Being a Third Culture Kid is like visiting the distorting mirrors at a carnival. For those who haven’t been to one, these mirrors are built with different curves in them, so that the viewer sees out-of-shape versions of himself or herself reflected therein.
As each mirror reflects back a different distorted version of the viewer, so each culture that a TCK participates in reflects back a different distorted view of the TCK.
Lois Bushong in her wonderful book “Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere” talks about cultural identity being formed by messages about ourselves that we absorb from society around us. In a stable mono-cultural society, a child will absorb a consistent set of messages about his or her self as reflected back by the society the child participates in. The messages might be different from different people in that society (for example, the crusty old neighbour as opposed to the bubbly sweet-shop owner), however essentially they are consistent.
However, as Lois states, TCKs have it different. They experience several cultural environments in their childhood, each reflecting back different messages about the TCK, resulting in inconsistency in how the TCK perceives self. TCKs are essentially robbed of a clear consistent mirror that reflects who the TCK is, inside and out. This results in cultural confusion.
The important point here is consistency, or lack thereof. A single mirror, distorted, doesn’t result in cultural confusion. Multiple distorting mirrors do.
Taylor Murray, another TCK, writes eloquently about this in her article ‘Five Mixed Cultural Messages that Mess Up TCK Identity.‘ She is spot on. Everything can be perceived differently from a different cultural point of view – from superficial appearances through to life skills and relationships.
Note: I wrote a draft of this post titled ‘Mirrors of the soul’ in 2011, and parked it as I didn’t seem to find the right words to describe cultural confusion. My thoughts now have form thanks to Lois Bushong’s book and Taylor Murray’s article above.
Parents of third culture kids need to be especially aware of cultural confusion and its effect on self-identity and work with their children to understand and integrate the differing and confusing soul-mirrors that they encounter.
An article on ninemsn.com.au says research has found that only half of one’s friends consider one a friend in return. You can read the article at http://coach.ninemsn.com.au/2016/05/06/10/08/humans-are-terrible-judges-of-friendship.
I wonder if Third Culture Kids drive that statistic up or down?
To put it another way: are Third Culture Kids more accurate judges of friendship than the general population of the world? Or do we tend to be more delusional than non-TCK folks? The latter could be by either erring on the side of caution by not counting reciprocal friends as such, or by counting people as friends when they don’t consider us friends in return.
It would be nice to see some study done on this.
Today my eight year old son broke a cereal bowl.
I had done the washing up after breakfast and called out to him and his father to dry as I walked out of the kitchen. He started on the job himself as his father was still at breakfast.
I heard the crash and yelled, ‘Why are you doing the drying yourself?’
And found a little boy in tears. He had hurt himself trying to catch the bowl as it slipped, and he was upset that the incident had happened at all.
I held him and soothed him, asked how he was, massaged his hurt fingers, and told him it was quite alright that the bowl had been broken – ‘we have been breaking these bowls for years now’ – there are three left from the original set of eight.
I also apologized for my irritation at him doing the drying up himself, and explained there was a misunderstanding – I had thought he and his father were going to do the drying together, while he thought he was to do it once he was ready to, regardless of what his father was up to.
I then thanked him for doing the drying up himself, and complimented him on the number of dishes he had got through.
Eventually the tears subsided, our hugs were done and he went away to change for the day.
Five minutes later he was back, bouncing happily around the family room, making plans for buying books (spy books of course) out of his school’s book club catalogue.
I am not a model mother in any way, but it left me pleased that the incident of the broken bowl compared favourably with my own childhood.
Broken bowls and plates were no strangers to me, and they were rewarded with a whack or two (or three) from my father with the full force of his (verbally expressed) anger behind it.
My father firmly believed that clumsiness and mistakes could be eradicated with strong doses of ‘discipline’ which to him meant exploding and doling out corporal punishment. Funnily enough it didn’t make my sibling or I less clumsy. It just made us hide our mistakes from him if we could.
My father didn’t learn his strict disciplinarian approach to life (you may wish to call it bullying) from nowhere. He came from a line of strict disciplinarians who used this trait to keep their families under control.
Yes, I am far from being a model mum now – but I am pleased that it is possible to break such a generational trait.
I can watch my son break a cereal bowl and instead of berating him, be genuinely proud of his hard-working nature that allows him help with the washing up without too many complaints.
And I can genuinely apologise when I have reacted out of my own irritation, and be proud to see him enjoying life instead of cowering in fear that another tongue-lashing is on its way.
1. The buck stops with you.
Practice accountability but ultimately you, the leader, is responsible. As tempting as it is, don’t blame others.
2. Don’t gossip about people.
Nothing else undermines your credibility more, or contributes the most to an unpleasant environment. Don’t play people against each other.
3. Don’t get caught up in petty bickering.
Personalities will clash. People will look to get ahead by getting others down. Sometimes bickering will suck you in too. Regardless, don’t get involved.
4. Keep your eyes on the end game.
Have a clear vision. If you are in leadership it is probably because for a time or space you are responsible for getting a job done. Don’t get distracted.
5. The job is the key, not your ego.
This continues on from No. 4. If you are doing a good job, there will be others wanting a piece of the pie, the praise and the pay. Even the job. Don’t allow insecurity to drive your actions. If it’s time for you to step down, then so be it. If not, keep going.
6. Keep short accounts.
Forgive, forgive, and when you’re done, forgive again. This includes yourself. You want to travel light.
7. Appreciate diversity.
Everyone has something to bring to the table. If you are struggling to see this, perhaps you need to team up with someone else who can.
8. Collaboration is another key.
No one person can do it all. When you have a team on a journey and everyone has a sense of ownership, then everyone is emotionally invested. What more can a leader want?
9. Be honest.
The truth is a heck of a lot easier to remember than a lie.
10. Be respectful.
Don’t be a bully. Be appreciative of others’ efforts and remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And do No. 9 with gentleness and courtesy.
People matter more than results.
11. Pull up your sleeves and get in there.
Doing the real work keeps you in touch with what’s going on with everyone in the team. It helps you remember you are a part of a whole, not a detached demi-god.
Your team isn’t there to serve you, but to serve a higher end.
I have learnt each lesson above at some point some where from others who are leaders. All these points resonate strongly with me. I like to think that they are the secrets of leadership that is radically relational and am continually challenged by these as I lead.
Of course, I am not a successful CEO of an international corporation. My efforts at leadership are quite puny. And I understand that there are many leadership styles. So I am interested in hearing what you think should be added to or taken away from this list.
‘Home’ is probably one of the most emotionally charged words for a third culture kid.
Is ‘home’ found in a place or a group of people? Is it one place, or many? Is it bricks and mortar, or something intangible – perhaps a feeling or a state of being? Most third culture kids and other migratory people can identify with these questions.
So… what or where is home?
For me, I wonder if ‘home’ is the country in South Asia where I was born, where my ethnic identity is from. Or is ‘home’ the Australian city I have lived in for the past 23 years? Perhaps home, or a part of it, is where my surviving parent and sibling live – about 2500 km away from me – a place which I have never lived in but visit regularly.
I was interested to see that a relative has specified the town where our family originates from as her hometown on Facebook. I admire the clear-cut thinking that is behind this even though she has spent close to twenty years (and half her life) in Australia.
On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about the place I was born. I have felt both accepted and rejected in the country. Accepted because I belong by blood. Rejected because I am weird. How can a place like that be ‘home?’ Again this is something many of my fellow-TCKs will probably relate to.
Interestingly, in my adopted country Australia I feel at home because I am free to be different. Any social weirdness can be attributed to my very obviously different skin colour. In spite of this, I find my natural human desire to be liked and respected to be very, very strong. Therefore I am, as are many TCKs, a cultural chameleon. Working to fit in is simply how I operate every day. It seems vitally important to me that I work hard to limit the level of weirdness and ‘differentness’ that I present!
Being a cultural chameleon
David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken discuss this concept their book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.” I won’t steal their thunder by redefining it here – suffice to say that their book is a must-read if you are a third culture kid.
On a personal level, being a cultural chameleon means forever reading people’s feelings, emotions and opinions by closely observing their words, actions and expressions. It means crunching those observations through a complicated program in my brain and putting out a corresponding feeling, action or expression to suit the occasion.
It is a difficult task. It is made easier by the familiarity of long practice. But every new cultural environment I encounter involves cranking up the program into full gear and starting again.
It was therefore a pleasant shock to find, when we visited Africa last year, that my cultural chameleon program didn’t need to be running full bore. We visited Zambia, where my husband grew up. From the moment I landed in the place to the moment I left I moved from social situation to situation with relative ease – a rarity for me.
Surprising – I actually felt ‘at home.’
I grew up in West Africa, but have never been back. My memories of that time are hazy – both because memories fade over time, but also because I have learnt since leaving Africa that it is a scary, uncomfortable place. Therefore I was fully expecting to experience culture shock like I have when visiting countries in Asia. I wasn’t expecting to feel comfortable there.
I learnt that ultimately ‘home’ means a state in which I feel comfortable.
But why here?
Perhaps I felt comfortable because of all the stories my husband and his family tell of Zambia. They are amazingly adept at keeping their memories alive. Therefore each place I visited felt like an old friend.
Perhaps I felt comfortable because of the friendliness of the people. Zambians are awesomely welcoming!
Perhaps I felt comfortable because I was travelling with a group of other third culture kids (the others were on a trip down memory lane).
It was probably all of these. And yet I think it was something more.
I grew up in Africa.
You see, my childhood consisted primarily of being an expatriate in an African country with many similarities to the one we visited. And so I was going right back to my roots. I didn’t have to pretend or struggle to learn how to ‘be’ in this place. Because I had, at a stage in life where we learn the fastest and the most, learnt how to function among the beautiful African people. And the lessons were just sitting there in me, waiting to be tapped.
I only wish I hadn’t waited 28 years to go back!
I love the in-between places.
On a road trip, the car can become a homely space. I have many memories of long trips in cars and the journeys hold a brighter place in my memory than the destinations themselves.
Similarly, on a journey by air, one’s own little corner of the plane can become a temporary home. This is perhaps more true on long-haul flights than short ones. Again I love the space thus given to relax and indulge in my favourite pastimes – reading, thinking and observing.
In fact, I write this as I come to the end of a long-haul flight – fourteen hours – from Sydney to Johannesburg. I am grateful for this opportunity for the introverted side of me to just be, and not do or engage.
Perhaps it is this introverted side of me that loves the waiting that is the journey. It gives me a chance to energize. No pressure to perform, no plans for a set goal – just be. In the waiting that is the journey, there is space for thoughts to bubble up and crystallize into words. Just as these have been formed.
Paradoxically, the very fact that one doesn’t need to engage can make meaningful engagement with others possible. Much of my day-to-day interactions with people consist of goal-oriented conversations – like the current project at work.
The sort of significant engagement that I long for is the kind I would expect to happen over a meal. In this time-poor world I don’t often get to dine with people outside my immediate family.
This makes me appreciate even more the conversations that can happen in those in-between places. The space created by the journey itself has made significant engagement with self and others possible.
‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’ ~ Nelson Mandela
The practice of peace among mankind seems impossible – until it is done.
Creating a level playing field for men, women and children everywhere seems impossible – until it is done.
Caring for those creatures that share our home seems impossible – until it is done.
Turning around the effects of our destructive use of this planet seems impossible – until it is done.
What cause does your heart burn for today?
RIP Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)
I think this article by Joel Hollier titled “I’m a Christian and my house just burned down” is a must-read for every Christian trying to work through the seemingly random occurrences of suffering.
He says “Those of us who have lost all of our physical possessions- whether they be cameras or photos, are now left with a gaping identity crisis as the facade of security is wiped away from our eyes and we realise that what we so often thought of as permanent was nothing more than a smoke screen.”
As someone who, like many others, has experienced recurring loss of homes, personal possessions, relationships and loved ones through the accumulated effects of successive moves and war, I realise that Joel and I are really on the same journey. And we come to the same conclusions.
That’s just a teaser, you will have to read the actual article (given here again), to find out what those conclusions are.
The suffering, in the last few weeks, of those who have fought and lost the battle for homes in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, is heart-breaking.
“Girls should be modest and soft-spoken.”
“Women make bad leaders.”
“If a girl is too domineering, no man will want to marry her.”
If you are from a very Western upbringing, such statements would probably shock you.
However they are what I grew up with, in a culture where strong views of gender roles held sway, where shame was a big issue, and saving face for one’s parents, family and community was of paramount importance.
I was brought up to believe that it was bad form to be an assertive, ambitious, leader-like woman who spoke her mind. People spoke respectfully, yet in slightly derogatory terms, of strong women leaders like Margaret Thatcher. It was okay to be aggressive or domineering if one was a man – because you were then going to go places and do things. But a woman…?
For many years (and fueled by what I now realise is unbiblical teaching on the roles of male and female), I believed that women who were in high positions of leadership, who were assertive, driven, and who spoke their minds, were aberrations to God’s perfect plan for humankind. That is, the existence of such women was yet another example of the fallen, sinful nature of this world. One friend, who strongly opposes (to this day) the idea of women in leadership, said that women leaders existed as a concession – because there weren’t enough men stepping up to take their rightful roles as leaders.
Did I mention that this doesn’t just happen in the East, or in conservative Western Christian circles only? In the secular Western world, such sentiments still prevail, though perhaps more subtly. “She’s got him firmly under her thumb”, or “She wears the pants in the house.”
Personally, I don’t believe aggression and domineering are healthy qualities in either a man or a woman. If we wrote a list of why, we can start with the fact that both put a stop to open and honest communication, both are used to control people, and… then the list is endless. We have all read of countless dictators who were strong leaders gone wrong.
The point in this post though is that, to this day, society tends to have opinions on what a man can be and what a woman can be. Though that is, thankfully, changing.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I am one of those bossy, assertive women. And you can probably also guess that I had a tempestuous upbringing.
As a child, my strong-willed personality clashed almost continually with the other strong-willed assertive personality in the house, which was my father’s. All my relatives (who are mostly women) to this day attribute my strong personality to his influence. They seem to believe that, left to myself or a different father, I would never have turned out the way I am. I recall plenty of criticism, advice, and encouragement to overcome those assertive out-spoken personality traits. My family, and so I, treated these traits in me as if they were handicaps.
I learned to try to hide these traits from others around me. I tried to suppress my outspokenness, my urge to take over and rule the roost. But it would sometimes feel like trying to plug holes in a dam with a powerful river surging right on the other side. I would inevitably feel the injustice of something, and speak up strongly – and as I was not encouraged to do so, it would often come out inappropriately. Or my strong urge to take over would assert itself in the absence of what I perceived as a lack of leadership. And as I did not have practice, I would lead inappropriately, often in a way, my family said, that was disrespectful of those around me.
I am now in my thirties.
A little while ago I picked up Florence Littauer’s book “Personality Plus”, and found it insightful. Florence’s book is based around the basic Four Temperaments’, which is a theory of psychology that in turn is based on an ancient concept of classifying different personality types.
I know there are strong critics of this method of classifying – but though I understand what the critics are getting at, Personality Plus has been revolutionary in helping me understand that a lot of my temperament (which turns out to be Choleric-Melancholic) may actually be God-given, that I may actually be meant to be the person that I am.
It blows me away even to write it at this relatively late date! I have got so used to trying to be someone that I am not, and wallowing in guilt when I couldn’t be this non-existent person.
Another book that has recently helped me is Don & Katie Fortune’s “Motivational Gifts”. I have worked out that I definitely have up-front, speaking gifts. I don’t shy away from public-speaking in and of myself. Though the voices from my past do war with my desire to jump up and say something.
According to ‘Motivational Gifts’, I come out as primarily an Exhorter. Another ‘wow!’ moment – I felt amazingly freed to know that God actually made me to have words tumbling around inside my head, waiting to burst out.
It is going to be a long journey, retraining myself to fit back in my skin. I am enjoying knowing that my assertiveness, my ability to speak to most situations, my urge to organise and call out tasks to a team, are all a part of who God has made me.
I am enjoying knowing (whenever the truth sinks in) that I am not a freak or an accident of nature. I don’t have to feel guilty when I speak up in a situation. I do not have to beat myself up for being assertive.
It doesn’t lessen my responsibility to those around me. If anything, I have a better picture of what it looks like when we all, men and women, with our own individual characteristics, work together, each doing something significant, like the cogs in a wheel. When I lead, when I speak out, when I organise, I can now respect, honour, and be more appreciative of those around me with their own unique temperaments, opinions and gifts.
It is the beauty of God’s grand design after all, that He made each one of us different – for a reason.
I remember a time when I was strongly attracted to a man who appeared attracted to me at first, but was forever looking for the ideal woman. The world around him told him that he could do better. I don’t know if he ever found his ideal – but at the time, it made me feel rather small.
The challenge for me, as a woman living in a world increasingly obsessed with image, performance, and perfection in both those areas, is – where do I get my self-worth from?
It’s alright if – when – I meet the current fashionable standard for perfection in image or performance. But, honestly, those times, if they exist, are fleeting. I am more likely to feel deeply conflicted by all the different expectations I try to live up to – all at once.
There are three options. I could scoff at those expectations around me, and subscribe to lower standards to make myself feel better. I could keep trying to attain perfection – a rather desperate endeavour for me, but this is the option that I tend to choose – I am, after all, an approval addict. Or I could take a long hard look at where I get my sense of self-worth from.
In a world full of conflicting expectations, I believe that God’s expectations of us are the very best.
All He expects us to do is run into His arms, nestle, and lift our gaze trustingly to His.