I get this question a lot more than you would think. I say all the time that being part of the Third Culture isn’t so much the experiences you had, but the way you adapted to each experience at the time you had it. We aren’t TCKs because of where we have been. We’re TCKs because of the way we absorbed the cultures of the places we have grown. Even now that I have left Hong Kong, I still relate to it closer than any other place I’ve lived. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back, an idea that can easily make me sink into quite a severe depression, but I do know that I will carry the culture of the city and time that I lived there for the rest of my life.
Of course, that would make sense to a Self Aware Third Culture Kid. While I have been a TCK since I turned 4, I didn’t know it until I was 15 or 16 years old. And even then, I didn’t understand it until I was 17 or 18. Why? Because I have known no other life. Where other people can say they remember growing up in one country, in one town, with the same friends, I can’t even remember the layout of my house in our seventh country. That’s just my life, and it’s all I’ve ever really known. To me, that’s just normal.
The best way to understand the parallel and lack of realization would be to imagine that you and I saw two different versions of the color Blue. When describing it to me, you’d say “the sky is blue” and “the ocean is blue” and I’d agree, but what I see and what you see aren’t the same thing, and while we understand the connection, I am mentally incapable of knowing your perception of the color blue, just as you are mine. What appears to be blue to me may in fact be a green to you. But it doesn’t matter, because we can see the connection, we just can’t understand the mental process beneath it.
That’s what it’s like when an FCK tries to explain their home to me, or tell me what it was like having the same friends, or that they never want to leave because this is where they belong. I can see the parallel, I can draw the connection, and I can pretend to understand. But in the end, their home is a blue that I’ll never be a be able to see.
And while Self-Aware-TCKs understand this mental process perfectly, my readers who are just uncovering their TCK status might not fully realize the power behind this truth. So, I am going to break my rule of never creating lists, and I’m going to give you my top 5 silent bullets that I ask anyone (always without actually asking, but instead uncovering the answers through careful conversation and evasive questioning) who asks me if they are a TCK during a conversation with me.
1. When I ask you what home is, your eyes dart top right in consideration or bottom right in internal dialogue.
This is a nice little trick because Self-Aware-TCKs will answer with their stock answer like mine: “I was born in England, raised around the world, and I currently live in Raleigh where I moved to from Texas.” This informs them I am not from any of those places, they are just places, but it also ties in multiple locations they can hopefully relate to while combining an air of mystery. An FCK would just say the city/town/country that is their home. An expat would say “I am from England but I live in Raleigh,” always bringing their home into the equation of where they’re from.
But an unaware TCK will wonder. They’ve been asking themselves this same question for years, and in the end, they still aren’t really sure. So they’ll dart their eyes into the top right corner of their socket, triggering the visual memory portion of their brain, and fire through a list of locations they grew up and try to figure out the best answer based on all those memories. Or, they’ll be at a stage where they’ve been asking themselves that question for so long, mulling it over and over in the silence of their mind whenever they are alone, that they will drop their eyes to the bottom right portion of their socket and listen to the internal dialogue of a sequence of questions regarding where they are from, a question they still can’t quite answer.
2. When I ask you about a politically volatile situation, your impulse is to relate to the minority, not the majority, regardless of your connection to either party.
There’s an air of globalized protection from TCKs when it comes to minority parties. We have spent our entire lives being the minority, even if we aren’t consciously aware of the situation yet. In a way, we are even minorities in the group of TCKs, because no two TCKs are alike. So naturally, we relate better with groups that have fewer members because we ourselves have always been the group with the fewest members. We default into joining sides with the party that needs us, in adopting the cultural stand of the group that is the weakest, because in a way we understand just how difficult it is living a life where you’re always just a little bit off from the rest of the group. No matter how good we get at fitting in, we are always going to be outside of the circle because we will never fully be a part of that particular culture.
Of course, there’s an exception to this rule that helps guarantee the success of the TCK response. From my experiences meeting TCKs, and I am not saying there isn’t an exception here, but as far as my conversations have extended I have never seen a TCK take the side of an oppressor, even if the oppressor is the minority party. We value human development above all else. Why? Because it’s in human development that we find who we are. We are cultural leaches, sucking out the good of every culture we come across. When a group tries to expel a culture we could absorb, it’s a personal assault on a part of who we are or who we could possibly be.
3. When describing your Passport country, you don’t say “home,” you say “[country name].”
This is one of the first things I started doing before I even realized I was a TCK. My passport country where all my family lived was never home. My mother would say “We’re going to fly home next month!” to my brother and me, and from then on I would say “[X] days until we go to England!” To my mother, it was always home. To my brother and me, it was just the country everyone we were related to lived in, with exception to our Australian family members.
To a TCK, your passport country is just another location in the list of locations you’ve been. So if we’re talking, and you have told me you were born in England, but you keep calling it England after that, I have a pretty good idea that you’re trying to find your identity in the TCK crowd if you haven’t already.
4. When you’re telling me stories of your life, they involve elements that an FCK would think “there’s no way that happened.”
