By the time I was 18, I had only lived in the United States for a total of three years. When I started college in California, I experienced severe “reverse” culture shock. At the time I had no way of understanding it or preparing for it. Because I had grown up overseas, I had a completely different experience than American kids my age.
When I arrived for my freshman year in college, I talked about traveling around Europe, hiking up Swiss mountains, and living in Africa. My college peers talked about football games, high school proms and television shows I had never heard of. I could not relate to them at all and they thought I was bragging about all the places I had been. It never occurred to me they would think that; to me my life was ordinary. To them I was like an alien landing in their dorm room and talking about visiting the rings of Saturn.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s, married, and living with my son and husband in Moscow, that I discovered a group called Global Nomads. Global Nomads are also called Third Culture Kids (TCK’s). The definition of a TCK is someone who grew up in countries other than their passport-country due to their parents’ jobs. I spent my whole life thinking there was something wrong with me and the founder of the group, Norma McCaig, described me in a detail nobody could have known. McCaig felt everything I felt. She had the same experiences I had. I didn’t think there was another person on earth who understood how I felt. It was truly my “ah ha” moment.
Years later I returned to the US and met Norma McCaig. Through her I learned about an organization that was just getting started called Families in Global Transition (FIGT). This organization, now 15 years old, “promotes the positive value of the international experience, and empowers the family unit and those who serve it before, during and after international transitions. FIGT believes in the capacity of the expatriate and repatriate family to transition successfully, and to leverage the international experience for all of its human and global potential.” (www.figt.org)
FIGT has a conference every year for people to come together from all over the world to share experiences, ideas, research, and information. It lasts three days and is packed full of lectures, presentations, discussion and speeches. The keynote speaker last year was Pico Iyer, a writer and TCK.
I went to the 2013 conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, and one of the highlights for me was a presentation called “Unpacking Our Global Baggage for Creative Expression: Writing your TCK Memoir, Solo Show, or Essay” by Elizabeth Liang.
Elizabeth Liang is an actress and writer living in Los Angeles. You might have seen her in Law and Order: LA, West Wing, Frasier and other TV shows and movies. She is a good actress. She is also a TCK. She grew up in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and Connecticut. To add to the confusion she is a Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent.
She wrote a one-woman show about her life, ALIEN CITIZEN, and it premiered last May at the Asylum Lab in Los Angeles. After a successful five week run it moved to New York City in September opening at the Stage Left Women at Work Festival.
Elizabeth’s website sums up the show as: “Our protagonist deals with the decisions every global nomad has to make repeatedly: to adapt or to simply cope; to build a bridge or to just tolerate. From being a Guatemalan-American teen in North Africa to attending a women’s college in the USA, Alien Citizen reflects her experience that neither one was necessarily easier than the other. She realizes that girls across the world are growing into womanhood in environments that can be hostile to females (including the USA). How does a young girl cope as a border/culture/language/religion straddler in country after country that feels “other” to her when she is the “other?” Where is the line between respecting others and betraying yourself?” (http://cargocollective.com/ElizabethLiangSoloShowandWriter)
I have not yet seen the whole show but the parts I have seen resonate with me on many levels. She grew up overseas, is multilingual and went to a woman’s college in the US. Her life was one of feeling like an outsider and constantly adapting to new things. Like me, she also had trouble fitting in to her passport country.
I wrote a book called Expat Alien, My Global Adventures published in 2012. I wrote it mainly to help further Norma McCaig’s dream of educating not only TCK’s about themselves but the world about them. Things are so much better now for TCK’s, there is a ton of information out there. But I think we still have a way to go. Elizabeth’s play is a great way to get the word out. It is entertaining, funny, informative, and just good.
She will be performing at Princeton University Whitman Theatre on February 12, at MIT’s Bartos Theatre on February 21 and a shorter, 60-min version of the show will be the closing keynote address at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in Virginia on March 23.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.