So you’ve just discovered you’re a Third Culture Kid

The following is an article I contributed to my.tckid.com on 14 December 2009. Here it is, republished for your enjoyment and to allow more people to read (and hopefully appreciate it).

For the longest time, I was shunned by other people, whose (mis-)judgment of me destroyed any confidence, self-respect, and self-love that I had. From being accused of lying about where I’m from (the mind-killer question), being weird, or stupid for not doing things “normal” people do within their society and community’s value system, I was a pariah, I was ostracized, I was alienated, but worst of all, I felt there was something terribly wrong with me, and I was all alone. What could I do to be “normal” like everyone else so that I could feel some love or acceptance and belonging? If I did “normal things normal people did” then I wouldn’t be different and I could make good friends who would understand me and be happier.

After changing my behavior, I still couldn’t fit in. So I tried to do this with a different group of people who didn’t know me before I made these changes. Still, I was shunned because they thought I was trying too hard. Repeat this a few times, and eventually, being myself or trying to be what they wanted didn’t get me what I wanted.

My next phase was to assume that there was nothing wrong with me, everyone else was just rotten except for a few people like me. I grew up in the Third World, and I knew what it was like to see people dying on the streets, terrorists, bombings, and extreme poverty. They probably didn’t even see that on TV because they are all too shallow and uneducated, unworldly, and therefore, undeserving of my attention. I am better than all of them, and I don’t need to associate myself with lesser people, I’ll find a small group of people who are like me and know what the world is really like.

I never met like-minded people with this approach. There may have been others who had similar upbringings traveling the world, but we didn’t connect because something kept us apart no matter how much we shared in common. Then I realized the problem wasn’t other people, and the problem wasn’t me: it was the questions I was asking and the attitude I was carrying.

Long before I learned the term that best describes me, my upbringing, my social group, and attitude, I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. The end result was that I tried to please other people to accept me and I ended up being even more unhappy because I felt a different isolation since I wasn’t myself. The next approach of blaming other people instead of myself was that I couldn’t foster quality relationships, and I alienated more people than before, furthering the negative image of myself. When I later realized that it was the questions and attitude, I saw the proverbial light and finally understood.

What’s wrong with me? Nothing! Why do other people not like me or understand me? Because they don’t understand, and if they don’t understand something, usually they don’t have a good reason to like it! What can I do to make them like me? Nothing, because if I have to do something to make someone like me, that’s not being true to myself. “Don’t sell yourself, only prostitutes sell themselves, just be yourself,” as my old professor once said.

So am I better than everyone else? Nope. I’m different, not better. Should I be with a good crowd of people who understand me? Well, it’s a two-way street. I didn’t understand why they found me so strange, and I always jumped to the conclusion that something was definitely wrong with me–or them. Actually, the key there is to try to understand what makes them think that way, which involves compassion and empathy–imagining myself in their position as part of a community and society with a defined identity as American or Asian-American, then they meet some guy who is an American citizen who grew up in several different countries but still doesn’t say he’s American when he clearly has a passport, so that’s where he’s from. If I try to understand what they’re thinking even if I know it’s very limited compared to what I know, I then know that it’s difficult for them to fathom my situation.

As I realized it’s difficult to meet others or make them understand, my expectations of others changed, as well as my interaction with them. No longer was I trying to change to please everyone, nor was I trying to use my nomadic life as a badge of merit to flash in people’s faces while demanding their respect for my self-elevated importance. Instead, I was asking them questions about themselves to understand them, and if a conversation went well, I’d be careful of how I shared myself because I was self-aware of how talking about riding elephants and surviving mall bombings could make them see me as a boastful and arrogant rich kid; in their eyes, only those with money can afford to do all those strange things and travel a lot. And I didn’t look down upon them either, I saw them as people who grew up under very different circumstances. From this interaction, I could connect to fellow Third Culture People and non-Third Culture People. Some I could connect with better than I could with others too. Then I began to be more comfortable with myself, because my self-awareness increased.

Struggling with identity and loneliness, it’s easy to default to blaming yourself, then blaming others, before realizing that it’s not about being weird or being better, but about how well you know yourself. And if you know yourself, you are aware of your actions, thoughts, and words; how you see yourself, how others see you, and most importantly, what you want. It doesn’t take growing up in a dozen countries by the time we hit adulthood to teach us that, but it definitely makes it easier.

Why then do I believe that it is our responsibility to understand before making others understand us? Because we’ve been through many things others haven’t, and it’s quite different growing up in countries some people never even heard of, let alone people who think they understand us and the countries we’ve lived in because they’ve learned it all in high school or saw it on television. Don’t be the colonialist who forces ideals down people’s throats and gets angry at them for not understanding them, then pulls a gun and shoots them for not understanding. Don’t be the tragic artist who drinks hemlock to die because nobody can understand him or her. Be the self-aware, educated, patient, open-minded individual who doesn’t elevate oneself or please everyone. Be the individual who listens and tries to understand first, which we had to learn growing up amongst different people and different cultures.

I believe that even before I knew I was a Third Culture Kid, that I could do great things with it because of what I knew. I believe when I finally learned I was a Third Culture Kid, I realized that I was different and that’s why I got so overwhelmed by other people and my identity. I believe after applying the lessons I learned which asked me to understand and be tolerant of the cultures and countries I was in, I stopped being a Third Culture Kid. Why? Because I became a young man who, in spite of different circumstances growing up, developed the right attitude to live amongst others; race, religion, age, gender, nationality, TCK or non-TCK–we are all human beings in the end.

There’s no need to share my life story unless someone actually wants to hear it. There’s also no need to get frustrated that very few can understand it. Not everyone will like me, but I can limit the number of enemies I make by being careful of how I talk about myself. I may not be boasting, but speaking about growing up overseas and how I fit the label of a TCK might sound boastful to others, and won’t win me any respect. It’s not about them being closed-minded, it’s about me having no self-awareness or patience and understanding for others.

So don’t try to be the Third Culture Kid who is proud of being a self-professed open-minded individual for your upbringing; strive for being the Third Culture Kid whose heart is open to understanding others and being patient instead. I guarantee you’ll feel better connected instead of limiting yourself to just other TCKs because you believe they are the only ones who understand you. After all: we don’t build the bridge of understanding by building a fortress of isolation when dealing with others and making friends.

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3 responses to “So you’ve just discovered you’re a Third Culture Kid

  1. A (not so surprisingly) well-written and (surprisingly) near-perfect summation of what was my own experience as well over the years. It is comforting to know others have gone through this process… Would love to hear more about your experiences. Kudos, will repost excerpts and link if that’s okay with you 🙂

  2. Of course Kitt, you are more than welcome to share this and do what you will with it. If this post helps and inspires people, then why not? If it allows you, me, and more people to connect and create meaningful friendships, go right ahead!

  3. I’m happy for your progress. Glad that you’re beginning to see the big picture.
    Because life can be beautiful and its challenges add spice. So savor it as best you can and enjoy!

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