The Invisible Line

Every place is foreign, until it becomes home. That home may change every so many years, but the way each place becomes home follows the same pattern. When you first arrive somewhere new, everything is foreign, strange and intimidating. The house has strange sounds you still aren’t used to; the streets look so daunting; a new school seems like a labyrinth. You don’t know how to find you way around the buildings, let alone the neighborhood, and emotions are raw. Every obstacle seems insurmountable and every struggle seems impossible to overcome.

Then, little by little, you start to find your way around. You understand how to find the room you’re looking for in school; you start to recognize the streets; the once strange sounds in the house are now familiar and even comforting. Suddenly, as if by magic, this foreign land became home. You never actually realize when you cross that invisible line, but one day it dawns on you that it’s felt like home for a while. That day when you’re the one helping a new student find their way around. The day when someone asks you for directions and you have no trouble telling them how to get there. The day when someone working at the local coffee shop or ice-cream store recognizes you and remembers you as a regular customer. The day when the local kids all wave to you as they pass by on their bicycles…

It’s when those days come along that you realize how easily and quickly you forget the disorientation of those first weeks. You forget how lost you felt and how foreign everything looked. You forget how scared you were and how you wondered if you would ever be able to adapt or settle in here. You forget until you have to do it all over again. But, as hard as it is every time, you know you’ll make it.

You always have.

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Which Type Are You?

No, I’m not talking about blood types; I’m talking about TCK types. The reason it’s so difficult to explain what it is to be a TCK is that there is no single definition. There are no rules, there are hardly any guidelines. There is no determined number of countries you have to have lived in; there isn’t a required number of languages to speak; there’s no maximum or minimum limit to how many passports you should hold…I could go on.

So, how do you define a TCK, and how many types are there? Your guess is as good as mine.

Even in my family, we have different types of TCKs. Take me and my sister for example. By the time we had turned 18 and we were graduating from high school, we had lived in 6 and 7 countries each, respectively. We spoke 3 languages fluently at that time, could understand a 4th and had gone to 5 different schools in 5 different countries. We were old enough in most of the countries we lived in to have clear memories from our time there. We also know what it’s like to be the new kid at school – being in a new country, a new school, how lost and strange you feel those first days. That feeling made a huge impact on me, and whenever we had new kids at school I would always see if I could help them out, if they needed anything. I know all too well how it feels, how scary and lonely it can be starting someplace new. We’re definitely third culture kids, through and through.

My brother, on the other hand, who is about 10 years younger than me, had a very different path. By the time he was 6, he had already lived in 4 countries, but most likely only has memories from the last 2, if not just the last one. But after that 4th country, he didn’t move again. He is graduating from high school this year, and he’s the only one of us three siblings to have done ALL of his schooling in the same country, same school. He speaks 2 languages perfectly fluently, has working knowledge of a 3rd, and somewhat understands a 4th. My brother has no idea what it’s like to be the new kid. He’s always been the ‘old’ kid. He never had to learn new hallways, new classrooms, new buildings. He never had to find his way around totally alien territory, surrounded by
unfamiliar faces. Is he still a third culture kid? Or is part of being a third culture kid experiencing that feeling of total desorientation in a place that ultimately becomes home?

We immersed ourselves into the culture of every country we lived in; we embraced everything we could learn and take from it. And we certainly took away so much from every country. Traditions, decorations, food, celebrations, and something much less tangible, but all the more powerful – all those places became part of who we are today. Other TCKs I have met stay much more on the surface of the places they live. They often stay within groups and locations where they will find people from their native country, without mingling with the locals. They avoid local traditions, local stores, neighborhoods…they consider their time there as a transition before they head back home, wherever home may be. They are still third culture kids, are they not? Or does being a third culture kid mean truly experiencing every country you’ve lived in?

Who decides what a third culture kid is or what it means to be one? Can we define what makes a third culture kid?

So, what type are you?

1,2,3: The Three Cultures of a Third Culture Kid

For those of you who recall my second entry, I questioned the term “Third Culture Kid” and why it was coined as “third” culture. There are certain things we just know as TCKs and we all understand them without having to explain them. But what if we wanted to explain the term third culture kid? What if we wanted to explain what it meant to be a third culture kid, or why we’re called third culture kids? Well, it might be hard to have one exact answer for that, but I have an explanation here that might help. I came across this explanation of the three cultures of a third culture kid as I was reading other blogs on TCKs, and I was absolutely fascinated by the clear and concise manner in which it was presented. The author of the blog has kindly allowed me to repost her work on my blog; all credit goes to Libby Stephens (Certain sections have been abbreviated, for the entire text, please visit Libby’s blog at http://libbystephens.com/blog/third-culture-kids/31-the-3-qthird-culture-kidq-cultures).

Culture 1: The Legal Culture.
It is the passport culture, the citizenship country. It is that country that a person belongs to legally. Is it possible to have more than one ‘first culture’? Most definitely! In fact, the numbers of TCKs having more than one ‘first culture’ seems to be on the rise.

Culture 2: The Geographical Culture. 
This culture is a compilation of all the cultures and countries a TCK has lived in (not visited), whether it is 2, 4, 6 or more countries. It is this ‘second culture’ that is the main contributor of cultural behaviors adopted by the TCK such as appropriate greetings – you know, kissing on cheeks, bowing at the waist or shaking hands. The second culture also influences both verbal and nonverbal language and a myriad of other things…TCKs take the “elements” of the cultures lived in and make them an integral part of their life.

Culture 3: The Relational Culture. 
Of all three cultures in the definition, this is the one that is the most misunderstood, but it is also the one that most TCKs often hold as the most precious. This is the culture that explains why the Brazilian who has lived in Tanzania and Switzerland can connect with the Canadian who has lived in Singapore and New Zealand. The ‘third culture’ is not a how many countries issue, nor is it a which countries issue. The third culture is a unique and separate culture shared only by others who have also lived internationally and multi-culturally yet not necessarily in the same countries... It is not ‘culture one’ mixed with ‘culture two’ to make ‘culture three’. It is a unique and separate culture with their own way of communication, social interaction, values, etc. This culture has no legal standing, passport or rights. It has no geographic locus. There is no place to stick a pin on the map…

Again, this is not the definition of the Third Culture Kid, simply an explanation of the three TCK cultures.

The part marked in bold was highlighted by me, because I was struck by how clear that explanation was, considering it is a notion that is so difficult to put in words. We all understand this, we all feel this, as TCKs, but how many of us have been unable to explain it when asked? To someone who hasn’t lived as a TCK, this explanation shows them why there is a link between all TCKs, why there sometimes seems to be a hidden code that only we have access to. It doesn’t mean they will fully understand it – I still hold to what I said in my earlier entries that I believe it to be impossible (or nearly) for a non-TCK to really understand what it is to be a TCK – but at least this puts in words why us TCKs feel such a connection to each other.

It brought clarity to me on certain questions that had been in my mind for a while, probably ever since I heard the term TCK and realized I was one. I knew that one of the three cultures was that of my passport, but I was never able to explain the other two. With this breakdown of the 3 cultures, it was as if I suddenly found that word I’d been looking for, that was always on the tip of my tongue, but getting stuck there. It struck such a chord with me and it is for this reason that I was compelled to share it on my blog. Unless I am the only “ignorant” TCK out there, I am assuming (and hoping!) that others will find answers and clarity in this explanation as well. Please feel free to share your thoughts, comments, suggestions on this explanation or anything else really! It’s always great to hear what others think, and to share thoughts and experiences – with TCKs or non-TCKs. Looking forward to hopefully hearing from all of you out there…

Third culture kid, and still figuring it out, signing off.