Tag Archives: Third Culture

I Imagine

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

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

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

But that’s not me.

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

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

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

___________

JM-003-72-condensed

Post by: James R. Mitchener
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Building Company Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________

JM-003-72-condensed

Post by: James R. Mitchener

Am I a Third Culture Kid?

Am-I-a-Third-Culture-KidI get this question a lot more than you would think. I say all the time that being part of the Third Culture isn’t so much the experiences you had, but the way you adapted to each experience at the time you had it. We aren’t TCKs because of where we have been. We’re TCKs because of the way we absorbed the cultures of the places we have grown. Even now that I have left Hong Kong, I still relate to it closer than any other place I’ve lived. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back, an idea that can easily make me sink into quite a severe depression, but I do know that I will carry the culture of the city and time that I lived there for the rest of my life.

Of course, that would make sense to a Self Aware Third Culture Kid. While I have been a TCK since I turned 4, I didn’t know it until I was 15 or 16 years old. And even then, I didn’t understand it until I was 17 or 18. Why? Because I have known no other life. Where other people can say they remember growing up in one country, in one town, with the same friends, I can’t even remember the  layout of my house in our seventh country. That’s just my life, and it’s all I’ve ever really known. To me, that’s just normal.

The best way to understand the parallel and lack of realization would be to imagine that you and I saw two different versions of the color Blue. When describing it to me, you’d say “the sky is blue” and “the ocean is blue” and I’d agree, but what I see and what you see aren’t the same thing, and while we understand the connection, I am mentally incapable of knowing your perception of the color blue, just as you are mine. What appears to be blue to me may in fact be a green to you. But it doesn’t matter, because we can see the connection, we just can’t understand the mental process beneath it.

That’s what it’s like when an FCK tries to explain their home to me, or tell me what it was like having the same friends, or that they never want to leave because this is where they belong. I can see the parallel, I can draw the connection, and I can pretend to understand. But in the end, their home is a blue that I’ll never be a be able to see.

And while Self-Aware-TCKs understand this mental process perfectly, my readers who are just uncovering their TCK status might not fully realize the power behind this truth. So, I am going to break my rule of never creating lists, and I’m going to give you my top 5 silent bullets that I ask anyone (always without actually asking, but instead uncovering the answers through careful conversation and evasive questioning) who asks me if they are a TCK during a conversation with me.

1. When I ask you what home is, your eyes dart top right in consideration or bottom right in internal dialogue.
This is a nice little trick because Self-Aware-TCKs will answer with their stock answer like mine: “I was born in England, raised around the world, and I currently live in Raleigh where I moved to from Texas.” This informs them I am not from any of those places, they are just places, but it also ties in multiple locations they can hopefully relate to while combining an air of mystery. An FCK would just say the city/town/country that is their home. An expat would say “I am from England but I live in Raleigh,” always bringing their home into the equation of where they’re from.

But an unaware TCK will wonder. They’ve been asking themselves this same question for years, and in the end, they still aren’t really sure. So they’ll dart their eyes into the top right corner of their socket, triggering the visual memory portion of their brain, and fire through a list of locations they grew up and try to figure out the best answer based on all those memories. Or, they’ll be at a stage where they’ve been asking themselves that question for so long, mulling it over and over in the silence of their mind whenever they are alone, that they will drop their eyes to the bottom right portion of their socket and listen to the internal dialogue of a sequence of questions regarding where they are from, a question they still can’t quite answer.

2. When I ask you about a politically volatile situation, your impulse is to relate to the minority, not the majority, regardless of your connection to either party. 

There’s an air of globalized protection from TCKs when it comes to minority parties. We have spent our entire lives being the minority, even if we aren’t consciously aware of the situation yet. In a way, we are even minorities in the group of TCKs, because no two TCKs are alike. So naturally, we relate better with groups that have fewer members because we ourselves have always been the group with the fewest members. We default into joining sides with the party that needs us, in adopting the cultural stand of the group that is the weakest, because in a way we understand just how difficult it is living a life where you’re always just a little bit off from the rest of the group. No matter how good we get at fitting in, we are always going to be outside of the circle because we will never fully be a part of that particular culture.