“I was only four, but I loved riding the top of the double decker buses as they darted around Hong Kong. The drivers were on a schedule, and the system was incredibly efficient, and if you sat at the front on the top floor it felt like you were flying because the glass extended all the way to the floor. We would hold onto the bar and press our faces on the glass and watch as the bus took turns on the edge of the cliffs several hundred feet up so sharply that the bus literally lifted off the ground and made the turn on two wheels!”
I’ve told that story to FCKs so many times, and they never believe me. Of course, ask anyone that lived in Hong Kong in 1992 and they’ll tell you the same thing. How all of us that lived there didn’t plummet to our deaths as we tumbled down a cliff into a rocky and watery grave, I’ll never know. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. And the best part? That’s one of the more believable stories of my youth. If you tell me a story about a far away land and the FCKs life an eyebrow in disbelief, there’s a strong chance your childhood was the TCK development period. The world of a TCK is just full of disbelief in general. Even now I wonder sometimes if what I remember is even remotely possible. Then I browse the pictures of my youth and am reminded that it all really did happen.
5. I tell you I’m a Third Culture Kid, that I am a global nomad and don’t have a home, and that I will always be moving because staying put is the worst punishment anyone could ever give me, and your face lights up while all the others around me look at me like I just shot their mothers.
And the final trick. I explain who I am and what I have seen. And when I do, the FCKs around me look at me with shock, curiosity-masked-confusion, or inquisition, but there’s that one person in the group who’s eyes light up as if for the first time in their lives, someone said something that actually makes sense. Then the questions fire, and the TCK will say absolutely nothing but will listen to the FCKs firing off questions and me answering in my traditional global-nomad way, and all the while the TCK’s face will continue to glow brighter with understanding while the FCKs around them become more and more confused, uninterested, or distanced.
So if you read this question and all the others before it, and felt a connection to them as a point of truth or realization, there’s a good chance I would be thinking when I met you “looks like I have another TCK on my hands.”
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. This is just the most reliable sequence of events I’ve found in my life to uncover the unaware TCKs that surround me. And hopefully, in bringing that status from unaware TCK to Self Aware TCK, perhaps you’ll find the comfort I found in realizing that being the minority, in not fitting in, isn’t so bad after all. In the end, we have the whole world to draw from in defining who we are. And that’s a heck of an inspiring pool if you ask me.
- Post by: James R. Mitchener
Thank you James! I would like to add a strong sensitivity to the meaning and context of words and phrases, because a word and a phrase has meaning, nuance, power — especially to multilingual people who have lived a language in its own culture and not just learned a language in their first culture school.
My personal experience and that of the (A)TCKs I work with are that TCKs are constantly striving for the best word within a certain context, and place high value on as precise an expression as possible. That TCKs are constantly assuming that if someone didn’t understand them, they must have misused a word or phrase. They may speak the language well, often without an accent, but they will never take that language or being understood for granted. There is always room for improvement. Always curiosity about a new word. And when in dialogue, often a request for clarification that the FCK may find “nitpicky”, but to the TCK the clarification is crucial to properly relate to the other.
For instance the word “conversation”. How many FCKs use the word “conversation” casually, meaning roughly an exchange with another person. For the TCK the “conversation” would mean an equal exchange, a dialogue; whereas the FCK may also include “I need to get something off my chest, but I do not need your input” (monologue), or “I didn’t agree with something, we need to talk” (debate/ argument). The TCK may feel confused when the “conversation” turned into a debate, argument or monologue.
The TCK may also feel they have no “right” to correct or request clarification from an FCK about their use of language — after all, it’s the FCK’s first language and “only” the second (or third, fourth, etc) language to a TCK.
I find this to be a beautifully crafted comment. I love the parallel between the cultural implication of being more than monolingual, especially because that in itself is a culture. The multilingual community traverses a terrain that mixes both culture and language together. The most interesting part about this, as you so eloquently put, is that you’ll often see a disconnect when it comes to expression, simply because one of the two (the culture of language or the culture of life) doesn’t coincide with the other. You may know you mean one thing, but it doesn’t always come across as such.
Wonderfully put, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for reading!
My pleasure! I also enjoyed your post about flying. My husband is a recreational pilot and I am always surprised when I am excited about getting into the plane, but then disappointed when we land at the same airport as where we took off. For me, the excitement lies within going somewhere new, exploring, adventure. The airplane is a means of transportation to get the adventure started. The feelings in my belly, the alertness of my mind, the strength of my emotions in an airplane are associated with the adventure.
For my husband, the airplane has an entirely different meaning. He adores being able to see from above (get some altitude, literally and figuratively), to distance himself from his current reality, and the power and sense of freedom that comes from being in control of the airplane in the open skies.
I do feel this is also a way to identify a TCK — the intense feelings (positive and negative) associated with airplanes, as they symbolize the gap between one place and another, one life and another, one friend and another, the old and the new, grief and joy,…
Wow I really relate to this. I am definitely a third culture kid, with no where I can truly call home. Thanks for a great read!
Beautiful, thank you.
A “homesick” (Well, what’s home?) TCK of German parents, currently alone in China, but having grown up in Botswana (Africa).