“So, what do you plan to do when you get back?” my dad suddenly asked as he reached into his pocket for a cigarette. “What do you want for yourself?”
I looked at him, puzzled. We had never talked about anything like this before.
The two of us were sitting in a restaurant in Beijing, waiting for one of the servers to take our order. I was a recent college graduate, having flown from Toronto to visit my family before I headed off into the “real world.”
“You can decide that for yourself one day,” he said as he nodded to a waiter. “It’s your life.”
I’ve always had a bit of a tense relationship with my father. His work as an engineer uprooted our family every two to four years, bringing us to a different place each time. But in spite of all the difficult times we had moving to Thailand, Hong Kong, Beijing, Toronto and Shanghai, this brief and almost unremarkable conversation stuck with me the most.
That was almost three years ago. Since then, I’m proud to say that I’ve made a good life for myself. After going back to Toronto that year, I managed to get the job I wanted in finance. Happy with work, with a close circle of friends and a nice place to live, I considered myself a lucky man.
So why dwell on something that happened so long ago? As content as I was, something strange happened. On a day like any other, a thought occurred to me: This is the longest I’ve ever lived in a single place. Seven years never seemed so short.
As a child, I loathed the ritual of having to move every couple of years. The awkward good-byes, the endless stacks of storage boxes, and the nagging dread of being that new kid at school – all constant reminders that I could never have a normal childhood.
And although it was a hard ride, it was so wild in so many ways, and for the first time ever I found myself missing the sense of wonder that came with having to move. My father’s words echoed in my mind. “ What do you want for yourself?” Pretty soon, I started wondering what I should be doing for a career, whether or not I should be getting a girlfriend, and what my core principles were.
Now, some people would tell me to get a grip. I was going through the typical “Quarter-Life Crisis,” where a 20-something starts feeling anxious about their future. But as adult TCKs, we also face the unusual crossroads of wondering whether to stay put, or to remain a global nomad.
I wanted to find out what happened to TCKs once they became adults. In order to do that, I had to go out there and ask them.
I first chatted with my college friend, Sarfaraz Sumar. He lived in Canada until his father, a civil engineer, moved him to Kenya and Uganda for high school.
“The whole experience has opened me up to the thought of moving around. I think that’s one of the reasons why I went back to school to study something that can give me an international career. Just to keep my options open,” he said. “A part of me misses Africa, and I wouldn’t mind going back there to work.”
Now at 25, Sarfaraz is back in Canada for university, studying for a degree in commerce. He is pursuing an accounting designation that would give him an option to work either in Canada or overseas.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is my sister, Stephenie, who has chosen to leave behind her nomadic childhood.
“I’ve always envied the friends who had a home here,” she told me. Like me, she returned to Canada for university.
“I felt so out of place once I got back,” she said. “With most people who’ve grown up in North America, there’s a natural progression to things. While they were in high school, most of them did usual things like get a part-time job or learn to drive. We couldn’t have done either of those things when we were living in China.”
“Many people here have always had this sense of belonging. They’ve grown up here with family and have known life-long friends,” she continued. “They know where their home is.”
At 27, my sister is recently married, and after years of traveling, she is now calling Baltimore her home. Stephenie has found where she belongs and has no plans to ever move again.
“I like it here, staying put with the people I love. That’s all I really need,” she said. “Besides, I hated moving and feeling out of touch with everyone else. Someday, I might have kids myself and I wouldn’t want to put them through that.”
Finally, there are those who truly see the world as their home.
Alicia Ingruber, 24, whose father worked as a diplomat, has lived in Australia, the Philippines, Canada, Cyprus and New Zealand. She plans to remain traveling, with the Netherlands, Spain and New York among her top destinations. I met Alicia through Denizen’s Facebook page.
“I’ve always been a travel addict,” she laughed. “But rather than just visiting a new place for a few weeks, I like to fully immerse myself in another culture, and develop a relationship with it.”
Like so many TCKs who’ve returned to their passport countries, Alicia knows what it’s like to be different from those who have been brought up in a single place. However, she has chosen to embrace her past and remain a global nomad.
“I once considered settling down in Australia. There’s a set path to life there, starting with work, marriage and then a house in the suburbs. I can appreciate that, but at the same time I find that kind of life very suffocating,” she explained. “After experiencing so much of the world, you can’t just ignore it and pretend there’s nothing going on. To remain in once place would feel like I’d miss out on a lot. ”
“This is me going back to my roots,” she continued. “I’ve always had an adventurous streak, I love to learn and experience new things. It’s a driving force to my life.”
Alicia currently works as a graphic designer, which allows her to gather ideas and remain connected to different people through the Internet. True to her passions for discovery, she is preparing to move to the Netherlands. She doesn’t intend on settling there.
As an adult TCK, I’m still figuring this all out for myself. But I know I’m not alone. While our experiences are rare, they are shared deeply among anyone who has had the privilege of seeing the world with their own eyes.
We might have spent our childhood being shuffled from one place to the next by our parents, but now we’re now free to seek out our own successes and failures, fall in and out of love, and take charge of our own destiny.
So in the comments, I encourage you to share with our unique community: What are the life decisions you’ve made as an adult? Have you chosen to stay in one place, or instead, continue traveling the world?
I chose, in a round-about way, to stay in one place. The decision was made when hubby and I decided we wanted to have children in our lives. I wanted my child to have what I never knew – stability. Defined it means attending the same school as all your friends, living in the same neighborhood, being familiar with “who you are” as a person, and knowing “where you belong” as an individual. I don’t regret the decision, and I’ve traveled abroad (and state-side) since then so don’t feel (too much) the need to move.
Its Nice to hear I’m not the only one still trying to figure this out.
As a musician I first felt lucky that I got to travel every few months from one place to another…it felt at”home” and “free” being able to fully enjoy my career as well as the world.
But then, I realized my traveling was affecting my social life as well as my love life…friends started getting confused as to where I was, and stopped inviting me to things because they assumed I wasn’t around. My bf, who once traveled as much as I did, recently became my ex. And slowly my wonderful career & nomadic life became a torment of heart ache & guilt.
I’m starting to believe I need to stay in one place in order to have any kind of lasting relationship, and the idea depresses me.
So now the question is… will it be career, nomadic life, or love/social life? and is there a way I can have it all?
This sounds so familiar! Especially the part where you realise that you’ve been in a country longer than you’ve been in any other. I’m still trying to find out what I’m going to do. My national home is both Switzerland and the Philippines, but I felt very much at home when we moved around in South East Asia. Currently I’m in the UK after getting married to a Brit, bought a house, have a good job, etc. But itchy feet is calling and it didn’t take long to convince my husband that we should perhaps look at moving overseas for fun!
This completely resonates with me, especially since I am entering my second quarter-life crisis (who says I’m not an overachiever?) and going through the exact same mindset. I moved to Chicago from California a few years ago after being completely restless with my life, and now I’m hoping to go somewhere international within the next few years. And it’s strange to my friends because I do love my life but I’m also perfectly comfortable with uprooting it all, and trading it in for something completely unknown. One of my worst fears is to be just complacent & routine with my life, but at the same time, I wonder if I will ever happily settle somewhere.
After spending my childhood off and on in Mexico and my teen years off and on in Romania…then spending a time on extended visits to family when they were living in Peru…then (after college and a few years of work) heading off to Romania myself…I ended up back in the US four and a half years ago to get married.
We settled into married life, bought a house, and had a kid. Then, I guess my wanderlust started up again and this time it rubbed off on my husband!! Dissatisfied with the whole expected suburban norm, we now have a plan in place to within the next 1-4 years to sell our house, buy an RV, and travel the US. Then, when current and any future kiddos are a bit older we will hit the international circuit.
I realize that the whole on-the-move life of a TCK affects different ones differently and who knows how my children will look back on the route we are choosing in the future…but I know having traveled and lived multi-culturally I want our children to have that same chance!!
Time will tell though how my only-ever-lived-in-two-states-of-the-US, never-been-out-of-the-country husband will adapt…but he has an adventurous spirit at least!!
Thanks so much for this article! It was exactly what I need right now, as I decide if I am staying put or going back to my roots of living life outside my home country. I’ve been in one city after college for about two years and love it, but in a way feel like that emotion goes against everything I dream of. I am not a one-place person, a one-home soul. I am a citizen of the world, and some day, some day soon hopefully, I will go back to where I belong, wherever that may be.
Thanks everyone! Its good to get feedback from so many people!
One of the things that I found very surprising while writing this article was that so many people were willing to help and share a very personal part of their lives.
Sometimes, I think the question of where you want to belong is just as important as who you want to identify yourself with.
In spite of the distances between all of us, no one’s ever alone in their lives. Your help and input is living proof..
“I once considered settling down in Australia. There’s a set path to life there, starting with work, marriage and then a house in the suburbs. I can appreciate that, but at the same time I find that kind of life very suffocating”
I so relate to that! I’m Australian but I’ve lived in China for 7 years (the longest I’ve lived in one place since I was 8). I thought that set-out life was what I was supposed to want/pursue but turns out that’s just not me. I’d rather be here in Beijing working with TCKs and having just enough money to get by on than squash into a mold that wasn’t made for me 🙂
I grew up not necessarily traveling as much as others, but always feeling as an outsider.
I’m thinking I want to settle down, but then the question is where? Cities mean I wouldn’t be excluded, but I need open air and greenery around me to feel at home. And that means a small town or a village, where I’ll again be branded as an outsider.
Moving around, while fun, won’t let me make a little nest I can consider home. The decision is quite difficult to make, and sadly for my difficulty in making choices, my line of work being computer science means I can work pretty much anywhere I choose to live.
So I guess I’ll ask you guys a question: where can I find people living in small towns out in the country that don’t judge new people coming in? I know for a fact that the US certainly isn’t, and most of Europe isn’t either (I’ve lived in both).
Hello fellow TCKs-Loved the blog-very interesting and many points I definitely can relate to. Super cool that such a community has been able to have a forum and connect…it definitely feels like group therapy hahaha I am with Alecia-meaning, the way she described herself is how I feel, and after “exploring” for several years now, I know my calling is overseas. I’ve also come to realize home is where I am-my family is-it could be in a developing, developed or a third world country-it could be anywhere. Also, “settling” somewhere is not important to me but i have also learned “never to say never.” Currently in the states (where most of my years have been), I am headed off to the Middle East to be a high school counselor in an intl. school setting. So yes, I did eventually go into a career that I not only loved and was passionate about, but also one that would give me the flexibility of being MOBILE-of being able to go anywhere in the world : )
I am definitely of the “continue to travel” variety. I have stayed put in London with my husband for the past 2 years, thinking that I needed to stay in one place to establish friendships yet most of my friends have left this city!! I feel restless, itching to get back on the road and experience life…for I never feel as much fulfilment as when i explore this incredible world.
P.S. I wrote a book about many of a TCK musings (and the challenges it brings transitioning into an “ATCK”: “Home Keeps Moving
Thanks for sharing your story Simon. In my case, I figured out during my mid-twenties that this was a case of whether I live as an “outsider” in a foreign country to mingle with the local people and culture, or stay in my home country to remain aware and eager to support the “outsiders” (foreigners, TCKs coming back, etc…), and I chose the latter option. Still, I think it’s important to keep the options open for myself, since any change can occur anytime! Communication on the internet like Facebook and Denizen has also made it easier for me to reach out when I miss the taste of global wandering. Good luck!
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I love this. Finally a comunity for me. Jesus don’t you ever go through something. I have never “cut the cord” choosing to go to India after college with my family. Its so difficult learning to be an adult, learning to accept responsability, from a family that expects nothing less than brilliance. I found a career path, but have a strong desire to follow that dream after a while once I figure it out on my own. Go home and ctach up what I’ve missed. For now my choice is to save for that kind of life or do what I love(volunteer for a few more months as a teacher). I’m on the edge of a choice that really may change my life.
Thanks Simon – this article was so relevant to me since I just graduated from college last year and am going through a TCK quarter life crisis myself.
I do have a question though – for the people that chose to remain a global nomad, do you find visas and immigration issues getting in the way of moving around and working in different countries? After a lot of thought, I’ve realized that I’d prefer the nomadic lifestyle at least for the next few years, but as an Indian citizen and a resident of nowhere (I never really lived in India and am currently in the US on a work visa), my search for jobs in other countries always results in questioning the ability to get work permits and such…any thoughts/advice?
Hey Devika – Your comment resonated with me alot! I’m also an Indian TCK and graduated from a women’s college last year. My dad is an Indian diplomat and I’ve lived in Argentina, Hungary, Maldives, Germany, Denmark and Guyana growing up. My visa expires this summer and I’m having a serious crisis about whether I want to move back to India! How did you battle this anxiety and decide on your next path. Immigration laws are so difficult to work around and I’m unsure about what I should make my next step. Would love to connect and hear your thoughts!
Hi Garima ! I’d love to chat to you im also having this problem at the moment of being a citizen of Switzerland and being raised and schooled mostly elsewhere and not knowing where to go.
Thank you so much for writing this! It encapsulates perfectly how I feel about my life. I hated all the uprooting and moving growing up, but now that I’ve lived in one place for the better part of 6 or 7 years I find myself torn in half by the desire on the one hand to stay and root myself here in the amazing community I have and on the other to move as quickly as I can so that I don’t get trapped in this culturally and geographically limited place :-). (Funnily enough, Toronto’s on my list of places to look for work in if I do move again :-).)
I hope things works out well for you!
Funny, I was just thinking about that myself recently. I’ve moved a few times, and transatlantic moves generally mean you lose touch with the people you were close to on the other side, just because of the time difference.
Now that I’ve finally found a good place for me, where I have new friends I feel very comfortable with (there were some times where I had friends because of one particular activity and not much else, work schedule ruining any chances of normal social life), and I think I’m ready to settle down for the long term. I don’t intend on giving up traveling, there’s too much to see, too much to do on the planet, but that doesn’t mean I want to live everywhere.
I think some people like immersing themselves in every culture they can find, but I find that understanding the culture is enough for me to decide whether I want to know more about it or not, and if not, I like the idea of thinking “oh I’m going home in a couple of weeks”. Because sometimes jumping the gun and moving someplace where you’re not sure what you’ll find, and feel stranded there is not a good feeling.
That’s how I felt in Los Angeles – too much city, too little plants, and people I just couldn’t fit in with, and I couldn’t see a way out until I moved to Switzerland to start my Master’s.
Thank you for all of this. People are just starting to realize the effect traveling has on TCK adults. It’s weird to think I’ve been in the States longer than anywhere else. I have no desire to move overseas, I made the choice to begin a life with my husband and stay in his comfort zone. However, I’ve been in one HOUSE for about seven years now, and we just bought a new one, and I am really feeling that moving itch.
Don’t you hate the question “where are you from?” I never want my kids to have the childhood I did. I’ll never advocate for children to have a transient life. I think the benefits are outweighed by the drastic negatives we have to go through. Granted, no one is the same, and hopefully people had great sensitive parents who could tell when it was getting to be too much and help you work through it.