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January 30, 2013 8:29 AM   Subscribe

How do people find emotional stability and inner peace when they are not tied down to any particular place? Am I just doomed to feel 'out of place' for the rest of my life? Advice from other 'Third Culture Kids'/people with international careers/etc. sought.

Because of my parents' careers, I grew up moving around the world. Further complicating things, I am an immigrant to a Western nation, although I still primarily identify with my country of origin, despite carrying a different passport.

Maybe because of this background, I feel permanently 'dislocated', without a real hometown or strong roots to any one place. It's not that I feel alienated or uncomfortable all the time, exactly--in fact I feel that my world-traveler childhood has made me much more open and comfortable with very different cultures, cuisines, and traditions. But I still feel sort of internally torn and unstable, and I'm afraid I'm worsening it by seeking even more opportunities to go abroad and pursuing an international career myself. I'm afraid I'll never feel fully at ease or at 'home' in any place and I'm envious of people who have lived in one place their whole lives, even though I'm unsure that I'll personally ever find a place I would like to live in for the rest of my life.

I wrecked myself recently by falling for a guy who very clearly didn't want more than friendship with me, and I realize that I got attached to him partially because I was looking to him for stability: an excuse to move to his country permanently, out of fear that I'll never go back there or that I'll lose the few attachments I have to that country and so on. I realize now that I have to feel at home inside my own self and not seek other people to make me feel stable. But how do I do this? Is the only answer to settle in one place, any place, even though I don't see how that's really possible? Moreover I'm afraid I'll never be able to make truly deep friendships or find a guy I want to marry because even though I make friends very easily, I don't make very deep friendships. I'm good at intimacy to an extent but I think I always withhold from people a little to avoid getting hurt when they or me inevitably move elsewhere. Do other people feel like this? How do people with multi-cultural or other backgrounds similar to mine become more well-adjusted?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
You are me! So frustrating! I have a feeling we'll fight this our whole lives. You don't say how old you are, but it does get easier with age and practice.

When I was 20 or so, I would feel an extreme "must uproot" panic. Back then, I'd actually follow through and move cities every three months like clockwork.

When I was 25 or so, I sought therapy and pushed through the panics, which spaced them out to every six months. I managed to make it for 6 years in the same city—until I freaked out and ran, again.

Fortunately, I moved to New York City. I've found it's the perfect city for a "third culture kid." Want Ecuadorean food from your childhood? No problem. Want shitty chain food that reminds you of high school in the American suburbs? Also no problem. However you happen to identify at the moment, there's a neighborhood for you.

I'm not sure anywhere will ever feel like home, but NYC is as close as I've ever gotten. I'm now 31, have been in New York for 5 years, and no longer feel the need to completely obliterate my life and spontaneously move. The panics are still there, but they've spaced out to about once a year, or year and a half—and I've learned how to power through.

A few tricks that have helped me fight through the panics, throughout the years:

* Therapy to learn how to deepen friendships, which will root you better. (About the inability to make close friends: this stems because you (we) were never given the chance to go deeper with people, because what's the point? You're just moving again soon. Now, it's fear.)

* To start out, move apartments all the time. Try new neighborhoods. But stay in your city.

* After you've done the "switching apartments all the time" thing, and you're comfortable staying put, sell all of your furniture and start over occasionally. It's so freeing, and you're not bombing your life.

* Research your genealogy. This has helped enormously. Fortunately, my family's quite traceable. It's given me a sense of who I am, and where I'm from.

* Volunteer in something that is very integral to your specific city. I don't necessarily mean "feed the homeless," even though that's really great. For example, I volunteered at the New York Tenement Museum, specifically because it deals with the history of the people who lived here before me, and made me feel like a New Yorker.

* You probably didn't have the chance to collect "things." Start now! Don't become a hoarder, but go ahead and ask your grandmother for heirlooms. (after you've finished with the "moving all the time" phase.) Collect weird pieces of your city's ephemera. Or antiques. Frame pictures of your family and friends. Create a sense of your own place.

If I think of anything else, I'll pop back in.

Good luck! I'm really pulling for you (us).
posted by functionequalsform at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

I had a similar childhood. I've found that family and friends--emotional attachments--matter much more than location.

