Interview With Ruth Van Reken
Who is Ruth?
Ruth E. Van Reken is a second generation adult TCK and mother
of 3ATCKs. She speaks nationally and internationally on issues
related to global family living. She is co-founder of Families in
Global Transition. In addition to other writing, Ruth is co-author
of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.
Miss Lubelli: Well thank you first of all for taking your time to meet the students.
Ruth: No don’t worry I am happy to meet your students.
Miss Lubelli: So my students would like to introduce themselves, so they are just going to
say their name, their age and where they come from. They are all third culture kids so something that you are familiar with I guess.
Ruth: Yes, okay so let's start.
Sanjay: My name is Sanjay I am 12, and I’m from Canada.
Ruth: How long have you lived in Brindisi, where are you now?
Sanjay: eight or nine years.
Miss Lubelli: But sometimes he traveled to other countries and then came back here.
Ruth: Oh okay. Who’s next?
Luka: My name is Luka I am 12 and I’m from Bosnia.
Ruth: What other countries have you lived in?
Luka: I've lived in Bosnia and Italy
Ruth: Okay. Next?
Ciara: I’m Ciara Henze, I'm from Germany, Kosovo, and Montenegro and I’m 14.
Miss Lubelli: and where have you lived Ciara?
Ciara: umm too many places to count. But some of them are Kenya, Italy, Germany, New York and yeah.
Ruth: Okay, thank you. Who’s next?
Erin: Okay so my name is Erin Mehmeti I am from Kosovo, I’ve lived here for a while and then I came here and I’m 13 years old.
Ruth: and you have lived in how many places?
Erin: I have lived in Kosovo and Italy.
Ruth: Okay thanks.
Laiba: My name is Laiba Tahir and I’m 13 years old and I’m from Pakistan.
Ruth: Oh you are the one that I have been writing to.
Ruth: and what places have you lived in?
Laiba: I have lived in East Timor, Pakistan, and Italy.
Ruth: Okay good. Next?
Ergi: Hi my name is Ergi, I am from Albania, and I have lived in a lot of places. I have lived in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Jordan, Albania, and now I am in Italy.
Afzaal: Hi my name is Afzaal, I am 16, I have lived in Pakistan, East Timor, and Italy.
Miss Lubelli: and he is Laiba’s brother.
Ruth: Oh okay, I was thinking I had heard those countries before. And Laiba, I don’t know if you have seen it or not but I sent you a link this morning about a third culture kids story that would help your class.
Laiba: Yes I saw it, thank you.
Ciara: Now we would like to ask you some questions if you don’t mind.
Ruth: I would be happy to answer whatever I can. I should tell you that I was born in Nigeria and I grew up in Nigeria and my father was raised in Iran and my kids were raised in Liberia.
Luka: So what’s your definition of a third culture kid?
Ruth: I think the technical definition of a third culture kid is someone who has spent a significant part of their childhood outside of their parents country. They are from one country, but they live in another international community. Third Culture kids generally do this because of their parents' career choice and it is different from a refugee or immigrant. Cross culture kids are different however. A cross-culture kid does not need to move around unlike a third culture kid because you interact with people from different cultures. When they go home they might speak a different language. How many of you speak a different language at home?
Ruth: okay so have you seen my chart on cross culture kids.
Ruth: okay so I need to send that to you. A third culture kid is someone who, like I said before, lives in a different world than your first and second culture. And you can be cross cultured without having to move in between countries because you might lived there but you go to school in a different language, or you go home in a different language. So you are not only third culture kids but you are becoming more complex. When I went to school we spoke English and at home I also spoke English. But many of you are becoming more complex where at school you speak a different language than at home. Maybe your parents are from different countries, so the age that you are living in is becoming more complex than when I lived in and I thought it was complicated when I was young. There are many many gifts we have and it is also getting more interesting to figure out as we grow. So did that answer the question or do you want to ask me more about the bigger picture. I will send you a chart, cross cultural kid model if you want. You look at the model and then say how many circles you belong in. Maybe you are living outside your country and maybe you are not. And sometimes you can be in three or four circles and then you will be like wow its getting complicated to figure out who I am. Because we figure out who we are with the world around us but if it is constantly changing then you get lost on who you are. So did that answer that question?
All: yes it did. Thank you.
Afzaal: How long have you been working with third culture kids and do you like it?
Ruth: I love it. I love what I do. I think you are all incredibly interesting people. Every single one of you. Right now I would want to listen to your stories about discrimination. So I love what I do, and I was born a third culture kid of course I didn’t know that back then. When I was your age, I had no language for my story. So I grew up in Nigeria, I thought life was normal, I did all the things kids do, but I knew I wasn’t Nigerian. I thought I was an American living in Nigeria. And I went to boarding school for two years and my mother taught us. Everything was fine, I played soccer with my friends out there and everything was good. But when I came back to America I was 13, all of a sudden, I wasn’t so American. I didn’t know anything. So all of the sudden I felt like what is the matter with me. I didn’t think I was normal for my experience. I was like what happened, life used to be normal, and now everyone was laughing at me because I didn’t know the right terms. So then I started high school and I had a good time in high school. So I didn’t know at the time that there was a term for “third culture kids” and my experience. But as I got older and I found out that this is how a lot of people felt that I wasn’t just crazy, and that it was normal since I grew up in a different country. So when I was 39 I finally figured out what my story was and I found out what a third culture kid was. So since 1984 I have worked with third culture kids. And I have traveled over many countries now. To see schools and people, and I love what I do. But I think that there are many, many, many gifts that we have. How many of you speak at least more than one language.
Ruth: so when you can speak more than one language in this world, it is very helpful when you get a job. Because you have learned how to go in between different cultures. What do you like best about being a TCK?
Ciara: well, you get to experience new cultures which is really fun and nice. And also you don’t believe in the stereotypes that one culture might make towards another culture. So that’s what I like about being a third culture kid.
Erin: what I like about being a third culture kid is that I get to meet new friends. Like along the way and I also get to find out new ideas and everything so that is nice.
Ciara: I also like the different types of food.
Ruth: Hahaha, yeah I like the different types of food too. Sometimes I meet people that only eat one thing, and I’m like ooh you are missing out on so much.
Erin: especially in Italy.
Luka: for me I like being a third culture kid because I like traveling to different places.
Ruth: so this life has a lot of beautiful and wonderful things about it. And they can help us grow and be very much part of what’s happening in the world. But is there anything hard about it?
Ciara: for me, the hard part about being a third culture kid is that I have to constantly leave my friends, and I also feel different from the rest, which I think is not normal sometimes. Like you said in your high school years you thought that you were crazy which is the same thing that I feel sometimes.
Erin: I think that a bad thing about being a third culture kid is that you have a target on your back for discrimination because that is a disadvantage since many people make fun of you because you belong from a different culture or because you have a different ethnic background from other people.
Luka: sometimes people also make fun of me because I am from a different country. And they say that it is a bad country. And also because of the way that I look. For me there is a lot of pressure.
Ruth: Yes and there is also some significant bad things. And one of the things I wanna encourage you is that sometimes people only tell you the good things and then you think that oh I am not allowed to acknowledge that some things are hard or other times when you get stuck you only think about the bad and forget about all the good things. Do you know what the word paradox means?
Ruth: Paradox is you can live in two or opposite things. Like it's good and bad at the same time or it’s hard and wonderful at the same time. And so I think that is what we live in, in this life. What I always thought was that I liked it so much that I could not say what was hard about it so it kind of all went inside. And I would then feel myself depressed and I wouldn’t know why. Or I would feel that I was crazy and I didn’t know why or I would ask myself what was wrong with me and I didn’t know why and that was because I didn’t understand my story. And I like my life and so how could I have said something hard about it. So I think that is one of the biggest things that I like to tell people is to normalize this. And understand what our normal feelings. SO i guess what i would say for another thing for you is that sometimes depending on where you are, depends on how you are finding yourself, having prejudice against you. I will send you another thing that talks about when you are in one country you may be, well first of how many of you are in a country where you are pure foreigners? Because when I was in Nigeria I knew I was not from there. So when they knew that, they didn’t expect me to be like them. But when we go to a place where we look more like, for example when I went back to America, they then see me as someone different and then they laugh at me because they say what's the matter with you, you are supposed to be like us. So they think I am like them inside. But I didn’t grow up there. Now what kind of experiences have you had?
Luka: for me, for example in my old school, there used to be like people that would tease me but when I moved here, it never happened I never got discriminated.
Ruth: so how do you react to that?
Luka: I would always cry and be sad.
Ruth: yeah, it really doesn’t feel good.
Ciara: for me it’s more like indirectly people expect me to know everything about Germany, they expect me to know about the history, but I never grew up in Germany and it is hard for me.
Ruth: do you speak German?
Ruth: so yeah that is what I mean, just because you can speak their language and you look like them doesn’t mean you are the same.
Ciara: yes exactly.
Ruth: they don’t see the hidden immigrant.
Ciara: Also whenever I go to Germany, I don’t feel like I’m home. I don’t feel like I fit in and I’m also really insecure, I’m really scared when I talk my own language because I’m afraid of making mistakes and of people making fun of me because I don’t know my own language.
Luka: Same, me too.
Ruth Van Reken: That’s very hard, somebody was talking there?
Luka: Yea, for me also, sometimes I would mess up because I don’t learn the language good, I don’t learn it at all, so for me sometimes I make mistakes and it’s very hard.
Ruth: Language is an interesting thing because when you don’t speak the language or when somebody else doesn’t speak yours you think they’re not very smart, right? Cause they seem kind of stupid to you because you can’t communicate, and sometimes I know I’ve been in countries where I don’t speak the language and people are looking at me like: what’s your problem? And I think no I can think, I just don’t know your language. But we start to feel about ourselves, like what’s the matter with me? One of the things I want you to know is not only is something that’s the matter with you, you’ve just had a different experience. But when you’re with each other, do you understand each other?
Ruth: Because I think, one of the things, sometimes I thought I didn’t belong in a place, or when I found other people who grew up like I did, and they understood me and I understood them even if they were from different countries, I thought: okay, I do have a place I belong and, it’s not the only place I belong, but it’s… I’m not crazy, people understand my story and they understand me, that’s part of why I do what I do, I try to help people understand, um, that, you understand your story a bit, and that's where your teachers and you can help each other talk about your stories. You’re not crazy, your stories are rich, they’re wonderful, but they’re not the way people always did things before so people don’t always understand, but if you understand, that can help you really say: oh wait a minute, I can use who I am, I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am. Even if other people don’t understand it, but that comes the more you grow, and so far. I’m asking you questions cause I love hearing your stories but did you have something you wanted to say?
Ciara: Do you think being a third-culture kid is an advantage or a disadvantage?
Ruth: I think it’s, in my life, I wouldn’t trade it, I have had, I think the richest life almost of anybody I know because I have had this opportunity to travel, Meet people from many cultures. But, I honestly as I said: I had to go through a time trying to understand my story in a very hard time of figuring out, you know, who I was. So though i’m 73 now i’m very old, and um, but as life has gone on, I promise you, the gifts you have, as you start to understand your story, the gifts you have, make you people and the experiences you have, if you understand who you are and that these are gifts and that there's reasons you feel, you know, confused sometimes. But, it is fair to understand how you can use and to know that i’m not afraid to go play since I have friends when I travel they say: do you know those people? I said: no, if they will help me and when I get there. Because I know that my only option is a group of people who live like me and understand and when I get there, we, even if we’re from different countries, we have this wonderful place that I feel like I belong. And um, I like to learn about countries first hand and i don’t just have to read about them, I love it that I am, but I also have had to do a lot of work to understand and work with, the biggest thing that i’ve had to work with is the loss, where you said the loss of your friends. What happened to me was when I had, when I got married I was so afraid of losing my husband that it was almost like I was afraid to, like be too close, and I didn’t understand why I kept pushing him away and now I realise that I was scared, because everybody that was close to me, I would have to say goodbye to. And so, I had to do some work and understand; wait a minute, that’s not the story this time, so you can work with it, but when I look at the big picture, I’m very thankful that this was the life I was given. I am glad for my story and I want you to be glad for yours. We are all pieces of a story that will be put into one package.
Ciara: thank you.
Sanjay: have you ever seen anyone get discriminated or have you ever been discriminated?
Ruth: when I was a child I was a minority. But since I was raised in Nigeria in a certain sense I was a privilege because my father was the principal and we weren’t necessarily rich but we had things that the kids around me didn’t have. So in a certain sense I had a different kind of reversed privilege from the different kinds of people that I knew. And discrimination for me was like when I went back to the States and when people didn’t understand me or I have seen some kids when they have been in countries in Europe, I was in Switzerland and somebody who was white had said that they had been discriminated and I said why, and she went on to explain that she was from Germany and people expected her to know about the culture around her. She said that when people spoke to her in German and she couldn’t reply back since she didn’t know the language, the people got very disgusted. But I think one of the things that are happening, depending on like what you said, where you are from and where you are living, I think there could be some severe discrimination based on some of those things. I know that when I was in Russia they told me that the African TCK’s that were there had a lot of discrimination because they were from Africa. Depending on where you are from, you can face some severe discrimination. The link I sent you for this girl who is talking, she is talking about, how when she is in this group she faces discrimination, and if she is in another group, she faces a different type of discrimination. And how she went in to try to hide them and then went into depression. And then later, finally understood that: oh wait a minute, I'm gonna use this. So I would really like you to watch her story. (http://tedxexeter.com/category/topics/top-y/young-people-children/ ) But I would like to hear if some of you faced some major type of discrimination. Or not even major, it could also be minor. Because the sad thing is that in this world people discriminate by how you look or how they expect you to be. And part of dealing with that is knowing who you are. So would any of you like to tell me your stories?
Ciara: well, when I was younger, it was International day and I wanted to play with some kids. They told me I couldn’t play with them since I was German and I was a Nazi, and they also called me Hitler.
Ruth: that feels pretty bad.
Luka: for me also once at school I was trying to play basketball but then this kid came up and said you can't play basketball because you are not from our country or like you are Bosnian. They also called me Serbian, even though I am not.
Ruth: that doesnt feel good either. Because we have lived in different cultural worlds and because we know what it feels like to be different we have people mock us or that they have the right to discriminate against us. We know how that feels, and how does it feel?
Ruth: so other gifts that we can make are called cultural bridges. When you are in a situation later or even now and you see somebody being discriminated against or not understanding each other and you can see sort of both sides, so that is one thing that my friends are a lot of the times they grow up and they work with companies trying to have them understand that different people with different cultures. So they can work together because otherwise the way the world is coming right now it is getting scary because everybody is getting closer and closer and we try to protect ourselves so if you are not me you are bad. The goal right now is that people from different races or different groups can be your friends because you know what, underneath it all we are all human beings who want to have relationships we want people to know us and we want to have friends. We can think we want to be able to have choices and so does the other person and give each other understanding we can be part of doing something good in the world. Because the world is trying to go the other way and people like you have been growing up around many places to know that you can be the voice. We don’t have to push people away, we can invite them in. Even when they are different than me. But to do that you also have to understand who you are so when people say nasty things about you, you can say oh wait a minute that is not true. That is only what they are saying and that doesn’t make it true. I am not crazy, I am not stupid. I am not any of those things just because they say it. You can say, I know who I am and it's not that. I can help other people also understand who they are and their stories.
All: yes thank you.
Ruth: also there are a lot of people talking now about empathy, do you know what that is? Empathy means that I understand how somebody feels. And they are saying that the world is losing empathy and speaking all these hate things. So I was thinking that one thing that you have because of your experience is empathy. You can know what it feels like to be another person. And you can be the one to make a difference. Okay so do you have another question.
Erin: yes so we have a project that we are doing called TCK Discrimination. About that project do you think that we can improve something?
Ruth: to me it looks like you are doing a great job and if I can remember right, you are recording stories.
Ruth: and I think stories are a very important way to work with discrimination and understanding. Because someone told me that one time, she works with the Israeli and Palestinian kids in Gaza and she said: emotions are a universal language. And so when we start to feel and understand people who don’t look like us or talk like us despite the differences we start to say oh maybe they are real people. So I think that as you hear the stories one of the things that you can do is respond. I don't really know how you are doing it but I think having people tell their stories and how they feel is very important. I was watching this movie last night called “Green book” and in it, they wouldn’t let a black man eat in the dining hall with the rest and I thought wait a minute, that's wrong and he is a person. I felt so strongly at how wrong this was. So sharing the stories that you gathered and having discussions about them is very important. What are you doing besides the stories?
Erin: we are also doing activities with the migrants and helping them kind of fit in the local community.
Ruth: that's wonderful. I think you are really using your story well. You are making people understand what it feels like to live in a country that you don’t belong from. You help other people settle in. I love that you are doing that.
All: thank you.
Laiba: Thank you, we have one last question to ask you do you think this project is for a good cause.
Ruth: In the current situation of the world you can't take out discrimination but you can reduce it 30 percent by 2030. I think it is a good cause because it's helping people that are getting discriminated and showing people how people in the world are getting discriminated. Which I think you guys are doing great work.
All: Thank you
Erin: Thank you for allowing us to do a interview you
Ms. Lubelli: Thank you for doing the interview with us and its nice seeing you again and sharing your ideas.
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, 3rd edition
Letters Never Sent, updated, 2012, by Summertime Publishing