Tag Archives: Hong Kong

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.

___________

The Author
Post by: James R. Mitchener

Hong Kong Kids, the TCK Life I Remember

I was provided with this video today from a friend and teacher in Hong Kong who deals with Third Culture Kids every single day of her life. We have had many back-and-forth conversations and she has provided me with very valuable information regarding the early-developmental years of TCKs. She brought this video to my attention because of the impact that the video is currently having in the Hong Kong International School system in. As educators, their reaction to this video is understandable and certainly merits a detailed look. It may even become a serious central point for developing topics in handling Third Culture Kids in the future. However, before I continue to discuss it further, I would like to welcome my fellow TCK readers, and more so the parents of TCKs, to watch the embedded video here:


Where do I start? I think the best place to begin would be to use the talents of a Third Culture Kid and look at it like someone who isn’t me. After all, that’s what TCKs do every single day of their lives. We look at the world through our own eyes, interpret it, analyse it, then respond based on the community and culture that surrounds us. So, I am going to take my first verbalized look at this video as an educator in the International School system in Hong Kong, the schools in which these YouTube stars currently attend as High School students.

As an educator, this doesn’t exactly paint a great picture for kids growing up in Hong Kong. It’s immature behaviour laced with false-pride and a sense of undeserved authority just because the kids are part of the International School community in Hong Kong. The kids in this video are all under the age of 18 it seems, of course I will admit to be taking a wild stab in the dark there because since I got old, I have a really hard time guessing the age of people under 21. These kids are smoking pot, getting drunk, taking shots, walking around partying in the streets, riding buses and drinking on-board, and generally being rowdy. Let’s also remember that all these kids are part of the elite expatriate lifestyle. They go home to having live-in helpers who make their beds, wash their clothes, cook their meals, and handle their every need. They almost certainly don’t work and probably haven’t had a single job in their lives, and more than anything, they represent the community of international students and expats in Hong Kong and all the other students that attend the varying international schools across the city. And here they are, painting a picture of a life that grants them a status that’s so much greater than the lives of anyone else in the world when they themselves did nothing to deserve it.

There you have it. There’s the view of an FCK, a parent of one of these TCKs, and/or a member of the HKIS educational and administrative team. That’s how it’s being viewed by people all over the world, and how these little kids are being judged. All it takes is a quick look at the SkiBs facebook page and you’ll see some wonderfully insulting comments detailing exactly this. Of course, by attacking these kids like one person by the facebook alias of Denholm Reynholm does and saying “my dog has bigger bollocks than these kids,” sort of removes your entire right to speak on the issue. Discounting your maturity and lowering yourself to a level below those you’re attacking… come on now, that’s the first mistake in winning an argument! After all, you’re not arguing with SkiBs. The artist and team think they’re in the right. You’re arguing to win the vote of everyone who hasn’t already decided how they feel.

But now I’ve gotten that little side-rant off my back, I want to take the opportunity to explain my reaction to this video before I put on the mask of a different culture. I want to tell you what I saw as a TCK, as a global traveler, and as a Hong Kong Kid myself.

When I watched this video, the first thing I did was smile, especially at the title screen of “Hong Kong Kids” as it floats above the familiar sea-wall in Stanley not 10 minutes walk from where I used to live. My body filled with warm memories and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly happy thinking about all the times I spent sitting on that exact wall and watching the water, or kissing my girlfriend goodbye the day before she left to move to Beijing sitting in the alcove beneath the seawall.

Then we jumped into smoking, drinking, crazy parties, the nightlife, jumping into the ocean. And my almost-26-year-old-brain went “wooooaaaa… what the hell are these kids up to?” But then I paused. And again I smiled. Because my mind jumped back to my freshman year of High School where I would go out and buy a packet of cigarettes, smoke them over the weekend, drink, get rowdy. I remember the crazy nights back when I was only 15 years old. Why? Because I was a white boy in Hong Kong, and I could see over the counter, so who was going to say no to me buying alcohol or smokes?

I spent six months there, going out on weekends and riding buses all by myself, drinking on the street or drinking in bars, smoking cigarettes (I never jumped on the pot thing). I got rowdy, and I lived that life. And even now, I look back and say “those were the single greatest two years of my life.”

But look at me now. Now, I own part of a consultancy firm. I own part of an apparel company. I work two full time jobs, one as a marketing director and one as a website and branding adviser. I do public speaking events about culture and TCK life anywhere in the world. I write every single day, from short stories to novels to TCK Life. I pay taxes. I support myself, I treat my girlfriend to everything. I work hard, and I am proud of who I have become.

The reason I tell you this isn’t to brag. It’s to show you, despite how clearly I understand your reaction as a TCK parent or an administrator at any international school, that I did all of those things! That was me exactly 10 years ago. And while it may be shocking and in-your-face now that 21st century technology allows for kids to capture and share with the world all the things that I did in secret, those things have always been happening. They are part of life in Hong Kong as a TCK growing up there. It’s just… what happens.

You cannot get trapped in the negativity. My school, HKIS, as well as many other international schools in Hong Kong, provides a world-class education that will lead to those kids going to colleges all over the world. Some might come back to Hong Kong one day. But most of them won’t. Most will be like me, lost in the world, confused, scared. They’ll be struggling to find their identity, struggling to figure out who they are and why they feel like an outsider everywhere they go. And they’ll remember Hong Kong, and they’ll remember how at home they were there with all those people that they grew up with of different races and creeds.

But here’s the best part: While other kids in college are going crazy finally being free from their parents, partying hard, getting rowdy, making horrible horrible mistakes in dangerous places around the planet, those Hong Kong Kids will not. They’ll remember their youth, and they’ll know they’ve already lived that life, but they lived it in the best place in the entire world, one of the safest cities on the planet. And when they’re struggling to find the answer to why they feel so lost, maybe they’ll come looking for someone like me, someone who has done exactly what they did, just 10 years before them. And I’ll tell them like I am telling you, the International School administrators and parents of Hong Kong Kids:

Please, don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine. I promise. You’re doing everything right. You are teaching these kids to respect each other, to understand each other’s cultural heritage, to work as a team despite their differences. You have created bonds that you will never see anywhere else in the world, unities that will last a lifetime even if those kids never speak to each other ever again. You have shown them a world that most people can’t even imagine, and you are giving them the power to understand it!

Just keep teaching them well. Kids will be crazy. Kids will be kids. But in the end, everything will turn out alright. I promise.

After all, it did for me, and I couldn’t be happier with the life that I have today.

_________

The Author

Author

Post by: James R. Mitchener

From Home to Discovery

When I was in university, I was asked to do a visual exercise that was to detail the limits of our memory and the power of our imagination. I was asked to think about my home, and imagine a car. I was told to climb into that car, and start driving away from my house. Where I went wasn’t important, but I had to drive away from my home, and I had to continue driving in that same direction away from my house for as long as I could. We were given several minutes to think about the scenario, and when the timer ran out, we were told to write down our imaginary drive so that we could share it with the class and see how far we had each made it along the road of memory’s imagination.

Everyone in my class in Texas made it far. But they all made it right from the central point of a home that existed within that state, within that city. For me, the question itself had fundamental and confusing issues. Did they want to know about my drive from my birth country of England? Did they want to know about my current house in Houston? Or did they want to know about the other corners of the world that I considered equally as influential in my development as any other I’d resided in? Without knowing the answer, I chose them all.

