Tag Archives: Global Travel

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

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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 Question I Can’t Answer

I feel that today, of all days, I must address the single issue that has plagued me with complication my entire life. As a writer, a knowledge seeker, a sharer, and an educator, I have dedicated a large portion of my life to fully understanding what it means to be a Third Culture Kid. There are just so many of us out there, all scattered around the world with such a small idea of what the gifts our upbringing have handed us along the way, and so it only made sense for me to do everything I could to help spread that understanding to anyone who wanted to know about it. It has been a difficult journey, one that has forced me to confront countless aspects of my past, my present, my future, and my highly subdued consciousness in order to become the educated TCK that I am today. But it has been rewarding, too. Because of my willingness to stare that bitterness in the eyes, I have been fortunate enough to develop a strong and consistent fan base, give advice on a personal level, and even have been asked to be the featured writer for the ThirdCultured website, creating all the ThirdCultured Blog copy targeted towards the importance of growing up a TCK.

Regardless of how much I try, though, how much I learn and understand, there is always this one tiny place in the recess of my mind that is just untouchable to my logic. It has hidden away so quietly, protected itself so well that no matter how much I try to use common sense or logic to break it down and explain its importance to the world, I find myself struggling to describe the impact it has on me as a TCK. I fit it in to these posts as often as I can, a word here or a sentence there, but the explanation never follows, and it only works to support an argument that already has enough backing to stand alone, without this tiny fragmented addition. The thing that gets me, that I hope confuses other TCKs as much as myself, is love.

I will try now, because I believe given the fact that this blog is about TCKs, but also about me as a TCK, to use my experience yesterday to explain why the topic of love confuses me to no end. I know that it plays a crucial role in the life of an Adult Third Culture Kid, that it plays a crucial role in the life of anyone, but even though I cannot explain why, I just know to my core that the way it effects a TCK is unlike the way it effects anyone else on this planet. It’s more than just love to us. It’s a gateway to something terrifying, because the entire principal of it all requires so much access to things we as TCKs have given up to be who we are.

Statistically, TCKs are the group with the oldest first-marriage rate. We don’t do it young, and we generally wait until we are in our early 30’s before jumping into the marriage game for the first time in our lives. Likewise, we are also one of the most stable marriage groups on Earth. We generally don’t get divorced, and we generally don’t want to. So far, I can explain why to all of these things. The problem comes here: If all these things are true, then what is it about us, or perhaps just me, that makes love so terrifying?

It’s time to give you the background, I suppose. It has been scattered in fragments throughout this blog, and detailed a little closer in The Illusive Home, but it’s time to put it all out on the table so that the potential for understanding is right before your eyes. I fell in love with a girl, we will call her Lara for the sake of not putting her name out into the world, the very first time I laid eyes on her. That’s not a joke, and is important to understand because like many TCKs, I’ve always been the guy that falls for people very quickly, but falls in love slowly. That tactic gives me the ability to open up enough to see their value, but close the door too if I don’t find what I’m looking for without pain or frustration. So when I first saw Lara (and this is difficult because I’ve actually known her her entire life, but went many years without seeing her until she came to visit America with my cousins well over a year ago), I had no idea what was happening. Love at first sight is such a stupid concept, a foolish one that leaves you open to so much hurt, but there it was, unavoidable and uncontrollable.

Lara felt the same. We said “I love you” after 15 days, of which we had seen each other for no more than six of those days. She left America, then came back three weeks later. We had a long distance relationship, and it really didn’t bother me except for not getting to lie down beside her at night and kiss her when I woke up in the morning. We did well, and violated every standard relationship protocol and wall that TCKs are so fantastic at creating. Then we broke up. Neither of us wanted to, but it happened. It’s complicated, and I still don’t fully understand what happened.

I spent six months and sixteen days working to get over it. I’m usually pretty good at that. A couple weeks, maybe a month of heavy drinking and spending far too much money followed by a whole lot of writing and severe depression, and then one day I wake up, anything from 3 weeks to several months later, and I feel fine. It’s just… gone, plain and simple. I still love the person, but the TCK side of me has conquered it all and cut the emotions and ties out of my life. A remarkable skill, one that I love so very dearly in times like that.

With Lara, that didn’t work.

I arrived back in England on Thursday, and we met up yesterday. My TCK side did what it always does, it put up walls and protected me. And like always, my level of perception or situational awareness or whatever you wish to call it had already mapped out exactly what would happen. We would meet, we would talk, and all those days in the recent past as my return to England grew closer and her saying she missed me and loved me got stronger would fade away, because like me, she would have protected herself. And like usual, I was right. Down to almost every minute detail, I was right.

So here’s where it all comes together. here’s where curiosity and developing a TCK understanding hits its wall. I understand how we behave, why we behave the way we do, and why we are so good at letting people go that have meant so much to us. So why, then, is it impossible for me to do so here? Why, when love comes into the equation, does it become so nearly impossible to do what we do every single day of our lives without any issue or frustration at all. I ask only because the collective minds of TCKs are just such powerful tools. I mean, I understand that to me, she was always the closest thing to home I could ever ask for. But why should that matter? I’ve never wanted a home before, and I don’t want one now. So the real question, the one I want to leave everyone with to ponder or respond to or mock me with, is this: Why when you love someone more than you ever thought possible do all the skills of cutting loose and letting go you developed in your life fail to work? What about that situation makes our unbreakable castle feel as though it was built out of Lego bricks?

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

In the Sky

I left Houston, Texas on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 to head back to my passport country of England. As I’m writing this post 17 September, 2011, it’s clear that I’ve already made it safely through the sky and have spent a few days here in Eton Wick. I have a lot to say about that, because frankly, the experience I have whenever I arrive back in this small town in this little country is one that’s quite fascinating to me as a Third Culture Kid. That, however, will be a post for another day, because before I go into the depth and detail regarding what it’s like for a TCK to arrive in his or her passport country, I want to spend a little bit of time discussing my experiences in the sky.

Aeroplane (back to UK spelling now that I’m here, I suppose) flight has always been a wild and exciting experience for me. I’ve been doing it my entire life, since before I even had cognitive thought or higher level thinking. It has been a simple part of my existence, one that I became accustomed to long before I had any realization that many people on this planet do not enjoy sitting in those tightly packed seats and soaring through the air at 600mph (ground speed) at 28,000 ft. Flying has never really bothered me. Granted, since I have gotten taller, and at 5’11” I’m not exactly a giant, I don’t really like the lack of leg room, but the overall flight experience has never really been all that hampered by my size. I mean, to hop the atlantic takes around 8 hours from Houston, and I’ve sat in a desk at work longer than that, so I think I have it in me to remain seated and just suck it up.

The thing is, it’s difficult for me as a TCK and global nomad to really sum up what makes the flight experience so completely pleasant. It’s not just one thing, but a sum of all the little pieces that takes something that most people are completely terrified of and turns it into 8 hours of ecstasy for me. But honestly, it begins and ends with one simple thing: traveling across the world reignites a primal and instinctual sensation that has developed in all TCKs. It’s the very beginning of experiencing and adapting to a new culture. And though, at the time of our youth, almost all of us hated giving up our friends and jumping on a plane, as we have grown and matured we have learned to love the things we hated. Like brocoli or spinach was to our taste buds, we have found in our adulthood that the things that we hated really weren’t all that bad, and if we’d just taken the time to look at it a little closer, we would have seen how much healthier and stronger those things made us.

After the reignited glory of global travel has passed me by, the tiny little pieces of just being on a plane begin to kick in and continue the ongoing relaxation and bliss of flight. The sound of the engine humming in my ears is incredibly soothing. It calms my nerves and relieves all my stress. It’s like listening to a motivational tape where someone is constantly whispering how proud of you they are, forcing all that negative energy out of your body and calming your mind so that you are ready to do something incredible. The seats, though uncomfortable, are tiny little cubicles of personal space. Babies crying in the distance make me laugh, because even though everyone else is getting frustrated and annoyed, I know that once upon a time I was that little baby, and that baby may just find itself growing up in a world where it is constantly hopping on planes and traveling from country to country. It makes me smile because maybe, just maybe, that kid is on its first flight that it will never remember, but will one day look back on its life and think “my days of a TCK started there, on that flight I have no memory of, traveling across the Atlantic to England from Houston. That was where I started the journey of becoming the TCK I am today.”

The food is horrible, but there’s just something about it that makes me smile. It’s only two meals, and I’m in no way a picky eater after all the places I’ve been and some of the garbage I’ve eaten, so when I eat the bland and tasteless microwaved meal with my plastic knife and my plastic fork, I smile and think back on the days when planes had knives and forks that were made of metal, and people weren’t afraid of someone using that metal knife to kill a pilot and hijack a plane.

More than all those little things, though, it’s the people. The people are what make that flight so interesting. So many of them traveling as families, so many traveling alone. Some are going home to see loved ones, some are flying away for the start of a trip. Some are moving for good, and some are going on the holiday of their lives. Some are scared to death, and some are busy working away at their tray table. Some are happy and full of joy, and some are on the brink of tears missing the people they love and will not see again for what could be days, or months, or years… or maybe even forever. And I sit and watch, and listen, and talk to no one as I pick up all the tiny pieces of all the lives that surround me, and I am filled with joy for those that are happy, and I ache for those that are sad, because I know that every single time I have sat on a plane, I have at one point in my life experienced each and every one of those emotions that are raging around me.

And then it all comes to a close, and you touchdown in another country and pass through immigration and collect your bags, and then you walk through those double doors into the arrivals terminal, and there they all are, the sea of countless people waiting with smiles on their faces unmatched by any kind of joy you’ve ever seen. And children run up to their parents and wrap their arms around each other, and lovers kiss each other as though they’ve never loved a single person in all their lives but each other, and grandparents smile proudly as they pick up their kids and grand-kids. And then there’s the people like me, all alone walking through the terminal with no one to greet them, but happy all the same, despite anything else that’s happening in their life at the time. Because who would you be, standing in a sea of people filled with so much joy to be around each other, and not want to stop whatever it was that you had to do, if only for a minute, and see what pure and total human joy looks like. And if you’ve ever wanted to know what true happiness looks like, there’s the answer: Go stand in the arrivals terminal of any international airport. Only then will you truly understand just how beautiful this world can be.

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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