Anxiety, stress and fear – these are some of the emotional issues often faced by those adjusting to life back home after living overseas for a significant amount of time. Children and adolescents, in particular, can also be emotionally affected by this uprooting, particularly if they have lived most of their lives away from their parents’ home country or culture. There is even a term for them: ‘Third Culture Kids’, first used by researcher and sociologist Ruth Useem in the 1960s.
In Singapore, William and Catherine Lim, founders of integration support group Third Culture ConneXion, aim to help these children and youth with their local assimilation. The couple lived and worked in Orlando, Florida for close to five years, and their own overseas experiences have allowed them to better relate to these youngsters.
“They look like any other Singaporeans but they talk and think very differently,” Catherine explained. “This makes it difficult [for them] to find friends they can connect with on an emotional level. As I understood more of our Third Culture Kids’ needs, I wanted to help them by building a community for them.”
Moving away and moving back home
William, Catherine and four of their five children after arriving in Orlando, Florida
William, Catherine and four of their five children moved to the US in 2010, while their eldest daughter Jayne stayed behind to further her studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Though they missed aspects of home – family, in particular – returning wasn’t an immediate thought on their minds.
However, the children’s education was the biggest consideration in William and Catherine’s decision to return home. By 2014, three of their children had returned to Singapore - Lim Ting started work as a research assistant at Duke-NUS, Davy enlisted in National Service, and Joycelyn began her diploma programme at Republic Polytechnic.
The family at Lim Ting’s graduation from the University of Central Florida
The couple moved back in 2015 after four-and-a-half years away, just in time for Daniel to start his Secondary 1 education at Temasek Junior College’s Integrated Programme. Though their family and friends were glad to have them back, the transition wasn’t all smooth going for Catherine.
“Aside from having to readjust our expectations, we also had to readjust our relationships with Singaporeans, as some could not understand the changes that we’d gone through. Now that we are more settled, things are more normal.”
Connecting Third Culture Kids with home
William and Catherine set up Third Culture ConneXion after their return, which Catherine manages full-time as part of her job scope.
During my last year-and-a-half in Florida, I worked in a department that reaches out to children whose parents are sent overseas to live and work as missionary staff. Those in this department are actually older ‘missionary kids’ who have since returned to their home countries. They communicate regularly and directly with these kids, send out care packages on special occasions, and even visit them on location. I was impressed with the work they do for such families and thought that we should have similar programmes in place here in Singapore.”
This inspired Catherine to help Third Culture Kids in Singapore. “I read a lot of Third Culture Kid-related blogs and articles over a span of six months to understand their needs and how to help them – which even helped me process my own transition better.”
To date, the group has around 40 returned Singaporean children and youth on their contact list. In March 2016, an inaugural Third Culture ConneXion retreat was held in Singapore, attended by 12 of them aged seven to 18. Aside from games and bonding sessions, there were also discussions on topics like building friendships, coping with loneliness, and surviving transitions.
“We use object lessons to communicate key principles. For example, on our session on ‘Managing Stress’, we asked the children to identify some stress points in their own lives and write them on sticky notes. These were pasted on balloons in the room. A volunteer came forward and juggled all the stress balloons to keep them suspended in the air. It was a daunting task as there were too many for one person to juggle so we invited their siblings to help. Through this lesson, the kids experienced the importance of involving others in handling stress in life,” Catherine said.
As a returned Singaporean herself, Catherine experienced how such groups are able to benefit Third Culture Kids and their families. “Having the support of the community makes a big impact, as we come together to process our own experiences,” she said. “It’s helpful to have a group of people who can understand how we feel and think. As we talk and hear each other out, it assures us that what we’ve experienced is a normal part of re-entry. We can also offer each other practical help, about areas like education, for example, and explore options as different families share their experiences.”
Providing a community and a sense of belonging
Third Culture ConneXion has made a positive impact on Third Culture Kids like 19-year-old Jed Chew, who lived in Wilmore, a small, picturesque town in Kentucky, USA, for six years. For him, relocating to Singapore in June 2016 was initially like “dipping into a warm bath”. “It felt really comfortable and familiar,” he explained, “But after the initial few days, the novelty wore off and I found myself a tourist in my own country.”
Jed has been part of Third Culture ConneXion since attending their ‘Re-entry Retreat’ in September 2016, and says that attending Third Culture ConneXion gatherings is ‘a breath of fresh air’ for him. “It gets particularly tiresome to constantly explain myself, but with Third Culture ConneXion, we have a bunch of us who have all been through similar experiences both overseas and in Singapore, so we intuitively understand our collective plights. Ultimately, Third Culture ConneXion has helped me by providing a community, and also organising activities and group discussions that serve as a suitable outlet for our frustrations and as a means to get us back on our feet. We are shown that our experiences don't have to be a burden, but a lens which gives us unique insight.”
Jed (back row, second from left) and Megumi (front row, third from left) on an outing with other Third Culture ConneXion members
Echoing Jed’s sentiments is 17-year-old Megumi Low, who relocated to Singapore in June 2016 after around 14 years of living in Japan and USA. “The most important thing I’ve benefitted from [being part of] Third Culture ConneXion is the connections I’ve made. The friends I’ve made here were the first few I’d made after returning, and they provide me with great emotional, mental and spiritual support. Listening to their stories assured me that I’m not alone. Third Culture ConneXion has also organised outings around Singapore, which helped me learn more about Singapore”
“I think it’s important to be able to feel a sense of belonging in a community at any place, any time in life,” she added. “Since Third Culture ConneXion helped me greatly in my transition, it would be nice if I could support future returnees who will face similar difficulties as I did.”
Continuing the good work
For William and Catherine, Third Culture ConneXion continues to be a priority in the work that they do, as they help Third Culture Kids assimilate and adjust back to life in Singapore. From their own experiences as overseas Singaporeans, the couple has two pieces of advice to share with fellow overseas Singaporeans looking to return home.
“First, to re-enter well, you need to leave well! Say proper goodbyes and have good closure for both the positive and negative experiences had while overseas. It’s best to not carry any emotional baggage into your new season, which might affect you in the future,” Catherine said.
“Second, it’s important to prepare yourself for the transition. Remember that your overseas exposure has shaped you differently, and at the same time, the ‘home’ you may have known has also changed. Finally, it may be a challenging time for you emotionally, especially if those around you can’t relate to what you’re going through. Find other returnees you can connect with!”