My expat guest this week is Tanya Crossman an Australian who lives in Beijing, China. Tanya has written an interesting book about the impact, positive and negative, on children growing up overseas. Here she tells us a bit about her experiences as an expat.
8 year-old Tanya holding a baby wombat in Australia.
I spent most of my childhood as a local in Australia, and most of my adulthood as an expatriate in China (with time in the US and Cambodia along the way). I recently spent three years in Australia, riding the insane wave that is repatriation after 11 years away. Then I married an American TCK* and moved back to Beijing. (* TCK = Third Culture Kid, a term applied to children raised outside their passport countries. First Culture refers to countries in which a child has legal standing (passport country); Second Culture refers to any culture the child meaningfully interacts with through residence or heritage; the Third Culture refers to their shared childhood experiences of growing up in between countries and cultures.)
Now I’m experiencing life as a strange mixture of foreign and familiar, while rediscovering what I love about this city. Somewhere in the middle, I began mentoring teenage and young adult TCKs. Ten years later I wrote a book explaining the impact of an international childhood, and how TCKs feel about their lives. My main focus now is equipping carers of TCKs (parents and teachers, in particular) to better support the young people they work with.
That is the short explanation of my expatriate experience. The long story is, well, much longer. Today I’m meditating on my first year in China, and how that set me up for all that was to come. Living overseas during my twenties had a huge impact on my life’s direction – sending me places I could never have imagined.
At the Great Wall of China
This happened in large part because of the incredible diversity of people I met and befriended. I had a reasonably multi-cultural group of friends growing up in Australia, and I spent two years attending high school in the US. Yet I had never spent time with such varied groups of people – people from different countries, cultures, languages, current socio-economic positions and backgrounds, and separate assumptions about the world.
Living in Beijing I met people from literally all over the world. Even my Chinese friends came from all over the country. My friends included exchange students, post-grads, teachers, business people, musicians, diplomats, doctors, asylum seekers, pastors, and more. They came from a vast range of social and educational backgrounds and incomes. Some were barely scraping by, others had money to burn.
A diverse group of friends, from six continents: Australia, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Guyana, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Sierra Leone, Singapore, UK, and USA.
Sometimes I was the odd one out – the only one of a different nationality, the only one who didn’t speak the main language around the table, the only one without disposable income, the only one with any income, the one with either the most liberal or the most conservative views. Other times I was in the majority – whether of ethnicity, language, values, or income. The extraordinary diversity among the people I met and shared life with affected me in many ways. The ethnic nuances and contrasts challenged my ideas about the world – what is right, desirable, and permissible.
Diversity of Beauty
Diversity changed my understanding of beauty – and my self-perception. It became very clear to me that beauty standards are utterly arbitrary – there is no one way to be beautiful. It seems like a simple thing, but I had never seen it so clearly demonstrated in practice.
In Beijing I had girlfriends from literally six continents with all different skin colours, hair colours, body shapes, and attitudes. They also grew up absorbing beauty standards very dissimilar to my own. It was literally impossible for us all to be ‘right’ about what was truly beautiful. Hearing those unconsciously accepted ‘truths’ from their lips made me more conscious of the ‘truths’ I had learned to speak over myself. Not only that, but I looked at these women who I knew were truly beautiful and realized that there was no common pool of features they all had – beauty had to be something less concrete than that. Beauty had to be something far less exclusive than any of us inherently believed when we looked in the mirror.
Diversity of Values
Diversity challenged my values. It led me to consciously examine beliefs I’d taken for granted. I suspect this happens to many people in their twenties anyway – when you move outside your family, your local circles, you are bound to run into people with at least slightly different values. In Beijing, the divergence was amazing.
At the ancient Temple of Heaven in Beijing
Around almost every table were people with vastly different views and values on just about everything. I saw people discuss (and argue) their differences of opinion in disparate ways. Most importantly, I saw my own values critiqued. I began to see how my actions might appear from the outside. I began to recognize blind spots in Australian culture, and flaws in my personal approach to life.
There were also friends who lived out virtues I theoretically appreciated, but hadn’t seen so well practiced before. People who were relentlessly joyful, kind, or gracious. People who skillfully balanced both ambition and generosity, both achievement and humility. Watching and listening and considering differences in the way people chose to act and interact with each other was a valuable education.
Diversity of Lifestyles
I came to Beijing with a one year study program, fully intending that a year later I would return to Australia and find a graduate position in some sort of multinational company. My view of what was possible was quite narrow. Diversity changed my ideas about what I could do with my life – and how I could live it.
Surrounded by people who had chosen very different paths, I realized other directions were possible. They might not have seemed possible in Australia – perhaps they really would not have been possible to me there – but living somewhere else, other options seemed open to me.
I didn’t work out immediately what I wanted to do, but I found in myself a longing to see what else was out there. That feeling was enough to prompt me to extend my stay in Beijing and see what would happen.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Tanya’s book is called “Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century.” It explores the impact international life has on the children – while they live overseas, when they return, and as they mature into adults. This “Third Culture” is described through the personal stories of hundreds of individuals. It is sold both as paperback and ebook by most online booksellers. (Misunderstood can be found on Amazon; see her website for other venues.) Tanya can often be found online, usually on facebook, instagram, or twitter and occasionally at her website.
Many thanks to Tanya for sharing her adventures and insights. Don’t be shy – share your own in the comments below!