In this article, Lena Lee, author of Girl Uprooted, is interviewed by Natasha Winnard, an international youth empowerment consultant and parent of a globally mobile child.
In the first interview, Lena advises educators to prioritize their globally mobile students’ overall wellbeing over achieving a perfect score. Below, Lena offers insight and guidance for parents of globally mobile children based on her personal experience of moving countries every three years growing up.
- We have the best intentions when we are raising our children. During one of our conversations, you spoke about the importance of distinguishing between intentions and impact. Can you explain?
Sure, though please let me start by stating that I am not a parent myself, let alone a parent of a globally mobile children. And here I am telling you that your best intentions aren’t good enough! That is absolutely not my intention, as ironic as that is. I share my experiences in the hope that it might shed some insight into what your globally mobile children might be going through. With that, please take only what’s helpful for you.
My mom was born and raised in Korea, but she loves everything about new cultures, always intent on learning the language, trying new foods and immersing herself in whatever country we moved to. She was the perfect person to marry a diplomat.
Naturally, she wanted my brother and me to make the most of our global upbringing, too, which meant enrolling us in local schools to the extent possible. Suffice it to say it was not easy transitioning from an international school in Malaysia to a predominantly white middle school in America, then to a hyper-competitive boarding school in Korea, then again to a bilingual French high school, each with its own curriculum and language of instruction.
I have not the slightest doubt my mom was always doing her very best for me and my brother (intentions), but these formative experiences would have serious long-term consequences for my mental health (impact).
- In your memoir you write, “When it comes to children, the common refrain goes: They’ll be okay, they’re only little. As if children are infinitely adaptable.” What advice would you give to parents of young children?
I think it can be easy to underestimate what young children are going through because they can’t quite articulate their feelings so clearly yet and, in all seriousness, because they also look so cute and innocent.
In my case, I moved from Korea to the United States at the age of 2, then back to Korea at the age of 5. I can’t remember any of it - nothing whatsoever - but that’s not to say those early relocations didn’t have a major impact on my development.
Slightly older but still only 10, I would experience my first suicidal urge. I vividly remember wishing to jump out the window; I also wrote about these early dark thoughts in my diary. Looking back through photos from that time, I’m taken aback by how young I look! I know my parents could never have imagined what I was going through. It’s troubling and deeply saddening to consider young children experiencing such serious mental health issues, but it’s vital we address this possibility head on.
Please don’t assume these transitions will be easy for your children just because they are young. Children have their limits.
- What is your top advice for me as the mum of a globally mobile teenager?
Listen. Just listen. Really listen. Don’t just hear what you want to hear but listen to what your children are actually saying. I fully appreciate parents can’t indulge a teenager’s every whim but try to keep an open mind and just listen to what they have to say. Of course, teenagers are unlikely to share everything with their parents, so please remember to read between the lines. This is where awareness is extremely important.
- As parents we sometimes need to access external professional support for our children. Any advice on seeking external support for our globally mobile children?
Growing up, I was mistrustful of adults, be that my parents, teachers, or supervisors. I didn’t believe any of them would (or could) truly understand what I was going through. Frankly, I was probably right. There wasn’t much mental health support or guidance counseling at the schools I attended; certainly, no one was trained to work with globally mobile children.
I myself only discovered the concept of third culture kids (TCKs) in my late 20s, after suffering for many years with depression and other mental health issues. If you’re not familiar with this term, TCKs are people who spend a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. If your family has been globally mobile, it’s likely you are raising third culture kids.
The realization that I was a TCK was pivotal for me. I cannot stress enough the importance of providing children with access to professionals who understand the impact of global mobility. Having a bad first experience with someone who doesn’t “get” them will only put them off seeking further support.
- How can parents be better informed of what their globally mobile children are going through?
When my mom read my memoir, she kept apologizing to me, saying that she had no idea what I was going through. I have so much love for my mom and I know she was always doing her best for me, but I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have been different if she’d been better informed about the experiences of third culture kids.
Despite the immense privilege of growing up as the daughter of a diplomat, my global upbringing has not been easy. I have suffered a lot both growing up and as an adult. By sharing my experiences, I sincerely hope that parents can be better informed of what their globally mobile children may be going through.
Today, there are far more resources than when I was growing up. Please make sure to check these out (see below). And if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend the book Third Culture Kids. You can of course also check out my memoir, Girl Uprooted.
Thank you to Lena Lee for sharing her experiences. This is invaluable guidance for us all. As parents we often underestimate the full extent of the challenges that that our globally mobile children growing up cross-culturally face. We all have so much more to learn together to ensure that our children are healthy, happy, and can thrive.
Read the first interview with Lena Lee, conducted by Natasha Winnard, where she shares her reflections on her educational experiences.
In this Raising Multilinguals LIVE video, Lena talks about “growing up between East and West” and specifically the difficulties of switching between educational systems and languages.
Successful Student Transitions A Time to Thrive
External Professional Support: Globally Mobile Specialists
Natasha Winnard is an international education and youth empowerment consultant fueled by a passion to support and guide young people to thrive. She has worked with amazing children, young people, their families, and educators for over 25 years in international schools and communities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Natasha Winnard Consultancy provides holistic, personalized guidance for young people and their families looking for support in the world of international education.
Lena Lee was born in South Korea but grew up moving countries every three years. As a third culture kid, she has lived in Seoul, Paris, Oslo, Kuala Lumpur, and New Jersey. After studying human sciences at Oxford University, Lena has been working in finance. Girl Uprooted is her first book and can be purchased at https://mybook.to/girluprooted. She lives in London, a place she now calls home(ish).