When coming home feels like moving to an alien planet

Isaac and Caleb* are fridge children – their faces are well known from pictures on the fridges of supporters of their parents, who recently returned to Australia after a decade as gospel workers in Africa.

As they try to adapt to a new school, a new country and a new continent, they are facing the dislocation, loneliness and confusion common to all Third Culture Kids (TCKs) – those who grow up outside Australia and whose concept of what it means to be ‘Australian’ is shaped by these experiences.

“When we go to churches, everyone knows me, but I don’t know them,” Isaac, 11, observed about going on church deputation.

“Everywhere we go, people say, ‘I know you.’ But they don’t really know me.”

And yet, even finishing deputation makes him sad because “I won’t be a missionary kid anymore” and “it’s ANOTHER change.”

Re-entry into Australia after building childhood memories and emotional connections overseas is often unexpectedly rocky, says Kath Williams, who has a part-time ministry to TCKs and wants to see more support for them.

Kath Williams

She says even the concept of returning “home” is problematic.

“One of the biggest challenges coming back into Australia is people ask the question, ‘Oh, aren’t you glad you’re home?’ And they’re like, ‘No, this is not home,’” she points out.

“Grandparents and people from organisations need to understand another big challenge for them is belonging. [TCKs wonder] where do I belong? Where do I fit in this world? Because in one sense, when they’re living overseas, they’re not exactly Australian.

“One of my TCKs said to me he felt like he was a foreigner in the world – like an alien, because he may look Australian, but when he came back to Australia, he wasn’t Australian.  He didn’t understand the culture.”

Making new friends is another huge challenge.

TCKs typically say goodbye to friends every six months while they’re in the field, which inevitably brings a sense of loss and grief. So making new friends is another huge challenge. “Like, how much do I invest in it? Because what if I say goodbye to them? Because it hurts when I say goodbye, because I’ve said so many goodbyes. It hurts so is it even worth becoming friends with them?”

Caleb, aged eight, demonstrated this fear when he confided he didn’t want to put his name tag on at a camp to make it easier to make friends because: “I don’t want to make friends here because they’ll only be temporary friends.”

Kath said TCKs may feel they cannot move on and make new friends. So, it’s important to let them express their feelings and give them permission to move on from the friends that they’ve had.

“I give them words to say about their feelings. And suggest ways to make friends again. I tell them it actually takes 10 hours to make a new friend. One of the things we look at is what you are interested in. One TCK I know is into origami, so is using that skill to make a friend.”

“I don’t want to make friends here because they’ll only be temporary friends.”

Adapting to a new physical environment has also been confusing for Isaac and Caleb. Having lived in a country where the temperatures and daylight hours are pretty consistent all year round, weather changes take some getting used to. “I’ve always just had clothes, not summer clothes and winter clothes.”

“How can it be light this late? That’s stupid!”

“In Africa, I was just me, but here you can’t be yourself. Like, here it’s size X for shorts or size Y for shirts, but in Africa, I just went to the tailor and they made it me-sized.”

Upon waking up in the morning: “I had a dream where we moved to a house in the middle of nowhere and there were lots of pets to cuddle and I just wanted to go home. I think it was a transition dream.”

“Be the bridging person, to help them understand Australian culture. Be that person they can ask those weird questions to, and just listen.” – Kath Williams

So, how can Christians and church communities help TCKs settle back into their home country? These are Kath’s top tips.

  • Avoid using language such as “Welcome home.” Ask them, “Where’s home?”
  • Ask them what they need.
  • Make sure they feel heard and can share their story.
  • Help them to feel safe in the place they are.
  • Help them to find peers.
  • As a church, consider paying for counselling or debriefing services.
  • Be alert to practical needs such as getting a bike.
  • For a young adult coming back without a parent, help them understand Centrelink, school and university systems, and to get their Ls.

Kath said a TCK may never settle back into Australia.

“Some really settle, some don’t, and it depends on the age. Each TCK is different, even in the same family. It might take a long time for them to settle. Be the bridging person, to help them understand Australian culture. Be that person they can ask those weird questions to, and just listen. The key thing is finding those people that you click with – that’s what helps them settle.”

Kath would love to raise support for a full-time ministry for TCKs “to help them settle and help them to understand their uniqueness in Christ.”

If you would like to support her with this, click here.

Kath Williams has co-authored two books: Navigating Global Transitions Again is a 24-month planner for young people who are in their final year of secondary school, planning to transition from one country to another.

Thongs or Flips Flops, co-written by Tanya Crossman, is a practical guide aimed at the one million Australian citizens living outside Australia, including families with children. Due for publication later this year, it will provide Australian TCKs and Australian families living overseas with everything they need to know to thrive long-term.

*Names changed for privacy reasons.