Category Archives: Growing Up TCK

Childhood Home

Childhood-HomeYou tell me about your childhood home, and I smile and nod, balancing on the edge of every single word watching as your eyes light up and the memories of your youth flood through you. As you comment so naturally, so consistently, on this backdrop of the events that made you who you are today, I hang on every jump from past to present tense of a home that both exists now, and existed then, that is as loved as any person in your family or any memory of your life. It isn’t just a place, this childhood home. The memories of your youth have interwoven with its frame to make it almost human, an evolving part of your development that changed as you changed, that grew as you grew, that shaped itself over and over as you went from crib to bed, child to teen, teen to young adult.

I listen with such overwhelming attention because you’re speaking to me of this natural world that to you seems so natural and so normal, but to me seems so foreign and confusing.  You pause in thought, smile, and sigh as the memory sits in the forefront of your mind. And then you ask me about my childhood home.

All at once, the neurons fire, grasping for memories that are not there. I realize now just how foreign of a concept this is to me, just how little a question like that connects to any experience of my life. How do I answer that, when my home has been in airport terminals across the world, when sitting on an airplane is more natural than a bus or a car or a train. Where do I begin in trying to bridge the difference between what was your experience and what was mine?

Do I tell you about my house in England? The small little home in a quiet little town, the one with the toilet under the stairs that I would get toilet roll out of to put on the floor in the living room across the hall to pretend it was a pit of fire? The one where my bedroom was up the stairs through the tiny hallway, just on the right, where I had a train set that my dad had built me that he painted a lake onto that I believed needed real water instead of painted water that would flow off the sides and nearly ruin the bedroom wall? The one where I had a little blue plastic stool to stand on to brush my teeth with toothpaste that tasted a flavour of some berries, maybe, or something else small and forgotten in the memory of a three year old boy?

Do I tell you about the apartment in Hong Kong? The small, three roomed apartment on the 17th or 14th or 16th floor, in building B? The one where we had a sofa couch made of some sort of foam composite that we would stand on its side and open up to make a wall in the game room? The one where just through the kitchen you could find Mallette’s tiny little room where she would sit and do whatever she did until Robert or I bothered her? The one where when we were getting into the elevator and I was carrying my yellow haired troll doll that I loved, and then proceeded to drop so he fell down the crack and tumbled to his grave beneath the elevator?

Do I tell you about the house my parents had built in Houston? The massive-by-English-standards home with the master bedroom upstairs that threw off the American builders who did not put master bedrooms upstairs? The one that we would run around outside of in the blistering heat of Texas playing action games with our neighbors, all about our age? The one where I sat in the kitchen for hours every single day procrastinating on my homework, driving my mother mad?

Do I tell you about the little house at the end of the road in France? The one where my Nan and Grandad drove across the ocean from England to bring us their old kitchen so my mum could get rid of the horrible green cabinets and replace them with the kitchen her mother had retired in a renovation? The one where I would walk all the way up the road to get on the school bus to attend my favorite school I had ever experienced up until that point in my life? The one where we got our first computer and discovered the internet with the large bay windows fully open letting in the beautiful french breeze?

Do I tell you about the five story connected townhouse in Hong Kong that was incredibly thin and shot to the sky? The one where my brother had an entire floor to himself and two bedrooms because one of the bedrooms was only just large enough to fit his bed, but not large enough that he could ever open his closet? The one that had the independent wall mounted air conditioning units that kept my room so cold it was like I lived in an ice box? The one where we got robbed three times and Ralph, our dalmatian, had scratched half-inch deep treads into the staircase as he chased the burglar from our home?

Do I tell you about the house we returned to in Houston that felt nothing like it had before, an empty shell of a past experience that was nothing as it should have been. The one in which I cried myself to sleep every night in that bed for weeks, as a fully matured teenager, upon arriving because I was in a room that I had sat in before and so helplessly could never escape from to go back to the world I loved? The one I locked myself away inside of, letting my grades slip into oblivion and my concern for the world fade to silence? The one where I learned how different I was, and who I had finally become, and slowly overcame the heartbreak to uncover the pride of all that I had seen?

No.

I tell you about none of them. I tell you that I have no childhood home. That my life is a string of memories from all over the world, that every single one of them made me who I am, and that my life is not built upon the memories of a single location. I tell you that there are things I loved about them all, and things I hated about them all, but in the end, they were just buildings of my past, and the things that mattered were the friends I made and the experiences I had.

And you understand. Or you say you do, because that is what we do, and you agree that the house is just a place, but it’s a place full of memories for you, and that you and I aren’t so different in that regard, except that your childhood memories are on one childhood home, and mine are from many.

But I don’t think you understand. Because I don’t understand. And that’s sort of beautiful.

__________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong Kids, the TCK Life I Remember

I was provided with this video today from a friend and teacher in Hong Kong who deals with Third Culture Kids every single day of her life. We have had many back-and-forth conversations and she has provided me with very valuable information regarding the early-developmental years of TCKs. She brought this video to my attention because of the impact that the video is currently having in the Hong Kong International School system in. As educators, their reaction to this video is understandable and certainly merits a detailed look. It may even become a serious central point for developing topics in handling Third Culture Kids in the future. However, before I continue to discuss it further, I would like to welcome my fellow TCK readers, and more so the parents of TCKs, to watch the embedded video here:


Where do I start? I think the best place to begin would be to use the talents of a Third Culture Kid and look at it like someone who isn’t me. After all, that’s what TCKs do every single day of their lives. We look at the world through our own eyes, interpret it, analyse it, then respond based on the community and culture that surrounds us. So, I am going to take my first verbalized look at this video as an educator in the International School system in Hong Kong, the schools in which these YouTube stars currently attend as High School students.

As an educator, this doesn’t exactly paint a great picture for kids growing up in Hong Kong. It’s immature behaviour laced with false-pride and a sense of undeserved authority just because the kids are part of the International School community in Hong Kong. The kids in this video are all under the age of 18 it seems, of course I will admit to be taking a wild stab in the dark there because since I got old, I have a really hard time guessing the age of people under 21. These kids are smoking pot, getting drunk, taking shots, walking around partying in the streets, riding buses and drinking on-board, and generally being rowdy. Let’s also remember that all these kids are part of the elite expatriate lifestyle. They go home to having live-in helpers who make their beds, wash their clothes, cook their meals, and handle their every need. They almost certainly don’t work and probably haven’t had a single job in their lives, and more than anything, they represent the community of international students and expats in Hong Kong and all the other students that attend the varying international schools across the city. And here they are, painting a picture of a life that grants them a status that’s so much greater than the lives of anyone else in the world when they themselves did nothing to deserve it.

There you have it. There’s the view of an FCK, a parent of one of these TCKs, and/or a member of the HKIS educational and administrative team. That’s how it’s being viewed by people all over the world, and how these little kids are being judged. All it takes is a quick look at the SkiBs facebook page and you’ll see some wonderfully insulting comments detailing exactly this. Of course, by attacking these kids like one person by the facebook alias of Denholm Reynholm does and saying “my dog has bigger bollocks than these kids,” sort of removes your entire right to speak on the issue. Discounting your maturity and lowering yourself to a level below those you’re attacking… come on now, that’s the first mistake in winning an argument! After all, you’re not arguing with SkiBs. The artist and team think they’re in the right. You’re arguing to win the vote of everyone who hasn’t already decided how they feel.

But now I’ve gotten that little side-rant off my back, I want to take the opportunity to explain my reaction to this video before I put on the mask of a different culture. I want to tell you what I saw as a TCK, as a global traveler, and as a Hong Kong Kid myself.

When I watched this video, the first thing I did was smile, especially at the title screen of “Hong Kong Kids” as it floats above the familiar sea-wall in Stanley not 10 minutes walk from where I used to live. My body filled with warm memories and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly happy thinking about all the times I spent sitting on that exact wall and watching the water, or kissing my girlfriend goodbye the day before she left to move to Beijing sitting in the alcove beneath the seawall.

Then we jumped into smoking, drinking, crazy parties, the nightlife, jumping into the ocean. And my almost-26-year-old-brain went “wooooaaaa… what the hell are these kids up to?” But then I paused. And again I smiled. Because my mind jumped back to my freshman year of High School where I would go out and buy a packet of cigarettes, smoke them over the weekend, drink, get rowdy. I remember the crazy nights back when I was only 15 years old. Why? Because I was a white boy in Hong Kong, and I could see over the counter, so who was going to say no to me buying alcohol or smokes?

I spent six months there, going out on weekends and riding buses all by myself, drinking on the street or drinking in bars, smoking cigarettes (I never jumped on the pot thing). I got rowdy, and I lived that life. And even now, I look back and say “those were the single greatest two years of my life.”

But look at me now. Now, I own part of a consultancy firm. I own part of an apparel company. I work two full time jobs, one as a marketing director and one as a website and branding adviser. I do public speaking events about culture and TCK life anywhere in the world. I write every single day, from short stories to novels to TCK Life. I pay taxes. I support myself, I treat my girlfriend to everything. I work hard, and I am proud of who I have become.

The reason I tell you this isn’t to brag. It’s to show you, despite how clearly I understand your reaction as a TCK parent or an administrator at any international school, that I did all of those things! That was me exactly 10 years ago. And while it may be shocking and in-your-face now that 21st century technology allows for kids to capture and share with the world all the things that I did in secret, those things have always been happening. They are part of life in Hong Kong as a TCK growing up there. It’s just… what happens.

You cannot get trapped in the negativity. My school, HKIS, as well as many other international schools in Hong Kong, provides a world-class education that will lead to those kids going to colleges all over the world. Some might come back to Hong Kong one day. But most of them won’t. Most will be like me, lost in the world, confused, scared. They’ll be struggling to find their identity, struggling to figure out who they are and why they feel like an outsider everywhere they go. And they’ll remember Hong Kong, and they’ll remember how at home they were there with all those people that they grew up with of different races and creeds.

But here’s the best part: While other kids in college are going crazy finally being free from their parents, partying hard, getting rowdy, making horrible horrible mistakes in dangerous places around the planet, those Hong Kong Kids will not. They’ll remember their youth, and they’ll know they’ve already lived that life, but they lived it in the best place in the entire world, one of the safest cities on the planet. And when they’re struggling to find the answer to why they feel so lost, maybe they’ll come looking for someone like me, someone who has done exactly what they did, just 10 years before them. And I’ll tell them like I am telling you, the International School administrators and parents of Hong Kong Kids:

Please, don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine. I promise. You’re doing everything right. You are teaching these kids to respect each other, to understand each other’s cultural heritage, to work as a team despite their differences. You have created bonds that you will never see anywhere else in the world, unities that will last a lifetime even if those kids never speak to each other ever again. You have shown them a world that most people can’t even imagine, and you are giving them the power to understand it!

Just keep teaching them well. Kids will be crazy. Kids will be kids. But in the end, everything will turn out alright. I promise.

After all, it did for me, and I couldn’t be happier with the life that I have today.

_________

The Author

Author

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

Author

 

 

 

Post by: James R. Mitchener

Expatriate Everywhere

As a child, I remember shop stalls on the sides of roads busied with red taxis, sellers yelling words I didn’t understand in the back of their stalls, chopping the heads off fish and cleaving open their bodies to expose beating hearts that show their freshness before chucking them on ice. I remember standing in a back-street watching a man with a bag of chickens take orders from passing people, cutting their heads off with scissors and yanking feathers from their bodies. I remember restaurants with rats on the floor picking up the scraps that fell from the table, completely ignored and respected by every patron as a sign that they were not in the food. I remember cockroaches the size of my fist scuttling across the kitchen, our domestic helper chasing them down with a shoe in her hand, slapping over and over at the ground. I remember cheap, neon lights flickering on as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, bringing an ambiance and energy of glowing Cantonese characters to a city’s night life that never slept. I remember old men with long hairs growing out their moles spitting into the road, dodging buckets full of animal bits as you walked past closing stores, and people walking up to me holding toys telling me a price they had made up on the spot. I remember the smell of stained wood, the seemingly endless heights of buildings, and the rickety bus rides at breakneck speeds along poorly built roads too close to the cliff’s edge.

As that same child, I remember a suburban town in the proudest state of the land of the free. I remember going to school and being indoctrinated into a belief that this land, this state, was the greatest in the world. I remember looking for a place to call home, and wanting to believe them, and becoming part of the culture. But I remember God, and I remember I never agreed with the things I was told about him or the promises people made in his name. I remember wanting to be one of them, but knowing that I was as much one of them as I was the people of the other lands I had seen. I remember not having friends. I remember being scared and alone. I remember being afraid to meet people, afraid to attach. I remember leaving and feeling sad, but feeling happy at the same time.

I remember the cobblestone roads and pretty streets of a suburban neighborhood on the edge of the most notable french-speaking city on Earth. I remember walking up the path to buy bread from one shop, meat from another, and milk from yet another. I remember the glowing clover-like sign of a pharmacy on every single corner of every single street. I remember chickens slowly roasting on spits in every city, ready for picking for the meager price of the change floating in your pocket you would have not spent otherwise. I remember learning to speak the language, and being shunned for doing it wrong when I tried and being hated for not trying when I didn’t. I remember tight trousers on the native kids walking by, people rolling down the city streets on skateboards and roller skates, and beautiful women in clothing that cost more than most people make in a year. I remember planning my trips to the city around strikes, and driving through the tunnel to reveal a landscape of low built buildings that framed an enormous, steel tower.

I remember returning to the city of neon lights and busy streets. I remember how crowded it had become and how so much had changed without feeling any different at all. I remember walking through the streets and knowing that I was safe, of riding buses and taxi’s alone. I remember a school that treated me like an adult, even though I was not. I remember a man telling me I was a Third Culture Kid and not truly understanding what he meant. I remember making friends again, and I remember knowing for the first time in my life that one day I would say goodbye to them forever. I remember knowing that I would not stay here, that I would leave the city I loved and move to somewhere different.

I remember going back to the country of the proud. I remember university, and meeting a girl, and moving in with her, and having the first stable moment of my entire life. I remember how amazing it felt to be there, in one place, learning and being loved. But I remember talking about moving, about us having a family and taking them with us wherever we traveled. I remember her saying she would rather keep them at home, travel until we had kids, and then stay put. I remember not understanding what she meant by saying “stay home,” and I remember being scared. I remember the wedge that drove us apart, and the fear that I was committing to an eternity with someone else. I remember running away. I remember being free. I remember being inconsolably sad that I couldn’t have the life I had always wanted. I remember meeting the woman of my dreams, who lived so many miles away. I remember the long distance relationship feeling normal, only bothering me because it bothered her. I remember it pulling us apart. I remember loving her every day since then, feeling as though I lost something amazing for a reason I simply couldn’t understand. And I remember moving away, to another city, for another life, knowing from the second I left for this new land in a different state that I would use it as a stepping stone to the next. That I would never stay more than two or three years. And then I would be off again.

I am a Third Culture Kid, a TCK, and an Expatriate. My life is one built out of revolving doors and large metal planes. It’s a history of countless cities, of family always thousands of miles away, of girlfriends that have lived in different continents, of multiple cultures mashed into a single mind. I have two passports, officially a citizen of two different worlds. And yet, in both, I am an expat. I fit into neither, belong to none.

My home is airport terminals, new sites and city streets that I experience by never acting like a tourist but as a person that has lived there his entire life, even if I have never set foot there before. I capture culture and memories, never carrying a camera because I never have the desire to show people what I saw. Because what I see is not what others see. I see the people and their lives, the daily routines of everyone and everything. I taste the smells and remember the way the wind hit my face as I moved through the unknown.

I am not looking for the next great vacation when I travel. I am looking for life, for the living and breathing heart of a city that can only be found in the people that reside within it and the culture they have built through generations of development. I do not tell people stories of my travels, because there is no story they could ever understand.

Because where I remember a youth full of so many different worlds, everyone else remembers stability. They remember growing up around aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. They remember boyfriends and girlfriends that they didn’t have to say goodbye to because of distance, but left because they had run their course and met an end. They remember traveling as a gift, as a treat to see something different before returning to the same house in the same neighborhood with the same friends they have had since they were born.

But I remember none of that, because like many other TCKs in this world, I remember the world in pockets of time. I am an expatriate, through-and-through, without a home. And I live to see more.

_________
Post by: James R. Mitchener

The Passport

Thanks to a life of international travel, cultural immersion, and constantly changing lifestyles, I’ve reached a point where there really is very little in this world that can actually shock me. I mean this in regards to comments made in passing, things I see on the news, or the state of the global economy and how it ruins the lives of the people that build it when things go wrong. I certainly don’t mean that I can’t be shocked if someone were to walk up behind me very quietly, then scream loudly in my ear while grabbing by shoulders and shaking my body viciously. That would shock me. A lot. So please don’t do it. But the aspects of our constantly changing world, the things that make people say “I can’t believe those people!” or “How could anyone ever do that?” have almost no effect on me at all. I’ve come to realize that human beings are capable of anything. Some of it is spectacular, and some of it is atrocious, but as far as the limits of humanity take us, we are almost unstoppable regardless of which way we lean.

That being said, there are exceptions that prove every rule. I may not often be surprised, but there are some things that still leave me stunned and speechless no matter how often I hear them. The second-greatest of all of these surprises, and I start with this one because the greatest often follows it, is the infamous statement of “I don’t have a passport.” No matter where I am, no matter who I’m with, when I hear these words from people I’m currently conversing with or from across the room, I shudder. The Third Culture Kid side of me comes crashing forward, rocketing into the conversation like a drunk man driving a sports car, then it slams at full speed into an immovable object, leaving me dazed and confused and uncertain of where I even am. Why? Because to me, my passport is the single most important thing in my life. It’s not just an ID, it’s a keycard to the entire planet. Without it, I’m literally stuck wherever I am, a prisoner waiting to be released from a jail that is so huge and unescapable that it fills me with anxiety just imagining it. With my passport in my hand, I can go anywhere I want (within political reason) just by showing a man in an airport a tiny book with my picture in it. It’s the pass-card to my entire cultural heritage.

To emphasize how embedded this belief has been, when I was in my final year of high school, I was part of a programme called PALs, short for Peer Assisted Leadership. For the first six weeks, the PALs all did bonding exercises together, having discussions and opening up and building a community that’s strong and collected. It never worked with me, but then those bonding exercises never do. I recognize the point, but those people with which I’m supposed to be so similar will never understand me, and so I would simply listen and learn what made them who they are, then use comedy to make them believe they knew who I was. But the truth is, the bonding game just feels like a foreign enemy laying siege to my castle. I sit behind my walls of brick and mortar, waiting for someone to starve me out or get me sick or weak, and then I wait for them to pounce. What no one ever understands, however, is that the walls of a TCK are not here to protect us from you, but are here to protect you from us. Because if we were to open up and share our views, our opinions, and our history with everyone we met, we’d be the greatest outliers in history. We are adaptors, individuals with the ability to use what we’ve learned to fit into any situation, but that skill comes with limitations and control. No one ever sees or hears the all-encompassing us.

The exercise in question, however, was one in which we all sat in a circle and went around the room answering one simple question. The question was seemingly inconsequential, but it was one that planted an idea, letting each of our peers catch a glimpse of what we held to be valuable in our lives. It was a question of importance, put simply but detailing so much more, the question of “If your house was burning to the ground and you had the time to grab just one inanimate object, what would you grab?”

Me peers, being who they were, creatures of the first culture and conditioned to say the things they said, discussed taking things like photographs of family, gifts from grandparents, items that have been passed down for generation after generation. I was the last person to speak, and when it came my turn, I looked at a classroom full of strangers and stated “what’s wrong with you people, I’d take my passport any day.” There was an awkward silence, then an outbreak of laughter, followed by people shaking their heads in both acknowledgement and disagreement.

Then came the statement that shocks me more than ever, the one that knocks me so far back from reality that I really have no idea how to argue with it. A girl across the room said: “I don’t even have a passport. Why would I need one, I’m never going to leave Houston!”

And then it was my turn to just sit in silence and shake my head.

I have said it on multiple occasions before, but I think it’s time to say it one more time, just to look at the opposite side of the equation for a change. TCKs are impossible to understand unless you, too, are a TCK. But it’s so much more than that. We aren’t alone in being impossible to understand. Thanks to an idea that has so many names, the one of which I often use is Equivalent Exchange, but to Taoists would be called Yin and Yang, or the Buddhist philosophy of Dualism, there has to be a counterbalance to each of us. And so when I hear people say they have no desire to even leave their state, but then take it one step farther and state they would never even their hometown, it makes sense that those people would exist, regardless of my inability to understand them. They exist because like us, the TCKs who will never want to let go of that little piece of paper and card-stock called a passport, there must be someone who would never even want to see that tiny global identification booklet? To us, it represents the world, the key to everywhere we will ever go and everything we will ever learn. But to them, it represents saying goodbye to the only thing in life that matters.

It’s true, I don’t understand it. I never will. But that’s because their lives, like ours, are built out of the experiences that we’ve had as we have developed and grown. The only major difference I see in it all is that as TCKs, we weren’t ever given a choice in the matter.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

The TCK’s True Family

I believe that at this point, it can be fairly well agreed upon that Third Culture Kids who have been constant country hoppers have a problem with family. I use the word problem lightly, of course, because the truth of the matter is that our disconnection with our families isn’t a problem, but simply a trade we were forced to make to have the experiences that were handed to us. Despite all that, the end result is always the same: TCKs have been forced to distance themselves from establishing relationships with people they are supposed to trust.

Like I said in Foreign People, we were never really given the opportunity to connect to our family. A couple days a year, even a couple weeks a year for those longer trips back to our parent’s passport countries, is never enough to establish that sort of tight-knit family bond I keep hearing about. When people say to me “my family is the most important thing in my life,” it makes me let out a little mental laugh. Of course, they never know I’m reacting that way, and I usually mask it by saying “I know what you mean,” but the truth is I really don’t have a clue. I’m oblivious, because my family has never been a staple part of my life. In fact, they really are the most distant parts of my regularly occurring life.

The reason for this is that when TCKs hop around the world, they usually end up in places where there are other TCKs with them. If I’ve noticed anything in my life, nobody forms bonds better than Third Culture Kids. The bounds of social situations that exist so clearly in First Culture societies are completely nonexistent in TCK worlds. Where an American school in the United States has the geeks, the losers, the popular kids, the theatre kids, the band kids, the cheerleaders, the football players, the jocks, the pot heads, the science geeks, the honors club, the over achievers, the under achievers, the bullies, the bullied, the goths, the emo kids, and every other type of defining separation, TCK schools just have kids.

From ASP to HKIS, I never once felt like there was a separation between any of us students. Some of us were assholes. Some of us were quiet. Some of us didn’t get close and some of us wouldn’t let go of each other. Some of us had huge welcoming hearts and some of us couldn’t care less. But the truth is, we were all aware that we were all so similar that, despite the fact that some of us didn’t get along and that we may feel drastically different regarding certain situations, we were all in it together. And the “it” that we were all in wasn’t just a day at school or a field trip to a museum. It was the full, all encompassing aspect of our lives. We were all thousands of miles away from what had once been home, and now was simply a land full of strangers like the one we lived in at the time.

What that did to us was pull us together. We bonded in ways that kids in a First Culture Kid community never would. Things that made us different, things that would make FCKs run away from each other or hate one another instead drew us together. We wanted to learn the differences between us, embrace how we were uniquely different from all the other kids all over the world that didn’t know what we knew. We learned to love one another not despite our differences, but because of them. We learned that multi-cultural viewpoints and different perspectives were not something to be feared, but something to embrace. By using each other, we learned that multiple minds were better than one. And in the end, we understood each other so well that there wasn’t a team on the planet that could work together better than us.

What was so strange about this is that, for the most part, TCKs are natural leaders. We would walk into a room and every single one of us would have a presence that’s only met by a collection of CEOs. We are commanding, we understand things on such an incredibly broad level but at exactly the same time see all the little cogs that build our entire product. We can explain things so amazingly well and motivate people with the passion of a king or queen. We are leaders, thinkers, and doers. And yet, unlike most leaders, when paired with another TCK we are made stronger, not weaker. There is never a conflict, never a butting of heads or a pissing contest to see who’s stronger or smarter. There’s just harmony. Complete and total harmony with the most blissful balance of collaboration and achievement. It’s absolutely glorious, and it has been too long since I have seen it in action.

Why then do TCKs have the ability to work together where other leaders would never have the ability? Because we were built to coexist. In learning that we were never going to fit in anywhere in the world again, we built our own country. In finding out that we were never going to be understood ever again in our lives, we built our own support group. And in knowing that we would never again see the world like everyone else, we stared at each other and understood that we at least had each other. And out of that mess, out of the chaos of losing everything every other normal person clings to in order to define themselves, we decided to define ourselves by the way we impact the world. And in doing so, we created the strongest family that no one else would ever understand.

We created the Third Culture Kid community.

And no matter where we go, no matter who we run into, if we ever meet another TCK, we will smile and know that we have just met a family member we never knew existed. And without saying a word, we will both understand exactly what that means.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

Foreign People

Family has an interesting connection to Third Culture Kids. I can’t speak for all of us out there, but the heavy travelers, the ones like me that bounced around their entire lives without ever going back to their birthing-country, family has always been one of those things we looked at through a dirty window. It’s out there, we know what it is and how different cultures treat it and interact with it, but the smudges on the glass make it impossible to really get a clear picture of what it all means to us as TCKs.

For readers of The Illusive Home, you’ll be aware that I was dating an English girl a while back. She was cousin’s best friend. I wrote in one of the chapters of The Illusive Home that I couldn’t help but push her away, as if I were testing her resilience to my ever-changing life. She wasn’t the first I’ve done that to. In fact, I’ve done it to everyone I’ve ever loved and thought “I could see myself with this one for the rest of my life.” They all get pushed away. Needless to say, they all end up leaving, too.

I’m telling you this because, with my cousin’s best friend, I began to notice something very interesting regarding the way I deal with family. See, my entire extended family lives in England. I, however, spent three years of my life there followed by short, once per annum visits back for a quick vacation of constant rushing. In that time, I would be lucky to see each cousin or aunt or uncle for more than a day or two. That’s one or two days per year that I would see these people. And yet to almost everyone else, family are those people you see all the time because they share in your lives. Not with me. Not with TCKs.

And like all TCKs that have grown up, I’ve started to wonder what life is like on the other side. It’s that whole “the grass is always greener” thing. I’m not sure it really is greener, but I am curious as to what the other side holds. So lately, with special thanks to the smartphone generation, I have been making a conscious effort to stay in contact with my cousins. WhatsApp and BBM are two fantastic tools for transcontinental communications. But that doesn’t change the fundamental truth of the situation:

TCKs that have constantly hopped around the world like myself don’t actually know their family. I know I’m supposed to be friends with my cousins, supposed to love them and hold them close and that if I say something bad about them it’s taboo because “they’re family,” but that really doesn’t mean anything to me. The truth is I really don’t know them. I will have conversations with my cousin Amy, the one I talk to more than the rest, and she’ll react to things in ways I would never expect. It’s like a loose cannon, or perhaps juggling active land mines. You never know when one is going to go off. It’s simply unpredictable. And that all comes down to the fact that where other families, where other cousins would grow up spending time with one another, I did not.

So the grass may be greener on the other side. It may be bouncier and softer and much more fun to roll around in. But the truth is, it really doesn’t matter, because the kids that are running around and playing in it will never know what the grass is like on my side, either. We are separated by an impassable wall. I will never know what it’s like to grow up around family, and they will never know what it’s like to grow up around the world. That’s just the way it works, and it doesn’t make me any less proud to be a TCK.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener