How to Adapt to Cultural Shifts

How-to-cultural-shiftCultural shifts are a massive part of any Third Culture Kid’s life. Whenever we pass from one culture to another, our adaptability forces us to change a little bit of who we are. Sometimes we do this consciously, but in the early days of our TCK development, much of what we absorb is achieved naturally. We acquire elements of a new culture simply by being around it, and it’s the natural feeling of indoctrination that masks the change in our internal culture, hiding the cultural shift from our conscious memory. However, as we travel more, we quickly notice that many elements of previous cultures we have adapted to are no longer relevant in our active cultural environment.

Some of the largest of these fluxes in my development came from transitioning to a life in Asia, then back to a life in the Americas, all while carrying my United Kingdom passport and English heritage. The cultural shift, especially in returning to America from Asia, was by far the most difficult transition I have ever made, and I am not sure that I ever fully achieved a state of symbiosis similar to any of my previous travels.

The question I want to address today focuses on this very idea of, after we have undergone multiple cultural shifts in our identity, how do we adapt to a large and semi-permanent transition? One point I have constantly made when talking to Third Culture Kids who are still in the process of their youthful moving phase is that one day this hopping from place to place will begin to slow down. Granted, there are some people out there that have the resources at their disposal to keep doing it forever, but for most of us TCKs, a day will come when the trips to the airport become fewer and fewer with larger and larger gaps between each trip.

It’s a natural progression, but it’s one that causes a great deal of difficulty for almost every TCK I have had the pleasure of meeting. Suddenly, everything you have known your life to be changes, leading us to the question: How do we, as TCKs, adapt to that phase in our life where things begin to slow down after a lifetime of cultural shifts?

I wish I could say this was going to be easy for you. Unfortunately, most TCKs struggle endlessly with this time in their lives. But, unlike most TCKs, you’ve found Third Culture Kid Life and undoubtedly other TCK sites that are helping you to prepare for the transitions, shifts, and personal developments that are on your horizon. That on its own gives you a leg up on most of us who were TCKs before the internet had given us a place to find help and understanding. You are part of a day and age that allows for constant communication with people who are oceans away, and that on its own is something life-changing.

Even with the internet, though, you’re going to experience what I can only describe as a minor existential crisis. Be prepared for that. It’s pretty much inevitable, and the majority of TCKs seem to go through it. When things finally slow down, you’re going to wake up one day and think hopelessly to yourself “Oh no, I’m going to be stuck here forever aren’t I!” You’ll think that a lot actually, and if you think about it on the grand scheme of humanity, you’re certainly part of the minority thinking that. Most people wake up thinking “Oh no, what if I have to move and leave my family and friends?!” We’re the complete opposite side of that equation, and there are a whole lot fewer of us out there.

I digress. When your brain flashes with that fear that you’re never going to move again, don’t worry. That’s a completely normal thought, and maybe if you understand why you’re having it, you’ll be better equipped to understand and combat it. The worst thing you can do is let it get the better of you, to feel depressed and uninspired because of it. Your love for the world, your desire to chase cultures, your incredible ability to adapt to any climate are all absolutely incredible assets in a world built upon globalization.

Your biggest obstacle in this whole experience is a lack of understanding in what’s happening to you. That’s where the depression kicks in, and you’ll feel trapped and lost and surrounded by people that simply don’t understand. But understanding is the key to getting through it, so let me get that out right now: You are only feeling this way because for the first time you are surrounded by people and cultures that are not changing. Many of you have experienced a Third Culture Kid upbringing in international schools. This means you’ve had a constant stream of different cultures. In college, that constantly changing environment has been severely hindered. You are isolated in a pocket that feels odd to you, because unlike most of these people that feel out of place because they are in a different school outside of their hometown for the first time, you’re in a different school outside of your hometown without extreme cultural stimulation for the first time. This could also apply to post-graduation if you happen to fall into the category of people who continued their cultural exploits through university, and find yourself in a job that mimics this same cultural lock.

Getting through it is tough, no matter how you look at it. But fortunately for you, there’s a world of opportunity out there for people like you and me now. To help, find others who are like you. They can be near of far, and lets face it, distance has never been a problem for us, but find people who understand how you feel. There are a lot of us out there now, so go look, and do the following as much as you can:

  • Find articles written by TCKs online. Blogs are a great source of information, from expats to TCKs, you’ll get a lot out of those.
  • Comment! Almost every blog or digital article has a comment field. My experience is that TCK authors get just as much pleasure out of engaging their TCK audience as they do in writing. I know I do. That’s why I attend speaking events and Google Hangout with international schools. Engage your favourite authors. That’s why we write. It’s all for you.
  • Join social groups. Facebook has plenty of little communities. Some are invite only, but don’t be afraid to request an invite. All the groups I’m part of are wonderful, especially You Know You’re a Third Culture Kid When… The page creator, Mike Sullivan, is a wonderful and passionate TCK advocate, and all the people there are equally as friendly and engaging.
  • Join networks on LinkedIn that include TCKs. There are also websites that cater specifically to TCKs like TCKid.
  • Email your old friends. They know you well, even if you haven’t spoken to them in a long time. This is the 21st century, and we are all TCKs. We know what happens when you move. But that distance doesn’t have to be permanent.
  • Tell others about your travels. Don’t worry if people think you’re bragging. You’re not. This is your life! You didn’t choose it, just like the rest of us didn’t choose it. And sharing your experiences is one of the greatest parts of being a TCK. So share. Share share share. Share anywhere with anyone you want. You’ll never know what cultures you’ll find unless you look.

