One of the most common questions I get from First Culture Kids, after the initial wave of questions inspired by the shock of my multicultural upbringing subsides, is “and what do you think about [insert current place I’m living]?” I’ve written an article about this before in which I discussed how I, as a Third Culture Kid, define myself by the place I’m not living, but I’ve never really answered in a way that satisfies the original intentions of this collection. In truth, the question seems inconsequential to any FCK, but to a TCK looking back on their lives, it is often weighted with so much more than anyone would guess.
To fully understand the weight of this question, I first need to explain the difference between two separate stages of a TCK life; At any point, a TCK is either an Expat TCK, or a Domestic TCK. Now, I understand that saying Expat and TCK together is rather redundant, but I think it’s important to note the difference between an Expat TCK and a Domestic TCK. Regardless of where you are, as a TCK, you will always feel like a Third Culture Kid. That’s inevitable. Our upbringings have created a permanent level of separation between us and natural FCK society. It’s the way of our lives. But there’s a big difference between Expat TCKs and Domestic TCKs, one that shapes the entire way we operate in the culture we’re actively involved in. So, what do they actually mean?
Expat TCK – A Third Culture Kid who lives in a foreign country in which they are the obvious minority, be it through language, skin colour, accent, customs, etc. It is obvious to both the TCK and the culture in which the aforementioned TCK is living that he/she has moved there like many other Expats. The TCK is forced to blend by showing their knowledge of the culture they are living in, not by natural or physical means.
Domestic TCK – A Third Culture Kid that lives in a foreign country (or their passport country) that matches many of their external identifiers, such as skin colour, accent, language, customs, etc. This type of TCK blends naturally and is only recognized as “different” when a relationship with this TCK is established and particular foreign cultural adoptions become evident.
Now back to the question at hand: What happens when someone asks what it’s like living in [insert current country here]? The curious element of this question is that it has only ever been asked when I have been in Domestic TCK mode. Something about being an Expat TCK tends to lead to a more quiet acceptance of your presence, one that lacks a good deal of approach from others, with people having a tendency to wait for you to make the move in drawing a connection rather than you doing so. This has a lot to do with cultural restrictions. We are naturally more comfortable with what we understand and know, and things that are foreign to us make us weary. This doesn’t change with people, so Expat TCKs are forced to engage in order to break down boundaries, where Domestic TCKs fit in well enough that at first glance no boundary is perceivable.
When I was first asked what it was like living in [insert place] over the others, I was back in Houston after all my international travels had come to a close. I knew that traveling was behind me for a while, but I had no idea that 11 years later I would still be living in the same country with no immediate promise of departing. So, when I was asked what I thought about Houston, I was naturally resistant. People saw this as a resistance to the place itself, but the truth is, that’s never what’s happening with TCKs. We are natural movers. We do it so well that we may be the only group on the planet that the “Most Stressful Life Event: Moving” rule doesn’t apply to. In fact, I am more relaxed moving than I am sitting still.
The reason for our resistance is the shift from Expat TCK to Domestic TCK. Most of us have spent our entire lives being the minority outsider, forcing connections and demonstrating our cultural understanding in order to be accepted as more than just the foreigner. The greatest moment of any TCK experience is that very first second in which a majority individual accepts you, at least in part, as a member of their culture due to your understanding, respect, and participation in their cultural practices. There is no greater feeling of euphoria in the world for us. It’s what we live for!
Of course, that means that when we are stripped of our Expat TCK status and are transitioned into our Domestic TCK status, we are stripped of the vitality of our experiences. The unfortunate truth is, everything that we know has been completely turned around. Like I said before, people are made uncomfortable by what they do not understand, and unless you are a TCK yourself, the TCK mentality is impossible to understand. So where an Expat TCK starts every relationship with a lack of trust and understanding, building up to a state of cultural acceptance, the Domestic TCK suffers a much harsher reality.
Whenever a Domestic TCK starts a relationship, it is always assumed they are part of that culture. Then, as the relationship begins to unfold, Cultural Slips begin to happen at random intervals, revealing the foreignness of our true identity. The subconscious is a powerful tool, and for FCKs, they feel as though they have been tricked or deceived. Unless the person has an open mind, a trait that is unfortunately sparse, the doors go from open to closed on trusting and accepting the TCK. And as everyone knows, it’s much harder to regain lost trust than it is to gain trust from a blank slate.
In becoming a Domestic TCK, our lives become an endless struggle to walk the line between being different and blending in. We have to polarize our lifestyle, completely flipping how we used to act. We go from intentionally blending into the culture to show our respect to intentionally rejecting it to stand out, effectively avoiding the mistrust that is created, albeit subconsciously, when it becomes evident we are not who people think we are.
But that’s not us. We did not learn and grow by making ourselves overtly known. We are not natural rejecters of culture; We are natural blenders. To make statements like “I’m English” when in an American culture hurts us, not because it’s not part of who we are, but because it’s just one tiny fragment of who we are. We are not English or American or Chinese or Indonesian or French or Spanish or any other country in the world. We are all of them we have touched. And we are endlessly proud of every tiny fraction of a culture we have picked up.
So when we are asked what it’s like to live wherever we’re living, we aren’t reacting the way we do for the reasons you think. We reject because to be a Domestic TCK is to contradict everything you were raised to do. It’s to make apparent who we are, instead of blending into what we aren’t. And that moment when the shift takes place is the single most challenging part of any Third Culture Kid’s life.
- Post by: James R. Mitchener