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TCKs & Identity: Navigating a Childhood Overseas as an International Adoptee

26 Nov 2019 7:40 AM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

For globally mobile families, traditions and rituals provide an important thread of continuity and identity. Even more so if you are a TCK and an international adoptee, shares Anna, who was adopted from India by a Swedish couple and grew up in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. 

By Anna Svedberg

Growing up as a Third Culture Kid can be complicated enough, navigating different cultures and customs while still maintaining the common thread of identity. Add another layer, such as being an international adoptee, and you have to be both consistent and adamant in how you raise your children for them to gain a healthy sense of identity while navigating the tricky waters of a child growing up as a citizen of the world.

This is my family's own story of how we maintained some sense of constant normalcy through cooking and celebrating traditional holidays together with other Scandinavian families while abroad. Staying in touch with family friends of various cultures strengthened my sense of identity and connection with both my birth culture as well as my passport culture while appreciating and respecting local customs and traditions. 

Cooking, food, and sparking memories

Growing up overseas, my first few memories are always of my mum cooking or baking in the kitchen with my sister and I helping and tasting the goodies. Food and traditions in general are quite important in my family. My mum explained much later to me that having adopted two beautiful girls from India, my parents were quite adamant to instill Swedish culture and traditions in us, especially as my sister and I grew up overseas. 

This meant that whether we were stationed in a very traditional trade city in the desert or in the hustle and bustle of a mega Southeast Asian city, my sister and I would always have access to Swedish cinnamon rolls for any given holiday and the traditional Swedish smorgasbord for Christmas and Easter, including the world-famous savoury Swedish meatballs and cured salmon. 

Since my mum loved cooking, she of course learnt how to cook local dishes wherever we were stationed, which meant that my sister and I acquired an international palate from a very young age. If we missed our hometown from years ago, my mum would cook a meal to take my sister and me back taste-wise and it was almost like being there.

I have a particular memory of my family living in the Middle East and participating in local Eid celebrations. In those early days, mothers and children were invited to local family homes to partake in Eid festivities, which always included lots of delicious food as well as giving and receiving traditional Eid greetings. As a child, my friends and I felt honored that we were so graciously invited to strangers’ homes. The generosity I experienced while growing up overseas is something that I will always be grateful for. 

Also, while living in a Southeast Asian megacity, my family would celebrate the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival with other families at the beach, lighting lanterns and sending them out to sea ceremoniously at night. My parents explained that as guests in a local culture, it's important to observe and respect local culture and traditions. 

Traditions, festivals, celebrations, and local networks

My mum instilled in us Swedish traditions by decking our homes with festival-appropriate decorations, often hand-embroidered or hand-painted. 

With traditional cooking, festival-appropriate decorations and celebrations no matter where we were stationed in the world, my sister and I received a solid foundation of continuity in our upbringing. This was further strengthened as we enjoyed close ties with a network of Scandinavian families wherever we lived, with whom we could celebrate our traditions. 

Local festivals and traditions were usually widely recognized through school activities as well as in family social gatherings, so we learned from a young age to respect and enjoy the local culture and customs wherever we were stationed.

Regarding our Indian heritage, growing overseas was a blessing as it allowed my family frequent trips to see family friends in India and close school friends with Southeast Asian backgrounds. Together with my mum’s love for cooking Indian food, this enabled me to seamlessly blend my Indian heritage and Swedish identity together. 

By teaching your child about their birth country as well as their passport country, while at the same time encouraging them to immerse themselves in local customs, your child will not only gain a healthy sense of self but also a respect for all cultures and walks of life — a mark of a true citizen of the world.

Tips for globally mobile families with adoptive TCK children 

Here are some tips for families with children growing up in a globally mobile family as TCKs and as international adoptees.

Strengthening your child's sense of identity

  • Talk early on about adoption and what it means.
  • Educate your child on their country of birth and culture so your child can from a young age form an understanding of their heritage.
  • Also teach early on about your child’s passport country, culture, and language, so your child can easily repatriate if they would like to as an adult.
  • Show a genuine interest in the local culture to educate your child that respect for all cultures is important to develop empathy for fellow human beings. My parents emphasized that, living as an expat family overseas, we were always a guest in someone’s country.
  • Foster healthy family traditions that your child can hold onto as a common thread through your international moves.

Network: Your family’s tribe while living the globally mobile lifestyle

  • Surround your family with close friends — either locally or via distance — who can act as your family’s inner network, a safe constant in your child’s sometimes turbulent globally mobile life.

Anna Svedberg is a Swedish repatriated adult Third Culture Kid. She is a social media volunteer for FIGT and a staffing consultant for multinational clients. She loves writing children’s stories on themes such as TCKs and international adoption. Anna is adopted from India by Swedish parents and was lucky enough to grow up in the Middle East and Southeast Asia thanks to her parents' careers in the Swedish Foreign Service as well as in the private sector. She and her family frequently travel back to childhood stomping grounds to visit family friends, as well as for some sun and warmth during the winter months! 

Anna would love to collaborate with you on projects close to her heart: international adoption, repatriation, and globally mobile families. FIGT members can find her in the Member Directory for Members Only.

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