A TCK Life world map that can be customized for any of your travels. Interested in seeing one with your name on it? Let me know, and we’ll see if it’s worth production. Currently designed to be produced on an 18″x24″ canvas.
A TCK Life world map that can be customized for any of your travels. Interested in seeing one with your name on it? Let me know, and we’ll see if it’s worth production. Currently designed to be produced on an 18″x24″ canvas.
They will call you different, because to them you are oddly out of place. The way words roll off your tongue, the way an accent they do not recognize leaps into a single word, the way you present yourself at formal events, hold your knife and fork, choose foreign foods over domestic, or travel without a visa. You would seem so different, if only in the slightest of ways, that they will separate you from their world due to a lack of understanding.
They will call you a foreigner, because your passport say so, because your birth country isn’t here, because your parents prove it, because your family lives so far away, because you use the word “home” to mean so many different places, even where you are now. But they won’t hear that. They won’t remember that you called this place home, because that is normal, and everyone says it. They will hear the slip of words that claim that other countries, other places, are home, too. They will not remember you saying which, or where, or that you have called seven countries in the past week home. They will hear it once, and realize home isn’t here, despite how many times you use the word to describe this place.
They will call you a bragger, because you talk about a life full of travel. They will not see a life that knows nothing else, that when talking about your childhood you have no choice but to speak of a foreign land because to you, all lands are foreign. They will not see that this childhood created a confused, different, and multicultural mess. They’d see a man who is talking about things they haven’t seen, and assume he is trying to best them, but that’s not it at all. It’s about connection, about drawing a bridge, about relating the past to the present no matter how convoluted an approach you take. But they will hear the words, not the meaning, and they will fail to understand that when you talk about your past, you never once do it to brag, but instead do it to understand a world you are not a part of.
They will call you a preacher, because the things you say are as foreign to them as the things they say are as foreign to you. They will think that you are too big to be true, full of too much talk and not enough history to have any backing. But they won’t know that when you were four you were surrounded by kids who prayed to a different god to you, who spoke a language you didn’t understand, who laughed at you for being different, and who welcomed you as one of them in the end because of all those things. They won’t know that you spent your life always watching, always paying attention, always adapting, because if you didn’t, you would be alienated while they all sat in the comfort of their culture with the same friends in the same place speaking the same language, never thinking what you were always, always, always thinking: when will be the day my parents tell me I have to say goodbye to my best friend? And when you try to explain this, try to pass on the things you learned while watching the world as a child as they did not, when you were more analytical than most college students at the age of six, they’ll laugh and think you are a fool for trying to convince them you, as young as you are, know the world.
They will call you a racist, because you have been immersed in so many different cultures and learned that if there is one consistency in the world when it comes to racism, it’s that the people who care the least about it are the most jovial in regards to multicultural predicaments. They will not see your joke about how rude the french are, or how the main dietary supplement for protein in Asia is cat, as funny. They will tell you that you are wrong, that it is rude, and that people deserve to be respected and treated with tolerance. But you’ll know better. You’ll know that you say the things you say because the culture you are discussing isn’t foreign, isn’t distant, like it is to them. To you it is part of who you are, and though you don’t share the physical characteristics of that culture, you truly feel as if you are one of them, at least in part, a part so strong that you know that if they would just open up and stop thinking of others as outsiders, they too might see it the way you see it.
They will call you unpredictable, because no matter how hard they try, not matter how good they are at reading into the thoughts and predictions of others, they will not be able to see what is going on inside your head. They will think they do, because you will do what you always do, and do it oh so well, and you’ll blend. They’ll think they have you pegged, have you figured out, have you all sorted when all of a sudden you’ll throw out a flair of that culture you hold so true to your heart but keep hidden away for the right time. And they’ll immediately be lost again, believing everything they had figured out was wrong. And their trust in you will falter, just a little, and you’ll see it in their eyes whenever you look at them. Because unlike them, you didn’t learn to read people through the culture of one, but the cultures of many. You learned the natural reactions of humanity, the unbiased and fundamentally shared reactions that every person regardless of culture exhibits. You learned to read Base Human.
They will call you hostile. Because you, unlike so many, are not content with ignoring the things that matter. You, unlike them, want to know a person to their core, to ask them questions about religion and politics and global beliefs, to ask the questions that almost everyone else fears because of the emotions they evoke. But you, you know that the only way to achieve total acceptance and understanding, to truly love someone for who they are, is to have challenged everything they hold important. Only then, when you have forced them to stand upon the edge of the abyss and stare into the face of a something completely different to everything they have ever known, will they show one of two faces: Will they shut down and reject in an effort to defend themselves, or will they stand tall, concede the differences of your beliefs, and want to be around you because of it.
They will call you a Third Culture Kid. And then, they will finally understand who you are. And the relationship you had for days, weeks, months, and years, the things they called you, will all fade away. Because now, they will know who you are. They will understand without experiencing, to believe without seeing. They will know that the world you saw, the culture you created, is as pure and true as any other.
And they will call you their friend.
At One World Week at the University of Warwick, I was asked after my talk if I thought it were possible to change the opinions of others, to build a community that could change the world by bringing on equality. I am not normally one for dodging questions, but I admit, I side-stepped this one a little and said that yes, I believed it were possible, but that some people would never change their minds, and for them the only hope you have to remove their counter-productive argument was to wait for them to die, which hopefully wouldn’t be long for the sake of bringing on equality.
Now, however, I am starting to realize day-by-day that there is a much deeper, fundamental issue there that seems so obvious to me as a Third Culture Kid, but that none of my First Culture Kid friends seem to understand. I’ve never once discussed this with anyone, mainly because it started as a double blind study in which even I didn’t know I was doing the research, and then transitioned into a single blind study as I began to notice a commonality between all my “global tolerance” First Culture Kid friends.
This has been years in the making, something I have been noticing and farming for more information since I was a college kid my freshman year talking to all these strangers who had never left the country, except maybe for a week here or there to build houses, repair a school, or to save the souls of those that didn’t know their particular god, whichever god that happened to be at the time. And now, even today, I still have this talk with people that claim to be tolerant of the world and believe in the potential achievement of total equality. But now, I do it with motive, not for fun. I am farming for a secret.
Before we even get into the details regarding global tolerance, I want to address the nature of that two-word-item that has become so popular when discussing the pathway to global acceptance. Tolerance, in itself, is a horrible way to achieve your goals. The root word, tolerate, means “to put up with, to endure.” When we talk about global tolerance as a way the world needs to move, we are already setting ourselves up for failure. We cannot achieve unity by simply tolerating. We need to welcome, to invite, to protect, to respect, to love, to believe, to agree, and above all else, to understand everything and everyone. To tolerate them only means that you accept that they are here, despite your better judgement or desires. A world of tolerance is a world still built on the belief that your personal experiences, your culture, the colour of your skin, the country from which you hail, and the people you have relationships with are somehow better than those around you that you simply choose to “tolerate.” The idea that we are building a globalized world on this ridiculous notion of tolerance is not only counter productive, but it’s insulting as well.
I think that it is this is this belief in tolerance that stemmed the greater problem with the First Culture Kid approach to creating a unified world. But before we go on, I believe it important to make a statement regarding my appreciation for people trying to make the world better. The world is riddled with people that reject any form of difference from their own, especially when it comes to religion, which seems to be the only remaining platform where it is not only socially acceptable to attack someone for not believing what you believe, but appears to be encouraged as well.
That aside, why is it that this belief in tolerance is such a problem when trying to achieve globalized uniformity? Because right out of the gate, you are approaching it all wrong.
I have had many, many FCK friends over the years who have been very quick to jump to the defense of anyone who is even remotely different to them. One comment that doesn’t quite include everyone, one joke that even slightly alienates someone, and BOOM! All of a sudden the tolerant FCK is halfway down your throat about your poor use in language or how your beliefs alienate a group of people and that’s not acceptable in a tolerant world.
And right there is the problem. Sure, the intentions are wonderful, to create a world in which we are tolerant of everyone and ignore all distinguishing indicators like the color of their skin, their birth country, their beliefs, their politics, their sexual orientation, etc. But the best intentions often lead to some of the most brutal results.
You see, my wonderful friends who want so much to make everyone equal: There is never going to be any form of unity if you strip down the boarders that make us who we are. We are individuals, not a hive mind of shared consciousness. We require our individuality to thrive. I am a white, English born, Italian blooded, globally trained, American influenced, southern experienced, big toothed, greasy skinned, messy accented, brown haired, brown eyed, Third Culture Kid. I have been the minority almost all of my life, and yet I have never really felt like one until I transitioned into my role as a Domestic TCK. Why? Because it was not in my constant need to ensure I said nothing that separated me from the pack, but rather in my open arms that invited the words gwai-lo, red coat, lobster, cracker, bai tou, ghost, leche, gringo, etc., to make me part of the culture that surrounded me.
And that’s where the one big crack in the foundation of “tolerance” suddenly spreads, bringing down the entire building upon which you built this first culture mask of acceptance using a term that means nothing more than to put up with someone. We don’t want to be put up with. None of us do. And trust me, your pathological fear of offending someone through racism is not the answer. Every time you gasp in horror at how someone used a racial slur, or pointed out the funny way someone muttered a word with an unfamiliar accent, or challenged a different person’s faith in their respective gods, you are not helping this battle for unity, but hurting it. The person who is not racist, who is opening their arms to global acceptance, will not be phased by a word. But the person who does not understand unity, the one that leads the pack, or the secret supremisist using your fear of offending to his/her advantage will always be the one to ride your “equality” to their benefit. The rest of us who are proud of who we are and are unconcerned with racism really don’t give a shit about the ignorance that’s thrown our way.
Take it from a man who has slipped between cultures his entire life. The deepest connections I’ve had, the most meaningful relationships I’ve experienced, the total acceptances I’ve achieved from cultures I do not physically or verbally fit into, have all been born of realizing one thing:
When we accept that we are all completely different, when we laugh about how we are called gweilo, when we chuckle at someone making fun of our accent, when we embrace differences and are proud of them, we entirely remove the power of racism.
This is not tolerance. This is equality, something so much more powerful than the tolerance you seem to want to create. Because in tolerance, we are always fully aware of the differences in the people that surround us. In equality, however, we notice it all, we vocalize it all, and we do so with an air of acceptance and joviality that makes the bonds between us even stronger. And with every relationship that is built upon that foundation, the foundation of a realization of our differences and an open acceptance to understand them and embrace them, racism has one less place to breed.
One of the most common questions I get from First Culture Kids, after the initial wave of questions inspired by the shock of my multicultural upbringing subsides, is “and what do you think about [insert current place I’m living]?” I’ve written an article about this before in which I discussed how I, as a Third Culture Kid, define myself by the place I’m not living, but I’ve never really answered in a way that satisfies the original intentions of this collection. In truth, the question seems inconsequential to any FCK, but to a TCK looking back on their lives, it is often weighted with so much more than anyone would guess.
To fully understand the weight of this question, I first need to explain the difference between two separate stages of a TCK life; At any point, a TCK is either an Expat TCK, or a Domestic TCK. Now, I understand that saying Expat and TCK together is rather redundant, but I think it’s important to note the difference between an Expat TCK and a Domestic TCK. Regardless of where you are, as a TCK, you will always feel like a Third Culture Kid. That’s inevitable. Our upbringings have created a permanent level of separation between us and natural FCK society. It’s the way of our lives. But there’s a big difference between Expat TCKs and Domestic TCKs, one that shapes the entire way we operate in the culture we’re actively involved in. So, what do they actually mean?
Expat TCK – A Third Culture Kid who lives in a foreign country in which they are the obvious minority, be it through language, skin colour, accent, customs, etc. It is obvious to both the TCK and the culture in which the aforementioned TCK is living that he/she has moved there like many other Expats. The TCK is forced to blend by showing their knowledge of the culture they are living in, not by natural or physical means.
Domestic TCK – A Third Culture Kid that lives in a foreign country (or their passport country) that matches many of their external identifiers, such as skin colour, accent, language, customs, etc. This type of TCK blends naturally and is only recognized as “different” when a relationship with this TCK is established and particular foreign cultural adoptions become evident.
Now back to the question at hand: What happens when someone asks what it’s like living in [insert current country here]? The curious element of this question is that it has only ever been asked when I have been in Domestic TCK mode. Something about being an Expat TCK tends to lead to a more quiet acceptance of your presence, one that lacks a good deal of approach from others, with people having a tendency to wait for you to make the move in drawing a connection rather than you doing so. This has a lot to do with cultural restrictions. We are naturally more comfortable with what we understand and know, and things that are foreign to us make us weary. This doesn’t change with people, so Expat TCKs are forced to engage in order to break down boundaries, where Domestic TCKs fit in well enough that at first glance no boundary is perceivable.
When I was first asked what it was like living in [insert place] over the others, I was back in Houston after all my international travels had come to a close. I knew that traveling was behind me for a while, but I had no idea that 11 years later I would still be living in the same country with no immediate promise of departing. So, when I was asked what I thought about Houston, I was naturally resistant. People saw this as a resistance to the place itself, but the truth is, that’s never what’s happening with TCKs. We are natural movers. We do it so well that we may be the only group on the planet that the “Most Stressful Life Event: Moving” rule doesn’t apply to. In fact, I am more relaxed moving than I am sitting still.
The reason for our resistance is the shift from Expat TCK to Domestic TCK. Most of us have spent our entire lives being the minority outsider, forcing connections and demonstrating our cultural understanding in order to be accepted as more than just the foreigner. The greatest moment of any TCK experience is that very first second in which a majority individual accepts you, at least in part, as a member of their culture due to your understanding, respect, and participation in their cultural practices. There is no greater feeling of euphoria in the world for us. It’s what we live for!
Of course, that means that when we are stripped of our Expat TCK status and are transitioned into our Domestic TCK status, we are stripped of the vitality of our experiences. The unfortunate truth is, everything that we know has been completely turned around. Like I said before, people are made uncomfortable by what they do not understand, and unless you are a TCK yourself, the TCK mentality is impossible to understand. So where an Expat TCK starts every relationship with a lack of trust and understanding, building up to a state of cultural acceptance, the Domestic TCK suffers a much harsher reality.
Whenever a Domestic TCK starts a relationship, it is always assumed they are part of that culture. Then, as the relationship begins to unfold, Cultural Slips begin to happen at random intervals, revealing the foreignness of our true identity. The subconscious is a powerful tool, and for FCKs, they feel as though they have been tricked or deceived. Unless the person has an open mind, a trait that is unfortunately sparse, the doors go from open to closed on trusting and accepting the TCK. And as everyone knows, it’s much harder to regain lost trust than it is to gain trust from a blank slate.
In becoming a Domestic TCK, our lives become an endless struggle to walk the line between being different and blending in. We have to polarize our lifestyle, completely flipping how we used to act. We go from intentionally blending into the culture to show our respect to intentionally rejecting it to stand out, effectively avoiding the mistrust that is created, albeit subconsciously, when it becomes evident we are not who people think we are.
But that’s not us. We did not learn and grow by making ourselves overtly known. We are not natural rejecters of culture; We are natural blenders. To make statements like “I’m English” when in an American culture hurts us, not because it’s not part of who we are, but because it’s just one tiny fragment of who we are. We are not English or American or Chinese or Indonesian or French or Spanish or any other country in the world. We are all of them we have touched. And we are endlessly proud of every tiny fraction of a culture we have picked up.
So when we are asked what it’s like to live wherever we’re living, we aren’t reacting the way we do for the reasons you think. We reject because to be a Domestic TCK is to contradict everything you were raised to do. It’s to make apparent who we are, instead of blending into what we aren’t. And that moment when the shift takes place is the single most challenging part of any Third Culture Kid’s life.
In the morning, I brush my teeth, shower, and get dressed inside an apartment that is littered with the clothing and papers and dishes of the night before. I go to work taking a slightly round-about-route because I don’t like the fact I can get to my office in five minutes, so I try to make it 15. I sit at a computer, open Illustrator and Photoshop and Excel and Chrome and Word and Bridge and IE and Outlook. I set up my tablet beside me pulling emails from a different company that’s a thousand miles away and another that’s 150 miles away. I work and work and work, sometimes I’ll eat lunch, and then I work and work and work some more. I go downstairs to my other office for another company, I pour myself a drink, and I discuss more work with my partners. I unwind and go home, and I make dinner and eat and work and work. I look around my apartment and wonder why it is so messy, and think to myself “I’ll clean this tomorrow.”
Tomorrow comes, and I do it all again. The same thing in the same place, the same job with the same people. And day by day I notice more and more things that I never noticed before. I notice that I’m no longer noticing the Southern accent that stood out so evidently when I first arrived in this state. I notice that I let Southern twang work its way across my tongue. I notice that no one around me noticed me do it. I notice words like “fixin’to” popping into my head and narrowly missing the speech function of my brain. I notice that around me are tons of trees that were once so beautiful and foreign and different, but are now becoming normal and obscuring and a source of endless pollen. I notice that the people around me are almost all white or black, but mostly white, and that I am once again not the minority. I notice that I do not have to listen for other languages, pick up on essential phrases, or know the difference between Spanish, French, English, and Portuguese in the same conversation. I notice that almost all of my friends have never lived outside of the city, and almost all of them have never lived outside the state. I notice that I think of travelling as something in the distant future, and not the possibility of tomorrow.
I notice that I am surrounded by FCKs in a place where, on the surface, I fit in in more ways than I don’t. And it has made me realize that today, after 26 years of a life where getting up and going was always a single decision away, I am now living the life of a normal, First Culture Kid.
But that’s not me.
While I sit and look at this place around me, I shut my eyes and I imagine a city paved in artificial light, bustling and busy with the hum of a language I do not understand. I imagine restaurants tucked in back-alleys serving unrecognizable food blended with spices that even I have never seen. I imagine an airplane full of people going anywhere, soaring through the sky to the quiet rumble of the engines. I imagine a local market in a cobblestone town and a currency I haven’t figured out yet. I imagine carrying cash instead of plastic, of walking instead of driving, of smiling and nodding instead of understanding and responding. I imagine my mobile phone disconnecting, of buying a pay-as-you-go card, of watching my device illuminate with the worlds “World Phone” upon boot-up. I imagine standing in front of a room full of students in which no two have the same story, the same lineage, the same travel history, and explaining to them that they are like me, a Third Culture Kid, a global nomad, a melting pot of culture after culture.
And then I open my eyes, and the world around me has not changed. The busy streets, the back alley food, the wallet full of cash, the room full of world-traveled students, is all replaced with the walls of my apartment that’s full of all that stuff that First Culture Kids cling to in order to pass the time and build the value of their immobility.
I look over at my girlfriend as she runs her fingers over lips in the same, rhythmic pattern, over and over and over, her eyes fixed on the television not even noticing the burn of my stare. And I smile to myself and think silently “I have so much to show you.”
While this collection is based on a foundation of the Third Culture through the eyes of me, a particular Third Culture Kid that has grown up and joined the world of First Culture “normies,” I have started to realize that this isn’t really about the Third Culture exclusively. In reality, it’s about culture in general, it’s just that the Third Culture is a collection of so many cultures that it is the melting pot standard that provides a general level of understanding and bridging acceptance that is absent in most other cultures. Of course, that still means that in order for you as a read to appreciate this collection, you first have to appreciate, but more importantly to understand, culture as a whole. What is it, what does it mean, what does it do?
I have been thinking about this immensely since my talk at the University of Warwick’s One World Week Social Integration Forum. I got asked a question about how a person can find a job in a foreign country they aren’t officially allowed to work in. My default thought was “well, I mean you can’t. That’s illegal and you’ll get deported and won’t ever be able to come back.” Of course, I didn’t say that because that’s honest and I am generally only brutally honest when I’m writing here. But what that question did do, admittedly without its intention to do, was to get me thinking about the problem that company’s have with developing a company culture.
Company culture is a word like “Green” or “Sustainability.” Everyone loves it, but the more I work and the more I deal with people using the word (I’m a marketing and operations consultant, so much of my working life is using words like that to boost internal and external support), the more I realize that no one has a single clue what it means. Companies keep touting their great culture and how amazing it is, cramming their mission statement and motto down employee’s throats, but when you step back and look, the culture they claim to have created never existed in the first place. It was an illusion, a facade, a fake. An idea that never had any hope of becoming anything more than the words on a piece of paper a new employee was forced to read once and immediately forgot about.
A good example of this would be a little start-up I worked at called CityVoice. The Angel Investor there was the founder of a huge company I’m sure many of you know of if you’re even remotely internet literate, the managed hosting company known as RackSpace. RackSpace had an excellent culture, and it was believed by many of the original team who started RackSpace who also joined CityVoice that the culture was one of the main reasons for their overwhelming success. Everyone loved working there, and everyone loved using RackSpace for hosting. It was just an incredible environment to be in regardless of which side of the table you sat at.
When CityVoice started, they tried to duplicate that culture that had made RackSpace so incredible. It was all they talked about, maintaining the culture, loving the culture, living the culture. The culture was everything! But the culture they were describing wasn’t the culture the office had. It was a fun place to work, sure. We had nerf gun wars in the office, had a fridge stocked full of beer, had arcade machines and couches, an open working environment where everyone was sat in the same space as equals, but this happy-go-lucky culture just didn’t seem to grip.
And when the culture wouldn’t stick, the managers got mad.
I remember one time, my boss at CityVoice who was on the founding team of RackSpace for marketing pulled me into a meeting and said that I didn’t seem to be embracing the company culture. As a Third Culture Kid, I honestly found this quite comical and had to choke back a laugh and a serious argument and education lesson about culture. Of course, “culture” was so important to these people that I knew this statement had serious ramifications regarding my continued employment, so I chose not to explain what I know and instead rejected a lifetime of conditioning for this very moment. But I’m not going to shy away from that now. Too many companies think this way, and I believe that it is my job as a Culture Specialist to address a too-often misunderstood concept:
Culture, not just company culture, is not something you create at will. It is something that is created by the actions, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of a community. One person doesn’t make a culture. A group makes a culture, and that culture is impacted, shaped, and developed based on the external influences of other cultures and individuals. It can strengthen a culture, or it can weaken a culture.
A strong company culture is created by doing everything the right way. Look at Google and Netflix, two of the most successful culture stories of any business anywhere. They both treat their employees with the utmost respect. Their vacation policy is: “If you need it, take it. No hours, no tracking. Just get your job done and be happy.” They have fun as much as they work, and in doing so they work harder than ever. They are happy with their peers because their peers are equals, even in corporate hierarchy. Everyone’s opinion is valid, and everyone’s ideas are the building blocks to their success. Everyone matters. And above all, the customer is always the primary goal. When your card expires at Netflix, they just keep your account rolling and send you an email saying “Hey, your card has expired. Would you please update your card when you have a chance? We’ve kept your account rolling, so whenever you have time. Your streaming won’t be affected.” In doing that, they create a support level from customers that makes employees proud to work there, proud to be part of the team, proud to be providing a service that the vast majority loves and supports.
Those cultures weren’t built by saying “This is the culture, live it.” They were built because a company started with an informal motto of “Don’t be Evil.” That external goal, the desire to do everything they can to help better their community and peers, is what created a harmonic culture. A shared idea, a desire to be part of something more, that’s what created the culture.
Unfortunately, that’s what most companies and leaders miss. They keep their employees on tight schedules, dock them holiday hours for needing to go to the doctor, watch their email and internet and write them up if they leave 5 minutes early or come in 5 minutes late. They Big Brother everything and put no faith into their team to be good, hard working individuals. They reject customer complaints and ignore change because “we know best,” and then they wonder why so many of their employees are miserable, quitting, not doing their jobs, or are incredibly inefficient. They wonder why customers hate them, why their churn rates are so high, why they are sales driven instead of retention driven.
And then they blame the people for not perpetuating the culture.
When I was eventually asked to leave CityVoice for oh so many reasons, one of the main being that I was constantly battling with people to stop forcing a culture and start doing things right for a change instead of lying to our employees and customers, I started consulting because I couldn’t bring myself to be in a situation like that again. Now, I work no less than four jobs at any given time, one of which is always full time work, and the others are just sort of “on the side for fun projects.” And in all of those jobs, in all elements of the success therein, I have focused on my understanding of culture to inspire and create a sense of belonging for everyone I work with.
And it’s all built first and foremost upon my understanding of culture in the world, and how you can strengthen the power of your team by making them proud to be by your side.
It’s a shame, really, that more TCKs aren’t in positions of leadership. Of course, we are still a young generation, and that will change over time, but one of the most crucial foundations for success in a business is a strong company culture, and that’s something too few seem to understand how to achieve. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: It’s better to have 1 employee who wants more than anything to be part of what you’re doing than it is to have 10 who don’t care if they have a job with you tomorrow.
So, leaders of the world, let me leave you with this: Stop forcing culture. Make your people, both employees and customers, never want to leave your side just by doing the right thing, which more often than not you’ll see is as easy as stepping back and thinking “if I were them, what would I want from this situation.” Only then will you find the culture you’re looking for.
If you missed One World Week’s Social Integration discussion, here it is online and ready to view. I had an excellent time with The University or Warwick and would like to thank all the students who put so much effort into making this such an enjoyable experience. I am the fourth and final speaker before the Q&A section.
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.
Change is unavoidable. It surrounds us in everything we do, from the streets we’ll choose to take driving home from work to the start and end of a lifelong relationship. All things eventually end, and when they do they are replaced by one or more differences that thrust us forward into a period of transition. Third Culture Kids spend their developmental years becoming fully acquainted with this very idea, learning time and time again that the friendships they make will not be permanent, that the view from their window will not last, that the language they learn will not be their primary tongue forever.
The world is constantly changing. The universe is constantly changing. We, as people, as groups and as individuals, are constantly changing. On an atomic level, electrons hop in and out of existence. On an elemental level, reactions are always taking place around us. On a cellular level, our bodies are constantly dividing, changing, growing, and dying. On an individual level, our personalities are changing based on stimuli and information, our perception of the world altering the information we receive and process. On a cultural level, communities are adding new life with mourning the loss of old life, changing the group as a whole with new generations moving up and old generations moving out. On a planetary level, the surface is constantly shifting while old land disappears and new land forms. On a solar level, the sun is burning, adding new elements to its core in what to us appears to be an endless fusion reaction, but in truth is as ephemeral as everything else. On a galactic level, stars are spinning around the mass of a black hole, balancing on the edge of deletion. And on a universal level, everything continues to grow and expand, outward from our very point of perspective, infinitely and endlessly.
And yet with change so completely a part of life, a constant in every single aspect of everything we do, it strains my TCK-mind whenever I look out at the goings-on of cultural events around us in which there are always overwhelming groups of people constantly battling the very changes that will inevitably occur.
Because all change is inevitable.
This all sprung to mind when I read an article that the Church of England will grant Bishop status to openly gay men. It immediately prompted me to message my girlfriend and inform her of the news, and as soon as I hit send, I quickly added at the same time as she sent to me: “but not women…” We then proceeded to shoot back and forth questions about when the last time this could have happened, that gays gained the status of equality before women. I settled with the Ancient Greeks, but that was just a stab in the dark without actually following through on my normal process of intense research. The conversation then quickly turned to how the article we had both read commented on how many people in the church, and those who believe in its practices, were furious with the Church’s position of welcoming gay Bishops. My TCK brain began to spiral, as it always does when dealing with cultures that are so large and immense that they actually are built out of hundreds and thousands of sub-cultures that mask themselves into a greater Alpha-Culture.
The Third Culture’s natural ability to adapt, our talent of fitting into any social setting, requires us to invite change in all its forms. The equality of our species is key to our ability to socially position ourselves as insiders to a community that we are not truly a part of. Without equality, we cannot function. We welcome differences because by rejecting them, our ability to fit in completely vanishes. Welcoming change creates social integration, the catalyst of a thriving TCK. Rejecting change, however, creates the exact opposite; it creates only alienation.
For TCKs, there is no room for alienation in our lives. When we became part of the Thrid Culture, albeit a transition that was usually not of our choosing, we were forced to abandon the ability to restrict ourselves based on our apprehension of change. Our entire lives became about adapting to what’s around us, finding elements of the things we experienced and pulling them into who we are, being part of cultures that were never truly ours. We were created by change, and we hold onto the Third Culture Kid title by inviting it throughout the rest of our lives.
This is the way we live and breathe. It isn’t so much of a choice as a knee-jerk reaction to survival. We invite change because change is the ever-growing world we live in. We were raised on it, fed it as a source of sustenance when the normal options for survival of consistency and life-long-relationships were taken away from us. We understand based on a lifetime of development, growth, and minority status that, even though our minority lives are masked from the cultures and people around us thanks to our lifetime of cultural stealth training, the rest of the world doesn’t have the same luxury as us.
In truth, the fundamental problem that I have as a Third Culture Kid watching the world resist the changes that will happen regardless of their prolonged resistance isn’t the oppression. Oppression, despite how sad this truth may be, is a natural part of human existence. We have been doing it since the dawn of time, and it seems that the ignorant will always want to impose their lack of understanding and their fear of what isn’t them on everyone else. What upsets me the most is that I know that in almost any situation, I have the ability to pretend to be, to adapt into, either side of the conversation. I could fight either argument, and I could make those around me believe it was the only thing in the world I’ve ever known, despite how much I do not believe it inside my TCK brain. But I have the ability to do it. I have the ability to blend. I have the ability to fit in.
But the world has been “fitting in” for too long. We have reached a point in cultural evolution where understanding, respect, and mutual gain is becoming more than just a dream. As TCKs, we have the natural ability to bridge the gap between social groups. The cultures on both sides can find a commonality in us. As individuals, TCKs are so fundamentally different that where I might not be able to help bridge a gap, there is certainly a TCK out there that could.
Because we have been given the gift of cultural ambiguity, and with it we can become the catalysts to a better world. The only roadblock is change.