I am a Third Culture Kid: Here’s What I’ve Learned

Third Culture Kids grow up in more than one culture.

Like Barack Obama or any other child who wasn’t raised in their parents’ homeland, I was expatriated and embedded in a foreign culture from a young age and learned how to adapt.

In fact, I grew up in three cultures.

My family was Swiss. At home, we had Swiss behaviors and traditions.

My school was French. I learned the French language, learned about French history and geography, and befriended my French peers.

My surroundings were African. The market, the neighborhood, the people, the culture – the reality of life all around me was that of the Mossi tribe.

I learned how to alter my body language and my behavior. Even my sense of humor differed depending on the audience.

This is what a TCK learns early on, which many only learn later in life:

Adapting is a necessity across cultures.

Perspective and Behavior

TCKs are in a specific cultural group all their own.

They are in a unique position where they are made to value various cultures, placing relatively equal importance on the behaviors and norms of them all.

The “rights” and “wrongs” that are culture-based and learned through primary socialization vary, and so the TCK learns that hardline views differ from group to group.

This allows some flexibility when navigating contradicting norms and values of the cultures into which the TCK is placed.

In this way, TCKs develop specific interpersonal behavior and standards of perspective that a child raised in a single culture does not, as they are not so exposed to opposing worldviews. 

A TCK’s lifestyle is different. Their communication is different, not only in its multilingual nature, but in its style, nonverbal and otherwise.

The complexity of their firsthand experience with multiple cultures produces in them distinct characteristics that enable their positioning as the perfect zookeepers.

Here’s why.

Zookeepers Know Different Species

Due to their knowledge of and relationship with multiple “species” in the “zoo,” TCKs have developed a natural understanding of various perspectives.

They can see through the eyes of the elephant, the eyes of the penguin, the eyes of the giraffe.

They can even see through YOUR eyes: the eyes of the monkey.

While those who have grown up in one culture develop firm values and norms rooted in that single culture, this can often hinder the acceptance of contradicting values and norms.

Those growing up in single cultures often view other perspectives as wrong, rude, forbidden, or even illegal.

Instead of seeing the whole picture and trying to understand the rationale behind another culture’s beliefs, their perspective becomes emotional, biased, and they tend to stonewall understanding.

TCKs, on the other hand, have learned how to monitor emotions about differing perspectives.

They are more adept at registering social cues and norms and more practiced at cultural sensitivity.

Just as they switch fluidly from one language to the next, they are able to fluidly adapt to behaviors of one culture or another.

To them, it is a way of life.

And this natural empathy allows them to be more understanding of YOU, the monkey, as you have “monkey moments” in a foreign culture.

In this way, they can help serve as a patient teacher between the two worlds, if you should be so lucky to secure their friendship.

A Foot in Two Worlds: Why the Best Zookeepers are Third Culture Kids

Imagine you were born in Bali as the child of an American.

You grow up at the slow pace of island life. Your days are spent on the beach, swimming and playing in the sand.

Your friends are local kids and the children of other expats.

You go to an international school. There, you have an Australian teacher, and your peers are from all over the world.

How would your worldview change if you were the child of an expat who grew up not in your parents’ home country, but abroad in a foreign one?

You might just have a broader perspective.

This can make you an ideal zookeeper (i.e. teachers for foreign expats working and living in another culture).

Two Worlds

Taking in the above scenario, it’s probably safe to say that, at ten years old, you’ve become chummy with more nationalities than many adults have.

Even more interesting, you are a child of two worlds: with one foot in your host country and an intimate knowledge of your parents’ culture.

This is what’s known as a Third Culture Kid (TCK).

Researchers, John and Ruth Useem, developed this term in the ‘50s to classify children of American expats who were living and working abroad.

These children are gifted with a unique perspective and can make the best zookeepers for those who are adapting to a foreign culture. 

As quoted from Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds:

“While growing up in a multiplicity of countries and cultures, TCKs not only observe firsthand the many geographical differences around the world but they also learn how people view life from different philosophical and political perspectives. Some people think of Saddam Hussein as a hero; others believe he’s a villain. Western culture is time and task oriented; in Eastern cultures, interpersonal relationships are of great importance…”

TCKs have grown up with more than one culture: speaking English to their parents at home and Balinese in their host culture.

Celebrating Christmas at home and Galungan in the streets of Sanur.

Barbecuing hamburgers at home and eating Nasi Campur on the beach.

During their primary socialization, these children grow up knowing and respecting the values and norms of the host culture, while also knowing and respecting their parents’ values.

Presidential TCK

This was the life of someone who was, at one time, the most powerful leader in the world: President Barack Obama.

Obama grew up as a Third Culture Kid. 

Born in Hawaii, he lived some of his formative years in Indonesia, where his mother taught English and was a Microfinance consultant who worked in rural development. His father was Kenyan.

Like many TCKs, growing up with multiple cultural influences and worldviews gave Obama a unique perspective.

Obama describes the joys of his youth in Indonesia as well as the tragedies he observed there.

He explains:

“It had taken me less than six months to learn Indonesia’s language, its customs, and its legends…The children of farmers, servants, and low-level bureaucrats had become my best friends…There was the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields, bending over every so often to crumble earth between their fingers…”

Through his experience as a TCK, he learned from a young age that the world wasn’t perfect or just.

He also realized that not everyone was aware of this or able to confront it. He notably refrained from sharing the unjust bits of his experience in the letters to his grandparents.

“The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel. My grandparents knew nothing of such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them with questions they couldn’t answer.”

It is this worldly perspective that TCKs are gifted with and that make them great zookeepers.

Not only does such an experience open their eyes to a broader world, it can help open yours too as an expat adapting to another culture.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

A Zookeeper in Action: When Locals Help Explain Foreign Behavior

As a Third Culture Kid living in Africa, I would sit in the shade with my father when visitors came.

One day, a trusted employee named André stopped by.

As was normal in the Mossi culture, discussion unfolded at length in a friendly manner, while we drank cup after cup of water.

When the conversation wound down, André at last stood to leave.

It was only then that the aim of his visit became known.

The Favor

A wedding was approaching, and André wanted to ask my dad for help in transporting bags of sorghum (a type of grain). 

The pair sat down again to discuss.

My father told André that while he would like to help, he was unfortunately very busy and couldn’t take the day off that the bad roads would require to transport the grain.

André left and, from that day onward, their relationship was broken.

My father’s trusted employee and cohort now avoided him like the plague.

My father wondered what he’d done wrong. He felt helpless and couldn’t change what happened.

He also couldn’t find fault in what he had said or done. 

He understood he’d had a monkey moment but wasn’t sure what his blunder was.

He really was busy and, on such short notice, couldn’t accommodate André’s request. He had explained and apologized for this.

No matter how hard he tried, his relationship with André didn’t improve.

At a loss, my father sought out his zookeeper for assistance.

The Zookeeper Explains

Freeman Kabore was born of noble blood from Ouagadougou.

He spent time studying in Europe and so had familiarity with both cultures; the perfect quality in a zookeeper.

When my father told Zookeeper Freeman about what had unfolded between him and André, Freeman taught him something about Mossi culture.

An important request like this one should not be refused upon sight.

Instead, one should take the time to consider the request – or at least have the courtesy to appear to take the time to consider it.

If my father had told André, “I will think about it. Please come back tomorrow, and I will let you know,” and then, the following day, kindly declined, this would have been acceptable in Mossi culture.

To the Mossi, this face-saving formality shows your friend the respect he deserves.

Being delivered a direct “no” is considered rude and inconsiderate.

With help from Zookeeper Freeman, my father learned an important norm of the Mossi culture, one that would save him from further monkey moments and help him maintain valuable friendships.

Next week, we’ll talk about Third Culture Kids: the ultimate zookeepers.

Food Culture: What HOW You Eat Can Tell You About Culture

Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?

Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?

What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?

With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?

The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole. 

On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).

The Presentation: Food Plating

Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.

One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.

Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.

The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.

The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.

Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.

The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.

The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.

The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.

How, When, Why, With Whom?

Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values

Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.

Ask:

  • How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat? 

Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.

  • When do you eat?

The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.

  • Why do you eat?

Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.

  • With whom do you eat?

While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.

Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 3: Transfer & Alter Cues

Think back to your first few weeks in your host culture.

Although excited for the newness of the foreign environment, you felt discomfort.

Out of place and homesick, you sought anything that was familiar – that might make you feel at ease.

Videocalls to your friends and family back home.

Your favorite sweater or blanket.

Even a familiar homegrown location, like Starbucks or McDonald’s.

Whatever made you feel at home again, you chased it.

These are what we call “cues.”

They’re little things that make you feel comfortable and familiar with your environment.

And they will come in handy when dealing with reverse culture shock.

What are Reentry Cues?

As you did when moving to a foreign country, take something of your host country home with you.

This “something” can be physical, from traditional objects that you’ve accumulated to your favorite herbs and spices of the cultural cuisine.

Or it can be intangible, like routines, customs, or values or norms that you’ve adopted from your host culture, like late night dinners or family-centered customs.

Any type of cultural cue can help you adjust to your reentry.

Bring & Alter Cues

You can either bring these cues directly from your host country, for instance a traditional dress, a favorite book, or your favorite chocolate bar.

Or you can alter existing cues in your home country to mirror those from your host country.

For instance, you might alter your diet, adjusting for more veggies, more spices, etc. – whatever reminds you of your host’s foreign cuisine. 

You can alter your surroundings – laying down a carpet or mat made in your host country, for instance.

Or you might alter how you host people in your home or how you approach being a guest in others, according to some of the customs you’ve adopted.

There are many physical and psychological ways to transfer and alter cues that’ll help you transition back into your home country without fully renouncing your adopted one.

You will eventually have to fully re-adapt to your home country, but you don’t have to altogether abandon aspects of your host country that you adore.

The bottom line: introducing new cues will allow you to ease in, just as it did when you moved to your host country what feels like a lifetime ago.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 1: Getting Closure

Imagine spending years of breezy beach time in the slow-paced life of a tropical island…

Only to return to your home: a fast-paced city where everyone is in a rush.

Imagine spending years in a country where food never goes to waste…

Only to return to portion sizes that are two times too large, and excess food is frequently thrown out.

Imagine spending years cultivating values and norms that are centered around honor and family

Only to return to an individualist culture that values self-reliance and independence

Returning from life abroad can feel like jumping into a familiar but cold pool of water.

Although you think you remember everything about this pool and belong to this pool, the reality hits you like ice.

The fact that you’ve acclimatized to another culture’s warm waters is startling. Your own culture’s temperature catches you off guard. 

You may not know what hit you.

As we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, this is reverse culture shock.

Expect to Feel Shocked

If you want to get out ahead of reverse culture shock, knowing that it can – and likely will – happen is first things first.

You are here, educating yourself about the issue, which is a GREAT way to equip yourself with the tools to face it down when it does.

Just as you equipped yourself to adjust to a foreign culture and dealt with your initial culture shock, it’s always better to be prepared and expect that you may feel discomfort upon returning home – almost like you’ve missed a step coming down the stairs.

Step 1: Get Closure on Your Experience

Before returning home, prepare.

One essential part of this preparation is to say goodbye and gain some closure with a place and a people that has been your home.

As mentioned in a previous post, those who are ripped unexpectedly from their host culture and forced to return home have a harder time with reverse culture shock.

So, if you expect to return home and have the opportunity to gain closure, take it.

Shared by the U.S. Department of State, actions you can take that will allow you to feel closure include:

  • Getting a proper goodbye in with friends and/or hosting a “going away” party prior to departure; this will allow you to gather your friends’ contact information, if you don’t have it already, so you can keep in touch
  • Snapping pics and videos of your home, your place of work/school, your favorite haunts, and your favorite people
  • Picking up or hanging onto keepsakes that mean something to you
  • Creating an in-country bucket list of sorts and making time to hit up all the sites you’d regret not visiting

These are just some ways to gain closure from this significant experience. 

Leaving can feel a bit like a relationship break-up, so be prepared for a bit of heartache and nostalgia.

Tune in next week for Step 2: Managing Expectations.

Expat Returning Home? You May Face These Side Effects

We’ve been talking a lot the past few weeks about what it feels like to return home after spending significant time in another culture.

As an expat, you may find your return surprisingly difficult – mostly because reverse culture shock is unexpected.

In fact, you may become homesick for your host country.

Curious about what other side effects you may face?

In his book, The Art of Coming Home, Craig Storti outlines four mental and emotional side effects of returning home.

Marginality

Your experience living in another culture has changed who you are. Your identity has changed, your perspective has changed. You see things through a different lens.

You may find there’s a strain between your society and this new identity. You may feel like you don’t fit in in your own culture.

You are “home,” but your home doesn’t feel entirely comfortable anymore.

Criticality

Upon returning home, the values and norms you’ve adapted to abroad may make you more judgmental about your home country and society.

You may feel frustrated with the routines back home – or even unfamiliar with them. 

You might find yourself displacing this frustration on other people, becoming impatient and unpleasant.

In recalling your life abroad, you may romanticize your time there and find your home unpleasant in comparison.

This is normal.

Assessing the differences between your host country and your home country and feeling these frustrations is a typical reaction in returning home.

Exhaustion

Readjusting to a culture you’ve been apart from for a long time is just as exhausting as the initial adjustment to your host country

You have to relearn and consciously perform routines, customs, basic functions, or logistical tasks that were once done by rote, making the experience overwhelming.

Your own culture will hit you like a wave.

Just keep swimming.

Withdrawal

You may feel so disillusioned about your home culture that you start to withdraw from it and resist readapting to it, avoiding contact with your own society. 

This can provoke feelings of self-doubt or even depression.

You might want to escape. 

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock

Knowing all the effects of reverse culture shock can help you be prepared for them upon your return and build an action plan.

Luckily, you have one in your back pocket.

You are by now familiar with the steps it takes to feel at home in a culture.

After all, you adapted to a foreign one not too long ago.

And while it may seem silly, you must now apply them to your own culture and country in order to reintegrate back in.

Next week, we’ll talk about those steps in the context of returning home.

Returning Home: What Impacts the Degree to Which You Feel Reverse Culture Shock?

You are returning home after spending five years living in Ukraine – a country to which you’ve adapted and adopted to a certain degree.

You’ve had to balance your home-grown values with your host country’s; you’ve altered your norms wherever you could in order to integrate properly.

For instance, you don’t smile in public as much anymore. It was drilled into your head that those who smile at strangers in Ukraine are believed to have a screw loose.

And now you’re returning home. Back to the familiar.

Home sweet home.

And you’re still not smiling.

Home is NOT So Sweet

Reverse culture shock is the upset that you feel upon returning to your home country.

When you step off that airplane, everybody is smiling. But your face is stuck in its deadpan of Ukrainian stoicism.

It’s like returning to your childhood bedroom after college – everything comes flooding back to you and, yet, feels distant and detached.

After all, it’s all familiar, from the language to the people to the foods and the streets.

There’s only one problem: everything is the same, but YOU are different.

You are returning from your second home: your host country – a place to which you spent a lot of time and energy adapting.

You learned the language, you learned the history, you learned the religion.

You knew and began to understand the culture.

So, now, upon trying to sleep in your old bed, you’re like Goldilocks.

It just doesn’t feel right.

It may be the case that some things have changed too – new pillows, a scratchy bedspread – and your once-familiar bedroom wasn’t what you were expecting.

You realize your home no longer feels like home.

This complex mix of feelings all contributes to reverse culture shock.

Degrees of Reverse Culture Shock

The U.S. Department of State details some aspects that impact the degree to which those who return from abroad feel reverse culture shock.

Taken from Craig Storti’s book, The Art of Coming Home, the following may affect your experience of this shock:

  • Voluntary and expected reentry – whether you voluntarily or involuntarily reenter and/or whether you expected to reenter or did not can impact the degree of shock. Involuntary and unexpected reentry results in greater shock.
  • Experience – if you’ve had previous reentry experience from a foreign country, the shock is generally milder.
  • Age – older people often have an easier time at reentering due to more experience with general life transitions.
  • Extent of differences between the two cultures – the more different your home culture is from your host culture, the more difficult reentry can be.
  • Length of time spent in host country – the longer your duration overseas, the harder the return may be, as you will have adapted to your host country to a greater extent.
  • Amount and degree of interaction with your host country culture and your home culture during your time abroad – the more time and intimacy with your host culture, the harder it will be to leave; likewise, the more time and the degree to which you’ve interacted with your home culture, the easier it will be to reenter.
  • Environment of reentry – supportive and familiar environments make reentry easier. Returning to conflict, instability, or uncertainty will increase the shock, as will the lack of a support system.

Consider these aspects to gauge how difficult it might be to return home. This will help you prepare for the impact.

Small Talk & Swiss Culture

A Swiss anchorman was traveling by train from Zurich to Chur.

A passenger sitting in the seat in front of him spoke not a word the whole train ride.

As the train pulled into the terminal station, the passenger stood, turned to the anchorman, and reached out his hand for a shake, saying, “Mr. Müller, it has been a pleasure to travel with you.” 

This is characteristic of the Swiss in general.

Respecting others’ privacy is a highly valued norm. The Swiss do not talk with strangers – even famous television anchormen – as they see this as an invasion of others’ privacy.

In this case, the passenger might have mustered up the courage to greet the anchorman, but that’s where the intrusion begins and ends.

Personal Details Are Private

The Swiss are traditionally secretive.

Whereas other cultures might chitchat while waiting in a queue, the Swiss don’t bother engaging in small talk.

In fact, if you initiate small talk with a stranger in Switzerland, you may be met with a dirty look.

Personal details are just that: personal.

Private or personal matters aren’t brought to work, be they emotions or facts.

Such matters needn’t even be deep to be avoided. The Swiss are unlikely to share where they’re from, what car they drive, or any sort of mundane detail about their lives.

An article about Swiss culture by Valentine Sergon on Expatica explains:

“As a whole, Swiss people tend to be polite, reserved, direct, and a little guarded at first. In work environments, social etiquette in Switzerland is to remain formal until explicitly told otherwise.”

Personal details and themes are only shared between friends.

Strangers and acquaintances receive only greetings and reserved niceties. It’s only until you break into the “inner circle” that you might earn a lifelong friendship from the Swiss.

But a lifelong friendship it will be, as once they put their trust in you, the Swiss are known to be loyal.

Struggle to Small Talk

An Australian expat wrote the following about Swedish people, but it could apply just as well to the Swiss:

“I can tell that they really want to learn, but they were never taught how to do small talk. When people find out I’m Australian, they try to make small talk with me, but they really struggle. They speak good English; it’s just that they don’t know what to say.”

Swiss culture is very much the same. Small talk is so foreign to the Swiss that, even if they wanted to try, they have a hard time with it.

Now that you know a bit about Swiss culture, you might wonder how it stacks up to American culture.

With such norms, how might a Swiss person survive in a world of America, a culture that typically embraces small talk?

Or how might an American fair in Switzerland?

We’ll tell you how next week.

The Heroes of Our Own Story: How Cultural Bias Enters into the Teaching of History

We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

And with this desire comes bias.

When entering a new culture, learning to read between the lines of what is taught about the culture’s history will help you better understand their cultural perspective

You may still agree with and believe in the historical interpretation of your own culture, but getting to the roots of another culture means getting to know their view of themselves, which is never more apparent than in their teaching of history.

This knowledge will give you insight into the “why” of cultural norms, values, and traditions in your host country.

To gain this knowledge, learning what is taught is important; but, sometimes, learning what is expressly not taught is even more so.

Russia and North America

“Back in the USSR…”

While it’s obvious that Russian and Western cultures view things differently, what may not be so obvious is their extraordinarily different interpretations of history.

North Americans often view their liberal values of freedom and individualism with pride, and that is reflective in their teaching of history.

They view Marxist ideals and communist values as restrictive on individual liberties and enterprise.

Russian history, however, is taught from a Marxist viewpoint.

It teaches that the American working class – and overseas labor from American corporations – is exploitative.

Like Americans, their view of their own history is also one of pride.

They present their communist system as more egalitarian, distributing wealth more fairly amongst the working class.

While American historians present Russia as oppressive, so do Russian historians present America.

And from an outsider’s perspective, if you’re being honest with yourself and viewing these arguments and their history objectively, you can see truth in both…however, you’re probably more biased toward the history that aligns with your own values and norms.

Japan and China

Japan and China are two other examples of nationalist takes on history.

The Japanese take pride in their long and glorious empire. However, the tragic recent history of WWII and the events surrounding it is often deemphasized in classrooms.

Mariko Oi, a Japanese teacher who studied abroad in Australia, puts this into perspective:

“Japanese people often fail to understand why neighboring countries harbor a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and ‘40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history. I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan…” 

According to Oi, only 5 percent of her Japanese textbook (19 out of 357 pages) dealt with the recent history of WWII and the events that led up to it from 1931 to 1945.

A single line was dedicated to the Rape of Nanjing (also known as the Nanjing Massacre) which occurred during the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 when Japan invaded China. That war too was given but a single page.

On the other side of the East China Sea, Chinese students are taught in detail about Japanese war crimes and about the Rape of Nanjing in particular.

And as for other WWII enemies, the subject receives different treatment in American textbooks versus Japanese textbooks. 

The Manhattan Project is often heroically emphasized by American historians who detail the justifications for dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Mariko Oi’s Japanese textbook again, a single sentence is dedicated to this event.

Cultural Bias in Ourselves

The point of all this is that a nation tends to have a specific view of itself. 

And, in doing so, that nation will cast itself and its history in the best light while deemphasizing certain aspects that today bring shame. 

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize within ourselves. We’d like to think we’re “above” it.

But in the end, we all want to be “right”; we want our values to be right, our norms to be right, and our version of history to be right.

We want to be the heroes of our own story.