Tag Archives: TCK

You Define Tolerance

You-Define-ToleranceAt One World Week at the University of Warwick, I was asked after my talk if I thought it were possible to change the opinions of others, to build a community that could change the world by bringing on equality. I am not normally one for dodging questions, but I admit, I side-stepped this one a little and said that yes, I believed it were possible, but that some people would never change their minds, and for them the only hope you have to remove their counter-productive argument was to wait for them to die, which hopefully wouldn’t be long for the sake of bringing on equality.

Now, however, I am starting to realize day-by-day that there is a much deeper, fundamental issue there that seems so obvious to me as a Third Culture Kid, but that none of my First Culture Kid friends seem to understand. I’ve never once discussed this with anyone, mainly because it started as a double blind study in which even I didn’t know I was doing the research, and then transitioned into a single blind study as I began to notice a commonality between all my “global tolerance” First Culture Kid friends.

This has been years in the making, something I have been noticing and farming for more information since I was a college kid my freshman year talking to all these strangers who had never left the country, except maybe for a week here or there to build houses, repair a school, or to save the souls of those that didn’t know their particular god, whichever god that happened to be at the time. And now, even today, I still have this talk with people that claim to be tolerant of the world and believe in the potential achievement of total equality. But now, I do it with motive, not for fun. I am farming for a secret.

Before we even get into the details regarding global tolerance, I want to address the nature of that two-word-item that has become so popular when discussing the pathway to global acceptance. Tolerance, in itself, is a horrible way to achieve your goals. The root word, tolerate, means “to put up with, to endure.” When we talk about global tolerance as a way the world needs to move, we are already setting ourselves up for failure. We cannot achieve unity by simply tolerating. We need to welcome, to invite, to protect, to respect, to love, to believe, to agree, and above all else, to understand everything and everyone. To tolerate them only means that you accept that they are here, despite your better judgement or desires. A world of tolerance is a world still built on the belief that your personal experiences, your culture, the colour of your skin, the country from which you hail, and the people you have relationships with are somehow better than those around you that you simply choose to “tolerate.” The idea that we are building a globalized world on this ridiculous notion of tolerance is not only counter productive, but it’s insulting as well.

I think that it is this is this belief in tolerance that stemmed the greater problem with the First Culture Kid approach to creating a unified world. But before we go on, I believe it important to make a statement regarding my appreciation for people trying to make the world better. The world is riddled with people that reject any form of difference from their own, especially when it comes to religion, which seems to be the only remaining platform where it is not only socially acceptable to attack someone for not believing what you believe, but appears to be encouraged as well.

That aside, why is it that this belief in tolerance is such a problem when trying to achieve globalized uniformity? Because right out of the gate, you are approaching it all wrong.

I have had many, many FCK friends over the years who have been very quick to jump to the defense of anyone who is even remotely different to them. One comment that doesn’t quite include everyone, one joke that even slightly alienates someone, and BOOM! All of a sudden the tolerant FCK is halfway down your throat about your poor use in language or how your beliefs alienate a group of people and that’s not acceptable in a tolerant world.

And right there is the problem. Sure, the intentions are wonderful, to create a world in which we are tolerant of everyone and ignore all distinguishing indicators like the color of their skin, their birth country, their beliefs, their politics, their sexual orientation, etc. But the best intentions often lead to some of the most brutal results.

You see, my wonderful friends who want so much to make everyone equal: There is never going to be any form of unity if you strip down the boarders that make us who we are. We are individuals, not a hive mind of shared consciousness. We require our individuality to thrive. I am a white, English born, Italian blooded, globally trained, American influenced, southern experienced, big toothed, greasy skinned, messy accented, brown haired, brown eyed, Third Culture Kid. I have been the minority almost all of my life, and yet I have never really felt like one until I transitioned into my role as a Domestic TCK. Why? Because it was not in my constant need to ensure I said nothing that separated me from the pack, but rather in my open arms that invited the words gwai-lo, red coat, lobster, cracker, bai tou, ghost, leche, gringo, etc., to make me part of the culture that surrounded me.

And that’s where the one big crack in the foundation of “tolerance” suddenly spreads, bringing down the entire building upon which you built this first culture mask of acceptance using a term that means nothing more than to put up with someone. We don’t want to be put up with. None of us do. And trust me, your pathological fear of offending someone through racism is not the answer. Every time you gasp in horror at how someone used a racial slur, or pointed out the funny way someone muttered a word with an unfamiliar accent, or challenged a different person’s faith in their respective gods, you are not helping this battle for unity, but hurting it. The person who is not racist, who is opening their arms to global acceptance, will not be phased by a word. But the person who does not understand unity, the one that leads the pack, or the secret supremisist using your fear of offending to his/her advantage will always be the one to ride your “equality” to their benefit. The rest of us who are proud of who we are and are unconcerned with racism really don’t give a shit about the ignorance that’s thrown our way.

Take it from a man who has slipped between cultures his entire life. The deepest connections I’ve had, the most meaningful relationships I’ve experienced, the total acceptances I’ve achieved from cultures I do not physically or verbally fit into, have all been born of realizing one thing:

When we accept that we are all completely different, when we laugh about how we are called gweilo, when we chuckle at someone making fun of our accent, when we embrace differences and are proud of them, we entirely remove the power of racism.

This is not tolerance. This is equality, something so much more powerful than the tolerance you seem to want to create. Because in tolerance, we are always fully aware of the differences in the people that surround us. In equality, however, we notice it all, we vocalize it all, and we do so with an air of acceptance and joviality that makes the bonds between us even stronger. And with every relationship that is built upon that foundation, the foundation of a realization of our differences and an open acceptance to understand them and embrace them, racism has one less place to breed.

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

From Expat TCK to Domestic TCK

Domestic Expat TCKOne of the most common questions I get from First Culture Kids, after the initial wave of questions inspired by the shock of my multicultural upbringing subsides, is “and what do you think about [insert current place I’m living]?” I’ve written an article about this before in which I discussed how I, as a Third Culture Kid, define myself by the place I’m not living, but I’ve never really answered in a way that satisfies the original intentions of this collection. In truth, the question seems inconsequential to any FCK, but to a TCK looking back on their lives, it is often weighted with so much more than anyone would guess.

To fully understand the weight of this question, I first need to explain the difference between two separate stages of a TCK life; At any point, a TCK is either an Expat TCK, or a Domestic TCK. Now, I understand that saying Expat and TCK together is rather redundant,  but I think it’s important to note the difference between an Expat TCK and a Domestic TCK. Regardless of where you are, as a TCK, you will always feel like a Third Culture Kid. That’s inevitable. Our upbringings have created a permanent level of separation between us and natural FCK society. It’s the way of our lives. But there’s a big difference between Expat TCKs and Domestic TCKs, one that shapes the entire way we operate in the culture we’re actively involved in. So, what do they actually mean?

Expat TCK – A Third Culture Kid who lives in a foreign country in which they are the obvious minority, be it through language, skin colour, accent, customs, etc. It is obvious to both the TCK and the culture in which the aforementioned TCK is living that he/she has moved there like many other Expats. The TCK is forced to blend by showing their knowledge of the culture they are living in, not by natural or physical means.

Domestic TCK – A Third Culture Kid that lives in a foreign country (or their passport country) that matches many of their external identifiers, such as skin colour, accent, language, customs, etc. This type of TCK blends naturally and is only recognized as “different” when a relationship with this TCK is established and particular foreign cultural adoptions become evident.

Now back to the question at hand: What happens when someone asks what it’s like living in [insert current country here]? The curious element of this question is that it has only ever been asked when I have been in Domestic TCK mode. Something about being an Expat TCK tends to lead to a more quiet acceptance of your presence, one that lacks a good deal of approach from others, with people having a tendency to wait for you to make the move in drawing a connection rather than you doing so. This has a lot to do with cultural restrictions. We are naturally more comfortable with what we understand and know, and things that are foreign to us make us weary. This doesn’t change with people, so Expat TCKs are forced to engage in order to break down boundaries, where Domestic TCKs fit in well enough that at first glance no boundary is perceivable.

When I was first asked what it was like living in [insert place] over the others, I was back in Houston after all my international travels had come to a close. I knew that traveling was behind me for a while, but I had no idea that 11 years later I would still be living in the same country with no immediate promise of departing. So, when I was asked what I thought about Houston, I was naturally resistant. People saw this as a resistance to the place itself, but the truth is, that’s never what’s happening with TCKs. We are natural movers. We do it so well that we may be the only group on the planet that the “Most Stressful Life Event: Moving” rule doesn’t apply to. In fact, I am more relaxed moving than I am sitting still.

The reason for our resistance is the shift from Expat TCK to Domestic TCK. Most of us have spent our entire lives being the minority outsider, forcing connections and demonstrating our cultural understanding in order to be accepted as more than just the foreigner. The greatest moment of any TCK experience is that very first second in which a majority individual accepts you, at least in part, as a member of their culture due to your understanding, respect, and participation in their cultural practices. There is no greater feeling of euphoria in the world for us. It’s what we live for!

Of course, that means that when we are stripped of our Expat TCK status and are transitioned into our Domestic TCK status, we are stripped of the vitality of our experiences. The unfortunate truth is, everything that we know has been completely turned around. Like I said before, people are made uncomfortable by what they do not understand, and unless you are a TCK yourself, the TCK mentality is impossible to understand. So where an Expat TCK starts every relationship with a lack of trust and understanding, building up to a state of cultural acceptance, the Domestic TCK suffers a much harsher reality.

Whenever a Domestic TCK starts a relationship, it is always assumed they are part of that culture. Then, as the relationship begins to unfold, Cultural Slips begin to happen at random intervals, revealing the foreignness of our true identity. The subconscious is a powerful tool, and for FCKs, they feel as though they have been tricked or deceived. Unless the person has an open mind, a trait that is unfortunately sparse, the doors go from open to closed on trusting and accepting the TCK. And as everyone knows, it’s much harder to regain lost trust than it is to gain trust from a blank slate.

In becoming a Domestic TCK, our lives become an endless struggle to walk the line between being different and blending in. We have to polarize our lifestyle, completely flipping how we used to act. We go from intentionally blending into the culture to show our respect to intentionally rejecting it to stand out, effectively avoiding the mistrust that is created, albeit subconsciously, when it becomes evident we are not who people think we are.

But that’s not us. We did not learn and grow by making ourselves overtly known. We are not natural rejecters of culture; We are natural blenders. To make statements like “I’m English” when in an American culture hurts us, not because it’s not part of who we are, but because it’s just one tiny fragment of who we are. We are not English or American or Chinese or Indonesian or French or Spanish or any other country in the world. We are all of them we have touched. And we are endlessly proud of every tiny fraction of a culture we have picked up.

So when we are asked what it’s like to live wherever we’re living, we aren’t reacting the way we do for the reasons you think. We reject because to be a Domestic TCK is to contradict everything you were raised to do. It’s to make apparent who we are, instead of blending into what we aren’t. And that moment when the shift takes place is the single most challenging part of any Third Culture Kid’s life.

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

I Imagine

I ImagineIn the morning, I brush my teeth, shower, and get dressed inside an apartment that is littered with the clothing and papers and dishes of the night before. I go to work taking a slightly round-about-route because I don’t like the fact I can get to my office in five minutes, so I try to make it 15. I sit at a computer, open Illustrator and Photoshop and Excel and Chrome and Word and Bridge and IE and Outlook. I set up my tablet beside me pulling emails from a different company that’s a thousand miles away and another that’s 150 miles away. I work and work and work, sometimes I’ll eat lunch, and then I work and work and work some more. I go downstairs to my other office for another company, I pour myself a drink, and I discuss more work with my partners. I unwind and go home, and I make dinner and eat and work and work. I look around my apartment and wonder why it is so messy, and think to myself “I’ll clean this tomorrow.”

Tomorrow comes, and I do it all again. The same thing in the same place, the same job with the same people. And day by day I notice more and more things that I never noticed before. I notice that I’m no longer noticing the Southern accent that stood out so evidently when I first arrived in this state. I notice that I let Southern twang work its way across my tongue. I notice that no one around me noticed me do it. I notice words like “fixin’to” popping into my head and narrowly missing the speech function of my brain. I notice that around me are tons of trees that were once so beautiful and foreign and different, but are now becoming normal and obscuring and a source of endless pollen. I notice that the people around me are almost all white or black, but mostly white, and that I am once again not the minority. I notice that I do not have to listen for other languages, pick up on essential phrases, or know the difference between Spanish, French, English, and Portuguese in the same conversation. I notice that almost all of my friends have never lived outside of the city, and almost all of them have never lived outside the state. I notice that I think of travelling as something in the distant future, and not the possibility of tomorrow.

I notice that I am surrounded by FCKs in a place where, on the surface, I fit in in more ways than I don’t. And it has made me realize that today, after 26 years of a life where getting up and going was always a single decision away, I am now living the life of a normal, First Culture Kid.

But that’s not me.

While I sit and look at this place around me, I shut my eyes and I imagine a city paved in artificial light, bustling and busy with the hum of a language I do not understand. I imagine restaurants tucked in back-alleys serving unrecognizable food blended with spices that even I have never seen. I imagine an airplane full of people going anywhere, soaring through the sky to the quiet rumble of the engines. I imagine a local market in a cobblestone town and a currency I haven’t figured out yet. I imagine carrying cash instead of plastic, of walking instead of driving, of smiling and nodding instead of understanding and responding. I imagine my mobile phone disconnecting, of buying a pay-as-you-go card, of watching my device illuminate with the worlds “World Phone” upon boot-up. I imagine standing in front of a room full of students in which no two have the same story, the same lineage, the same travel history, and explaining to them that they are like me, a Third Culture Kid, a global nomad, a melting pot of culture after culture.

And then I open my eyes, and the world around me has not changed. The busy streets, the back alley food, the wallet full of cash, the room full of world-traveled students, is all replaced with the walls of my apartment that’s full of all that stuff that First Culture Kids cling to in order to pass the time and build the value of their immobility.

I look over at my girlfriend as she runs her fingers over lips in the same, rhythmic pattern, over and over and over, her eyes fixed on the television not even noticing the burn of my stare. And I smile to myself and think silently “I have so much to show you.”

___________

JM-003-72-condensed

Post by: James R. Mitchener

Building Company Culture

Building-Company-CultureWhile this collection is based on a foundation of the Third Culture through the eyes of me, a particular Third Culture Kid that has grown up and joined the world of First Culture “normies,” I have started to realize that this isn’t really about the Third Culture exclusively. In reality, it’s about culture in general, it’s just that the Third Culture is a collection of so many cultures that it is the melting pot standard that provides a general level of understanding and bridging acceptance that is absent in most other cultures. Of course, that still means that in order for you as a read to appreciate this collection, you first have to appreciate, but more importantly to understand, culture as a whole. What is it, what does it mean, what does it do?

I have been thinking about this immensely since my talk at the University of Warwick’s One World Week Social Integration Forum. I got asked a question about how a person can find a job in a foreign country they aren’t officially allowed to work in. My default thought was “well, I mean you can’t. That’s illegal and you’ll get deported and won’t ever be able to come back.” Of course, I didn’t say that because that’s honest and I am generally only brutally honest when I’m writing here. But what that question did do, admittedly without its intention to do, was to get me thinking about the problem that company’s have with developing a company culture.

Company culture is a word like “Green” or “Sustainability.” Everyone loves it, but the more I work and the more I deal with people using the word (I’m a marketing and operations consultant, so much of my working life is using words like that to boost internal and external support), the more I realize that no one has a single clue what it means. Companies keep touting their great culture and how amazing it is, cramming their mission statement and motto down employee’s throats, but when you step back and look, the culture they claim to have created never existed in the first place. It was an illusion, a facade, a fake. An idea that never had any hope of becoming anything more than the words on a piece of paper a new employee was forced to read once and immediately forgot about.

A good example of this would be a little start-up I worked at called CityVoice. The Angel Investor there was the founder of a huge company I’m sure many of you know of if you’re even remotely internet literate, the managed hosting company known as RackSpace. RackSpace had an excellent culture, and it was believed by many of the original team who started RackSpace who also joined CityVoice that the culture was one of the main reasons for their overwhelming success. Everyone loved working there, and everyone loved using RackSpace for hosting. It was just an incredible environment to be in regardless of which side of the table you sat at.

When CityVoice started, they tried to duplicate that culture that had made RackSpace so incredible. It was all they talked about, maintaining the culture, loving the culture, living the culture. The culture was everything! But the culture they were describing wasn’t the culture the office had. It was a fun place to work, sure. We had nerf gun wars in the office, had a fridge stocked full of beer, had arcade machines and couches, an open working environment where everyone was sat in the same space as equals, but this happy-go-lucky culture just didn’t seem to grip.

And when the culture wouldn’t stick, the managers got mad.

I remember one time, my boss at CityVoice who was on the founding team of RackSpace for marketing pulled me into a meeting and said that I didn’t seem to be embracing the company culture. As a Third Culture Kid, I honestly found this quite comical and had to choke back a laugh and a serious argument and education lesson about culture.  Of course, “culture” was so important to these people that I knew this statement had serious ramifications regarding my continued employment, so I chose not to explain what I know and instead rejected a lifetime of conditioning for this very moment. But I’m not going to shy away from that now. Too many companies think this way, and I believe that it is my job as a Culture Specialist to address a too-often misunderstood concept:

Culture, not just company culture, is not something you create at will. It is something that is created by the actions, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of a community. One person doesn’t make a culture. A group makes a culture, and that culture is impacted, shaped, and developed based on the external influences of other cultures and individuals. It can strengthen a culture, or it can weaken a culture.

A strong company culture is created by doing everything the right way. Look at Google and Netflix, two of the most successful culture stories of any business anywhere. They both treat their employees with the utmost respect. Their vacation policy is: “If you need it, take it. No hours, no tracking. Just get your job done and be happy.” They have fun as much as they work, and in doing so they work harder than ever. They are happy with their peers because their peers are equals, even in corporate hierarchy. Everyone’s opinion is valid, and everyone’s ideas are the building blocks to their success. Everyone matters. And above all, the customer is always the primary goal. When your card expires at Netflix, they just keep your account rolling and send you an email saying “Hey, your card has expired. Would you please update your card when you have a chance? We’ve kept your account rolling, so whenever you have time. Your streaming won’t be affected.” In doing that, they create a support level from customers that makes employees proud to work there, proud to be part of the team, proud to be providing a service that the vast majority loves and supports.

Those cultures weren’t built by saying “This is the culture, live it.” They were built because a company started with an informal motto of “Don’t be Evil.” That external goal, the desire to do everything they can to help better their community and peers, is what created a harmonic culture. A  shared idea, a desire to be part of something more, that’s what created the culture.

Unfortunately, that’s what most companies and leaders miss. They keep their employees on tight schedules, dock them holiday hours for needing to go to the doctor, watch their email and internet and write them up if they leave 5 minutes early or come in 5 minutes late. They Big Brother everything and put no faith into their team to be good, hard working individuals. They reject customer complaints and ignore change because “we know best,” and then they wonder why so many of their employees are miserable, quitting, not doing their jobs, or are incredibly inefficient. They wonder why customers hate them, why their churn rates are so high, why they are sales driven instead of retention driven.

And then they blame the people for not perpetuating the culture.

When I was eventually asked to leave CityVoice for oh so many reasons, one of the main being that I was constantly battling with people to stop forcing a culture and start doing things right for a change instead of lying to our employees and customers, I started consulting because I couldn’t bring myself to be in a situation like that again. Now, I work no less than four jobs at any given time, one of which is always full time work, and the others are just sort of “on the side for fun projects.” And in all of those jobs, in all elements of the success therein, I have focused on my understanding of culture to inspire and create a sense of belonging for everyone I work with.

