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Identity & Belonging

expat life expat mums expat parenting expat parenting abroad May 21, 2019

What does identity and belonging mean to you?


Last week I shared a brief summary of my key reflections from the FIGT Conference. And I’d like to say a huge thank you for all the lovely messages and comments regarding my post, it was all a little overwhelming but sincerely appreciated. 


Now, as I start to unpick my experience at the conference, understanding more about what I heard and learned, I would like to share a little more detail with you. And in today’s post I want to share a learning with you that was a true game changer for me. 


It turns out, I had never fully understood the concept of identity and belonging. Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to raising kids abroad, and third culture kids I have read a lot… and I felt like I got it. 


That was until Daniela Tomer and Ruth Van Reken’s presentation at the FIGT Conference. In their address, they explained identity and belonging with three key pillars - family, community and place. For example, each time a kid moves two or three of these pillars are affected or completely changed. Hence their ‘self’ is affected with each move, who they identify with, whether they feel they belong. It changes with each move.  


So why was this a game changer for me? I had a moment of total clarity when Ruth described her experience of going away to boarding school. Holy crap! That’s what happened to me! 


I have been reading about TCKs since Miss J and Madam S were born in India and I discovered that there was this term to describe them and their unique childhood. And I thought I got it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel like I’ve been lost, and I wasn’t necessarily searching for myself either. I have just always known I am different from other people, and for some reason I have never really questioned why.


But hello! This concept of the three pillars changing applies to me too! My three pillars changed my identity and belonging when I went to boarding school at the age of 13. And yes, Mrs C will tell you she was always waiting to see when I would display my father’s streak…! But in a nutshell the boarding house experience had a massive impact on shaping who I am today. 


I have always known this. In simplistic terms, I was very shy and introverted before I went to boarding school. And when I share this with people now, they generally laugh at me. I have built myself differently as a result of that experience. I respond to people differently as a result of that experience. It was a positive experience for me, but it’s what we call “being thrown in the deep end”. 


I left the boarding house with the ability to connect with people from different backgrounds to me. I left with a greater sense of independence. I left with a very high level of resilience. I left with a huge amount of personal drive, but also high expectations of myself. Most importantly, I think, I left with an ability to truly ‘see’ people. 


I think this revelation helps me to understand and support my girls better too. They are TCKs in the truest sense of the term. But I don’t have to constantly worry ‘what are we doing to them?’ I now have confidence to know that as adults, they too will have high levels of resilience, personal drive, independence, and they will be globally minded citizens. 


But the ‘modern world’ also adds another layer of complexity. If we think about these three pillars (family, place and community) in the context of today, with mobility changing the way we can access new places, technology changing pretty much daily and communication changing the way we connect with those we left behind. What does that mean for our identity and belonging in today’s world? 


Our basic human need is to belong. So how do we create a sense of belonging for ourselves when we constantly move? How do we create a sense of belonging for our kids? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Ps - if you’d like to watch Daniela and Ruth’s address you can here.


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