There are two types of people in this world when it comes to culture. There are those like us, the Third Culture Kids of the planet, that find comfort in absorption and who want to take a culture apart to add it to our lives in pieces, the pieces we love, and even sometimes, the pieces we hate. And then there’s the people who do everything they can to reject cultural absorption and isolate their life-experiences based on the culture that they were raised in.
Culture is a lot like religion in that way. People are a certain religion because they were born into it, which is exactly the same as a culture. You wouldn’t be born into an upper class Mexican culture, be raised in that culture, and mysteriously adopt all the cultural elements of Malaysian middle class culture any more than you’d be born into Buddhism, educated only on Buddhism, and somehow mysteriously adopt all the traits of a Hinduism when you’ve never actually experienced it or been educated in its teachings.
We are culturally dependent upon the cultures we have experienced, and that dependence is what has created so many different cultures across the world. Our parents educate us, teach us how to live, how to act, how to behave. They teach us societal constants, show us how to eat, how to sit, how to sleep, how to smile, how to greet each other, how to dance, and on and on until we have been fully educated in the culture of our youth.
But we also learn from experience, and that’s how we as TCKs came to be. If that education period is fractured, if you pull the child away from the source, you are going to create a cultural separation. We can be taught to do things a certain way, but if we are surrounded by those who do things differently, we are naturally inclined to believe that their way of doing things must be right, too. So, naturally, we absorb a little bit of both.
When you yank a child out of a culturally isolated situation and move them into a different culture, you shatter a window that is inherent in all mono-cultured children and adults. There’s a barrier in mono-cultured individuals that is rarely overcome, and that’s a belief that all other forms of cultural normality are incorrect, wrong, and foreign. The barrier for entry into a different culture and community is so immense due to a lifetime of community driven development that comfort takes over and mono-culturalism becomes a crutch for life.
Forcing a child to experience a different culture during their developmental years, however, creates a different type of beast, one that is capable of adaptation and camouflage not because they want to be, but because they need to be. It’s the opposite extreme, a person who is so vastly different from any one culture that they fit into none. And that, my friends, is a TCK to its core.
I bring this up because it has come to my recent realization that cultural melding is more than the extremes that many of us as international Third Culture Kids have experienced in our lives. There’s a side to the TCK upbringing that doesn’t necessarily require the developmental experiences we have had travelling the world. As international TCKs, we stand out more than anyone else. We don’t fit in really anywhere, and we don’t have a home.
But we’re not alone, are we. There are kids that are born in the south of the United States who move all the way to the North. Born on the east coast and move to the west coast. And if you know anything about America, there’s a lot of cultural difference between one state and its neighbor. These kids, while much more capable of fitting in, go through very similar identity issues as the internationals. The difference is, it’s harder for them to realize what is happening.
See, with domestics, they don’t necessarily have the physical recognition factor that internationals and expats do. When you were born in England and you move to China, it’s hard to not realize that you don’t quite look like everyone else, and it’s even harder not to realize that this place doesn’t quite look like where you came from. The domestics don’t have that luxury. Much of the architectural and ethnic differences in a country are fairly decently spread to an almost equal degree. You move from one state to another, and not much changes physically. But culturally, it can feel like everything has changed.
It’s this struggle for domestic movers to identify with a particular culture that has become truly fascinating to me. I understand what it’s like to be an international TCK. I’ve lived it and breathed it my entire life. But to feel different without anything really seeming that much different must be a very difficult thing to confront.
I have several friends that fit into this category, and it wasn’t until a recent conversation with one of them that I realized the level of connection I have with the confused domestic development thought process. It always seemed so different to me, not having lived outside of your country. But that’s not really what TCK life is all about, is it? It’s about cultural adaptation, about absorbing your surroundings and becoming something different based on the elements you choose to adopt.
And honestly, I find great beauty in the idea that if we can connect with domestic movers as TCKs on a deeper level, maybe the world us TCKs live in isn’t so small after all.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
NEW FEATURE: After each article, I am going to post an additional piece going forward that invites you to discuss an element of this article as a community. I will of course participate, as I always do, but as TCKs, we spend too little time openly communicating with strangers that truly understand us and can help us better understand ourselves. So, here’s the first topic of discussion:
Do you find that you can connect with people that have moved around more or less than those that haven’t? Why do you think that is?