, to have been part of such an amazing community and network in Beijing and am looking forward to all that God has in store and His role of YIA in expanding his kingdom across Asia! Welcome to the network! =D

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Identity: how living overseas shifts self-perception

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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Factors Important to Successful Intercultural Adjustments – part 2

The list of “10 Factors Important to Successful Intercultural Adjustments” have been around the internet for a long time (if you know the original source, please let me know so I can give credit!) In part 1 we looked at the first five factors and how they apply in a TCK context. Now let’s take a look at the second 5:

Curiosity: Curiosity is the demonstrated desire to know about other people, places, ideas, etc. This skill or personality trait is important for intercultural travelers because they need to learn many things in order to adapt to their new environment.

I see this in a lot of TCKs. They put a high value on unique experiences. They have been to crazy places and done crazy things and this awakes in them an appreciation for learning in a hands-on way. It’s not true for all, but for many – and it certainly helps with the adjustments required for yet another move. One caveat: I don’t see many TCKs have this same curiosity/desire for learning when they repatriate. Many TCKs end up looking down on their passport country for all that it lacks, compared to the experiences of their previous host country/countries. Perhaps this is something to keep in mind when preparing TCKs for repatriation, and after they return – to encourage them to awake this sense of curiosity about their new home.

Positive and Realistic Expectations: It has been shown frequently that there are strong correlations between positive expectations for an intercultural experience and successful adjustment overseas.

I definitely see the correlation between “positive and realistic expectations” and a kid’s adjustment to a new place. MY question is: how do we help TCKs develop these positive and realistic expectations? Especially in regards to an upcoming move, or repatriation? I think it is important not to encourage a rose-coloured glasses view of their home country, to help them accept that the move may be difficult, that adjustment will take time. How do we do this in a way that produces positive expectations, though, and not negative ones? How do we help them see the positives to moving without setting them up for disappointment when the transition isn’t totally smooth?

Tolerance for Differences and Ambiguities: A sympathetic understanding for beliefs or practices differing from one’s own is important to successful intercultural adjustment.

This is a classic TCK attribute. Most TCKs are good at accepting and interacting well with people who have wildly different lives. That said, we have probably all come across TCKs who have chosen cultural isolation. These are generally older kids who resent being forced to move to a different place against their will. While some are softened by the interesting new experiences available to them, others reject these opportunities and stay trapped in their resentment.

While I think it is important to help validate their feelings, and process the emotions that come with an international move, I think youth leaders also have an opening to expose them to positive aspects of their host culture. We can help grow their exposure to and understanding of different beliefs and practices. Modelling this “tolerance for differences and ambiguities” may be the most helpful thing we can do.

Positive Regard for Others: The ability to express warmth, empathy, respect, and positive regard for other persons has been suggested as an important component of effective intercultural relations.

I think this is true for any person in any place. “The ability to express warmth, empathy, respect, and positive regard for other persons” is a human skill, not just something important for those on the move. It will improve your communication in all contexts, not just interculturally! Again, though, I think it is important for TCK workers to model these qualities, especially when we are interacting with the host culture. Especially in countries where there are strong service industries (where kids see us dealing with waitresses, drivers, maids, hotel staff, etc.) the way we treat people will have a strong impact on the kids we work with. They need to see us expressing warmth, empathy and respect to those who serve us. They need to hear us speaking on the host culture with a positive regard.

A Strong Sense of Self: A clear, secure feeling about oneself results in individuals who are neither weak nor overbearing in their relations with others. Persons with a strong sense of themselves stand up for what they believe but do not cling to those beliefs regardless of new information, perspectives, or understandings which they may encounter.

I believe this is the most difficult factor on the list for TCKs. While adult expats have the chance to develop a strong sense of self in their home culture before heading out onto the international stage, TCKs are already out there while they are developing their sense of self. A lot of TCKs struggle with the question “who am I really“. They can be chameleons – not false, but shifting to fit different situations. Their identity can be fluid – they will talk, act, and describe themselves different depending where they are and who they are with. It’s not that they don’t have a personal identity, it’s just a less clear and direct process than for their monocultural peers.

As youth workers, I believe we can help by encouraging TCKs to ask questions – helping them share differing opinions, express doubts, process contradictions. I don’t believe we should be telling them who they are, and how the world is. Rather we should be there to help them to process the world they live in and find their unique place in it.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Expat Life, Leading Youth, TCKs

 

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A Memorable TCK Quote…

At the beginning of December a friend left Cambodia and, as is customary here, a bunch of us headed to the airport to say farewell and wish him the best as he left. I posted something in regards to this on my status, about a good semester and a trip to the airport. It was a bit cryptic, but anyone here who knew us would have clearly understood the reference.

A couple weeks later, my sister mentioned that friends in the US were asking her if I was home for Christmas, because they “saw something on facebook about a trip to the airport”. An understandable mistake, especially since I was home last year for Christmas.

So today, in the middle of chatting via skype with two of my youth now back in the states, I mentioned this brief misunderstanding, and like me, they were both amused. One replied:

“Where we’re from, going to the airport means many things, sometimes its to say goodbye, sometimes to say hello, sometimes it just means you just want Dairy Queen. . . And occasionally it means you get to go somewhere!”

Her simple comment was very memorable in that it spoke of something at the very heart of international culture in general, and life in Phnom Penh in particular. The airport is indeed an intricate part of my Phnom Penh experience. Many hellos and goodbyes have been said there. The Dairy Queen provides the back drop for this, and provides some sugary relief when it gets particularly hard; it also give a distraction for the real reason we are there.

Her comment, poetic style, and light hearted understanding of international culture spoke to my heart and soemthing that has been so essencial to my Phnon Penh experience.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs

 

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Helping kids cope with goodbyes

Following on from Christina’s post about processing goodbyes, the Beijing Kids magazine website posted a lovely article last month about coping with goodbyes – a constant part of life in expat communities, and part of the fabric of a TCK‘s life. I’m having difficulty pulling out a few “best bits” to share with you – it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety.

It’s always a struggle, especially when you have children, accepting that people move and others come to take their space – but not their place – in our lives. During this change, we all feel a sense of abandonment or disappointment or lack of control, just maybe not in the same way.

The thing I most appreciate is that Charlotte, the author, is writing from a dual perspective – as an expat losing friends, and as a mother helping her children to process the loss of their own friends.

One of my daughters has more “I want to go home” meltdowns as these times of year approach. It’s then that she learns who is leaving and when. It’s then that she claims someone as her “best friend ever” and is devastated to lose her. While in the midst of helping her understand that she can keep in touch with her friends, and that other new kids arriving will need lots of friendship support so that they can fit in, inside I cry for her loss.

I love that she has picked out a particular struggle expressed a certain way in one child particularly. All kids (all people) deal with loss in different ways. Expat transitions push different buttons in different people, and they express their emotions differently. It’s important for youth workers to learn to recognise different expressions of grief.
I think one of the biggest challenges for me as a youth worker is to effectively come alongside kids who have very different personalities and temperaments to me. Asking questions, paying attention to the responses others have, helps me be more attentive to what’s bubbling beneath the surface.

I’m an adult, so I should be able to handle these moves a bit more easily…Some cycles hit home more than others. And some you just refuse to accept. I share these feelings with my daughters. It’s important that they see me go through the same emotions that they do when someone dear to them moves on. It’s almost a grieving process of sorts, and support needs to be provided to those of us left behind, even if that means just being able to share your sadness with one other person. One day it will be us moving. It’ll be a different kind of difficulty for us then, but we’ll be leaving others behind who will miss us dearly.

I love that Charlotte says this. It can be easy for kids, especially teens, to feel as though their situation is something no one else can understand, or that they are “weak” for being so affected by the losses they experience. Sharing the grieving process with kids/teens helps them acknowledge their feelings and process the grief, while knowing that things will change.

I’ll leave you with Charlotte’s beautiful ending:

If friends are leaving, we say zaijian and truly wish to keep in touch as much as we say we will. If we are the ones going, we shed a tear and embark on a new adventure. Life goes on.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs

 

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Reverse culture shock

Apply Gidley is a self-proclaimed “life-long global nomad [who has] never repatriated”. I recently read a piece she wrote for the UK telegraph on the culture shock experienced by those returning “home”, something we often call “reverse” culture shock. Since I recently posted about culture shock, it seemed appropriate to address the other side of the coin. Also a good follow on from recent posts on helping kids say goodbye.

Expatriates and repatriates experience equal doses of culture shock; the distinction is that the latter often don’t expect it. Forums are provided for the expatriate but not always for the repatriate.

Even expats who know about the reverse culture shock phenomenon can be surprised by the strength of it when they return “home”. One woman I know returned home after 6 years abroad with her husband and children. She had heard about reverse culture shock, but honestly didn’t expect it to affect her. She thought their annual visits to their home city were enough to stave off culture shock upon their permanent return. However, a lot had changed in 6 years – everyday things that weren’t apparent on short term holidays.

Repatriation brings about a lifestyle change that can have many repercussions from unsettled children, to jobless spouses and hugely increased expenses to just not feeling at home, at home.

The sense being “different” is common to both the expatriate and the repatriate. When you first move to a new country, the culture is obviously different to your own – you expect things to be different. Upon the return “home”, however, there are two sets of changes.

Firstly, the home culture has changed. The repatriate has missed shared country-wide events, like a natural disaster or change of leadership. Their emotional resonance with such pivotal events in the history of their country will be very different to that of other nationals. The repatriate is also behind on pop culture – something that can greatly affect TCKs going “home”. They aren’t familiar with the same TV shows, movies and musicians that their home country peers are. These missed events and others make the repatriate feel disconnected.

Sometimes it seems as if “home” has changed, or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe it is just that we have changed, grown to incorporate, often without realising, elements of our life abroad.

The overseas experience has also changed the repatriate. They have seen and experienced things their home culture peers have no understanding of. They may speak another language, be accustomed to different food, or enjoy different social activities. Even a year, or even less, spent abroad can widen a person’s horizons so far that they no longer fit in the same “hole” as before. The Mr Roundhead story is a cute illustration of this concept, especially pertaining to TCKs.

New words, often foreign, have joined the family vocabulary that members of the extended family back home have no notion of; and do not understand the reflective mood and quiet smiles those words might bring. They feel shut out, and indeed they are, though not intentionally. Just as we are not excluded intentionally from conversations revolving around the last family get-together, the one we missed because we were climbing Kilimanjaro or maybe just surviving in an alien environment dealing with new schools, new hospitals and so on.

It’s important to remember that this feeling of being left out can go two ways. I lived in the US for two years as a teenager. Upon my return to Australia I talked about what it was like to live in the US. This was natural, since all my experiences from the previous two years happened overseas. Sharing stories is a great way to build familiarity and grow a friendship, but my none of the people I was talking to could relate to my stories. Instead of building closeness, they alienated people.

The repatriate often feels left out, and wants someone to take the trouble to get to know them and their different perspective. It’s important for the repatriate to understand, however, that part of the burden falls to them. They must also try to understand how their home-culture friends see the world.

It takes time to adapt back, just as it took time to adjust to living in a new country. We might be back in the home country but we are looking at it through different eyes and have to allow the same adjustment period as when we expatriated.

It takes time. Just as culture shock is a process that takes time, so is reverse culture shock. The adjustment period will be different for everyone – factors like daily routine, length of time away, and age will all play a part. Each individual will work through it differently. It takes time, and grace, but it doesn’t last forever.

For those working with TCKs, helping them prepare before their return – warning them of some of the struggles they may face, and equipping them to cope – can go a long way in reducing the impact of their reverse culture shock experience. This is especially true of TCKs who go overseas (especially to their own passport country) to attend college; going away as an individual, without the presence of a family sharing the same experience, can make the readjustment harder.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs

 

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Stages of Culture Shock

I read an article recently about the background of the term “culture shock”. The term was in used as early as the 1920s, but Kalervo Oberg was the one to identify the stages of culture shock often experience. Oberg was born on a commune founded among Finns in Canada at the start of the 20th century. The community disintegrated after a few years, as members experienced disillusionment with their pursuit of eden.

You can read more of Oberg’s background and the commune he was born on in the full article. I just want to highlight this description of how culture shock sometimes manifests itself:

When moving abroad, the expat begins with a naïve fascination for his or her new home. But soon they begin to despise the new country, exclusively befriend fellow foreigners (often to moan about the natives) and irrationally romanticise everything about home. Then, after a while, there’s a breakthrough. You realise that what you’re experiencing is just another way of living. After that, it all makes sense.

I find it a slightly confronting, but accurate picture. It doesn’t reflect my personal experience with culture shock exactly, but I went through a similar progression. I also have several friends who went through similar stages.

I like the phrase “after a while”. It’s not a specific timeframe. It’s different for everyone. The important thing is that at some point the realisation dawns – this place is different. It’s supposed to be different. Accepting that different-ness, without trying to assign labels of “wrong” or “right”, “better” or “worse”, is an important step toward being happy in a new culture.

So, how does this relate to youth work, and TCKs?

Firstly, we as youth workers are also living in a different culture. Processing our own experiences of culture shock is essential if we are to be effective in our ministry. Secondly, we see a lot of kids arriving overseas for the first time (or yet another new place) who are struggling to cope with culture shock. Understanding some of the stages they are going through (or will go through) can help us to walk through it with them.

I’ve looked at the stages mentioned in the short quote above, and come up with some ideas for how to help our kids (and new youth workers who come in) to move through toward a breakthrough.

Despising the new country
I think most long-term expats have heard newcomers talk about how they “hate” the new country, the local people, or aspects of life there (traffic, food, or whatever). It can rile a longterm person who has made the new culture their home, but sometimes we need to simply allow grace for someone who is feeling out of their depth and struggling to keep up with so many changes. This is especially true for spouses or children who did not have much of a say in the move. The sense of powerlessness and resentment can be quite strong, and can lead to a burden of guilt, especially among Christians who believe the move was a step of faith.

Spending time exclusively with other expatriates
Many kids are in international schools, or are homeschooled, and therefore naturally spend a lot of time with other foreign kids. I think the problem is when a person actively avoids interaction with the local population where possible. Some people try to avoid interactions which require them to speak in the new language. I think it helps in this stage to talk about positive experiences you have had, and encourage positive interactions.

Complaining about the host culture/natives
This comes naturally to someone in the throes of culture shock. Unfortunately, it can be easy for even a seasoned and content expat to fall into a bout of host-country-bashing. As youth leaders I think it is important for us to do our best to limit this sort of negativity. It’s fine to acknowledge certain limitations or inconveniences of living in the host culture, and we should aim to create a safe space for kids to express their frustrations. I think we should look for places to offer positive opinion, and strive to avoid the downward spiral effect that can occur in a group setting. A line sometimes needs to be drawn, especially when complaints start to turn into stereotyping and racism.

Irrationally romanticising their home culture
The key word here is “irrationally”. We all have a fondness for home (or homes, as the case may be!) Certain sights, smells and sounds will always carry a deep resonance.  A symptom of cultural shock is seeing our home culture with rose tinted glasses, at the expense of our opinion of the new host culture. Reality will never measure up to fantasy, and when we compare the best things of “home” with the worst parts of our new culture, things look bleak. We can encourage kids to remember that life is a mix of ups and downs; that there are benefits to the new culture that were not available to us at home, and drawbacks from our home culture we do not experience in the new culture. Sometimes it is not helpful to say it directly, which can be confrontational, or sound patronising. Rather, we can contrast their observations with our own experiences: “I’m really thankful for the help of my housekeeper, I could never afford to have house help in Australia” or “I really miss jiaozi when I’m visiting home”

Breakthrough! Different, not wrong
It is always wonderful to see a friend reach the place of breakthrough! Every situation is different, and wishing they would “just wake up and get it!” doesn’t help. Recognising that they are struggling with something difficult, and patiently (prayerfully) walking through it with them, is sometimes all we can do. Give your new-to-town friends and youth some extra grace in that first year. Gently encourage them that it will get better, but try not to put a burden on them to “snap out of it”. These things take time, but when they make it to that place of breakthrough, you’ll be able to share the sweet joy of it with them!

That’s some of my thoughts – I’m really interested to hear what experiences others of you have had!
What helped you process your own culture shock?
What did friends say/do that was very helpful (or unhelpful)?
What suggestions would you give to those who are new in town?

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs

 

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