The trauma of third-culture kids

Giorgio di Chririco, The Painter’s Family

By Dina 

When I was growing up, my parents worked almost around the clock. New physicians trying to get through residency, they had no time for anything outside the scope of their career.

Most of my best childhood memories are from being five. At four, I was left with my aunt and uncle while my parents moved to the Bronx so my mother could accept a position as a pediatric resident. My dad, for whom a job hadn’t turned up yet, ended up choosing stay-home parenting over an unprofitable job with the cable company. I turned five in September, in the Bronx, and I remember that my dad brought food in for my kindergarten class at PS 95. I remember picking out my Halloween costume with him, the first and last year I wanted to be a princess. I remember our walks to school, and stepping through the double front doors at the end of the day with complete certainty that he was standing there, on the bottom step, doing that dumb dad grin he had.

At six, I moved in with my paternal grandparents because my dad found a job after all, and now there was no one to take care of me in New York. That was when I found my voice, telling stories. I told my grandfather my dreams, embellished for effect, on our walks to school every morning. He never interrupted or argued, and I carried on my side of the conversation the entire half hour down the road. I don’t romanticize my stay with my grandparents. I was desperately lonely and didn’t comprehend my quasi-orphanness. My English sucked and my grandparents spoke next to none, which led to deeply unjust punishments based on misunderstandings with adults. But my parents would take turns flying in to visit, and when they were with me in Denver, I was the center of attention. My teachers sympathetically let me bring them to class with me and sit on laps while other students sat on the floor. One visit, we were rehearsing a performance for World Day at school (or something) and my class was assigned Russia. I remember skipping most of my classes that day to run around with my dad, turning over tea cookies in the oven. It wasn’t always perfect, but that was the last time for a long time that anyone would pay attention to me if I wasn’t in trouble.

My English still sucked in second grade, but I moved in with my parents the summer before school started. More misunderstandings with adults. More frustrations and heartbreaks, injustices my young mind couldn’t abide. But now, there was no grandpa to listen to me chatter extemporaneously about my adventures in dreamland, no grandma to help me mix a Betty Crocker brownie on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I made friends in the close-knit neighborhood, other wild latchkey kids, young immigrants with their own absent parents, a family unto ourselves. But it didn’t dawn on me until my twenties that there wasn’t a single emotionally available adult in my life from the time I was seven years old.

Second, third and fourth grade were the dark years. Caught in a vicious cycle of misbehavior, reprimand and consequences, I oscillated numbly from school to home, my mind a blank. I remember being punished for missing homework assignments all the time, for acting out and speaking over teachers. Behavior sheets every teacher had to sign, tearful conferences with administrators suggesting I be medicated lest I end up in prison. Sometime later that year, my mom, at wit’s end with me, told me that if my behavior continued, she would “just not be here one of these days.” When I cried about this to the assistant principal after yet another disciplinary referral, in an attempt to beg her out of calling home, I remember that she looked up at me and said, “not be here” how? I could leave this room and then I ‘wouldn’t be here.’ I froze. I was nine. All I knew was that I was destroying my mother. It hadn’t occurred to me to analyze what she meant when she threatened to die on me.

I remember a constant buzz of shame, guilt and utter confusion, prodded along by my mother’s masterful discipline techniques. The old stand-by was shutting down contact with me when I finally hit her limit, removing my TV privileges and waiting for me to guess exactly what I had done wrong. These tensions could go on for days. I fucked up, she yelled, my hands shook, I fucked up more.

Being admitted into a gifted children’s program in fourth grade lifted the cloud a little. Plainly, I just had more work to keep busy with, and less time for mischief. I was out of class a few days a month, mitigating conflict, and when I’d return, I had enough homework to keep me quiet when the classwork ran out. The end of elementary school was painless.

My parents sent me to camp in Colorado after fifth grade so that they could have three weeks to pack their lives and move to Denver. I think I was excited for the prospect of making new friends and riding a mountain bike, but it only occurs to me now that no one ever asked me if it was okay to leave me with strangers for three weeks in another state.

I didn’t make the connection between my depression and the way things came to a head in my mid teens. I’m fuzzy on the details now, but my mother and I couldn’t see eye to eye no matter what I did between age thirteen and seventeen. I remember being grounded and going online anyway. I remember staying at school for hours and hours after class ended to have somewhere kind and warm to be during some of our weeks-long fights. And the endless silent treatments for unspecified offenses I’d spend frantic hours trying to divine from snatches of memory. In my mind, I always deserved the consequences I got for my actions, but I don’t remember my teen years, knowing what I know now, it’s likely that most of my treatment was undeserved.

My best years with my mother — if figures — were college. Suddenly, gone was the nagging voice looming over me from above. Clean your room. Wash the dishes. Why do you have a B in Algebra? vanished into the night with high school, my virginity, and about six inches of split ends. She would lead with “Just wanted to hear your voice” on a voicemail when I’d miss her call in class. She’d drive up on a Monday afternoon to fold my laundry and make my bed while I frantically did homework before work. She’d hold my hand as I cried on the edge of her bed about how overwhelmed I was with my course load, how isolated I felt because I had no time to decompress between academic crises. We’d plan visits, shop at Costco, eat pho, chat — just spend uninterrupted time together on our best behavior. That was the mother I came to understand as my hero.

It’s hard to put the word ‘abuse’ into context when you’re dealing with the person who showed you how to be who you are today. My mother leads her department at work, and it was through her that I built my initial understanding of what a leader does. She taught me how to plan methodically and execute meticulously, how to get it right the first time — my productivity is her legacy; every boss who ever loved me, loved me for her. She taught me how to just get through it, a gift that keeps on giving as I press onward into the fray of being in my twenties in 2017.

My mother is a self-professed non-talker. She confides her troubles in no one. In the last five years, I have seen her fight bitterly with my dad during a rough patch in their marriage, gain weight, drink too much, and develop a cardiac arrhythmia that reacts to stress. She is scatterbrained and tired and she hasn’t looked healthy to me in years. By and large, she is the specter of my depression, the least adept person in my family to adjusting to my bad days. The nagging voice in my ear spewing shame and mounting pressure on my buckling shoulders as I struggle to roll out of bed and brush my hair. And yet, I completely feel for her.

My mother was twenty when she met my father, and 23 when I was born. She was a child when she had me. She had never lived alone, paid a bill, traveled by herself, been in love, had a fight with a boyfriend and resolved it, walked away from a fight she couldn’t resolve — she never had a foundation like the one on which I hang my burgeoning adulthood. She was a kid from an oppressive regime trying to do right by her own narrow standards.

My mother was raised in the cinderblock-and-steel prison of Soviet Russia, where one size fit all and the concept of mental health wasn’t even a flicker in the back of the collective consciousness. The more I learn about my fellow FSU third culture kids, the more I see the systematic way trauma has been passed from generation to generation of the soviet diaspora. The deeper I look into my childhood, the more I see the moments where I stood up for my emotional health and was punished for it. I remember being accused of being self-indulgent, selfish, hysterical, haphazard, inattentive, absent-minded, lazy — that broken feeling of seeing an injustice and being powerless against it, feeling small. My shrink often stops me during conversations about my mother to point out the way in which she would ascribe condemnation I didn’t deserve in our fights. In the FSU, it was par for the course, just how things were done. Everyone felt small. Everyone was hopeless. They were united as one against the oppressive arm of the society that imprisoned them; familial spats were low on the list of urgent issues.

Not true of America, where we young expats of an oppressive old world were taught individualism, passion, acceptance, friendship, love and kindness for the hell of it. We were taught that girls were not less capable than boys, and that we had the right to be treated with courtesy and the obligation to treat others with the same. We were taught to embrace diversity. Perhaps we were not educated with total mastery, and perhaps America has miles to go, but it was America where I learned who I was. I found out, once and for all, that the black and brown children shoulder to shoulder with me at lineup were friends, not welfare trash to be jeered at with pointed fingers — and, even in my tender years, I fought everyone I knew on that sentiment. In America, I learned the limitlessness of the hearts around me; strangers stop for me on the highway to help me change a tire or dig my car out of the snow, and I can have a heart to heart with a salesperson in a Toyota dealership that leads to tearful hugs. In America, in spite of everything, I can be side by side with people who aren’t like me and feel no fear. When I encounter a new concept, my instinct is to inquire, not judge. It’s hardly a wonder that there is such a rift between the pro-president and anti-president subgroups within the American FSU diaspora. Traumatized as we all were by our soviet parents, we had our own individual and deeply personal raisons d’être from the start.

My mother and I aren’t speaking, but I want us to be. The pain is all there and fresh, and I still feel the jolt when I see her name on my phone, my social media, my birth certificate. But I can’t throw away decades of special moments. Her fingers brushing my hair away from my face as I vomited up bile, all that was left in my bug-ravaged nine year old stomach. Her from the back, laughing, rolling away on a segway in San Francisco, where she didn’t have to take me but did anyway. Her deference to me for advice on my siblings, on anything, her explicit respect for me as an adult. Her voice on my phone, just checking on my missing egg. The nest feels empty without you. But what do you say to someone who hasn’t realized their trauma, when you needed this much help to realize your own? How do you help a person whose entire moral mapping is rooted in a rigid and emotionally dysfunctional culture? How do I, from my position in life, say to my first and most daunting authority figure, Get help. Do it now. You’re going to kill yourself the way you’re headed and you can’t take me with you? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. But the one thing I have in this country, my parents’ gift to me, is a reason to keep trying.



  1. Hey friend
    I was read your full story. I don’t know about American cultural but I truly said fighting overcome from all the problems. And you need one true friend to share your feeling. And remember that in world everyone have problems so fighting fighting….

    Liked by 1 person

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