A few weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2016 Families in Global Transition Conference in Amsterdam. It’s the third time I attend this conference and every time I find myself re-energized and grateful for this international community. It’s a space where I don’t have to explain myself or my background; I feel welcomed, understood and heard.
This year we had three spectacular keynote speakers, including the founder of FIGT and Third Culture Kid/Cross-Cultural Kid advocate, Ruth Van Reken. Ruth is so much more than that, however, so in her honor I would like to share my interview with her from 2014. That was the first year I attended FIGT and the first time I met Ruth – her warmth, humor and genuine interest in everyone she meets made a lasting impression. It was a privilege to interview her in 2014 and to hear her speak this year.
This interview was first published in Insights and Interviews from the 2014 Families in Global Transition Conference: The Global Family Redefined
Certain names immediately come to mind when thinking about Third Culture Kid (TCK) research: Norma McCaig, Ruth Hill Useem, David Pollock and of course, Ruth Van Reken.
It is difficult to find just one word that defines Ruth, who is a missionary kid, an Adult Third Culture Kid, author, teacher, public speaker, and advocate of TCKs, among many other things. She was born in Kano, Nigeria to an American mom born and raised in Chicago, and an American ATCK dad born in Resht, Iran. She spent much of her childhood in Africa, returning to the US. for high school. As an adult, Ruth went to college, became a nurse, and then met and married her husband, David. Also a missionary kid and TCK in his own right, having lived two years in China as a child, David is also a doctor and as he wanted to work overseas, Ruth continued her expat life with her husband, raising three global nomads of her own in Liberia and the US.
As an Adult TCK, daughter, mother and grandmother of TCKs, Ruth knows the impact of this lifestyle and the importance of understanding it. She is dedicated to helping others understand their journey and to spreading the word about this global community. Without Ruth there would be no TCK ‘bible’ (Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds) and no Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conferences.
Finding Words for Her Story
The two publications Ruth is most known for, Letters Never Sent and Growing up Among Worlds, were written under very different circumstances, but they both helped Ruth (and others) understand their own TCK background.
Letters Never Sent
Although she had led a happy life, as an adult Ruth found herself battling depression various times. It was triggered again when her oldest daughter left for the first time to return to the US for school, and Ruth realized it might be linked to her own childhood. A year later, in 1986, the whole family moved back to the US, settling in Indianapolis, which was a new adjustment for them all. It was during these periods that Ruth started keeping a journal, which would later be published as Letters Never Sent.
Finally writing about her experiences, at 39 years old, helped her process the emotions she had felt growing up as a TCK, especially about leaving home and going to boarding school. Expressing those emotions allowed her to finally address them and cope with them.
“This was not a book about a topic but simply a process of self-discovery,” she explained.
Her story resonated with many readers, and it continues to do so today, having sold over 32,000 copies. But when Ruth first wrote Letters, she had a hard time getting it printed because publishers didn’t believe there would be enough interest in her story.
“They said […] that not enough people would care about it as not that many had lived it,” she recalled. “Finally a friend who was a printer said he would print it for me for free and I could repay him if I sold it.”
From there Ruth did the selling herself until her collaboration with author and publisher Jo Parfitt, which allowed her book to receive the exposure it deserved. Jo revamped Letters by adding photos, an epilogue by Ruth, and making it available in print and kindle ensuring Ruth no longer had to sell it herself.
The book initially shunned by publishers would go on to impact people all over the world, who realized they weren’t alone in how they felt. By sharing her experiences and emotions, Ruth has helped others to learn from her lessons and ultimately live better in their understanding.
“Letters showed me there was a well of grief that I had not been able to own or express,” she said. “And when we are protecting against the pain, we also cannot dare to live in the fullness of the joy.”
Growing Up Among Worlds
It was while working on Letters that Ruth and David Pollock first connected. He was preparing a conference on TCKs and she sent him a letter asking if he was doing anything to help adults struggling with their TCK experiences. That one letter led to a great friendship and collaboration.
Working on Growing up Among Worlds was a very different process to writing her journal. David had done much of the research but someone needed to put it in writing and make it available to others. In addition to writing it, there was also a need to clarify the whys of such a lifestyle, which were the challenges Ruth took on. Trying to explain the impact of growing up as a TCK also helped her understand herself better.
“As I tried to sort out the why do these characteristics emerge, I began to get new insights into my own story,” she recalled. “I could then use my story and hopefully expand to help others have a language for their story too.”
The Creation of Families in Global Transition
FIGT had very humble beginnings in the Midwest USA. While trying to adjust to life in suburban Indiana after living overseas, Ruth realized that not enough help was being given to relocated families. Although relocation packages included nice benefits and practical information, they lacked support in other areas.
“Topics such as transition, TCKs or spousal matters were not covered,” she said. “There seemed little awareness or appreciation for the enormity of the emotional/ psychological/ social issues that they or their children faced.”
In the meantime, Norma McCaig had started Global Nomads and David Pollock was talking about TCKs to international schools and organizations. Ruth’s memoir, Letters Never Sent had been published and people had begun writing to her, sharing their own similar experiences.
“It was apparent that issues related to global family living were real out in the world but they seemed invisible where I was living in Indianapolis,” she recalled. Then one day while sitting at her kitchen table with three friends, discussing the book she was writing with David Pollock, they realized it would be great to spread this information to a wider audience.
And so began the preparation for the first FIGT conference.
They found a venue, set a date (May 16th 1998) and created a logo, which is still used today. They even found a star speaker: David Pollock. At the time he was Executive Director of Interaction International (formerly Manhattan Youth Services), which he had co-founded in the 1960s. Few locals attended the conference, but many people traveled into town to hear David speak and ‘the magic of FIGT began’.
Although that first conference only had two sessions, it was so successful a second one was planned the following year and by 2001 FIGT had become an official organization. The conference was eventually moved from Indianapolis to Houston where there was a larger international community due to the oil industry, before moving to its current home in Washington, DC.
“Throughout the process, incredibly dedicated and capable board members […] have continued to lead the way to making FIGT what it is now,” she said.
Although David Pollock is gone, his legacy continues, not only through the knowledge he has left behind, but also through his son Michael, who led a Concurrent session with Ruth at the 2014 FIGT conference.
The FIGT Bookstore
Another evolving aspect of FIGT is the bookstore. At the first conference there was no bookstore – there wasn’t even a book table. Ruth’s husband sold them straight from the boxes in the lobby towards the end of the conference.
“No one believed there was enough interest in such a topic to generate many sales,” Ruth recalled.
The main books available at the time were Letters Never Sent by Ruth and Strangers at Home by Carolyn Smith, a US diplomat’s daughter. The following years there were more, including Growing up Among Worlds as well as publications from Jo Parfitt and Robin Pascoe. But unfortunately the choices remained quite limited.
Today there is an online bookstore and a physical bookstore at the FIGT conferences filled with a myriad of expat and TCK-related books.
Future Research and Passing the Torch
Ruth is currently working on new research regarding Cross-Cultural Kids (CCK). She wants to see how certain lessons can apply to all children who have experienced a globalized upbringing or some form of displacement from their parents’ home/culture.
“The details of the stories for a refugee child and an ambassador’s daughter are world’s apart,” she noted. “But both have lost the stability and connection to one world around them where they would have traditionally grown and had their identity mirrored back to them.”
Her hope is that by understanding the TCK experience it is also possible to help children from other cross-cultural backgrounds. She hopes to expand our views of who constitutes a global nomad and to use our past lessons to benefit them.
“If we have identified the gifts TCKs often receive from their cross-cultural childhood […] then is it possible those with other types of cross-cultural backgrounds […] have the same kinds of giftings?” she questioned.
She is also hopeful that future generations of TCKs/CCKs will continue to carry the torch for the global community. “Now we are in TCK Phase Two, watching your generation move into its place in the history of the world and build on the past so lessons learned can be applied to the present and prepare others to live well in a future where I believe CCKs of all backgrounds will be the norm and not the exception,” she said.
Although she speaks of passing the torch to the next generation, Ruth is far from done with her work. She continues to travel to conferences and schools speaking about TCKs and how to help them understand and make the most of their experiences.
Meeting Ruth was a highlight of the conference for me – I was immediately won over by her kindness, humor and warmth. She seems to have time for everyone, despite being in constant demand. She is modest and humble, almost to a fault, which only makes her more charming. She has done so much for this community and yet always downplays her contributions, preferring to give the credit to others. Thankfully those around her are willing to sing her praises and give her the recognition she deserves.
Ruth had endless wisdom to share, both when we spoke at FIGT and when I interviewed her after. She knows that growing up as a TCK/CCK is not simply good or bad. There are challenges and sorrow, but there are also amazing opportunities and happiness. Sometimes we forget that the ups and downs are both necessary parts of life.
“The joy doesn’t negate the pain of the loss and the pain of chronic cycles of separation and loss also doesn’t negate the joy,” she said. “Never ever forget you only grieve for losing something you loved.”
After these many words of wisdom, she shared one final piece of advice, which she has carried around her whole life.
Her ATCK father told her: “Ruth, no matter where you go in life, always unpack your bags and plant your trees […] Maybe you won’t be there to eat the fruit from those trees, but someone else will.”
In an increasingly mobile world, perhaps that is the greatest piece of wisdom.