Tag Archives: World Culture

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

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

When an FCK Falls in Love with a TCK

When an FCK Falls in Love with a TCKThis post is special. It is one I’ve been working to share with you for some time, one I kept hustling and hustling for, undoubtedly being the enormous pain in the ass I have a tendency to be when I get locked into an idea; a fantastic quality for work, not such a great quality for my girlfriend.

I have been asked many, many times from partners of Third Culture Kids how they can reach their TCK significant other when they themselves are First Culture Kids. I have always tried to answer as best I can, but in the end, we are always speaking two different languages. I know what I want as a TCK, but I am not the only TCK out there, nor am I in any real position to tell you as an FCK how your brain is going to relate to the things we say. We don’t understand a lot of the stuff you say, so I can only assume it goes both ways.

So, I thought to myself, how can I answer this question that will best help my FCK readers to resolve the issues inherent in the TCK-FCK barrier?  And that’s how you got this article. I went to my girlfriend and asked her to write it for you, instead, detailing what it’s like being in a relationship with a TCK. I gave her no guidance, made no edits, and told her she could put anything she wanted on this page, so long as what she said was 100% true, even if she thought it might hurt.

After all, that’s the point isn’t it? To be an open book to help all of my readers find truth in the words of these pages? So, time to pull off another layer of the armor: Here is the single greatest answer I could have asked for. Here you’ll see how this little FCK managed to get past all the struggle that is… well, me… and decided that not only did she not hate me (well, not all the time at least), but that she wanted to stick around as much as I wanted her to never leave.

Oh, and as a side note: Happy Anniversary Chelsea Poole!

________________________________________

The following is a Guest post by Chelsea Poole:

I have a type. At least I had one before he came along. I didn’t realize it until he made it abundantly clear that he was a different one. I’ve dated brunette, blonde, tall, short, big, small, arrogant, humble, white, black, put together, and broken. But until he came along, I only dated Christian boys who were raised in the South and, with one exception, were born and lived their entire child and teenagehood in the exact same city as me. I dated FCKs. (To all my friends and family who I sent here, this is what WE are. Kids who were raised in the same culture as their parents… to put it simply.)

But then this one came along and from the moment I asked the elusive question, which for me went something like: “So, wait, you’re English, right? Where’s your accent?…Where are you actually from?” I knew that this guy was not my type. He is an atheist TCK and I a Christian, FCK and for the first time in my life I have crossed the line into unfamiliar territory that I didn’t ever think I’d ever make my way into. I’ve learned a lot about the TCK life from this blog and I learn more every time he posts something new. Something tells me I’ll never stop learning new things about him or this life I still struggle to understand. So now its my turn to steal his spotlight and try my best to show you a point of view he, and most of you readers, struggle to understand: the life of an FCK who has fallen in love with a TCK.

I would consider myself well-traveled. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to much of Central America, Bermuda with a few European jaunts as well as many different states in the U.S. But after hearing that he’s lived in places like England, France, Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong (all before age 15) I suddenly felt a lot less cultured than I thought I was.

I always always had a “home” to come back to in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we both live now. I’ve lived in the same square mile my entire life. Home to me is Raleigh, NC and it always will be. My entire family, immediate and extended (for the most part), lives here and I’ve gone to the same school with the same people since elementary school. My biggest adventure was moving into a dorm room at my University…3.5 miles away from my parents house.

If I had to name just one thing about the TCK life that I don’t understand  it is the lack of a home. “But if you HAD to name one place…” or “So like, what do you write on doctors forms and stuff?” were popular questions for awhile until I finally realized I might never even get the same answer if he did finally fold. One time it was England, a few times it was Hong Kong, and through exasperated sighs and cringes he even said Texas a couple times. With time, this question evolved from the idea of home into the idea of multiple places of residence. Instead of trying to weasel a “home” out of him I began asking him to tell me specific things about each place he lived.  The typical general questions couples ask in relationships, like “so what did you do for fun growing up?” turned into “what was your favorite food in Paris?” or “what do you miss the most about Hong Kong?” When provided with a specific question about a specific place, the answers came faster and he seemed more excited to reply.

Early on, I felt like he was judging me for having lived in the same place my whole life. I felt like he looked down on me for not understanding things about other cultures or assumed I was close-minded.  I still get twinges of it from time to time, for instance when he calls NC a “backwards state full of backwards people.” He’s not entirely wrong but I can only assume that since he doesn’t quite understand what it’s like to have a hometown that he can’t relate to the feeling of me hearing mine constantly insulted.

What I understand now is that judgement is inherent in everyone. Everyone is raised differently and everyone will think their way is the way to do it. I constantly found myself in the beginning feeling sorry for him, asking myself, “how could his parents do that to him?” or “how could anyone live like that?” What I didn’t understand was that he LOVED it. He has never known anything else. Just like I loved living in the same place my entire childhood. I never knew anything else. Our lives were, ARE, different and though we still don’t quite understand it, that’s what we love about the other.

I am the one he never thought he’d be with and he is the guy I wrinkled my nose at. I’m a little, Christian girl who spent every weekend on a farm growing up and is kind of a prude in more ways than one. He’s a tobacco smoking, English-Chinese-French-American-Etc.-Etc., who hates the twang that resonates through some of my words and doesn’t quite get why I bow my head before eating. But we are still changing and learning the ultimate word that is necessary in any FCK-TCK relationship: compromise.

I realize now that I’ve made myself seem like your typical southern belle who goes to church every Sunday and repeats everything my Daddy has told me when it comes time for political conversation. But James will be the first to agree with me when I refute that. I want nothing more than to break out of the bubble and live in as many different countries as life will allow me. I tend to disagree with most of North Carolina’s politics and I don’t feel the need to go to a church to find God. But as different as I think I am, I am an FCK and that’s one thing I can never unknow or unlearn.

I can’t speak for James but I could probably write an endless list of things I’ve learned in the past year of life with my TCK. I’ve finally perfected how to use chopsticks after 21 years of immense failure. I can say more than bonjour and au revoir in French. I now know that I would fit in perfectly in the Chinese culture because of what a messy eater I am. And I’ve finally caught on to what he’s referring to when he tells me to throw something in the “bin” or when he tells me, in the ever so blunt way I’ve come to expect from him, that it’s probably time to get my “fringe” cut again.

Our relationship is back and forth, give and take, my one culture clashing with each of his. When someone asks me where my boyfriend is from, I say “the world” and I find myself grinning and laughing and hoping for the day when I’m the one getting on the airplane with him, packing up my life to take on a new adventure, a new culture, a new chapter. I will always have “home” but sooner or later I know that will cease to be Raleigh and will start to become, much like the way my TCK sees it, the people I love.

 ________

Chelsea Poole

Guest Post by: Chelsea Poole

They Will Call You…

They-Will-Call-You-BannerThey will call you different, because to them you are oddly out of place. The way words roll off your tongue, the way an accent they do not recognize leaps into a single word, the way you present yourself at formal events, hold your knife and fork, choose foreign foods over domestic, or travel without a visa. You would seem so different, if only in the slightest of ways, that they will separate you from their world due to a lack of understanding.

They will call you a foreigner, because your passport say so, because your birth country isn’t here, because your parents prove it, because your family lives so far away, because you use the word “home” to mean so many different places, even where you are now. But they won’t hear that. They won’t remember that you called this place home, because that is normal, and everyone says it. They will hear the slip of words that claim that other countries, other places, are home, too. They will not remember you saying which, or where, or that you have called seven countries in the past week home. They will hear it once, and realize home isn’t here, despite how many times you use the word to describe this place.

They will call you a bragger, because you talk about a life full of travel. They will not see a life that knows nothing else, that when talking about your childhood you have no choice but to speak of a foreign land because to you, all lands are foreign. They will not see that this childhood created a confused, different, and multicultural mess. They’d see a man who is talking about things they haven’t seen, and assume he is trying to best them, but that’s not it at all. It’s about connection, about drawing a bridge, about relating the past to the present no matter how convoluted an approach you take. But they will hear the words, not the meaning, and they will fail to understand that when you talk about your past, you never once do it to brag, but instead do it to understand a world you are not a part of.

They will call you a preacher, because the things you say are as foreign to them as the things they say are as foreign to you. They will think that you are too big to be true, full of too much talk and not enough history to have any backing. But they won’t know that when you were four you were surrounded by kids who prayed to a different god to you, who spoke a language you didn’t understand, who laughed at you for being different, and who welcomed you as one of them in the end because of all those things. They won’t know that you spent your life always watching, always paying attention, always adapting, because if you didn’t, you would be alienated while they all sat in the comfort of their culture with the same friends in the same place speaking the same language, never thinking what you were always, always, always thinking: when will be the day my parents tell me I have to say goodbye to my best friend? And when you try to explain this, try to pass on the things you learned while watching the world as a child as they did not, when you were more analytical than most college students at the age of six, they’ll laugh and think you are a fool for trying to convince them you, as young as you are, know the world.

They will call you a racist, because you have been immersed in so many different cultures and learned that if there is one consistency in the world when it comes to racism, it’s that the people who care the least about it are the most jovial in regards to multicultural predicaments. They will not see your joke about how rude the french are, or how the main dietary supplement for protein in Asia is cat, as funny. They will tell you that you are wrong, that it is rude, and that people deserve to be respected and treated with tolerance. But you’ll know better. You’ll know that you say the things you say because the culture you are discussing isn’t foreign, isn’t distant, like it is to them. To you it is part of who you are, and though you don’t share the physical characteristics of that culture, you truly feel as if you are one of them, at least in part, a part so strong that you know that if they would just open up and stop thinking of others as outsiders, they too might see it the way you see it.

They will call you unpredictable, because no matter how hard they try, not matter how good they are at reading into the thoughts and predictions of others, they will not be able to see what is going on inside your head. They will think they do, because you will do what you always do, and do it oh so well, and you’ll blend. They’ll think they have you pegged, have you figured out, have you all sorted when all of a sudden you’ll throw out a flair of that culture you hold so true to your heart but keep hidden away for the right time. And they’ll immediately be lost again, believing everything they had figured out was wrong. And their trust in you will falter, just a little, and you’ll see it in their eyes whenever you look at them. Because unlike them, you didn’t learn to read people through the culture of one, but the cultures of many. You learned the natural reactions of humanity, the unbiased and fundamentally shared reactions that every person regardless of culture exhibits. You learned to read Base Human.

They will call you hostile. Because you, unlike so many, are not content with ignoring the things that matter. You, unlike them, want to know a person to their core, to ask them questions about religion and politics and global beliefs, to ask the questions that almost everyone else fears because of the emotions they evoke. But you, you know that the only way to achieve total acceptance and understanding, to truly love someone for who they are, is to have challenged everything they hold important. Only then, when you have forced them to stand upon the edge of the abyss and stare into the face of a something completely different to everything they have ever known, will they show one of two faces: Will they shut down and reject in an effort to defend themselves, or will they stand tall, concede the differences of your beliefs, and want to be around you because of it.

They will call you a Third Culture Kid. And then, they will finally understand who you are. And the relationship you had for days, weeks, months, and years, the things they called you, will all fade away. Because now, they will know who you are. They will understand without experiencing, to believe without seeing. They will know that the world you saw, the culture you created, is as pure and true as any other.

And they will call you their friend.

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

You Define Tolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

From Expat TCK to Domestic TCK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener