Parents of the Third Culture: where to retire, when all the world is home?


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Where do you settle after a lifetime of travel? That’s the quandary my globe-trotting American mother is now facing, along with former global civil servants, foreign service members and longtime expats. Third Culture retirement.

When she got involved in the 1960s peace movement, my Baby Boomer mother had no idea that it would take her out of her Milwaukee hometown and into the world, never to live in the United States again.

Her activism led her to 30 years of service to women and girls around the globe, through her job with UNICEF. When she retired from work four years ago she settled in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which was the site of her first post and also my father’s hometown.

Two years ago my parents divorced. In dissolving that longterm tie, new questions arise. Should she remain where she has some family and friends? Is it time for her to return to the land of her passport, in spite of how much she disagrees with its current politics? Is Europe, close to two other daughters, an option even though she hasn’t obtained her ancestral Lithuanian citizenship yet?

Just as many people who’ve spent their adult lives outside their passport countries struggle with complicated retirement issues, we don’t seem to have a grasp of their place in global culture either. How do we even describe them? Cross-cultural adult? Intercultural retiree? Transnational individual?

People like me have an official term: Third Culture Kids. But what of the generation before us, Baby Boomers who spent their mature years abroad and now feel disconnected from their origins?

I’m compiling an anthology that will focus on the stories of retiree-age people who have spent the majority of their lives abroad, exploring how they fit into the “Third Culture” phenomenon and where they ultimately choose to retire — and why.

Who are the members of the Third Culture Generation in your life and what gaps do you see their stories filling between TCKs and the generation that spawned them?

Sezin Koehler is a half-American half-Sri Lankan global nomad/horror novelist whose first novel, American Monsters, was released in 2010 and will be re-released in an illustrated second edition in Fall 2011.

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  • Adventures

    Great questions Sezin, so much to consider. It’s my husband and I who will need to figure this one out, albeit not for another decade or more. We’re currently living in the Netherlands with our high school-aged daughter while our son attends university back in the US (and joins us for holidays and over the summer). We’re considering getting a small place in or near the last place we lived in before moving overseas. It would serve as a base for spending time near our children while they’re still in school, but we would also spend significant time overseas. Having ‘portable careers’ allows a lot of flexibility in this regard. But honestly, we just can’t imagine moving back permanently at this point. Too much world to experience

  • Anastasia

    Still thinking about this — and answers keep coming (or at least I keep finding other people asking it too). Like this video of people talking about what makes a community. 

    The universal responses are about walkability, knowing/recognizing the people around you, access to the lifestyle things you like (movie theatres and sushi bars, for one woman — people walking their dogs, to another woman), and to feel a sense of belonging.

  • Anastasia

    Also posted at Sezin’s post about economics forcing middle class migrations around the world:

    Has anyone used the Expat Explorer tool to help decide where to move? It’s from HSBC and based on their annual surveys of expats worldwide. You can see how different countries rank based on economics and other criteria, and you can factor in your other wishes and your situation.

  • Anastasia

    On a semi-related note about picking a place you want to live, I found this discussion of the world’s liveable vs loveable cities at FinancialTimes interesting. Also the follow-up post by its author based on results of a readers’ poll, underlining how personal the criteria are for each of us. So many questions arise, like “Do beautiful surroundings equal a greater possibility of a beautiful life?”

  • Angela I. Blackmer

    Very interested to see where this goes. My husband and I — although we’ve been living abroad only 3 years — envision ourselves in this lifestyle for many years to come. Where will we go from here, and where do we want to “settle down” when the time comes, when our son grows up and has his own life?

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  • Robyn

    Sezin, this really hit home. Just the other day someone (a Westerner) asked me, “So, where’s home? Where do you plan to live when you’re no longer able to travel?” It stopped me short — I didn’t have an anwer and still don’t. I’m American, but have no desire to live in America again. I’ve lived in Malaysia for almost 6 years, but though I plan to stay for a while longer it’s somehow not quite “home”. I certainly can’t see living here when the traveling stops. We’d like to be in Istanbul eventually, a good part of each year, but will that be home? Is home where the social network is? Is it where family is? Is it where I feel most comfortable. For older folks — is it where the good health care is?
    Looking forward to reading your further writings on this (and have enjoyed the comments).

    • Sezin

      Robyn, yes! It’s something I have been also thinking about a lot since I first began conceiving of this project. In all honesty, I would love to stop travelling now, but the forces of life somehow never allow me that luxury. I also have no clue where I will end up and unlike what I’m hearing from the retiree-age people, I can’t imagine choosing anywhere to finally settle. There is nowhere in the world that I feel comfortable enough to call home permanently. So what will I/we do?!

      I’m also saddled with an American passport, but every so often I do think about moving back to the States just because in many ways it’s “easier” than some of the things we have to deal with abroad, like visas, language barriers, culture clashes and the like. But then I think of all the issues that arise in America: the need to own a car, lack of socialized health care, gun violence, etc., and all of a sudden America does not seem like an easy place to live at all.

      I love the questions you ask about the nature of home and the elusive “where” of it. In fact, “There’s No Place Like Home” is the title of my newest blog post. :-) Here’s the link if you’d like to check it out:

      Your comments are reminiscent of similar stories I’m hearing from people in their 30’s and 40’s, not near retirement, but also with no plan to return to their passport countries anytime soon, or ever. I wonder if there is a way to include some of these stories in the anthology as well. Maybe as “intermissions” with the mind to follow up with those voyagers in 10 or 15 years and see where life has taken them?

      Thank you for helping deepen this discussion even further, Robyn.

      • Dwilkes

        Fomany “global nomads” the 800 pound gorilla in the retirement quandry is the impact of living in so many countries that have required the nomads participation in their social insurance and pension schemes. “Bit” of multiple pension schemes will not equal the pension plan of an individual who has lived and worked in the smae country all their working days.

  • Norman

    We are moving back to the US after being abroad in West Africa and Western Europe since 1977. We are choosing to retire in the USA rather than the Netherlands, we think the USA offers more for retirees. Since we have no community or social circles anymore, we want to build that up in the years before retirement. We do not do it without some trepidation, but we feel it is best for us.
    The baby boomers are retiring now, which poses interesting questions in general, those facing global citizen baby boomers are fascinating ones too. Looking forward to follow the discussion here and elsewhere on the net. Thanks!

    • Sezin

      Hi Norman,

      What a fascinating perspective! Most of the American baby-boomers who spent their lives abroad tend to also retire abroad, but I can see how America could be a suitable place for Europeans who’ve spent their lives outside their passport nations. Wow! That is something I had not thought about until reading your comments and it adds a really interesting spin on the stories I’ve heard thus far.

      You are absolutely correct that the USA has many retirement communities that are geared towards attracting people with similar interests and that can make it much easier to have a built in social network just by choosing one community over another. Is there an equivalent to this in Europe that you know of?

      I’d be really interested in hearing more from you on your plans and this big decision to retire in the US!

      All the best,


      • Anastasia

        When you mention retirement communities in the USA for built-in social networks that brings up the cultural aspect of built-in social networks, or communities open to newcomers…cultures (whether they are macro or micro) have a range of openess toward new additions. That’s something to consider!

        For instance, an American acquaintance living in a Swiss village told me it took 20 years for her neighbor to start acknowledging her on the road. If I were to retire, even if that village (or the macro culture that encompasses it?) was bucolic I’m not sure I’d choose it, if I wanted to find easy connection with the people around me.

  • Rena

    Sezin, what a wonderful line of inquiry. I didn’t realize we late Baby Boomers who’ve lived all over the world had a name. I love it! My husband and I first went overseas with an eight month old baby in 1980. We returned home 4 years later with two children, the youngest then 6 months old. Both boys have spent a lot of their childhood overseas. Now that they’ve been living in the US since 1998 neither of them feel as if they really fit into the US culture. How do they relate to other people their age who have an uneducated outlook and a very narrow viewpoint of the outside world?

    Now we are coming to retirement age. Even though, we have a home we built while I was stateside and my husband was working 28/28 in Angola, I’m not sure how we are going to deal with living in the US. How do we relate to people who have never been overseas? I’m worried, but my husband seems to be oblivious. I would be greatly interested to see how others our age are planning to or are dealing with this.

    I am truly looking forward to where your research takes you and the stories that unfold from this line of inquiry. Good luck with this, Sezin!

    • Sezin

      Thank you, Rena!

      Actually, there’s no “official” name for you all yet, but I’m hoping that this anthology will help change that. :-)

      I do know how you feel about the USA and the provincial mentalities held by many people there. The lack of world news is something that blows my mind every time I go back there. Even their so-called international CNN station is drastically different from the actual international broadcast we get in Europe and Asia.

      Yes, it is so hard to find a way to relate to people who are so much the opposite of how we are, and my guess is this is a reason why so many members of the Third Culture Generation never return to their passport countries: “home” has become a foreign place when even thinking about re-integrating.

      I really hope you’ll consider contributing your experiences to this project! You have a great deal to offer just from what I read above.

      All the best,


  • Robin

    Dear Sezin,

    Looking forward to reading your book. I’ve been consciously moving and living abroad (6 continents) for over a decade to write about who is moving where and why – and to find my own way home. I am home for now in Bali, with Istanbul as my business base, and California my home of origin.

    A late bloomer baby boomer citizen of the world, Robin Sparks

    • Sezin

      Dear Robin,

      Your story sounds fascinating!

      When you say that you’ve been “consciously moving” do you mean in the choices of where you’ve ended up or in the decision to live a life outside California? I ask because for my mom, many of the places we lived weren’t because she necessarily wanted to live there, but those were the options she was offered through her work. I’d love to hear more from you on this. Maybe you will even consider contributing to the anthology?

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and support!

      All the best,


      • Robin

        Dear Sezin,

        In response to your question about how I chose where to live, I checked out various expat havens over a 10-year period based in the beginning on: “where are the best places on the planet to be an expatriate?” That basic criteria morphed to include geographically beautiful locales, within an hour of the sea, pleasant weather year round, a community where art and culture and architecture are valued, with a cost of living that is significantly lower than the United States, within an hour of an international airport, good possibility for growth year round not just seasonally, a warm, loving, inclusive, progressive community with a world view, low petty and violent crime, excellent, affordable healthcare with an emphasis on holistic health care, and where I could make a living.

        As I would learn, most foreign countries do not allow foreigners to earn money legally, so my search also came to include where I could work “under the radar”, which led to my vacation rentals business in Istanbul. There were very few people renting private homes in Istanbul when I moved there in 2006. And so I started a company called Oneworld ltd to make it legal and over a 3 year period I accumulated 7 apartments which I now rent out to global travelers passing through Istanbul.

        By 2009, the soaring cost of living, the bleak winters, and spiritual polarization (one it seems is either a fundamentalist Muslim or an atheist in Istanbul, with very little in between, i.e. a tiny spiritual/conscious/alternative community) and lack of environmental awareness and concern, led me back to Bali. That is where I live today, and thanks to the internet, I run a company located in Istanbul, with a Turkish manager and assorted “assistants” on the ground, from my lumbong in the tropics of Bali.

        I have learned among other things that all expat havens have growth trajectories. They (take St. Tropez to name one) begin as relatively unknown bohemian artists’ havens. Word gets out and within a few years, the masses arrive, followed by the developers, prices soar, and the qualities that initially drew expats in the first place dissapear. The artists and alternative types trickle on to the next best as-yet unknown place, and the old expat havens become high priced parodies of their former selves made to order for tourists. Many of the places in which I have lived have already peaked on this trajectory – San Francisco, Paris, Buenos Aires – and others which are on their way – Istanbul and Bali… Yep, I’m already looking for the next best place…

        I have lots of little stories I could contribute to your anthology. You can see a selection on my website at

        I’ve been attempting to coalesce thousands of pages of notes into a book about the life of expats around the globe and my own personal search for home. Know a good ghost writer/editor? It’s daunting with so much material, and I continue plugging away at it. Best of luck with your book!


  • SilvanaMondo

    What an interesting inquiry Sezin, like, where do all the ‘adults’ go? It is an interesting phenomena to observe and is so much a part of the American obsession with aging – baby boomers getting ready for retirement. At the same time TCK, nomads, expats -be they what they will…also face ‘the golden years’, what ever that means -and in the strictest sense I guess, the idea is rooted in ‘one place with one community’, which people like your mum do not necessarily have. I can’t wait to see how your story develops. I might have some individuals for you to interview…my own mum for instance. Great thinking there!

    • Sezin

      Thank you, Silvana! I would love to hear from your mum about this. I’m in the process of putting together an email newsletter that can be forwarded to people who are interested in the project but are not so much involved in social media. If you message me your email address I can add you to that list.

      I hadn’t actually thought about the American obsession with aging, and you bring up a really great point there. The idea of “one place one community” is the very thing that makes it difficult for people like my mom and her colleagues/friends to decide because they have so many communities they feel connected with, but do they feel connected *enough* to settle there permanently?

      I am also looking forward to seeing the stories that emerge! Thank you for your support, Silvana!

  • Anastasia

    Thanks for this, Sezin! I am not a Third Culture Kid or the parent of one, but have come to realize that the fourteen years I have spent abroad have effectively made me *an adult-onset Third Culture person*. That’s what your mother seems like too.

    So, to answer your question, I am one of the people in my life who are of the Third Culture Generation!

    I think you’re right that people like your mother and her colleagues and others of her age group are not only part of a distinct population, but one that is now facing a particular — and major — life choice without a lot of precedents for it. Good territory for inquiry!

    If retirement is a lifestyle (and place?!) that you settle into, an elective decision about how and where you’re going to be being and doing things from here on out until you can be and do them no more, then wow. Getting it as right as possible is so important.

    I am really looking forward to hearing more about the submissions you receive, and the solutions people arrive at.

    • Sezin

      Anastasia, yes! “Adult-onset Third Culture person” is a fantastic way to put this phenomenon, and if you don’t mind I will add that to my call for submissions. You have touched upon one of the key points of this anthology: exploring the Third Culture not just in terms of children, but as an entire generation of people who are quite unique even though they may not have the bi-cultural, bi-racial, etc. backgrounds or ethnicities that TCKs do.

      I also wonder if retirement has become an idea of a place to stay and not have to move again. So many life-long travellers, quite simply, are exhausted by the idea of having to move and resettle. Has retirement become the prize for a nomadic life, finally being able to move to ONE where and stay there for good?

      Thank you for giving me a space to put this project out into the world, Anastasia. Like you, I’m really excited to read/hear these experiences and put them together in a way that furthers the Third Culture dialogue. Maybe you’ll even consider writing an essay for me? :-)

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