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
Hmmmm…it appears that your definition of a Domestic TCK is what David Pollock called a “hidden immigrant”. Interesting take on the rejection aspect of settling down in your passport country.
That would certainly be from where I pulled the initial concept, but there’s just something about Pollock’s Hidden Immigrant status that doesn’t sit comfortably with me when I’m thinking internally. Technically, I classify, but when I think about the way we have globalized since that term became conceptualized, I think that it lacks the evolution of the world that has taken place. I think the restrictions tied to it as a descriptor are lacking, because these days, it has become so much less about “looks” (especially in business) and is more about presentation. People have become more aware of, quite literally, how you present yourself, and have stopped relying on the overall physical look of a person to define them. So, I took the liberty of a multiculturalist and expanded upon the idea.
The path to progress is expanding upon ideas, and I think that this is certainly an area that needs expanding and addressing… in fact this could be a good article for a later date, so thanks for that!
And as a side note, I don’t think that you should view this article as a rejection of your passport country. I, for example, have never returned to my passport country to settle. The rejection is much broader than that. As I stated in the article, it’s in no way a rejection of the place, but rather a rejection of being absorbed into that place. Those are two very different mental states, as rejection of the place implies a resistance to inhabit, whereas a rejection of your TCK absorption default response implies a completely new approach to the way a TCK demonstrates his or her culture.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting!
I discovered your website a few weeks ago, and I’ve found that many of your articles perfectly describe my feelings and experiences. Your statement that making the transition from being an “expat tck” to a “domestic tck” can be one of the most difficult times in a person’s life is really interesting: I’ve lived in the US for over 10 years now, and I still find myself struggling with many of the things you describe. I especially have noticed that very few people fully understand the extent to which my childhood moving around has affected my world view. I don’t have an accent when I speak English, and since I generally just say the last place I lived in the US when I am asked where I am from, most people don’t find out about my tck background until they know me quite well, and often fail to realize how very strongly this impacts my life.
I also find that I often answer negatively when asked “what do you think of [current city/country],” and I think for me this is might be due to a fear of remaining in one place too long and thereby losing a piece of my tck identity, which is based on frequent moves. I often find that I’m much more positive about a place when I know that I will be moving soon!
Thanks for reading! I’m glad that most of this resonates with you. I love your final comment about how you are much more positive about a place when you know that you will be moving soon, because honestly, it is so incredibly true. In my 5 years living in San Antonio, Texas, I was not the most happy of people. My girlfriend-at-the-time’s mother (a naturalized citizen of Venezuelan decent, which I’ve noticed, naturalized citizens are the worst when it comes to that in-your-face American pride) used to tell me all the time “Well if you don’t like it here, move!” Honestly, that statement on its own infuriates me because the whole point of government is to respond to the needs of its people, so the correct statement should be “Well if you don’t like it here, change it!” But Americans have forgotten that this was their founding principal, the reason they became Americans in the first place, and the reason people want to live in this country. Nowadays they seem to have become so… passive.
I digress. I couldn’t agree more with your statement. However, my love for a place kicks in when the move is complete. I look back at San Antonio now and think “I miss tacos and the heavily Hispanic population and the way the culture was shaped around that population and HEB and the fact everything was 15 minutes away at most and…” so on. I look back with fondness because those elements of the culture added to my TCK background.
So spot on! You’re exactly right. And… welcome to TCK Life!
Wow, I identify with this so much. I made the shift from Expat Tck to Domestic TCK just over a month ago and even though I want to be positive and accepting of this country (my passport country) I find myself constantly on the negative side. I didn’t know that I would feel this terrified of ‘inhabiting’ or becoming absorbed into the culture here. But again, I’m still proud of being partly from here.
After I read this post, someone talked to me in class. He asked me what my background is. And when i started to tell him about where I was born and where I grew up, a shadow dropped on his face. He commented, “oh, so global”. Then it became a bit awkward.
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Good article, wish I could get my kids to read it too.