And it’s all built first and foremost upon my understanding of culture in the world, and how you can strengthen the power of your team by making them proud to be by your side.

It’s a shame, really, that more TCKs aren’t in positions of leadership. Of course, we are still a young generation, and that will change over time, but one of the most crucial foundations for success in a business is a strong company culture, and that’s something too few seem to understand how to achieve. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: It’s better to have 1 employee who wants more than anything to be part of what you’re doing than it is to have 10 who don’t care if they have a job with you tomorrow.

So, leaders of the world, let me leave you with this: Stop forcing culture. Make your people, both employees and customers, never want to leave your side just by doing the right thing, which more often than not you’ll see is as easy as stepping back and thinking “if I were them, what would I want from this situation.” Only then will you find the culture you’re looking for.

___________

JM-003-72-condensed

Post by: James R. Mitchener

One World Week: Social Integration

If you missed One World Week’s Social Integration discussion, here it is online and ready to view. I had an excellent time with The University or Warwick and would like to thank all the students who put so much effort into making this such an enjoyable experience. I am the fourth and final speaker before the Q&A section.

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

A Christmas with Two TCKs

A TCK Life ChristmasI have spent a good deal of time discussing issues that are relevant to the Third Culture as a whole with this collection, focusing heavily on presenting a semi-biased (all things are biased) but attempted neutrality when talking about culture as a whole. The topics have ranged drastically, and have covered matters that range from thought-provoking to lighthearted. When WordPress sent me my year-end report, my most popular articles included I Tell Them That I’m English, Hong Kong Kids, The TCK Life I Remember, and Expatriate Everywhere. These topics were all written very differently with very different goals. However, none of them were written conversationally, and none focused on an element I promised in this blog from Day One after I published The Illusive Home. This promise was that this collection would feature articles that stimulate the mind and make you think about culture, but that it would also show you the personal side of a Third Culture Kid living the life of an adult.

So, I figured with the holiday season almost at a close, what with 2013 looming ahead welcoming us to a New Year, it was time that I put up one final post for the year that did exactly that. Today, I want to embrace the spirit of the season, and just talk to you, my readers, about the experience I had this holiday season. As a TCK, this season is always interesting. There are endless battles throughout the year about who goes where, when we do what, who will join us, and why. This is just the way we do the holidays. My brother and I are TCKs. My parents are Expatriates. And while I live over a thousand miles away from my parents, my brother about 500 miles from them in the opposite direction, and all of us over 4000 miles from our family in England, we always pick one of our Homes, modern or historic, to go back to.

This year I went Home to Houston for Christmas. Of course, I had to leave Home in Raleigh to do it, and all the while I was thinking about the family back Home in England who I wouldn’t see and the friends in my Homes of Hong Kong and Paris and Australia and Singapore and anywhere else I have people I care about. But I had to pick somewhere, and my parents wanted me to come see them despite the desires of my brother and me to go to England and see the extended family. So Home I went, back to Houston, to see my brother, parents, and my maternal grandparents who had chosen to hop the pond this year and join us.

Christmas is always an interesting time of year when I am with my family in Houston, and even more interesting when I’m with my grandparents. To jump start it all, it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas day, which is just wrong in my professional opinion as a seasoned meteorologist with a degree from the extremely prestigious University of Looking Up the Weather on Google. I am a Northern Hemisphere sort of person in the winter, and I strongly believe that the season demands cold weather. My parents, unfortunately, aren’t that way. They spent too much time in England in their youth and have an unnatural and inhuman fear of anything below 79 degrees.

On top of that, my poor mother lives in a home of three atheist male humans, a female canine that doubles as a piece of furniture when she’s not praying to the gods of Dog Food, and a male canine that believes all humans except my mother are out to condemn his soulless body to an absence of the afterlife upon contact. Then there’s Lynn. She is our key to all those religious things that partial Christians do, like Easter and Christmas and… well that’s really it, actually. She ropes us into these holidays full of fun, social, and generally sinful activities with the occasional sly nudge that sort of says “don’t forget, this is also Jesus’ birthday.”

Interestingly, I enjoy celebrating Buddha’s birthday more, but we can’t have it all our way. This is Lynn’s time of year, and so my brother and I play along like the beautiful little cultural melting pots we are. We help her decorate the tree (this year it was done via a Google+ Hangout) barking orders from the comfort of the sofa while she does all the work. Usually we’re excellent managers. We know exactly where all the ornaments should go and we’re nothing but critical if things aren’t done properly. I’m blaming the results of this year’s tree construction on the conversion from a three dimensional viewing space to a two-dimensional viewing space. It’s so hard to gather depth and perspective from a computer monitor. That’s why I maintain that this was not our fault:

Again, not our fault!

Again, not our fault!

I suggested that we just leave it that way to symbolize the new tradition of “Relaxed Christmas,” where even the Tree gets to kick back and not care about anything. Unfortunately, this was vetoed by our more traditional-Christmas mother who set it back up with the help of some friends and redecorated it. Fortunately, the second time around it wasn’t as front-heavy and it remained standing. This probably had a lot to do with the 50+ ornaments that were no longer on it due to their inescapable fate of shattering on the hard tiled floor during the Great Collapse of 2012.

After that, we did the normal Christmas things. Our mother, who has effectively given up cooking since both Robert and I departed, left us to fend for ourselves. We helped with Christmas dinner, and by helped I mean I flew a remote controlled helicopter around her head while she prepared the meal and my brother made sure to point out all the pieces of skin on the potatoes that my grandfather had missed while peeling them. It’s a team effort, really. We opened some gifts, drank a substantial amount of alcohol, and generally had a good time.

So what was it that made this event interesting for me as a Third Culture Kid? Well, for starters, my global cultural outlook has developed a pool of different cultural and religious celebrations from all corners of the world. My favourite being Chinese New Year, the Lunar Festival, Buddha’s Birthday, and any apocalypse parties that accompany whatever end-of-world prophecy happened that year. Christmas, unfortunately, never makes the cut as my favourite celebration.

In classic tradition, my brother and I make sure to point out at least once that Christmas isn’t fun, it’s just stressful, and more importantly it’s not a religious holiday anymore but a merchant holiday designed to make you spend too much money. This always upsets Lynn because she wants to believe it is still a Christian holiday, but I think us saying that we don’t enjoy it upsets her for the wrong reasons. It has nothing to do with the fact that it’s Jesus’ birthday. I don’t believe in any god, but I am perfectly fine celebrating the religious holidays of any culture because I love the lifestyle that accompanies it and the joy in the believers eyes. It is inspiring. But Christmas isn’t like that. Christmas is stressful, exhausting, expensive, and has lost all cultural meaning. The only reason more people don’t flip out about it is because they’re too busy hating Valentines Day. That and they’re being showered with gifts, I suppose.

And this misunderstanding always results in the development of other unnecessary debates. For example, my grandmother (Nan), grandfather  and me watched the Queen’s speech. She made a reference this year to the birth of a child so long ago that taught the values of life, a reference she hasn’t made in many, many years. However, she intentionally did not say to which child. Just a child. My grandparents were immediately glad she finally did that because Christmas is a Christian holiday, and I quickly pointed out the fact it wasn’t, resulting in them getting upset. But the truth of the matter is, the Queen didn’t really point out anything. English roots run deeper than Christianity into the Pagan faith, one that shares almost to the letter the same exact story of a boy born on the same day from a virgin mother with the same beliefs leading the same teachings but all for a different faith. And there are countless hundreds more. There are so many little boys born around Christmas in the world-wide history of countless faiths and cultures who did similar if not almost identical things.

And that’s where the TCK side comes into it all, and the misunderstanding looms. For me, it’s not about the god’s validity. It’s about how you accept others. And when you immediately shut down the idea that there are other interpretations of this holiday, and that yours isn’t the only one, then I am afraid my TCK side dies a little inside. Because that’s not what the holidays are about,  no matter what faith you’re jumping into or what time of year you’re celebrating. Holidays are for coming together, celebrating, and enjoying food, culture, family, and friends. It’s about unity, celebration, and another cycle.

And I don’t think there’s a TCK out there that doesn’t understand exactly that.

___________

The Author
Post by: James R. Mitchener

Life From a Window

Life from a Window

As a Third Culture Kid, flight is a natural part of my life. I am inherently conditioned to love it, mainly because it’s the birthplace of how I became a TCK. Flight has opened up the ability for people to shuttle all over the world, and it has made TCKs so culturally diverse because we can actually travel to hundreds of places a year. The time that was once the burden of international travel is now almost nonexistent. I can be anywhere in the world in less than a day. So when I say that I love to fly, I need you to understand my full meaning. Flying isn’t just a love. It is part of who I am. It is the start of everything, and the end of everything. And this natural love means that to a TCK, it isn’t the same as it would be to an FCK.

I actually like economy, the only time my fear of tight spaces is nonexistent. I sit in the aisle, letting me stick out my legs or get up and down without bothering the person next to me. I will read an entire book without stopping, because for those X amount of hours there is no internet, no one calling or texting, and not enough space for me to pull out my computer and really get into things. I am disconnected from the world, and I love it, because as I soar on by at incredible speeds, I know that the entire landscape of everything is changing beneath me away from my eyes. But the most interesting part of flight for me is that, for as long as I can remember, I have never sat in a window. I have not looked out of the plane once for as long as my memory allows. I step on in one place, looking through the crack in taxi-bay before I step into the plane, and then I see nothing until I step out of the terminal in an entirely new city, state, country, continent.

But yesterday, when I boarded the Embraer bound for RDU from IAH, I realized that my seat, 4A, was both a window and an aisle. I have been making international trips for so long that I had forgotten planes as small as this existed. And here I was in this tiny three-seats-to-a-row plane, my legs in the aisle and my head staring out the window. And for the first time in my conscious memory, I got to watch the world as I flew through the night back to Raleigh, and even as a TCK that has seen it all a hundred times, so many times that he gave up looking, what I saw was more than I could have ever imagined.

As I sat there, I remember thinking to myself “I wish I were a poet, because then I would have the mastery of words to explain what I see.” But I am not a poet. I am a narrative writer, and I describe things through the elongated use of diction where words build sentences, sentences build paragraphs, paragraphs build chapters, and chapters build books.

As the engines roared and I stared out the window of a plane that was closer to the ground than the window of a bus is to the road, I watched as the lines in the pavement began to speed up. I watched, waiting to see how long it would take before the crevices in the runway moved by so quickly that they looked flat beneath me, the optical illusion of speed ripping my ability to distinguish  depth on the surface of the Earth. And when I could see them no more, the nose tilted into the air, and I felt the familiar pull of the plane as it grabbed hold of the lift required to launch it into the sky.

But this time, I watched the world beneath me. I saw us fly up, faster than I had ever realized, the world shrinking beneath me as walking people vanished from view and cars looked so small that all I could see in the darkness were the headlights that moved along the road at what appeared to be a snail’s pace. And then we were above the subdivisions of Houston. In the darkness, I could see the Christmas lights outlining the roofs of everything still decorated beneath me. And as we banked, I saw the doors of houses illuminated by porch lights, one bright red and so small in the distance of the ground.

I watched as hundreds and hundreds of houses, streets, buildings, and cities in the distance passed me by. I watched the curvature of the earth grow as we climbed, my ability to see into the distance stretching further and further as we went higher and higher, the light of the clear sky painting everything with a luminous glow. I saw the expanse of our species, spread across the land with so much darkness between us until there appeared an eruption of light from a cluster of houses where people had flocked together in the middle of nowhere, just so they didn’t have to live alone.

Then the clouds came. Like an ocean beneath me, we crossed into the overcast and all the lights were hidden. Every cloud was painted with the same glow of the moon, but as I looked out the window and the light caught the clusters of water hovering in the sky, it bent and curved and refracted to make the clouds beneath me wave like the flowing motion of an ocean. I watched as shadows turned to light, as wind blew the clouds up and over, as the light bent with each individual droplet shifting its rays. And for an hour I stared, watching the clouds dance to an audience of just me.

When my curiosity took hold, I cast my eyes up to the sky. In the darkness of my cabin, not a single aisle light or reading lamp switched on, I could see the stars above me. And with the clouds masking the light of a glowing city, the stars had multiplied to a number so spectacular that I was immediately reminded of a week I spent in the Australian Outback staring up at the night sky and marveling at how many stars I could actually see without aid of a telescope. It was as if the entire sky was white, with dots of black where light was missing, all shining together to help make the clouds dance.

After an hour of childish hypnotism, I saw that the clouds were coming to an end. Like the ocean hitting a beach, they ended in a perfectly cut straight line, from overcast to clear skies without any remnants or stragglers in-between; it was simply taking nothing to everything in the blink of an eye, from me to the horizon. As we approached the edge of the ocean of clouds, the familiar rattle of turbulence kicked in, letting me know that I was finally passing from one temperature and into another. And as though it were timed with the apparition of the world beneath me, as soon as we crossed the edge of cloud ocean, the rattling of the plane ceased and we were sailing smoothly and unhindered once again.

In the distance, I could see mountains; a collection of lights that rose into the sky as houses, buildings, and roads climbed the inclines towards to the sky. Beneath me was the approaching city of Raleigh, and above me the stars, now faded by the light of the ground, but still twinkling behind the mask of hazed artificial light.

And we began to descend. Slowly, the world grew larger, the earth closer, the sky further away. The landing gear clicked, and the runway appeared. The wheels made contact, and once again, I was back on the ground. Except this time, I had watched it all. I had seen every moment from start to finish, captivated like a child who has never been in a plane before in his life, despite the countless number of times I had been there.

Like I said before: I wish I were a poet so that I could show you how beautiful the world was through the eyes of that TCK that felt for the first time in conscious memory that he had never flown before. But alas, I am not. I am just a Third Culture Kid who is proud to say that even today, it’s not just the cultures of those around me that surprise and inspire me. It’s the beauty of the world beneath us, and the knowledge that while the world was not built for us, we were most certainly built for the world.

___________

The Author

Author

Post by: James R. Mitchener

The Definition of Global Synergy

Third Culture Kid Golobal SynergyOne of the most interesting words that permeates corporate life, outside of the whole “Green” word that has been making such a heavy-handed appearance as of late, is “synergy.” Synergy has become one of the most sought after elements of any intelligent corporation to date, and what makes it all the more interesting is that it’s actually an idea that is completely dependent on the individuals that make up a work-culture to achieve.

Regardless of whether your company wants to achieve synergy with partnering companies, synergy between internal departments, or even synergy with companies that fall into a mild degree of competition with your market, it all boils down to the people involved. Unfortunately, the word has been used so often and so loosely that it has become more of a buzz word than an actual idea, but it’s the idea that gave birth to the buzz word that ties so beautifully into the theme of this collection.

Synergy is, by definition, “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” (Google Definitions) Sure, we all appreciate the value in that definition, but like so many things in this world, the true power of synergy is so much more than the words on a page.

For Third Culture Kids, synergy isn’t a corporate word, but a way of life. It is how we have lived every single day, how we have grown and evolved and adopted, how we have changed the way we think and behave and how we have changed the thoughts and behaviours of others. Synergy is a fundamental lifestyle adopted by global nomads. It’s a level of acceptance, understanding, and strength. It’s a shared understanding that the perceived and projected disability of being “different” is actually the gateway to the most successful, stimulating, and awe-inspiring progress we can achieve as both individuals and a community.

Synergy is Culture.

I recently participated in an interview that covered questions concerning my life as an immigrant, the cultures I find greatest association with, and how those cultures were impacted by the faiths of those surrounding me. I was asked to tell my story, from birth to modern day, on where I’d lived and how those things had shaped me. Halfway through this interview, I was asked what it felt like to be a minority (I believe that Third Culture Kids are always a minority, even when surrounded by other TCKs), and how my culture was impacted by those feelings.

It led to a two part answer, one that inspired me to explain the power of TCKs and their ability to work seamlessly to create a synergistic culture anywhere in the world. It started with a story I have touched on before, derived from where I felt most comfortable as a minority. I talked of my second stint in Hong Kong when I was 14-15 years old, a freshman in high school. At the time, my group of friends were a mess of lost cultures, like myself, struggling to find a log to grab hold of in the sea of cultural identity. We consisted of one friend from each of the following cultures: Welsh, N. Korean, S. Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Spanish, Filipino, English, and American. We were all different, all wrestling with our passport country identity, and all Third Culture Kids with completely different developmental histories.

But that was what made us unite. We were all different, but fundamentally we were all driven by exactly the same ideas. We wanted to understand the world, and through our friends we had a gateway to 10 different countries, all of which had different cultural backgrounds and all of which possessed elements that we would adopt into our own Third Culture to expand who we were. And with those adaptations, with those adoptions of varying backgrounds, beliefs, and lifestyles, we became more synergized.

And this is where the true beauty of the power of Third Culture Global Synergy came into realization. We didn’t just unite as a group, we took those unities into ourselves and absorbed that culture of 10 different countries we had created with us when we left. We were all TCKs, all natural absorbers, all completely aware that one day we would separate and take the memories of our past with us. And with those memories, we had each added cultures to our repertoire that strengthened our abilities to work together, or work with others from any of the 10 backgrounds we now shared.

I think that it’s in this little developmental quirk that the true power of global synergy can be seen. TCKs are the definition of synergy, and synergy is nothing more than the ability to unify cultures. As TCKs, we were molded into the perfect tool for synergistic unity. Throw us into a room full of strangers and our natural ability to adapt will operate as a catalyst for anyone we meet. And that takes me to the second part of the question that was asked to me during my interview: What makes me feel like a minority?

I am a TCK, and so no matter where I go, I am always a minority. My culture is not shared by anyone because it was built out of the fragments of so many different pieces of so many different cultural puzzles. Even my TCK friends would agree that while we understand the fundamental truth that we share our separation from the First Culture, we do not even truly share our Third Culture. The Third Culture of each TCK is completely different from TCK to TCK. It all comes down to the elements of the cultures we were exposed to that we chose to adopt.

And so my status as a minority isn’t a feeling I notice. It’s a perpetual state of existence, one that has been present my entire life, one that I have both fought and embraced. But now, as an Adult TCK, I can say that the only time I feel out of place, the only time I feel like a true “minority” is when I lie to myself about who I am. When I cover up the truth of my multicultural background, pretend to be something I’m not, or hide elements of my life because I know they will cause friction with the culture I am part of, that is when I feel alienated, disrespected, or minoritized.

The truly interesting part of that feeling is that, unlike many other minority groups that feel separated because of the stigmas the world places upon them, I feel like a minority because I am placing the stigma upon myself. I can adapt, evolve, fit in. I can lie if I need to and be completely convincing that that’s exactly who I am. I can live that lie every day, and be a culture I am not because I have a completely subconscious and natural eye for absorbing the cultural queues that make me fit in.

Whether it’s lying by saying “amen” sitting around a table, lying about my sex life, lying about my dating etiquette, lying about where I tie my allegiance in sports, politics, or social issues, lying about how I perceive different races, lying about how I feel about other people’s reactions to cultural tension issues, these are the only times in my life that I feel truly out of place and separated.

In pretending to be one of “them,” I lose who I am. Which brings me full circle, back to the start. My life as a catalyst for synergy, a gateway for first culture kids to truly understand each other through the medium of my experiences, stems from a world in which I am both the biggest liar and the man who never lies.

As TCKs, we understand synergy fundamentally. We understand culture completely. And we understand that no matter how we fit into this world, we will always be entirely ourselves today, and yet never who we were yesterday.

_________

The Author

Author

Post by: James R. Mitchener