Tag Archives: Third Culture Kids

The Culture of 21st Century Employees

Culture-of-21st-Century-EmployeesBeing naturally inclined to analyze culture in all its forms, I have noticed some very interesting trends in 21st century work culture, especially in regards to the complete polar difference in the employee culture of the generation that came before me and the generation that I am a part of. I am very good friends with members of both cultures in the employment space, and those friendships extend from executive management to everyone else. Throughout these relationships and my time in the working world, I have noticed a very interesting and very rapid cultural shift that has changed the entire way we, as workers in the 21st century, should be viewing the employees coming through our door, and how we let them communicate outside of our office walls.

As many of my regular readers are aware, my employment situation is a chaotic one at best. I have multiple jobs at any given time being a consultant and a full time employee for a waste company in North Carolina. As the Marketing Manager at my company, I have a bit more freedom than most when it comes to my access to the internet, and it is this freedom by comparison to my peers in this office, and the freedoms that are possessed by very close friends in various companies all over the world, that I began to really notice that technology has completely changed the way 21st century employees are getting their jobs done.

To explain what I mean with the best possible accuracy, I will, as always, start by using myself as an example, and I’ll ignore my other jobs and only focus on my role at Waste Industries to prove my point. Granted, my normal day-to-day is usually quite a bit more chaotic than this, but focus is key here, so I’ll simplify a working-day in the life of James for the sake of argument. To people in my generation, this is all going to make sense, but for those that came before me, this may be a bit of a difference. And the reason is that my generation was the very first generation to fully embrace a world that is driven by digital communication. And no, I’m not talking about email, though that’s a part of it. I’m talking about a complete social network of individuals, all with different skill sets, all with different abilities, and all within the click of a button away. But before I get into the details, here’s a quick overview of a random day in my life:

I come to work and power up my system. I open chrome first, hangouts second, and email third. Before I even check my email, I send out my standard 6 “good morning” (good morrow if it’s going to my friend Bryan) to my 6 key conversation points that I will be talking to all day. Then, I check my email. I respond to emails while jumping back to hangouts, catching up on people’s evenings and days so far with brief, 10-15 word responses max sent at usually 3-15 minute intervals. It’s a chat, but it’s a slow one. Then, I start designing a project. As I’m designing, I realize that I’m having an issue with my computer processing a certain command. Instead of reaching for the phone or putting in an IT support ticket, I throw open the hangouts window and begin a conversation with my IT department friend that works Air Liquide in Houston, a good 1000 miles away from me and an hour behind me in time:

Me: Bryan, my computer is being a jerk. It won’t let me control 5 to turn these paths into guides.
Bryan: Well you tell that computer if it doesn’t stop being a jerk, you’ll take away its power button as punishment.
Me: I tried that, it just shocked me as a response. It doesn’t appear to like being threatened.
Bryan: Ah yes, it’s probably the leprechauns in there. Ok, go to Start –> run –> enter (Bryan says some IT stuff and I just do it) and tell me what the second line there says.
Me: It says (random stuff IT people get).
Bryan: Ok, just go ahead and close that and open your control panel, go to keyboard, and change your setting from A to B.
Me: Awesome, thanks mate!

Done.

I go on with my business, continuing my design. I get a phone call a few minutes later that is a request for me to produce 30 shirts with a design for a charity event we are participating in. I begin work on the design, but as I do, I pull up my Hangouts window and send a message to Shelton, my long-time friend and partner in crime on many other projects:

Me: Hey, I need 30 white T-shirts, don’t care about quality, that will host this logo [link attached]. Thoughts? Die sub or screen?
Shelton: Screen. Definitely. What’s it for?
Me: An outdoor heart walk event. They’ll be wearing them while they walk around in the sun.
Shelton: Poly blend, if you don’t mind spending a few extra bucks. But I can probably find them on discount somewhere. Hold on.
[break while I finalize design]
Shelton: Ok, how does 16.50 a shirt sound, three color screen front and two color screen back?
Me: Did you get competing quotes?
Shelton: Yea. [link attached].
Me: Looks good, get them ordered.
Shelton: Done.

And done again.

At some point in the day, as I’m working through a design, a message comes in my way from Kitney (no that’s not her real name… well yea it is, to us), who works for a company on the first floor of my building:

Kitney: How much would it cost me to put together a press release?
Me: Depends? Attaching picture or just the release? And are you writing it or having me do it?
Kitney: I’ll write it if you’ll edit it. Yea he wants a picture.
Me: That works. And it’ll cost you about 1200 to do it yourself, but you can piggie back on my account for 900 if you’re doing a picture.
Kitney: Ok, thanks!

Done.

I finish my designs for the day and begin gathering information on what has happened in the world of internet marketing while I was designing to make sure I’m still on top of my game, and as I do that, my final hangout comes in from Chelsea asking me about sales buttons on the website she manages.

Chelsea: I need a way to make these sections look more balanced. Any ideas?
Me: I’d put a direct link button that says “Get your copy of this book today!” at the bottom to cause a line break and give you a direct conversion point from your homepage.
Chelsea: How big?
Me: Here, I’ll design it and send it over– [link attached]
Chelsea: Thanks!

And there we go, done again.

It’s this exact form of communication that makes 21st century employees so interesting to me from a cultural perspective. I mean sure, people had the ability to do this in the past with phones and then in recent years with emails, but there’s something about the social networking age that has opened up our generation to a cultural acceptance of sharing everything about our lives, including our talents.

It used to be that when a company hired one employee, they had to find the employee with the best skills for one particular job. Now, however, you can hire an employee with the skill set of one particular job and you’ll get the skill-sets of multiple other jobs in a shared networking experience that blows any previous hiring potential out of the water. You literally pay one employee and get the knowledge of their entire network, all because this culture learned to thrive on the sharing of information.

Obviously, I love culture. I’m a Third Culture Kid, and I can’t help myself, and with this cultural element I feel as though I’m watching something completely new, an entirely new office culture that the world has never seen and that many are not prepared for. So many people who have this networked potential are completely locked down, incapable of getting on hangouts or Facebook chat or the likes without getting in trouble. But that’s the remnant of a dying generation of leaders, and with every passing day this new, completely connected culture moves closer and closer to running the organizations that are not even remotely prepared to handle them.

And honestly, as a man obsessed with culture, especially new ones like this, I couldn’t be more excited to see how this all unfolds. So, readers, here’s my question to you: What does your knowledge network look like?

__________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

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The Death of Culture

The-Death-of-Culture-BannerHere’s a thought to consider: The first world fear of offending someone who has different beliefs, characteristics, or values to us is killing culture as we know it, and not just ours, but the culture we are trying to protect as well.

How many times have you pulled up articles on the internet going over massive cultural and global events lately to find that every other article seems to be a criticism on how some person, group of people, or country failed to recognize the differences of another person, group of people, or country, and in the process they have fundamentally offended them. Then you read the quote from the person, group of people, or country who offended the other and they something cliché like “England has tons of Muslim friends and we apologize for walking over door mats because of their apparent similarity to prayer rugs,” and then a couple months later a law has been passed that you cannot step on a door mat anymore?

Ok, probably not very often with that specific item, but you understand what I’m talking about. I touched on it earlier, in fact, in You Define Tolerance, a piece discussing the implications of the words global tolerance and how they impact culture. I’m talking about how our constant fear of causing offence is not only killing our own culture, but is damaging the culture we are also trying not to offend.

Culture is a delicate thing. It has the natural ability to grow and evolve with changing times, and that means that with globalization increasing its reach with every passing moment, the culture that once was isolated will inevitably be impacted by various other cultures from all corners of the world. We cannot stop this, and in truth, we shouldn’t want to. There are cultural elements that should, for the sake of humanitarian needs, be eradicated and forgotten. Things like genital mutilation that has been masked as a cultural right of passage for centuries, unchallenged and unaltered due to a lack of education, or the inequality of women that plagues almost every major religion and has only recently been challenged in just far too few places around the world.

But then there’s the other side of the coin, the cultural elements that help define who we are, things like art, music, how we greet each other, the festivals we celebrate, the languages we speak, the clothes we wear, the way we dance, the accents we use, and many, many more. All of these elements are pieces of a global pie that makes us more than just “people.” We are the people of something-someting-province. The people of somewhere city. The people of someplace hill or sometime meadow. We are culturally specific, with differences that define and shape us, make us unique, make us different, and all those things help make the world truly and completely beautiful.

As Third Culture Kids, we have spent the formative years of our lives picking up the details on all of these elements, from the good to the bad. We have adopted characteristics that strengthened our shared culture, and made a subconscious effort to become more like certain cultures while building a person that is completely unique of all the cultures we have absorbed. We have made more cultures that support and strengthen, never lessen or belittle, the cultures we have touched. We have embraced these things because they are beautiful, unique, and individual. They are qualities that are foreign, and in being foreign they are something we adore and aspire to be part of.

And yet, as the world begins to globalize and more people who have culturally isolated begin impacting the opinions of the world, something odd is beginning to happen that is breaking down the cultural value of our individuality. There are people arguing both ways, saying on one extreme that we need to rid the world of any form of differential recognition because differences imply that we are not all equal, that we are not all human. And then there’s the other end that implies that either we are different, and that these differences make one group morally, spiritually, and ethically superior to another.

