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What I Learned: Raising a Special Needs Third Culture Kid

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (there is one more scheduled post coming up and then, unless I hear from you, the series will close, but if you have an essay in the future that you feel might be a good fit, feel free to contact me).

Today’s What I Learned post comes from MaDonna Maurer (who wrote about being married to a TCK for the Painting Pictures series), writing about raising a daughter with mental and physical disabilities in Taiwan. Can I just say how much I love this post?

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Diversity seems to flow easily inside the doors of an international school. Many have called these walled-establishments little United Nations. It’s no wonder they have this description. Once you step through the doors you see and hear the various cultures that make up our world. The expat community lends itself to diversity, but once you exit what I will call the “expat bubble” you’ll discover that the only diversity you may find is yourself.

I have found this to be true here in Taiwan. Among the expat community I know how to float in and out of conversations. I understand the lingo, the hardships, and the coming and goings of the community. Learning how to function in the community of the culture you are living in can take some time, especially if you have a child with special needs.

My daughter was diagnosed when she was ten-months old with Cri-du-Chat Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes mental and physical disabilities. Along with the diagnosis, she was given a feeding tube – overnight we became a different family. We were already living in mainland China, and amazingly we were encouraged by all the health professionals and family to return. After a few years we moved to Taipei where she would have better access to therapy. Moving to Taipei, though still took time to adjust, was a smoother transition just because of the healthcare system.

My daughter is ten-years old now and no longer has a feeding tube. We still travel between Taiwan and Germany or Taiwan and the US, depending on the year. In these ten years I have learned a few things about traveling with a child with special needs and about life in general.

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1. I am not alone. First, we are not the only people that live overseas with a child with special needs. There are others. Second, which isn’t too surprising, but since the diagnosis it seems that I just “see” others with special needs. I know they were there before, but I believe that God has made me more aware – especially here in Asia where disability is more often hidden.

2. Give Grace I know how easy it is to be offended by certain words and odd looks. I know how angry I can get by comments made about someone with special needs. I can become that protective mama bear ready to strike out at anyone – but God has been teaching me (notice, I’m still learning!) to give grace. Sometimes that is a silent prayer, other times it is quietly in love telling the person what their words mean. I’ve found that most have no clue and are truly apologetic for it. I’ve also found that some questions are just purely that: a question. They just want to know, but didn’t phrase it quite right (sometimes this is a culture-clash). I’m learning to answer with grace. Do I get it right every time? No, but I’m in the process of it…

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3. The beauty of a smile Having someone say hello to my daughter and to talk to her, not me, is a HUGE gift. I’ve come to realize that people with special needs want to be talked to directly – even if they can’t respond back. When we stop and speak (just say Hi!) to someone with special needs we recognize that they are human – not just a statue that takes up space. And the impact you have on the parent by that small act of kindness speaks volumes. I know from experience.

4. Churches are empty The most noticeable issue I see in most churches is what I don’t see. I don’t see too many people with special needs in church. This is something I’ve seen in every country I’ve visited. Why is this? I don’t have a researched answer, but from my experience it seems that people do not know what to do with my family. They want to help, but not sure how. They feel unqualified to teach a child with special needs. The congregation may feel that the person is too disruptive…read #3 again, they are fearfully and wonderfully made, too (Ps. 139:14)!

Diversity is so much more than the color of ones skin or the various cultures of the world. As I’m living this expat life, I’m learning more about what that means as a family with disabilities. I could easily say that my daughter is teaching me, but really it is God teaching me through her about the special needs community and my response to his diverse world.

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maDonna MaurerYou can read more from MaDonna Maurer on her blog www.raisingtcks.com and find her on Twitter 

Painting Pictures: What I Learned from My TCK Husband

risingToday’s Painting Pictures post comes from MaDonna Maurer (who can only be amazing because I have Maurer in-laws and Maurer writing friends, its a solid name). This is a beautiful look at the realities of being married to a TCK and I think her last line might be one of the most important sentences in this entire series. Because it is all about relationship: being a TCK or raising one or loving one.

(here is a fun, related link at Denizen: So you think you’ve met (married?) a TCK)

What I Learned from My Third Culture Kid Husband

I’m a monoculture kid married to a third-culture kid.

I met Uwe while working in China. His name and passport were German, but his English accent was very American. He was sort of German, but not really. His idea of personal space was more like the Chinese. I remember before we dated, a packed 10-hour train ride, where I was thinking,This guy is way too close.” I couldn’t figure out why he seemed to be oblivious to this personal space dilemma I was having. I soon discovered that he grew up in Taiwan and attended an American school for most of his childhood. That little information explained some, but not everything. At that time I was fairly new to the TCK world.china1

After a few months of dating seriously I had the opportunity to attend a few TCK seminars led by the late David Pollock. I decided to attend them all when Uwe informed me that through David’s stories I’d really “get him.” I took notes like a serious student preparing for a final. I knew our differences were different and that could affect our relationship, but I wasn’t worried until David shared examples of relationships and marriages between monoculture and third-culture people.

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His examples seemed to never really have a “happy-ever-after” ending. One person was always unhappy, miserable, or wanted out. This terrified me because we had just begun to discuss marriage. The question boomed in my head, “Is this relationship doomed?”

Fortunately, David came to our school and I had the opportunity to meet with him personally. I asked David if he thought this relationship had any chance of success. I loved his answer. It wasn’t magical, or inspiring – just truthful. He smiled and said, Any marriage takes work from both sides. If you work at your relationship, then your marriage will be successful. I remember sighing with relief because I really liked this guy I was dating. I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.

We’ve been married now for 14 years and I can attest that David’s words are true. Marriage is work. I’ll just add that it is sometimes hard work, but worth every effort that is put into it. I’ve learned that our differences are sometimes due to our background and sometimes it simply is because I’m a woman and he is a man. Though we think differently, I have learned SO much from him regarding living overseas, teaching TCKs and raising our own TCKs.

family photoI’ve learned that TCKs are tight. What I mean is they connect really fast. Once a TCK finds out the other person is a TCK, they immediately see if they know any of the same people. They freely talk of where they grew up and where they went to school. It’s not a competition or making an impression – it’s a connection. And I’ve found that being married to one, I get the same treatment, sort of like a VIP card. I’ve come to realize that this “club” isn’t selective, it’s just that they understand each other at a level that most mono-cultural people can’t.

I’ve learned that TCKs are individuals. I’ve learned that you can’t put a TCK in a box and neatly label them. Uwe has many of the characteristics of a TCK, but he doesn’t possess them all. Though his siblings have experienced many of the same circumstances, they don’t possess the same characteristics. This is true for most families, whether monoculture or third-culture. People just don’t react exactly the same because personalities are different. Conferences, books, and articles about TCKs are all good, but one must remember that a TCK is an individual. And to really get to know the individual, one must spend time with that person.

I’ve learned that TCKs are adaptable. I think this is the most important thing I’ve learned, that I can’t file his personality, character qualities and habits into cultural files. I can’t say he does a certain thing because that part of him is German, or Chinese, or even American. He does have a bit of all three cultures that make up his personality, but I can’t put them into files. It is like taking three colors of clay and kneading them together until a new color has been made. This new color can’t be unmixed. It’s very much like the poem by Ruth Goring called, “I Am Green”

“one life is navy blue

one life is sunshine yellow

I am green.”

I still read about TCKs because we are now raising three of our own. My husband has experiential wisdom about leaving, grieving, arriving and TCK life in general, but he will agree with me on this: that we all need to continue to study and learn from each other; that the most important part is to remember that the TCK is an individual. Each life, whether monoculture or third culture, is like a beautiful painting that can only be truly appreciated by taking time to get to know the individual.

MaDonna Maurer is currently living in Taiwan with what she calls her “fusion family.” When she’s not teaching, taking her daughter with special needs to therapy class, or writing she helps her husband with Taiwan Sunshine, a nonprofit for families of children with special needs. She has become a firm believer that cold Wulong Green tea is the best afternoon drink. You can find her writing at raisingtcks.com and follow on twitter.