Before I begin my drive, my brother and I run from the door and head straight for the tree that seems to always be in blossom, tiny white buds of fur that resemble caterpillars creeping from the branches until they grow too heavy and fall to the grass beneath our feet. Together, my brother and I run three circles around the tree before returning to the door, hopping across the concrete-rainbows that separate the grass of the garden from the walkway to the car. Once in the car, we reverse from the drive and pass the complex where we go to see the dentist. We drive along winding roads and past fields and tress until we arrive at the all-to-small road that leads to my grandparent’s house. Down lanes barely big enough for a single car, we soar past oncoming vehicles that run off into the shoulder to avoid collision, just as we have done. Just after we pass the oldest dove house in the world, we pull onto a road that winds past several pubs, including The Pineapple. Entering Dorney Common, we slow to a stop to allow the cows to cross the road. When they have made their rounds, we continue on into Eton Wick, Windsor Castle in sight not more than a thirty minute walk away, and turn down Queens Road to my Granny and Grandad’s home.

As a family, we step into the elevator and my brother and I fight over who gets to push the button to go to the ground floor. I win, being older, unless my mother explicitly tells me not to push the button, and even then I may slip an arrogant and defiant jab at the ground floor to beat my brother.  In mere seconds, we arrive at the bottom of the building and walk past the gateway to the garage and start our trek down the hill, past a pile of rocks that we had salvaged for stones to allow our terrapins to sunbathe in the warm, incandescent lighting of our apartment. When we reach the bottom of the hill, we step into a red taxi and continue our trip towards downtown, soaring along roads far too narrow for any car to handle within the bounds of normal human safety. When we arrive downtown, we walk to the bank and pass by two enormous stone statues of Fu Dogs, where my brother and I climb upon their bodies and try to scale them to their heads. After the bank, we move through crowded city streets and make our way to the peak tram, passing through a park with a mushroom waterfall that, through age, no longer possesses a safe and dry approach to its center. Together, my brother and I attempt to dodge through the scattered droplets that fall upon us, then run back to our mother. Climbing onto the tram, we rush to seats that are positioned flat with the floor of the tram, but are slanted backwards to almost 45 degree angles thanks to the extreme incline of the tracks.

My brother and I climb into the captain’s chairs of an enormous van parked in the driveway of our suburban house. Our father finishes loading the cooler between our two seats, then he and my mother get into the front and pull out of the drive. We head towards the freeway, driving up into the air on an elevated crossing before veering right and entering the on-ramp of a three lane freeway heading towards San Antonio. We drive for what feels like days, but in reality is only a few hours. The road is straight, flat, and plain. The heat of the road makes the hills look like water is resting on the concrete a few hundred feet ahead. As we get closer, the mirage vanishes and we are left with waves of heat that pass us by. When we arrive in San Antonio, we drop off the car and start walking to the River Walk, a man-made structure of nearly stagnant water that brings tourists to San Antonio without anything more to offer them. I think nothing of the place, and continue on in childhood ignorance.

I sit on a bus passing French buildings and tiny Renault Twingos. The trees rush by my window, their branches occasionally scratching along the side as we dart down the suburban streets outside of Paris and head towards our school. When we arrive, the gate slides open, razor-wire lining the perimeter, and we drive into the compound that is the American School of Paris. Large aircraft hangers that are now gyms are scattered across the campus, long buildings that were formerly offices but now house classrooms for students sit peacefully in the center. There’s history here, the history of an American military base that now is home to the education of TCKs in a land they don’t belong.

I ride a bus alone, darting down faintly-memorable roads of a city I once lived in years before, one that rests in my mind like a drunken dream, a chaotic haze of flashes in time. I feel the weight of the bus tip as we pull around tight cliff corners, and I look out over the water that surrounds the tiny island I live upon. Around me is nothing but trees, rock walls, and water, but then out of nowhere a skyline appears, and I am driving down Queens Road and pulling up to the stop that connects Queens Road to the fish market. I walk from here, the smell of rotting flesh and neglected garbage wafting into my nostrils, a smell I have become so familiar with over the years that I smile. I look up into the sky as I walk and see the signs that will soon be illuminated in the night, but currently hang lifeless and old, a mess of clutter blocking out the sky that slices between the buildings of compact streets.

I am driving now, back in Texas and sitting behind the wheel. I’m heading back from college in San Antonio to visit my parents, taking the same straight and boring road I have driven dozens of times before. I listen to music loudly as I ignore the lifeless and uninspired flatness that surrounds me. I am sad, but I am hiding it well. I miss the world, I miss the culture, and I miss the life of my youth. I want to be on a plane, I want to travel the planet again, to see the things I never saw before in the places I never had the time to visit. I want to be free again, free to get up and go and do whatever I can wherever I land. But I am stuck, stuck in school and knowing that when I have finished my education, I will be stuck in a job, a prisoner to a life and a world that doesn’t understand a man like me.

I am all grown up now. I am in my job and I have finished my school. And I have moved, but I have moved from a city that didn’t understand me to one that understands me even less. As I sit in my car and drive the three miles to work and back every day, I think back to a question my professor once asked me in college: “How far can you drive before you can’t remember what the next part of the road looks like? Tell me about the drive you remember.”

I smile to myself, because I know now that she missed the entire point of the question she was asking. So I ask the question she should have asked, but one she never would have understood, to you, the only group of people who can grasp the depth of what I am asking:

How far do you have to drive away from your memories until you are free to discover the world you do not know? Tell me about the unknown.

_________

The Author

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

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?”

_________

The Author

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

Expatriate Everywhere

As a child, I remember shop stalls on the sides of roads busied with red taxis, sellers yelling words I didn’t understand in the back of their stalls, chopping the heads off fish and cleaving open their bodies to expose beating hearts that show their freshness before chucking them on ice. I remember standing in a back-street watching a man with a bag of chickens take orders from passing people, cutting their heads off with scissors and yanking feathers from their bodies. I remember restaurants with rats on the floor picking up the scraps that fell from the table, completely ignored and respected by every patron as a sign that they were not in the food. I remember cockroaches the size of my fist scuttling across the kitchen, our domestic helper chasing them down with a shoe in her hand, slapping over and over at the ground. I remember cheap, neon lights flickering on as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, bringing an ambiance and energy of glowing Cantonese characters to a city’s night life that never slept. I remember old men with long hairs growing out their moles spitting into the road, dodging buckets full of animal bits as you walked past closing stores, and people walking up to me holding toys telling me a price they had made up on the spot. I remember the smell of stained wood, the seemingly endless heights of buildings, and the rickety bus rides at breakneck speeds along poorly built roads too close to the cliff’s edge.

As that same child, I remember a suburban town in the proudest state of the land of the free. I remember going to school and being indoctrinated into a belief that this land, this state, was the greatest in the world. I remember looking for a place to call home, and wanting to believe them, and becoming part of the culture. But I remember God, and I remember I never agreed with the things I was told about him or the promises people made in his name. I remember wanting to be one of them, but knowing that I was as much one of them as I was the people of the other lands I had seen. I remember not having friends. I remember being scared and alone. I remember being afraid to meet people, afraid to attach. I remember leaving and feeling sad, but feeling happy at the same time.

I remember the cobblestone roads and pretty streets of a suburban neighborhood on the edge of the most notable french-speaking city on Earth. I remember walking up the path to buy bread from one shop, meat from another, and milk from yet another. I remember the glowing clover-like sign of a pharmacy on every single corner of every single street. I remember chickens slowly roasting on spits in every city, ready for picking for the meager price of the change floating in your pocket you would have not spent otherwise. I remember learning to speak the language, and being shunned for doing it wrong when I tried and being hated for not trying when I didn’t. I remember tight trousers on the native kids walking by, people rolling down the city streets on skateboards and roller skates, and beautiful women in clothing that cost more than most people make in a year. I remember planning my trips to the city around strikes, and driving through the tunnel to reveal a landscape of low built buildings that framed an enormous, steel tower.

I remember returning to the city of neon lights and busy streets. I remember how crowded it had become and how so much had changed without feeling any different at all. I remember walking through the streets and knowing that I was safe, of riding buses and taxi’s alone. I remember a school that treated me like an adult, even though I was not. I remember a man telling me I was a Third Culture Kid and not truly understanding what he meant. I remember making friends again, and I remember knowing for the first time in my life that one day I would say goodbye to them forever. I remember knowing that I would not stay here, that I would leave the city I loved and move to somewhere different.

I remember going back to the country of the proud. I remember university, and meeting a girl, and moving in with her, and having the first stable moment of my entire life. I remember how amazing it felt to be there, in one place, learning and being loved. But I remember talking about moving, about us having a family and taking them with us wherever we traveled. I remember her saying she would rather keep them at home, travel until we had kids, and then stay put. I remember not understanding what she meant by saying “stay home,” and I remember being scared. I remember the wedge that drove us apart, and the fear that I was committing to an eternity with someone else. I remember running away. I remember being free. I remember being inconsolably sad that I couldn’t have the life I had always wanted. I remember meeting the woman of my dreams, who lived so many miles away. I remember the long distance relationship feeling normal, only bothering me because it bothered her. I remember it pulling us apart. I remember loving her every day since then, feeling as though I lost something amazing for a reason I simply couldn’t understand. And I remember moving away, to another city, for another life, knowing from the second I left for this new land in a different state that I would use it as a stepping stone to the next. That I would never stay more than two or three years. And then I would be off again.

I am a Third Culture Kid, a TCK, and an Expatriate. My life is one built out of revolving doors and large metal planes. It’s a history of countless cities, of family always thousands of miles away, of girlfriends that have lived in different continents, of multiple cultures mashed into a single mind. I have two passports, officially a citizen of two different worlds. And yet, in both, I am an expat. I fit into neither, belong to none.

My home is airport terminals, new sites and city streets that I experience by never acting like a tourist but as a person that has lived there his entire life, even if I have never set foot there before. I capture culture and memories, never carrying a camera because I never have the desire to show people what I saw. Because what I see is not what others see. I see the people and their lives, the daily routines of everyone and everything. I taste the smells and remember the way the wind hit my face as I moved through the unknown.

I am not looking for the next great vacation when I travel. I am looking for life, for the living and breathing heart of a city that can only be found in the people that reside within it and the culture they have built through generations of development. I do not tell people stories of my travels, because there is no story they could ever understand.

Because where I remember a youth full of so many different worlds, everyone else remembers stability. They remember growing up around aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. They remember boyfriends and girlfriends that they didn’t have to say goodbye to because of distance, but left because they had run their course and met an end. They remember traveling as a gift, as a treat to see something different before returning to the same house in the same neighborhood with the same friends they have had since they were born.

But I remember none of that, because like many other TCKs in this world, I remember the world in pockets of time. I am an expatriate, through-and-through, without a home. And I live to see more.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

The Itchiest of Feet

When we were young, moving was never a decision. Maybe for some, their parents sat them down and told them this was what was going to happen, asked for their opinions and said they’d take them into consideration when deciding what the next step in their lives was going to be. Mine didn’t, but I’m not excluding the possibility for other Third Culture Kids. Some families have alpha mentalities, and some have democratic mentalities. Ours was an alpha household. Decisions were made at the top, and they trickled down the caste system until they hit the bottom, which was always my brother and me. It was just the way it worked. So when it came time to move, Dad would tell Mum, then some other people would find out and be told not to say anything, and then one day we’d find out. And that was the end of that. By then, it was law, no longer a debatable bill still passing through government.

So for me, traveling was never a choice, it was a requirement. I was told when I was going to move, told that I needed to say goodbye to my friends, told I was going to start a new school in a new land, told what apartment we were moving into, told what country we would land in, told with which grandparents I would stay with while we waited, told where we going on a family holiday, and told that everything would be alright and I’d meet new people and make new friends and uncover new and exciting things. But the strangest thing about being told all of these things by my parents is that, after reading my works in The Illusive Home, my mum sat me down extremely concerned and asked me if I believed they had ruined my life in moving me to all those places. She told me she had no idea that I was adopting cultures, that I didn’t believe I had a home, that there was no country that I completely fit into. She truly believed that my experience growing up all over the planet was exactly the same as hers as she moved from place to place as an adult; it was just a long trip away from home.

What she didn’t understand was that in a way, she was right. It was a long trip away from home. But the length of the trip was infinite, a permanent trip that was like a classic science fiction story in which humanity all boards a shuttle and jettisons themselves into space, saying goodbye to the Earth as it burns up into nothing behind them. I was that shuttle. When I started my life as an international nomad, I watched as my home burned to nothing behind me. I would never be able to return to it, because everything that it was to me ceased to exist. It was nothing but shattered memories and distant echoes.

Like that shuttle full of refugees escaping the destruction of Earth, I was looking for another place full of strangers to be my home. I wasn’t looking to take over, to claim control and oppress my views. I was just looking for somewhere that I fit in, somewhere that I could safely say was mine and mine alone. The unfortunate truth of the situation is, however, that the only place that existed was in my high school in Hong Kong. At the Hong Kong International School, or HKIS, I was completely at home. I was surrounded by other TCKs, other kids that had no idea they were part of the Third Culture Kid community. We were immersed in each other, trying to do the best we could with the lives that were thrown upon us. Everyone on the outside called us lucky. They knew us as the rich white kids that came to this foreign land because we were special. But inside that community, we knew were weren’t what everyone else thought. We were something else. We were different.

With the life that was given to me, I grew. I adopted everything I could, learned how to survive to the best of my abilities. I knew that my time in Hong Kong was limited. I knew that the end would come, and I would be moving again one day to somewhere so foreign that I’d have nothing in common with anyone. I never thought it would be Texas, though; a backwards world of people so proud of a state they’ve never left. But that’s where I ended up. And so I survived. But in the time that I survived, I adopted a trait I never expected.

I got itchy feet.

Today, at 24 years old, almost 25, I sit at home and think “where can I go next?” I don’t want to stay here, I can’t stay here. Texas isn’t for me anymore, and I know that I’ve learned all that I’ll ever learn from this culture. I’ve adopted what traits it has to offer, and so I need to move on acquire new ones. But while I was in University, I was a prisoner. I couldn’t go anywhere but where I was, and so I did what little I could to satisfy the crazy. Every year, without fail, I moved apartments. I moved every single chance I got, 6 month leases, 12 month leases, it didn’t matter so long as I got to pack my things and start again somewhere else. It wasn’t the same, moving down the street, but it was enough while I was there.

Then one day, something strange happened. I met that girl you have all read about, the one that lived across the ocean, and through her I no longer wanted to move. She loved what I had, and it made me love what I had. I was proud to live in America, maybe not Texas, but I was proud to be in this country. It made me want to stay. But all the while, I still wanted to move somewhere new. And that need to move, that feeling of incredibly itchy feet, could be satisfied in one of two ways.

I could leave America, and go somewhere else. Start my life with new people in a new land and never look back, or I could move someone I loved to me. I could start my life again and see all those places I’d seen before in a new light, visit all those sights I’d seen a hundred times, but add a completely new value to each of them. I could share what it meant to grow up a TCK. I could be proud of who I am.

And that’s the curse of itchy feet. It doesn’t matter how we approach it, but a TCK is always going to want to move. One day, we’re going to feel that burning desire that we simply cannot avoid. We’re going to need to get up and go, to experience something new and unique. There was a time I believed that meant that I had to get up and go and experience an entirely new country with a completely new culture. Maybe that is still the case, maybe I will always end up back at that belief, but I’m pretty excited to see if there’s a way around it. What if all I really need is someone there to show me a different perspective? What if I just need someone to make me proud of what I have, because they’re walking me through it like I’m seeing it for the very first time?

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Post by: James R. Mitchener

The TCK’s True Family

I believe that at this point, it can be fairly well agreed upon that Third Culture Kids who have been constant country hoppers have a problem with family. I use the word problem lightly, of course, because the truth of the matter is that our disconnection with our families isn’t a problem, but simply a trade we were forced to make to have the experiences that were handed to us. Despite all that, the end result is always the same: TCKs have been forced to distance themselves from establishing relationships with people they are supposed to trust.

Like I said in Foreign People, we were never really given the opportunity to connect to our family. A couple days a year, even a couple weeks a year for those longer trips back to our parent’s passport countries, is never enough to establish that sort of tight-knit family bond I keep hearing about. When people say to me “my family is the most important thing in my life,” it makes me let out a little mental laugh. Of course, they never know I’m reacting that way, and I usually mask it by saying “I know what you mean,” but the truth is I really don’t have a clue. I’m oblivious, because my family has never been a staple part of my life. In fact, they really are the most distant parts of my regularly occurring life.

The reason for this is that when TCKs hop around the world, they usually end up in places where there are other TCKs with them. If I’ve noticed anything in my life, nobody forms bonds better than Third Culture Kids. The bounds of social situations that exist so clearly in First Culture societies are completely nonexistent in TCK worlds. Where an American school in the United States has the geeks, the losers, the popular kids, the theatre kids, the band kids, the cheerleaders, the football players, the jocks, the pot heads, the science geeks, the honors club, the over achievers, the under achievers, the bullies, the bullied, the goths, the emo kids, and every other type of defining separation, TCK schools just have kids.

From ASP to HKIS, I never once felt like there was a separation between any of us students. Some of us were assholes. Some of us were quiet. Some of us didn’t get close and some of us wouldn’t let go of each other. Some of us had huge welcoming hearts and some of us couldn’t care less. But the truth is, we were all aware that we were all so similar that, despite the fact that some of us didn’t get along and that we may feel drastically different regarding certain situations, we were all in it together. And the “it” that we were all in wasn’t just a day at school or a field trip to a museum. It was the full, all encompassing aspect of our lives. We were all thousands of miles away from what had once been home, and now was simply a land full of strangers like the one we lived in at the time.

What that did to us was pull us together. We bonded in ways that kids in a First Culture Kid community never would. Things that made us different, things that would make FCKs run away from each other or hate one another instead drew us together. We wanted to learn the differences between us, embrace how we were uniquely different from all the other kids all over the world that didn’t know what we knew. We learned to love one another not despite our differences, but because of them. We learned that multi-cultural viewpoints and different perspectives were not something to be feared, but something to embrace. By using each other, we learned that multiple minds were better than one. And in the end, we understood each other so well that there wasn’t a team on the planet that could work together better than us.

What was so strange about this is that, for the most part, TCKs are natural leaders. We would walk into a room and every single one of us would have a presence that’s only met by a collection of CEOs. We are commanding, we understand things on such an incredibly broad level but at exactly the same time see all the little cogs that build our entire product. We can explain things so amazingly well and motivate people with the passion of a king or queen. We are leaders, thinkers, and doers. And yet, unlike most leaders, when paired with another TCK we are made stronger, not weaker. There is never a conflict, never a butting of heads or a pissing contest to see who’s stronger or smarter. There’s just harmony. Complete and total harmony with the most blissful balance of collaboration and achievement. It’s absolutely glorious, and it has been too long since I have seen it in action.

Why then do TCKs have the ability to work together where other leaders would never have the ability? Because we were built to coexist. In learning that we were never going to fit in anywhere in the world again, we built our own country. In finding out that we were never going to be understood ever again in our lives, we built our own support group. And in knowing that we would never again see the world like everyone else, we stared at each other and understood that we at least had each other. And out of that mess, out of the chaos of losing everything every other normal person clings to in order to define themselves, we decided to define ourselves by the way we impact the world. And in doing so, we created the strongest family that no one else would ever understand.

We created the Third Culture Kid community.

And no matter where we go, no matter who we run into, if we ever meet another TCK, we will smile and know that we have just met a family member we never knew existed. And without saying a word, we will both understand exactly what that means.

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Post by: James R. Mitchener