Exploring Third Culture Kid Bigotry – A Repost


“It’s one thing to criticize a culture. It’s another to see that the culture being criticized is formed partly in response to other cultures, and that those cultures are, in turn, worth criticizing. This is why explaining human behavior is so difficult: the buck never stops. The explanations don’t come to an obvious, final resting place.”  The Lives of Poor White People, The New Yorker, September 12, 2016

Three years ago I wrote a piece called Exploring TCK Bigotry. It was an effort to better understand my own prejudice as well as some of the prejudices I have encountered in other third culture kids. I am reposting today with some changes.

To the non third culture kid – let me explain: Our life circumstances have gifted us with many things — a love of travel, flexibility, a strong identification with others who have lived abroad for extended periods of time, and a world view that extends miles, nations, and borders past our passport countries.

But along with that we struggle with being invisible immigrants – we may look like those around us but we think so differently that we feel like chickens in the midst of humans, or aliens in the midst of natives. We are those who feel ‘other.’ We don’t know the rules and make massive mistakes in our passport countries. We can be arrogant about what we know and insecure about what we don’t know. We are the ones without a driver’s license, without the understanding of the hidden rules of a culture, without the common language of idioms and pop culture.

And though it’s difficult to admit, we are prone to prejudice and bigotry in our passport countries. This is ironic. We who are marked by flexibility, adaptability, maturity and fun suddenly display disdain and inability to relate to those around us. What causes the disconnect? What causes the dissonance?

Mark Twain wrote these words years ago:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Those of us who are third culture kids love the quote. “That’s right!” we loudly proclaim. “That’s what’s wrong with other people!” “That’s what’s wrong with Trump supporters.” 

We forget that people, that human behavior is much more complex than the quote. We forget that we have met travelers who display extreme prejudice and others who haven’t traveled who love learning about the one who is ‘other.’

So the quote turns on us — rather like pointing the finger at someone, suddenly realizing the other fingers point back in our faces?  What happens when we take all that life experience — travel, cultural humility established through many years of negotiating cross-cultural interactions, our ability to understand dual causality and be capable of complexity — and turn it into a weapon against those who have not traveled?

We become that which we dislike. We become snobs. We become narrow-minded in a reverse way. We become the dictionary definition of a bigot “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

My faith tradition comes down hard on prejudice and arrogance. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”*

“That’s simplistic” I want to cry out “It doesn’t take into consideration that this is hard for me, that I struggle with feeling ‘other’ and so out of step with those around me, that this is all I have.” The words above from the Holy Scriptures dance in my head but they need to be imprinted on my heart.

In a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, my brother Stan responded with this:

“So my problem is this and more – I find myself alternating among prejudices depending on where I am geographically. Sometimes I find myself feeling prejudice against my passport countrymen; then against my birth nation; then against my fellow TCK generation and, not surprisingly, mostly then against myself for feeling this way. Thankfully the opposite happens more and more where I find myself rejoicing in the diversity of cultures, appreciation for my passport country, and, again not surprisingly, at peace with myself.”

And hear this for it is critically important to the discussion:

“The degree of my prejudice seems directly related to the amount of direct and personal interaction I have with people of a variety of cultures (listening, learning) or, on the other hand, how much time I spend avoiding such interaction, leading to introspection and bigotry.”

When you sit down and learn about someone, see them as a person and get to know them, it changes the dynamic.

I learn that the person who has lived in the same town since childhood went to a Catholic school in a poor area of Boston and tells amazing and humorous stories about the priests and nuns.  I learn that a friend with an Irish background grew up in an all Italian neighborhood and learned early on, as she went from house to house eating pasta before finally heading home to her mom’s boiled cabbage dinners, that she liked Italian food better. I learn that someone who has lived in the same town her whole life is a voracious reader and can talk about all kinds of places that I’ve never been with a knowledge far beyond mine.

I remember that this is all about relationship. It was the key to loving my adopted countries, it continues to be the key to living in my passport country. As an Adult Third Culture Kid, I’ve had to re-learn the value of relationships, of give and take, of knowing and being known as a fundamental antidote to my TCK bigotry.

The antidote can be summed up like this: When I learn the story of another, when I’m willing to be in relationship, it’s hard to remain a bigot. When I hear someone’s story, I see them as a complex human being who is shaped by culture, background, and external forces. 

I still have a lot to learn – this is a process and my habits of dismissing people don’t die easily. But as my brother said: Thankfully the opposite happens more and more where I find myself rejoicing in the diversity of cultures, appreciation for my passport country, and, again not surprisingly, at peace with myself.

What about you? No matter who you are or where you live, prejudice and bigotry can be subtle. Do you struggle with prejudice and if so, what is your antidote? 

*Philippians 2:3

6 thoughts on “Exploring Third Culture Kid Bigotry – A Repost

  1. I was recently reading a fiction book set in the UK in late 1800’s. I was amused to find a reference to Anglo-Indian “bores” which set off a little interesting TCK reversal moment such as you describe. In the reference the author went on to mention how these “bores” were always going on about what happened in X town in India.

    What intrigued me was the table turning. Back then to live in the Colonies was a step down, people who went couldn’t make it in the UK/Europe. Women who couldn’t find a respectable husband in the UK. (nb we are talking about a certain stratum of society of course). So global nomad/world traveller wasn’t necessarily a good thing. But also in this quote rather than the stay at homes being the bores it’s the travellers for “going on and on about” their lives abroad.

    In many TCK or I am a Triangle threads contributors bemoan how no-one wants to listen to them to hear their stories and so forth. In a recent blog I read a comment about “how annoying” it was to have a live abroad experience compared to someone’s holiday or gap year. Thereby dismissing the attempt at sharing and communication.

    I thought it was interesting. Maybe it is boring. Maybe we are the equivalent of the “Anglo Indian” bore, and can only talk to each other. Or be more tolerant of others perspectives….

    However just to finish. As a young TCK child on repatriation no-one wanted to hear my life experiences or stories. My primary school comrades were jealous, dismissive, disbelieving and cruel. I could only articulate my life experience to date and had no ability to identify or fit in with theirs. My mother said. Don’t talk about it. Just forget that part of my life. This of course was not and is not achievable. And the childhood context is different from the blog and the thread I started in. But intriguing … how to assimilate not separate. How to be who we have now become, where to fit.



  2. Marilyn,

    You have made a few references to Donald Trump here and in other comments, posts, etc. that indicate you regard him as a racist, a bigot, etc. I would question that, whatever else you may think of him.

    Trump’s mother was a Scottish immigrant, His first wife was a Polish ( or Czech) immigrant, and his current wife is an immigrant from Slovenia. True, they were all legal immigrants, but still they were all immigrants. He has a Jewish son-in-law; so he is broad enough to accept other faiths in the family. He has hired and promoted to the top talented women long before it became fashionable, dictated or semi-normal. And these were immigrant women, and black women, as well as WASP women—and they praise him as an employer. So he has demonstrated for some decades his ability to recognize and reward talent in female workers, whether native born or immigrant, whether white or black
    Over the years, long before any idea of his entry into politics, I have read of his personal, charitable acts in small articles buried in the back pages. I do not see any mention of those acts or articles in the news now.

    I did read a rather humorous article about him recently. Seems he wanted to erect a tall flag pole at his home in Florida, and the neighbors objected to its height. Apparently, there was a restriction on pole heights in existence. So Trump called in some bulldozers and erected a hill on his property, and placed a regulation height pole on top of the hill. Thus satisfying all. Apparently, he has a patriotic streak of some standing, and is also creative, and determined. Actually, it sounded very Chinese to me, a typical way they would solve a problem. Perhaps, that is how he has been able to negotiate with them successfully over so much building material and supplies for his far flung enterprises.

    I heard someone on television lamenting his lack of international experience (apparently the person knew nothing of his immediate family). The response made to the lament was, “Have you ever heard of the Trump Hotel in Dubai, or the Trump Building in Panama, or the Trump Golf Course in Scotland?” Yes, Trump has had a lot of international experience, and at a high level, because it involved big investment.

    Yes, he can go over the top when speaking and should change that, and whether he should be President of the United States is another issue. But, is he a racist or a bigot, I doubt it.


  3. This resonates with me, especially as I recently have started a new phase of re-appreciation for my home town. I just completed a Summer teaching contract with a new expat, helping him improve his English conversation skills in preparation for finding a job here. He is so delighted by the friendliness of people here; and the variety and accessibility of restaurants; and the many cultural attractions; that I found myself re-evaluating my discomfort with being ‘home’ again. I’m remembering and rediscovering some of the good about living here.


    1. I am reminded of a delightful young Chinese mom with a 3 year old who lived here last year with her husband, a visiting scholar at the University. She loved Americans, “You are all so kind and so friendly.” She took advantage of every opportunity for new experiences through our church’s ESL program, Ladies’ Exchange, attending church and any special events she could manage with her 3 year old. It helped me immensely to appreciate the openness of our culture and the friendliness that many such visitors find here. And we are enriched by our relationships, even though often brief, and the continual broadening of our understanding of other people and their cultures. Thanks, Marilyn for reposting this.


      1. Yes, that is an experience I have had with many new comers to America. Our society is much friendlier and more open than many home countries. Sadly, that is often because people cannot afford to be so friendly or open back home where they could reported for their opinions or comments. Our personal, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms are part of the foundation of the friendliness that is characteristic of America, thankfully.


  4. Most of us shall never have the generic TCK’s experience of sojourning through many other countries; it should not be expected. Despite your laudably self-aware concerns over your own limits, you have a leg-up on us Miss-Marple-type natives here who have never left our hometowns. Sympathy for any “other” is hard without both a sense of distance from another (and oneself) and the motility to close it — without leaving home (in whatever sense) and returning to see it as a strange place, as Chesterton said.

    Experience is, of course, the best teacher for this. –but life is too damn short, and there isn’t enough time to get the experience, and so most of us can only get it by proxy. This is why books are so important, and why a classical Liberal Arts education is so very necessary for the sustenance of a liberal polity, and the ethical concerns that you bring up, which are needed not only for the local community, but for the maintenance and proper functioning of the kind of larger political systems we inhabit in the West.

    I am currently writing a series of posts on the deathliness of ancestral identities when they become something like sarlacc pits (bigotry being only one manifestation of this unmitigated toxic parochialism); I was delighted to hear your voice again (–and when am I _not_ delighted to hear it?), and to see another treating these concerns within a very different venue, on a much larger stage, by a much more capable mind and a far more ethical spirit.


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