Of course, there’s an exception to this rule that helps guarantee the success of the TCK response. From my experiences meeting TCKs, and I am not saying there isn’t an exception here, but as far as my conversations have extended I have never seen a TCK take the side of an oppressor, even if the oppressor is the minority party. We value human development above all else. Why? Because it’s in human development that we find who we are. We are cultural leaches, sucking out the good of every culture we come across. When a group tries to expel a culture we could absorb, it’s a personal assault on a part of who we are or who we could possibly be.

3. When describing your Passport country, you don’t say “home,” you say “[country name].”

This is one of the first things I started doing before I even realized I was a TCK. My passport country where all my family lived was never home. My mother would say “We’re going to fly home next month!” to my brother and me, and from then on I would say “[X] days until we go to England!” To my mother, it was always home. To my brother and me, it was just the country everyone we were related to lived in, with exception to our Australian family members.

To a TCK, your passport country is just another location in the list of locations you’ve been. So if we’re talking, and you have told me you were born in England, but you keep calling it England after that, I have a pretty good idea that you’re trying to find your identity in the TCK crowd if you haven’t already.

4. When you’re telling me stories of your life, they involve elements that an FCK would think “there’s no way that happened.”

“I was only four, but I loved riding the top of the double decker buses as they darted around Hong Kong. The drivers were on a schedule, and the system was incredibly efficient, and if you sat at the front on the top floor it felt like you were flying because the glass extended all the way to the floor. We would hold onto the bar and press our faces on the glass and watch as the bus took turns on the edge of the cliffs several hundred feet up so sharply that the bus literally lifted off the ground and made the turn on two wheels!”

I’ve told that story to FCKs so many times, and they never believe me. Of course, ask anyone that lived in Hong Kong in 1992 and they’ll tell you the same thing. How all of us that lived there didn’t plummet to our deaths as we tumbled down a cliff into a rocky and watery grave, I’ll never know. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. And the best part? That’s one of the more believable stories of my youth. If you tell me a story about a far away land and the FCKs life an eyebrow in disbelief, there’s a strong chance your childhood was the TCK development period. The world of a TCK is just full of disbelief in general. Even now I wonder sometimes if what I remember is even remotely possible. Then I browse the pictures of my youth and am reminded that it all really did happen.

5. I tell you I’m a Third Culture Kid, that I am a global nomad and don’t have a home, and that I will always be moving because staying put is the worst punishment anyone could ever give me, and your face lights up while all the others around me look at me like I just shot their mothers. 

And the final trick. I explain who I am and what I have seen. And when I do, the FCKs around me look at me with shock, curiosity-masked-confusion, or inquisition, but there’s that one person in the group who’s eyes light up as if for the first time in their lives, someone said something that actually makes sense. Then the questions fire, and the TCK will say absolutely nothing but will listen to the FCKs firing off questions and me answering in my traditional global-nomad way, and all the while the TCK’s face will continue to glow brighter with understanding while the FCKs around them become more and more confused, uninterested, or distanced.

So if you read this question and all the others before it, and felt a connection to them as a point of truth or realization, there’s a good chance I would be thinking when I met you “looks like I have another TCK on my hands.”

Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. This is just the most reliable sequence of events I’ve found in my life to uncover the unaware TCKs that surround me. And hopefully, in bringing that status from unaware TCK to Self Aware TCK, perhaps you’ll find the comfort I found in realizing that being the minority, in not fitting in, isn’t so bad after all. In the end, we have the whole world to draw from in defining who we are. And that’s a heck of an inspiring pool if you ask me.

___________

The Author
Post by: James R. Mitchener

Life From a Window

Life from a Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________

The Author

Author

Post by: James R. Mitchener

The Definition of Global Synergy

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

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

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

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

Synergy is Culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Author

Author

Post by: James R. Mitchener

Hong Kong Kids, the TCK Life I Remember

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Author

Author

Post by: James R. Mitchener

The Third Culture Language

Third Culture Kid Foreign LanguageLanguage 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.

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The Author

Author

Post by: James R. Mitchener