Painting Pictures: When an ATCK Chooses a Life Overseas

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Painting Pictures: When an ATCK Chooses a Life Overseas

painting pictures1Today’s Painting Pictures post is by Laura Campbell. I love the way she is able to share her story honestly, including the pride that sometimes comes with being a TCK and how surprised she was to experience culture shock as an adult. Her words highlight an important issue for TCKs who choose to live overseas – the experience as an adult is not the same as it was as a child. And I am thrilled because (spoiler alert) next week’s post is about an ATCK who chooses not to live overseas. A beautiful and unplanned pairing of pieces. I’m especially interested in hearing your responses to Laura’s final questions.

When an ATCK Chooses a Life Overseas

I was born in the Nairobi Hospital in 1977 and spent my entire childhood in Kenya, with the exception of brief trips back to the United States. I always knew I was a “missionary kid,” a term that did little more than describe what my parents did. What I didn’t know was that I was also a “TCK,” a term that better explains who I am as a result of my overseas upbringing.

I graduated from Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi in 1995. At the time, Dave Pollack was coming to Rosslyn every year to do a weekend Reentry Seminar for the graduating seniors. This is where I first heard the term TCK, where I first learned why I am the way I am, and why there will never be an easy answer to “Where are you from?” The unique advantages that TCK’s have and the unique challenges they face were broken down, and my classmates and I were given many useful coping tips as we prepared to embark on our journeys back to our passport countries. I learned about the process of reentry and how to say goodbye in a healthy way. I still go back to Dave’s concept of building a RAFT (introduced to me at the seminar and explained further in his book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds) when I am facing a big transition.

I had an easy reentry experience, which I attribute in part to the preparation I received at the Reentry Seminar. Of course, there were other factors: I went to a small college where I was a face, not just a number; I plugged into a church right away; I had grandparents living in the area who were my home away from home. But I adjusted well, and fairly easily… so easily, in fact, that I began to wonder if culture shock and reentry shock were just way overrated. I assumed that they were basically the same thing. I was wrong, and I was about to find out just how wrong I was!

I was a senior in college and planning my wedding when my fiancé brought up the idea of going to work in Japan as English teachers for a few years. I blithely agreed, thinking “I’ve got this living overseas thing down. After all, I grew up abroad. I’ve gone through reentry and it wasn’t that bad. This will be a piece of cake.” Looking back now, I can see the absolute arrogance in my assumption that I wouldn’t experience culture shock, or that if I did, it would be mild or similar to what I had already gone through with reentry.

Two months after our wedding, we moved to Japan. My first six months there were not pretty. I hated it; I was miserable; my poor husband didn’t know what to do with me or how to help me cope. I cried on the phone to my mom one day, and after listening to me whine for awhile, she gently pointed out that I was experiencing culture shock. I was mad. “I am not!” I said vehemently. But I instantly realized, deep down, that she was right. And that was the beginning of my awakening to some very important truths about myself as a TCK now living the globally nomadic lifestyle as an adult.

Enjoying the plum blossoms with Oka-san, my “Japanese mother”

Enjoying the plum blossoms with Oka-san, my “Japanese mother”

  1. Growing up overseas is a different experience than choosing to live and work overseas as an adult. I had a pretty idyllic childhood – I played with my friends, I swam, I rode my bike, I went to school and church, we visited game parks and vacationed on the beautiful white sands of the Kenyan coast. I was sheltered from things like team conflicts, headaches with official paperwork, and political unrest, all things you have to deal with when you are an adult living overseas. My parents don’t remember Kenya through the same rose-colored glasses. Listening to them tell stories now, I begin to realize how different our realities were.
  2. Growing up overseas does not insulate one against culture shock. One of the oft-touted characteristics of TCK’s is their adaptability; however, adaptability does not necessari mean instantaneous adjustment. Since Japan, we have lived in Portugal, the U.S., and now Ecuador, and each time we move to a new country, I find myself struggling to learn and adapt during those first few months. It’s an uncomfortable period. I don’t know that it has gotten easier with practice, but I do know what to expect now, as opposed to those first few months in Japan.
  3. Growing up overseas does not mean you will instantly love every new country. Every country is different! Japan was nothing like what I knew of either Kenya or the U.S. The culture was unlike anything I had been exposed to before. English was not widely spoken, and as I spoke almost no Japanese when we first arrived, I was, for the first time in my life, unable to communicate, and also basically illiterate. Because I loved growing up in Kenya, I assumed I would fall in love with Japan right away, and when I didn’t, when I actually found myself hating it, I wondered what was wrong with me. (I eventually came to love Japan, and it is a part of my heart now, just as all the other places we have lived through the years, but it took time.) I have learned to be patient with myself, to give myself time to attach to a new place, and also the permission to dislike certain things about it.

I am an ATCK who chose a life overseas, and in the beginning, it was difficult. More difficult than I expected or imagined. My experience is by no means universal. I know many TCK’s who had very rocky reentry experiences. And many of them couldn’t wait to get back overseas and adapted well and quickly to the adult expat life. I remember reading once that expats who adjust easily to their foreign culture have a more difficult time coming home. I wonder if the same could be said for TCK’s? I wonder if the TCK’s who adjust easily to their “passport country” have a more difficult time when moving back overseas? And vice versa?

If you are an ATCK who chose a life overseas, what has been your experience? Do you think there is a connection between your reentry experience and your adjustment to life as an adult expat?

Laura Campbell is a missionary-kid turned missionary. She was born and grew up in Kenya and as an adult has lived in the United States, Japan, Portugal, and now calls Ecuador home. She is married to Rusty and is raising three TCK’s of her own, each one born on a different continent! Follow Laura via her family blog, The Campbell Chronicles or her Writing Project 365 blog


  1. Marilyn Gardner August 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    Excellent article. So relate with this. When I arrived in Cairo I was shocked that it wasn’t more like Pakistan. We were sick for 6 weeks because of pollution and my Urdu did not work in an Arabic speaking country…duh. It was a bit of a crisis for this arrogant ATCK who thought she could go anywhere or do anything. I think your 3 points are right on and should be part of orientation for any TCK that chooses as an adult to go overseas to work. I remember one of my brothers returning to Pakistan and getting so frustrated with the bureaucracy and my dad looking at him and saying “It’s always been this way” we just didn’t know it because we were kids. Facing life overseas as an adult is a different journey all together. Thank you for this post.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones August 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm - Reply

      I think about this very thing with my kids too. They are learning some of it with travel to school between countries, but I don’t even know how to navigate everything, my husband does such a good job, so of course they won’t see that side of life either. Unless we’re intentional to teach them somehow I guess.

    • Laura August 14, 2013 at 2:16 am - Reply

      Thank you, Marilyn. I think you make an excellent point about orientation for TCK’s returning to live overseas as adults. There are different issues that we face and need to be aware of than there are for people who are moving overseas for the first time. Your comment about the bureaucracy also made me laugh… I had pretty much the exact same conversation with my own parents when we were living in Japan! I said, “I don’t remember Kenya being this bad,” and my mom actually laughed at me! Rose colored glasses much?

  2. richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad August 13, 2013 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    i can’t answer Laura’s questions – at least not from the atck perspective. i can say that going overseas as a young single ready for an adventure and going to the mission field as a young mama just hoping to help her family survive and adjust were two very different experiences… so it is no stretch of the imagination to recognize that the perspective with which one goes overseas is going to impact their experience. i think this post brings up some really good points for parents raising tcks… especially those of us with tcks beginning to move into this reality as i type.

    we don’t want to burst their bubbles… but at the same time, as our children grow up they also need to grow into the reality of what living overseas means and all that entails. and i think there are some ways we can proactively parent for that… just as we would if we were living with our children in our home countries – where we work to prepare them for adult responsibilities. we may just have to be a bit more creative overseas. 🙂

    great post, laura. thanks for sharing your story.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones August 13, 2013 at 7:22 pm - Reply

      Good comparison Richelle between being a younger single and then being an older mother and wife. I’ve only been overseas as mother/wife so don’t have anything to compare to but I imagine it to be quite different. Good words too about being a proactive parent. I need to think about that, ways to train our kids here that are unique.

    • Laura August 14, 2013 at 2:25 am - Reply

      Thank you, Richelle. I also like your comparison between singles and moms with young kids. My best friend, who I grew up with in Kenya, mentioned that it was quite a surprise to find out as an adult that her mom worried daily for her and her siblings’ safety. As a child, she was oblivious to the dangers and thought of Kenya as a giant playground. Now, as a mom herself, she says she begins to understand. I remember as a kid being excited over coup-threats and riot-days because it meant a day off of school! It never occurred to me that these were probably not good things! On the other hand, I’m sure our parents privately worried themselves sick about the tense political situations.

  3. Ute Limacher August 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much for this excellent post! I totally agree with your 3 points and think, as Marilyn, that they should be included in “guidelines” for ATCK’s! – When I got back to Italy as an adult, I had to face the typical bureaucracy, my parents didn’t know (they were “privileged” expats when they moved to Italy in the late fifties). It was not a real shock, but it took me a while (2 months…) to get used to the fact that everything was very different, also at work etc. Italy is the country I grew up in (not my passport country, I haven’t experienced life there yet, and I don’t think I want to try…). Anyway, it is a very important aspect that the experience we make as a TCK (or expat or global-nomad) child is very different from the ones we make as adults. But I would also differenciate for adults: maybe it’s easier if you are working? Isn’t it even more difficult if you are a “trailing spouse”? And it’s even more complicated if you move to a place that is culturally very different compared to the places you used to live before AND you have children… – I’m really glad that you wrote this because I’m considering to write something about ATCK’s and the way they perceive movings when they’re adult. It’s not easier, it’s different. But what exactly makes it different depends on your experience, your character, your expectations and the status you have in the new place (for example some don’t have working permission or live in compounds etc.).

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones August 13, 2013 at 7:24 pm - Reply

      So true that every situation is unique. It is hard not to compare too, or not to speak the ‘language’ or your particular niche when among other expats, you know? I try to do a lot of listening and I hear such vastly differing stories from diplomats, aid workers, military, businesspeople, religious people, the ones working vs the training spouse…I sometimes feel like that trailing spouse and struggle to find a way to make an authentic contribution here. Some overlap of course, but also so unique. Sorry, babbling here, and repeating a lot of what has already been said, but this is something I’m fascinated by.

    • Laura August 14, 2013 at 2:36 am - Reply

      Thank you for your comment! I have often wondered myself what my experience would have been had I moved back to Africa (which was somewhat familiar to me) rather than Japan (which was different in pretty much every way from where I had grown up). I think certain things MIGHT have been easier, but at the same time, I think my biggest problem when I moved back overseas for the first time as an adult was that I was totally unprepared for culture shock and actually thought I would not experience it. So, I’m pretty sure I would have been blind-sided by it either way! I will say that I think there is a lot of truth to your point about the capacity you are in when you go overseas. For me, Japan was mostly before we had kids. I was working, I was involved in ministry and in the culture. Now, in Ecuador, I mostly just stay home with “my brood.” I struggle with feeling like I am not involved, not contributing in a meaningful way to the ministry… even finding opportunities to practice my Spanish is a challenge. So, yes, I think it does make a difference!

  4. Kylie N August 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    I’m barely an ATCK (20 years old and going into my senior year of college), but for five or six years I’ve been prayerfully planning/dreaming of going back overseas for vocational ministry (Bible translation in South Asia). I recently got back from an internship in South Asia, and before going on that internship, I was extremely curious about how I would face culture shock again as an adult. I knew some things would remind me of where I grew up (West Africa), and some wouldn’t. My wounds from leaving West Africa five years prior had finally healed, but would this trip open them up again? What can an ATCK expect from culture shock when going to a country other than the one they grew up in? All these questions, and more, were spinning around in my head! I was very disappointed to not find more materials, articles, research, surveys, anything, about the topic, so I went in “blindly” and with a lot of prayer.

    To my great surprise, I experienced very little culture shock. Granted, I was there for three months only, and I was with a family, and the dad was an anthropologist, so I had all that going for me, but I pretty much sailed through those 3 months. “Honeymoon phase,” despite being an MK and seeing deeper into the culture through the eyes of an anthropologist? Probably. The environment reminded me a lot more of Africa than I had anticipated (I’m convinced there are many similarities between third world countries, no matter where they are), but a lot of things were indeed different; I just somehow avoided culture shock. And also reverse culture shock, when we got back. Sure, there were a few habits I found myself doing and then laughed at, but that’s about it.

    My experience is probably an anomaly, and that internship in South Asia was sort of halfway between an MK experience an a true adult expat experience, but it was very interesting to me. I refuse to let it lead me to believe that I’m immune to culture shock, though! I guess I’ll just remain curious about what I’ll go through when I move overseas “officially” in a few years. 🙂

    I love your Painting Pictures series, by the way. That song by Sara Groves was one of my favorite songs for many years, and it helped me through a huge amount of pain and heartache. I’d be very interested to read more about ATCKs and adult culture shock!

    • Laura August 14, 2013 at 2:44 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing your story, Kylie. I pray God’s blessing on your future, wherever he may lead you. I think just being AWARE of some of the issues you may face as an ATCK returning overseas is really half the battle. I wish I had been able to read a post like this before I went to Japan. It took me years and several different countries to figure it all out! Oh, I also totally agree with you about there being similarities between 3rd world countries, no matter where they are. When we traveled to China while living in Japan, I was surprised at how piercingly it reminded me of Africa (sorry, I know it’s not PC to refer to China as 3rd world, but we were mostly in rural China, which is a different world than the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai).

      • Kylie N November 19, 2013 at 6:50 am - Reply

        Hi Laura – I know, this reply is about 3 months late! Thank you very much for your comments; I appreciate them! I also had a question for you.

        As I mentioned above, I’m a senior in college, and shortly after this post, I began working on my senior research paper. The topic I chose, based on previous observations I had made and then sparked again by your post, was about ATCKs returning to the mission field, and how they experience culture shock. As the semester comes to a close, and I’m wrapping up my paper, I decided I was unsatisfied with the introduction to the paper. I was wondering, would it be alright with you if I mentioned (and adequately cited) your blog post as part of the reason for researching the topic? It would be in the introduction and I would likely be sharing the bare basics of your story (ATCK returning overseas, not necessarily expecting culture shock) and perhaps one quote – “Growing up overseas does not insulate one against culture shock” (which was certainly consistent with my findings in a formal survey of about 30 ATCKs).

        If you would prefer I didn’t use it, though, that is perfectly fine, and I would understand completely 🙂 I just figured it couldn’t hurt to check. If you’re interested, I would also be perfectly willing to send you a copy of the paper when it is completed.

        – Kylie

        • Laura January 6, 2014 at 11:48 pm - Reply

          Kylie — I’m so sorry, I just now saw this comment. I’m not sure if you are still working on your paper or if you’ve already turned it in, but of course, you are welcome to use or quote any part of this post. Sorry for just now getting back to you! Blessings — Laura

  5. […] for now, of staying put. I love the way this parallels last week’s post by Jenni Gate: When an ATCK Chooses a Life Overseas. Clara somehow manages to write with an appreciation for both choices with wisdom, grace, and […]

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