South Africa : I flew before I walked. I had an Afrikaans accent before I had an American one. I drank Rooibos tea before Koolaid. I moved to Pretoria when I was still in nappies and three years later I asked my Dad after deplaning in Washington D.C. when we were going back home. I didn’t go back home until 25 years later and 20 additional houses had been considered home. The smells, the tastes, the sights, the sounds, and the touch surfaced a subconscious longing and an internal reconciliation for confronting a loss I didn’t know I needed to grieve and to heal from. From this experience, I understand the need to revisit past homes and my heart countries when time and finances and spaces allow for it so I can cultivate a sense of closure for them.
Home l0l : Having experienced multiple disruptions of places and belonging over time, I’m grateful for the consistent nest of safety, rest, and familiarity that is my parents’ place. Parents of TCK’s: don’t underestimate the need for these things even into your kids’ adulthoods. [i.e. Don’t sell the bell; it’s a transfer cue (tangible thing) intricately connected to place (and intangible things…like emotions)].
Hey, You Need Us : “In an ever-shrinking world, the TCK will play an expanding role. As more links are forged, and as communication among members of different cultures becomes more and more common, the skills of adaptation and understanding which are developed by TCKs become invaluable. As the population becomes more mobile, more and more individuals will experience challenges to their self/identity, the need for a concept of home and roots, and the need for strategies for simple adjustment. In order to be able to help these people, we must understand and nurture the TCKs. Having developed between cultures, TCKs are positioned to become the mediators between cultures. Though they may never feel fully a part of a culture, they can be the bridge through which monocultural people learn to appreciate other cultures. These individuals have the resources which are needed to facilitate understanding between cultures with distinct value systems, histories, and norms. With their ability to perceive similarities and differences that might escape the notice of someone not accustomed to looking for cultural cues, TCKs have the potential to bring these groups together to find common ground. We need the TCKs.” -Gary Weaver
This is why I always mention my TCK background in interviews. And why you should too.
Abroad : Where’s “abroad”? Is it everywhere but here? Is it the urge to be somewhere else? Is it implicitly conveying that elsewhere is better? Is it a commodity? Something that will change or transform your life? Hey- consider where you are! Don’t be disrespectful of your home; as if home is not transformative or good. Don’t mythologize “transformative” abroad experiences. Indeed, be aware of the danger / boundary you cross when using the word “transformative.” Don’t be burdened with illusions of “transformative”; it can be inflated rhetoric when referencing abroad experiences. Be present with your present. Otherwise you’ll miss the magic and gift of it.
Quotable & Relatable : “Look inside yourself, you are more than what you have become” • “The past can hurt, but, you can either run from it or, learn from it” • “Love will find a way” • “Never forget who you are” • “Love is never wrong and so it never dies” • “There’s a perfect world shining in your eyes” • “…Till we find our place on the path unwinding…”
The Lion King – quotable and relatable for any TCK. True Story: one of my TCK friends used the storyline in a job interview to convey her cultural context challenges and how she had to realize her upbringing shaped her to be a cultural navigator. (she got the job). I watched this film several times as a child and I still have the Simba stuffed animal on my shelf that I bartered for when I was 10 at a Korean street market. I sang the songs in school choirs (in Germany and in Japan). And two years ago, I saw the Broadway production in NYC (one of the best bday gifts ever btw). I have so many beautiful and strong memories from this story! And I was reminded of them when I captured this shot of one of the lions I interacted with at the Lion Reserve in South Africa.
I’m again trying to find my place on this path unwinding… [you know you’re an Adult Third Culture Kid when moment…]
Culturally Unique : I had a wise professor say, “You have to leave your culture to understand it.” I thought that meant I had to go to the other side of the world or to a remote village or to a country drastically different than my own to understand my culture. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that. (It certainly C A N mean that and it D O E S mean that for individuals who go abroad for the first time and return home to feel everything is different). But what it means to people who don’t go abroad is, for example, the intentional act of getting out of a comfort zone, or walking across the street to meet neighbors, or initiating a conversation with someone in another department at work. In doing these things, a new perspective is cultivated. A new understanding of ways of doing and being is discovered. I advocate that a starting point to understanding yourself and others is to leave your culture. You are a multicultural being operating in a multicultural community, in a multicultural country, in a multicultural world. Every single person is culturally unique. And it takes Y O U observing and interacting with the cultures around you- from your yoga class to your adjunct department to your cafe barista to appreciate the diversity in culture and to realize that you don’t have to go very far to have a heightened awareness of the cultures you move in and out and between. Let’s move together to understand the C U L T U R E S we live in so we can understand ourselves better.
Coffee, Communication, & Connection : One of my favorite standing traditions with my Mom is conversing with her over a good cup of coffee at a café. We kind of fell into this tradition when we lived in Tokyo when I was in my awkward early teen years. The transition I had experienced at that time in our move from Germany to Japan was one of the most challenging I can recall in my upbringing. I think it was a combination of the terrible insecurity that accompanies teenage identity development coupled with the difficulty I experienced in making friends in a quite snobby private school. On the weekends, mom and I would choose to go to one of the 4 Starbucks that was within a 1 mi/2.5km radius of our Roppongi townhouse. I remember always ordering a Tall Mocha. We would try to get seats near a window because we both loved people watching (we still do). As we watched and drank our coffees, Mom would gently probe about what was in my heart – the good, bad, ugly – and she listened deeply to each story. I can’t say that I remember a specific piece of advice she followed up with after each story. But that’s not the point of this reflection anyway. The reason I share this is because I want to encourage parents of TCKs to establish traditions with each of their kids, to demonstrate listening deeply, and to take responsibility for the mental and emotional wellbeing of their children. Expat children and parents experience transitions differently, so maintaining communication and demonstrating care are crucial steps in the process of creating understanding, establishing stability in the family unit, sustaining trust, and learning how best to support one another. It is also a way to demonstrate and encourage vulnerability. The coffee tradition with my mom into my adulthood has helped me to not feel abandoned when I have experienced a lot of abandonment of both people and places. It has been integral in maintaining attachment to feelings of gains – not to the feelings of losses in over 30 moves we experienced (together/separately) thereafter. It has contributed to my sense of what my priorities in life should be, and that includes making time to go to cafes with my friends!
TCK parents, I encourage you to take your child/ren aside one by one to get to know their emotional estate; what’s in their heart. Coming from a ATCK, know that this very practice my mom employed (at an especially vulnerable time in my life) shaped me into a more resilient, empathetic, and culturally aware person today. Never underestimate or apologize for your probing. Always make time to listen.
On Missing : It’s ok not to miss everyone every minute of the day. But it’s also ok to miss everyone every minute of the day. The important piece of this is acknowledging that space can trump place; meaning, you can be in the same space emotionally and mentally and supportively whilst not being physically in the same place. As a Millennial Adult Third Culture Kid, there are a couple metaphors I’ve discussed with others about this space/place concept. For example, consider a garden to represent your family, friends, community (and yourself too). Each of you represent a different species in the garden but you are a part of the same unique garden…in the same space but not necessarily in the same place. Perhaps your immediate family is the same species, and you are an extension of it. Rooted in similar, but uniquely different ways. Each one is growing at different speeds. Perhaps some are fractured in certain ways but not broken off or uprooted from the species. …..The metaphor can be endless….. And as the species learn to do better in surviving and thriving through element changes, experience, and help from the gardener, so do we as we continue to learn about how to cultivate communities of care for ourselves and for others in the growth, in the seasons, and in the changes. Life is not static in any way. And it’s ok to miss my family and upbringing and to not miss it at all. Because life is also about living in and through those contradictions and tensions and continuing forward. Continue to acknowledge each other and prune the entanglements that don’t let you thrive. We’re in this large garden together. 🌱
Having grown up in high-context cultures all across the globe, one of the greatest reverse culture shock experiences in reentry for me has been understanding US-America’s low-context communities, especially as it is played out in my own family dynamics. Recently, I have been confronted with my high-context way of being juxtaposed to my extended family’s low-context way of doing. This internal sub conscious negotiation surfaced to my consciousness when extended family was in town for step-Grandma Jayne’s funeral.
I was raised as a Third Culture Kid in high-context cultures. This means, for example, I developed a sense of “normal” to be: protecting family above all else, focusing on human connection through hospitality, and prioritizing intentional time with friends. I realized how different my values are to some of my extended family members’ when they did not help to care for Jayne or Grandpa the way I expected them to during her rapidly declining health. Mom, Dad, and I, operating from our high-context cultural mentality, used our time, money, and energy to support Jayne and Grandpa every way possible. We were deeply hurt when our extended family (especially Jayne’s) praised themselves in how they had done so too, viewing it through their low-context perspectives. Low-context lenses don’t consider loyalty or connection in the same way as high-context ones.
I was hurt today when I wasn’t invited out to eat lunch with some family members with Grandpa. It was obvious and obnoxious how they went out of their way NOT to invite me. This experience I had today is so diametrically opposed to my high-context ways of thinking and being. I have been hurt by these family members before in the way they operate transactionally in low-context ways so what they did to me today shouldn’t have surprised me.
It’s days like today that I wish I were abroad in one of my former high-context cultures; where my sense of belonging was robust in communities that weren’t always composed of blood family but were always composed of authentic family.
To Each Other : Would you agree that what we were taught in Kindergarten are some of T H E key foundational lessons of life? The lessons even came in easy sing-song-like rhyming couplets such as “sharing is caring!” But have you ever considered how some of those lessons could be ethno-centric or culturally-based? I was taught The Golden Rule in Kindergarten: “treat others as you would wish to be treated.” I thought this was a pretty straight-forward lesson. But in moving to several other countries in my upbringing (and in adulthood), I learned that The Platinum Rule is far better in intercultural interpersonal relationships: “treat others as they would like you to treat them.” This rule is ethno-relative, meaning it encourages you to consider the cultural context you’re in and to practice perspective taking. How would my friends here feel valued, appreciated, and heard? How can I show respect? What does respect look like here? What does K I N D N E S S look like here? It may be as simple as taking off your shoes before you enter your friend’s house. Or not being offended when you bring over a hostess gift, your friend doesn’t seem bothered to open it right away (because in some cultures, it’s more important to pay attention to the guest, not the gift). If you feel offended, you’re not practicing the Platinum Rule. Consider your cultural-context. Practicing realistic cultural empathy and building authentic relationships requires you to understand your cultural lenses and to shift your perspective to see how you can serve your friends better. Context is golden. But Culture is King. Be kind in the way the cultural-context operates. [And by the way, that does require you to take off your metaphorical shoes so you can walk a mile in theirs]