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Third Culture Kids: coping with life as accidental global citizens

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You have lived in a different country than the one in which you were born and experienced a lot of change and difference in your life, and yet there is still an expectation that you will be the protector of your family. It can be lonely to live a nomadic lifestyle away from family and friends. Wouldn't it be a pleasure if you could share that experience with someone else? That is what the "Holding down the Fort" podcast discusses in this third part. The award-winning facilitator, project manager, speaker, author, and proud military kid Shermaine Perry-Knights joins us to talk about her own journey as a Third Culture Kid, as well as the reasons why military-connected families may lose their cultural identity if they leave base housing and live in a community that isn't as diverse as many would like.

Third-culture kids are often considered accidental citizens of the world because they have spent a significant part of their lives in cultures other than their own. Shermaine Perry-Knights is one such third culture kid, who has been in a military family. In her recent book "I move a lot and that's okay" she discusses the importance of representation in storytelling and why it matters for military families. When Shermaine Perry-Knights found out she was a third-culture kid and her dad was in the military, she thought she knew all about feeling uprooted and alone. As a parent herself now, she writes for families of military service members who may be going through the same thing she did when she was younger. Her advice to them is to not be ashamed of their feelings and to know that it is completely normal to feel like an outsider in a new community.

The podcast "Holding down the Fort" is produced by Jennifer Amos, a gold star daughter, and spouse of a veteran. It fosters a purposeful and fulfilling military life through conversation and community building. Jenny Lynne Stroup, a seasoned military spouse, mother of two boys, and mental health advocate, co-hosts the show. In conjunction with special guests from the military community, we will share knowledge resources and relevant stories about holding down the fort for ourselves and our loved ones. This third blog post will feature my responses as a third culture kid (TCK) and movement maker, who empowers military families to stay in touch with loved ones from across the globe.

For Jen Amos, it gets her to reflect on why she has her podcast today. She thinks her goal is if can make people safe enough to open up about certain things and she can also open up about certain things. Jen Amos believes her approach is remarkably like Shermaine, where it is like, she will hear what everyone else is saying. Where based on the consensus of this group, she is going to present this part of herself to you, and she thinks that is clever and like what Shermaine said, it is a learned trait she had to pick up growing up.

On the other hand, Shermaine continues “Yes, I was going to the clubhouse room not too long ago, and I get in there and they play to the status of Moses, what is the hardest thing you have ever had to go through? I am thinking, I do not know these one hundred people in here. Your mind clicks what do you say? I am like, the rejection when you submit something to a publisher and they say no, and that feels like a safe answer. There is a divert to other people and you realize they are talking about the death of a loved one and mental health, having a breakdown. I then realize it was the wrong thing. You never really know what the safe space is when you must go first. I will wait and I try to think if they are serious. One thing I can share this not too deep. It'll give away anything, but I can, it's like a teeter-totter between what's safe to share and what's not safe to share and who's in the room and I know Jenny Lynne, probably sees this because you have kids, you're like what do I share with them about my experience in all of this and what can't I share? What makes me real but still seems like every kid wants to feel like their parent is a superhero, even though we are not you still want to feel like it to some degree. They see you as someone who is going to protect them, regardless of whatever feels like I know you experienced that. What do I share? What don't I share about my experience?”

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Jenny Lynne says “Yeah, it is interesting. The multiple situations you mentioned, obviously, are situations in which I have been the new adult on the block and I didn't want to be the one to drop the elevator first when I was the new adult on the block, so you don't want to share all the heavy info and have everyone stare you open mouth because you just shared something that was hard and they said, Oh my God, I don't know how to deal with you and your whole story any more. I think about how I have tiptoed into some of those situations, and I am grateful for the people that also had elevator drop stories that I can be comfortable with and share the whole, experience with and as a mom, that line with my kids. I mean, especially now my husband's back on CBD for the first time in many years.

Even though he worked jobs for the past several years that were high pace, long hours, and lots of working from home even after he was off work this is different. My kids are older and so trying to find that line of going look, I know this is hard for you. Also, it is hard for me because I do still want them to feel safe. I also know that my well of giving is only deep and I'm also having trouble with making new friends or figuring out where I fit I mean, I've had this conversation a couple of times but I mean I moved home and, I moved back to the area I grew up in now I don't live in the same town and we're not going to like the same church and my kids are the same school I went to the lake.

I do have people within the surrounding area that I have known my whole life, but there was a stretch this summer where I was working. I mean, I still work full-time. I work weird hours because I work for a West Coast company. I was not seeing anyone unless I was seeing them on Zoom and just felt like isolated trying to help my kids navigate feeling isolated and alone when I was feeling very isolated and alone was a hard-parenting moment. At that moment I told them that I was also feeling that way too because it made them feel less alone. I do not think it freaked them out that I told them. The jury's still out on that I guess”

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Shermaine relates “It humanizes you and, in the book, I have this as well where the family is getting on that long flight across the water and the kid leans over and like I am scared to the mom and the mom says I am scared too but the army needs us to be strong. I like the acknowledging thing. I do not know what is going to happen either and I feel like you do but we are together and then the mom holds their hand or gives them a piece of bubblegum and it is just it is realistic. Because you do not know what is going to happen, you are scared too and they asked you the last thing you want to do is invalidate their feelings by saying oh no, it is fine. I feel this way too if we are together that is home and so that is a concept. My mom always pushed us, and she was always honest as well. I am experiencing this to my career is constantly changing. I am in this with you guys, but if we have each other, we are home that is home wherever the family is. That is what you would consider because everything else is temporary and for me, a little piece of my heart really stayed in every station across the world. Like a little piece of me is in Turkey, a little piece of music in Italy and in Germany, in England and Oklahoma in some of the other places that we were in for short periods of time because, as you said, when you go back, you have those memories, but you realize you're not the same person that you were before. That person was different. They were special, but I am never going to be her again. It is a little sad, but it is exciting at the same time.”

Jen Amos added “Yes, I hear what you mean. It is like the constant shedding of old skin. You know, when I think of reptiles and it is like, I am processing like everything you are saying but in hearing you talk I feel like you are talking to my younger self, saying that it was going to be okay. When I have these conversations, I am often reminded of like how I had to be the adult ally, to go back in time and tell little Jennifer you know, like you are going to be okay, like, just keep writing in your journal. We are going to address like what you are going through, later but at that moment, being a military child, at least with my upbringing you are just going through the motions. I guess in a way I am grateful to be where I am at today to have these conversations because I think about my own friends and Shermaine, I am curious if you had these types of friends growing up where they did not do too well with the military life. I had some friends who ended up becoming bullies, and some of them even ended up going to jail because that escalated into worse things. It was just difficult like some kids really have a tough time. Going through this and so in hearing you talk, and gets me to reflect on my experience and, and think like, wow, despite how challenging it was, I turned out okay.

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Shermaine addedOh, yes, it turned out great. When your kids turned out great you bet like, there are people that they so crave, wanting to be a part of a community. Even though we are different, we are still our own community, Close Third Culture kids. I do not know why but, it is a whole English transient lifestyle. Some people I do have some friends like that Gen that yes, they went down the wrong path and got connected with the wrong people, and are they still good people? At heart? Yes, but they made some bad choices as anyone can, and their choices have landed them behind bars, right or worse, but for the majority, we found ways to support each other but remember, all the mental health programs that are available now through the military was not there before, right? It was just oh, you move you guys will be all right and a few months in like nobody was really checking in for a child's mental health in middle schoolers mental health it was just kind of it be fine that makes some friends dyeing their hair black, everybody's emo in middle school. She is fine, we were already in middle school. Everyone knows the color for all my friends.” Jen Amos then recalls how it was so weird. She had friends like there was one day when she guessed there was this red hairspray that was being handed around on campus. Everyone had red hair and she was like, “what is going on?”

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Shermaine adds “I am like, allowing them the space. That is why it is important like books like this and conversations like this. We are saying, we are validating your feelings, thoughts, and experiences because you are serving as well. It is not always like that as a child is serving. It is the spouse who is serving, the service member serving, and all these are just some brats out there. It is like no, they are really serving in every bit of their world is changed. Changes because it is a whole world when all the time for kids, but they do not have the freedom to share the way they want to share. They cannot just break something because they are fresher. How I can just throw a vase if I felt like it? I am frustrated. People are going to get it as an adult for me, you can do that. But if a kid does not like oh, you are in trouble, but it is like, well, they do not know how to express their frustration. I feel like a book like this and NPR and, some of the other like stars and stripes, and other magazines have said this is a terrific book as a conversation tool. For parents to say, hey, let us look at this and say this is how you are feeling let us talk about it. How do you really feel we are moving and just really honoring their moments? It is not going to make it better, but at least they will feel heard and seen and to me, that is all anybody ever wants. Is to feel heard and seen.

Jenny Lynne added “Yes, this is real talk. That is the biggest thing I struggled with, you know growing up after a while, especially when we came back to civilian life. It seemed like life was already moving on and people who were born and raised and lived in Southern California. I felt like I aged I was like 10 years old, and I felt old, in a way but I also felt indifferent and jaded. I think that if only, my parents, and I'm trying to say this in a way where I still honor my parents because I know that they did their best if they had any more capacity, to validate my feelings and to validate what I was going through and the things I was saying at that time. I think I would have been better mentally I would have been on a better path. But it really took till later in life to unpack what I went through and learn to, I guess self-soothe and comfort myself and say everything you went through like it is okay, you made it out alive and proud of you. I love that you have your book now to be one of many tools and resources for military families to have these conversations with their kids. I am curious if you have had any feedback from families, or a favorite testimonial of yours that really you know shows your book being that conversation tool for military families.

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Shermaine responds “I get a lot of like notes in the mail and people tag me in line which is super cool. I love it. I am like, Oh my god kid's favorite! I love that but some of the best testimonials to stand out to me, were from a mom. She has three kids and she messaged me on Instagram was she said her eight-year-old, the sharp eight-year-old said that it made him feel heard and seen. I cried a little bit. I was excited because he had moved so much in his little eight years. The younger siblings did not really understand that like three and five, but the eight-year-old had a concept of I am losing my friends every time I move. When the mom said that I said, Okay, this is good. I asked her I said can I send him a coloring book because they are getting ready to move again, right? There is like their fifth move. I do not know what the service member's job is. But that happens sometimes. I just wanted to send him some stickers and a coloring book as well just to make it a little bit smoother, but she had some deep conversations. It felt right to say okay, this is a real tool not just okay, the book is because she wants you to buy it. The other one came from a friend that I went to school with in third grade.

This stuff is sad enough that in the fourth grade being in two different schools on two different sides of the same base is interesting. When we are on one side of the base before we move to Italy, I do remember she purchased the book. She drove three hours to buy a book wow! It was nice to see her I have not seen her for many years, but once your friends are always friends. She bought the book for her kids. Her husband's a marine and they have quite a bit of travel when he is by himself or they must move, and her kid uses it for character day. It is a big day in school. He made his own version of the character on a popsicle stick and he put the character in his stuffed animal back together. He did a spin-off of my story. If he is going to teach his class about himself through axle, which is the boy’s character in the same book while he is going to teach him about his type of people in the military. He called them we are different, but we are cool, and he wanted to talk about it. I said, okay, so it gave him the words where you and I would have just heard everybody else say something and went with that. He felt empowered to share a little more of his story. I was like I did not have that moment, but I love that it prepared him for a moment to talk about his own story.”

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The greatest educational tool out there, according to Jen Amos, is storytelling. “Having your book be a model to explain his crazy life was great, he used that as a model to explain his life."

Jenny Lynne relates “Coming from a teaching background and being a parent of military children. I just love that they see themselves in the story and that it helps explain I mean, one of the other things in addition to mental health and community that Jen and I often talk about on here is like is the gap between the military community and civilian community and how as I as a military spouse, like really live in both worlds, I mean, technically I'm a civilian. I have a military ID and I spend a lot of time in my personal and professional life really trying to bridge that gap and so to think that like this story, it helps kids bridge the gap in their own lives just made me incredibly happy.”

Shermaine says “That's all I ever wanted for somebody else to see it and say that is me. That makes sense. Somebody else's kid was like Oxo looks like me. That is the boy’s character. Is that my kid? Sure. You think it looks like you are if you think it looks like your kid Gray. I wanted to make each character cultural. Biracial if you want them that whatever it is, and so like you said if they can see themselves in it and find it valuable that is all I could ever want.” Jen Amos continues “Why the experience is hard enough in itself if you had something to make it easy.”

Jenny Lynne adds Well, I am just going to put like a PSA out there for all the elementary school teachers. I taught first grade in California for a couple of years, and the Month of the Military Child is in April one of the things that I think one of the best things I was able to do from a teaching standpoint, during my military childhood is we were in a school where a quarter of the population was military. I mean, in every class 25% of your class is military. We were fortunate that we had a lot of support from like military, family life counselors, and things like that.

What I learned as a parent, I was grateful for that support. My own kids went to the Mblack; they have a great experience with her. They got to hang out with other kids, and play therapy-type things around being a military kid. What I learned on the teacher side of that is I had then 75% of my class, we're talking first grade to sixth and seventh, not a lot of world experience or worldview but the other 75% of my class was super confused, and honestly a little jealous of the 25% of my kids that got pulled by the implant who got to go do this thing and they wanted to know how come these kids got to go do this thing.

What made them so special, and was this other this thing that was used so for a month b a military child, I brought in all of the military books that we own and read a few to 75% of my class while the other 25% are being pulled by the M flag to go, here's what's going on. Here is the reason they go to this, and I would read a book about what it is like to be a service family and then talk about it. When my kids who saw the implant came back like we had a discussion and I let those military kids share like that experience that is what I am going through. We had a good class chat about it. Every couple of days, I would read a different book, and we would talk about it, and I mean, it sounds like this one would be a great Month of the Military Child book to help talk about that experience. I just I love that.”

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Shermaine goes on to say, "Yeah, just bridging the gap because other people think..." So, your dad kills people like, no, some of you do. But just like to say that it will field some of the questions that kids have out of curiosity and make it easier for another kid to answer.”

According to Jen Amos, the book is a fantastic way to build community and empathy, and then President Biden just announced that November is now National Military Family Appreciation Month, which excites me. When I saw the National, I was like, “Look at us!”

As Jenny Lynne continues, "I don't understand why I didn't know that. It is amazing to hear about all the holidays that go on in the military community. I mean, genuine often updates me on what is going on. We are recording this during this month, so that's great news.”

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We can see that there is a large audience for these stories, and how much comfort they can bring to military families, who many times never know who else has gone through something similar. This promotion of stories from military families will help communities all over the world connect with one another using real-life experiences of adversity, family, stress, and love. And encouraging people to share more honest, open stories about their lives, could generate more support among fellow servicemen if they are going through difficult times, be it emotional or physical.

Our biggest takeaway is that it was a valuable experience for Shermaine to move around so much. While these experiences helped her to have an open mind and to be able to adjust to her surroundings quickly, they also enabled her to become good at communicating with others, overcoming challenging situations, and connecting with other cultures. She is someone who lives her life on the edge of uncertainty, which is great because of all the opportunities she has been given and all the experiences she has had. Her words might inspire others to open their minds as well and overcome any challenges that come their way.

Take a few minutes to listen to this podcast episode if you love writing, stories, and community. This journey will empower you because it is not what you experience, but how you share it. This podcast episode can be found at the following link:

It is my hope that sharing this story will assist others who are experiencing the same problem.

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