Tune in January 30th between 6-8pm GMT (1-3pm Eastern Time) to see the speech at the University of Warwick’s One World Week.
I 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.
Change is unavoidable. It surrounds us in everything we do, from the streets we’ll choose to take driving home from work to the start and end of a lifelong relationship. All things eventually end, and when they do they are replaced by one or more differences that thrust us forward into a period of transition. Third Culture Kids spend their developmental years becoming fully acquainted with this very idea, learning time and time again that the friendships they make will not be permanent, that the view from their window will not last, that the language they learn will not be their primary tongue forever.
The world is constantly changing. The universe is constantly changing. We, as people, as groups and as individuals, are constantly changing. On an atomic level, electrons hop in and out of existence. On an elemental level, reactions are always taking place around us. On a cellular level, our bodies are constantly dividing, changing, growing, and dying. On an individual level, our personalities are changing based on stimuli and information, our perception of the world altering the information we receive and process. On a cultural level, communities are adding new life with mourning the loss of old life, changing the group as a whole with new generations moving up and old generations moving out. On a planetary level, the surface is constantly shifting while old land disappears and new land forms. On a solar level, the sun is burning, adding new elements to its core in what to us appears to be an endless fusion reaction, but in truth is as ephemeral as everything else. On a galactic level, stars are spinning around the mass of a black hole, balancing on the edge of deletion. And on a universal level, everything continues to grow and expand, outward from our very point of perspective, infinitely and endlessly.
And yet with change so completely a part of life, a constant in every single aspect of everything we do, it strains my TCK-mind whenever I look out at the goings-on of cultural events around us in which there are always overwhelming groups of people constantly battling the very changes that will inevitably occur.
Because all change is inevitable.
This all sprung to mind when I read an article that the Church of England will grant Bishop status to openly gay men. It immediately prompted me to message my girlfriend and inform her of the news, and as soon as I hit send, I quickly added at the same time as she sent to me: “but not women…” We then proceeded to shoot back and forth questions about when the last time this could have happened, that gays gained the status of equality before women. I settled with the Ancient Greeks, but that was just a stab in the dark without actually following through on my normal process of intense research. The conversation then quickly turned to how the article we had both read commented on how many people in the church, and those who believe in its practices, were furious with the Church’s position of welcoming gay Bishops. My TCK brain began to spiral, as it always does when dealing with cultures that are so large and immense that they actually are built out of hundreds and thousands of sub-cultures that mask themselves into a greater Alpha-Culture.
The Third Culture’s natural ability to adapt, our talent of fitting into any social setting, requires us to invite change in all its forms. The equality of our species is key to our ability to socially position ourselves as insiders to a community that we are not truly a part of. Without equality, we cannot function. We welcome differences because by rejecting them, our ability to fit in completely vanishes. Welcoming change creates social integration, the catalyst of a thriving TCK. Rejecting change, however, creates the exact opposite; it creates only alienation.
For TCKs, there is no room for alienation in our lives. When we became part of the Thrid Culture, albeit a transition that was usually not of our choosing, we were forced to abandon the ability to restrict ourselves based on our apprehension of change. Our entire lives became about adapting to what’s around us, finding elements of the things we experienced and pulling them into who we are, being part of cultures that were never truly ours. We were created by change, and we hold onto the Third Culture Kid title by inviting it throughout the rest of our lives.
This is the way we live and breathe. It isn’t so much of a choice as a knee-jerk reaction to survival. We invite change because change is the ever-growing world we live in. We were raised on it, fed it as a source of sustenance when the normal options for survival of consistency and life-long-relationships were taken away from us. We understand based on a lifetime of development, growth, and minority status that, even though our minority lives are masked from the cultures and people around us thanks to our lifetime of cultural stealth training, the rest of the world doesn’t have the same luxury as us.
In truth, the fundamental problem that I have as a Third Culture Kid watching the world resist the changes that will happen regardless of their prolonged resistance isn’t the oppression. Oppression, despite how sad this truth may be, is a natural part of human existence. We have been doing it since the dawn of time, and it seems that the ignorant will always want to impose their lack of understanding and their fear of what isn’t them on everyone else. What upsets me the most is that I know that in almost any situation, I have the ability to pretend to be, to adapt into, either side of the conversation. I could fight either argument, and I could make those around me believe it was the only thing in the world I’ve ever known, despite how much I do not believe it inside my TCK brain. But I have the ability to do it. I have the ability to blend. I have the ability to fit in.
But the world has been “fitting in” for too long. We have reached a point in cultural evolution where understanding, respect, and mutual gain is becoming more than just a dream. As TCKs, we have the natural ability to bridge the gap between social groups. The cultures on both sides can find a commonality in us. As individuals, TCKs are so fundamentally different that where I might not be able to help bridge a gap, there is certainly a TCK out there that could.
Because we have been given the gift of cultural ambiguity, and with it we can become the catalysts to a better world. The only roadblock is change.
I 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:
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.
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.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
One 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.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
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.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
Language has become our most dependent gateway for communication. It’s an essential part of human development, a crucial step in our species-wide expansion, and a method of expressing elements of life that were previously confined to the entity experiencing them. In a way, it has become the portal into the minds of those that surround us, giving us a brief flash of insight into the parallel universe of another person’s mind. Language is the ultimate foundation supporting the success of us our species.
And yet, in all of its power to connect us, to explain what we understand and why we understand it, to experience the world through the eyes of another, language has also become one of the greatest barriers of our species. There are over 6800 languages that are used in the world today, and with them comes a barrier of communication that we have become completely reliant upon in order to convey any conceivable message. We speak and write in the words we know, and yet in doing so we isolate ourselves to a community that’s severely limiting.
For native English speakers, we occupy a community of only 350 million people. That’s 350 million of a global population just shy of seven billion. So as you read these words on this page, if you have stumbled upon this collection seeking the views of a Third Culture Kid in a world full of cultures that outnumbers languages hundreds to one, know that you are one of only 5% of the world that will ever know the picture painted here.
To a Third Culture Kid, this idea is heartbreaking. This collection was put together to help explain to the world what it means to be a TCK, what a life of adopting culture after culture does to a person, and how TCKs view the world with such a drastically different approach to our single-culture brothers and sisters. We are global nomads, people of the world sharing a single culture that has nothing in common with any other culture anywhere, even the culture of other Third Culture Kids.
I have created the culture of James, a mess of different elements from France, England, America, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, Indonesia, China, and all the sub-cultures in the different pockets of those areas that I have experienced. I have picked and chosen who I am, what I love about the corners of the world I’ve visited, what I consider to be my home, but even for someone who has experienced exactly the same things as me, their Third Culture is completely different to my own. And I have evidence to prove it, having traveled the world with my younger brother, Robert, who experienced all the same things I did, and yet his Third Culture, his home, is nothing like my own.
And so I try to share this with the entire world, the experiences I have had and the person I have become, because there are so many TCKs out there that feel alone and confused just as I did as I went from my childhood into my adulthood, until I realized the sheer beauty of what being a TCK means. But as I share my experiences, I am touching only the five percent that can read through the barrier of my communication.
TCKs are a culture of the world. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what language you speak, or what cultures you have adopted into your Third Culture Home. And yet, even though we come from anywhere, are all born of the same development, are all part of one community of people that unites us as global thinkers and neutral worldly admirers. Yet we are all separated by the words that we speak and read.
The language that has given me the ability to write to each of you that gives you the ability to write back and tell me your experiences, the comments that inspire me to write more posts and discuss more issues that plague the Third Culture community, are all restricted by if you’re one of the 350 million people who can even understand the language I am forced to use order to communicate.
I believe there are TCKs out there that noticed this dilemma far earlier in their lives than I did. Many TCKs probably attended schools that didn’t even speak their native language, forcing them to add another method of communication into their arsenal. But even then, we are still only scraping the surface of our ability to communicate. Monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual, we cannot possibly learn in the short time we have on this planet the 6800 languages that span this insignificant little rock full of so much beauty. And so, we will always be restricted, always incapable of communicating with the people who will never be able to read into who we are and what we have to say.
Of course, this barrier is not the end of understanding. It’s not a culture’s language that inspires our ability to adopt new qualities of it into our lives. It’s the behaviour, the action, the style of life that inspires us and guides us. I have learned more about culture from people with whom I have not shared a single word than I ever have from those I communicate with.
Where language is the method we choose to communicate, it is also limited by the content available within it and our ability to manipulate that content to describe an experience.
I have said time and time again in this collection that trying to explain what it means to be a Third Culture Kid is impossible, however I will attempt the impossible all the same. The truth is, it’s not impossible to explain what being a TCK is; It’s simply impossible to verbalize the experience. To know what it means to be a TCK you need to experience it. My children will understand, because I will explain it to them just as it was explained to me; I will explain it by showing them the world, without words. I will explain it by presenting them with an ocean of cultures, cultures that do not care what language you speak, but how you behave and operate within them.
But with you, I am limited to words. Words that only 350 million of you can understand. But with those words, I will continue to try to paint you the only world I understand. Because in the end, 350 million, 350,000, or just 350 people who wake up knowing they are part of something amazing in the TCK world, or are prouder of their children or their family or their friends by getting a glimpse into the window of our minds, is endlessly better than changing the lives of no one.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them that I’m English. They look at me curiously, listening to the American accent with a hint of something foreign in its sounding, a distant memory of a corner of the world that doesn’t jump off the page of my life, but hides itself behind the dominant sound of a confused American who is neither Southern nor Northern, Eastern nor Western.
They ask me where my accent is, and I tell them I bury it well. I tell them it’s there, beneath the mask of my partial-American upbringing. I tell them that I can switch to it easily, if I want, but for the sake of understanding, I use the American one because it’s easier given the company I am around. And when I speak those words, I intentionally increase the English inflection on my letter A’s and my T’s. They hear the change, and begin to smile and say “Oh I hear it now,” believing that now that I’ve told them, they’re picking up on something that was always there, and they immediately believe that I am not from this country despite the way I sounded when we met.
They ask me to speak with my English accent, and I transition over without issue or hindrance. I flip the switch in my brain, and immediately I become something different. My tongue moves quicker, the words exiting my lips more mumbled. Letters become lettas, colors become colas, isn’t it becomes ennit. I grab a pen and paper and write them a note, spelling words as I always do, with the language of my original passport country, adding “u” in words like colour and favourite, switching “er” to “re” in words like centre and theatre, or bringing the validity of “-ise” back to reality in words like centralise and realise.
They ask me why I moved here, and I tell them my father’s job brought us here, that I went to university in San Antonio and then I took jobs in America and didn’t want to go back to England because of the taxes. I then tell them that I will leave one day, but I simply haven’t left yet. Yet is the operative word. They look at me curiously. Some are wondering why I would ever want to leave wherever I am, why I don’t love the area they love so much. Others are thinking about how much they, too, would like to up and go. But they don’t understand what moving entails. Many of them have never left the state, yet alone country. But they want to know. Or think they want to know.
They ask me if America and England were the only places. I respond no, and I string the list together of places I have lived. England, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, America. Then I throw in, almost as an afterthought, that there were other places I lived when I was young, but I don’t remember them so they don’t count. They say how cool that is, how amazing it must have been to see all those places, experience all those things. They say I must have felt so lucky. And I just respond that yes, now that I am old, I know that I was one of the luckiest people I know, that I wouldn’t trade the experiences of my youth for anything in the world; Now that I am old.
They ask me where my favourite place to live was. If at the moment of asking I am feeling isolated from the world, I will tell them Hong Kong because it’s the most exciting culture I’ve experienced. If when they ask, I am feeling sad that I hardly know my family, I will tell them England because it’s where everyone I’m related to lives. If I’m missing beautiful country, clean air, and bright skies, I tell them France. If I’m wishing I’d seen more, done more, been more places, I’ll tell them Singapore because I remember so little about it. I do not tell them why. They do not know the secrets behind my reasons. I just name the place, and fall silent. But in my head, I am thinking all of those things. But the place I never say, ever, is that it’s America.
They ask me first why I love that country, and I feed them some creative lie about food or lifestyle. But the truth is always the reason of the moment. The truth is how I’m feeling in that specific pocket of time, a secret I keep for me and me alone. And when the reality of where I’ve lived sets in, of all the places I’ve seen…
They ask me why my favourite place isn’t America. And I tell them because it’s a country of people who believe themselves to be a melting pot of cultures and a land of equal rights, but everyone seems to hate the person next to them who doesn’t believe exactly what they do, or wants to live their life slightly different to the lifestyle of their neighbor. I tell them that it’s not a melting pot, that it’s a culturally resistant country, one that believes that patriotism and Americanism (whatever that may be) is the only way to live, and that everyone else should conform or “go home,” wherever that is.
And they get mad, and ask me nothing. They then attack, respond, and retaliate. They defend or unite. They consider me an outsider and think that my opinions are invalid because I am not one of them. They brush me off, or become my friend, but no matter the outcome, I am always the “English guy,” when in truth I am no more English than I am Chinese or American or French. But to them, I am the foreigner, the man that doesn’t quite fit into the comfort of their Americanism.
To them I am different. To me, I am what I have always been; I am a Third Culture Kid, a TCK, a Global Nomad, and an Expatriate everywhere.
When I step off the plane in England and walk into the local for my first pint, my mates come up and give me a hug for all the time they haven’t seen me. They introduce me to the new people I have not met, and say, “This is James, he’s not from around here!” and they shake my hand and buy me a pint.
They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them that I’m American.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
Probably one of the most unique and challenging elements of detailing what it means to be a Third Culture Kid is confronting the differences between the TCK community and the Expatriate community. To non-TCKs, or I suppose to anyone who doesn’t understand the internal workings of a TCK mind, the two are extremely similar. A TCK has lived all over the world, an Expat is living all over the world; a TCK doesn’t see their family often, an Expat doesn’t see their family often; a TCK is a frequent flier, an Expat is a frequent flier; a TCK knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers, an Expat knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers; and a TCK shows elements of cultures from around the world, while an expat shows elements from cultures around the world also.
To an outside observer, the two may very well be the same. But to us, the TCK community, we are entirely different from our expatriate counterparts. We are all built out of a sequence of events that has led to the development of our personality. Every structure capable of weathering time, especially the structures of our lives, must start with a strong foundation. This foundation is the blueprint for everything that’s built upon it, and each brick that’s laid on top of the next will either hold strong if it matches the plan, or will crumble if it doesn’t meet the requirements that our foundation has produced.
Like many things I write about in regards to Third Culture Kid Life, I make a conscious effort to find a neutral and core principle that encompasses the entire doctrine, then build up my explanation around that single idea. I do this for the sake of the parents of TCKs that read these pieces, not for the TCKs like myself that already understand on a fundamental level what it means to feel the way we feel. This collection was created to help explain who we are to those who simply cannot understand. So, when you’re taking on the impossible, I find that the items that are relateable to both parties are the only bridge to partial understanding that we can create.
When it comes to understanding why we as TCKs are not in any way the same as the traditional expat, even when we are living an expatriate life, I find it all boils down to one simple word with a sea of meaning; That word is “foreign.” To an expat, all travel is foreign. They are foreigners in a foreign land, outsiders, people living in a country that isn’t their own. Some of them love the place they’re in. Some hate it. But no matter how they feel about it, that country is never their home. They will always be intrinsically connected to the culture of their youth. They will have customs and lifestyle ideas that cannot be changed at all, and even more that cannot be changed without a great deal of effort.
It’s because of this interwoven knowledge that they are foreigners that will either make or break the experience for every single expat. They will either love viewing the world through their first culture lens, saying “Look at how different this is!” or “Back in [Home Country], you’d never be able to find one of these!” Or they’ll hate the entire experience for exactly the same reasons. But in the end, that lens through which they are analyzing their experience, the way that they are viewing the world, is built out of a single culture and a single line of experiences that was developed in their youth. They will always be First Culture Kids living in a world full of other First Culture Kids that are just completely different to themselves.
Of course, this does not mean an expat will not adjust. I have met many expats that have done their absolute best to assimilate into the life of a different country and culture. Plenty have even succeeded, at least on the surface level. But the truth is that during the developmental years of their lives, the years that built the foundation for the person they were going to become, their personality was constructed from the brick and mortar of a single culture.
This is where the TCK split comes into play. The stability that the Third Culture lacks, the one that has been a rampant part of almost every single article of the TCK Life collection, means that we view an expatriate life in a completely unique way. When we move to a foreign country, it isn’t anymore foreign to us than the last place we lived or the place our parents call home. The most common similarity with every TCK is that home to us is nothing more than a word other people use to describe the place they grew up in.
We are the children of the world, the global nomads that pick up and go not because we are wanting to experience something drastically different to what we already know, but because we are trying to add to the foundation of our development. The baseline of our lives, one that for FCKs was built out of stability and consistency, was built for TCKs out of country after country that had nothing to do with the place from which our parents originated.
For me, moving isn’t a burden. There is no fear in packing my things and starting my life somewhere I know absolutely nothing about. There is no discomfort in having no friends for the first few months of my stay in a different place. There is no paranoia in knowing I will not be able to understand, to interact, to survive with ease and simplicity. In truth, all those things inspire me. They motivate my internal cultural mixing pot and drive me to absorb everything around me. They make me adapt, to change, to understand everything I possibly can. Where an FCK will attempt to understand a foreign country by drawing parallels to the culture of their youth, a TCK will view a foreign land without bias or commitment from a land called “home.” I walk into any situation believing I will absorb and change in any way that inspires me.
I am English by birth, American/UK by passport, and Global by culture. None of these things define me. All of them define me. Really, the difference between an expat and a TCK is simple. To an expat, a new country is always a foreign place full of differences, good or bad. To a TCK, a new country is a place that makes the entire world a little less foreign, and a little more part of who we are.
Post by: James R. Mitchener