Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

Being an ATCK

with 5 comments

Map at Berlin Bus Stop

There is no escaping the label Third Culture Kid (TCK); I am a grown-up one. I would be in good company if more people knew that President Obama is one too.

An Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) is an ugly term that means I have grown up in cultures not that of my parents. I have thought for a while that it was best to ignore my rootless conundrum and avoided probing too deeply into the difference it makes to my adult life.

I dread the possibility that people will think I am showing off at how ‘well-travelled’ I am. I dislike but  try desparately to contort myself into cultural boxes and usually I let the other person do part of the constructing of the box to fit me in.

To that innocent question ‘Where do you come from?” my spiel normally goes something like this:

“I am from England…”

(Wonderfully simple, a nice English Girl, probably from Sussex or Kent, possibly Hampshire.)

“…but at the moment I am living in Germany.”

(My imagination is not stretching too far yet, this is still Europe, she is white, blonde, perhaps even has some German family, perhaps here on university exchange.)

“I cannot speak German.”

(Well, this is getting odd, she isn’t German. She really should attempt to learn some German, it would enable her to fit into the culture more easily, surely it can’t be that difficult.)

“I am working here but my parents lived here a few years whilst I was at university, I wasn’t expecting to be lucky enough to be able to find work and live here with them.”

(She has parents here? Goodness, she is still following her parents around and letting them take care of anything that requires speaking German.)

“They cannot speak German either.”

(Well, they really ought to learn some German, are they just lazy or culturally obnoxious?)

“They are teachers.”

(Ah, that is logical, I was expecting something more like like a diplomat or in the military, but yes English teachers, that makes sense.)

“They don’t teach English, they work in international schools.”

(She is British School educated that explains the accent.)

“So I grew up overseas and went to international schools, not necessarily British, my accent just seems to be because I watched BBC world news a lot…” *fake chuckle*

And, of course, it often goes on. Arduously.

You know how some people come back from their gap years in India or Ghana with dread locks or braids, sporting some wax cloth, beads, bangles, new tattoo or at least just a healthy-looking tan?

I don’t look like that and never have done. I have mousey hair, no tan and a cream tea British accent. My appearance , and my accent accentuates my appearance, is just where the difficulty in fitting back into Europe begins. All the normal cultural cues end with ellipses…

Here are just a few small ways that being a TCK has affected me:

  • When I arrived in Heathrow airport as a teenager after 6 years in the tropics, the chatty coach driver asked my father whether he had been hiding me indoors for all that time because I was so white (not naturally very fair-skinned, just pale).
  • I pointed at all the sheep and cows in the English fields and joyfully exclaimed “How quaint!”
  • I didn’t know how to pay for a ticket on the bus (luckily bus drivers are nearly always lovely, apart from in London where they are nearly always horrid).
  • The idea of being able to walk across the street at zebra crossings and have cars stop for you, that is just too easy!
  • The libraries were so full of books to read for free, my heart could have burst.
  • To be able to go to the cinema and watch the new movies as they came out….ah I thought I would never take that for granted.
  • Only this week I broke the habit of thinking I must stay in the car passenger seat at the petrol station whilst the driver went to pay for the pump. I don’t travel in cars very often and when I was growing up it was foolhardy to walk alone anywhere as a white girl and you wouldn’t leave the car unattended otherwise you wouldn’t find it when you came back, if you came back at all (my parents exaggerated to some extent).

Being an ATCK is like being some kind of naive spy without a purpose other than to act normal.

Being an ATCK is not being understood as being anything in particular.

Being an ATCK is watching all the prejudices against this ‘third culture’ fly under the  radar; how can prejudices even exist if the culture itself against which they are bourne cannot be defined by the average person?

I read an article recently in the Guardian about the every challenges and prejudices faced by an unusual set of British twins, one who is black and one who is white. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the white twin who suffered more from racial prejudice and bullying in school. The mother proposes that other white kids were incited by the audacity of a “black person” appearing to be just like them. I think I can relate to this situation; although I have not been bullied outright, I find that not having a cultural background reflected in my language, accent or appearance means that often people find it hard to accept that I am different in a good way. People rarely acknowledge the difficulties, merits and challenges that having only skin deep cultural belonging present.

I find it hard to accept that I won’t fit into any culture but I know that having a complex cultural background is going to become more and more common and recognised. As I am making steps towards moving back to the UK, my home culture, I find that I am more nervous than ever about fitting in and finding a job. In which job will I benefit from my international experience but not require a second language? Should I continue to ignore my cultural complexity? Should I dreadlock my hair as a nod towards my previous homes in foreign lands? Should I explain all of this in depth to acquaintances and employers? I know one thing for certain is that I seek friendship and connections with others like me.

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Written by bookinglass

November 3, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. My background is not quite as complicated as yours (army brat, but we only got sent to boring places – England, Northern Ireland, back to England), but usally I just tell people “I’m from England”. Then if they want something more specific “Near Newcastle”. My parents are both from the North and I *did* live there for 5 years before going to uni so it normally works. At least until I meet an English person who wonders why I don’t have a northern accent…

    bevchen

    November 16, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    • Ah, that sounds complicated enough 🙂 I could try that, ‘near Brighton’ thing, where my grandparents lived for years. I also feel like I have a greater connection with the coast and the sea… so ‘I’m a coastal person’ could work too in a imaginative summary of where I feel most at home.

      bookinglass

      November 21, 2011 at 4:21 pm

  2. You’ll find your way, but don’t hide your background or who you are. It may take some time to find your niche, but there certainly should be places where your background and living experiences are an asset. England is a multi-culture country, so that should make it possible.

    I’m not a TCK but more a multi-culture adult. I grew up in the Netherlands, left and married an American in my early twenties and for decades now have lived in a number of foreign countries and never again in the Netherlands. Where am I from? From the Netherlands, I guess, but I haven’t lived there for ages and when I visit, which I do often, I feel a bit foreign. Am I from America? I did live there as an adult at various times for a good number of years, but I don’t “feel” American although I’m very comfortable there, know the ropes, the language, the culture, but . . .

    I’m always more at home with other internationals and expats from different places. It’s what happens.

    • Thank you, I hope I find a way through! Feeling at home is different to where we often say we are from but much more important.

      bookinglass

      December 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm

  3. […] Australian, Russian. It’s a compliment to be told ‘You definitely don’t look British’.  Having been an expat in Oceania, Africa and Europe, in a plethora of ways over a lifetime of intercultural comparison, my body shape has fallen wide […]


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