Illustration for Denizen by Lindsey Ruane
It was midnight during an intense exam period at the end of my first year in Vancouver.
Just as I closed my textbook, tears started to stream down my face and I wondered why my heart ached for any hint of nostalgia to wash over me at any minute. Being labeled an “international student” has been as ubiquitous to me as the airport-hopping or saying goodbye to good friends and making new ones every three years.
However, somehow during that first year in a Canadian university, being an international student also meant feeling afloat in a sea of thousands of students, many of whom already have established circles of friends from migrating together from the local high school to university. I never quite understood why I would have moments of tearfulness followed by a fatigued and lackadaisical sense of the world around me. I lost all interest in activities that used to make me excited, I tossed and turned at night, and thoughts of alienation preoccupied my time among friends. Little did I know that I went through a small bout of depression while adjusting to life as a TCK without my TCK family nearby for support.
As TCKs, we are so used to jumping from city to city, quickly establishing friendships all while knowing that the majority of the schoolmates we meet are in similar nomadic boats. That changes during the university years, when the majority of our peers shift from being international to being local. We become a significant minority. Not only are we juggling how to use laundry and pace class readings, we are also struggling to understand how to break the cultural ice and make new friends among the two hundred in a lecture hall. It was exhausting, deflating and even discouraging to have to try extra hard just to feel like I fit in somewhere. What is this foreign concept of trying just to fit in?
Eight years later, I explored acculturation’s impact on resiliency in my doctoral dissertation and confirmed what I always suspected was the main culprit to my deflated state of mind – the ultimate sense of belonging. Human beings are social beings. We get our energy from being around and interacting with one another. For TCKs, this also means knowing that others are going through the same existential experiences we are as perpetual “foreigners.”
So, what are some tips to staying mentally healthy when feeling challenged as a TCK?
1. Make time to regularly talk with friends and family overseas that you know will “get” you more than anyone else can. The key symptom of depression is feeling hopeless about yourself, the world and the future. When we talk to people who love us, we know that there are people in other parts of the world who are thinking of us and missing us. We can look forward to laughing with them again.
2. Join an international/cultural group – even if it is a minimal-attendance-required group. Do not underestimate the power of feeling belonged. University club memberships have been found to be immensely important in the personal wellbeing of college students.
3. Continue discussions through social media and online TCK networks. It is similar to how effective the It Gets Better campaign is for those struggling with being bullied for being “different.” The most often-made comment on Denizen is “Oh my gosh! That’s so true!” because it is exciting to finally hear someone verbalize what we have always felt. No matter what you are thinking, no matter how silly it is, there’s someone else out there thinking the exact same thing. And it is never too silly for a fellow TCK.
4. Grab a few culturally curious local friends and explore authentic restaurants and neighborhoods that hold the smells and sounds that can temporarily transplant you back “home.”
5. Talk to someone who will unconditionally empathize with your sense of loneliness. As a psychologist, I am a little biased towards seeking therapy whenever you feel you need support because there is something about pouring your heart out to someone who will not only guarantee to keep your secrets, but will whole-heartedly try to listen to every word you say. Of course, remember that if the therapist does not jive with your style, you have the right to change therapists or leave. It does more damage to stick to something you do not enjoy than to say good riddance.
I am constantly in awe of my fellow TCKs’ ability to quickly adjust to new environments. We are proud of our unique nomadic experiences and often forget to talk about all the struggles associated with those experiences. There will always be times when we feel out of place and alone but even in those times, know that someone in another time zone knows exactly how you’re feeling.