Category Archives: Adult TCK

A TCK’s Path to Atheism

Holding Faith“It’s fine that you are an atheist. I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me at all. But people we work with will always think less of you for it. These are good, strong, Christian families, and while I [as a Christian] don’t care about your choice to be an atheist, it doesn’t mean that they will feel the same way. You can be an atheist if you want. But remember that your decision will always be a roadblock to your success.”

“But that’s not fair. My atheism doesn’t define me.”

“Sure it is. And of course it does. You publicize your beliefs all the time.”

“No I don’t.”

“You talk about them in your writing, and you distribute that writing in places you know our clients can see it. You have to deal with the consequences of your actions.”

This conversation, one that took place between my business partner and me several months ago, may not be exactly as it was spoken. It’s close, though, and the parts that have been ringing in my memory since it was spoken are entirely accurate, even if they fall out of place in their timing.

I have a thick skin these days, one that has been developed through the expatriate life of a Third Culture Kid constantly uprooting his life, and one that has been strengthened by my continued development of content that is distributed through multiple channels all over the world. As a writer, I cannot let the criticism of others affect the truth behind my words. As a TCK, I cannot let the criticism of others affect the validity of my experiences.

This conversation, however, cut through both the TCK skin and the writer skin, and since I took part in the aforementioned conversation, I have been incapable of putting it out of my mind. I have wanted to write this piece since I had the talk. I have wanted to explain why it shook me so badly, why it hurt my heart, and why I felt ashamed to be myself for the first time in many, many years. I have wanted to try and explain the depth of who I am and what I believe for so long, to show the world that like everyone else, no single word can describe me. That I am more than just a TCK, more than an introvert, more than a writer, more than a hopeless romantic, and yes, more than an atheist. But unfortunately, I hold the words of this particular friend in higher regard than those of anyone else in my life. And so instead of reacting, I have tried to understand. And in my understanding, I have realized that this topic, this conversation, my atheism in the context of this moment in time, may be one of the single greatest parallels to the breakdown between TCKs and FCKs I have ever tried to conquer.

What my friend and business partner said was true in many ways, and wrong in many others. Where it was right, it was correct in the sense that he understands the limitation of human understanding. Where he was wrong is in exactly the same place. Where to start here is difficult, so I’ll pick the piece that began running circles in my mind from the second I heard it, the seed of words that bloomed into the deep thought of everything else: The fact that it was my “choice to be an atheist.”

I do not believe that I chose to be an atheist anymore than I chose to think, to write, to fall in love, or to absorb elements of every culture I come across. In fact, I think it was my natural need, my impulsive and uncontrollable desire to do all of these things that made me realize I was an atheist. I certainly didn’t start there. I didn’t spring forth into this world screaming “I don’t believe in God!” In fact, it was quite the opposite.

When I was young, my parents raised me and my brother to think for ourselves, to make our own choices on what we believed. My mother is a Protestant, my father is an atheist. Neither my brother nor myself knew this about our father for years. In fact, I don’t think I even knew my father was an atheist at the time I realized that I was one.

My mother taught me about God, told me the stories of the Bible, and shared with me any answer to any question I had regarding her religion that I had adopted as my own in my youth. Whenever I asked a question about something that made little sense to me, like the parting of the Red Sea or how all the animals in the world fit onto Noah’s Ark, she would answer as best she could, combining her beliefs with varying interpretations that bent to scientific theory. She conditioned me to think, to ask questions, and to ask “why” to everything. She may not have meant to do that, but I like to think she did. I’m proud of her for that. It was probably one of the greatest gifts she could have given me, to always seek out an answer to everything.

So as I grew up, I grew up Protestant. I was afraid of God, too, when I was young. I once accidentally took a toy from a friend in Bradbury Jr. School in Hong Kong that I thought was mine. After lots of fighting and me claiming that the boy had stolen my toy, I found that I had actually left mine in my bag and the one I had acquired was indeed his. I apologized and gave it back, but I remember spending weeks terrified that God would be mad at me for stealing something in my ignorance.

I continued to believe, without the guidance of Church, for years. I still had hints of my faith all the way up until I arrived in Hong Kong International School in eighth grade, sat down at my desk in a new class in a new country at the only English-speaking school option under the American and International Baccalaureate education systems, and found that I had a Bible as part of my mandatory reading list. Something inside of me got angry, and while I had never in all my life been frustrated by owning a bible (in fact, I had one my grandmother had bought for me when I was very little at home), something about the book of one faith without accompaniment of any other faiths being part of my required reading turned my stomach.

It was in that moment, that exact second that I opened up the familiar, thin, toilet-paper-like pages that I realized that I believed in Christianity as much as I believed in Hinduism or Taoism. I knew the faith, I knew the practices, and I knew the philosophy of all of them. But I was not a believer in the story or the validity of its word. I did not choose to be that way. I simply was. I had spent so much time asking questions, so much time operating in a way that my family had conditioned me to operate, in a way that my natural state of being demanded I operate, that I had learned because it fascinated me, not because I believed it.

As my time in Hong Kong went on, I continued to ask questions as I had always done my entire life. My Religious Education teacher, we will call him Mr. King, who taught me Christianity one day and Science the next on an alternating block schedule, quickly came to hate me. I never meant to insult him or to cut him down, but I think being the teenager I was with a head full of questions and a fundamental need to know the truth behind everything put a little too much pressure on the poor man to perform. He simply didn’t know what to do with me.

He tried, sort of, but I finally broke his reserve about three-quarters of the way through the year. The previous day he had taught us about evolution, about how Darwin had started a series of developing theories that had resulted in the scientific community proving entirely that evolution happens every single day all around us and always has since the dawn of life on this planet. Then the very next day, he taught us about Creationism, citing biblical text as solid evidence that was meant to be as valid as the scientific theory he had presented the previous day. Naturally, I asked him which one he believed, not because I wanted to pick him apart or belittle his faith, but because I truly wanted to understand how someone could believe both creationism as it stood word-for-word in the Bible and evolution simultaneously.