I would suggest changing how you view your friends; that is, not as impermanent members of your life, but as permanent ones. It's very easy to keep yourself aloof when you're always traveling or moving elsewhere, but, as you've recognized, that will never make you happy. By investing in relationships, you are also investing in your future happiness.
posted by tooloudinhere at 9:32 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I realize now that I have to feel at home inside my own self and not seek other people to make me feel stable

This is only partly true. Remember the old saying, "home is where the heart is"? Expand on this a little - home is where the security is, the comfort, the love. Where do your friends live? Where are there landmarks which have special meaning to you? A friend of mine with a very multicultural upbringing said to me that home is wherever his mother is - it doesn't have to be a fixed location.

I think I always withhold from people a little to avoid getting hurt when they or me inevitably move elsewhere

let go of this fear, and know that if you put your all into friendships, no time or space can end them. I have friends who live in different cities, my family too all live a long way away. But with all of these people, I could not see them for a year, and yet there they are, changed but the same. For me, home is where they are, so I never need to worry about not having one.

But like you observed - trying to get someone else to give you stability is rarely going to work. You have to build your own home, and you can do this through love and friendship, I think. I'm envious of your many, many places that it sounds as if you could call home if you wished :)
posted by greenish at 9:32 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

The beauty of your situation is that you can make your home wherever YOU want it to be. I'm kind of stuck where I am because all my family live around here and I don't want to be far away from them, so the thought of going somewhere I really like and making it my home is just a thought I don't entertain. I envy people who have the courage to pick up and say, "I'm moving to xyz because it is a place I would really like to live." I hate the cold snowy winters and the hot humid summers of southeastern Pennsylvania, but this is where all the people I love are, and I don't have a lot of money to travel home for holidays and special occasions, so I stay put.

My advice is to make the most of your situation - you are in charge! As a world traveler, pick a place YOU really like and could see yourself calling it home, maybe somewhere where you would like to raise a family or retire. Then make it your home; get citizenship, buy property, establish your own traditions, create your "home base" that wherever you continue to travel you will have your own anchor. You don't have to choose between travel and staying home.

Good luck to you!
posted by NoraCharles at 9:37 AM on January 30, 2013

What is home when it isn't a place? One of my first AskMes and one I go back to again and again. Lots of kind words & good advice there.
posted by headnsouth at 9:52 AM on January 30, 2013

One answer is to develop personal interests that have sort of a 'scene' everywhere. I don't live internationally, but I've moved every 5 years or so throughout my life. But wherever I've moved, I've been able to find and connect with like-minded people fairly quickly by learning about the local scene for my interests.

For me, it's things like swing/contra/square dance, Slow Food, live local music, arts events, cultural groups. For others it could be crafting, knitting, foreign-language conversation meetups, book discussions, raw food, sports groups (runners are quite gregarious) etc.
posted by Miko at 9:56 AM on January 30, 2013

I totally identify. My folks moved around a lot when I was a kid, and I picked up where they left off.

It's weird, but there's no place I'd exactly call home.

I'm in Atlanta now, where nearly everyone is a transplant, and I'm good with that.

I am my own HOME so to speak. I'm moved my shit around a LOT, but there are a couple of things that I've had for decades, and I equate them with home.

Now that I'm married with kitties, wherever the pride is, that's my home.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:59 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You sound just like my best friend. Similar multi-cultural background, lots of moving around for work and study. She felt disoriented, too, and that led to a bunch of crap relationships/friendships. She felt that people took advantage of her need to make connections.

What helped was when she realized that she already had more friends than she imagined. She’d given up on these because she thought she couldn’t maintain them over distances. She was wrong. When she made contact with her old friends, they were delighted to hear from her even thought it’d been months or even years. She talks to five or six of those people very regularly now. It’s an investment, yes, but that’s what it takes to keep friends around. And the ROI is fabulous.

People are more forgiving than you think.(I’m continually surprised.) So reach out to people from your past. Try to remember the good times you had. Nostalgia is an awesome social lubricant. And when you make new friendships—as others have said—invest your time and effort. It’s so much easier to keep in contact now that cellphones and the internet are ubiquitous.

Investing time etc, also applies to the acquisition of new friends, but other posters covered that very well.

Another thing she did (and I don’t know how much this applies to your situation) was to make plans that suited her career-wise and forget everything else. She found that when she kept focus, her increased confidence made her more attractive to other potential friends/partners.
posted by orangutan at 10:01 AM on January 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

I handled this by changing jobs regularly. I'd stay in the same area, and even managed to live in the same small town for 10 years (after a life time of moving every 6 to 24 months) but I'd change jobs every year to year and a half. I even picked my career so it would be easy to move around a lot and got into behind the scenes in the hospitality industry, my brother became a chef for the same reason. It gave me a chance to still experience the stimulation of new places and people, but all of my new jobs where in an hour or so of where I lived. By keeping my home in the same town I was able to finally figure out how to go about making deeper friendships, because for the most part those need time and for you to actually hang around to develop.

Then of course after 10 years I up and moved from small town Australia to the US. I figured after all the moves in my life it would be easy, but I now have a sense of what being rooted and having a history in a place means and though I never thought I would I miss the fuck out of that feeling that I belonged and for the first time that I could remember I had a home to feel homesick about. It is totally worth developing.
posted by wwax at 10:20 AM on January 30, 2013

I don't have the cultural issues so much, but have also moved around a bunch for my whole life, over two countries now. For me, home is people, not place. Although it helps a bit that my parents always arrange their stuff in predictable ways in every new place they live, so that although the exterior is different, the living room still looks roughly like my parents' living room (we rearranged furniture on an even more regular basis than moving apartments or towns, so small changes like that don't phase me).

1. One skill that I eventually picked up was how to make new friends and create a community around myself in a new location. For me, thinking of where I am as my community and getting involved in community issues (eg. activism for me, but volunteering or hobbies should also work) no matter how long I'm in the area is important.

One thing you may be encountering(?) is: I've found that making new friends in new places gets harder the older I get, not because my outlook on life and making friends and such is changing, but because other people tend to settle into their lives, close themselves off, and stop doing some of that friend-making and community-building work themselves. While in university or just entering the workforce, everyone was in a similar position of being in a new place and actively seeking out new friendships and connections and community, but now I have to be much more proactive about hosting dinner parties or planning outings and inviting other people along.

There was a weird period in my life where I felt a bit unrooted, even though that usually doesn't bother me, because most other people in my age/career cohort were making this transition to settling in/closing off. A major thing that helped me at the time was talking with other people about community: what it means, how one creates community. A lot of folks seem to have been brought up to assume that community just sort of magically happens when you're physically located in the same place as a group of other people for long enough. I've found that talking about this (false) assumption with people works as a little bit of an intervention to keep people from closing themselves off to new or non-permanent members of their locational community. That unrooted feeling lasted not quite two years for me, and has passed.

2. The other important skill that I picked up (slightly later) was how to maintain a few important friendships after I moved away.

I have one friend who is particularly good at this. He'll include friends from different contexts in facebook or email discussion threads, kind of effectively introducing you to his other friends that you haven't met. He also is a very good communicator. He can talk about his thoughts and feelings about day-to-day stuff going on in his life, and he'll provide enough detail about events and other important people in his life that, for example, I felt like I knew his parents (and was calling them "Mum" and "Dad") for years before I actually met them this past summer. And likewise, his parents felt like they knew me when I arrived and stayed at their house for a visit. The key here is that the little "inconsequential" details are actually really important in providing context and flavor.

Having adopted this technique from my friend, now none of my few closest friends live in the same place as each other (two live in the same province, that's about as close as it gets); my parents and my brother are on different coasts and both in a different country from me; but these people are all part of my really-important-people-to-me community, and know enough about each other that, for example, if I had some terrible accident and ended up in the hospital, everyone really important to me would hear about it from each other fairly promptly and could coordinate with each other to visit or help me out with anything I needed. That is my rootedness, my sense of home, and of being an important part of a community even when I'm feeling less connected to my locational community.

Now to resolve that pesky and far less tractable issue of somehow melding my working class background with my current upper middle class/academic-professional status. This is maybe more analogous to the different cultural contexts that you have to span and try to incorporate into your life. I don't know of anyone for whom this is a resolved issue. But the thing that helps me a bit is to be aware that it is an issue, talk to people in similar circumstances about it as much as I can, and to read what other people have to say on the topic (eg. "This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of academics from the working class" and "Women of Academe: Outsiders in the sacred grove"; there is a body of writings, both non-fiction and literature, about juggling different cultural influences and backgrounds as well, but I am probably not in the best position to make any sort of recommendations or comprehensive list).
posted by eviemath at 11:05 AM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I wonder how old you are. My parents were diplomats and I had similar feelings to what you're going through now. I've found they've gradually disappeared as I've aged and, without intending to, settled down. So this might take care of itself on its own.

> I moved to New York City. I've found it's the perfect city for a "third culture kid."

posted by The corpse in the library at 11:07 AM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hey, me too! I found a "this is close enough!" home in Los Angeles...I think people like us need large, multicultural cities like LA or NY, where there are lots of people like us. At least in LA, it's actually quite rare to meet a "native" LA person.

Also, I got a cat. Now, when I travel, I have this constant feeling of "man, I wish I were home with the cat" and I feel surprised that I've actually thought "home."
posted by sawdustbear at 12:10 PM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also grew up in a number of countries, I can't say that I've ever felt particularly disconnected and I continue to live that life as an adult now. One thing that's been important to me is keeping my relationships with my family and old friends (themselves now geographically dispersed) strong. I have a job that involves a lot of travel and I make use of that wherever possible to catch up with friends that live near where I'm going.

Fortunately, I moved to New York City. I've found it's the perfect city for a "third culture kid." Want Ecuadorean food from your childhood? No problem. Want shitty chain food that reminds you of high school in the American suburbs? Also no problem. However you happen to identify at the moment, there's a neighborhood for you.

Yeah. I've just moved back to London (I also went to university here) and while I doubt I'll live here continuously from now on, I imagine I'll keep coming back over the long term.
posted by atrazine at 12:18 PM on January 30, 2013

I moved around a lot when I was little, and still get really restless if I stay in one place for too long. I've been where I am (without living elsewhere, but have traveled) for over three years now. I've lived in 4 different places (NOT including my mom's house, where I stayed briefly after my return to the US).

A year ago, I bought a house, to try to stay rooted. But it didn't work.

I am in a stable long term relationship. And I find that definitely grounds me emotionally, it doesn't do anything for my urge to move. It doesn't help that he's not very tied to Seattle either.

I gave up and am moving neighborhoods within my city. I am also selling most of my furniture and anticipating a very different lifestyle. (100 year old house in an out of the way neighborhood vs literally brand new downtown apartment building.)

For me, I have friends and family here. I also have a very good job that I love here. I actually know the lay of the land here (I have negative sense of direction). And I think all of those things ground me. Plus, I've taken a week or two week long international trip every year.

Also, at this point, I've lived here on and off for 8-10 years total, depending on how you do the math, with shorter and shorter breaks in between. So I think I'm getting used to it.

There are plans for us to move to California or London in the next several years though.

Lastly, I leave you with a Chinese proverb: A tree that's moved dies, a person who moves thrives.

So it's not all bad to not be rooted, especially if you don't have dependents/major commitments in your life.
posted by ethidda at 1:05 PM on January 30, 2013

I don't know if this helps, but it's quite possible to feel the way you do and only be in one city. I grew up in a very multicultural city, and every day had to deal with a different set of people. My relatives on one side were Jewish who interrupted you all the time (you had to interrupt to make yourself heard); the Catholic working-class kids in the neighborhood thought I was obnoxious for interrupting them all the time. I went to a rich white school for a few years, then a public school that was mostly poor minority and the children of white flaky artists. Because of this, I've never felt like I've fit in anywhere, despite still living in the area. And yet, my sister thrives on the multi-cultural lifestyle, she seems to fit in wherever she goes. I think some of us like stability and a little less craziness, and it's just part of our wiring. I personally deal with it by being a loner, but that doesn't work for everyone.
posted by Melismata at 2:12 PM on January 30, 2013

I can relate to an extent - while I'm not a third-culture kid (my parents are about as rooted as you can get), I've always been the restless type who likes the idea of change every few years. That's been exacerbated a bit by my current choice of career/lifestyle, which generally requires moving for a new assignment every few years. It's a great way to feed wanderlust, but it took me a while to figure out that it's still possible to maintain friendships despite distance (although it does take more effort).

On preview, I like what Orangutan said: People are more forgiving than you think.(I’m continually surprised.) So reach out to people from your past. Try to remember the good times you had. Nostalgia is an awesome social lubricant. And when you make new friendships—as others have said—invest your time and effort. It’s so much easier to keep in contact now that cellphones and the internet are ubiquitous.
posted by photo guy at 2:49 PM on January 30, 2013

another kid of international workers (grew up across three countries and 15+ cities) who turned into an international worker herself (leaving soon for an 18 month or more project across several countries). I'm a bit older than you I think - you sound like you're just starting out on the career path, so maybe early to mid twenties? and I'm in my early thirties. In my experience since I struck out on my own:

- the desire for 'roots' isn't the same as the desire for 'stability'. I found (especially for the first decade I was working) that I was pretty much incapable of putting down roots anywhere, regardless of how badly I wanted to, or felt I 'should', or wanted to remain a part of my friends' circle that I'd established. I just felt like an impostor doing things like planning to buy a house (I've always lived in apartments! Who knows where I will be next year! Why would I want to maintain a lawn! etc) or starting a family (I got a pair of cats as a compromise) or a lot of the 'normal' things people do when they put down roots as young adults doing their thing. But my life was usually very stable - I always had a roof over my head, money, food, hobbies, and means to make friends - and I realized that a lot of my distress about relationships or how I was living my life disappeared when I stopped conflating 'putting down roots' with 'stability'. Western culture, American culture especially really emphasizes the primacy of roots=happiness but that is not the only way to live your life, and it's important to remember that.

- that being said, I tend to stick around in places or have a 'home base' that I keep for around 5-7 years before moving on. I've finally gotten into a good groove where I work for a company in a city I love and find beautiful and fantasize about someday maybe buying a condo in, i dunno, another decade, but the company does work internationally, and I go abroad for a new project every two or three years. Because of this, where the company HQ is is where I consider 'home', and where I go on projects is 'work'. But my projects are very long, up to two years in some cases, and I put regular trips back to 'home' in my contracts. This allows me to see my cats (who now live with their ex-stepdad) and feel like I can recharge by being around familiar stuff. And aside from that I...

- try to make friends with people who are in similar situations as me, or who understand the life. One of my best friends does the convention talk circuit and works half the year in Germany and half running around various places in the states when she is not working on a fellowship in Boston. I see her maybe a cumulative two weeks in person every year, but we talk almost daily online/chat/text/email/etc. Another good friend is a weekend professional dj and tends to be off on gigs more than she is 'home' working - and, same with her, while we don't get many chances to hang in person we are constantly in contact. These people understand my work and don't give me shit for 'not being around' and we all immediately pick up where things left off when stuff gets crazy in our lives and we can't be around as much as we want.

- I took up hobbies that required interaction with people and tended to involve clubs. Like, I row (boats), which is something I can do most places by joining a club, and rowers are usually pretty cool people and there is always someone trying to build a new team. Some places are better for sailing, so I've been learning to do that too, and again, you build up comradeship when you're doing an activity together and it typically ends with some drinks at the pub. When I am stuck in crappy places where I can't do either, I've done stuff like volunteered at an art film house (great parties) and joined a cycling gang (for weekend excursions and parties, not terrorizing people on my bike).

- Ultimately a lot of this got easier as I got older, like a lot of people are saying above. Part of it is developmental I think and the other part is just getting used to it. When you're young, this stuff is forced on you by your parents' decisions - I know in my case I raged about it, I was so angry and hurt all the time because I felt like I couldn't rely on anything or plan for anything longer than a few months out, and it felt so unfair. Especially when anybody I'd try to talk about it would be like 'oh but you TRAVEL! I am so jealous!', which completely missed the point. Now that I am older and have had a lot of time to think about this, I realize that, for good or ill, this was the lifestyle I was primed for, and it's how I am happiest. The thought of 'settling down' like most Americans my age do gives me the chills; I certainly tried to do it when I was younger and with guys I thought I could see myself being with forever, and I failed every time. I just got bored, like painfully, destructively bored, living like that. I was on a trip for work last month, and I ended up taking a week off to go chill out in Amsterdam during St. Nicholas' week, and I ended up thinking a lot about this while I watched families do their holiday thing (and I was drinking a beer in my underwear and watching from my hotel room); part of why it works for me is that I know I am doing it under the strength of my own skills, like I am powering my own boat - I am not relying on anybody else. Which struck me as hilarious since I'd been so angry about being forced along for my parents' ride, but had chosen to do the same for myself when I was older.

Wow, sorry this is so long. I hope you find some of this helpful, it is a topic very close to my heart. Best of luck, whatever you decide to do. :)
posted by par court at 3:47 PM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

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