“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?