He couldn’t answer.

I asked him which one he felt had more validity to his life.

Again, he stumbled for a response.

I asked him how I, a man seeking answers, was meant to understand the significance of either religion’s response or science’s response to the question of the development of earth’s species when my educator couldn’t direct me (here, I admit, I may have overstepped my bounds, but while my teacher was frustrated at my questioning, my incessant need for answers was frustrating me equally as much with his inability to answer any of them).

Mr. King pointed to the door and yelled for me to get out of his classroom. I did as I was instructed and sat on the bench outside the door. A few minutes later, out came Mr. King, quietly closing the door behind him. I stood up and opened my mouth to apologize, to explain I was only trying to understand, but before a sound left my lips, Mr. King had spun around and grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, pinning me to a wall and jamming his finger into my chest. He yelled at me, his face inches from mine, about how I was never to undermine his authority again. He pressed his finger harder into my chest, and threatened that if I ever did it again, he would have me expelled.

Rage overcame me, something that has happened only three or four times in my life, and I slapped his hand out from chest and shoved him backwards so that he stumbled over his own feet. I pounced forward and punched him hard in the chest, right in the center of his sternum. “If you ever lay a finger on me again,” I spat, my voice no more than a screaming whisper as the anger in Mr. King’s face went from fury to fear. But then I paused. I stopped myself from continuing, my body shaking with rage caused by someone I trusted as a teacher and leader who had assaulted me with such burning hatred in his eyes for asking questions to which he simply didn’t have the answers. Mr. King went back into the classroom, and I never asked him another question about God again.

Often times, Mr. King would just send me out into the hall with my Bible to read alone, which I did without question or hindrance. I had learned a valuable lesson from him that day. Both of us, a man of God and a man of questioning, were both equally capable of breaking to the point of causing the other pain. The only difference was, he had to answer to his God, while I had to accept that it was me and me alone that had allowed myself to snap.

I swore then and there never to break like that again with anyone, and I have carried the memory of that moment with me since its occurrence.

But from then on, there was no going back. The realization was etched into the stone of my being; I was an atheist to my core. I never stopped learning about God or gods. I loved religion classes, and once I was done with Mr. King, I was given the opportunity to take many different courses with many different specialists regarding many different faiths. I bought books on Taoism and learned it myself, I read the Ramayana, I expanded my knowledge of Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. I even dove into many different origin faiths of Africa and how those faiths adapted and changed, or were exterminated, at the arrival of Christian influence. But most of all, I dove deeper into Christianity, isolating many different denominations and learning all I could about the scripture, the history, the science, and the development of the faith. I learned where pieces branched off and why, I learned what areas believed what as a majority and why, I learned about the minorities that struggled to survive and why, and I took extra care to learn the details of the scripture itself in all of them. And I did this because all those gods, all those faiths, fascinated me.

But the more I learned about the gods of the world, the more I dove deeper into the countless number of faiths and the sub-faiths that stemmed from similar roots in some cases, vastly different roots in others, I began to see a trend that my mind of endless questions simply couldn’t adhere too. Every single one of them, and from what I have learned this is a rule that spans the entirety of faith, were born in times that needed one of two questions answered: Either a) How do we, as people, deal with the oppression that’s upon us, or b) How do we, as leaders, control a group of people that we do not have the resources or means to control?

But my mind of questioning was not stripped of faith from these questions. In the darkest of times, some of the greatest truths are always born. Regardless of the religion, they all held pearls of wisdom that rang true in the lives of everyone, regardless of whether that person believed in that particular god or not. Where my faith began to strip to nothing was in the inability, and just plain resistance, of every faith I studied to evolve with the knowledge and understanding of the scientific community.

Christianity had become one of my largest studies for this very reason. It seemed to me that as the years had rolled by and the faith had developed, the faith of Christian denominations was driven by the oppression of knowledge. There’s a term that comes across in many pieces of literature, one that’s called the “Christian Dark Ages,” that refers to the gap in science, technology, and development that coincided with the rapid growth of Christianity. The Greeks and the Romans developed scientific principles that were akin to developments made just three-hundred years ago. But then, for almost 1600 years, Christianity carved a hole in development, forcing our technological and scientific advancement to actually fall backwards on itself. This decline pushed humanity back by almost two millennia, with Christians refusing to accept the world was round and killing people who exclaimed otherwise, refusing to accept the Sun was the center of the universe and not the Earth, refusing to accept that women had rights or that people with red hair had souls. The faith, for almost two millennia, was one riddled with oppression that spilled oceans of blood from those who simply asked the question “what if?”

But just because Christianity is the most common religion in the world to date, that in no way means it was the only one operating under these principals of knowledgeable oppression. It was simply the most powerful, the most reaching, and the most influential at the time, making it the most damaging. From the Crusades (both child and adult) to the Spanish Inquisition, Christianity left a river of blood in its wake. And it was with that red-stained earth from the people who, like myself, simply asked the question “Yes, but why is this the way things are?” that my faith was stripped to nothing.

So when I am told that I chose to be an atheist, I get uncharacteristically annoyed. I did not chose this path anymore than I chose to be born or I chose to breathe air in order to survive. This path was simply the one that was laid before me with the sea of questions that I have always been unable to answer, questions that no religion in this world makes an effort to answer, but instead challenges me to accept things for the way they are for reasons that are not backed by factual proof. I did not choose a life driven by questions, and I did not choose to turn to science for my answers instead of God. I simply turned to the only place in the world that, even though it admits it’s often wrong, is constantly trying to prove itself wrong to find out what is actually right. I turned to ever-evolving answers.

But the beauty of my choice, the beauty of my love of faith and the studies I have done throughout my life in trying to find the answers to questions we will not answer for generations after my certain demise, is that my love for all gods has never faded from my heart. I am a realist, one that has high levels of empathy and finds comfort in the happiness of my fellow people. I live my life by a set of strong morals that were taught to me by my parents and evolved due to my understanding of the value of human life. While I may not believe in the god that you believe in, I know him well. And where I know him, I know that if he makes your life better, if he holds answers to the question of what makes your life worth living, then who would I be to ever to take that away from you?

Faith to me, regardless of which one it is or in what corner of the Earth it resides, is an absolutely crucial part of humanity. This is the TCK inside of me, the source of adaptation and understanding, the cultural absorber that adds crucial elements of everywhere he goes into who he is as a person. And while I do not believe in your faith of choice personally, I do not take any comfort in the words of arrogant atheists who scream louder than myself and claim that this world would be better without god. This world would be better without radical extremists of any faith, or without faith, because a militant anything will not stop until they are the only ones left in the pool of opinion. Regardless of whether that person is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Atheist, if their blood is burning to see something eradicated from this world, they will not stop until they have either removed their “problem” from the face of the planet, or they themselves are removed from the equation. And that hatred, that passion to cause another man harm, that inability to control the rage that flows through you, has nothing to do with god.

And if you doubt the validity in those words, ask that young atheist boy with a head full of questions or that Science and Religion teacher in a school in Hong Kong. Regardless of their beliefs, they will both answer the question of human aggression in exactly the same way; And neither will blame it on God.

_________

The Author

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

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The Introverted TCK

In many of the posts you have previously read, I have dropped into conversation how I am an introvert. I have made a conscious effort to blend that information into my experiences and give you a taste of what it’s like being both an introvert and a Third Culture Kid, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that despite how I have described my upbringing and the value I believe it holds in creating the man I am today, many of you are probably reading the word introvert with an incorrect bias that has been crafted in your minds from the clay of countless years of misinformation blurring the true characteristics an introvert possess.

When most people hear the word introvert, their default reaction is to think of someone who is shy. Shyness has nothing to do with introversion. Being shy is a state of fear that’s tied to the way we perceive others judging our behaviour. It’s a completely separate and entirely mental state of being that does not in any way correlate to introversion. There are shy extroverts and there are shy introverts. The only thing is, a shy extrovert is much harder to pick out than a shy introvert, which is why the bias has stuck so well.

I have always said, in all aspects of life, that it’s the radical extremists that get all the attention. When I say I’m an atheist, people think of burning crosses, a hatred for those that believe in a supernatural creator, and a desire to end religion across the world. None of those characteristics describe my atheism, nor do they describe my personality. But that’s what people think, because those atheists are always the loudest, and whoever screams the loudest will always be heard above everyone else.

The problem with introverts is that we are never the loudest. In fact, the idea of standing in a room and yelling at the top of our lungs to grab the attention of the masses juxtaposes everything our natural state of being is about. So when you hear that introverts are shy, don’t like people, and hate leaving the house, these are simply the stigmas put upon us by the extroverts that fail to understand who we are and what fuels our strength.

So what is introversion? To make it as simple to understand as possible, the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is the source at which we draw our energy. Introverts draw their strength from quieter, more isolated environments or one-on-one social interactions while they are drained by loud, packed, highly stimulating environments. Extroverts on the other hand get their strength from high stimulation in the form of loud environments, chaotic moments in time, or social gatherings with many people while they get bored or tired at small social gatherings. That being said, this does not mean that extroverts can’t spend time relaxing at home, and introverts can’t spend a night on the town or at a large social gathering. It simply means that prolonged exposure to the type of event that’s opposite to our natural state of comfort will eventually leave us feeling tired, drained, and generally beaten. We will always need to retreat back to our area of comfort; for extroverts back to high levels of stimulation, and for introverts areas of low level stimulation.

But this isn’t a collection about introverts or extroverts. It’s a collection about Third Culture Kids, regardless of where they draw their energy. But then, it’s also a collection about me, one particular TCK who draws all his strength from writing, being alone, or having long talks with an extremely close friend or romantic partner. But one thing that all introverts very quickly learn as they develop in this world is that in today’s generation, there is very little room for us to be ourselves.

And that is even more of a fundamental truth for an introverted TCK.

The entire TCK process of uprooting, of starting again, of immersing yourself in other cultures forces a conflict within any introverted TCK. That being said, I’m sure it forces a conflict in an extroverted TCK too, but being the massively introverted person I am, it did some truly interesting things to my development into the man I am today. For starters, when I was young, the one thing I hated more than anything in the world was to be around large groups of people. I didn’t enjoy social gatherings like birthday parties, I didn’t like to play group games at school, I didn’t like sleep-overs at friend’s houses, and I hated to be away from my toys and my house and my family. I was comfortable in my own space with my own things around the people I knew well. I didn’t want to be around others, and when I was, I couldn’t do it for very long before my introverted need to be back in my comfort zone kicked in and called me back home.

But with every single move, with every single country I jumped to, with every single uprooting and complete overhaul of my life where I was forced into a new environment with new people and new places, none of which I knew or recognized, my introverted side that was incapable of letting go of what it knew was stripped naked, thrown into a room full of strangers, and told to dance.

One move at a time, I became more and more numb to it all. At first, I handled it with tears. Then, I handled it with aggression. When I moved to Hong Kong, I had already become quite the wordsmith. I could craft sentences with a vastly superior ability to that of my colleagues, and in doing so, I became a verbal bully. Sick of my introverted side ruining my life for the first year of every move, I changed the way I dressed, the way I presented myself, the way I interacted with others to mimic those elements of the “cool group,” or what we as TCKs could coin the “Cool Culture.” I became vindictive, vicious, and malicious with my words, picking apart people’s personalities, beliefs, attire, attitudes, and physical appearances. I was a monster, the person people would come to if they needed someone to be told the truth of a matter. And I hated myself for it. So, halfway through my stay in Hong Kong, I stopped.

