One of my latest posts discussed the stages of cross-cultural transitions based on the experiences of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) from the book ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds’ (2009). Of course, the described stages do not constitute a straightforward pathway through the transition process, as everyone goes through the stages at different pace and in a different pattern. However, everyone still experiences the impact of mobility and challenges of transition, hence I found it worthwhile to summarize some of the survival steps for cross-cultural transitions provided in the book.
The first common and critical stage for every person is leaving. The ultimate reality of this stage is to leave behind the place and people that are loved and therefore involves an inherent feeling of grief. Stating that ‘leaving right is a key to entering right’, the authors imply that this grief should be accepted and productively dealt with, which will allow for a healthy transition. Using the acronym “RAFT”, the authors suggest that the proper closure should follow the following four steps: Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells and Think Destination.
Speaking symbolically, the raft will not arrive safely at the destination unless all relationships get reconciled before leaving. Although this is may be common knowledge, the fact that difficulties do not go away just by moving to another country is often overlooked. Unresolved problems and tensions in relationships are not likely to fade away; instead, people tend to carry them along as another piece of luggage, which makes transitions even more difficult. Further, the authors argue that in every culture an important part of closure includes letting others know that they are respected and appreciated, which is the affirmation stage. Affirmation sets a solid ground for building future contacts, and helps to acknowledge the past. Explicitly saying good-bye to people, pets, places and possessions is another important part of proper closure, and it should be carefully planned and adapted in culturally specific way. Similar to the reconciliation process, farewell rituals may help in leaving someone and/or something behind, by allowing to accept the grief and to move on. The last part of the ‘raft’ implies that the leaving stage should also include time to think about the next destination, the positives and challenges it may bring, as well as the personal resources and coping strategies one possesses.
Although the RAFT principles seem quite natural to follow, it should be stressed that in case the transition is undertaken by the whole family, every member of the family needs to ‘build their own raft’. The notion is especially important in regards to children. Children should be assisted throughout the leaving process in identifying relationships that matter to them, the right ways of reconciling any tensions, and the appropriate ways and possibilities of having farewells. Parents are also able to help children to think ahead by providing maps, pictures and information about the next location.
After the leaving period the transition period starts, which is often chaotic. Similar to grief in the leaving period, the chaos of the transition stage should be accepted as something inevitable and normal. However, acceptance does not exclude dealing with difficulties. In fact, there are a few steps for making the transition stage smoother. The authors suggest that the use of sacred objects can help in maintaining stability throughout the chaos. It may be a treasured book, a toy for a child, or a piece of clothing one wears – these sacred objects are meant to remember the past, and remind the person that the current moment, as difficult as it may be, is part of a bigger life story and will become the past at some moment as well.
Sacred objects can help in holding on long enough for the chaos to pass, and exploring the new location can serve as something interesting and nice to substitute for the comfort left behind. However, the acute feelings of loss of things and people left behind strikes exactly at this very stage. Even a perfectly built raft during the leaving stage cannot prevent it. In light of the new surroundings and multiple changes some people try to survive the transition stage by simply ignoring their losses. Although being a short-term fix, this may later lead to problems of unresolved grief. Thus, the authors suggest that it is important to mourn the losses – in other words, to consciously acknowledge them either during the stage or later. Echoing the leaving stage, the rituals for mourning can help in the process of dealing with grief.
The new stage of entering is another process that can be facilitated through specific coping strategies. Physical arrival to a new location does not by itself lead to successful integration into the new life, unless one manages to get involved with the new community. The authors argue that finding a mentor is key to a successful entry stage. Mentors are meant to answer questions one might have, give practical tips, introduce people to each other and ‘bridge’ the newcomers with the community. Here, it is important to choose the right person for this ‘unofficial’ role and, in case of accompanying children, provide an appropriate mentor for them. On the emotional side of the matter, the entering stage is also the time of learning how to function in the new place and in the new community, which can be frustrating at times. Yet again, one should become aware of these feelings and understand that entry takes time, and that there will be definitely a time when once again the person will fit in – a time when one gets re-involved.
All in all, transitions are processes where people gain as well as lose. Being prepared for both, being aware of the possible emotional reactions, and accepting these reactions may help to deal with transitions in a healthy way. As the authors summarize, ‘all of us…can risk the pain of another loss for the sake of the gain that goes with it, because we know how to get from one side to the other’ (p. 193).
Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third culture kids: growing up among worlds. Rev. Ed.. London: Nicholas Brealey.