Tag Archives: Expats

Am I a Third Culture Kid?

Am-I-a-Third-Culture-KidI 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.

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The Author
Post by: James R. Mitchener
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The TCK Foreign Reality

TCK Life Logo and TextProbably one of the most unique and challenging elements of detailing what it means to be a Third Culture Kid is confronting the differences between the TCK community and the Expatriate community. To non-TCKs, or I suppose to anyone who doesn’t understand the internal workings of a TCK mind, the two are extremely similar. A TCK has lived all over the world, an Expat is living all over the world; a TCK doesn’t see their family often, an Expat doesn’t see their family often; a TCK is a frequent flier, an Expat is a frequent flier; a TCK knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers, an Expat knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers; and a TCK shows elements of cultures from around the world, while an expat shows elements from cultures around the world also.

To an outside observer, the two may very well be the same. But to us, the TCK community, we are entirely different from our expatriate counterparts. We are all built out of a sequence of events that has led to the development of our personality. Every structure capable of weathering time, especially the structures of our lives, must start with a strong foundation. This foundation is the blueprint for everything that’s built upon it, and each brick that’s laid on top of the next will either hold strong if it matches the plan, or will crumble if it doesn’t meet the requirements that our foundation has produced.

Like many things I write about in regards to Third Culture Kid Life, I make a conscious effort to find a neutral and core principle that encompasses the entire doctrine, then build up my explanation around that single idea. I do this for the sake of the parents of TCKs that read these pieces, not for the TCKs like myself that already understand on a fundamental level what it means to feel the way we feel. This collection was created to help explain who we are to those who simply cannot understand. So, when you’re taking on the impossible, I find that the items that are relateable to both parties are the only bridge to partial understanding that we can create.

When it comes to understanding why we as TCKs are not in any way the same as the traditional expat, even when we are living an expatriate life, I find it all boils down to one simple word with a sea of meaning; That word is “foreign.” To an expat, all travel is foreign. They are foreigners in a foreign land, outsiders, people living in a country that isn’t their own. Some of them love the place they’re in. Some hate it. But no matter how they feel about it, that country is never their home. They will always be intrinsically connected to the culture of their youth. They will have customs and lifestyle ideas that cannot be changed at all, and even more that cannot be changed without a great deal of effort.

It’s because of this interwoven knowledge that they are foreigners that will either make or break the experience for every single expat. They will either love viewing the world through their first culture lens, saying “Look at how different this is!” or “Back in [Home Country], you’d never be able to find one of these!” Or they’ll hate the entire experience for exactly the same reasons. But in the end, that lens through which they are analyzing their experience, the way that they are viewing the world, is built out of a single culture and a single line of experiences that was developed in their youth. They will always be First Culture Kids living in a world full of other First Culture Kids that are just completely different to themselves.

Of course, this does not mean an expat will not adjust. I have met many expats that have done their absolute best to assimilate into the life of a different country and culture. Plenty have even succeeded, at least on the surface level. But the truth is that during the developmental years of their lives, the years that built the foundation for the person they were going to become, their personality was constructed from the brick and mortar of a single culture.

This is where the TCK split comes into play. The stability that the Third Culture lacks, the one that has been a rampant part of almost every single article of the TCK Life collection, means that we view an expatriate life in a completely unique way. When we move to a foreign country, it isn’t anymore foreign to us than the last place we lived or the place our parents call home. The most common similarity with every TCK is that home to us is nothing more than a word other people use to describe the place they grew up in.

We are the children of the world, the global nomads that pick up and go not because we are wanting to experience something drastically different to what we already know, but because we are trying to add to the foundation of our development. The baseline of our lives, one that for FCKs was built out of stability and consistency, was built for TCKs out of country after country that had nothing to do with the place from which our parents originated.

For me, moving isn’t a burden. There is no fear in packing my things and starting my life somewhere I know absolutely nothing about. There is no discomfort in having no friends for the first few months of my stay in a different place. There is no paranoia in knowing I will not be able to understand, to interact, to survive with ease and simplicity. In truth, all those things inspire me. They motivate my internal cultural mixing pot and drive me to absorb everything around me. They make me adapt, to change, to understand everything I possibly can. Where an FCK will attempt to understand a foreign country by drawing parallels to the culture of their youth, a TCK will view a foreign land without bias or commitment from a land called “home.” I walk into any situation believing I will absorb and change in any way that inspires me.

I am English by birth, American/UK by passport, and Global by culture. None of these things define me. All of them define me. Really, the difference between an expat and a TCK is simple. To an expat, a new country is always a foreign place full of differences, good or bad. To a TCK, a new country is a place that makes the entire world a little less foreign, and a little more part of who we are.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

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