Tag Archives: World Travel

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
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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

From Expat TCK to Domestic TCK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________

James R. Mitchener

Post by: James R. Mitchener

I Imagine

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

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

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

But that’s not me.

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

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

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

___________

JM-003-72-condensed

Post by: James R. Mitchener