It all comes down to our cultural tolerance level. Every single one of us starts in the center of our cultural tolerance, no matter where we stand in our opinions, and on either side of our cultural tolerance marker we have two varying extremes of cultural tolerance that are maximum level we will swing on any cultural adoption. The radical ends, as they are listed here, are massive changes to our cultural “You.” It looks like this:

Blank-Tolerance-Graph

TCKs have a highly attuned cultural tolerance map. We are extremely adept at identifying items within a particular culture that we want, pieces that can fall on either side of the chart all the way to the radical spectrum. We can swing both ways, absorbing cultural elements from all pieces of the chart regardless of how radical their nature becomes, governed almost solely by the idea that what we absorb is being absorbed because we believe it is benefiting us and our cultural whole. Naturally, as adapters, we are completely capable of absorbing anything that is radically different to us, however making radical changes to our culture is difficult and is therefor done less frequently as moderate and minor alterations. It looks like this:

TCK-tolerance-graph

A good number of people are capable of absorbing cultures also, especially those who have an intense interest in things like art, music, and general culture. However, these people tend to lean only one way on the cultural chart due to biases set in place by the “You” culture, or the culture of their developmental years. What this means is that they’ll happily change the entire way they dress (Radical B) for a big culturally different party, but they will never show up naked (Radical A) if the culture requests it because their internal cultural bias about what is right and what is wrong gets in the way. They are cultural leaners, and they pick a side and relate heavily with items closest to them in one radical direction with a tapering amount of enthusiasm until the extreme, but will only lightly play with ideas on the opposite side of the equation. They’re like this:

Biased-tolerance-graph

The people that are fighting for total inequality, and yes, even those fighting for total equality, are operating on very limited scopes. They see the world in only one possible outcome, their own, and are incapable of relating to either side that extends beyond their limited field of perception. They lean in one radical direction only, in this case with their core principal being highly extreme, such as making every single person follow the same laws in regards to what clothes they have to wear, they relate with people who have similar views. The further away from the “You” cultural opinions fall, the less likely they are to agree with or relate to them. If they are making the argument that all people should be forced to dress the same, they’ll have a dwindling level of agreement with people who also agree. Their drop off on either side happens quickly, and they are isolated from understanding the value of cultural difference regardless of whether they’re fighting for equality or inequality, because in reality, to achieve either, you have to completely remove culture entirely. They look like this:

Extremist-Tolerance-Graph

And this is where the death of culture comes into play. The leaders of the world almost exclusively fall into either the Biased Cultural Tolerance graph or the Radical Cultural Tolerance graph. As for extremists, equality is winning, and if you were going to pick a side, that’s by and far the best winner because no one deserves to be treated like anything less than an equal human being with equal rights.

We are walking a very new path in human history right now, one that is seeing the world come together and unite in ways it never has before in the history of the planet. The big question is, when it is all said and done, do we want to be one giant cultural blob on the same types of people, or do we want to remain unique in our cultural heritage and show that the world is made up of more than one kind of person?

Personally, I would never want to see the cultures of this world that I have had the pleasure of experiencing be replaced with one, unilateral culture of earth. But then I’m just one voice in the sea of billions of voices. The question is, really, what do you want for the future of global culture?

__________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

Third Culture Kid Design Poster — Coming Soon

TCK-Blueprint-Poster

I know this is a little outside the ordinary for TCK Life, but I wanted to give my readers here the first glimpse of an item I put together that will be going on sale early this year. The poster in it’s full size is 19″ x 27″, and will be available for purchase online (obviously without the watermarks and URL) soon!

As always, thanks for reading, and stay tuned for another TCK Life article coming soon!

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

The True Pioneers in TCK Life

True-Pioneers-BannerPeople are always asking me what it was like to grow up all over the world. I know I’m not alone when I say that, and I know I’m not alone when I struggle to respond to that question. The thing is, it’s not like I know any different. Other people asking me what it was like growing up all over the world is like me asking them what it was like growing up in the same place. “It was normal, I guess?” You might as well ask someone what it’s like to breathe, or think, or smell. “It’s all pretty normal, I guess?”

It got me thinking, though, about what people think when they talk to me about my travels. I get so many “Wow that’s so amazing,” or “I’m so jealous,” and mostly “I could never do that…,” but what’s the motive behind the question, really? So, I started asking. When people asked me what it was like, I’d answer, and then ask them why they wanted to know. The answers varied, but they all sort of followed a similar theme in some sense, and that was the idea that it was something brave or pioneering of me to be a person that grew up around the world, always travelling.

Yet, it isn’t really pioneering at all, is it? It’s certainly not brave. It’s just life. This is the way we grew up, it’s not like we had a choice in the matter, it’s just something that happened to us, like eating lunch or driving to a friends house. It’s all just part of life. Our parents took us from country to country because that was what they had to do, and we, as TCKs in production mode, tagged along and did what do best: we thrived on culture.

This very idea that there is some sort of inherent pioneering nature or bravery in the mind of a developing TCK also made sense of something else that we as TCKs experience far too often. When FCKs hear about our travels, they have a tendency to think that we’re bragging. Even my girlfriend has said that to me: “Don’t you think it’s a little pretentious to talk about how you’ve been all over the world and how cultured you are all the time in your blog?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little pretentious to talk to me about how you’ve spent your whole life with your family on your doorstep, with friends you’ve never had to say goodbye to every three years, and how you had a consistent and strong education without spending six months to a year every two to three years readjusting to your entire life being turned upside down?”

It’s not our fault, and it never was, that we became who we are today, just like it’s not the fault of an FCK they did not travel in their youth. We are the products of someone else’s decisions, and like any child going through a developmental period, we simply learned to adjust to what was our new period of normality. There isn’t bragging in our words, or at least there aren’t in mine. It’s just a life, like so many others, with a different background and a different string of experiences. To ignore it would be to ignore who I am, and ignoring that I like the person I am would be a massive disservice to myself and my parents.

And then it all suddenly made sense. The FCKs who are looking at me and seeing a guy who loves to travel, one that wants to get up and go all the time, who loves cultures and different corners of the world and back alleys that lead to mysterious places, they’re confusing my sense of adventure with something bigger. They see a pioneer in me, someone who isn’t scared to step outside of what’s considered culturally normal to them, but I’m nothing special.

The people that are special are our parents.

They were pioneers to their core, completely brave, completely original. Our parents, barring those few of us who have TCK parents, in which case it was your Grandparents most likely who fall into this category, broke the mold of everything that is culturally normal to them. They, like all of those around them, were born and raised into a First Culture Kid life. They grew up with the same friends, went to the same schools, had their families all around them all that time, knew the feeling so well of someone being on their doorstep at a moments notice when need be.

But they chose to leave. They chose, knowing the entire foundation of their life would be so far away, to jump into something completely different and new. They chose something that so many seem terrified of. They chose to do the thing that so many FCKs wrongly credit me for doing, me, a creature of habit, chasing the only thing I know how to do in terms of travel, and that’s to keep going. They credit me for this bug, this itch, this endless need to go, when to me that’s nothing but a natural and inherent desire.

The bravery, the pioneering nature, that belongs to the generation that built me, the ones that said “I may be terrified, and this may be different, but you know what… I’m going to do it anyhow.”

Me, I sit here and think about how terrifying of a concept it is to stay put, something I hope never ends up happening to me. I want to go, I want to keep running, I want to see it all and never stop. And that’s exactly what I was built to do. In a way, I am no different to any FCK that doesn’t want to move. We are both just creatures of our development.

Our parents, on the other hand, reshaped their world to make us. And while some of us may still be in that transitional phase of realization, and others may have made it through and love their TCK nature, and others still don’t even realize they have the TCK inside of them yet, it was our parents that took the plunge and changed everything.

So, in the spirit of the season, whatever cultural celebration you may be having at this time of year, or perhaps just in the spirit of us being people thrust into this crazy world: This TCK would like to thank all the parents in the world who were brave enough to take that leap of faith and do what so few have the courage to do. You left a life of comfort, predictability, and normality behind, and in the end, you created us.

So truly, thank you.

We love you guys.

___________

James R. Mitchener
Post by: James R. Mitchener

Why Your Company Needs a TCK Leader

TCK-Company-Leader-v1.2Globalization is an unavoidable truth. The world has changed a lot over the decades, and in that time we have transitioned from being a planet of fairly isolated industries to a global unit that crosses all borders and feeds off the people, resources, and cultures of countries that may not even be our neighbors. That’s the way of the world, and it is only getting smaller with every passing day.

For that very reason, leadership in every company needs an individual or individuals who fundamentally understand the varying differences between cultures and countries. The ability to look with great detail at the decision making ability and the cultural norms tied to a specific company is paramount to the success of your business. To truly understand the inner workings of your relationship with a particular business or community is a deal-making opportunity, and it’s one that no company can pass up if they want to succeed and grow.

The common misconception that cultures are isolated in today’s world is tied to a mentality that is flawed to its core. Many companies believe that they are an exception to globalization, all because they operate in a small area, they cater to a specific group, or they are restricted to working in one country, county, or community. Unfortunately for these organizations, they are heading down a path that leads them to falling very far behind, and possibly resulting in them losing touch with their customer base to a level that they will not be able to continue competing in the not-too-distant-future.

