But What’s So Different about Being an Expat Family, Anyway?

My twins are seniors and our conversations have naturally turned toward university choices. For my family, of course, that includes conversations about America and culture, home and upbringing. We moved to Somalia when the twins were two and we’ve lived in the Horn of Africa ever since.

One evening, my daughter asked, “But what’s really so different about growing up here? How does my experience compare with that of a high school girl in Minnesota?”

How can I even begin to answer?

I read about parents horrified at the thought of sending a 12-year old down the block alone. I sent my 12-year olds to Kenya alone. I’ve read about families bemoaning the fact their children don’t have their own bathrooms, or extolling the incredible and surprising virtues of siblings being forced to share a sink. My children share a bathroom and the girls share a bedroom.

And so, when they say it is hard for them to understand what might be different about their life compared to an American teenager and I think about the so-called suffering of sharing a bathroom sink or the fear of sending a child to the corner alone, the answer is so big, so deep, I don’t know what to say.

On a practical level, I can describe the choices we’ve made that highlight our values – living within our means financially, indoor space that promotes family intimacy and shared experiences, an imperfect house with an incredible backyard perfect for a family more interested in being active than aesthetics, living in community.

But on a deeper level, how do I begin to talk about courage or risk or the power of that community? How do I address the ways living abroad impacts my kids’ experience of race (isn’t every president black? Every president they have lived under has been) or religion (aren’t all Muslims doctors, teachers, artists, shopkeepers, friends? Not terrorists) or wealth (does all that stuff make people content? Some of their friends are content in aluminum shacks)?

I can’t explain to my twins how their childhood has affected them. They’ll need to discover the answer to that question on their own. I couldn’t begin to articulate one. I have ideas, but sometimes the only way to answer our deep questions is to experience a contrast, to set our question and our experience against something new, opposing, different. Italo Calvino wrote, “Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

This scares me. I want to have an answer for them the way I had an answer for diaper rash, the way M and M’s were the answer on long-haul flights, the way my kisses were the answer for scraped knees. Those answers provided, healed, protected. That’s what I want to give them now – protection, healing, and provision.

But I can’t any longer. They will move on from high school and I can’t go to that next place with them. I can watch and talk and process and pray and be their safe space as they wrestle with who they are, where they come from, and who they want to become. But I can’t answer the question of identity, which is really the core of what my daughter meant when she asked how her life experiences have been different.

I can only hope that as our family has chosen to do, my kids have learned to shift their attention, to be wise and thoughtful and to make good choices. Develop uplifting community, be curious and brave. Focus on gratitude, choose delight with intention and integrity. Live there, where you are, in all the richness and challenges of it.

How do you talk with your kids about their international upbringing?

What are some specific joys and specific pains they have experienced? How do you address those as a family?


[Read more essays about Third Culture Kids, in Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World, a compilation of more than twenty authors exploring the joys and challenges of being, raising, and loving TCKs.]

Photo by Church of the King on Unsplash


  1. Abdi June 17, 2018

    Thanks. Always good to read your posts and in a subject deep in my heart, central in my mind, important for our family with 3 TCKs, teenagers. They are about to leave high school and start a new journey, far away from their parents, in a country (USA) where they were born but never lived. They often spend few weeks school summer holidays almost every year there, with relatives rather than being exposed to US reality, reality and way of life…with expatriates parents, of different cultural and religious backgrounds, moving from one country or school to another, making new friends of different backgrounds ever few years and exposed to different cultures and landscapes, am wondering if they will cope with the reality waiting them when they live home for higher education, away from the cosy and easy expats life they were used to! We’ve not started such important conversation and plan to have this summer to sit down by the beach side and talk about the journey ahead and their next move to US and their new life experience might affect their life, their values and beliefs, and who they want to become and what path they will eventually take. Found always very relevant your questions and hope to meet you soon there…in my country – Djibouti and we could chat while doing a semi-marathon run! Or continue the conversation online. Waad mahad santahay and let’s belief that our TCKs amazing potential, experience and resilience will help to cope and adjust, challenge and succeed

    1. Rachel Jones June 17, 2018

      So great to hear from you, Abdi! I would love to connect in Djibouti – are you a runner? I’m away now for a while, but will be back. I’d also love to chat about TCKs and the specific Djibouti-American connection. I’ll send you an email – it would be fun to see if our kids will be anywhere near each other…

  2. Bethany June 18, 2018

    Love your thoughts. We have watched our four oldest transition from life in Tanzania to the USA. What did we learn we came to another culture? How did we learn to live in this “other” world? God brought us to learn and live in another place. We were excited to learn how to live in this culture and share the Good News with them. I want my kids to be just as excited to learn a new culture, make friends in this “new” place and love living in America as they go through culture shock and learn to love where God has sent them! Keep cheering for your kids, keep praying for your kids, and God is with them, just as He has been with you!

  3. Kiyon July 29, 2018

    Great insight! My little one is now 12 years old. We lived abroad (Italy and Germany) for 8 of those years. She recently started school back in the USA (Georgia to be exact) and the first 2 weeks of school were gut wrenching. After the first day of school, she hopped in the car and started to cry. We have been supportive by just talking about how she is feeling and giving her the reasons for why she is feeling this way. We also give her advice on the types of things she can do to easily move through this transitional phase. Being the new kid in 6th grade in the month of April when everyone else is already “cliqued” up, was truly an emotional roller coaster for her. It doesn’t help that she isn’t the most social of pre-teens. By mid-May, she had met 3 or 4 other girls to hang with and those tough days were a distant memory. Kids are pretty resilient. I am hoping that moving to different countries and experiencing other cultures will enhance her understanding of the world. Let’s hope she is up for another move abroad in 2020!

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