Morning Zen Guest Blogger ~ Nina Sichel
So often there are tears. Tears of relief, tears of gratitude, that letting go when you know you’re finally understood.
It is not a family reunion. It is not an alumni gathering. It is not a mental health support group, not in the traditional sense. You are among total strangers; you don’t know anyone. You may speak the same language, or you may rely on translations, interpreters. You have never seen these people before, yet they seem to know you on a different, deeper level than some of your closest friends, co-workers, even family.
You’ve resisted these sorts of meetings till now, accustomed over your lifespan to being an outsider, to not belonging, to being left, to moving on either physically, emotionally, or both. But something or someone pulled you here.
You’ve just learned you’re a Third Culture Kid, and you’re at your first gathering with other TCKs. You’re part of a scattered tribe, and you’ve finally, finally found your community, and it spans the globe.
You always thought you were weird because you didn’t fit in. Your parents kept moving, following their jobs from place to place, and you moved with them. You were too often the new kid in class, and you got tired of trying to explain yourself, so eventually you just stopped, or picked up a shorthand way of saying, yeah, I’m new here, so what.
Or you didn’t move, but you grew up in a different country from the one your parents called home, and you went to an international school, not a local one, and all your friends moved, over and over, and every time you went back to school, you didn’t know if they’d be back or if you’d have to make new friends. Your parents kept telling you you were American, or Dutch, or Japanese, or whatever. But you weren’t living in the US, or in Holland, or in Japan, so you knew you weren’t one of them, not really.
You went back for short visits to the place where your parents grew up and discovered you were a foreigner, and they might say they were going home but you knew you were just on vacation. Your cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents were all there and you felt awkward but you were polite and pretended to be excited to see them again, though you hardly remembered them from the previous summer.
When you finally went for an extended time, for college, you figured it was just taking you a little longer than usual to acclimate. You didn’t “get” the place, didn’t get the social rules or innuendos, didn’t understand the points of reference. You thought you’d been prepared for this, by your schooling, your visits, your parents, your language, but it felt like you were moving to a brand new place again, it felt like culture shock. It WAS culture shock.
You stopped telling fellow students where you’d lived because they acted as though they hadn’t heard of these places and maybe they hadn’t and you despaired at their ignorance of geography. They acted as though you were exotic, and you knew you were not. You didn’t understand their lack of interest in world events, in places far away -- they only seemed interested the way tourists are interested, superficially, in the scenery. You felt angry, restless. You felt invisible.
When you went back home for breaks -- if you got to go back, if your parents hadn’t already moved again -- you found you were different. You’d grown out of your old skin and your new one didn’t fit.
You felt unhappy, lonely. You began to wonder who, really, you were, and where you belonged, if you’d ever find that place where you could feel comfortable, right. You sought help. Your counselor thought you were depressed, suggested medication, yoga. Maybe it helped. Maybe it didn’t.
One day you met someone who told you there was a whole world of people like you, and that they all felt like you did, at one time or another or maybe even still. And you were curious, because you’d always felt so alone. And you agreed to go to a meeting.
So here you are, at your first TCK meeting, and nobody asks you where you’re from, they ask how many places you’ve lived in, and nobody is surprised at where you’ve been or how you feel, they ask what you are doing about finding others like you, where to find them, how to form a meet-up group.
The parents among them want to know how to raise their kids differently, how to keep them happy in their mobile lives, keep them connected with stationary parents and friends, maintain relationships in a moving world. Husbands and wives want advice on how to maintain careers and independent identities as they accompany their spouses on international assignments.
You learn that the number of TCKs is multiplying exponentially -- that there are several million American children overseas at any given time and more and more children of other nationalities are also living away from their birth homes.
You learn that there are whole departments in universities dedicated to intercultural studies and understanding, that there are student groups called Global Nomads, that transnational cultural understanding and migration studies and post-post-Colonial literary studies are all looking at the TCK phenomenon.
The meeting is buzzing with long-held energy, exploding with ideas.
And at long last you feel like you’ve found your place. Your people. Your community.
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Nina Sichel is co-editor of the collections Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids (2011) and Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global(2004). She leads memoir-writing workshops in the Washington, DC area and continues to collect stories and research about international and cross-cultural childhoods. For more information on TCKs, readers can visit her Facebook page, which includes links to articles of interest, book recommendations, and connection with other TCKs.