In the end, no matter what you’re going through, there are always people out there who can help. As always, you can comment here and chat with me anytime, or you can find other TCKs like me who just want to help anywhere online. Our Third Culture lifestyle is built upon a foundation of awkward separation, but that doesn’t mean you are ever alone. Just reach out and ask. We’re here to help, however we can.


James R. Mitchener
Post by: James R. Mitchener

5 thoughts on “How to Adapt to Cultural Shifts

  1. Ellen

    Thanks again for your insight. It is always interesting to read your thoughts. Having been raised a TCK and having raised 2 TCKs for now our traveling life isn’t slowing down. My parents still migrate twice a year and they are in their 80s. Due to our international existence we now have family (not to mention friends) skattered all over the world. It continues to give us the opportunity to travel, explore and experience. One day (and that day may soon come) we will have “to grow up and settle down”. The age old question being asked more and more frequently by our friends and ourselves is where. Somewhere the climate is friendly and is central to further travel. It is hard to imagine a life without travel – without cross-cultural experiences. However, in these present times it is not always necessary to travel to keep having these experiences. There are more and more possibilities of meeting other cultures closer to home. Especially if home is not necessarily ones home country.
    I carry a Dutch passport, raised worldwide, am married to an Englishman, we live in Saudi Arabia, our children were raised primarily in Switzerland and France, our family home is in France. Will we settle there? Perhaps, althpugh we are also looking for a second home elsewhere…

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      It’s always a pleasure to share, and thanks for reading and commenting! It would appear you are an extremely fortunate TCK, as are your kids. The ability to retain that lifestyle from your youth and into your adulthood is something many people don’t have the luxury of sharing. I make an effort to travel as much as I can, but it’s different, many of my clients being based in the United States means I don’t get out of the country as much as I’d like, and I certainly don’t live anywhere else. But I visit. I am envious of your ability to still move, but at the same time, I look at my window into an FCK life as a chance to set forth the pieces that may one day lead me back into a world of global travel. I do love knowing there are TCKs so happy to share their TCK life with their children, though. I have read a great many articles and responses in the Illusive Home that challenged that very idea, many saying they didn’t want to subject their children to that lifestyle. Personally, I am on your side. I want my kids (should I ever have them) to be TCKs, too. But, for most of us, the opportunity to make that choice doesn’t always arise. We are creatures bound by the working world, and that limits our access to the resources available for travel. Fortunately, the world is globalizing more and more each day, and with those changes, the avenue for expatriate life expand.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing!

  2. Chris and Serena

    This is such a great post! This is exactly what I’ve been feeling for many years now. I feel stuck in one place, stagnating in a mono-cultural environment. To be honest, my passport country is extremely varied. People don’t even speak the same language when you move to another state, but even then, I feel stranded. It’s like you said – eventually the travelling gets less and less and that really sets in a feeling of depression. It’s because we constantly need to see the world and when we are in one place (especially when that is our passport country), we feel completely conflicted. It is ‘supposed’ to be our ‘home’, but it never feels that way. That’s when the real problem arises.

    But thank you for this great advice. It really does make one feel better when others can relate to your experiences. Maybe that’s why even after almost a decade of moving back to my passport country, I find that my best friends are the ones I made in school.

    1. James R. Mitchener Post author

      Why thank you, I’m very glad you enjoyed it. I must extend my thanks as well for both reading and engaging. I hope that some of the advice in here will help you through the ups and downs of stagnancy. I know I am still working through it, but I travel a lot more now than I have in the past. You just have to keep pressing, keep searching for opportunity. Fortuantely, as TCKs, we are so naturally inclined to move that when the opportunity arises, we are much more likely to jump on the plane and go wherever we need to. I agree with you entirely about the idea of our passport country supposedly being our home. It’s an FCK idea on a TCK life. It just doesn’t work. I find that my home is more with my friends and the culture and companionship they bring to the table. This extends from partners and companions to casual acquaintances. They all shape my world, and the more impacting they are, the more of a sense of belonging they create. I think that’s what home is meant to be to us, or at least, that’s what it is to me.

      Again, thanks for reading!

  3. Danielle

    Thanks for writing and sharing this piece. I get the “Oh no, I’m going to be stuck here forever aren’t I!” about once a week. I moved back to my passport country about 2 years ago and It terrifies me that I’ll wake up 10 years from now in the same place. I guess moving had created a timeline of progression for me growing up – meaning that a move meant a new place, a new chapter in my life, one that I learned to look forward to. Not knowing when my next move will happen really worries me and it’s difficult for me to get past it.

    I really resonate with what you said in a previous comment that “I find that my home is more with my friends and the culture and companionship they bring to the table. This extends from partners and companions to casual acquaintances. They all shape my world, and the more impacting they are, the more of a sense of belonging they create. I think that’s what home is meant to be to us, or at least, that’s what it is to me”. I’ve known this for a long time, but hadn’t been able to properly articulate it. Hearing this is very comforting and calms my “search for home” anxiety.

    Thank you once again James and keep posting! When ever I feel out of step, I search for articles like these.


Leave a Reply to Danielle Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s