Tanya Crossman has worked with TCKs in China and Cambodia for 10 years, and she interviewed nearly 300 TCKs while writing her book, Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. Here she examines one issue explored in her book: patriotism.
Patriotism and TCKs
When I was 13 my (Australian) family moved to the US for two years. Some of my friends there were surprised, others even offended, when I did not join them in the Pledge of Allegiance during assemblies. It wasn’t my country, or my family’s country, and I had only been there a short time – yet their emotional connection to this expression of patriotism was so strong that it seemed ‘wrong’ for anyone to opt out. It was an uncomfortable position to be in as a teenage expat.
The strong emotional connection to one country that my friends demonstrated is something many TCKs do not develop while growing up overseas. Many TCKs I talked with saw patriotism as an issue that created division in their relationships. One TCK I interviewed said: “Any kind of statements about patriotism or nationalistic comments from adults can be somewhat disheartening and make me feel bad about not loving a country. It can also create a significant mental gap between me and them.”*
I looked up patriotism in several online dictionaries. Merriam-Webster defined it as “love or devotion to one’s country.” Dictionary.com went with “devoted love, support and defense of one’s country, national loyalty”. Cambridge dictionary defined patriotism as “the feeling of loving your country more than any others and being proud of it.”
While most people define patriotism as love of or pride in one’s country, many also assume another piece: love and pride for one country over and above all others.
That final definition is critical. While most people define patriotism as love of or pride in one’s country, many also assume another piece: love and pride for one country over and above all others. For those of us with connections to more than one country or culture – whether immigrant or expatriate – that creates a problem.
The implied message of this definition of patriotism is that we must choose only one country – there is a single country each of us is supposed to feel pride, love and loyalty toward. For those born and raised in the one country, especially if their parents were also born and raised there, this comes quite naturally. Living in a specific place for a long time strengthens emotional connections to it. A rich family history in one country gives layers of identity. But what about those who were raised in more than one country? Or raised outside their passport country? Or who have parents from different countries? Their hearts can be pulled in multiple directions around the world, complicating matters.
Many TCKs feel this pull. 58% of the 744 TCKs surveyed for Misunderstood spent more than half of their childhood (before age 18) living outside their passport countries; 30% spent fewer than three years of childhood in their passport countries; 40% had lived in four or more countries.* To which country will they feel more emotional connection?
Being asked to choose a favourite country is, for many TCKs, akin to asking a parent to pick their favourite child. It’s just not that simple.
Most people assume we are most strongly connected to the country from which we have a passport. But 35% of TCKs surveyed had held passports or permanent residency in at least two different countries. Which country should they love most?
Being asked to choose a favourite country is, for many TCKs, akin to asking a parent to pick their favourite child. It’s just not that simple. Each has different strengths and weaknesses, and each is dearly loved.
Wouldn’t it be easier if there were an equation to tell us where we belong, and to make our hearts fall into line? This many years here, this age there, this passport – and the answer is: serve in this military, cheer for that country in the Olympics, and feel at home HERE.
Patriotism as Betrayal
A TCK’s connection to multiple places makes it difficult to feel love for one country above all others. To express patriotism toward one country may feel like betrayal of another. Does singing this anthem mean denying the love I have for the place I grew up in? Does waving this flag mean scorning my heritage?
Feeling and expressing love for your passport country may feel like a betrayal of other countries you have lived in. Feeling a strong connection to the country you live in, however, may seem like a betrayal of the country your family calls ‘home’. Several MKs told me about lectures they received from family members or friends who saw a lack of passport-country patriotism as a show of disrespect.
I have talked to many parents who struggled with their TCK’s lack of patriotic sentiment. One mother from Texas couldn’t understand why her MKs didn’t share her emotional responses to certain places and activities.
Many TCKs have told me about feeling an expectation of patriotism from friends and family in their passport countries. Not wanting to disappoint, some have learned to mimic outward expressions of patriotism – yet they feel little emotional connection to these actions. They know the right things to say, but they are empty words.
A Zambian teenager told me his father would frequently remind him that the country they lived in was not “home” – and that this was confusing. He said, “I feel my passport country is my parents’ home, not mine. […] Although Zambia is my ‘home’ I feel it’s just a place where family lives.”
I know many TCKs who daydreamed about getting citizenship in the country that felt like ‘home’ – even where that wasn’t possible.
I know many TCKs who daydreamed about getting citizenship in the country that felt like ‘home’ – even where that wasn’t possible. Others gained new citizenship, but had to deal with the fallout of friends and family members who felt rejected or offended by this choice.
Whenever patriotism means loving one specific country, the multiple loves of cross-cultural living can pose problems and lead to conflict – whether that conflict is an argument with a family member, a misunderstanding with friends, or a sense of emotional upset in my own heart.
I see a solution to the patriotism dilemma: accepting a more inclusive definition of patriotism. What if we understand patriotism as feeling and expressing love for a country, without requiring that love to be exclusive? This frees us to express our feelings for all the countries to which we are connected.
While we can’t force others to accept an alternate definition, knowing there is another way to see patriotism can help TCKs embrace, and express, their multiple loves. They don’t have to choose one team to cheer for at the Olympics – they can support ALL the countries to which they feel a connection.
As one MK I interviewed put it: “I love my home country, and am still patriotic. It is possible to love them both, or all three, I believe.”
So go ahead – embrace and enjoy ALL the countries/cultures to which you have a connection! Celebrate festivals, speak languages, eat food, watch movies. Not everyone will understand, but that’s okay. Don’t let your love of one country stop you from enjoying all that another country has to offer. Let your heart be filled with love for multiple places.
You can learn more about Tanya Crossman here. Come back later for a review of her book, Misunderstood, which is quickly becoming a must-have for any TCK or MKs shelf.
*All quotes and statistics are from Misunderstood: the impact of growing up overseas in the 21st century