The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part Two

Pakistan - Lower Bazaar MurreeThe response to “The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part One” was overwhelming. It struck a chord in many of us and Cecily’s vulnerability allowed us to see ourselves in her story – different passport countries but similar narratives. Today Cecily brings us Part Two of her post on The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid. If you missed Part One take a look here.

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You can be arrogant about different things. The rich and wealthy are often considered arrogant by people less well off. Smart people can be arrogant about their brains, sporty people about their brawn. I watch Survivor (my fave show) where the arrogant contestant is a staple of the cast line up every year. In one particular season the good-looking girl was the arrogant one. She created groups and excluded others depending on their ‘hotness’ and ‘cuteness’.

No matter what area of life arrogance shows up in, it’s always an attitude of superiority. Arrogance seeks to diminish the personhood of another based on not matching up to certain criteria, usually determined by the arrogant person. It’s one person saying to another, “You’re not good enough because you don’t tick my boxes.”

I had a lot of boxes when I was a young adult.

The things I valued included being smart, educated, globally-aware with a broad outlook on life, well-travelled, interested in social justice, opinionated, hard-working, straightforward, sensible, clear about your goals, kind, funny and a good conversationalist.

All of those things were fine in themselves. In fact, they were better than fine. They were good, worthwhile, valuable, necessary and community-changing. The problem was that if other people didn’t match up to my standards, I dismissed, disregarded, disdained, disrespected and even despised them. My version of being human was better than theirs. Of course, I hid it – or I tried to. But you can’t stop arrogance leaking out the cracks.

As a third culture kid I put on arrogance as a protection. It was hard to fit nowhere and always be on the outside of every group. I didn’t know the rules of the culture I was supposed to belong to and I didn’t have the group knowledge that my peers took for granted. I didn’t like feeling like I was second best; an oddity; that girl with the funny accent.

It hurt. A lot.

So I created my own identity where I didn’t have to be worse than everybody else. In my version of the world, I was better, for a whole variety of reasons.

It wasn’t until later, when I was older, that I realized that this didn’t really work so well. For a start I was lonely. With every strong wind I wobbled precariously on the pedestal of my own making. And when I did finally fall off, it was hard to accept that I wasn’t perfect, and even harder to accept that I needed help.

Shedding my TCK arrogance meant taking a new look at the lives of the people I was living among. They weren’t second best, small, trivial or stagnant, like I had always thought. They were just lives. They were just people.

I also had to take a look at myself and ask the question: what am I trying to protect myself from? Grief, yes. Hurt, certainly. But most of all, the idea that I am second best. Having a truer perception of myself in relation to others and God helped me be brave to feel the grief, experience the hurt, and know that I am loved, just as surely as others are too.

For a while I felt invisible in my new identity.

It felt as though without the armor of superiority, no-one could see me. But it wasn’t true. People could always see me. The difference was that now I could relate to them. I didn’t have to get rid of the boxes I ticked for myself, but I could now value other people’s boxes just as much.

Maybe not all TCKs are like me and put on arrogance as protection. Even so, there is still often a perception that we are know-it-alls and show-offs, often simply because we have different knowledge to the people around us.

I remember as a little girl on furlough in Australia expressing surprise at the size of the garlic bulbs in the supermarket. “That’s a lot bigger than in Pakistan,” I said to my cousin, who promptly turned up her nose at me.

“Well, in Australia, that’s how big garlic is,” she said sniffily. I could see she was upset but I had no idea what I had said.

I only understood it later in life when I met an exchange student at uni.
“Back home we do this,” she said. “In the US we do that.” I found it boring at first. And then I found it insulting. “I have such great times with my really great friends back home,” she said. “I really miss them.”

“If it’s so great, why don’t you go back there,” was my immediate thought. “Aren’t we good enough for you?” And all of a sudden I realized why my cousin had been upset about the garlic. All she had heard from me was “Pakistan this and Pakistan that” and she was tired of it. Didn’t her experience count for something too? Couldn’t I just start living where I was?

Children blurt out what’s on their minds, but as TCK adults we have a choice; we can constantly talk about our past experiences and places we’ve been and risk being thought arrogant and difficult to get on with. Or we can live more fully where we are, embrace what’s around us and be aware that when we bring other knowledge and experience to the conversation we need to do it with respect for the people we are with and the culture we are in.

Cecily Paterson blogs at www.cecilypaterson.squarespace.com. She is the author of an award-winning memoir, Love, Tears & Autism, and recently published her first teen novel, Invisible, available free as an e-book at iTunes and smashwords.com and cheap at Amazon.com.

Home – Cecily. Mostly.

cecilypaterson.squarespace.com

For more essays on third culture kids take a look at Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging available here: 

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28 thoughts on “The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part Two

  1. Isn’t some of this just a stage of culture shock, which is experienced by most everyone who changes countries? Personally, after 11 years as an MK when I came back for college I was mostly just terrified. I was eager to find a place in my “home country.” I knew that people couldn’t relate to or really understand my stories from the Philippines. My knowledge and experiences from that time seemed mostly irrelevant. Sure, I had an amazing academic preparation for college, but being smart had never opened doors for me socially or helped me drive a car or work at a fast food joint.

    When I was in college I started a group for other MKs. I needed a group where I wasn’t strange. Right now I have a friend who is a Chinese national. After we had been friends a while she said, “When we met I thought we could be friends because you had lived somewhere else.” We love to talk about how our experiences growing up were similar (and different).

    I think that if I was arrogant it was partly the arrogance of being an Evangelical Christian, but that’s another story.

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  2. Great to read these two blogs. I have been viewed as arrogant or unapproachable too in the past for the same reasons. And, as you wrote, even now as I am aware of my TCK status, it sometimes seeps out between the cracks however respectful we are of the culture and people we are with. It is a balancing act and sometimes we trip up. That’s OK, as long as we are aware of what’s happening and can laugh at ourselves and the situation. Explaining the TCK mindset to non-TCKs often helps as well, because we are not an open book to others and we have to help them read us just like we have to learn to read them.

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  3. Wow, spot on! Thank you for this insightful window into your own experience and what you’ve learned from it. One thing I’ve found myself pondering — why is it that “hidden immigrants” (TCKs and the like) are more likely to exhibit arrogant behavior than “real” immigrants? I suppose one difference lies in the desire of the one to be back in the other place, and the desire of the other to make it in the new place?

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    1. Thanks for reading Melody — I think you’re right on about the difference in motivation/desires of the two. Perhaps TCK’s have more in common with refugees, who aren’t necessarily here by choice, but because circumstances dictated their path. But I also think that immigrants are given grace that is lacking with TCK’s. Everyone knows they are from somewhere else – they’re not necessarily expected to know the rules. As TCK’s we’re expected to get the rules, we aren’t considered different and there in is one of the issues. In my post “Saudade” I relay being told by some colleagues that I wasn’t an invisible immigrant, they were accusing in tone – their message was “You’re from here” but the fact is I’m not. Thanks for commenting – it’s a good conversation.

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  4. I just read about a new book coming out in March that seems to fit this thread of discussion: Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, by Andy Molinsky. Here’s an excerpt:

    The first lesson is that people can face three core challenges when learning to adapt their cultural behavior:
    • The competence challenge: Feeling that your knowledge and skill is not up to the task of adapting behavior
    • The authenticity challenge: Experiencing the new behavior as being in conflict with your accustomed way of behaving and with your preexisting cultural values and beliefs
    • The resentment challenge: Feeling that the very act of adapting cultural behavior is a burden and an imposition.

    From a preview chapter that can be viewed here: http://hbr.org/hbrg-main/resources/pdfs/marketing/press/molinsky_global_dexterity_intro.pdf.

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      1. Thanks Joy – this looks interesting. That picture of dexterity is interesting. It strikes a chord with me – for years I felt like if I grew content, it would be almost a betrayal of who I knew myself to be. The “losing oneself” is a big deal.

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  5. These 2 blogs have been hard to read, as they cut close to home. It has taken me a long time to realise my past is not something people want to know, and although letting go of the past is a normal and healthy thing, it is much harder when it is not a natural process of time, but a up-rooting and transplanting.

    I re-posted them on facebook, and one of my friends refered to her past as being “homesick for a borrowed life”. I found that quite profound, as it is often how we are made to feel about that part of our life that isn’t shared with those at “home”. We don’t own it (the country) so why should we miss it? I think the arrogance to some degree is a defence of that which we have already lost once, and don’t wish to loose a second time especially if it is seens to concede to the perception that it wasn’t that important in the first place.

    I agree about the lack of context when sharing our past to make connections. I had over the years withdrawn from that social interaction, and I envy Christin Johansson, how nice to have such wise advice given – I’m in the process of having to learn how to do that, although I doubt my experiences will be of interest to others without some cultural context of where I grew up!

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    1. I remember wanting to talk about Taiwan, my birthplace and home for my 1st 15 yrs all the time when we came back to the States, and NO ONE being interested! My BFF from HS, however, who took me under her wing, is now an English As A New Language teacher! How appropriate! She understood that I was different, but loved me anyway! Now, in my 50’s I’m taking Chinese at the U and working towards my ENL certification, even tho I can’t work full-time due to health problems, (I’ve been subst teaching for the past 14 yrs and hope to be able to handle a PT job in the future), and I just love talking to the instructor, who’s from China about culture and all. This semester there are only 3 of us in the class, and the other 2 are so shy and quiet as i was at their age~The instructor admits he talks too much about “home” and personal stuff, but I love that! He said they probably don’t have much to say because they don’t know much about the subjects we love to discuss. I love interacting with folk from other cultures…

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  6. Reblogged this on tckrambling and commented:
    This is such a good piece of resonating writing I have to reblog. Yes, this really reflects a lot of my ramblings and most of all echoes a lot of what I feel and think inside. I would never want to be considered arrogant but it honestly hurts a lot when I don’t fit into other people’s expectations either. As I try and learn life to empathize better and step into other people’s shoes to see their perspective…read this blog!

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  7. Thanks all. Robyn, as I said on facebook, we ALL have to self edit to a degree in order to make connections with people. That’s part of being human. The trick is to find a place where you can express that other side of yourself as well – it won’t be everywhere, but it will be somewhere, and it will be precious for that reason.

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  8. I can really resonate with Christin and think the advice received was so wise. I was recently with family (siblings who also grew up overseas) but have remained in the US. When my husband and I want to talk about our work and lives out of the US there is a polite nod, but no questions. We feel like we have practiced asking them first. But on this last trip I realized that we travel between, we have been to their work places, we know their homes–they only have a few pictures of where we live–it’s hard for others to imagine the local and they simply have no personal reference point. I loved how it came back to you when the exchange student talked about America. It is always good to try and step into another’s shoes, and we who are TCK should be the very best at this, since we do it all the time when we are in a “foreign” country. Why do we tend to balk at doing it in our passport countries?

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    1. Something I’ve noticed during the 25 years I’ve spent living outside of my country of origin is that, no matter where I go, people seem a lot more inclined to listen to and learn stuff from people they perceive as ‘foreign’ than they are from people they perceive to be ‘local’.

      In Singapore (where I’ve lived for very nearly 19 years already), I might make exactly the same comment about an issue as my Singaporean husband, and the same Singaporeans who looked completely bored when he said it will listen to me and say ‘Oh, but that’s so interesting!’

      Conversely, whenever he makes the same comment I’ve just made to people in the UK (where I’m from), people react as if he’s just thrown such a blindingly new light on whatever the topic might have been that their lives are never going to be the same again.

      TCKs grow up in places where people are interested to know more about them, to an extent that can be frustrating. My kids – aged 19 and 18 – haven’t ever lived in the UK and would prefer to be seen as ‘local’ than as ‘foreign’ in Singapore.

      They’d prefer to be seen as ‘foreign’ rather than ‘local’ in the UK, as would I, but it doesn’t happen. When we visit, we don’t usually share anything very much about our every day lives; we tell people ‘We don’t live in this country’ and only tell them about where we do live if they bother to ask.

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  9. I think the last paragraph says a great deal. One other comment: my first experience of culture shock was coming back to the UK from the West Indies, and I had a classic reaction – withdrawal. I imagine that might have come over as arrogance, but I don’t think I was consciously putting others down in order to make myself look better.

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  10. Thank you Cecily….I also have memories, came home as 16 yrs of age to Sweden. Couldnt understand why people quieted down.. as I said “in Pakistan” …. we did this or it is this way. My mother gave me a good advice that I have learned alot from. If you want real friends. Concentrate on them first, get to know their interests. Show love and affection towards others so they know you care. After that they will want to hear your experiences and it will be more natural. I listened to what she adviced me and I guess I have had it as a model in my life. It isnt all easy when you grow upp when you as a teen have so many events that are so interesting and very important to tell. ;) I really know who my friends are, because they can listen to my stories from my past in Pakistan and enjoy it together with me…because I have listened to them aswell.

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  11. Yes. But Cecily our knowledge and experience is so foreign and so strange and our listeners have no place to “file” the things we say. It’s all so terribly out of context.
    Conversations with friends are fueled by the collective’s experiences, their vignettes, their memories, their stories. Someone starts a story about a traffic violation. Someone pitches in their own similar story. Everyone is laughing and connecting. Another adds his own story involving a police man. Now it’s my turn. I’d like to share a story about a Pakistani cop who stopped my dad in Muzzarabad on the way to Multan. It’s hilarious. But I know, from other experiences, that if I do it will land with a thud. I know that if I do it sounds like I’m arrogant and then we’re back to where we started from. So I don’t. I self-edit. I tell another story that’s happened in the past 20 years. It fits. It works. But it’s not nearly as funny. The conversation continues. I’ve successfully not killed it. But I’ve also done something to my soul. I’ve fragmented it. I’ve divided up myself. And that can’t be healthy.
    I still feel like this arrogant thing is very deep and very significant. There must be a way for us to enter into where we live with humility and still be who we are–a collection of stories and experiences and emotions.

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    1. I get this situation Robynn. Have lived it many times and watched my kids live it. They learned not to talk about their lives overseas, as if those years didn’t exist.
      There needs to be an outlet, because those years are PART OF WHO THEY ARE (me too) So we crave times with those who do understand. Finding those with whom we can share these stories/parts of ourselves with is very important, as is being able to relate to those who can’t relate to that part of us. I agree with Cecily that we need to live in the here and now. That is healthy. Blessings to you as you move forward, with your unique past enriching you on the inside!

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      1. Robynn and Jennifer,
        I’m with you! Killing or suffocating a part of myself in order to fit in feels so self-destructive. I thought I had given up being a chameleon now that I’m living in “my home” culture and have been for so many, many years, but if it’s at this price, how is this good?

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    1. What Bettie (and others) said! Well done Cecily. You explore the challenging layers of negotiating cultural and geographic boundaries with honesty and compassion.

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