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.
Post by: James R. Mitchener