I sit on an airplane waiting to take off, and I look across the aisle at two teenage girls. My daughters look back at me, their shoulders rising and falling jaggedly as they sob. Their faces are a combination of devastation and accusation, and I start to cry too. A flight attendant cautiously asks if we’re okay while I wonder what we’re doing here. It’s our third expatriate assignment in a third country, and I’m suddenly not sure if we’ve done the right thing. Has it been worth it to disrupt their lives so often? To have them lose best friends every year, either because we’re moving or they are?
Now we are ten years removed from that emotional flight, and all three of my children are glad they grew up the way they did. With the perspective of time, I’ve asked for their wisdom to explore the ups and downs of being an expat kid. Here’s what they had to say.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way, and remember that it usually comes a with a benefit!
Being the New Kid
It’s scary being the new kid, so no one really wants to do it multiple times throughout their childhood. So much stress over fitting in, making friends, eating lunch alone, wearing the wrong clothes, etc., etc., etc…
Thinking of Friendships as Temporary
It can become easy to assume that no one will be in your life long-term. Relationships may be seen as disposable, and kids might need to re-learn to nurture friendships that could last a lifetime.
Identity – You’re from Nowhere
The question “Where are you from?” becomes way more complicated than it should be. Also, kids may feel weird in their own culture once they return home. They may have a sense that they don’t fit in anywhere. Someone once asked my daughter which subdivision she lived in. She had no idea what a subdivision was. My kids didn’t know American coins, and inches and feet were incomprehensible. This did not feel like home.
School systems are different, and jumping from one country’s schools to another’s is challenging. Kids might be ahead in some things and behind in others. They may have to adjust to a different approach to education. For example, they may move from an exam-based system to one where their coursework counts toward their grade.
Take heart! According to my expat kids, these far outweigh the cons.
Obviously, kids get to see cool places, learn new languages, and experience different ways of being human in the world. Along with this comes developing into a more open-minded and well-rounded person.
Closer Family Relationships
When your siblings are the only people who can understand your childhood, you become much closer. Even if you had nothing in common and fought like cats and dogs before expatriation.
So, yeah, it was awful to be the new kid so often, but it also creates people who are super adaptable to all kinds of new situations. They know that everything becomes normal with time. They can make friends anywhere. They have a great sense of self — maybe because they know there are so many different ways to be in the world, and they’re all okay.
Friends All Over the World
It’s great to know people from various places, and technology has made it easier to keep up with them. My son has continued to play XBox games with his friends in England, and one of them just came and spent a week with us.
Beneficial for the Future
Having lived in another country and learned another language is attractive to universities and employers. One of my daughters is convinced that her international experience helped her get into Clemson University’s Honors College. My other daughter graduated from university three years ago and has been working abroad ever since.
We ask a lot of our children when we take them to live in a new country. There will definitely be some rough times, but power through! In the end, I hope you all agree that this is one of the best gifts you could have given them.