When I got back to America, I had already accepted that I was an outsider. I knew that in this land of slightly-varying Christian Gods, I was never going to fit in. So, I pulled the polar opposite of an introvert and made acquaintances with everyone. I had no enemies, no one that I hated and no one that truly hated me. I introduced shaking hands instead of high-fives, answered curious questions with peaceful intentions about my atheism from the sea of Christians that surrounded me and never understood how or why I believed what I did, and I moved like an specter from social circle to social circle. I fit in everywhere, but while I did that, I had no single solid group of friends, no collection of people that would think to call me after school to participate in activities like sports or go see a movie. I just existed, an outsider capable of mixing with everyone.

All the while I was still an introvert. I hated to stand in front of a class of people, I hated to speak about the things I knew or show the knowledge of the world I had acquired. I was terrified of meeting new people, hated attending parties, hated flirting or dating or talking about the history of my life and how I had ended up where I was at the time. And yet, I did it all. I went to parties. I answered all the questions anyone could ask. I met new people. I talked in front of large groups. I mixed with everyone. I lived the life of an extrovert, and I did it perfectly while my body screamed in fear.

Even today, the adult I have become living the confused life of a TCK that has all grown up, I am scared to speak to anyone I do not know. If it were up to me, I would stay in my apartment all day. I would never go out. I would write in the comfort of my confined space with the company of my dog. I would not try to make friends, friends that I will inevitably say goodbye to. I would not push myself to come across as an extrovert in every aspect of my work.

But it’s not up to me.

Thanks to a lifetime of being dragged around the world, this TCK is in constant internal struggle with himself. On one end, there’s a child screaming in fear begging me not to go out and socialize, not to talk to the random person in the bar, not to go into the room with the loud music or the conference room full of people older and more experienced than myself, to never open my mouth and voice the knowledge I have acquired over the years. It’s begging me to just be quiet, to shut myself away, to recharge my batteries. But my introverted side always loses.

Because now, I’m a 25 year old Third Culture Kid. And with all I’ve seen, with all I’ve experienced, I just cannot bear to let that side of me that wants to disappear take control. There’s too much world out there that I haven’t experienced, too many people I have yet to meet, too many cultures I have yet to absorb.

So while I may have been an introvert as a child, and my personality tests will say that I am still very much one today, my desire to fade into the background does not control me. I am a Third Culture Kid, and I am driven by change.

_________

The Author

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

From Home to Discovery

When I was in university, I was asked to do a visual exercise that was to detail the limits of our memory and the power of our imagination. I was asked to think about my home, and imagine a car. I was told to climb into that car, and start driving away from my house. Where I went wasn’t important, but I had to drive away from my home, and I had to continue driving in that same direction away from my house for as long as I could. We were given several minutes to think about the scenario, and when the timer ran out, we were told to write down our imaginary drive so that we could share it with the class and see how far we had each made it along the road of memory’s imagination.

Everyone in my class in Texas made it far. But they all made it right from the central point of a home that existed within that state, within that city. For me, the question itself had fundamental and confusing issues. Did they want to know about my drive from my birth country of England? Did they want to know about my current house in Houston? Or did they want to know about the other corners of the world that I considered equally as influential in my development as any other I’d resided in? Without knowing the answer, I chose them all.

Before I begin my drive, my brother and I run from the door and head straight for the tree that seems to always be in blossom, tiny white buds of fur that resemble caterpillars creeping from the branches until they grow too heavy and fall to the grass beneath our feet. Together, my brother and I run three circles around the tree before returning to the door, hopping across the concrete-rainbows that separate the grass of the garden from the walkway to the car. Once in the car, we reverse from the drive and pass the complex where we go to see the dentist. We drive along winding roads and past fields and tress until we arrive at the all-to-small road that leads to my grandparent’s house. Down lanes barely big enough for a single car, we soar past oncoming vehicles that run off into the shoulder to avoid collision, just as we have done. Just after we pass the oldest dove house in the world, we pull onto a road that winds past several pubs, including The Pineapple. Entering Dorney Common, we slow to a stop to allow the cows to cross the road. When they have made their rounds, we continue on into Eton Wick, Windsor Castle in sight not more than a thirty minute walk away, and turn down Queens Road to my Granny and Grandad’s home.

As a family, we step into the elevator and my brother and I fight over who gets to push the button to go to the ground floor. I win, being older, unless my mother explicitly tells me not to push the button, and even then I may slip an arrogant and defiant jab at the ground floor to beat my brother.  In mere seconds, we arrive at the bottom of the building and walk past the gateway to the garage and start our trek down the hill, past a pile of rocks that we had salvaged for stones to allow our terrapins to sunbathe in the warm, incandescent lighting of our apartment. When we reach the bottom of the hill, we step into a red taxi and continue our trip towards downtown, soaring along roads far too narrow for any car to handle within the bounds of normal human safety. When we arrive downtown, we walk to the bank and pass by two enormous stone statues of Fu Dogs, where my brother and I climb upon their bodies and try to scale them to their heads. After the bank, we move through crowded city streets and make our way to the peak tram, passing through a park with a mushroom waterfall that, through age, no longer possesses a safe and dry approach to its center. Together, my brother and I attempt to dodge through the scattered droplets that fall upon us, then run back to our mother. Climbing onto the tram, we rush to seats that are positioned flat with the floor of the tram, but are slanted backwards to almost 45 degree angles thanks to the extreme incline of the tracks.

My brother and I climb into the captain’s chairs of an enormous van parked in the driveway of our suburban house. Our father finishes loading the cooler between our two seats, then he and my mother get into the front and pull out of the drive. We head towards the freeway, driving up into the air on an elevated crossing before veering right and entering the on-ramp of a three lane freeway heading towards San Antonio. We drive for what feels like days, but in reality is only a few hours. The road is straight, flat, and plain. The heat of the road makes the hills look like water is resting on the concrete a few hundred feet ahead. As we get closer, the mirage vanishes and we are left with waves of heat that pass us by. When we arrive in San Antonio, we drop off the car and start walking to the River Walk, a man-made structure of nearly stagnant water that brings tourists to San Antonio without anything more to offer them. I think nothing of the place, and continue on in childhood ignorance.

I sit on a bus passing French buildings and tiny Renault Twingos. The trees rush by my window, their branches occasionally scratching along the side as we dart down the suburban streets outside of Paris and head towards our school. When we arrive, the gate slides open, razor-wire lining the perimeter, and we drive into the compound that is the American School of Paris. Large aircraft hangers that are now gyms are scattered across the campus, long buildings that were formerly offices but now house classrooms for students sit peacefully in the center. There’s history here, the history of an American military base that now is home to the education of TCKs in a land they don’t belong.

I ride a bus alone, darting down faintly-memorable roads of a city I once lived in years before, one that rests in my mind like a drunken dream, a chaotic haze of flashes in time. I feel the weight of the bus tip as we pull around tight cliff corners, and I look out over the water that surrounds the tiny island I live upon. Around me is nothing but trees, rock walls, and water, but then out of nowhere a skyline appears, and I am driving down Queens Road and pulling up to the stop that connects Queens Road to the fish market. I walk from here, the smell of rotting flesh and neglected garbage wafting into my nostrils, a smell I have become so familiar with over the years that I smile. I look up into the sky as I walk and see the signs that will soon be illuminated in the night, but currently hang lifeless and old, a mess of clutter blocking out the sky that slices between the buildings of compact streets.

I am driving now, back in Texas and sitting behind the wheel. I’m heading back from college in San Antonio to visit my parents, taking the same straight and boring road I have driven dozens of times before. I listen to music loudly as I ignore the lifeless and uninspired flatness that surrounds me. I am sad, but I am hiding it well. I miss the world, I miss the culture, and I miss the life of my youth. I want to be on a plane, I want to travel the planet again, to see the things I never saw before in the places I never had the time to visit. I want to be free again, free to get up and go and do whatever I can wherever I land. But I am stuck, stuck in school and knowing that when I have finished my education, I will be stuck in a job, a prisoner to a life and a world that doesn’t understand a man like me.

I am all grown up now. I am in my job and I have finished my school. And I have moved, but I have moved from a city that didn’t understand me to one that understands me even less. As I sit in my car and drive the three miles to work and back every day, I think back to a question my professor once asked me in college: “How far can you drive before you can’t remember what the next part of the road looks like? Tell me about the drive you remember.”

I smile to myself, because I know now that she missed the entire point of the question she was asking. So I ask the question she should have asked, but one she never would have understood, to you, the only group of people who can grasp the depth of what I am asking:

How far do you have to drive away from your memories until you are free to discover the world you do not know? Tell me about the unknown.

_________

The Author

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

The Third Culture Kid Minority Coefficient

North Carolina recently positioned itself for a vote on Amendment One, a change to the State’s constitution that would essential change the civil union partnership for gay and straight couples alike. Essentially, the vote in question was whether a civil union was considered an appropriate form of union. Of course, counter-gay-rights activists decided to use this extremely broad amendment to block out every form of union of the same-sex-couple community. And they did such a good job about it that almost nobody noticed that the same sex union portion of the amendment was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what was going to change for partnerships in the state of North Carolina.

Having only moved here five months ago, I hardly had time to get my paperwork in order and use my new-found American Citizenship to weigh in at the voting booth, so I simply got to sit back and watch as over three million dollars were spent in campaigning on both sides, then wait quietly for the results to arise.

As it turns out, North Carolina has decided that the “human” part in “human rights” is open to interpretation and not everyone was in fact born with equal rights. To me, that seems like an odd stance when it comes from a state that exists within a country that declared its independence with words that have come to be known across the entire world screaming for freedom and equality:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

And with those words, a country took its first steps towards becoming the first true country of the people since the Roman democracy of centuries past. The people wrote a constitution, set the laws of the land, declared the place to be the home of everyone, welcoming all. And when the french gifted a statue of copper to be placed at the port of the land of the free, the inscription read “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

So what is it that this Third Culture Kid sees that so many First Culture Kids appear to be missing? Why is it that when I heard Amendment One had passed I was overcome with a chilling wave of icy disappointment in my fellow human beings?

I think it comes down to what I’m coining the Minority Coefficient. As a TCK, it doesn’t matter where we are in the world, what the people around us look like, what language they speak, what their beliefs are, or what cultures define them; we are always, always, a minority. The type of person we have become, the life we have led and the world we have created forces us into a realm of our own. We are understood only by other TCKs, but even the TCKs that know us don’t know the cultural hodgepodge that rages inside of us.

For this reason, even when we are in our passport country, surrounded by people that conform to our political viewpoints, sitting in the place of worship of our choice, speaking a language we understand with people who are all the same ethnicity and gender, we will always be the odd one out. But why?

TCKs have spent their youth moving from place to place. Many of them have experienced cultures that are so vastly different from their passport-countries, and in that experience they have learned through cross-cultural absorption that those stark differences from place to place are all elements of exactly the same human condition. With the power of technology, every FCK has seen hunger and famine. They have seen wars of god and government. They have seen oppression and succession. They have watched as people have been refused the freedom to say what they want, to confront their government, to vote, to make more money than their neighbor, to buy things they want and not just the things they need, to earn a wage that isn’t all taken by the government.

But we as TCKs did more than just see. We lived and breathed around those people. We learned so much from them, grew up around them, adopted parts of their lifestyles into our own culture. We, in a sense, partially became those people. And in becoming them our understanding of the sheer magnitude of global diversity achieved partial-realization. We began to see that no matter how much we adopted, no matter how many different cultures we found and made our own, we were hardly even scratching the surface of what’s really out there.

By becoming, even if just a little, these people that are now so far away, we developed a level of empathetic understanding. As a TCK, it becomes almost completely impossible to not feel the frustration or indecency done to fellow human beings. The level of intelligence and cultural understanding that runs through the TCK population is incredible. As a group, we are some of the most open-minded people in the world. So when we are confronted by a decision by the majority that suppresses the lives of others, we feel that pain even if we are not part of that group.

I believe that is why, when I read that Amendment One had passed with only 26% of the population voting against it, I was overcome with disgust and disappointment. While I am not gay, nor do I have any immediate desire to form a civil union with anyone, I am endlessly troubled by the idea that 74% of the voting population of the state I live in believes it’s okay to oppress the lives, liberties, and happiness of multiple groups of people that want nothing more than to just live their own lives without bothering anyone.

To me, it’s heartbreaking enough that this even came to a vote. The idea that oppression is allowed in the land of the free worries me, but what worries me more is that it’s not just voted on, it’s voted for. Because in the end, that’s all that happened this week. And sure, North Carolina isn’t the first state to vote on this issue. And sure, the state was expected to vote out this way months ago. But how does that make it better? How does knowing it would happen or that it has happened before make the lives that are damaged by this passing vote any less meaningful?

In the end, we are just perpetuating a belief that all men (and women) are not, in fact, born into equality. And to this particular Third Culture Kid who has spent his entire life as a minority, I worry that there will never come a day when people finally recognize that despite our differences, we are all seeds of the same soil, and we all need the same sunlight to grow.

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The Author

Author

 

 

 

Post by: James R. Mitchener

The TCK Barrier Between Parent and Child

For the most part, the Third Culture Kids produced in my generation were TCKs like myself. They were born to First Culture Kid parents, then yanked from that birth-culture and thrown into one or many different cultures throughout their development. At the time, if those TCKs-in-the-making were anything like me, they moaned and complained incessantly about always having to leave their friends. They cried and threw tantrums, made harsh exclamations of frustration, and spat empty threats at the prospect of leaving wherever they were to move somewhere different. But in the end, without fail, we always moved on, and our opinion of the matter meant little to nothing in the grand scheme of our parent’s expatriate lives.

Then one day, those TCKs grew up. We passed out of that bitter, hateful, aggressive teenage phase that everyone seems to pass through and became substantial members of society. We started being treated like adults, garnering respect for the things we said and the knowledge we had acquired throughout our lives; and that knowledge was impressive. Being natural cultural adapters, we had developed an eye that saw things that all but the most intuitive FCKs were blind to. And we did it naturally.

But there was something strange about it all, this internal belief that we were completely normal and yet, externally, we were regarded with incredible worldly knowledge and cultural intelligence, a feature of ourselves that we had always believed was a natural state of individual understanding. And when we realized in our early-maturity that what we had experienced wasn’t the natural state of affairs, we began searching for an answer as to why. In doing so, we were united with a world of TCKs that were scattered all over the planet who were so incredibly different to ourselves, who had experienced such vastly different things, but who truly understood exactly who we were and how we felt.

This, of course, is a highly condensed compilation of events, one that I will undoubtedly expand upon in greater detail in a later post, but it’s important to understand the development of our understanding before approaching the larger issue in our developmental realization; as we grew up, we realized that our parents who had spent all that time travelling the world with us didn’t understand a single thing about what we experienced.

My mother, who like all supportive parents is a regular reader of my works, called me from England where she’s been staying for almost a month now helping with post-funeral family situations to say that she had read my most recent post about being an expatriate everywhere. I thanked her, as usual, and asked how things were going back in the UK. Conversation continued along those lines before jumping back to the blog, where she said, with a hint of sadness in her voice, “Why don’t you write something happy about your experiences sometime?”

I paused for a minute, letting the words flow through me, and though I have always known it to be the case, and have in fact discussed it on multiple occasions in this blog and The Illusive Home, I realized just how disconnected from my experience she truly was.

Sure, we had traveled to all the same places, had seen all the same things, had gone on all the same tours and walked through the same foreign streets, but with every single trip we made, my perception of our travels was as different to hers as an apple is different to an elephant. She saw everything through the eyes of an FCK expatriate, a woman traveling the world with her family, always far away from home and the world she grew up in. She always had that stability, that memory of a lifetime of growth and development in a constant environment. She had memories of meeting her husband, my father, back in the UK, of getting married there with both sides of the family only an hour away from each other at most.  She remembers bringing two children into the world there, the first few years of our lives spent in that home that she had always known. And then she remembers leaving home, and always missing home, and always going back home to see the people she loved and grew up with.

And for me, the memories of my youth really began in Hong Kong. That home that she remembers so clearly was never a fundamental part of my life. I never had a stable set of friends that I grew up with. I never had grandparents that I spent years with and could escape to. I never had aunts and uncles and cousins that were right on my doorstep. I never had a place that felt like that word “home,” a word that means so little to a TCK. I never had the life she had.

Instead, I had a life of travel, of constant uprooting, of my formative and developmental years laced with culture after culture. I grew up transitioning from country to country that had starkly different political viewpoints, different caste systems, different streets, different smells, different laws, different educational systems, and different styles of general life. I had no stability, where she had an endless string of it.

So our unique perceptions of the world we experienced together were destined to be endlessly different, destined to be unrelated. And no matter what I said to her, she would never understand that what I write on these pages, when I say that I have no home and that I am endlessly tormented by the constant need to leave everything behind and travel, to give up the entire world I’ve created and move on to something new, that this isn’t in any way a sad thing in my eyes.

It is simply my life.

Sure, it’s a drastically different life compared to the incredible number of FCKs in the world. Sure, it’s completely odd to many and impossible to relate to for the rest. But in the end, it’s who I am, and who I am is a man of multiple cultures with the gift of a life that is full of understanding, respect, and appreciation for every corner of the planet.

So I responded with an explanation I knew she would never understand, one that would give her no happiness and would answer no questions. But it was one that I knew she would not be able to argue:

“It’s not sad, Mum. You just see it as sad because of something you know, something that I have never experienced. To me, it just is. And to the TCKs that read my words, they always see the pain, but in that pain they see the beauty. My need to move was grown from a seed you and Dad planted when I was very young, one that you watered with every single move. But that’s not the reason I travel today. It’s just the catalyst. The reason I do it now is because I need to continue to water that seed. I restart my life because of my unquenchable love for that next unknown culture. I travel because, while I simply cannot stop due to my conditioning, I can’t imagine a time that I would ever even want to stop. And sure, it causes me a great deal of pain and frustration, and sure, it causes me heartache and loneliness. But in the end, it gives me a life full of understanding, knowledge, and possibility. And why would I ever want to trade that for anything?”

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The Author

Author

 

 

 

Post by: James R. Mitchener

My Passport Country is One of Two, and Neither Are Home

I landed back in the United Kingdom on Friday, April 6th. I had flown from Raleigh, North Carolina on a direct flight leaving the United States for the first time on my American passport, then arriving in England and passing through immigration on my UK passport. This is the first time I’ve done this since I naturalized and acquired my United States Citizenship. I was excited at first, feeling a bit like a spy or international man of mystery moving through the world with two forms of globally-recognized identification. It was going to be an auspicious event.

As it turns out, which is usually the case with me and the self-created expectations of my own emotional responses to new stimuli, I was wrong. It bugs me, sometimes, not having any control over what I think or how I feel about things. This was one of those times. As I passed through immigration and entered the country, I felt dirty, as though I were doing something I knew I shouldn’t. I felt as if I were betraying my heritage, having flown out on a US passport and then in on an English, something I am forced to keep secret so as not to annoy any governments to the point they revoke my nationality.

It didn’t take long, and I slipped back through into England with a quick glance at my passport and a “welcome home” from a man in a glass box. And that’s where it really stung. Usually I love hearing those words, walking into England and not saying a word so that my partial-american-accent isn’t noticed, and the first thing I am told standing on English soil is “welcome home.” Even though I know to my core this isn’t my home, that nowhere really is, it feels so nice to hear someone say it. Because the truth is, I really do love this country. I don’t have any desire to live her, mainly because I think it’s tinkering on the edge of total and complete catastrophic anarchy, but I really do love the country for all its natural beauty.

Last night, however, it hit me as to why this re-entry caused me so much grief. It’s not that I am sneaking around, it’s not that I’m violating some unwritten rule. Those things have never bothered me before, why would they now? It was something much more personal than that. Something deeper, more intricately woven into the substance of my existence. And I think it all starts with the simple fact that this Third Culture Kid happens to be at the point in his life where he’s realizing that the life he expected is not at all the life he is currently building.

It happens to all of us, TCKs or not, but I find it incredibly interesting now, with all that has happened since my arrival here, with my cousin’s death, with the distance between me and my family, and yes, the distance between me and the girl that I planned to start a family of my own with one day.

By getting my second passport, I finally solidified the fact that I have no physical home. And to take it one step further, I was reunited with the simple fact that as a TCK, my definition of home, in finding that one person that makes you want to be with them anywhere in the world, is an impossible lifestyle for many First Culture Kids. I have been seeing my ex a good deal, what with her relationship to my family and being closer to my cousins and aunt and uncle than my own relationship with them, and through this time we have spent together I truly understand the words I’ve been writing since the birth of The Illusive Home. A TCK is not designed, on a fundamental level, to co-exist eternally with a FCK. Unless one of the two are willing or able to change the root of their existence, the incompatibility is completely unavoidable. And no amount of love, attraction, or desire will change that.

So my shock and sadness wasn’t in just realizing I had abandoned any official tie to my passport country, but was in the knowledge that what I considered to be my home, being with the person I love more than anyone else, isn’t even remotely possible. Because in the end, I have no ability to understand her lack of ability to leave. To me, it seems like she simply doesn’t love me like I love her. While she says “I cannot leave my family,” I hear “I will not leave my family.” But the truth is, as a FCK, she simply can’t leave them. They are her life, and always have been. They have always been there, and that family extends to the friends she has grown up with, my cousins being prime examples. And to her, when I say “I might come back, but I will not stay, and one day we will have to leave,” I am saying to her that I do not love her enough to let her stay. But the truth is, I simply couldn’t come back to England and stay forever. I know, fundamentally, that I would never be physically capable of doing that.

Because when I gave up my single-passport life, I made the decision to say goodbye to the place I pretended was home. As I grow older, and the family that I have always visited here moves on with their lives, and grandparents and great-aunts come to the end of long and happy lives, the foundation upon which I built a connection to this country fades away. With every life that moves on, be it separating from the flock or passing into what theists would call the afterlife, I lose one more reason to ever come back.

And I think that’s what shook me to my core here. With the loss of my baby cousin who I hardly knew, I needed to come back home. But when I got here, I realized that in every single aspect of my life that I had been building towards, there is no home here for me anymore. The country never has been, and me pretending that it is via the lives of family members I am not that connected with is foolish. And with my ex, it only makes sense, for her sake, for me to give up and let go, because in the end one of us has to give up our home, and when it comes to people I love, I’d rather the one that gets hurt is always me. That’s just the high empathy-introvert side of me, I guess, combined with the knowledge that when it comes to letting go of things, I’m more practiced than most.

