Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children?

This year it hit me broadside.

Standing in my entryway, eagerly opening up holiday greeting cards from around the world, I held a family Christmas collage from a friend in my hands. There they were: the crowds of folks gathered for one child’s wedding; a smiling circle cheering another child’s academic achievement; lines of friends there for another child’s community concert. I skimmed the lines about neighbors and friends who rushed in when there was a crisis, and wiped my forehead, now pumping hot blood, astonished by my gut reaction.

Pain. Pain for my children.

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I knew my friend was only sharing her normal, everyday life.  What I read wasn’t shimmering with the exceptional, not in her mind, I’m sure.  It was an obviously normal life to her, probably, a life spent in one spot with lifelong connections, familial solidarity and children held sturdy by that kind of  ballast.  Skimming, though, I saw strong, bold lines that plumb through layers and layers of years and years of rock solid support and shared common experience.

Then, as if someone pulled the plug on the parquet floor beneath me, that sensation hit. And I sank.

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It’s there, in that sunken place, that I developed a T.I.C.K.

Or at least I developed the concept of one and made up the acronym for it.

T.I.C.K.? You’ve probably never heard of it, although maybe you’ve heard of a TCK, or a Third Culture Kid. That’s a child who’s spent the dominant portion of her upbringing in a culture/language/geography other than that of her parents.

TICK is something else, and may be a little more complicated than a TCK. A TICK is a Transient International Composite Kid.

That, ladies and gentlemen, would be my bundle.

Of joy.

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Not only are my kids TCKs, (they’ve spent virtually all  their developmental years in a culture/language/geography other than their parents’ native one), but they’re TICKs, too, having spent their entire lives moving and moving. And moving again. And not merely from one side of a city to another. Nor from one side of a state nor side of one country to another.  They’ve moved from one side of the cultural spectrum to another: Hong Kong, Norway, two different locations in France, America, Germany, Singapore, and now Switzerland.

What does that kind of perpetual and far-flung transience mean for a child? For a teenager? For a young adult? It means multilingual proficiency (about which I’ve just written.)  It means adaptability, flexibility, courage, ability to make friends with your corner lamp post. It means resilience. It means, as many TICKs will tell you, an unusually tight bond as a family. (You’ve gone through quite a lot together). It can mean various positives like increased tolerance, motivation, independence. It can mean you know many things firsthand that others know only virtually.

Unquestionably, there’s a lot gained from traipsing through so much diversity and upheaval. But lately. . . I am tallying the costs. And they are painful to me.

What might those costs be?

Let me give you an idea by showcasing just one of our four, Dalton Haakon Bradford.

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Dalton is now seventeen, a “Year 12” in his international bilingual school here on outskirts of Geneva, or, according to the US system, a high school junior.  In these 17 years, he’s attended a Norwegian preschool…

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A French bilingual preschool…

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An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…

073A German international school…

088a Singapore-based American international school, and now the Swiss bilingual school from which he will graduate a year from now.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m adding up 8 different approaches to academic instruction, and 4 distinct classroom languages. What you can’t see in that tally are all the friends made and lost. All the homes adapted to and emptied. All the programs begun yet suddenly dropped. All the teachers who had to get to know this kid from ground up, who didn’t know his strength or quirks or particular needs. All the opportunities to audition or compete or enter, lost because, whooops, we can’t promise we’ll be here for that. All the essential secrets held under the coat like a vat of churning lava, because there is no gathered context out of which strangers can interpret him.

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

Those kinds of costs. Let’s let our TICK speak about them for himself.

So, Dalton Bradford: What, in your opinion, have been the costs of this nomadic, international life? 

1) I’ve forfeited familiarity and comfort. More times than I can count, I’ve been the only new kid (or one of the few) in my class, and that has sometimes meant the only one not quite yet speaking the language of instruction. Seems I’m always in the figuring-out phase, just getting my mind organized in a new culture, not to mention a whole new school system and student body. This means my ramp-up time to becoming efficient in a new school costs me academic and social ease.

Versailles, France.

Versailles, France.

2) I’ve had to say goodbye to dozens of friends. Over a dozen times.  This is just hard. It’s gotten easier to keep in touch via FB and Skype, but still virtual’s not the same.  They just aren’t here with me. This repeated separation makes it harder to invest in relationships. I always know either I or they will eventually be leaving. OR, I feel I have to invest in relationships super quickly, because I never know how much time I’ll have. In my current school where there’s only a 7% turnover in the student body from year to year, I’m one of the few who hasn’t been here for most of my education, even all 12 years. That’s danged hard to penetrate.

Croissy-sur Seine, France

Croissy-sur-Seine, France

3) It’s so hard to get academic traction. When you’re not certain how long you’re going to stay in a country, it’s hard to plan on your academic curriculum.  When you can’t plan, you can’t count on completing courses or taking them through their end with certain teachers, then you also can’t commit to being around the next year for certain activities. This was so hard when we moved from Singapore, because I’d just made real strides in the theater department, had a fabulous French instructor, was cruising in Mandarin, and then we suddenly left. I’d banked on being  heavily involved in theater, French and Mandarin the next year. There’s hardly a theater department where I am now. And now I’m the one who helps tutor Mandarin.

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

4) Sometimes others hold back from investing in a friendship with you because they know you’ll be leaving anyway. I’ve heard this in church and school, that others who are locals expect we’ll leave soon anyway, and so why get close? Because of this, they sometimes keep their distance.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

5) Sometimes I question my identity. Am I American? European? International?  Who am I? I don’t know the first  thing about American TV, football, baseball, even a lot of the daily slang. But I carry a US passport and English is my mother tongue.  Where do I fit in, and where can I count on being understood? Where will my life experiences be valued and not criticized or pigeonholed? Some people who’ve never lived internationally assume all sorts of things about this “luxurious”, “pampered”, “exotic” lifestyle, and they also question your patriotism. (Once, I had to explain to a kid that an expatriate was not an ex-patriot. Yeah, like that was cool.)

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

6) Unlike kids who grow up their whole lives in one place, I struggle to advance and establish myself in extra curricular activities. For example, coaches or instructors or music teachers need to have known you from the year before in order to put you on a team or cast you in the play or in the orchestra.  I’ve been the new kid so much, I get passed up and can’t compete with the ones who’ve established themselves with coaches and mentors over years.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

7) Depending on where you go to University, you might get slammed with major culture shock. I remember how disoriented Claire [my older sister] was her first year at university.  She had a great time eventually, but she talked about always feeling she was looking at the experience from the outside-in. There were attitudes and even language usage she did not “get” at all.  After a year, thanks to a great roommate and some key professors, she had a positive experience. I wonder what the adjustment will be like for me.

Nesøya, Norge

Nesøya, Norge

8) You miss on certain maturation experiences growing up like this. Because I don’t live in one place, I can’t apply for summer jobs in the place in the US where I usually vacation only three weeks per year, so I don’t learn about that kind of responsibility like punching a time card, taking orders, reporting to a boss, earning and saving money. I won’t have  a driver’s license until way after the normal US kid has his, so sometimes when I visit the US I feel less mature than all those kids who’ve been driving and holding down jobs since they were 16. Some even get cars when they’re 16! That’s completely unthinkable in my world. (Getting a license in Europe takes private schooling, loads of money, and buying a car is many times more expensive that doing so in the US.)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton's 16th birthday)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton’s 16th birthday)

Dancing through the night of his Sweet Sixteen, with the Maasai

Dancing with the Maasai through the night of his Sweet Sixteen

9) My life experiences – learning languages, working through serial major changes, gaining cultural fluency, whatever– don’t necessarily translate into high college entrance exam scores. And my schools grade much much harder than most public US schools do. The classes are literally like college classes, and getting an “A” is rare, even for top students. What I’ve spent a lot of energy managing has at times been a distraction from the basics of schooling. It takes a lot of work just figuring out your life again after moving to a new country – finding the right teachers, getting the right group of friends, I’ve done math in three different academic styles with their different approaches to graphing stuff, even – and when you slap on top of that the fact that you’re being schooled in a whole new language, it’s…Well it’s just so much more complicated and demanding.  But you can’t explain all that on the SAT.

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

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Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

10)My major loss is a secret to nearly everyone I know now.  When I was 11 years old I lost my oldest brother, Parker. I was there in the ICU when he took his last breath.  This huge part of who I am was unknown to the kids at the German school I walked into 2 weeks after my brother’s funeral. Ever since then, I’ve carried this loss with me, always among strangers. That is one of the hardest things in my life, and it hurts me every day in some way, even today, almost six years later.

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

It’s just so hard when the people all around you don’t know your story. I think sometimes about other kids who’ve lived in one place and who’ve lost favorite siblings, and what it must be like to just know that people around you know. They understand things about you that are the very core of who you are.  I’m so jealous of that. This thing that’s enormous for me is hidden from everyone in my surroundings. I hate that. An example: This year (another new school, right?), my English teacher announced a surprise writing assignment that had to do with death.  I totally choked. I froze and couldn’t even think straight.  I felt fuzzy and nauseated.  Normally, I’m a really strong writer – it’s my gift, many teachers say – but I went totally blank and cold.  I had to leave the room. Who can blame my teacher, though?

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Like who can blame the biology teacher that first month Claire [my older sister] arrived at our new school in Germany? He held this big class-long debate on the ethical implications of sustaining life on a ventilator when a patient is in a deep coma. The debate went on and on, with students (who didn’t know Claire or her story) really getting into it. Didn’t Claire have to run out of the class, Mom, and throw up in the closest bathroom?

Yeah. Right. She did. You can say there are hard aspects.

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Our two children still at home.

Our two children still at home.

It was February when I finally stored away my holiday greeting cards this year. I’d read through them a couple of times, mesmerized by the tokens of those distant, stable lifestyles my children will never know.  I took a breath. I put them away.  And just when that parquet entry floor began feeling a little sturdier beneath my feet, I discovered that what I’d thought were normal adolescent blips, were actually signs that my boys were having significant (read: what have we done moving our kids here?!) adjustment issues. These concerns shook our world so much, my entry parquet floor practically sprouted grooves.

I think I’ll have to write a sequel to Global Mom: A Memoir.

TICK Mom: A Confession

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What else could you add to this list of costs of a TICK lifestyle?

What suggestions would you make to a TICK like Dalton?

What suggestions would you make to the parent of a TICK?

Do any of these costs surprise you? What do they reveal about what we know or don’t know about another’s life?