On Work and the Third Culture Kid

journeying reality 2

A couple of months ago I did a series called “Finding Your Niche.” This series was a set of guest posts by third culture kids who have found places that fit their multicultural pasts. The theme of the series – “How do I connect my multicultural past with a meaningful present?” The essays were excellent. From law to international development to living in an expat community to seeing yourself in the light of your family history, everyone had a story of finding their niche.

It’s a question that so many of us raised between worlds ask ourselves all the time. How do I find work that has meaning? How do I fit into the cultural values of my passport country when I know so little about it? Do I matter? Does my background matter or will it just fade into oblivion, like an old file into a file folder, only to be dug up long after I’m gone?

How can I take the invisible skills that served me so well for so long and connect them to where I now work?

Some people find it easier than others. Whether by sheer luck or strategic career choices they land in a place where they can use the best of who they are as third culture kids in their places of work. Others struggle. They live in rural Iowa, or small town Vermont, or any number of places where diversity is the one adopted kid on their street, and the only ethnic restaurant is bad Chinese food at a take out place – food that those from China would never recognize.

It’s easy to point to the adult third culture kids who have jobs in, let’s say the White House, but then there are the rest of us. The TCK from Nigeria who has lived all over the world and is trying to settle into a role in Lagos; the TCK who grew up in Pakistan, now settled in a tiny town in the UK that hates Pakistanis; the TCK who looks at Valerie Jarrett and President Obama and thinks “I could do their job!”

This is incredibly tough. It’s not being a baby and discontent to admit that nothing in our lives prepared us for small, seemingly narrow-minded spaces in our passport countries, it’s accepting reality.

Coupled with that is the natural restlessness, the sense that we need to get to the airport and catch the first plane to anywhere just to relieve the ache in our souls. The restlessness when we feel like others take too long to make decisions, aren’t willing to see the point of view of those different from them, or simply seem too monocultural in their approach.

“Often from a young age, TCKs are unofficial ambassadors to other nations, representing one country while living in another. TCKs know from life experience that there is nothing more important than the relationships that are formed between people and, because of this, TCKs are often able to look past things such as differences in nationality, religion, and culture in the interest of forging new friendships. Moreover, TCKs also have multiple identities, often able to easily adopt the culture of their host country, and eventually creating their own hybrid culture.” from Career Choices and the Influence of Third Culture Kids on International Relations

Sometimes the solution is to find another job. It really is. Sometimes there is a better fit for us, a place where those ‘best of’ skills can be used. Other times we are to stay put. Stay put and look at the big picture. What can we offer to our company? To our place of work? Where can we listen, learn, and challenge the status quo in a given situation or work place?

With a mobile childhood, life choices differ. Some people never want to move again. I have moved my kids from the proverbial “pillar to post” and I know that has worn on them, made them alternately restless and longing for roots. A couple of my kids may never end up moving again. Others may be similar to me and my husband, restless at 6 years and moving at 7. But even though life choices differ, some of what we bring to our work and our communities is similar.

I think this is a time when we need to look at some of the research, some of those characteristics and traits of the TCK. It’s not to put us in a box, not to down play our individuality, but rather to help guide us so that we can see what we can bring to our jobs in small towns and spaces. For instance we know that “Only 21 percent of the American population (24 percent of men and 18 percent of women) have graduated from a four-year college. In sharp contrast, 81 percent of the adult TCKs have earned at least a bachelor’s degree (87 percent of the men, 76 percent of the women). Half of this number have gone on to earn master’s degrees and doctorates.” [ ©1993, 1999, by Ruth Hill Useem and Ann Baker Cottrell.]

We also know that when surveyed on adjusting to their passport countries the response was that they “never adjust.” Not really. Let me quantify that by again quoting Dr. Ruth Hill Useem “The answer to the question of how long it takes them to adjust to American life is: they never adjust. They adapt, they find niches, they take risks, they fail and pick themselves up again. They succeed in jobs they have created to fit their particular talents, they locate friends with whom they can share some of their interests, but they resist being encapsulated. Their camouflaged exteriors and understated ways of presenting themselves hide the rich inner lives, remarkable talents, and often strongly held contradictory opinions on the world at large and the world at hand.” There is much more research available but this gives a window into education and gifts that you may bring to your place of work.

Along with some of the books and resources available are other TCKs who are a step ahead of us. They seem so amazing, so well adjusted, but what we see on the surface, the contentment and satisfaction, comes with a story. Hearing that story can be encouraging and life-changing. Knowing they walked through a path of trying to find their niche and figure out where they fit gives us hope and helps push us to action or gives us patience to wait.