But hey, I have two passports now. I am not bound to a single state of existence. It’s just a shame that I don’t consider any possible existence within those passport-accessible countries to be anything more than a ticket to another place that just doesn’t quite make me happy.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

Where is my Second Passport?

Having recently naturalized to acquire my dual citizenship, incorporating a United States passport into my United Kingdom and EU travel opportunities, then moving to a new city in a new state to start a new job and find a new apartment while getting a new driver’s license and learn my way around my new place of residence, there are certain things that get lost in the transition. I naturalized in Houston, got my certificate, even took my passport photographs and filled out my passport application. However, with the move very shortly positioned thereafter, I never got around to stopping by the post office and getting it signed and sealed to be sent off to the American Passport Office for completion. It just sort of fell behind the curtain. After all, I still had my UK passport, so I was still a person, and I knew I was getting my US one, there were just other more important things happening at the time, and my travel plans weren’t set until the middle of 2012. I had time.

Time is an interesting thing. There’s tons of it everywhere, and you feel like there will always be a little more, and there’s always that one thing you wanted to do today but didn’t have time, so you just push it back until tomorrow. The days blur into weeks, and weeks into months. Even as a Third Culture Kid, one that travels the world and gets itchy feet if he stays in one place, I foolishly believed time was on my side when acquiring the single most important document of my entire life, my Passport, my key-card to the world.

Take, for example, the 18 year old boy that was driving his car home two nights ago. He was with his mates, enjoying life, approaching the same crossroad he always approached every day that was just minutes from his house. He crossed the intersection at a green light, a system we trust and expect to protect us. But as he did, a van ran the redlight, slamming into his vehicle and knocking him unconscious as the side of his car caved in upon him. Not long after arriving at the hospital, still unconscious, the driver’s heart stopped beating. It was a normal day for him, and if you can find any comfort in a story like this one, he passed with it being still just another normal day, completely unaware that anything had even happened, hopefully without any pain at all.

But for that boy’s family, normality shattered. That day was the most abnormal and horrible day imaginable. It produced a sense of numbness, shock, depression, and catastrophe that cannot be described, only experienced. It changed everything forever, a moment that the family will never forget, a life snuffed out of existence too soon and taken away from so many that loved him so dearly.

That boy was my cousin.

I have written an article about the cost of a TCK life and how TCKs deal with family loss, or near loss. But words don’t explain a thing, and no TCK handles loss the same way. All I know about how we handle loss is that we have a natural ability to do it. We don’t do it better than others, we just do it differently. We live in a perpetual state of being torn between getting attached and being ready to let go. Letting go is inevitable in our lives, it is something we have decided to make part of who are because our upbringing has made us into travelers. But every time we let go, we always know in the back of our minds, “I’ll see them again, one day.”

The last time I saw my cousin was in August of 2011. It had been over a year at that point since I’d seen him. He was becoming a mechanic and electrician so he was always busy with school and work. I remember I caught him changing the tires on his car. We chatted in the driveway as he went from tire to tire, talking about nothing. Then he rolled me a cigarette, something he called a “rollie.” I’m a seasoned smoker, but the concept of rolling my own cigarettes was a foreign one. He stepped into the garage and used a table covered in tools to roll me one. He handed it over and it was covered in grease and oil from his fingers. I lit it up and started smoking, the grease sitting on my lips and tickling my taste buds. It was salty. He asked how it was, and I told him it tasted better than a regular cigarette, which was true if it weren’t for the grease. He laughed, a smile that revealed a broken front tooth he had gotten repaired once but kept breaking, so he decided to call it quits and leave it snapped. He told me he didn’t like his job much, and that school was hard and he wasn’t having a lot of fun, but he loved his car, and his work paid for his car, and that made it all worth it. He finished putting the tires on his car, then he said goodbye and he left.

I thought about telling him I loved him. I thought about telling him I was proud of him for everything he had achieved, that our grandmother would have been so happy he had found something he was good at and a passion he could pursue. I thought about telling him that I was sorry for never being around, and that I wished I could come back and spend some time with him, maybe stay with him on my next trip. But I’m an introverted TCK. So instead, I said nothing, thinking “meh, I’ll tell him next time.”

Yesterday, I spent the entire day getting my passport in order. Fortunately, I have a friend that owns a premium travel agency for high profile travel. He used his contacts to expedite my passport processing, getting it back in my hands Wednesday of next week. But for now, I am sitting here feeling trapped and lost. Everyone is in England, dealing with the loss together, but my brother and I, the TCKs of the family, are over 4000 miles away trying to figure out how to get back.

And when we do, the question of dealing with loss will come into play once again. On the inside I am a mess, a storm of depression, sadness and spiraling thoughts, but on the outside I will be as I always am when it comes to goodbyes. I will be a rock, locked up and shut down, an emotional wall that cannot be broken while the sadness raves inside of me until I am alone and cannot contain it a moment longer. I see no benefit in being strong for others, but it is simply the way I work. I was trained to behave this way in the event of loss, and even when that loss is my little baby cousin who I loved to an unimaginable level, I am still just a TCK with a mess of issues.

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In loving memory of my cousin, Jack. I wish I hadn’t waited for next time to tell you how proud of you I am, and what an amazing impact you have been on the lives of our entire family.

Update: The boy in the car sitting behind my cousin, who will remain unnamed out of respect to his family, was taken off life support two days ago. He passed away yesterday evening. I extend my dedication to him as well, and even though I did not know him, he was one of my cousin’s closest friends and a friend to many that have made me into the man I am today, and that’s more than enough to know that this world would be a better place with him still in it.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener