You Remember You’re a Repat when . . . (Part 3)

(Part 1, Part 2)

You remember you’re a repat when . . .

61. You describe a city as “small” because it has only a million residents.
62. You hear yourself saying at the dinner table, “Where’s the garlic?”
63. You pull out the winter coats when the temperature gets below 70 degrees; or you pull out the shorts when it gets above 40.
64. You get a bill from the doctor and you call to see whose clerical error made the amount so high.
65. Glade’s “Ocean Breeze” scent isn’t any substitute for the real thing.
66. You assume everyplace in the US has WiFi, just like in the city you used to live in.
67. Wearing your traditional ethnic shirt isn’t as much fun now that you’re not going back again.
68. You ask at the grocery store if they have KLIM powdered milk. When they say “No,” you ask when they expect it to be in.
69. You buy three cartons of Hagen Dazs ice cream because it’s one third of the price of Hagen Dazs in your old host country. When you get home, your spouse reminds you it’s still too expensive.
70. You reset your new computer’s clock to military time.
71. You need to convert to the metric system to make sure of distances and temperatures.
72. You get fully dressed to sit in your living room because someone may be peeking in the window.
73. Airports feel like home.
74. The thought of moving again sends you into a panic attack. But your spouse feels the same way about staying put.
75. Your college-age children resent that you took away their opportunity to go “home” for the summer.
76. You can’t remember why anyone would like pineapple from a can, the same for orange juice from concentrate.
77. You understand why the restrooms in LAX have signs saying, “Do not stand on the toilets.”
78. People say, “football,” and you ask, “Which kind?”
79. A friend sends funds to a scammer who sent out an e-mail saying he’s you, stranded abroad, and your friend believes it because, hey, you travel all the time and you’re always needing money.
80. You don’t know what to buy your parents for Christmas now that you can’t give them souvenirs.
81. You shed a tear after finally eating the last package of dried fruit that you brought back with you.
82. You do your happy dance when you find another package of dried fruit in the outside pocket of your carry-on bag a year later.
83. You cringe because you hear someone say she’s “starving to death.”
84. You realize that all the documents on your computer are formatted for A4 paper.
85. You tell your waiter, “I’d like my water with ice . . . if you have any.”
86. You get nervous about buying tickets at the movie theater, because you forgot what the “rules” are.
87. You still can’t drink water straight from the faucet.
88. Your children are happy to see that the US has Costcos, too.
89. You miss the familiar sound of the daily call to prayer . . . or a rooster crowing . . . or late-night traffic . . . or the song the trash truck plays.
90. You show up at a party 2 hours late because you don’t want to be the first one there.
91. You put your favorite DVD in the player and it says, “Region Unsupported.”
92. You understand that some things just take a lot of time.

[top photo: “Electrical Outlet,” by grendelkhan, used under a Creative Commons license; bottom photo: “Having It Both Ways,” by Keith Williamson, used under a Creative Commons license]


Barack Obama, TCK President

A new biography is out on the president, David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story, and it’s getting some media attention, mostly because of the input from former girlfriends and because parts seem to contradict Obama’s own earlier writings. But what interests me more are the insights on how the president’s international upbringing has been a factor in shaping his personality.

As Obama grew up, he was exposed to a variety of different cultures. He was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas, and after his parents divorced, his mother married an Indonesian man. The family later moved to Jakarta, where Obama lived from 6 to 10 years old, before returning to Hawaii, finishing out his elementary and secondary schooling there.

In adaptations from the book, published in Vanity Fair this month, Maraniss writes,

At age 20, Obama was a man of the world. He had never been to south-central Kansas or western Kenya, the homelands of his ancestors, yet his divided heritage from Africa and the American heartland had defined him from the beginning. He could not be of one place, rooted and provincial. From his years living in Indonesia, where he was fully immersed in Javanese schools and culture; from his adolescence in Hawaii, where he was in the polyglot sea of hapa and haole, Asians and islanders; from his mother’s long-term commitment to development work overseas; from his friendship with Pakistani students at Occidental and his extended visit to their country—from all of these he had experienced far more global diversity than the average college junior. He knew the ways of different cultures better than he knew himself.

In 1979, Obama began his post-secondary education at Occidental College, in Los Angeles. Then, after transferring to Columbia University two years later, he reconnected with Alex McNear, a friend from Occidental, who was spending the summer in New York. Obama wrote her that he envied his friends who were heading into business and other mainstream pursuits, but that didn’t feel right for him:

Caught without a class, a structure or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs.

Obama first met a later girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, in 1983 at a Christmas party. In one of those TCK “me too!” moments, they discovered that both had spent time in Jakarta as children. Maraniss writes,

He noticed her accent. Australian, she said. He knew many Aussies, friends of his mother’s, because he had lived in Indonesia when he was a boy. So had she, before her parents divorced, and again briefly in high school. As it turned out, their stays in Jakarta had overlapped for a few years, starting in 1967. They talked nonstop, moving from one subject to another, sharing an intense and immediate affinity, enthralled by the randomness of their meeting and how much they had in common. They had lived many places but never felt at home.

John Richardson, himself a TCK who grew up in Asia, believes that Obama’s time overseas has had a big impact on shaping his personality and how he goes about solving problems. What some—from both the right and left—see as Obama’s frustrating bipartisanship, writes Richardson, isn’t “exactly bipartisanship. It’s something else—something strange and essential. It is, though we don’t quite realize it yet, the real reason we elected him.”

Some, fellow TCKs and non TCKs alike, would argue that this form of bipartisanship is what kept them from voting for him. It’s not my purpose here to argue politics or the rightness or wrongness of Obama’s views or “the real reason we elected him.” Rather, I want to look at how his TCKness affects him. When TCKs meet each other, they soon find out that while their common experiences have often produced shared attitudes, that does not mean that they share the same beliefs and convictions. Some TCKs passionately defend Obama’s policies while others passionately attack them. Being a Third Culture Kid certainly doesn’t produce cookie-cutter people, political or otherwise.

Richardson goes on to quote from what he calls “the TCK bible,” David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken’s 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. . . . [TCKs] have lived in other places long enough to appreciate the reasons and understanding behind some of the behavioral differences rather than simply being frustrated by them as visitors tend to be.

But, writes Richardson, when TCKs arrive in the US, their disconnect with American culture makes those around them wonder if there is a disconnect in values, too. He goes back to Third Culture Kids:

It seems the very awareness which helps TCKs view a situation from multiple perspectives can also make TCKs seem impatient or arrogant with others who only see things from their own perspective—particularly people from their home culture . . . others may notice how the TCK’s behavior changes in various circumstances and begin to wonder if they can trust anything the TCK does or says. It looks to them as if he or she has no real convictions about much of anything.

According to Van Reken, TCKs often call themselves “chameleons” because “after spending a little time observing what is going on, they can easily switch language, style of relating, appearance, and cultural practices to take on the characteristics needed to blend better into the current scene.” She quotes an article in the Financial Times that states President Obama “benefited from his chameleon power to make a lot of different people feel he represents them. . . .”

Shortly after Obama’s election, Van Reken wrote for The Daily Beast that the new president and the other adult TCKs that he appointed to his cabinet “share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration.” To Van Reken, Obama’s Dreams of My Father “could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color,” and she calls Obama’s “exceptional skill at mediating among competing arguments,” his seeming aloofness, and his “cool manner” as common traits of Third Culture Kids.

Aloofness is one of the descriptors that President Obama’s critics use to tag him. It is similar to some of the ways his girlfriend, Cook, also describes him in her diary: “something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness . . . but I’m still left with this feeling of . . . a bit of a wall—the veil,” “Distance, distance, distance, and wariness,” “that coolness,” and “his withheld-ness.”

During his relationship with Cook, when the two went to social functions, it was usually with Pakistani friends. But there came a time when Obama began to draw away from them, which Beenu Mahmood, one of those friends, noticed. Maraniss writes that Mahmood

could see Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself as a necessary step in establishing his political identity as an American. For years when Barack was around [the Pakistanis], he seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. He was one of them, in that sense. But to get to where he wanted to go he had to change.

Where am I from? Where am I going? These are questions that are sometimes difficult for Third Culture Kids to answer. But for at least one TCK, the answer to the second question ended up being the White House.

(David Maraniss, “Young Barack Obama in Love: A Girlfriend’s Secret Diary,” Vanity Fair, June 2012; John H. Richardson, “How Obama Really  Thinks: A Primer for the Left and Right,” Esquire, June 21, 2010; David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009; Ruth E. Van Reken, “Obama’s ‘Third Culture’ Team,” The Daily Beast, Nov. 26, 2008)

[photo: “Obama plaque,” by Stefan Geens, used under a Creative Commons license. The plaque is located at State Elementary School Menteng 01, Menteng, Jakarta, Indonesia. The inscription reads, “Barack Hussein Obama II, the 44th President of the United States of America, attended this school from 1969-1971.”]

TCK Theater

The first video below is one I’ve seen posted recently on a couple TCK blogs. It was made by a student at Georgetown University. Really well done. Then when I went to its Vimeo site, I read the comments section and saw links to the three others here. Some have been around for a while, but they’re all new to me. Enjoy:

So Where’s Home? A Film about Third Culture Kid Identity, Adrian Bautista

A short documentary that “explores the unique perspectives and identities of Third Culture Kids, people who have spent a significant portion of their childhood overseas.”

Teaser for Neither Here nor There, Ema Ryan Yamazaki

This teaser introduces a 35-minute documentary, also by a college student, that “investigates the often overlooked effects on adults who had international upbringings, their struggles to fit in and an eternal search to belong.” The full video is available for purchase here.

Trailer for Les Passagers: A TCK Story, Aga Magdolen

This trailer is for a documentary “about Third Culture Kids and their journey to find where they belong.”

Thoughts on Traveling, Sanii Fiina

By another university student, this is kind of a visual, multi-language poem. It’s an “idea based on identity and how different languages can create one nationality… or something like that!”

Global Nomads—Loss, Grief, and Comfort

In November of 2007, I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation by Ruth Van Reken, co-author, with David Pollock, of the classic Third Culture Kids. One of her main points was that people who have changed countries often don’t acknowledge their losses, nor do they commonly grieve those losses in a healthy way. But because I didn’t take notes (or if I did, they’re packed away somewhere), I don’t remember a lot of specific details from what she said.

Recently I found a couple resources that have helped me fill in the blanks. One was an article in Columbia News from earlier in the same year, in which Van Reken told the reporter about the losses felt by Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids:

Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, “What did you lose?” Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.

And the other was an interview that Expat Women conducted with Van Reken, again in 2007, in which she expanded on this topic:

[T]he challenge that I see keeping some ATCKs from fully using the great gifts their life has offered them is the issue of unresolved grief. There are several key reasons for this.

First it’s the cycle of mobility itself that is inherent in this lifestyle. Although every person in this world suffers loss, the high mobility of the third culture experience increases the number of times significant loss happens. But beyond the obvious losses mobility brings, TCKs have many other unrecognized or hidden losses as well. They can lose an entire world with the closing of an airplane door but because the country isn’t “theirs,” too often no one seems to understand or honor all that is entailed with that loss.

Other times, TCKs do recognize their losses and try to tell their parents or others how sad they are feeling but people tell them they “shouldn’t” feel like that because they have such an interesting life. Or they may remind the TCK of the greater purposes for which they are in this place . . . God, country, or to make enough money to put the TCK through college. At that point, the permission to grieve openly is gone and the child has no way to process it. Oddly, it seems the very richness and benefits of this life create many of these responses which then take away the permission to grieve because we (or others) believe the grief is a sign of ingratitude for all we have received. In fact, the opposite is true . . . we are grieving because we have lost what we loved! It is an affirmation of our lives, not a negation

In addition, another reason many TCKs can’t work through their various losses is simply that well-meaning people (including parents!) often try to encourage TCKs before they comfort them. There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.

This distinction between encouragement and comfort is another aspect of Van Reken’s presentation that stuck with me. It’s a lesson that applies to all of us as we deal with people going through difficult times. And it’s a point that I plan on visiting again here in the near future—especially since I’ve found another article online that shows how Van Reken uses a story from the life of Jesus to teach this point, just like she did when I heard her speak.

Three cheers for Google and Yahoo! As long as I have the Internet, I may never have to take notes again.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,'” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; “Expat Women’s Interview with Ruth,” Expat Women, August 2007 [archived at Wayback Machine])

[photo: “Day 42,” by Amy Riddlei, used under a Creative Commons license]