Living abroad affects family relationships and sense of self

By Riley DeLusque

Staff Writer

When I was younger, my family and I spent almost nine years moving around the world to live in places like Finland, India and Beijing. I was always away from family, only visiting my grandparents and cousins in Texas once a year during the summer. My family considers my younger brother and me as Third Culture Kids.

“Third Culture Kids (or TCKs) is a term coined by U.S. sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950’s used for children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland. Globalisation has made TCKs more common,” an article by BBC stated.

I decided to interview some old friends of mine and their mothers about living abroad; specifically about being away from family and traditions and how living abroad has affected those relationships, the sense of community and belonging as well as the experience of living in non-English-speaking countries all alone. 

Gaby, Niamh and me in 2014

During my time in Finland, I met some friends who, like me, came from different parts of the world. Niamh Dempsey was one of the first friends I made at school. With Irish and English parents, she was born in America, lived in Seoul, Korea before arriving in Helsinki. 

Another close friend I had, Gaby Welch, is Canadian-English with her maternal extended family living in Canada and her paternal family residing in England. Before moving to Helsinki, Gaby had previously lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand and Istanbul.

Niamh’s favorite place to live was Finland, saying it was “very safe”, which let her have “a lot of independence from a young age, as well as a close proximity to other European countries.”

The International School of Helsinki

Welch found it difficult to choose one over the rest, explaining that “living in a world so different and unfamiliar has brought me a great appreciation and understanding of myself and my own cultures as well as an ability to find empathy, extraordinary stories to tell and cherish.”

Suzanne Shortt, Gaby’s mother, mentioned that her “funniest stories all originate from being a volunteer teacher in Ghana, West Africa.” She had lived in a remote part of the country and explains that “I was often the first white face the people had ever seen. If I was ever to stand still any longer than 5-10 minutes while in the market, hands would reach out to touch my skin and stroke my hair.” 

“The downside was, however, the sight of me could send children crying, screaming, and running off because they thought I was a ghost,” she added. “I could write an entire book with these stories.”

However, there is a darker side to living abroad. Living in a new country leads to feelings of isolation and it is tough to become friends with locals when you know close to nothing about the country’s culture. Moving can be an exceptionally emotionally straining experience; according to the University Hospital System of Northeastern Ohio, moving is one of the top five traumatic events in life, as the “third most stressful event after the death of a loved one and divorce”. 

Diving deeper into the emotional turmoil experienced by expatriates, research by AXA – Global Healthcare revealed that “87% of expats said they felt isolated, with half (48%) of those respondents saying that missing friends and family was the primary reason.”

We go sledding in Helsinki at 4 pm

Welch, who now lives in Romania with her family, explained that the cons of living abroad included “homesickness and a sense of instability and/or isolation … as well as having to rebuild friendship circles and relationships”.

Living abroad can be unsafe. Getting vaccinations, investigating political stability, being aware of crime rate and food safety are just a few of many necessary precautions when moving to a new place.

Riot police stand outside our hotel window in Istanbul

Ms. Shortt said that while Istanbul is an “exceptional city”, it was her least favorite place to live. “In the time that we lived there, the divide between the secular and religious was narrowing at an alarming rate,” she explained. “Also, there was a constant threat of bombs due to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. It was a challenging environment to raise a daughter to feel empowered and confident.”

For context, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict is an ongoing armed conflict between the Republic of Turkey and various Kurdish rebel groups (like the PKK), which have demanded separation from Turkey in order to create an independent Kurdistan or to have greater political and cultural rights for Kurds within the Republic of Turkey.

“The Kurds comprise nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s population of seventy-nine million”, cfr.org stated. “The PKK has waged an insurgency since 1984 against Turkish authorities for greater cultural and political rights, primarily with the objective of establishing an independent Kurdish state.” This ongoing conflict has resulted in nearly forty thousand deaths.

Soldiers stand guarding gates outside of Hagia Sofia

Another hardship that many don’t realize can be especially straining when living abroad is caring for aging parents. It can be difficult to care for both children and parents while living in countries where access to certain things is different.

“My brothers and I have a good relationship and so we all do what we can,” Caroline Dempsey, Niamh’s mother, said. “No one lives very close to Mum but we all do our part, online grocery shopping is something I can do from 5,000 miles away.” Ms. Dempsey’s brothers, who live locally, help with practical tasks.

Ms. Shortt said it was tough because it isn’t an “even split”. She explained, “My local relatives most definitely take on the majority of care of my elderly mother. We are too far away to help with everyday needs like groceries, medical appointments, and shoveling snow. There is no equity.”

Staying connected to family is an extremely important aspect of living away from home. Continuing to hold strong bonds to extended relatives can also be important to families as well as honoring roots, heritage and tradition. 

Welch says she visits extended family about once a year, explaining that “it may seem odd, but it doesn’t feel like too little since I have such strong connections to the family I live and travel with. Being an expat has given me the understanding that it’s ok to move on from relationships and without memory of living otherwise, I don’t feel the tug of moving back to my ‘homeland’.”

An ‘expat’, short for expatriate, is a term used to describe a person temporarily or permanently living in a country other than that of their upbringing. There is discussion about the usage of the terms expatriate versus immigrant when describing people living abroad. In an article from The Guardian, it states that when ‘expat’ is used, it depends on “social class, country of origin and economic status”. 

My younger brother and me celebrate Ayudha Puja in India

According to an article by BBC, “Immigrants are usually defined as people who have come to a different country in order to live there permanently, whereas expats move abroad for a limited amount of time or have not yet decided upon the length of their stay”. Furthermore, it stated that “for people that we today call expats… living abroad is rather a lifestyle choice than borne out of economic necessity or dire circumstances in their home country such as oppression or persecution.”

As for tradition, both families incorporate traditional holiday foods into the family menus. Living abroad is a chance to discover new cultural traditions which can be fun and meaningful in practice.

Ms. Dempsey makes pancakes for Shrove Tuesday as a part of her English heritage, while the Welchs’ eat cozonac, a sweet Romanian bread, at Christmas and use forks and spoons Thai style. Welch added that after their time in Finland, her family has “really found a taste for Scandinavian design and own furniture that compliments this”. 

Scandinavian furniture is defined by clean, minimalistic lines. A well-known brand in Finland is Marimekko. Rising to prominence in the 60s, the brand is noted for its use of brightly colored and simple fabrics as well as the trademark Marimekko flower. In Thailand, proper eating etiquette includes using the spoon as the main utensil.

We visit a monastery

Welch believes that it is important to “remain flexible and embrace the new adaptations living in a new country could bring to your tradition.” Welch continued, “one example of this is the hand-carved wooden fish our family hangs up on our Christmas tree from our years in Thailand.”

Ultimately, living abroad has both positive and negative aspects when it comes to family, self and tradition. Feeling alone is a unanimous feeling at first, but the friends you make, the experiences you have and the culture you experience is what shapes you and offers open-mindedness and well-roundedness. Learning a new language or incorporating a new tradition into your lifestyle is a part of the extraordinary experience. 

“I am not a person who likes change so I never look forward to the moving part,” Ms. Dempsey said. “But once I’ve moved and found my bearings, I’m usually happy. I’ve always been reluctant to leave once I’m settled and I’ve never wished my time away.”

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