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Riveting Expat Reads: Expat Teens Talk, With Much to Say

As a writer and an expat, I like to keep abreast of the current literature in the field. The field itself is relatively small, which is why new arrivals are long awaited and eagerly devoured.

Recently I had the opportunity to read and review Expat Teens Talk: Peers, Parents and Professionals Offer Support, Advice and Solutions in Response to Expat Life Challenges as Shared by Expat Teens, written by Dr. Lisa Pittman and Diana Smits (Summertime Publishing, 2012).

Practicing Psychologist Lisa Pittman moved overseas four years ago to Singapore where she met up with future co-author Educational Therapist Diana Smits. Smits is an expat old hand and mother of three teenaged Third Culture Kids*. Between them they have significant experience and insight into TCK teens, what they’re thinking and what they’ve got to say.

Turns out it’s quite a bit.

I really like the premise of this book. They talked with TCK teens directly, and share their stories in their own language. At times that language can seem cliched or overly cheery, and then suddently it veers into reflective and heartwrenching. As the mother of two expat teens, I recognized the full array of word choice and the feelings behind them.

Sometimes these words are tough to read:

‘Being an expat teen means you have more than one home’

‘You know you’re an expat teen when the answer to ‘where is home?’ is ‘I don’t know’

‘At times I genuinely thought I was depressed/suicidal because I felt so lost in a world so different from the one I knew’

‘I don’t have anyone to talk to and I feel alone…one second I’m so angry and the next I’m crying’

‘I find it very difficult to constantly say goodbye. Teachers, friends, people you know are always leaving…people and relationships seem to be temporary in expat life’

A major strength of this book is that it accurately reflects the wide range of emotions experienced by these TCK teens, and Pittman and Smits are to be lauded for not shying away from the tough discussions about the more negative feelings expressed. It is a simple truth that there are pros and cons to growing up globally, and this book does well in laying it all out there for examination.

Pittman and Smits interviewed many teens, teasing out chapters addressing the issues that they grapple with: having mixed feelings about expat life; the challenges of moving into a new country/culture and the pain and grief when leaving another; unreasonable expectations by parents, teachers and friends; family and peer relationships; the questions of ‘home’ and identity; fitting in; bullying; inappropriate and risky behaviors such as alcohol, drugs, premarital sex; confronting adulthood, repatriation and gaining perspective looking back on their TCK experiences.

Pittman and Smits went further, adding the insights and suggestions of parents and then of professionals who work with and care about TCKs. No one group had a lock on good ideas and best practices; I found nuggets of wisdom throughout. And while sometimes responses overlapped or were seemingly redundant, I think it’s important to remember that different people respond to different phrasing.

One minor suggestion would be to have ensured that the tone of the teen quote ending each chapter matched the feel of the issue under discussion; in a few instances the quotation was so peppy as to be a little jarring after dealing with a particularly difficult and emotional topic.

My second minor wish is that Pittman and Smits had included in their references some of the terrific TCK-specific websites available such as www.denizenmag.com and www.TCKID.com  and www.TCKWorld.com as well as some of the best expat websites that speak to TCK issues such as www.internationalfamilytransitions.com and Families in Global Transition www.FIGT.org

There are also several excellent blogs written by and about TCKs, including www.homekeepsmoving.blogspot.com, www.jsimens.com and one just down the road from me here in the Netherlands: www.drieculturen.blogspot.com  (Three Cultures). To this we can now add www.expatteenstalk.blogspot.com.

That said, I think Expat Teens Talk is a well-written, balanced, honest look at how some TCKs really feel. It’s a wonderful resource to read and share with an expat teen, serving as a good starting point from which to begin the conversation.

If you’re interested, here’s my review of the book for Xpat.nl near the bottom with newer reviews.

*There are several definitions floating around as to what constitutes a Third Culture Kid. I believe the most accurate and indeed illuminating is that offered by Ruth Van Reken and the late David C. Pollock in their groundbreaking book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (originally published in 1999 and updated as recently as 2009):

‘A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.’

A common version of the definition, that the third culture is the intersection of an child’s ‘home’ and ‘current’ cultures, is itself a misperception of Pollock and Van Reken’s definition; it misses the point entirely that the TCKs’ third culture is in fact the realm of internationally raised cross-cultural peers with whom they relate most, regardless of where each has lived.

 

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