The Families in Global Transition annual conference was this past weekend down the street from my house. It is an opportunity for expat families and Third Culture Kids (people who grew up outside their passport country) to come together and share their work, research and ideas. I went last year and attended sessions on “Living Whilst Surviving – an Anatomy of Hope and of What Kept Them Going”, “In Search of Identity: Awakening your Authentic Self” and “Unpacking Our Global Baggage for Creative Expression: Writing your TCK Memoir, Solo Show, or Essay”. I volunteered to take photos, met some interesting people and learned a few things.
I was planning on going this year but it didn’t work out. I have mixed feelings about it. I am a part of the group because I share a similar background and experience but at the same time I am an outsider. The first time I went to a conference was 10 years ago and it was like being at “home” because I met so many people I could immediately identify with. Now the group has grown and evolved into professionals “selling” their services mostly geared toward expat globally mobile families. Since I am outside the circle, I don’t get as much out of it. I still think it is a very worthwhile organization and does a lot of good for the TCK community.
My book, Expat Alien, is about my journey through the ups and downs of growing up among cultures and living as an adult between cultures. I hope that in addition to entertaining, it will also help spread the word about a unique and interesting group of people, the TCK.
I am what you might call a “reverse” expat. I was born in Burma and lived almost my entire life outside my passport country until it was time to be sent off to college. My father worked in international agriculture and we lived in Mexico, Colombia, and Nigeria. I went to boarding school in Texas and Switzerland. We weren’t expats because my parents were looking for a better job or because they wanted a change. They really believed in what they were doing and hoped they could have an influence on making the world a better place. After they had been at it a few years they realized they weren’t going to change the world but their philosophy was if they could help just one person to have a better life, it was worth the trouble.
I made my first round the world trip when I was 7 months old. When I was 6 we moved to Mexico City where I attended a British school with kids from over 30 different nationalities. I lived at 8600 ft. in the Andes Mountains for two years and met all kinds of interesting people. My junior year in high school we moved to Lagos, Nigeria. I thought I had seen poverty in Latin America but it didn’t even come close to Nigeria. Some of my best times were spent in Africa wandering around the countryside. We didn’t always have electricity and the phones rarely worked, TV was non-existent, and every Sunday I religiously took my malaria pills. We read every book in sight and when all else failed, we played a good game of cards.
That is how I grew up.
In 1974 I went off to California to college totally unprepared for life in the USA. I knew nothing of the culture, history, or pop culture of the time. I spent my junior and senior years in high school at boarding school traveling around Europe visiting art museums, famous landmarks, eating gelato and veal parmesan in Italy, and drinking beer in Germany. I had seen ruin after ruin in Greece and the silence of Dachau. On top of that I spent my holidays in West Africa amid poverty and filth that no American could ever imagine. I was an American by birth. I looked like an American. I talked like an American. But I was very different.
Needless to say, I had an adjustment problem. My first year in college was a low point in my life. I could not relate to my peers and they could not relate to me. I thought there was something wrong with me. I had never had adjustment problems before. I had moved often and been to many new schools. What was wrong?
I learned to keep my mouth shut and listen. I listened to all the stories my peers told, and I smiled and nodded and I kept my mouth shut. Over time, they came to accept me and I slowly learned their language. I watched TV and could relate to their references, I picked up their slang, I listened to the radio and became familiar with their music. I slowly became one of them. And they slowly accepted the fact that my winter break consisted of a camera safari through East Africa, or a trip to the Ivory Coast.
It was a hard lesson to learn, but I learned it and I went on to form close friendships and lived happily in the USA for many years.
Fast forward twenty years later. I was sitting in a dark, drab apartment in Moscow, Russia, cruising the Internet. My one year old son was in the next room sleeping. My husband was out who knew where. I came across an article titled “Global Nomads”. This woman, Norma McCaig, had written an article about me. I couldn’t believe it. She was describing me perfectly. She had the same experiences and feelings I did. Could it be possible somebody else had been through this very same thing? This article led me to others. Here I was at 40 years old discovering I had a label. I was part of a group. I belonged to a group! Wow! It was the most amazing feeling. Global Nomad, Third Culture Kid, TCK. Hey, that’s me!
I learned there was research being done on me. People were studying me!
“… TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries… they suffer reverse culture shock… face an identity crisis…don’t know where they are from…have trouble settling down…prefer to socialize with other TCKs… develop chameleon like ability to become part of other cultures…”
Yup, it was all there. Can you imagine not knowing who you are or where you are from for 40 years and then finding out?
Okay, it’s not that easy but it really helped a lot.
I have had an amazing life with outrageous experiences in different cultures and places around the world. And I have loved every minute of it. But it would have been even better if I had known I was in the TCK club a little earlier.
Expat Alien, is available on Amazon.com.
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.