You see, the problem with believing that you are an exception to globalization is based on the flawed belief that globalization is only impacted by your personal social and professional reach. By saying “Well I only operate on the East Coast of the United States, so I only need to know about Americans that live on the East Coast” says two things: The first is that you do not recognize the fact that the East Coast is populated with countless thousands of cultures and sub cultures, all impacted by people coming and going from different parts of the country, and even entering and exiting from around the world. The second thing this says is that you, as a company, fail to recognize that the building-blocks of your business, no matter what it may be that you do, are pieced together from products, teachings, and practices provided by all parts of the planet.

“No, that’s not true, I am an American company!” Is that so? Well, let’s think about that for a second shall we? Let’s say you sell T-Shirts that say “Proud American!” which must be an american product, right? Not necessarily, actually. Your cotton could be coming from Brazil, your production done in Bangladesh or Indonesia, your shipping handled by a Chinese shipping vessel through an international channel, your customer service could be based in India, your marketing firm is from Australia, your investor capital is coming from Germany, and the final production piece, say a pocket on the front of the shirt and the label attached to the finished product, is done in the USA. Right there, you are touching seven different countries in a single sweep, just to build a single T-shirt, and each of those countries has its own cultures and subcultures, its own practices, its own form of manners, its own style of business, its own ethical values, its own legal values, and its own personal goals.

But lets pretend that isn’t the case shall we? Let’s pretend that you somehow got every single piece of your design from the United States, and no external hands touched it anywhere else along the way. When you distribute this item, who do you think is buying it? The most common misconception here, especially for First Culture Kids who have spent the majority of their lives, or all of their lives, in one city/town/state/county, is that they rarely realize their market. I say this out of personal experience; Your market is never what you expect. So, FCKs generally assume their market is people like them (continuing our T-shirt making company example), natural born Americans with a good strong accent from [insert location here] who love all things America. But what about everyone else? Not only was this country born on globalization, it has continued to be a hub for people from all over the world. In 2012, almost a million people became Americans, and this number does not include a single person born here. Those people are new citizens, people who came here from somewhere else, a great many of whom love America and want to show their support, a group of people with different backgrounds and different cultures to that of County X. These people are going to be a big part of your market.

And so we come to the point of it all: Why should I, as an HR Director or an owner of a small local company, care? What does a Third Culture Kid have to offer that the guy down the street doesn’t? Well, maybe nothing. People are all different. But, from a law of averages perspective, TCKs naturally offer your business the following skills that many FCKs do not:

  1. Cultural Bridging – TCKs have developed into natural cultural melting pots. They learn a culture quickly, fit into it easily, and have no problem mixing and mingling with cultures that would otherwise seem foreign or distant to an FCK. Why? Because TCKs have never had a single culture to latch onto, and so they have spent their whole lives building their own. This is a valuable commodity when you are trying to strike a deal with someone “foreign” or trying to communicate an idea to a potential customer that has different cultural values.
  2. Global Mindset – You may not be thinking about how many subcultures are impacted by your company or brand, but I can promise you your TCK partner is. While you’re paying attention to the big community in your area, the TCK is constantly looking at how to pull in all the other cultures, too.
  3. From Handshake to Bow – Business deals are struck all over the world. If you’re visiting a factory in Indonesia, or sitting around a conference room table in Shanghai, the cultural norms are going to be very different to what you’re used to. This is where a TCK really shines. If they don’t know the culture yet, they’ll have it down very very quickly. Their natural ability to pick up on cultural queues is unmatched, and they’ll rapidly have techniques for polite business transactions and authoritative stands alike down to a art.
  4. Manners are Key – Sometimes, something as simple as eating with your left hand can lose all the respect you have earned over the years. Remember, every community has different rules. And if you can’t remember, just ask your TCK. They’ve been silently learning how the culture works from watching people on the plane before you even landed outside of your element.
  5. Travel Away – Got a new facility opening up in a country 5,000+ miles away from home? Can’t find anyone who really wants to be on board with the move and help get things rolling? Well, you obviously haven’t asked the TCK you hired yet, have you? As natural movers, we’re the most likely to say yes, and we’ll blend exceptionally well with the new hires at our most recent branch of operations. It’s what we were raised to do!
  6. An Eye on Globalization – Globalization is only going to keep growing. That means that if you don’t stay with it, you’re going to fall behind. If you are going to remain a front runner, you need to get used to the fact that things are changing more and more every day, and the global-political discussions that are taking place right now mean a lot more than you think. Make sure you’re in the right position by having someone on board who understands this.
  7. Minority Thinking – If you haven’t noticed that offending people is becoming a rather consistent trend in the business world these days, that means you either don’t care about your customers, or you forgot social media existed. Regardless of the race, creed, or culture of a group, a TCK is very aware of your minority market. After all, we have spent most of our lives as a minority in the first place.

The world is a small place, and it’s only getting smaller. Remember that when you are looking at your next hire. TCKs have all different types of professional backgrounds. We are normal people with normally different desires and goals, so we are highly diverse in what we have to offer. So when you draft that letter asking for a person who can do X, Y, Z, why not throw in a little piece about wanting someone with international travel experience and a strong understanding of various cultures. See what happens.

I promise, you’ll be happy you did.

___________

James R. Mitchener
Post by: James R. Mitchener

How to Adapt to Cultural Shifts

How-to-cultural-shiftCultural shifts are a massive part of any Third Culture Kid’s life. Whenever we pass from one culture to another, our adaptability forces us to change a little bit of who we are. Sometimes we do this consciously, but in the early days of our TCK development, much of what we absorb is achieved naturally. We acquire elements of a new culture simply by being around it, and it’s the natural feeling of indoctrination that masks the change in our internal culture, hiding the cultural shift from our conscious memory. However, as we travel more, we quickly notice that many elements of previous cultures we have adapted to are no longer relevant in our active cultural environment.

Some of the largest of these fluxes in my development came from transitioning to a life in Asia, then back to a life in the Americas, all while carrying my United Kingdom passport and English heritage. The cultural shift, especially in returning to America from Asia, was by far the most difficult transition I have ever made, and I am not sure that I ever fully achieved a state of symbiosis similar to any of my previous travels.

The question I want to address today focuses on this very idea of, after we have undergone multiple cultural shifts in our identity, how do we adapt to a large and semi-permanent transition? One point I have constantly made when talking to Third Culture Kids who are still in the process of their youthful moving phase is that one day this hopping from place to place will begin to slow down. Granted, there are some people out there that have the resources at their disposal to keep doing it forever, but for most of us TCKs, a day will come when the trips to the airport become fewer and fewer with larger and larger gaps between each trip.

It’s a natural progression, but it’s one that causes a great deal of difficulty for almost every TCK I have had the pleasure of meeting. Suddenly, everything you have known your life to be changes, leading us to the question: How do we, as TCKs, adapt to that phase in our life where things begin to slow down after a lifetime of cultural shifts?

I wish I could say this was going to be easy for you. Unfortunately, most TCKs struggle endlessly with this time in their lives. But, unlike most TCKs, you’ve found Third Culture Kid Life and undoubtedly other TCK sites that are helping you to prepare for the transitions, shifts, and personal developments that are on your horizon. That on its own gives you a leg up on most of us who were TCKs before the internet had given us a place to find help and understanding. You are part of a day and age that allows for constant communication with people who are oceans away, and that on its own is something life-changing.

Even with the internet, though, you’re going to experience what I can only describe as a minor existential crisis. Be prepared for that. It’s pretty much inevitable, and the majority of TCKs seem to go through it. When things finally slow down, you’re going to wake up one day and think hopelessly to yourself “Oh no, I’m going to be stuck here forever aren’t I!” You’ll think that a lot actually, and if you think about it on the grand scheme of humanity, you’re certainly part of the minority thinking that. Most people wake up thinking “Oh no, what if I have to move and leave my family and friends?!” We’re the complete opposite side of that equation, and there are a whole lot fewer of us out there.

I digress. When your brain flashes with that fear that you’re never going to move again, don’t worry. That’s a completely normal thought, and maybe if you understand why you’re having it, you’ll be better equipped to understand and combat it. The worst thing you can do is let it get the better of you, to feel depressed and uninspired because of it. Your love for the world, your desire to chase cultures, your incredible ability to adapt to any climate are all absolutely incredible assets in a world built upon globalization.

Your biggest obstacle in this whole experience is a lack of understanding in what’s happening to you. That’s where the depression kicks in, and you’ll feel trapped and lost and surrounded by people that simply don’t understand. But understanding is the key to getting through it, so let me get that out right now: You are only feeling this way because for the first time you are surrounded by people and cultures that are not changing. Many of you have experienced a Third Culture Kid upbringing in international schools. This means you’ve had a constant stream of different cultures. In college, that constantly changing environment has been severely hindered. You are isolated in a pocket that feels odd to you, because unlike most of these people that feel out of place because they are in a different school outside of their hometown for the first time, you’re in a different school outside of your hometown without extreme cultural stimulation for the first time. This could also apply to post-graduation if you happen to fall into the category of people who continued their cultural exploits through university, and find yourself in a job that mimics this same cultural lock.

Getting through it is tough, no matter how you look at it. But fortunately for you, there’s a world of opportunity out there for people like you and me now. To help, find others who are like you. They can be near of far, and lets face it, distance has never been a problem for us, but find people who understand how you feel. There are a lot of us out there now, so go look, and do the following as much as you can:

  • Find articles written by TCKs online. Blogs are a great source of information, from expats to TCKs, you’ll get a lot out of those.
  • Comment! Almost every blog or digital article has a comment field. My experience is that TCK authors get just as much pleasure out of engaging their TCK audience as they do in writing. I know I do. That’s why I attend speaking events and Google Hangout with international schools. Engage your favourite authors. That’s why we write. It’s all for you.
  • Join social groups. Facebook has plenty of little communities. Some are invite only, but don’t be afraid to request an invite. All the groups I’m part of are wonderful, especially You Know You’re a Third Culture Kid When… The page creator, Mike Sullivan, is a wonderful and passionate TCK advocate, and all the people there are equally as friendly and engaging.
  • Join networks on LinkedIn that include TCKs. There are also websites that cater specifically to TCKs like TCKid.
  • Email your old friends. They know you well, even if you haven’t spoken to them in a long time. This is the 21st century, and we are all TCKs. We know what happens when you move. But that distance doesn’t have to be permanent.
  • Tell others about your travels. Don’t worry if people think you’re bragging. You’re not. This is your life! You didn’t choose it, just like the rest of us didn’t choose it. And sharing your experiences is one of the greatest parts of being a TCK. So share. Share share share. Share anywhere with anyone you want. You’ll never know what cultures you’ll find unless you look.

In the end, no matter what you’re going through, there are always people out there who can help. As always, you can comment here and chat with me anytime, or you can find other TCKs like me who just want to help anywhere online. Our Third Culture lifestyle is built upon a foundation of awkward separation, but that doesn’t mean you are ever alone. Just reach out and ask. We’re here to help, however we can.

___________

James R. Mitchener
Post by: James R. Mitchener

Defining a Third Culture Kid

Banner-definingIf you’re a regular reader of Third Culture Kid Life, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that in my every explanation, I make a constant and overarching effort to emphasize that while TCKs share many different traits, the fact that our community is built out of multiple experiences with different cultures building a third separate culture that combines all other cultures we’ve touched, means that every TCK is truly different from the next. Of course, we are inherently natural adapters, we are listeners, understanders, cultural bridges, mediators, empathizers, and many many many other things, but we are still culturally different from all those who share the TCK title.

Oddly enough, that doesn’t change our connection. The ability we have to merge and adapt, to absorb the elements of our surrounding at a level First Culture Kids can’t even begin to understand, gives us a level of separation from other cultures that only fellow TCKs truly understand. It’s that natural adaptation level that brings us together and forms our unity with other TCKs.

But what is it that, fundamentally, defines us as Third Culture Kids? It’s not the culture we have created, or at least not the gritty details of that culture. It’s instead the grand idea that we are adapters, trained to absorb from such a young age, and trained so well that our ability is so completely natural that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

I’ve said all this before, though. Many, many times, in different ways for different ears. And when I talk, I’m met with combinations of understanding, reiteration, support, and confusion. I’m related to the words of other TCK specialists, asked if my definition of a Domestic TCK is the same as David Pollock’s “Hidden Immigrant,” or if my Expat TCK is just a normal developing Third Culture Kid.

However, like all theories and ideas, my take on these items are an expansion of a system that has long since been under construction. One word, one idea, one hypothesis doesn’t build a theory. Testing, growth, and evolution build a theory. A constant eye on the changes that take place, the removals of constants, the additions of anomalies. All of these things, constantly documented, constantly noted, are what make a theory strong. These ideas, while based on the works of some very talented professionals and a combination of personal experiences and interviews with other TCKs, are the next layer of bricks in a tower of understanding.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t halt the questions regarding what it all means, or how you define a TCK, or how you can identify an FCK over a TCK with just a few quick questions. What experiences make you a Third Culture Kid? Some books say it requires international isolation, others say it can be adopted in a home culture, and even more put ridiculous restrictions onto the term to make it some sort of elite separation from society.

Well, I’ll tell you what. How about I just take the time to do what I should have done a long time ago. How about I map it out the way this collection, the way my experiences in the real world and the experiences of my fellow TCKs like to explain the entire thing. Except this time, I’ll do it with pictures, and I’ll do it in a way that is similar to how it was shown to me so many years ago.

So, here’s the world. If you were to take the planet, cut from north to south, unball it, then flatten it out, it would look something like this (just image how annoyed everyone would be if we actually did that…):

world-mapOf course, if anyone is reading this in a billion years, please disregard this map. It is clearly very wrong thanks to plate tectonics, but that’s a whole different lesson that doesn’t apply here. Besides, I’m not really writing this for you future people, I’m writing it for people of the early 21st century.

The way we’ve set up the world right now, that map is broken up into one-hundred and ninety-blahdnaf countries. Different countries recognize different states of existence, and some countries don’t recognize others at all. Then there’s countries other countries have just made up for the sake of making a country, like Iran where a bunch of guys went “You know what, everyone shut up, this is called Iran and I want to hear nothing else about it!” And that was that. Poof. Iran. Sure it may have been a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Countries are hard to put a number on. We’ll go with 196. That gives us a little protection with 193 in the United Nations and some extras floating around that a lot of people don’t want to recognize.

So, these countries, they have culture. People rally behind this cultural belief called Patriotism. It’s a large, broad, and difficult to define culture. But it’s a part of a culture, for sure. So here’s what that looks like:

Two-CulturesThe United States has a culture. Australia has a culture. So do all the other countries, but that’s 196 shapes to draw, and to be honest, I’m not that patient of a person. I mean I’m not even really covering the countries properly. All the people living in Perth aren’t part of Australia’s culture according to this map. Sorry, Perth. I think you’re a lovely place, and I didn’t mean to exclude you.

Within that country culture, though, you have countless sub cultures. Each pocket of space isolated by distance and time, locked into tiny spheres of influence within a greater cultural mask. That looks sort of like this:

Sub-Cultures

All these subcultures are inseted into the greater culture, overlapping on the grander cultural idea, but each one depicting its own ideas. And yet in those subcultures, each subculture overlaps into yet another subculture, making it uniquely different from the subculture that shares similar ideas because it is influenced by the cultures surrounding it.

Of course, this continues to go deeper for what feels like an infinite amount, isolating culture after culture into pockets of thousands, then hundreds, then tens, all the way down to the single cultural experience of an individual person who has been impacted by the cultures around them.

The question is, what does this have to do with being a Third Culture Kid? Well, it starts with the culture of your family, like so:

Family

This culture, the culture of your parents, your grandparents, your cousins, your uncles, your aunts, and anyone else who grew up and evolved along a very similar cultural thread, is shaped entirely by the people you were bread into unity with. This is the first culture, not to be confused with the First Culture (notice the capitals). This first group, the family group, followed one developmental path, a single childhood cultural experience impacted minimally by the cultures of others, isolated and strong in its cultural beliefs. One culture, which is incidentally the definition of the The First Culture.

Then, you move. Once, twice, ten, twenty times. You leave the security of the individual First Culture, taking your family with you, at least your parents, but now you’re somewhere different. You’re in a different country surrounded by different people. While your parents are set into their own beliefs, locked into their cultural levels already, they’ll still experience a little bit of cultural melding. This is normal. Everyone does it in expatriate life. And that culture ever so slightly crosses into theirs. This is the second culture, or your Travel culture. It looks like this:

Family-and-Travel

Now we’ve got two cultures that are slightly overlapping, but for the main part, completely independent of each other. But these aren’t the sole forces in your life. We have teachers in these foreign worlds, acquaintances, strangers on the street, and most of all, friends. We have friends from varying other social backgrounds, all with different cultures, all with different understandings of the world.  So we must add in what we will call your friends, a third culture:

Family-Travel-Friends

This is the single difference between you and your expatriate family. They can adapt and adjust, but they can never build the person they are like a child can, like you did as you grew up, by absorbing all of these cultures. You are building a personality, a future, who you are, when all of these things are already locked into your parents’ brains. They can adjust, add in new elements, but you, as young as you are, are a clean slate ready to have the information of the world inscribed upon it. And that’s where the magic happens to create that mysterious Third Culture. It happens right here, in the middle of it all:

TCK

There it is. The Third Culture Kid hybrid of creativity. It’s how we all came to be, one way or another, through different families, travels, and friends. But in the end, we all fall right there in the middle, an odd hybrid of everything we’ve picked up along the way. That’s the mysterious zone that our parents, our friends, and the people in the countries of our past can’t understand. Because while we are built out of the elements of each of them, we are not explicitly them. We are more. We are a combination, leaving behind massive chunks and taking on the pieces we want and need.

And that, in the simplest way I can imagine to explain it, is who we are and how we came to be. Many of my TCK readers know this already, and some will have wonderful further insights into the ongoing development of this idea. But here’s the baseline blueprint for the families that are building TCKs today. This is what will happen. This is what will make your child a Third Culture Kid.

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener