A TCK Life world map that can be customized for any of your travels. Interested in seeing one with your name on it? Let me know, and we’ll see if it’s worth production. Currently designed to be produced on an 18″x24″ canvas.
A TCK Life world map that can be customized for any of your travels. Interested in seeing one with your name on it? Let me know, and we’ll see if it’s worth production. Currently designed to be produced on an 18″x24″ canvas.
They 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.
One 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.
In 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.”
I get this question a lot more than you would think. I say all the time that being part of the Third Culture isn’t so much the experiences you had, but the way you adapted to each experience at the time you had it. We aren’t TCKs because of where we have been. We’re TCKs because of the way we absorbed the cultures of the places we have grown. Even now that I have left Hong Kong, I still relate to it closer than any other place I’ve lived. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back, an idea that can easily make me sink into quite a severe depression, but I do know that I will carry the culture of the city and time that I lived there for the rest of my life.
Of course, that would make sense to a Self Aware Third Culture Kid. While I have been a TCK since I turned 4, I didn’t know it until I was 15 or 16 years old. And even then, I didn’t understand it until I was 17 or 18. Why? Because I have known no other life. Where other people can say they remember growing up in one country, in one town, with the same friends, I can’t even remember the layout of my house in our seventh country. That’s just my life, and it’s all I’ve ever really known. To me, that’s just normal.
The best way to understand the parallel and lack of realization would be to imagine that you and I saw two different versions of the color Blue. When describing it to me, you’d say “the sky is blue” and “the ocean is blue” and I’d agree, but what I see and what you see aren’t the same thing, and while we understand the connection, I am mentally incapable of knowing your perception of the color blue, just as you are mine. What appears to be blue to me may in fact be a green to you. But it doesn’t matter, because we can see the connection, we just can’t understand the mental process beneath it.
That’s what it’s like when an FCK tries to explain their home to me, or tell me what it was like having the same friends, or that they never want to leave because this is where they belong. I can see the parallel, I can draw the connection, and I can pretend to understand. But in the end, their home is a blue that I’ll never be a be able to see.
And while Self-Aware-TCKs understand this mental process perfectly, my readers who are just uncovering their TCK status might not fully realize the power behind this truth. So, I am going to break my rule of never creating lists, and I’m going to give you my top 5 silent bullets that I ask anyone (always without actually asking, but instead uncovering the answers through careful conversation and evasive questioning) who asks me if they are a TCK during a conversation with me.
1. When I ask you what home is, your eyes dart top right in consideration or bottom right in internal dialogue.
This is a nice little trick because Self-Aware-TCKs will answer with their stock answer like mine: “I was born in England, raised around the world, and I currently live in Raleigh where I moved to from Texas.” This informs them I am not from any of those places, they are just places, but it also ties in multiple locations they can hopefully relate to while combining an air of mystery. An FCK would just say the city/town/country that is their home. An expat would say “I am from England but I live in Raleigh,” always bringing their home into the equation of where they’re from.
But an unaware TCK will wonder. They’ve been asking themselves this same question for years, and in the end, they still aren’t really sure. So they’ll dart their eyes into the top right corner of their socket, triggering the visual memory portion of their brain, and fire through a list of locations they grew up and try to figure out the best answer based on all those memories. Or, they’ll be at a stage where they’ve been asking themselves that question for so long, mulling it over and over in the silence of their mind whenever they are alone, that they will drop their eyes to the bottom right portion of their socket and listen to the internal dialogue of a sequence of questions regarding where they are from, a question they still can’t quite answer.
2. When I ask you about a politically volatile situation, your impulse is to relate to the minority, not the majority, regardless of your connection to either party.
There’s an air of globalized protection from TCKs when it comes to minority parties. We have spent our entire lives being the minority, even if we aren’t consciously aware of the situation yet. In a way, we are even minorities in the group of TCKs, because no two TCKs are alike. So naturally, we relate better with groups that have fewer members because we ourselves have always been the group with the fewest members. We default into joining sides with the party that needs us, in adopting the cultural stand of the group that is the weakest, because in a way we understand just how difficult it is living a life where you’re always just a little bit off from the rest of the group. No matter how good we get at fitting in, we are always going to be outside of the circle because we will never fully be a part of that particular culture.
Of course, there’s an exception to this rule that helps guarantee the success of the TCK response. From my experiences meeting TCKs, and I am not saying there isn’t an exception here, but as far as my conversations have extended I have never seen a TCK take the side of an oppressor, even if the oppressor is the minority party. We value human development above all else. Why? Because it’s in human development that we find who we are. We are cultural leaches, sucking out the good of every culture we come across. When a group tries to expel a culture we could absorb, it’s a personal assault on a part of who we are or who we could possibly be.
3. When describing your Passport country, you don’t say “home,” you say “[country name].”
This is one of the first things I started doing before I even realized I was a TCK. My passport country where all my family lived was never home. My mother would say “We’re going to fly home next month!” to my brother and me, and from then on I would say “[X] days until we go to England!” To my mother, it was always home. To my brother and me, it was just the country everyone we were related to lived in, with exception to our Australian family members.
To a TCK, your passport country is just another location in the list of locations you’ve been. So if we’re talking, and you have told me you were born in England, but you keep calling it England after that, I have a pretty good idea that you’re trying to find your identity in the TCK crowd if you haven’t already.
4. When you’re telling me stories of your life, they involve elements that an FCK would think “there’s no way that happened.”
“I was only four, but I loved riding the top of the double decker buses as they darted around Hong Kong. The drivers were on a schedule, and the system was incredibly efficient, and if you sat at the front on the top floor it felt like you were flying because the glass extended all the way to the floor. We would hold onto the bar and press our faces on the glass and watch as the bus took turns on the edge of the cliffs several hundred feet up so sharply that the bus literally lifted off the ground and made the turn on two wheels!”
I’ve told that story to FCKs so many times, and they never believe me. Of course, ask anyone that lived in Hong Kong in 1992 and they’ll tell you the same thing. How all of us that lived there didn’t plummet to our deaths as we tumbled down a cliff into a rocky and watery grave, I’ll never know. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. And the best part? That’s one of the more believable stories of my youth. If you tell me a story about a far away land and the FCKs life an eyebrow in disbelief, there’s a strong chance your childhood was the TCK development period. The world of a TCK is just full of disbelief in general. Even now I wonder sometimes if what I remember is even remotely possible. Then I browse the pictures of my youth and am reminded that it all really did happen.
5. I tell you I’m a Third Culture Kid, that I am a global nomad and don’t have a home, and that I will always be moving because staying put is the worst punishment anyone could ever give me, and your face lights up while all the others around me look at me like I just shot their mothers.
And the final trick. I explain who I am and what I have seen. And when I do, the FCKs around me look at me with shock, curiosity-masked-confusion, or inquisition, but there’s that one person in the group who’s eyes light up as if for the first time in their lives, someone said something that actually makes sense. Then the questions fire, and the TCK will say absolutely nothing but will listen to the FCKs firing off questions and me answering in my traditional global-nomad way, and all the while the TCK’s face will continue to glow brighter with understanding while the FCKs around them become more and more confused, uninterested, or distanced.
So if you read this question and all the others before it, and felt a connection to them as a point of truth or realization, there’s a good chance I would be thinking when I met you “looks like I have another TCK on my hands.”
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. This is just the most reliable sequence of events I’ve found in my life to uncover the unaware TCKs that surround me. And hopefully, in bringing that status from unaware TCK to Self Aware TCK, perhaps you’ll find the comfort I found in realizing that being the minority, in not fitting in, isn’t so bad after all. In the end, we have the whole world to draw from in defining who we are. And that’s a heck of an inspiring pool if you ask me.
As a Third Culture Kid, flight is a natural part of my life. I am inherently conditioned to love it, mainly because it’s the birthplace of how I became a TCK. Flight has opened up the ability for people to shuttle all over the world, and it has made TCKs so culturally diverse because we can actually travel to hundreds of places a year. The time that was once the burden of international travel is now almost nonexistent. I can be anywhere in the world in less than a day. So when I say that I love to fly, I need you to understand my full meaning. Flying isn’t just a love. It is part of who I am. It is the start of everything, and the end of everything. And this natural love means that to a TCK, it isn’t the same as it would be to an FCK.
I actually like economy, the only time my fear of tight spaces is nonexistent. I sit in the aisle, letting me stick out my legs or get up and down without bothering the person next to me. I will read an entire book without stopping, because for those X amount of hours there is no internet, no one calling or texting, and not enough space for me to pull out my computer and really get into things. I am disconnected from the world, and I love it, because as I soar on by at incredible speeds, I know that the entire landscape of everything is changing beneath me away from my eyes. But the most interesting part of flight for me is that, for as long as I can remember, I have never sat in a window. I have not looked out of the plane once for as long as my memory allows. I step on in one place, looking through the crack in taxi-bay before I step into the plane, and then I see nothing until I step out of the terminal in an entirely new city, state, country, continent.
But yesterday, when I boarded the Embraer bound for RDU from IAH, I realized that my seat, 4A, was both a window and an aisle. I have been making international trips for so long that I had forgotten planes as small as this existed. And here I was in this tiny three-seats-to-a-row plane, my legs in the aisle and my head staring out the window. And for the first time in my conscious memory, I got to watch the world as I flew through the night back to Raleigh, and even as a TCK that has seen it all a hundred times, so many times that he gave up looking, what I saw was more than I could have ever imagined.
As I sat there, I remember thinking to myself “I wish I were a poet, because then I would have the mastery of words to explain what I see.” But I am not a poet. I am a narrative writer, and I describe things through the elongated use of diction where words build sentences, sentences build paragraphs, paragraphs build chapters, and chapters build books.
As the engines roared and I stared out the window of a plane that was closer to the ground than the window of a bus is to the road, I watched as the lines in the pavement began to speed up. I watched, waiting to see how long it would take before the crevices in the runway moved by so quickly that they looked flat beneath me, the optical illusion of speed ripping my ability to distinguish depth on the surface of the Earth. And when I could see them no more, the nose tilted into the air, and I felt the familiar pull of the plane as it grabbed hold of the lift required to launch it into the sky.
But this time, I watched the world beneath me. I saw us fly up, faster than I had ever realized, the world shrinking beneath me as walking people vanished from view and cars looked so small that all I could see in the darkness were the headlights that moved along the road at what appeared to be a snail’s pace. And then we were above the subdivisions of Houston. In the darkness, I could see the Christmas lights outlining the roofs of everything still decorated beneath me. And as we banked, I saw the doors of houses illuminated by porch lights, one bright red and so small in the distance of the ground.
I watched as hundreds and hundreds of houses, streets, buildings, and cities in the distance passed me by. I watched the curvature of the earth grow as we climbed, my ability to see into the distance stretching further and further as we went higher and higher, the light of the clear sky painting everything with a luminous glow. I saw the expanse of our species, spread across the land with so much darkness between us until there appeared an eruption of light from a cluster of houses where people had flocked together in the middle of nowhere, just so they didn’t have to live alone.
Then the clouds came. Like an ocean beneath me, we crossed into the overcast and all the lights were hidden. Every cloud was painted with the same glow of the moon, but as I looked out the window and the light caught the clusters of water hovering in the sky, it bent and curved and refracted to make the clouds beneath me wave like the flowing motion of an ocean. I watched as shadows turned to light, as wind blew the clouds up and over, as the light bent with each individual droplet shifting its rays. And for an hour I stared, watching the clouds dance to an audience of just me.
When my curiosity took hold, I cast my eyes up to the sky. In the darkness of my cabin, not a single aisle light or reading lamp switched on, I could see the stars above me. And with the clouds masking the light of a glowing city, the stars had multiplied to a number so spectacular that I was immediately reminded of a week I spent in the Australian Outback staring up at the night sky and marveling at how many stars I could actually see without aid of a telescope. It was as if the entire sky was white, with dots of black where light was missing, all shining together to help make the clouds dance.
After an hour of childish hypnotism, I saw that the clouds were coming to an end. Like the ocean hitting a beach, they ended in a perfectly cut straight line, from overcast to clear skies without any remnants or stragglers in-between; it was simply taking nothing to everything in the blink of an eye, from me to the horizon. As we approached the edge of the ocean of clouds, the familiar rattle of turbulence kicked in, letting me know that I was finally passing from one temperature and into another. And as though it were timed with the apparition of the world beneath me, as soon as we crossed the edge of cloud ocean, the rattling of the plane ceased and we were sailing smoothly and unhindered once again.
In the distance, I could see mountains; a collection of lights that rose into the sky as houses, buildings, and roads climbed the inclines towards to the sky. Beneath me was the approaching city of Raleigh, and above me the stars, now faded by the light of the ground, but still twinkling behind the mask of hazed artificial light.
And we began to descend. Slowly, the world grew larger, the earth closer, the sky further away. The landing gear clicked, and the runway appeared. The wheels made contact, and once again, I was back on the ground. Except this time, I had watched it all. I had seen every moment from start to finish, captivated like a child who has never been in a plane before in his life, despite the countless number of times I had been there.
Like I said before: I wish I were a poet so that I could show you how beautiful the world was through the eyes of that TCK that felt for the first time in conscious memory that he had never flown before. But alas, I am not. I am just a Third Culture Kid who is proud to say that even today, it’s not just the cultures of those around me that surprise and inspire me. It’s the beauty of the world beneath us, and the knowledge that while the world was not built for us, we were most certainly built for the world.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them that I’m English. They look at me curiously, listening to the American accent with a hint of something foreign in its sounding, a distant memory of a corner of the world that doesn’t jump off the page of my life, but hides itself behind the dominant sound of a confused American who is neither Southern nor Northern, Eastern nor Western.
They ask me where my accent is, and I tell them I bury it well. I tell them it’s there, beneath the mask of my partial-American upbringing. I tell them that I can switch to it easily, if I want, but for the sake of understanding, I use the American one because it’s easier given the company I am around. And when I speak those words, I intentionally increase the English inflection on my letter A’s and my T’s. They hear the change, and begin to smile and say “Oh I hear it now,” believing that now that I’ve told them, they’re picking up on something that was always there, and they immediately believe that I am not from this country despite the way I sounded when we met.
They ask me to speak with my English accent, and I transition over without issue or hindrance. I flip the switch in my brain, and immediately I become something different. My tongue moves quicker, the words exiting my lips more mumbled. Letters become lettas, colors become colas, isn’t it becomes ennit. I grab a pen and paper and write them a note, spelling words as I always do, with the language of my original passport country, adding “u” in words like colour and favourite, switching “er” to “re” in words like centre and theatre, or bringing the validity of “-ise” back to reality in words like centralise and realise.
They ask me why I moved here, and I tell them my father’s job brought us here, that I went to university in San Antonio and then I took jobs in America and didn’t want to go back to England because of the taxes. I then tell them that I will leave one day, but I simply haven’t left yet. Yet is the operative word. They look at me curiously. Some are wondering why I would ever want to leave wherever I am, why I don’t love the area they love so much. Others are thinking about how much they, too, would like to up and go. But they don’t understand what moving entails. Many of them have never left the state, yet alone country. But they want to know. Or think they want to know.
They ask me if America and England were the only places. I respond no, and I string the list together of places I have lived. England, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, America. Then I throw in, almost as an afterthought, that there were other places I lived when I was young, but I don’t remember them so they don’t count. They say how cool that is, how amazing it must have been to see all those places, experience all those things. They say I must have felt so lucky. And I just respond that yes, now that I am old, I know that I was one of the luckiest people I know, that I wouldn’t trade the experiences of my youth for anything in the world; Now that I am old.
They ask me where my favourite place to live was. If at the moment of asking I am feeling isolated from the world, I will tell them Hong Kong because it’s the most exciting culture I’ve experienced. If when they ask, I am feeling sad that I hardly know my family, I will tell them England because it’s where everyone I’m related to lives. If I’m missing beautiful country, clean air, and bright skies, I tell them France. If I’m wishing I’d seen more, done more, been more places, I’ll tell them Singapore because I remember so little about it. I do not tell them why. They do not know the secrets behind my reasons. I just name the place, and fall silent. But in my head, I am thinking all of those things. But the place I never say, ever, is that it’s America.
They ask me first why I love that country, and I feed them some creative lie about food or lifestyle. But the truth is always the reason of the moment. The truth is how I’m feeling in that specific pocket of time, a secret I keep for me and me alone. And when the reality of where I’ve lived sets in, of all the places I’ve seen…
They ask me why my favourite place isn’t America. And I tell them because it’s a country of people who believe themselves to be a melting pot of cultures and a land of equal rights, but everyone seems to hate the person next to them who doesn’t believe exactly what they do, or wants to live their life slightly different to the lifestyle of their neighbor. I tell them that it’s not a melting pot, that it’s a culturally resistant country, one that believes that patriotism and Americanism (whatever that may be) is the only way to live, and that everyone else should conform or “go home,” wherever that is.
And they get mad, and ask me nothing. They then attack, respond, and retaliate. They defend or unite. They consider me an outsider and think that my opinions are invalid because I am not one of them. They brush me off, or become my friend, but no matter the outcome, I am always the “English guy,” when in truth I am no more English than I am Chinese or American or French. But to them, I am the foreigner, the man that doesn’t quite fit into the comfort of their Americanism.
To them I am different. To me, I am what I have always been; I am a Third Culture Kid, a TCK, a Global Nomad, and an Expatriate everywhere.
When I step off the plane in England and walk into the local for my first pint, my mates come up and give me a hug for all the time they haven’t seen me. They introduce me to the new people I have not met, and say, “This is James, he’s not from around here!” and they shake my hand and buy me a pint.
They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them that I’m American.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
Probably one of the most unique and challenging elements of detailing what it means to be a Third Culture Kid is confronting the differences between the TCK community and the Expatriate community. To non-TCKs, or I suppose to anyone who doesn’t understand the internal workings of a TCK mind, the two are extremely similar. A TCK has lived all over the world, an Expat is living all over the world; a TCK doesn’t see their family often, an Expat doesn’t see their family often; a TCK is a frequent flier, an Expat is a frequent flier; a TCK knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers, an Expat knows the world in boxes and moving vans and shipping containers; and a TCK shows elements of cultures from around the world, while an expat shows elements from cultures around the world also.
To an outside observer, the two may very well be the same. But to us, the TCK community, we are entirely different from our expatriate counterparts. We are all built out of a sequence of events that has led to the development of our personality. Every structure capable of weathering time, especially the structures of our lives, must start with a strong foundation. This foundation is the blueprint for everything that’s built upon it, and each brick that’s laid on top of the next will either hold strong if it matches the plan, or will crumble if it doesn’t meet the requirements that our foundation has produced.
Like many things I write about in regards to Third Culture Kid Life, I make a conscious effort to find a neutral and core principle that encompasses the entire doctrine, then build up my explanation around that single idea. I do this for the sake of the parents of TCKs that read these pieces, not for the TCKs like myself that already understand on a fundamental level what it means to feel the way we feel. This collection was created to help explain who we are to those who simply cannot understand. So, when you’re taking on the impossible, I find that the items that are relateable to both parties are the only bridge to partial understanding that we can create.
When it comes to understanding why we as TCKs are not in any way the same as the traditional expat, even when we are living an expatriate life, I find it all boils down to one simple word with a sea of meaning; That word is “foreign.” To an expat, all travel is foreign. They are foreigners in a foreign land, outsiders, people living in a country that isn’t their own. Some of them love the place they’re in. Some hate it. But no matter how they feel about it, that country is never their home. They will always be intrinsically connected to the culture of their youth. They will have customs and lifestyle ideas that cannot be changed at all, and even more that cannot be changed without a great deal of effort.
It’s because of this interwoven knowledge that they are foreigners that will either make or break the experience for every single expat. They will either love viewing the world through their first culture lens, saying “Look at how different this is!” or “Back in [Home Country], you’d never be able to find one of these!” Or they’ll hate the entire experience for exactly the same reasons. But in the end, that lens through which they are analyzing their experience, the way that they are viewing the world, is built out of a single culture and a single line of experiences that was developed in their youth. They will always be First Culture Kids living in a world full of other First Culture Kids that are just completely different to themselves.
Of course, this does not mean an expat will not adjust. I have met many expats that have done their absolute best to assimilate into the life of a different country and culture. Plenty have even succeeded, at least on the surface level. But the truth is that during the developmental years of their lives, the years that built the foundation for the person they were going to become, their personality was constructed from the brick and mortar of a single culture.
This is where the TCK split comes into play. The stability that the Third Culture lacks, the one that has been a rampant part of almost every single article of the TCK Life collection, means that we view an expatriate life in a completely unique way. When we move to a foreign country, it isn’t anymore foreign to us than the last place we lived or the place our parents call home. The most common similarity with every TCK is that home to us is nothing more than a word other people use to describe the place they grew up in.
We are the children of the world, the global nomads that pick up and go not because we are wanting to experience something drastically different to what we already know, but because we are trying to add to the foundation of our development. The baseline of our lives, one that for FCKs was built out of stability and consistency, was built for TCKs out of country after country that had nothing to do with the place from which our parents originated.
For me, moving isn’t a burden. There is no fear in packing my things and starting my life somewhere I know absolutely nothing about. There is no discomfort in having no friends for the first few months of my stay in a different place. There is no paranoia in knowing I will not be able to understand, to interact, to survive with ease and simplicity. In truth, all those things inspire me. They motivate my internal cultural mixing pot and drive me to absorb everything around me. They make me adapt, to change, to understand everything I possibly can. Where an FCK will attempt to understand a foreign country by drawing parallels to the culture of their youth, a TCK will view a foreign land without bias or commitment from a land called “home.” I walk into any situation believing I will absorb and change in any way that inspires me.
I am English by birth, American/UK by passport, and Global by culture. None of these things define me. All of them define me. Really, the difference between an expat and a TCK is simple. To an expat, a new country is always a foreign place full of differences, good or bad. To a TCK, a new country is a place that makes the entire world a little less foreign, and a little more part of who we are.
Post by: James R. Mitchener
Thanks to the power of the Google Omniverse, this blog is going to be a little different to normal. I stumbled across the Google Search Video creation tool, and decided to put a little Search compilation together. It was quick-and-easy, but the point I was trying to make was to capture the elements of twenty-first century technology and the Adult TCK transitioning experience.
But that’s enough about that. Here’s the video:
Post by: James R. Mitchener
When I was in university, I was asked to do a visual exercise that was to detail the limits of our memory and the power of our imagination. I was asked to think about my home, and imagine a car. I was told to climb into that car, and start driving away from my house. Where I went wasn’t important, but I had to drive away from my home, and I had to continue driving in that same direction away from my house for as long as I could. We were given several minutes to think about the scenario, and when the timer ran out, we were told to write down our imaginary drive so that we could share it with the class and see how far we had each made it along the road of memory’s imagination.
Everyone in my class in Texas made it far. But they all made it right from the central point of a home that existed within that state, within that city. For me, the question itself had fundamental and confusing issues. Did they want to know about my drive from my birth country of England? Did they want to know about my current house in Houston? Or did they want to know about the other corners of the world that I considered equally as influential in my development as any other I’d resided in? Without knowing the answer, I chose them all.
Before I begin my drive, my brother and I run from the door and head straight for the tree that seems to always be in blossom, tiny white buds of fur that resemble caterpillars creeping from the branches until they grow too heavy and fall to the grass beneath our feet. Together, my brother and I run three circles around the tree before returning to the door, hopping across the concrete-rainbows that separate the grass of the garden from the walkway to the car. Once in the car, we reverse from the drive and pass the complex where we go to see the dentist. We drive along winding roads and past fields and tress until we arrive at the all-to-small road that leads to my grandparent’s house. Down lanes barely big enough for a single car, we soar past oncoming vehicles that run off into the shoulder to avoid collision, just as we have done. Just after we pass the oldest dove house in the world, we pull onto a road that winds past several pubs, including The Pineapple. Entering Dorney Common, we slow to a stop to allow the cows to cross the road. When they have made their rounds, we continue on into Eton Wick, Windsor Castle in sight not more than a thirty minute walk away, and turn down Queens Road to my Granny and Grandad’s home.
As a family, we step into the elevator and my brother and I fight over who gets to push the button to go to the ground floor. I win, being older, unless my mother explicitly tells me not to push the button, and even then I may slip an arrogant and defiant jab at the ground floor to beat my brother. In mere seconds, we arrive at the bottom of the building and walk past the gateway to the garage and start our trek down the hill, past a pile of rocks that we had salvaged for stones to allow our terrapins to sunbathe in the warm, incandescent lighting of our apartment. When we reach the bottom of the hill, we step into a red taxi and continue our trip towards downtown, soaring along roads far too narrow for any car to handle within the bounds of normal human safety. When we arrive downtown, we walk to the bank and pass by two enormous stone statues of Fu Dogs, where my brother and I climb upon their bodies and try to scale them to their heads. After the bank, we move through crowded city streets and make our way to the peak tram, passing through a park with a mushroom waterfall that, through age, no longer possesses a safe and dry approach to its center. Together, my brother and I attempt to dodge through the scattered droplets that fall upon us, then run back to our mother. Climbing onto the tram, we rush to seats that are positioned flat with the floor of the tram, but are slanted backwards to almost 45 degree angles thanks to the extreme incline of the tracks.
My brother and I climb into the captain’s chairs of an enormous van parked in the driveway of our suburban house. Our father finishes loading the cooler between our two seats, then he and my mother get into the front and pull out of the drive. We head towards the freeway, driving up into the air on an elevated crossing before veering right and entering the on-ramp of a three lane freeway heading towards San Antonio. We drive for what feels like days, but in reality is only a few hours. The road is straight, flat, and plain. The heat of the road makes the hills look like water is resting on the concrete a few hundred feet ahead. As we get closer, the mirage vanishes and we are left with waves of heat that pass us by. When we arrive in San Antonio, we drop off the car and start walking to the River Walk, a man-made structure of nearly stagnant water that brings tourists to San Antonio without anything more to offer them. I think nothing of the place, and continue on in childhood ignorance.
I sit on a bus passing French buildings and tiny Renault Twingos. The trees rush by my window, their branches occasionally scratching along the side as we dart down the suburban streets outside of Paris and head towards our school. When we arrive, the gate slides open, razor-wire lining the perimeter, and we drive into the compound that is the American School of Paris. Large aircraft hangers that are now gyms are scattered across the campus, long buildings that were formerly offices but now house classrooms for students sit peacefully in the center. There’s history here, the history of an American military base that now is home to the education of TCKs in a land they don’t belong.
I ride a bus alone, darting down faintly-memorable roads of a city I once lived in years before, one that rests in my mind like a drunken dream, a chaotic haze of flashes in time. I feel the weight of the bus tip as we pull around tight cliff corners, and I look out over the water that surrounds the tiny island I live upon. Around me is nothing but trees, rock walls, and water, but then out of nowhere a skyline appears, and I am driving down Queens Road and pulling up to the stop that connects Queens Road to the fish market. I walk from here, the smell of rotting flesh and neglected garbage wafting into my nostrils, a smell I have become so familiar with over the years that I smile. I look up into the sky as I walk and see the signs that will soon be illuminated in the night, but currently hang lifeless and old, a mess of clutter blocking out the sky that slices between the buildings of compact streets.
I am driving now, back in Texas and sitting behind the wheel. I’m heading back from college in San Antonio to visit my parents, taking the same straight and boring road I have driven dozens of times before. I listen to music loudly as I ignore the lifeless and uninspired flatness that surrounds me. I am sad, but I am hiding it well. I miss the world, I miss the culture, and I miss the life of my youth. I want to be on a plane, I want to travel the planet again, to see the things I never saw before in the places I never had the time to visit. I want to be free again, free to get up and go and do whatever I can wherever I land. But I am stuck, stuck in school and knowing that when I have finished my education, I will be stuck in a job, a prisoner to a life and a world that doesn’t understand a man like me.
I am all grown up now. I am in my job and I have finished my school. And I have moved, but I have moved from a city that didn’t understand me to one that understands me even less. As I sit in my car and drive the three miles to work and back every day, I think back to a question my professor once asked me in college: “How far can you drive before you can’t remember what the next part of the road looks like? Tell me about the drive you remember.”
I smile to myself, because I know now that she missed the entire point of the question she was asking. So I ask the question she should have asked, but one she never would have understood, to you, the only group of people who can grasp the depth of what I am asking:
How far do you have to drive away from your memories until you are free to discover the world you do not know? Tell me about the unknown.
Post by: James R. Mitchener