“What is the most important thing to take with you when you move overseas?” My attention was immediately drawn. I sat in a small group at this year’s Families in Global Transition Conference, listening intently. The question was posed to a group entirely comprised of expats. We had moved countless times to many different countries, so we all eagerly awaited the answer.
“The most important thing to take with you is yourself.” The answer was swift and startling.
I sat, in silence, stunned. Don’t I always? I questioned. How can I leave myself behind? In the whirlwind of packing and moving, I usually tend to forget one or two important belongings. I’ve forgotten my toothbrush, my belt, my computer cord, the list goes on. But I mean, really, I’ve never forgotten myself! I pushed this statement to the back of my mind as FIGT continued, and I didn’t revisit the question, or its thought-provoking answer, until after the conference’s ending keynote address.
I soon realized that this statement does not define ‘yourself’ in a physical sense. As third culture kids and expats, we know the routine of leaving. We pack our bags and print our boarding passes. We say goodbye to our friends and loved ones. We walk through security, find our gate, and recheck our seat number printed in black ink on the ripped-off stub of our boarding passes. But as our plane lifts off the runway, climbing above the rooftops and eventually above the clouds, pieces of our heart and identity still linger in what we left behind. Our throats tighten while we gaze out the window. And we unknowingly leave behind a piece of ‘ourselves’ as we gradually lean back, uncurl our tightened fists, and settle in seat 24A.
I’ve seen this happen to many third culture kids, including myself. When culture shock hits and we realize the isolation and loneliness of being different or “other,” we slowly begin to lose ourselves as we desperately attempt to fit in.
“I Want to Become Invisible.”
Six years ago, two years after my family’s move to Hiroshima, I wanted to become Japanese. I longed to trade my blonde hair and blue eyes for black hair and brown eyes. I was a ten-year-old homeschooler when I used my hard-earned savings to buy a school uniform. Every other Japanese child had one, and that is what I wanted. (Read the full story here.)
My sister was struggling as well. One evening while our family hosted company from the US, my sister and I were asked a question: “If you were able to have a superpower, which one would you choose?” After pondering the question for a moment, my sister answered. “I want to become invisible.”
Each day, my sister and I changed our appearances, our activities, and our demeanor in hopes of fitting in. With each change, we slowly lost pieces of our identity. We were leaving ‘ourselves’ behind as we desperately sought acceptance.
Finding Acceptance through Accepting Myself
So then how do I bring myself with me when I move overseas? It’s a question I still struggle with even though I’ve packed my school uniform away for good. My well-worn navy skirt and white blouse lay in the bottom of my closet, dusty, yet not forgotten. It reminds me of the lessons I’ve learned since the day I traded 5,000 yen ($50) for what I thought would earn acceptance.
Losing ‘myself’ in order to fit in only results in a further loss of identity, feelings of failure, and disappointment. Acceptance is not gained this way. I’ve learned that only by accepting myself can I truly begin to find acceptance from others. Only by resting securely in my own identity can I ‘take myself with me’ when I move overseas.
Then, as I transition into my new country, I am able to embrace the culture without compromising ‘myself.’ I can slowly become a ‘blend’ of both my passport country and my adopted country, integrating both of these cultures into my identity without just forsaking my own.