As I’ve said so often, I have done no research; all I have is earned fact. So here is what I believe in general third culture kids bring to the workplace:

  1. The art of negotiation – this is huge in today’s world. One has only to look at the abhorrent comments section on any controversial article to know that too many in our world are unable and unwilling to dialogue. Unwilling to look at a middle ground and negotiate. As third culture kids we have had to do that since birth.
  2. Flexibility and a high tolerance of ambiguity – when you spend a huge amount of your life in travel, airports, missing flights, rearranging schedules you learn that life brings you surprises. We can model this in our spheres of influence.
  3. Sensitivity – We know what it is like to feel different, to feel marginalized, to feel ‘other.’ What a gift in today’s world! Look around you – who is ‘other’ in your community? Who struggles with belonging? Who wears veils – not literal ones, figurative? Who hides who they are and needs someone to come along side them. There are many. Mother Teresa famously said:
    Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society — completely forgotten, completely left alone.”We can do this! Indeed I’ve seen it many times.
  4. Cultural competency and humility – If you define cultural competency at its most basic level, it is about learning to communicate and function effectively across cultural barriers, cultural differences. So no matter where you live in the world, cultural competency is a useful, even necessary skill. In our increasingly diverse societies, it is indeed a critical life skill. The term cultural humility was developed in 1998 by two physicians: Dr. Melanie Tervalon and Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia. They proposed that this was what the goal should be when it comes to looking at outcomes in patients. They say this: “Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnership with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations.” I propose that the same principal can be used in other relationships by taking the first part of their definition and applying it across our lives, wherever we may be. Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique. 
  5. Fun and a sense of adventure – In our stressed out world, who better to help people relax and not take themselves, or their work, too seriously?

When you think about those characteristics, they can be used in any work situation. While they seem best used in international settings, at least to those of us with one foot in the air, they are life skills and they are valuable.

With every strength comes a weakness, and we are not going into that today. That’s for another day. But if you are a third culture kid or an adult third culture kid be encouraged! Your background gives you an amazing perspective. May we all be able to do the sometimes hard work of making it matter!  

 What would you add to the list of what adult third culture kids/third culture kids bring to the workplace?

Only a few days left to buy Between Worlds and in doing so donate to the refugee crisis in Syria. Head to Amazon or Barnes & Noble for your copy and all proceeds go to a cause! 

6 thoughts on “On Work and the Third Culture Kid

  1. Pingback: The New Kids
  2. Hi, Marilyn! I do love reading your blog! Keep up the good work! It was GRAND to see you at the Reunion!!! and the others of your family!!! A question – what is the meaning of your using the “N” Arabic letter on your stuff?? What meaning does that stand for?? See you later, Auntie Mary

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    1. Auntie Mary! You are my favorite! The ‘noon’ is to remember the Christians in Mosul – ISIS marked a red ‘n’ on their doors to target them. They were given 3 choices: flee, convert, or be killed. Thanks so much for asking! I love you deeply.

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  3. Once again, you have found the words to express things that have been running through my mind lately… All of your post resonated with me, so deeply, but this paragraph in particular hit home: “Coupled with that is the natural restlessness, the sense that we need to get to the airport and catch the first plane to anywhere just to relieve the ache in our souls. The restlessness when we feel like others take too long to make decisions, aren’t willing to see the point of view of those different from them, or simply seem too monocultural in their approach.”

    Lately I’ve been in a place of searching and longing… Searching for what I want to do, how I can use my TCK experiences to do something I love, but also to impact and help others… Longing for change, for a place to fit in, to be surrounded by others like me, to settle down and yet to move again (like you said – “alternately restless and longing for roots”). But I don’t know where I would feel ‘right’ and not ‘other’ to put down roots…

    It’s a complicated, at times contradictory path, and it’s posts like this (and your book) that help me navigate it – so thank you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your earned facts. They make more of a difference than you can imagine.

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  4. It’s been interesting watching your train of thought on work this week. It got me thinking, though I haven’t responded till now. I know that wars in the Middle East especially weigh on you, and they don’t weigh on me as much, because I didn’t grow up there like you did. So I can’t comment on that specifically.
    Though I can say that I find meaning in the small work that I do. I think we all have to find meaning in the work we do, otherwise it would feel pointless to do it. And I don’t think work is supposed to be ONLY drudgery, though it sometimes is. I think we’re supposed to feel purpose in SOMETHING in life. Maybe that’s the paid workaday job, maybe it’s something else, but there has to be purpose to something we do in life.
    And honestly, I never dreamed I would do anything but stay home with my kids. I had no idea I would ever write for other people. And so, even though that’s pretty small, it’s still meaningful — and much larger than I ever imagined.
    I think we just have to keep our eyes fixed on whatever small (or big) task God has given us. John Chapter 21 plays a big part in that for me — I mentioned it on my comment to Lindsay’s guest post on ALO. Just trying to listen to the voice of Jesus when He says “YOU — follow Me.”
    Well, there you have it, my disorganized thoughts on work :)

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