Tune in January 30th between 6-8pm GMT (1-3pm Eastern Time) to see the speech at the University of Warwick’s One World Week.
I get this question a lot more than you would think. I say all the time that being part of the Third Culture isn’t so much the experiences you had, but the way you adapted to each experience at the time you had it. We aren’t TCKs because of where we have been. We’re TCKs because of the way we absorbed the cultures of the places we have grown. Even now that I have left Hong Kong, I still relate to it closer than any other place I’ve lived. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back, an idea that can easily make me sink into quite a severe depression, but I do know that I will carry the culture of the city and time that I lived there for the rest of my life.
Of course, that would make sense to a Self Aware Third Culture Kid. While I have been a TCK since I turned 4, I didn’t know it until I was 15 or 16 years old. And even then, I didn’t understand it until I was 17 or 18. Why? Because I have known no other life. Where other people can say they remember growing up in one country, in one town, with the same friends, I can’t even remember the layout of my house in our seventh country. That’s just my life, and it’s all I’ve ever really known. To me, that’s just normal.
The best way to understand the parallel and lack of realization would be to imagine that you and I saw two different versions of the color Blue. When describing it to me, you’d say “the sky is blue” and “the ocean is blue” and I’d agree, but what I see and what you see aren’t the same thing, and while we understand the connection, I am mentally incapable of knowing your perception of the color blue, just as you are mine. What appears to be blue to me may in fact be a green to you. But it doesn’t matter, because we can see the connection, we just can’t understand the mental process beneath it.
That’s what it’s like when an FCK tries to explain their home to me, or tell me what it was like having the same friends, or that they never want to leave because this is where they belong. I can see the parallel, I can draw the connection, and I can pretend to understand. But in the end, their home is a blue that I’ll never be a be able to see.
And while Self-Aware-TCKs understand this mental process perfectly, my readers who are just uncovering their TCK status might not fully realize the power behind this truth. So, I am going to break my rule of never creating lists, and I’m going to give you my top 5 silent bullets that I ask anyone (always without actually asking, but instead uncovering the answers through careful conversation and evasive questioning) who asks me if they are a TCK during a conversation with me.
1. When I ask you what home is, your eyes dart top right in consideration or bottom right in internal dialogue.
This is a nice little trick because Self-Aware-TCKs will answer with their stock answer like mine: “I was born in England, raised around the world, and I currently live in Raleigh where I moved to from Texas.” This informs them I am not from any of those places, they are just places, but it also ties in multiple locations they can hopefully relate to while combining an air of mystery. An FCK would just say the city/town/country that is their home. An expat would say “I am from England but I live in Raleigh,” always bringing their home into the equation of where they’re from.
But an unaware TCK will wonder. They’ve been asking themselves this same question for years, and in the end, they still aren’t really sure. So they’ll dart their eyes into the top right corner of their socket, triggering the visual memory portion of their brain, and fire through a list of locations they grew up and try to figure out the best answer based on all those memories. Or, they’ll be at a stage where they’ve been asking themselves that question for so long, mulling it over and over in the silence of their mind whenever they are alone, that they will drop their eyes to the bottom right portion of their socket and listen to the internal dialogue of a sequence of questions regarding where they are from, a question they still can’t quite answer.
2. When I ask you about a politically volatile situation, your impulse is to relate to the minority, not the majority, regardless of your connection to either party.
There’s an air of globalized protection from TCKs when it comes to minority parties. We have spent our entire lives being the minority, even if we aren’t consciously aware of the situation yet. In a way, we are even minorities in the group of TCKs, because no two TCKs are alike. So naturally, we relate better with groups that have fewer members because we ourselves have always been the group with the fewest members. We default into joining sides with the party that needs us, in adopting the cultural stand of the group that is the weakest, because in a way we understand just how difficult it is living a life where you’re always just a little bit off from the rest of the group. No matter how good we get at fitting in, we are always going to be outside of the circle because we will never fully be a part of that particular culture.
Of course, there’s an exception to this rule that helps guarantee the success of the TCK response. From my experiences meeting TCKs, and I am not saying there isn’t an exception here, but as far as my conversations have extended I have never seen a TCK take the side of an oppressor, even if the oppressor is the minority party. We value human development above all else. Why? Because it’s in human development that we find who we are. We are cultural leaches, sucking out the good of every culture we come across. When a group tries to expel a culture we could absorb, it’s a personal assault on a part of who we are or who we could possibly be.
3. When describing your Passport country, you don’t say “home,” you say “[country name].”
This is one of the first things I started doing before I even realized I was a TCK. My passport country where all my family lived was never home. My mother would say “We’re going to fly home next month!” to my brother and me, and from then on I would say “[X] days until we go to England!” To my mother, it was always home. To my brother and me, it was just the country everyone we were related to lived in, with exception to our Australian family members.
To a TCK, your passport country is just another location in the list of locations you’ve been. So if we’re talking, and you have told me you were born in England, but you keep calling it England after that, I have a pretty good idea that you’re trying to find your identity in the TCK crowd if you haven’t already.
4. When you’re telling me stories of your life, they involve elements that an FCK would think “there’s no way that happened.”
“I was only four, but I loved riding the top of the double decker buses as they darted around Hong Kong. The drivers were on a schedule, and the system was incredibly efficient, and if you sat at the front on the top floor it felt like you were flying because the glass extended all the way to the floor. We would hold onto the bar and press our faces on the glass and watch as the bus took turns on the edge of the cliffs several hundred feet up so sharply that the bus literally lifted off the ground and made the turn on two wheels!”
I’ve told that story to FCKs so many times, and they never believe me. Of course, ask anyone that lived in Hong Kong in 1992 and they’ll tell you the same thing. How all of us that lived there didn’t plummet to our deaths as we tumbled down a cliff into a rocky and watery grave, I’ll never know. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. And the best part? That’s one of the more believable stories of my youth. If you tell me a story about a far away land and the FCKs life an eyebrow in disbelief, there’s a strong chance your childhood was the TCK development period. The world of a TCK is just full of disbelief in general. Even now I wonder sometimes if what I remember is even remotely possible. Then I browse the pictures of my youth and am reminded that it all really did happen.
5. I tell you I’m a Third Culture Kid, that I am a global nomad and don’t have a home, and that I will always be moving because staying put is the worst punishment anyone could ever give me, and your face lights up while all the others around me look at me like I just shot their mothers.
And the final trick. I explain who I am and what I have seen. And when I do, the FCKs around me look at me with shock, curiosity-masked-confusion, or inquisition, but there’s that one person in the group who’s eyes light up as if for the first time in their lives, someone said something that actually makes sense. Then the questions fire, and the TCK will say absolutely nothing but will listen to the FCKs firing off questions and me answering in my traditional global-nomad way, and all the while the TCK’s face will continue to glow brighter with understanding while the FCKs around them become more and more confused, uninterested, or distanced.
So if you read this question and all the others before it, and felt a connection to them as a point of truth or realization, there’s a good chance I would be thinking when I met you “looks like I have another TCK on my hands.”
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. This is just the most reliable sequence of events I’ve found in my life to uncover the unaware TCKs that surround me. And hopefully, in bringing that status from unaware TCK to Self Aware TCK, perhaps you’ll find the comfort I found in realizing that being the minority, in not fitting in, isn’t so bad after all. In the end, we have the whole world to draw from in defining who we are. And that’s a heck of an inspiring pool if you ask me.
- Post by: James R. Mitchener
One of the most interesting words that permeates corporate life, outside of the whole “Green” word that has been making such a heavy-handed appearance as of late, is “synergy.” Synergy has become one of the most sought after elements of any intelligent corporation to date, and what makes it all the more interesting is that it’s actually an idea that is completely dependent on the individuals that make up a work-culture to achieve.
Regardless of whether your company wants to achieve synergy with partnering companies, synergy between internal departments, or even synergy with companies that fall into a mild degree of competition with your market, it all boils down to the people involved. Unfortunately, the word has been used so often and so loosely that it has become more of a buzz word than an actual idea, but it’s the idea that gave birth to the buzz word that ties so beautifully into the theme of this collection.
Synergy is, by definition, “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” (Google Definitions) Sure, we all appreciate the value in that definition, but like so many things in this world, the true power of synergy is so much more than the words on a page.
For Third Culture Kids, synergy isn’t a corporate word, but a way of life. It is how we have lived every single day, how we have grown and evolved and adopted, how we have changed the way we think and behave and how we have changed the thoughts and behaviours of others. Synergy is a fundamental lifestyle adopted by global nomads. It’s a level of acceptance, understanding, and strength. It’s a shared understanding that the perceived and projected disability of being “different” is actually the gateway to the most successful, stimulating, and awe-inspiring progress we can achieve as both individuals and a community.
Synergy is Culture.
I recently participated in an interview that covered questions concerning my life as an immigrant, the cultures I find greatest association with, and how those cultures were impacted by the faiths of those surrounding me. I was asked to tell my story, from birth to modern day, on where I’d lived and how those things had shaped me. Halfway through this interview, I was asked what it felt like to be a minority (I believe that Third Culture Kids are always a minority, even when surrounded by other TCKs), and how my culture was impacted by those feelings.
It led to a two part answer, one that inspired me to explain the power of TCKs and their ability to work seamlessly to create a synergistic culture anywhere in the world. It started with a story I have touched on before, derived from where I felt most comfortable as a minority. I talked of my second stint in Hong Kong when I was 14-15 years old, a freshman in high school. At the time, my group of friends were a mess of lost cultures, like myself, struggling to find a log to grab hold of in the sea of cultural identity. We consisted of one friend from each of the following cultures: Welsh, N. Korean, S. Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Spanish, Filipino, English, and American. We were all different, all wrestling with our passport country identity, and all Third Culture Kids with completely different developmental histories.
But that was what made us unite. We were all different, but fundamentally we were all driven by exactly the same ideas. We wanted to understand the world, and through our friends we had a gateway to 10 different countries, all of which had different cultural backgrounds and all of which possessed elements that we would adopt into our own Third Culture to expand who we were. And with those adaptations, with those adoptions of varying backgrounds, beliefs, and lifestyles, we became more synergized.
And this is where the true beauty of the power of Third Culture Global Synergy came into realization. We didn’t just unite as a group, we took those unities into ourselves and absorbed that culture of 10 different countries we had created with us when we left. We were all TCKs, all natural absorbers, all completely aware that one day we would separate and take the memories of our past with us. And with those memories, we had each added cultures to our repertoire that strengthened our abilities to work together, or work with others from any of the 10 backgrounds we now shared.
I think that it’s in this little developmental quirk that the true power of global synergy can be seen. TCKs are the definition of synergy, and synergy is nothing more than the ability to unify cultures. As TCKs, we were molded into the perfect tool for synergistic unity. Throw us into a room full of strangers and our natural ability to adapt will operate as a catalyst for anyone we meet. And that takes me to the second part of the question that was asked to me during my interview: What makes me feel like a minority?
I am a TCK, and so no matter where I go, I am always a minority. My culture is not shared by anyone because it was built out of the fragments of so many different pieces of so many different cultural puzzles. Even my TCK friends would agree that while we understand the fundamental truth that we share our separation from the First Culture, we do not even truly share our Third Culture. The Third Culture of each TCK is completely different from TCK to TCK. It all comes down to the elements of the cultures we were exposed to that we chose to adopt.
And so my status as a minority isn’t a feeling I notice. It’s a perpetual state of existence, one that has been present my entire life, one that I have both fought and embraced. But now, as an Adult TCK, I can say that the only time I feel out of place, the only time I feel like a true “minority” is when I lie to myself about who I am. When I cover up the truth of my multicultural background, pretend to be something I’m not, or hide elements of my life because I know they will cause friction with the culture I am part of, that is when I feel alienated, disrespected, or minoritized.
The truly interesting part of that feeling is that, unlike many other minority groups that feel separated because of the stigmas the world places upon them, I feel like a minority because I am placing the stigma upon myself. I can adapt, evolve, fit in. I can lie if I need to and be completely convincing that that’s exactly who I am. I can live that lie every day, and be a culture I am not because I have a completely subconscious and natural eye for absorbing the cultural queues that make me fit in.
Whether it’s lying by saying “amen” sitting around a table, lying about my sex life, lying about my dating etiquette, lying about where I tie my allegiance in sports, politics, or social issues, lying about how I perceive different races, lying about how I feel about other people’s reactions to cultural tension issues, these are the only times in my life that I feel truly out of place and separated.
In pretending to be one of “them,” I lose who I am. Which brings me full circle, back to the start. My life as a catalyst for synergy, a gateway for first culture kids to truly understand each other through the medium of my experiences, stems from a world in which I am both the biggest liar and the man who never lies.
As TCKs, we understand synergy fundamentally. We understand culture completely. And we understand that no matter how we fit into this world, we will always be entirely ourselves today, and yet never who we were yesterday.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them that I’m English. They look at me curiously, listening to the American accent with a hint of something foreign in its sounding, a distant memory of a corner of the world that doesn’t jump off the page of my life, but hides itself behind the dominant sound of a confused American who is neither Southern nor Northern, Eastern nor Western.
They ask me where my accent is, and I tell them I bury it well. I tell them it’s there, beneath the mask of my partial-American upbringing. I tell them that I can switch to it easily, if I want, but for the sake of understanding, I use the American one because it’s easier given the company I am around. And when I speak those words, I intentionally increase the English inflection on my letter A’s and my T’s. They hear the change, and begin to smile and say “Oh I hear it now,” believing that now that I’ve told them, they’re picking up on something that was always there, and they immediately believe that I am not from this country despite the way I sounded when we met.
They ask me to speak with my English accent, and I transition over without issue or hindrance. I flip the switch in my brain, and immediately I become something different. My tongue moves quicker, the words exiting my lips more mumbled. Letters become lettas, colors become colas, isn’t it becomes ennit. I grab a pen and paper and write them a note, spelling words as I always do, with the language of my original passport country, adding “u” in words like colour and favourite, switching “er” to “re” in words like centre and theatre, or bringing the validity of “-ise” back to reality in words like centralise and realise.
They ask me why I moved here, and I tell them my father’s job brought us here, that I went to university in San Antonio and then I took jobs in America and didn’t want to go back to England because of the taxes. I then tell them that I will leave one day, but I simply haven’t left yet. Yet is the operative word. They look at me curiously. Some are wondering why I would ever want to leave wherever I am, why I don’t love the area they love so much. Others are thinking about how much they, too, would like to up and go. But they don’t understand what moving entails. Many of them have never left the state, yet alone country. But they want to know. Or think they want to know.
They ask me if America and England were the only places. I respond no, and I string the list together of places I have lived. England, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, America. Then I throw in, almost as an afterthought, that there were other places I lived when I was young, but I don’t remember them so they don’t count. They say how cool that is, how amazing it must have been to see all those places, experience all those things. They say I must have felt so lucky. And I just respond that yes, now that I am old, I know that I was one of the luckiest people I know, that I wouldn’t trade the experiences of my youth for anything in the world; Now that I am old.
They ask me where my favourite place to live was. If at the moment of asking I am feeling isolated from the world, I will tell them Hong Kong because it’s the most exciting culture I’ve experienced. If when they ask, I am feeling sad that I hardly know my family, I will tell them England because it’s where everyone I’m related to lives. If I’m missing beautiful country, clean air, and bright skies, I tell them France. If I’m wishing I’d seen more, done more, been more places, I’ll tell them Singapore because I remember so little about it. I do not tell them why. They do not know the secrets behind my reasons. I just name the place, and fall silent. But in my head, I am thinking all of those things. But the place I never say, ever, is that it’s America.
They ask me first why I love that country, and I feed them some creative lie about food or lifestyle. But the truth is always the reason of the moment. The truth is how I’m feeling in that specific pocket of time, a secret I keep for me and me alone. And when the reality of where I’ve lived sets in, of all the places I’ve seen…
They ask me why my favourite place isn’t America. And I tell them because it’s a country of people who believe themselves to be a melting pot of cultures and a land of equal rights, but everyone seems to hate the person next to them who doesn’t believe exactly what they do, or wants to live their life slightly different to the lifestyle of their neighbor. I tell them that it’s not a melting pot, that it’s a culturally resistant country, one that believes that patriotism and Americanism (whatever that may be) is the only way to live, and that everyone else should conform or “go home,” wherever that is.
And they get mad, and ask me nothing. They then attack, respond, and retaliate. They defend or unite. They consider me an outsider and think that my opinions are invalid because I am not one of them. They brush me off, or become my friend, but no matter the outcome, I am always the “English guy,” when in truth I am no more English than I am Chinese or American or French. But to them, I am the foreigner, the man that doesn’t quite fit into the comfort of their Americanism.
To them I am different. To me, I am what I have always been; I am a Third Culture Kid, a TCK, a Global Nomad, and an Expatriate everywhere.
When I step off the plane in England and walk into the local for my first pint, my mates come up and give me a hug for all the time they haven’t seen me. They introduce me to the new people I have not met, and say, “This is James, he’s not from around here!” and they shake my hand and buy me a pint.
They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them that I’m American.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
Probably one of the most unique and challenging elements of detailing what it means to be a Third Culture Kid is confronting the differences between the TCK community and the Expatriate community. To non-TCKs, or I suppose to anyone who doesn’t understand the internal workings of a TCK mind, the two are extremely similar. A TCK has lived all over the world, an Expat is living all over the world; a TCK doesn’t see their family often, an Expat doesn’t see their family often; a TCK is a frequent flier, an Expat is a frequent flier; a TCK knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers, an Expat knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers; and a TCK shows elements of cultures from around the world, while an expat shows elements from cultures around the world also.
To an outside observer, the two may very well be the same. But to us, the TCK community, we are entirely different from our expatriate counterparts. We are all built out of a sequence of events that has led to the development of our personality. Every structure capable of weathering time, especially the structures of our lives, must start with a strong foundation. This foundation is the blueprint for everything that’s built upon it, and each brick that’s laid on top of the next will either hold strong if it matches the plan, or will crumble if it doesn’t meet the requirements that our foundation has produced.
Like many things I write about in regards to Third Culture Kid Life, I make a conscious effort to find a neutral and core principle that encompasses the entire doctrine, then build up my explanation around that single idea. I do this for the sake of the parents of TCKs that read these pieces, not for the TCKs like myself that already understand on a fundamental level what it means to feel the way we feel. This collection was created to help explain who we are to those who simply cannot understand. So, when you’re taking on the impossible, I find that the items that are relateable to both parties are the only bridge to partial understanding that we can create.
When it comes to understanding why we as TCKs are not in any way the same as the traditional expat, even when we are living an expatriate life, I find it all boils down to one simple word with a sea of meaning; That word is “foreign.” To an expat, all travel is foreign. They are foreigners in a foreign land, outsiders, people living in a country that isn’t their own. Some of them love the place they’re in. Some hate it. But no matter how they feel about it, that country is never their home. They will always be intrinsically connected to the culture of their youth. They will have customs and lifestyle ideas that cannot be changed at all, and even more that cannot be changed without a great deal of effort.
It’s because of this interwoven knowledge that they are foreigners that will either make or break the experience for every single expat. They will either love viewing the world through their first culture lens, saying “Look at how different this is!” or “Back in [Home Country], you’d never be able to find one of these!” Or they’ll hate the entire experience for exactly the same reasons. But in the end, that lens through which they are analyzing their experience, the way that they are viewing the world, is built out of a single culture and a single line of experiences that was developed in their youth. They will always be First Culture Kids living in a world full of other First Culture Kids that are just completely different to themselves.
Of course, this does not mean an expat will not adjust. I have met many expats that have done their absolute best to assimilate into the life of a different country and culture. Plenty have even succeeded, at least on the surface level. But the truth is that during the developmental years of their lives, the years that built the foundation for the person they were going to become, their personality was constructed from the brick and mortar of a single culture.
This is where the TCK split comes into play. The stability that the Third Culture lacks, the one that has been a rampant part of almost every single article of the TCK Life collection, means that we view an expatriate life in a completely unique way. When we move to a foreign country, it isn’t anymore foreign to us than the last place we lived or the place our parents call home. The most common similarity with every TCK is that home to us is nothing more than a word other people use to describe the place they grew up in.
We are the children of the world, the global nomads that pick up and go not because we are wanting to experience something drastically different to what we already know, but because we are trying to add to the foundation of our development. The baseline of our lives, one that for FCKs was built out of stability and consistency, was built for TCKs out of country after country that had nothing to do with the place from which our parents originated.
For me, moving isn’t a burden. There is no fear in packing my things and starting my life somewhere I know absolutely nothing about. There is no discomfort in having no friends for the first few months of my stay in a different place. There is no paranoia in knowing I will not be able to understand, to interact, to survive with ease and simplicity. In truth, all those things inspire me. They motivate my internal cultural mixing pot and drive me to absorb everything around me. They make me adapt, to change, to understand everything I possibly can. Where an FCK will attempt to understand a foreign country by drawing parallels to the culture of their youth, a TCK will view a foreign land without bias or commitment from a land called “home.” I walk into any situation believing I will absorb and change in any way that inspires me.
I am English by birth, American/UK by passport, and Global by culture. None of these things define me. All of them define me. Really, the difference between an expat and a TCK is simple. To an expat, a new country is always a foreign place full of differences, good or bad. To a TCK, a new country is a place that makes the entire world a little less foreign, and a little more part of who we are.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
Thanks to the power of the Google Omniverse, this blog is going to be a little different to normal. I stumbled across the Google Search Video creation tool, and decided to put a little Search compilation together. It was quick-and-easy, but the point I was trying to make was to capture the elements of twenty-first century technology and the Adult TCK transitioning experience.
But that’s enough about that. Here’s the video:
Post by: James R. Mitchener
“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.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
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.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
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.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
As Third Culture Kids, we are constantly examining the cultures of the world, even when we aren’t in the process of adopting them into our own Third Culture. We are cultural pirates, pillaging the pieces we want and leaving behind the parts we don’t. We talk about these elements of TCK life all the time, sharing reasons for what we take and why we love that aspect of a particular culture, yet rarely do we take a step back to examine the culture we have created.
We are natural adapters, capable of surviving almost any situation in almost any culture. It’s for that very reason that we are so ill equipped to turn it around and look internally at what we have done. We are a mess of chaos and unity fueled by self-driven cultural evolution. We are constantly changing, constantly altering the core of our existence without care to what we are leaving behind in the process.
But the reason we survive so flawlessly no matter where we are is exactly the reason we do not step back and consider the universe we have given birth to. Every single person is different, and thanks to the adaptation of a TCK, every TCK is different within a completely unique self-culture. Sure, we group those cultures together and call it the “Third Culture,” but the Third Culture is different for every single TCK, and it’s even more different from the outside looking in.
Until the final years of the 20th century, our ability to unite and communicate was limited to physical interaction and personal relationships. The only opportunity a TCK had to cross paths with another TCK was simple luck of the draw. There was no unifying moment, no sense of shared community, only the knowledge that somewhere else in the world was another person who had grown up similarly to yourself. However, despite this knowledge, the distance created by a lack of ability to communicate the TCK experience made it almost impossible for a TCK to feel anything but being alone.
Today, however, TCKs have finally started to come out of the bubbles of their personal worlds. And truly, they are highly personal worlds. The cultures that each TCK has created are so uniquely different from any FCK or TCK anywhere in the world. The unique experiences couple with our adaptive nature makes our Third Culture like a snowflake in the middle of a rainstorm; we are surrounded my elements of similar qualities, yet while each drop of water that’s so similar falls to the ground, we float casually and unseen through the mist, so uniquely different and so uniquely complicated.
The world is smaller now. Transcontinental instantaneous communication is standard. We are even capable of looking into the rooms of others thanks to the increasing speeds and global spread of internet access, meaning with a computer and webcam, two people can sit in front of each other and have a conversation as though there were no oceans or borders or thousands of miles between them. We can fly anywhere in the world at a moments notice, travel wherever we want without much hurt or hindrance. And when we don’t want to travel, we can view the detailed lives of others through collections of data and information about their personality portrayed through a variety of social media tools.
Because of this boom in technology, this shrinking of our world, TCKs are being presented with the unavoidable truth that a life that was once built around the exterior is finally coming back home to the self. We are no longer isolated from other TCKs, having the ability to interact with total strangers that truly and completely understand what it means to be a Third Culture Kid. And they know not because we have to sit in front of them for hours or days or years explaining our lives, the decisions we have made, and the type of cultures we love. They understand because knowing nothing about our history or who we are that they too are as similar and different to us as two snowflakes in a rainstorm. Though we are similar in our name, the crystals of our lives that shape us make us different to the core, but when floating through a sea of droplets of water, there is nothing more comforting than that person that is completely different, and yet so very similar at exactly the same time. And though we may never see the world through the same lens, we at least understand the way that lens was crafted.
People, everywhere, spend their lives looking forwards and backwards in time, saying that “life must have been so much more interesting for people back then,” or “life will be so much better in a few years.” But honestly, I think that with the evolution of communication allowing for you, a reader, to sit at your computer and read the words of a TCK you have never met and probably never will, and me, a writer, getting to hide behind my words and engage you all through your comments on my posts or emails you send me, makes this the most exciting time in the history of TCK life.
These are the first days of our coming together. And just imagine, in fifteen or twenty years when this collection of individuals that fundamentally understands the intricate dynamics of cultural environments comes together, how powerful our impact on the world could be. We are the birth of a new era of realization, the fathers of tolerance and the mothers of understanding. And while we may have grown up TCKs many years ago, it’s here and now that we are finally given the power and ability to find one another.
Honestly, I cannot imagine anything more exciting.
Post by: James R. Mitchener