Tag Archives: expatriot

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

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The Hidden Value

Three days ago, I got a taste of something I haven’t ever had before in my life. I got a taste of what it’s like to fear for the life of someone you care about. I’ve lost people before, people in school, my grandmother, extended family, pets, but like all things in this world, they each hold a different weight on your mind. As a Third Culture Kid, loss is just part of life. You just sort of get used to it, and you get used to it at a very young age. If you don’t, it consumes you, because the life of a TCK is built upon the foundation of loss. Without it, we would never know how to let go, how to cease the moment of a new community, of a new culture, of a new group of strangers that are all waiting to call themselves friends. We would cling to the past, and miss the present, all because we had never bothered to find the key that opened the door to change.

I’ve found in my life that the abilities I gained in coping with loss as I grew up came hand-in-hand with knowing how to cope with death. Sometimes, people are there, and then one day, they aren’t. It doesn’t always work with losing people that are alive, and it doesn’t always work with losing people in death, either. But for the most part, the system doesn’t fail. You let go, not because you want to forget, but because you know that in holding onto something that is no longer there makes you miss living in the moment. The memories remain, the influence that person had on your life still making you who you are, but you acknowledge that there will be no more chapters in that specific book. Instead, you close it up, and start writing another.

By now, you have an understanding of my family dynamic. They are important because they are family, I was taught that by my First Culture Kid parents and extended family. Family is important. I don’t fully understand the reasoning, and I probably never will, but I know that in order to make my family happy, I must pretend to see that value and connection. And if it makes them happy, then to me it’s worth it, because though I sometimes do things that are spiteful or cruel, I am truly a good hearted person who doesn’t ever want to hurt anyone, unless they cause pain to the people I love. We all have our weaknesses, and attacking those that I love is simply one of mine. Beyond that, I generally don’t care to cause people harm.

Regarding family, though, my parents are by far the most interesting. They shaped me the most of all my other family members, I suppose. I mean, they did raise me after all, or at least raised me when I was at home. They taught me life lessons as best they could, and I learned the rest from the people I met around the world. But for the most part, my parents did a good job with me. They are good people, or try to be, but like me they have their flaws. My father was usually grumpy as we grew up, and we were never really that close. My mother was always there, but as I’ve grown and evolved and sunk deeper into my TCK upbringing, I have started to notice that there are many things about this world and the cultures within it she simply doesn’t understand. Her view of the big picture only extends as far as most FCKs views extend. It’s not her fault, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of by any means, it’s just a difference in our lives that makes it very hard for me to relate to her these days. We fight more than we should, but that’s because deep down, we are both fundamentally different thinkers. I believe that’s a good thing, though. We learn the most from those that are different to us. Mostly, we learn why we don’t believe what they believe, and why those beliefs are important to us. Without her knowing it, my mother’s drastically different views on the world have done nothing but strengthen mine by showing me more and more why I don’t believe what she believes.

I digress, however, because the point in today’s post is this: Though my parents have never been what I would call the closest people in my life, they certainly hold a lot more value in my heart than I ever knew. My dad, who I’ve always told people I love and respect, just don’t really know, is shockingly closer to my heart that I ever realized. I know this because three days ago, he came down with a sore throat. That sore throat turned into an infection, a bad one, in a matter of hours. He was feeling bad by 08:00, and by 13:00, his vocal chords had swollen to a point he couldn’t swallow, couldn’t take, and could hardly breathe.

My mother was out of town with my grandfather who is visiting from England, both of them in Lubbock visiting my younger brother, so I took my dad to the doctor, who told me to take him to the Emergency Room at the hospital. As soon as we walked in, he was admitted, plugged into an IV, fed fluids, put on a monitor, given steroids, antibiotics, and oxygen. They kept telling us it would be okay, but that ability to read people better than they know that most TCKs have kept tingling in the back of my mind. Something in their voices, their expressions, it just didn’t feel right.

At 21:00, Dad was still in the ER. I stepped out of his room and hovered nearby, listening to the nurses at the nursing station. I heard them saying that everyone was fine on the floor, except for the patient in room 22 who’s blood pressure and heart rate were high enough that he was risking cardiac arrest. They said he needed to remain calm under all circumstances or he could suffocate, or worse, slip into cardiac arrest. My father was the patient in room 22.

For the first time, I had to make a decision based on what I’d learned that could greatly shape the lives of many different people. I could call my mother and tell her it was much more serious than they thought, and she could be on the first flight back to Houston the next day, or I could bite my tongue and ride it out. I realized that these events would take place within the next 12-18 hours, so even if my mother knew, she would not return in time. Telling her would only panic her, and possibly cause her to speak to Dad and panic him too, which was the one thing the nurses said couldn’t happen. His heart rate couldn’t go up.

So I chose to say nothing.

My dad was moved to the Intensive Care Unit for two days. For the entire first night, he was high risk. His heart rate began to drop when they put some more medicine into his IV, but they were still worried his throat might close. I stayed with him a long time that night, and we didn’t talk, because he couldn’t. I simply handed him a bucket he was spitting into between reading my book while he slipped in and out of delirious consciousness. But in that silence, I got to understand his importance. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if people annoy you, or if you don’t understand the importance of family. Sometimes, there are just some people in this world that the tricks a TCK has learned in accepting loss just don’t work on.

My dad is one of those people, and now that he’s stable and grumpy again, I’m hoping I can go to sleep for the first time in over 48 hours.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener