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Growing up Overseas Due to the Foreign Service

Nov 10, 2017 | FSO Lifestyle

Growing up overseas due to the Foreign Service has many pros and cons. Some of them are noticeable and immediate impacts, while others are only fully appreciated, or even understood, many years later. Below, my sister Cristina talks about her experience with having grown up abroad as a Foreign Service Brat. Though this is her experience, many of what she writes about I very much relate to, and so do many who grew up similarly.

At less than 700 words, my sister does a great job of introducing several concepts that are important for those with children in the Foreign Service, or are thinking of having children raised in this lifestyle, to study deeply. Here are just a few:

  • What is “normal”?
  • Third-culture kids (TCK)
  • Being “uprooted”
  • Limited connection to extended family
  • Culture shock – and not between overseas posts
  • Identity

It is important to have an understanding of each of these concepts, and each one requires a lot of unpacking (that is not done here) to comprehend fully. I believe the Department of State does provide classes and/or information packets to Officer’s with children, but for those who are thinking of joining and want to learn a little more, I just doing some online research on TCKs as a good starting point. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Growing up overseas in a Foreign Service family, my dad always used to remind my brother and me that “when you get older, you’ll realize how lucky you are”. We had the rare and fortunate opportunity to live in countries all around the world, from Cuba to China, and many in between. I thought I knew how fortunate I was to have had this upbringing while it was happening. But the truth is, I didn’t know any other kind of life. The friends I had at my schools were the children of ambassadors, missionaries, and development workers. We were all in the same boat, so I thought what we were doing was completely normal. It wasn’t until years later that I truly came to appreciate the impact this upbringing had in my life. Thanks to our parents and the experiences we’ve had, I can confidently say that both my brother and myself have a deeper respect for diversity, an appreciation for being out of our element, and ability to genuinely empathize with others.

That being said, if you are considering this lifestyle for your family, and wondering what the implications are, understand that it can be difficult. Uprooting a child and moving from school to school every 2-3 years can be emotional and disruptive. Connections with relatives back home can also become strained when getting any meaningful amount of time with them is limited to once a year. Moving back to the States can also be a challenge. The Foreign Service life ended abruptly for me as soon as I graduated from high school at the International School of Kenya. At that point, my dad decided to retire and move back to the States to build a home and fulfill his dreams of having a garden where he would grow fresh vegetables and a pond he could fish in. I moved to the States and immediately started college, not realizing what I was getting myself into.

I thought I would be able to manage the change gracefully, given my experience with transitions. Unfortunately, the move back to the United States after only ever having lived as an expat was exceptionally difficult. I had never experienced such intense culture shock as I did when I moved “home”. What was home anyway? A place I flew back to for summer vacations? The place I’d neither been born nor raised in, but whose passport I carried? It was a difficult time, and I couldn’t find a way to relate to my peers. The fact that I was different worked against me, where it had previously made me one more student in a sea of international school kids. It took me over a year before I started making a group of close friends. Looking back, I’ve realized a commonality in the friends I made- the vast majority were international students who had come to the US in high school or college. Their parents were immigrants, military, diplomats, etc. These were the people I was drawn to and could relate to.

Identity crisis is an authentic thing for so-called “third-culture kids” like my brother and me. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned to embrace the confusion of having grown up all over, of having a Latin American mother, and an American father. I always thought I had to figure out who I was and learn to be that one identity. But identity is not always clear-cut. Mine is a messy cluster of influences. A patchwork weaved together through years of experiences and picking up pieces of different cultures along the way. I’ve come to accept that there doesn’t have to be an easy answer to the “where are you from?” question that I had always dreaded people asking me.

There are pro’s and con’s to consider with the Foreign Service. From personal experience, I have no regrets about the way I was raised and could think of no better way to raise a family myself one day. The Foreign Service blessed my family with years of travel and surreal memories. But more importantly, it shaped us all into the people we are today.