Tag Archives: First Culture

From Expat TCK to Domestic TCK

Domestic Expat TCKOne 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.

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James R. Mitchener

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

The Author

Author

The TCK Barrier Between Parent and Child

For the most part, the Third Culture Kids produced in my generation were TCKs like myself. They were born to First Culture Kid parents, then yanked from that birth-culture and thrown into one or many different cultures throughout their development. At the time, if those TCKs-in-the-making were anything like me, they moaned and complained incessantly about always having to leave their friends. They cried and threw tantrums, made harsh exclamations of frustration, and spat empty threats at the prospect of leaving wherever they were to move somewhere different. But in the end, without fail, we always moved on, and our opinion of the matter meant little to nothing in the grand scheme of our parent’s expatriate lives.

Then one day, those TCKs grew up. We passed out of that bitter, hateful, aggressive teenage phase that everyone seems to pass through and became substantial members of society. We started being treated like adults, garnering respect for the things we said and the knowledge we had acquired throughout our lives; and that knowledge was impressive. Being natural cultural adapters, we had developed an eye that saw things that all but the most intuitive FCKs were blind to. And we did it naturally.

But there was something strange about it all, this internal belief that we were completely normal and yet, externally, we were regarded with incredible worldly knowledge and cultural intelligence, a feature of ourselves that we had always believed was a natural state of individual understanding. And when we realized in our early-maturity that what we had experienced wasn’t the natural state of affairs, we began searching for an answer as to why. In doing so, we were united with a world of TCKs that were scattered all over the planet who were so incredibly different to ourselves, who had experienced such vastly different things, but who truly understood exactly who we were and how we felt.

This, of course, is a highly condensed compilation of events, one that I will undoubtedly expand upon in greater detail in a later post, but it’s important to understand the development of our understanding before approaching the larger issue in our developmental realization; as we grew up, we realized that our parents who had spent all that time travelling the world with us didn’t understand a single thing about what we experienced.

My mother, who like all supportive parents is a regular reader of my works, called me from England where she’s been staying for almost a month now helping with post-funeral family situations to say that she had read my most recent post about being an expatriate everywhere. I thanked her, as usual, and asked how things were going back in the UK. Conversation continued along those lines before jumping back to the blog, where she said, with a hint of sadness in her voice, “Why don’t you write something happy about your experiences sometime?”

I paused for a minute, letting the words flow through me, and though I have always known it to be the case, and have in fact discussed it on multiple occasions in this blog and The Illusive Home, I realized just how disconnected from my experience she truly was.

Sure, we had traveled to all the same places, had seen all the same things, had gone on all the same tours and walked through the same foreign streets, but with every single trip we made, my perception of our travels was as different to hers as an apple is different to an elephant. She saw everything through the eyes of an FCK expatriate, a woman traveling the world with her family, always far away from home and the world she grew up in. She always had that stability, that memory of a lifetime of growth and development in a constant environment. She had memories of meeting her husband, my father, back in the UK, of getting married there with both sides of the family only an hour away from each other at most.  She remembers bringing two children into the world there, the first few years of our lives spent in that home that she had always known. And then she remembers leaving home, and always missing home, and always going back home to see the people she loved and grew up with.

And for me, the memories of my youth really began in Hong Kong. That home that she remembers so clearly was never a fundamental part of my life. I never had a stable set of friends that I grew up with. I never had grandparents that I spent years with and could escape to. I never had aunts and uncles and cousins that were right on my doorstep. I never had a place that felt like that word “home,” a word that means so little to a TCK. I never had the life she had.

Instead, I had a life of travel, of constant uprooting, of my formative and developmental years laced with culture after culture. I grew up transitioning from country to country that had starkly different political viewpoints, different caste systems, different streets, different smells, different laws, different educational systems, and different styles of general life. I had no stability, where she had an endless string of it.

So our unique perceptions of the world we experienced together were destined to be endlessly different, destined to be unrelated. And no matter what I said to her, she would never understand that what I write on these pages, when I say that I have no home and that I am endlessly tormented by the constant need to leave everything behind and travel, to give up the entire world I’ve created and move on to something new, that this isn’t in any way a sad thing in my eyes.

It is simply my life.

Sure, it’s a drastically different life compared to the incredible number of FCKs in the world. Sure, it’s completely odd to many and impossible to relate to for the rest. But in the end, it’s who I am, and who I am is a man of multiple cultures with the gift of a life that is full of understanding, respect, and appreciation for every corner of the planet.

So I responded with an explanation I knew she would never understand, one that would give her no happiness and would answer no questions. But it was one that I knew she would not be able to argue:

“It’s not sad, Mum. You just see it as sad because of something you know, something that I have never experienced. To me, it just is. And to the TCKs that read my words, they always see the pain, but in that pain they see the beauty. My need to move was grown from a seed you and Dad planted when I was very young, one that you watered with every single move. But that’s not the reason I travel today. It’s just the catalyst. The reason I do it now is because I need to continue to water that seed. I restart my life because of my unquenchable love for that next unknown culture. I travel because, while I simply cannot stop due to my conditioning, I can’t imagine a time that I would ever even want to stop. And sure, it causes me a great deal of pain and frustration, and sure, it causes me heartache and loneliness. But in the end, it gives me a life full of understanding, knowledge, and possibility. And why would I ever want to trade that for anything?”

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The Author

Author

 

 

 

Post by: James R. Mitchener

My Passport Country is One of Two, and Neither Are Home

I landed back in the United Kingdom on Friday, April 6th. I had flown from Raleigh, North Carolina on a direct flight leaving the United States for the first time on my American passport, then arriving in England and passing through immigration on my UK passport. This is the first time I’ve done this since I naturalized and acquired my United States Citizenship. I was excited at first, feeling a bit like a spy or international man of mystery moving through the world with two forms of globally-recognized identification. It was going to be an auspicious event.

As it turns out, which is usually the case with me and the self-created expectations of my own emotional responses to new stimuli, I was wrong. It bugs me, sometimes, not having any control over what I think or how I feel about things. This was one of those times. As I passed through immigration and entered the country, I felt dirty, as though I were doing something I knew I shouldn’t. I felt as if I were betraying my heritage, having flown out on a US passport and then in on an English, something I am forced to keep secret so as not to annoy any governments to the point they revoke my nationality.

It didn’t take long, and I slipped back through into England with a quick glance at my passport and a “welcome home” from a man in a glass box. And that’s where it really stung. Usually I love hearing those words, walking into England and not saying a word so that my partial-american-accent isn’t noticed, and the first thing I am told standing on English soil is “welcome home.” Even though I know to my core this isn’t my home, that nowhere really is, it feels so nice to hear someone say it. Because the truth is, I really do love this country. I don’t have any desire to live her, mainly because I think it’s tinkering on the edge of total and complete catastrophic anarchy, but I really do love the country for all its natural beauty.

Last night, however, it hit me as to why this re-entry caused me so much grief. It’s not that I am sneaking around, it’s not that I’m violating some unwritten rule. Those things have never bothered me before, why would they now? It was something much more personal than that. Something deeper, more intricately woven into the substance of my existence. And I think it all starts with the simple fact that this Third Culture Kid happens to be at the point in his life where he’s realizing that the life he expected is not at all the life he is currently building.

It happens to all of us, TCKs or not, but I find it incredibly interesting now, with all that has happened since my arrival here, with my cousin’s death, with the distance between me and my family, and yes, the distance between me and the girl that I planned to start a family of my own with one day.

By getting my second passport, I finally solidified the fact that I have no physical home. And to take it one step further, I was reunited with the simple fact that as a TCK, my definition of home, in finding that one person that makes you want to be with them anywhere in the world, is an impossible lifestyle for many First Culture Kids. I have been seeing my ex a good deal, what with her relationship to my family and being closer to my cousins and aunt and uncle than my own relationship with them, and through this time we have spent together I truly understand the words I’ve been writing since the birth of The Illusive Home. A TCK is not designed, on a fundamental level, to co-exist eternally with a FCK. Unless one of the two are willing or able to change the root of their existence, the incompatibility is completely unavoidable. And no amount of love, attraction, or desire will change that.

So my shock and sadness wasn’t in just realizing I had abandoned any official tie to my passport country, but was in the knowledge that what I considered to be my home, being with the person I love more than anyone else, isn’t even remotely possible. Because in the end, I have no ability to understand her lack of ability to leave. To me, it seems like she simply doesn’t love me like I love her. While she says “I cannot leave my family,” I hear “I will not leave my family.” But the truth is, as a FCK, she simply can’t leave them. They are her life, and always have been. They have always been there, and that family extends to the friends she has grown up with, my cousins being prime examples. And to her, when I say “I might come back, but I will not stay, and one day we will have to leave,” I am saying to her that I do not love her enough to let her stay. But the truth is, I simply couldn’t come back to England and stay forever. I know, fundamentally, that I would never be physically capable of doing that.

Because when I gave up my single-passport life, I made the decision to say goodbye to the place I pretended was home. As I grow older, and the family that I have always visited here moves on with their lives, and grandparents and great-aunts come to the end of long and happy lives, the foundation upon which I built a connection to this country fades away. With every life that moves on, be it separating from the flock or passing into what theists would call the afterlife, I lose one more reason to ever come back.

And I think that’s what shook me to my core here. With the loss of my baby cousin who I hardly knew, I needed to come back home. But when I got here, I realized that in every single aspect of my life that I had been building towards, there is no home here for me anymore. The country never has been, and me pretending that it is via the lives of family members I am not that connected with is foolish. And with my ex, it only makes sense, for her sake, for me to give up and let go, because in the end one of us has to give up our home, and when it comes to people I love, I’d rather the one that gets hurt is always me. That’s just the high empathy-introvert side of me, I guess, combined with the knowledge that when it comes to letting go of things, I’m more practiced than most.

But hey, I have two passports now. I am not bound to a single state of existence. It’s just a shame that I don’t consider any possible existence within those passport-accessible countries to be anything more than a ticket to another place that just doesn’t quite make me happy.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

The TCK Unity Era

As Third Culture Kids, we are constantly examining the cultures of the world, even when we aren’t in the process of adopting them into our own Third Culture. We are cultural pirates, pillaging the pieces we want and leaving behind the parts we don’t. We talk about these elements of TCK life all the time, sharing reasons for what we take and why we love that aspect of a particular culture, yet rarely do we take a step back to examine the culture we have created.

We are natural adapters, capable of surviving almost any situation in almost any culture. It’s for that very reason that we are so ill equipped to turn it around and look internally at what we have done. We are a mess of chaos and unity fueled by self-driven cultural evolution. We are constantly changing, constantly altering the core of our existence without care to what we are leaving behind in the process.

But the reason we survive so flawlessly no matter where we are is exactly the reason we do not step back and consider the universe we have given birth to. Every single person is different, and thanks to the adaptation of a TCK, every TCK is different within a completely unique self-culture. Sure, we group those cultures together and call it the “Third Culture,” but the Third Culture is different for every single TCK, and it’s even more different from the outside looking in.

Until the final years of the 20th century, our ability to unite and communicate was limited to physical interaction and personal relationships. The only opportunity a TCK had to cross paths with another TCK was simple luck of the draw. There was no unifying moment, no sense of shared community, only the knowledge that somewhere else in the world was another person who had grown up similarly to yourself. However, despite this knowledge, the distance created by a lack of ability to communicate the TCK experience made it almost impossible for a TCK to feel anything but being alone.

Today, however, TCKs have finally started to come out of the bubbles of their personal worlds. And truly, they are highly personal worlds. The cultures that each TCK has created are so uniquely different from any FCK or TCK anywhere in the world. The unique experiences couple with our adaptive nature makes our Third Culture like a snowflake in the middle of a rainstorm; we are surrounded my elements of similar qualities, yet while each drop of water that’s so similar falls to the ground, we float casually and unseen through the mist, so uniquely different and so uniquely complicated.

The world is smaller now. Transcontinental instantaneous communication is standard. We are even capable of looking into the rooms of others thanks to the increasing speeds and global spread of internet access, meaning with a computer and webcam, two people can sit in front of each other and have a conversation as though there were no oceans or borders or thousands of miles between them. We can fly anywhere in the world at a moments notice, travel wherever we want without much hurt or hindrance. And when we don’t want to travel, we can view the detailed lives of others through collections of data and information about their personality portrayed through a variety of social media tools.

Because of this boom in technology, this shrinking of our world, TCKs are being presented with the unavoidable truth that a life that was once built around the exterior is finally coming back home to the self. We are no longer isolated from other TCKs, having the ability to interact with total strangers that truly and completely understand what it means to be a Third Culture Kid. And they know not because we have to sit in front of them for hours or days or years explaining our lives, the decisions we have made, and the type of cultures we love. They understand because knowing nothing about our history or who we are that they too are as similar and different to us as two snowflakes in a rainstorm. Though we are similar in our name, the crystals of our lives that shape us make us different to the core, but when floating through a sea of droplets of water, there is nothing more comforting than that person that is completely different, and yet so very similar at exactly the same time. And though we may never see the world through the same lens, we at least understand the way that lens was crafted.

People, everywhere, spend their lives looking forwards and backwards in time, saying that “life must have been so much more interesting for people back then,” or “life will be so much better in a few years.” But honestly, I think that with the evolution of communication allowing for you, a reader, to sit at your computer and read the words of a TCK you have never met and probably never will, and me, a writer, getting to hide behind my words and engage you all through your comments on my posts or emails you send me, makes this the most exciting time in the history of TCK life.

These are the first days of our coming together. And just imagine, in fifteen or twenty years when this collection of individuals that fundamentally understands the intricate dynamics of cultural environments comes together, how powerful our impact on the world could be. We are the birth of a new era of realization, the fathers of tolerance and the mothers of understanding. And while we may have grown up TCKs many years ago, it’s here and now that we are finally given the power and ability to find one another.

Honestly, I cannot imagine anything more exciting.

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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

Long Distance Love

As a Third Culture Kid, I see the world in a very different light to other, more ground-loving people. I’m a child of the sky. I love airplanes, love to fly, and love those 6+ hours in the air as I embark upon a transcontinental journey to a distant land. It’s blissful, freeing, and it gives me the sense that when I touch down and cross through that airport on the other side, I’ll be somewhere that isn’t the place I’m accustomed to. There’s so much excitement in those moments, going through immigrations, getting your bag, walking through customs, and then walking out into a sea of excited faces, of people waiting for those they love to step back into the country and back into their lives.

The arrivals terminal in any airport really is the happiest place in all the world. You’re never standing, waiting for someone and all of a sudden a nice big man comes charging forward and punches someone right in the face as they come through the gate. You only get the smiles, the little children sprinting at full speed towards their mother or father, the young couples finally reunited after however long they have been apart. It’s so beautiful, so perfect in every single way. And I know this because I’m a traveller, a Third Culture Kid that has walked through that gate countless hundreds of times. I’ve seen it first hand, from being reunited with family to being reunited with the woman of my dreams.

Like I said before, as a TCK, I see the world through a different lens to most. It’s small. Very small. So small in fact I can get to the other side of it in less than 24 hours. It’s so insignificantly small, in fact, that when I dated a girl 4,500 miles away from where I was living, it wasn’t the distance that bothered me, just the fact that I didn’t get to lie down next to her at night to go to sleep. To me, distance isn’t an issue. It never should be. I’m a global nomad, and I plan to stay that way. I will always be pushed and pulled around this planet, jumping from A to B, B to C, C to D, all the way down the line until I have to start using chinese characters instead of letters. It’s just the way I am.

So to me, that taboo of a long distance relationship, or LDR as I hear it called all to often when I’m in one, isn’t so much of a taboo. Instead, I think it’s the greatest test, the strongest evidence of whether or not you as a couple can stand to be together. If you can look at a LDR and think “I don’t care how far apart we are, nothing will ever stop me being beside you,” then you’ve got the makings of something spectacular. It’s that crucial flaw, one I’m guilty of and will never do again, of thinking: “I’ll see her in a month,” or “It’s only for another year,” that brings it all crashing down. The second you let that little idea crawl into your mind, you’re doomed.

The thing is, to a TCK, I don’t think a long distance relationship is that big of a deal. So many of our relationships are long distance, with networks of TCK friends scattered all over the world. It’s true, we are incredible at cutting people out of our lives when we move, of letting go of the past and starting again, but there’s always that network in the life of an adult TCK that never dies, that never fades, that’s always there despite how little you talk to them or how little you stay up-to-date on each-others lives. And so in a way, we are built to survive the distance.

The hard part is in realizing that not everyone else is. As wonderful as it would be for TCKs to find and marry other TCKs, the chances of it happening are slim to none. I’ve met thousands and thousands of people in the past six years, four and a half spent at university and one and a half in the adult world, and I can safely say that of those thousands, I’ve met no more than three TCKs. Three. That’s it. So the idea that we are going to stumble across a person we find captivating, beautiful, interesting, clever, and sexy who is a TCK just like us is slim to none.

So instead, we look for people that have characteristics of TCKs, ones that enjoy similar things. We hunt for the people that say things like “I’d love to live a life where I travel from place to place all the time,” or “I’ve never really had much of a family anyhow.” We look for people who are like us, slightly damaged and ready to live their life to the fullest by experiencing everything their is to experience.

The problem is, they aren’t TCKs. I have done this time and time again, looked for that girl that wants all those things. I thought I’d found her once, beautiful, smart, funny, gave me chills just looking at her. She wanted to travel, to see the world, to be brave and explore and never worry about anything else. And so we gave it a shot, with a 4,500 mile gap that to me meant nothing but to her meant everything. I saw it in her eyes, heard it in her voice, and so I would say those words that I knew, even then, were the words that called heartbreak up from the pits of hell. I said “we’ll see each other in a month,” and “we will get you out here soon, I promise.” I sang empty promises across the Atlantic Ocean, and in the end, heartbreak heard me calling and came to settle its score.

The truth is, as TCKs we will always be looking for someone to love, to build a family that we’ve never had and one that’s so unlike all the ones we know. We will look for like-minded thinkers, first culture kids who want what we want. But in the end, we must always remember that they are not like us. They do not see the world through the same lens that we do. They do not bear the weight of three, or four, or ten different cultures. They will never be as comfortable with distance and loss as we are. They will never stare heartbreak in the eyes, and say “you can hurt me all you want, but I will keep looking for her.” So remember, no matter how hard you try, do not believe that they see the world just as you do. Because the truth is:

They will never be Third Culture Kids.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener