Dropping my Third Culture Kid Off at College

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Contributed by Teresa Kuo, writer and editor living overseas since 2007, as originally posted on BiculturalMama.com.

My Facebook feed is full of friends’ pictures with smiles and bright eager faces of their kids leaving for college. Three years ago my husband and I sent our son off to college, the first to go, and we worried like most parents how their child would do without them. We were extra anxious since we lived 7,000 miles away in China. Last week we repeated that rite of passage and packed our daughter off to school.

While her Dad still worked in Shanghai over the summer, my daughter and I and spent a lot of quality time together in the States. We knew that soon distance and a 15-hour time difference would make staying in touch more challenging. We bonded over her love of baking—with me, her willing sous chef. And while I’m not a movie buff as she is, we enjoyed watching half a dozen movies that turned us into Siskel and Ebert, mama-daughter style.

My friends congratulated me – You’re done! Lucky you! You’re an Empty Nester! As expats for 10 years and counting, my kids lived most of their formative years overseas. They are second-generation Chinese-Americans, and were third culture kids where they looked like the majority of the population in China, but were brought up as typical Americans teens. Now that they’re in the United States, the reverse holds true; to some people, my American-born kids “look” foreign.

America, our homeland, is at an intersection where the very foundation of democracy is being tested. Because of this, I am concerned for and have contemplated if I have done enough to prepare my daughter for an injured America – an environment much different and fraught with more societal discontent than when my son started college a few years ago.

Prejudice and racism has always been part of American history, but societal norms of late have now given way for some people to more boldly act on their prejudices. The normalization of uncivil behavior has peeled back America’s moral layers to reveal a bleeding scab of misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia sanctioned by many in our current leadership—a supreme sad state of affairs headed by poor role models no parent should want.

America has a lot to work on, but the constitutional foundation on which it’s based upon gives me hope. Living overseas exposed my family to many wonderful countries, cultures, and remarkable experiences. But it also showed us how millions still live in abject poverty and cannot enjoy many rights Americans take for granted, in particular freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and due process of law. Case in point, at the end of each summer I’m happy to return back to my Shanghai life, but dread dealing with the daily frustrations of accessing the internet as the government routinely censors and blocks international and domestic websites.

With all this in mind, my husband and I dropped our daughter off at college. We helped her unpack. Said our goodbyes. Cried bittersweet tears. We were excited our daughter had started the next chapter of her life, but also felt sad given she was the last to leave the nest. We hope we’ve provided her with the values and life tools needed to not only navigate through college, but also a more tumultuous society. Be curious. Stay positive. Show empathy. Fight for equality and have tolerance.

As we headed back to our hotel after the drop off, my sister texted me, “How did it go?”

“Sad. I’m still kind of crying,” I answered.

“Understandable. She was the baby,” she replied, “Don’t worry. You did a good job.”

I did my best. It’s time to let her fly.