Expatriate Everywhere

As a child, I remember shop stalls on the sides of roads busied with red taxis, sellers yelling words I didn’t understand in the back of their stalls, chopping the heads off fish and cleaving open their bodies to expose beating hearts that show their freshness before chucking them on ice. I remember standing in a back-street watching a man with a bag of chickens take orders from passing people, cutting their heads off with scissors and yanking feathers from their bodies. I remember restaurants with rats on the floor picking up the scraps that fell from the table, completely ignored and respected by every patron as a sign that they were not in the food. I remember cockroaches the size of my fist scuttling across the kitchen, our domestic helper chasing them down with a shoe in her hand, slapping over and over at the ground. I remember cheap, neon lights flickering on as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, bringing an ambiance and energy of glowing Cantonese characters to a city’s night life that never slept. I remember old men with long hairs growing out their moles spitting into the road, dodging buckets full of animal bits as you walked past closing stores, and people walking up to me holding toys telling me a price they had made up on the spot. I remember the smell of stained wood, the seemingly endless heights of buildings, and the rickety bus rides at breakneck speeds along poorly built roads too close to the cliff’s edge.

As that same child, I remember a suburban town in the proudest state of the land of the free. I remember going to school and being indoctrinated into a belief that this land, this state, was the greatest in the world. I remember looking for a place to call home, and wanting to believe them, and becoming part of the culture. But I remember God, and I remember I never agreed with the things I was told about him or the promises people made in his name. I remember wanting to be one of them, but knowing that I was as much one of them as I was the people of the other lands I had seen. I remember not having friends. I remember being scared and alone. I remember being afraid to meet people, afraid to attach. I remember leaving and feeling sad, but feeling happy at the same time.

I remember the cobblestone roads and pretty streets of a suburban neighborhood on the edge of the most notable french-speaking city on Earth. I remember walking up the path to buy bread from one shop, meat from another, and milk from yet another. I remember the glowing clover-like sign of a pharmacy on every single corner of every single street. I remember chickens slowly roasting on spits in every city, ready for picking for the meager price of the change floating in your pocket you would have not spent otherwise. I remember learning to speak the language, and being shunned for doing it wrong when I tried and being hated for not trying when I didn’t. I remember tight trousers on the native kids walking by, people rolling down the city streets on skateboards and roller skates, and beautiful women in clothing that cost more than most people make in a year. I remember planning my trips to the city around strikes, and driving through the tunnel to reveal a landscape of low built buildings that framed an enormous, steel tower.

I remember returning to the city of neon lights and busy streets. I remember how crowded it had become and how so much had changed without feeling any different at all. I remember walking through the streets and knowing that I was safe, of riding buses and taxi’s alone. I remember a school that treated me like an adult, even though I was not. I remember a man telling me I was a Third Culture Kid and not truly understanding what he meant. I remember making friends again, and I remember knowing for the first time in my life that one day I would say goodbye to them forever. I remember knowing that I would not stay here, that I would leave the city I loved and move to somewhere different.

I remember going back to the country of the proud. I remember university, and meeting a girl, and moving in with her, and having the first stable moment of my entire life. I remember how amazing it felt to be there, in one place, learning and being loved. But I remember talking about moving, about us having a family and taking them with us wherever we traveled. I remember her saying she would rather keep them at home, travel until we had kids, and then stay put. I remember not understanding what she meant by saying “stay home,” and I remember being scared. I remember the wedge that drove us apart, and the fear that I was committing to an eternity with someone else. I remember running away. I remember being free. I remember being inconsolably sad that I couldn’t have the life I had always wanted. I remember meeting the woman of my dreams, who lived so many miles away. I remember the long distance relationship feeling normal, only bothering me because it bothered her. I remember it pulling us apart. I remember loving her every day since then, feeling as though I lost something amazing for a reason I simply couldn’t understand. And I remember moving away, to another city, for another life, knowing from the second I left for this new land in a different state that I would use it as a stepping stone to the next. That I would never stay more than two or three years. And then I would be off again.

I am a Third Culture Kid, a TCK, and an Expatriate. My life is one built out of revolving doors and large metal planes. It’s a history of countless cities, of family always thousands of miles away, of girlfriends that have lived in different continents, of multiple cultures mashed into a single mind. I have two passports, officially a citizen of two different worlds. And yet, in both, I am an expat. I fit into neither, belong to none.

My home is airport terminals, new sites and city streets that I experience by never acting like a tourist but as a person that has lived there his entire life, even if I have never set foot there before. I capture culture and memories, never carrying a camera because I never have the desire to show people what I saw. Because what I see is not what others see. I see the people and their lives, the daily routines of everyone and everything. I taste the smells and remember the way the wind hit my face as I moved through the unknown.

I am not looking for the next great vacation when I travel. I am looking for life, for the living and breathing heart of a city that can only be found in the people that reside within it and the culture they have built through generations of development. I do not tell people stories of my travels, because there is no story they could ever understand.

Because where I remember a youth full of so many different worlds, everyone else remembers stability. They remember growing up around aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. They remember boyfriends and girlfriends that they didn’t have to say goodbye to because of distance, but left because they had run their course and met an end. They remember traveling as a gift, as a treat to see something different before returning to the same house in the same neighborhood with the same friends they have had since they were born.

But I remember none of that, because like many other TCKs in this world, I remember the world in pockets of time. I am an expatriate, through-and-through, without a home. And I live to see more.

Post by: James R. Mitchener

22 thoughts on “Expatriate Everywhere

  1. MaDonna

    I met my TCK husband while working abroad. I remember when we got married how he told a group of people that he had always looked for “home” and now he had it with me. I didn’t fully understand it at the time b/c the whole TCK idea was quite new to me, but I understand it more now. “Home” is where the people are you value and love dearly. I have found that “home” is sometimes a hotel room for a few weeks, a flat for a couple of months, or a house for a few years. The key is that these places have the four most important people in my life with me. They have become my “home”…that is until the three little ones get old enough to leave and make their own “homes”.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      I couldn’t agree more about the home being with the people you love. Throughout many of my posts I’ve commented on that exact element of TCK life, that our home ends up being with the people we love no matter where in the world we are. But at the same time, as I discussed in my post My Passport is One of Two… (https://thirdculturekidlife.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/my-passport-country/) I feel that many FCKs are scared of that idea. Home has too much meaning to them, in the people they have grown up with and the surroundings they’re comfortable with. I mean, I could very well be wrong. After all, I’m a TCK, not an FCK, so it’s impossible for me to ever really know, but I suppose that’s just what I see. Or maybe it’s my fear? Thanks for the comment, and welcome to TCK Life!

      1. MaDonna

        I think you are right. I am a FCK, but I left my home country with the thought of not returning. I had already made the huge decision to leave behind what I had known for 20 years.
        I remember getting a chance to talk with Dave Pollock one afternoon. I had just heard one of his talks on FCK and TKC getting married. He had NO examples of a happy satisfied marriage. I was in a serious relation with my now husband. I was a bit worried that I was in a doomed situation. Dave was so cool about my fears. He knew my husband, so that helped, but he told me that ANY marriage was work and struggle. That each person had to leave their family (whether emotional/physical) and work hard to make the marriage work. He encouraged me that though we were going to have our struggles that if we worked and committed to each other to stay together through the hard times that it would all work out.
        It hasn’t been easy, I’ll be honest. He gets the urge to move every few years…but he has said I’m his anchor. I’m not against moving, but I question if the timing is now or if he is just getting the moving bug.
        Anyway, thanks for your insights as you go through your journey. Not every person’s journey is the same, but there may be elements that are. As a parent, I’m watching out for my children so that I can help them in whatever way I can.
        Glad to have found your site.

  2. MaDonna

    I met my TCK husband while working abroad. I remember after we were married that he told a group of people that he had always looked for “home” and had now found it with me. I didn’t fully understand it then because the whole TCK idea was new to me. Now “home” can be a hotel for a few weeks, a flat for a few months, or a house for a couple of years. The key is that “home” is where the four most important people in my life are. I know that in a few years that the three little TCKs will leave and make their own “home”, and then home will look a bit different again.

  3. Expat Alien

    Hi James
    Nice post. I especially like the paragraph “I am not looking for the next great vacation when I travel….” We do see travel differently. My favorite thing to do is wander around until I’m not sure where I am and then try to find my way. Sounds nutty. Anyway, I’m glad to have found your blog. I will follow it!

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      You know, you say “Sounds nutty,” but I think you’d be hard pressed to find any TCK that would think that’s insane. That’s exactly what I do. You can never really find your way into the culture of a city until you lose yourself in it. That goes for both mentally, and physically getting lost. I’m glad you liked the post, and thanks so much for the follow and comment. It’s always great to hear from other expats! Cheers.

  4. DrieCulturen (@DrieCulturen)

    Hello James, you clearly describe the joys and the challenges of third culture kids. I’m one too, so I can really identify with this. I do think TCKs make good expats: we can adjust easily, love new cities and streets, love being surrounded my other languages etc. What concerns me is the rootlessness you describe, not fitting in, and the relationship challenges. I hear “pain” too.
    “You live to see more”…will you ever be satisfied?

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Nice catch. There certainly is a lot of pain in my words. But honestly, I don’t consider that to be a bad thing. The pain makes the pleasure all the more exhilarating, and with upbringings like our own, would it ever be worth giving up the pain in exchange for a sense of normality? In the end, we are the product of a life of chaos. The relationship issues are standard, at least in the mind of this crazy TCK. Will I ever be satisfied? No, probably not. But then my question to you is this:
      Is never being satisfied a bad thing?

      1. Julia Munroe Martin

        I find this comment so interesting, so helpful. I just accept that never being satisfied is a constant in my life–but have always hoped that will change. Never thought of it as not being a bad thing. But it makes so much sense.

        1. James R. Mitchener Post author

          Thanks Julia. I always find it funny, finding reason in chaos. And then I smile, because in reason there’s value, and in value I can find that flame of passion that always leads to happiness.

      2. marciabarham

        I don’t think you have to be a TCK to experience this kind of pain. I was born in the South, and moved away 18 years ago. The sad part for me is that I am much more comfortable in Asia than in my home town. I love the fact that I can have a foot in both worlds, but I tend to associate with my home in Asia. The comforting part is that I have so much family in the South. Other than that, my closest friends have all lived overseas for many years and I have many friends “of the world.”

  5. Curtis Romey

    Hi James,

    Just discovered your site through FB. The following passage speaks volumes to me:

    But I remember God, and I remember I never agreed with the things I was told about him or the promises people made in his name. I remember wanting to be one of them, but knowing that I was as much one of them as I was the people of the other lands I had seen. I remember not having friends. I remember being scared and alone. I remember being afraid to meet people, afraid to attach. I remember leaving and feeling sad, but feeling happy at the same time.

    Grew up in Brasil and returned to the US when I was 16. Thanks for your words.


    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Welcome to TCK Life, Curtis. It’s always great to see another TCK stumbling across the site, and I greatly appreciate the details on how you arrived here (the marketing side of me always loves to know source information).

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. But see, now you have me quite interested. What was it like growing up in Brasil and then landing in the US at 16? That’s a pretty crazy time in life, and in fact, is one year after I finally ended up back state side. I came from Hong Kong, so I’d love to hear a little about your experience.

      Thanks for the comment mate, and it’s great to meet you!

      1. Curtis Romey

        Hi James, it’s nice to meet you as well. For many years I considered myself more Brasilian than I did American–living in Brasil was what I knew. The US was the exotic and strange place and Brasil was home. Moving back from Brasil at 16 and entering US high school was probably the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to me. Beyond the normal transitional changes that happen on return to your parent’s culture, I went from living in Sao Paulo to living in a small North Florida town and attending a small rural high school. It took me the better part of a year to acclimate myself to being back in the US—and even after “acclimating” I never really felt at home. I felt like I always stood out either in the way I dressed, the way I thought or even the way I processed information. I still do, but it is better disguised by my adult-ness now. I have enjoyed reading your blog, thank your insight and your words.

        1. James R. Mitchener Post author

          My pleasure Curtis. Thanks again for the comments, and thanks so much for sharing your story. We are all so different in our upbringings and the cultures we have created, but it always fascinates me how much we all have in common when it comes to our emotions. Thanks for reading, and if you’ve ever got something to say about the ramblings of my mind, feel free to comment or email or whatever you see fit! I’m always here to talk about the life of TCKs.

  6. D

    Its funny, every time I read your entries I get this weird sensation. It feels like someone has crawled into my head and somehow managed to put my jumbled view of life into words. The only thing I wish is that these sort of thoughts could be understood by my FCK friends. I’ve tried every now and then to explain it, the TCK thing, but never with much success. There are actually times where I’ve completely omitted my upbringing because its too exhausting to repeated explain. Like this last weekend for instance, I was at a music festival in California and the usual opening question is “where are you from?” I just told them the country I’m currently living in and let them assume the rest. At the same time though, I dislike doing that because it ends up feeling like I’m hiding myself. It’s an odd thing to deal with.

    I’m moving countries and continents in the next couple months again after three years here, I always forget how bitter sweet it is. It’s just like you said, “I remember leaving and feeling sad, but feeling happy at the same time.” I know a lot of the sadness I feel is due to how sad I know the FCKs I’m leaving behind are because they see the departure as final, an ending. They can’t see beyond and realize that distance only makes us physically far apart and doesn’t have to transfer into the deeper parts of our relationship. That is the biggest difference I see in my TCK and FCK friends. My TCK friends have no problem saying good-bye, we hug, we laugh, we say “see you later,” (rather than good-bye) knowing that later could be one month or three years but it doesn’t matter because we know there will be a later and that’s what counts. My FCK friends dwell on not knowing when that later will be, they caught up in the physical distance and the “I miss yous.” That difference in views has always been a challenge for me to deal with, I suppose mostly because I just don’t understand how a departure can be seen as so final, especially with today’s brilliant technology.

    Oh, and I’d love a new TCK email buddy. Can never have too many of those 🙂

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Well first and foremost, my email address is in my profile, so shoot me an email whenever you want. TCK email buddies are always welcome! In response to what you were saying about moving, I completely understand. I moved from San Antonio/New Braunfels/Houston, TX to Raleigh, NC about 5 months ago. When I left, I was very cautious. I didn’t have any TCK friends back there. All my friends were FCKs, and the goodbye felt very permanent to many of them. So, I did something that every FCK I tell this too says “that’s horrible!” in response to my behaviour.

      When my departure approached, I didn’t tell anyone when exactly I was leaving. I knew that I was leaving and not coming back in a few days, but everyone else thought my departure was weeks or even a month or two away. So I went out and saw them, had a fantastic night hanging out with many of them, gave them the standard goodnight goodbyes and told them I’d call them all before I left so we could have a big goodbye celebration. I never saw them again. I left two days later and didn’t look back.

      FCKs hate that I did that. It makes me look cold and uncaring. But the truth is, the time I spent with them without them knowing that I was never going to see them again was exactly what I think they needed. What’s the point of saying goodbye when this is just who I am? They knew that when they met me. They knew that I would never stay in San Antonio or Houston or New Braunfels. They knew that I would leave. I’d told them many, many times. And they knew that I loved them.

      Just because a single chapter closes, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to write anymore in the book. There will be other days. And if there aren’t, then at least the last memory isn’t one full of sadness.

      I’m not saying do what I did. I’m just letting you know, you’re certainly not alone in dealing with goodbyes differently to your FCK Friends. Thanks for the comment! It’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

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  9. Ellen

    I love your piece. It rings so true to my life. Although I do take photographs, but concentrate mostly on faces. I feel lucky that I have found, on my travels, someone with whom I can share my nomadic life and we have continued to raise our children as TCKs, who now totally see the world as their oyster. I feel that their sense of adventure is a credit to their upbringing and I am proud to have been able to gift them this.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Thank you so much, Ellen! This is probably one of the most relieving things to hear, to be honest. I wrote a post called “What if They’re Like Me,” possibly here, possibly in The Illusive Home, that talked about my endless fear that my kids would end up just like me. I didn’t have anyone to prepare me for how my mind was going to adapt to a life growing up abroad. I think in the end, I turned out pretty good for it, but I remember how hard I found life when I was growing up and figuring out who I was. Now, I’m just happy who I am is so malleable and easily changed. I hold strong to the man I create, but that man can be changed whenever I find something I love and want to absorb. I can’t imagine how much more cultured I would be if I had been doing it my entire life. Keep it up! You’re making amazing TCKs! And thanks so much for reading.

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