The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part One of a Two-Part Post

Today I am delighted to have Cecily Thew Paterson from Cecily Mostly write a guest post. Cecily is an award-winning author living in New South Wales, Australia. She has written for Communicating Across Boundaries in the past with an excellent essay on poverty and it’s an honor to have her post again today.


Marilyn asked me to write a two-part series on the issue of TCKs and arrogance after we both contributed to a Facebook conversation. The request seemed easy enough at first, but quickly I realized this was bigger, and a bit more personal, than I had thought. I’ve decided to tell my story in the first part and then talk more broadly about TCKs and the perception of arrogance in the second.

When I was 16 my family returned permanently to Australia after living in Pakistan for 13 years.

It was September. I had finished Grade 10 in an international boarding school in June, and after a family holiday and a bit of sorting ourselves out we arrived in our new home – a country town of 10,000 people in rural New South Wales.
Because of the different school year in the southern hemisphere, I began school by going straight into the middle of term 3 of Year 11.

It wasn’t a simple transition.

The school was very reluctant to recognize my previous education. “We don’t know what level British GCSE qualifications are,” they said. “Maybe you’ll be behind in our syllabus,” they said. “After all, you are missing more than six months of Year 11,” they said.

It took me two weeks of maths tuition with a teacher in the term 3 holidays to catch up on calculus, but in every other subject I was ahead or on par. And when I topped the Year 11 exams in most courses, they scratched their heads.
“Oh well, they must do things alright over there in Pak-i-stan,” they said.
My attitude to school was pretty simple. I thought it was mostly a waste of time. I wanted to get in, do the work, do the homework, get my final HSC qualifications and move on.

“I’m really just waiting to go overseas again,” I told the nonplussed careers advisor in my compulsory career interview in term 4. “I certainly don’t plan on staying here in Australia for long.”

I bumped up against the school again and again. First I decided I didn’t want to study their English syllabus. I objected to one of the books and declared that I’d do my own individual study of Jane Eyre in the library during that time, thank you very much. And I certainly wasn’t going to attend the two-day ‘study skills’ camp that came around in early Year 12.

“What’s the point of going to learn how to study, when you’d be much better off using the time to actually study?” I asked. “By the time the HSC is over, I’ll have done 66 exam papers in 18 months. I think I know ‘how’ to study. I won’t go.”
The school insisted I at least go to the library to study if I wasn’t going to attend camp.

I sniffily acquiesced, but only because I had to.

Socially, I couldn’t be bothered. I found one friend on my wavelength and hung out with her group of girls, but the truth is that I thought most of them were stupid/trivial/ignorant/uninteresting/unsympathetic/badly educated. Take your pick of adjectives. And I was scared of the rest of them. Others were interested only in getting me to ‘say something’ in my peculiar mash-up of an international accent or making comments about how ‘posh’ I was because I held the door open for someone once.

I appeared to be, as my thirteen year old daughter might now say, “arrogant, much?”

But as with all stories, there’s more than one way of looking at the same situation. To my English teacher (who exploded at me one day, yelling for a full eight minutes about Jane Eyre and study camp and ‘people who call themselves Christians’ and then storming out of class) I was simply, to use a good old Aussie expression, ‘up myself’. A person who thought I was better than everyone else.

It was partially true. But if she’d known more about me, she might have found out the following:
In the previous two months I’d said goodbye to my friends, to my school, to my home, to my adopted country and to the identity I’d had for sixteen years. I’d sobbed at the airport and on the plane. I’d moved to a new town, to a new home and to a new school and had to start over in what was effectively a foreign culture and educational system. I was struggling to make friends and connect with people.

I felt all of this as an actual pain. It was like my physical heart had a piece ripped out of it.

I didn’t know how to do my hair, I didn’t know which school shoes to wear, I felt naked in the compulsory thigh high sports skirts we had to wear on Wednesdays, I didn’t know the rules to netball and I didn’t have a team to follow for rugby league. I hadn’t watched the shows the kids at school had watched, or listened to the music they’d listened to, or been around town half my life, or attended the Show every year. I didn’t want to go to parties and get drunk, I didn’t like kissing people on the cheek when I met them, I felt uncomfortable when they asked me questions like, “If you’re from Pak-i-stan, why aren’t you black?” and I didn’t know where building H was for tech or what the rules about late sign-ins were.

I didn’t get Australian small town life. The things that were uniquely Aussie didn’t appeal in any way. I didn’t understand barbeques, I didn’t like salad, I laughed at farmers wearing moleskins, Akubras and striped shirts, and I thought gum trees were ugly and drab in comparison to the green of the Himalayan forest I was used to.

Perhaps hardest of all was that I looked like I should belong. I was Australian, obviously, so people expected that surely I should know how to fit in. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t that simple.

The only thing I really knew how to do was to study, do exams and get good 20130220-090309.jpgresults. I could ‘do’ smart; I understood it. So I decided to focus on the academics and treat the things and the people I didn’t understand as unimportant and unnecessary.

One side of the story is arrogance. The other side is pain and fear. But both sides are true. For me the question is: can you get through pain and fear without arrogance as a young person? And how?

Make sure you come back tomorrow for Part Two.

On Mentoring

Fridays with Robynn!

Be careful who you get to mentor you

I meet every 3 weeks with Candice. Originally she asked me to mentor her, but I don’t really do that. I don’t know what it is. I don’t want someone to have expectations that I can’t meet. I don’t want to disappoint.

So Candice & I meet every 3 weeks for a cup of conversation and a coffee. She’s young and keen. She takes me seriously. She wants to learn about faith and life and boys. I make suggestions, she makes changes. She listens to me. Candice is an artist. She loves people. She loves colour, details, texture, bugs, critters. She loves God’s green earth. God meets her in her studio, on her bicycle, in the flower shop where she works part-time.

This past weekend she and a friend went to Topeka. Candice and I had coffee on Friday. Together we wondered, hypothetically of course, what it would be like to draw someone you didn’t like—a personal enemy–or perhaps a public enemy. What would it be like to draw people who society hates? This idea took root in her. She decided to talk to someone at the Topeka Correctional Facility. It was a long shot but she wanted to try. So early Saturday morning she and her friend headed to Topeka.

After driving and walking around the prison the guards began to be a little suspicious and asked them to leave. They decided to go get lunch. Ever the adventurers seeking art they ended up in an entirely Hispanic community. They were the only white people. They found a restaurant—a hole in the wall, really—with bars on the window. No one spoke English. Their waiter was elderly and diminutive and full of smiles. He too spoke no English. Candice managed to ask him through sign language and pointing and gesticulating if she could please draw him. He agreed. After a spicy lunch Candice pulled out her sketch pad and began to capture the waiter, the moment, the experience on paper.

The next day I met Candice’s mother at a birthday party. She and I are friends. We’ve been friends a long time.

She was horrified that Candice was thinking to sketch prisoners! Had I suggested that? She was freaking out that Candice had ended up in a questionable neighbourhood; in a restaurant with “bars on the windows”. She told me to please stop encouraging Candice. This wasn’t safe. Candice is naïve and doesn’t know what she’s doing. She listens to you Robynn. Please stop encouraging her.

I was so fascinated. I had been so happy for Candice and her friend to have had this crossing cultures moment. They had such a great time. It was a day time adventure, an experience they’re not likely to forget.

And then Candice’s mom made it more personal in a last-ditch attempt to sway me, and she said, “If your daughter, Adelaide, does this in 7 years you won’t be happy either…will you?”

But that’s just it! I’ll be thrilled. Cross cultural living is such a high value for me. I grew up in the dusty streets of Layyah, Pakistan. My favourite sounds were the sounds of the tube wells beeping their deep relentless song, the camel bells across the canals, the call to prayer. I went to school with the united nations! We were from everywhere and we lived together in a sacred somewhere so very far from here. I long for these types of experiences for my children. It was my worst fear that we would have to move back to the US and that I’d have to raise them here in a country where most everyone speaks only English, where  airplane travel is rare and many haven’t even left the state of Kansas!

So if Adelaide ventures in to the darker side of Topeka in 7 years and has lunch surrounded by Spanish speakers–I’ll be so excited. I’ll beg her to take me with her the next time. I’ll ask about what she ate, and how she ate it. I’ll want to know details and descriptions. I’ll laugh at her stories.

I’ll tell her that I grew up in a house with bars on the windows and we frequently ate in restaurants with bars on the windows,where no one spoke English. I hope, and pray that my kids get to do the same!


I found myself growing hot with frustration.

I tried to back up. “Let me explain. Both of you grew up here. You’ve lived in the towns where you now live since you were born. It means you know the rules; you ‘get’ how to do things, how things work. Those of us who move here? We don’t know these things”

I felt like I was speaking to children. The conversation began as I was telling some colleagues about our friends who just moved here for a year after living in Japan, Australia, and most recently, Romania. Their youngest daughter went to her first day of school yesterday.

“So?” was the reaction I got “Big deal.”

It was.

This was her first day of school in America. Ever. She’s in high school and she’s never attended school in the United States. Added to the equation is that this is a part of the country where people don’t move a lot. You meet many people who have lived here all their lives. Those of us who haven’t are the exception, not the rule. Both kids and school administrators are not used to having new comers. There is an assumption that everyone knows the rules, everyone knows how to fill out the forms, find out specifics, work the system.

So it was a huge, big, fat deal.

And to have to explain this felt more than frustrating. Everything seems easy when you know how to do it. But as Robynn said in a previous post, sometimes the “easy” is impossible.

So I tried to put the situation into a different context. “Imagine if you came with me to Pakistan and I wanted you to get something in the bazaar, or I wanted you to go sign in with the police. Would you know how to do it?” Silence “What if I said ‘but it’s so easy! everyone knows how to do that!'” I think I made my point.

I found myself yet again the outsider trying to defend other outsiders. It’s a role I have played often, but it still surprises me that people don’t understand. We become so comfortable with our normal that we consider it normal for everyone else.

It’s fall now and schools across the country have begun the school year. Elementary, high school, college, graduate school – it all begins in September. And there are a lot of outsiders, a lot of people who don’t have a clue where they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to get there.

They may not know that you are expected to wait in line in the United States or that in America the expectation is that you follow traffic laws. They may not understand that you don’t walk through a “drive” through to get your meal; they might be shocked at our public displays of affection to our pets and our partners; they probably don’t know that bargaining isn’t common – you don’t negotiate the price. And initially they won’t even know where to get the basics – eggs, bread, milk, and fruit.

We can step into these scenarios and be that person who makes life a little easier for the outsider, a little less daunting, a little more manageable. That person who reaches out and understands that some of these things really are big deals. The person that helps make the easy possible.

Do you remember what it was like to be an outsider? How did that work for you? Who was the person who came alongside you and walked you through the rules, the do’s and don’ts of life in another place? 

Becoming a Third Culture Adult – So.Many.Stories

Bettie Addleton has been in my life since birth. Growing up she was mom to my best friend, hostess of holidays and fine parties, decorator par excellence and so much more. In this post Bettie takes us into her journey of becoming a Third Culture Adult. I think her journey will resonate with many of you. 

Hoping to understand my three third culture kids (TCKs), I began reading about this subject some years ago. Most adults my age cannot imagine why/how such a culture exists. A generation or two ago couples married  from within a few miles or at least within the county or state (and for sure their own country!) where they grew up, then settled down to follow in the footsteps of their forebears.  Their children followed, building family foundations and traditions on earlier generations. What happened to change this cozy and predictable scenario is worth researching.

I will not delve into the dynamics of this societal change, I’d rather tell you my journey into a multicultural world and on to becoming an adult who belonged to a third culture.

Born during the Great Depression and growing up in the rural south  being or doing anything different from those around me was not a thought.  Though poor, we didn’t realize it as others around us were in the same circumstances. Blissfully happy and satisfied as long as there was food on the table, clothes on our backs, and shoes on our feet, we lived out the mantra “Ignorance is bliss”. We enjoyed going barefoot so much that having shoes was not  important!

 A long and circuitous route took me from that humble beginning to a life of constant change, going from one sub culture to another. First it was the county seat consolidated school where all the children in the countryside were bussed over dirt roads and educated by learned and dedicated teachers. A peep into a larger community opened our eyes and we wanted more and more knowledge. Education that included art, music, reading, and travel became a part of my world.

Moving to a growing city opened up another world and culture.  Finding a place in a church community offered further growth and change.  It was in a small Baptist church that I found my anchor, my north star.  With my whole heart, mind, and being, I made a decision to follow Christ, His teachings, and His directions for the rest of my life. And that has made all the difference. 

College in a different city and state, meeting other young people from other states and cities was unreal.  Accepting this cultural change propelled me into a world of continued adaptation and adjustments.  Who was I, where did I come from, and where was I going? Although I hadn’t crossed an ocean, I had in these short years gone from one culture to another, constantly changing and taking on new identities wherever I went. As I think back on it,  it looks like I had lived across cultures all along and didn’t know it!

Leaving the United States as a young married woman with an adventurous toddler put me smack into a culture I hardly knew existed.  Excitement and a steady flow of adrenaline can get one through a host of new experiences, not all of them pleasant. I learned at an early age that life throws a lot of curves, some high and some low. We cried and we laughed.  I had graduated!  I was now a full-fledged TCA (Third Culture Adult) on a journey that would last a life time!

Traveling by sea and air, crossing time zones, hearing other languages, eating foods I had never seen, seeing people dressed in “different” clothes (and beginning to wear those clothes myself); these were just a few ways that I crossed cultural boundaries. And there were more to come.

Settling into a life in Pakistan that spanned 34 years was not easy.  But I made every effort possible to accept life in a totally foreign culture. And I wanted acceptance. One adjustment followed another; learning the language, adapting to the clothing style, facing a gender segregated society, bringing up children with a  passport foreign to the country in which they would grow up, being a parent who was now a TCA,  and on it went. 

I cannot say that I “achieved” the ideal in the cultural divide.  My language ability was never the level I really wanted.  But I communicated. I made friends; very close friends.  There were times I felt I had failed. I made mistakes.  I got homesick. Hunger for food I had grown up with was insatiable. Close and intimate friends were far away, unreachable. Family and loved ones were not around to gloat over my newborns.  Longings for children away in boarding never abated.  Lack of modern conveniences, serious health issues, and more cropped up to challenge the very core of my being. Despite this, and though I never became Pakistani, it was a happy and fulfilling life.

 Retirement brought me back to my passport culture, my home where I grew up and where many life-long friends and relatives continued to live. While I felt as much “at home” in Pakistan as anyone could, now I wanted to feel “at home” where we  retired.

 The culture that I am now part of is not the one I left back in 1956 and returning home has not been “a piece of cake.”  Rather is has been, and continues to be, a challenge.  I still can’t throw anything away!  I want the kabadi walla (junk man) to come around and take it off my hands!  My friends laughed when they found out I recycle plastic Ziploc bags. My verbal expressions are sometimes not quite southern enough and I may have to re-define an explanation.  But I learned well how to do that in Pakistan.

 Comfortable in who I am, the unique human being God created me to be is enough.  I’m not finished yet, nor have new and exciting cultural adventures ceased.  Being “at home” for me simply means accepting every experience, both new and old, where ever it comes from, walking with fellow pilgrims along the way. I have learned whether TCK or TCA, let life be life.  Celebrate with JOY.

Bettie is the author of The Day the Chicken Cackled: Reflections of a Life in PakistanAt 25 Bettie took the long journey by sea from New York to Karachi on the coast in Pakistan. For over 30 years she made a home for herself and her family in the Sindh area of Pakistan.

It is a joy to graduate from being friends with her daughter to calling her my friend.

For more about the So. Many.Stories project take a look here.

So.Many.Stories – International Party Crashers

I love this story from Anne Bennett that gives a great recipe for adapting to a less adventurous life once you move to your passport country. Enjoy this piece on international party crashing!

I’ve lived in some pretty exotic places.  Places where a nightly blast from a cannon rattles all the windows in the neighborhood and signals that it is now time to eat after a day of fasting.  Places where your sweat begins to smell of curry after a week of eating street food.  Places where even if you were blind and deaf you would know that you are in a different world because of how the air feels on your skin.  Now we have moved back to the land where football is called “soccer”, tea is served with ice and where Coca-Cola is delivered by truck rather than on the back of a donkey.  How are we dealing with the loss of our exotic lifestyle?

We have become international party crashers.

We have chosen to live in a neighborhood highly populated with immigrants from the Middle East, Asia, Africa andLatin America.  This means that even though most of my children’s friends like Sponge Bob and pizza, their parents still prefer Bollywood movies and samosas, (or couscous or tortillas).  Friendships among children inevitably lead to the biggest event in a child’s year – the birthday party.  I always throw big birthday parties for my children, not so that they will get more presents, but so that I can show hospitality to the parents of these children and develop relationships with people who might otherwise not invite me into their life.  (Yes, I know that I’m using my children, but since they end up with more presents, they don’t mind).  Our big parties lead to invitations to the parties  of others and with that a glimpse into the culture of my fascinating friends and neighbors.

Here are a few of my favorite parties that we have either been invited to or just crashed since they were held on our communal playground:

The Bangladeshi birthday party – As my children ran around on the playground, oblivious to the fact that they were the only white faces at the party, my “American-ness” was confusing to the other adult guests.  They were all polite, but were obviously not used to the idea of an outsider wanting to participate in their activities.   When I showed an eagerness to try their food and even eat rice with my hands, their confusion turned to appreciation at my efforts to honor their culture.  We, in turn, received honor in a wonderful custom when the birthday girl fed each guest a bite of cake before feeding herself.   The fact that it was a Tres Leches cake bought at the Mexican supermarket made it all the more fun.

The Kenyan birthday party – Even though this party was held in a beautiful home in the American suburbs, it did not mask the fact that it was very Kenyan.   The older aunties busied themselves in the kitchen stirring rice and cutting lamb while the younger aunties played with a large group of excited children.  The uncles and grandfathers sat in the living room swapping stories.  The fact that half of the people there were not technically related made them no less a part of this extended, cultural family.  This warm and accepting group of people called me “Mama Jasmine” (my daughter’s name), and made me want to be part of a Kenyan family.

The Palestinian birthday party – This simple party of cupcakes and juice boxes was mostly an opportunity for the mothers to talk while the children played by themselves.  Unlike most conversations I have with immigrant women, this conversation turned to the subject of politics in theMiddle East.  Instead of trying to figure out why Palestinians think and act the way that they do in regards to the conflict in their homeland, why don’t we just ask them directly?  This birthday party gave me the chance to do just that in a non-confrontational way as we munched on neon-colored cupcakes.

And then there was the Mexican birthday party, the Vietnamese birthday party, the Afghan party and the party where the other children recited the Qur’an for the video camera while my daughter sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Spanish.  We could choose to raise our children in a neighborhood surrounded by white, middle-class Christians like ourselves, but where’s the fun in that?


Anne Bennett is the pen name of an American wife, mother, follower of Jesus and friend to Muslim women.  She has lived in Pakistan and North Africa and is now living in a unique corner of the Bible belt where she is happily surrounded by Muslims.

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If you would like to participate in the So.Many.Stories Project please feel free to email!

Adjusting to a New World Through Stories of the Old

Last year I got involved with a project to raise awareness of breast cancer in the Asian American community in the greater Boston area. It was a project that taught me many lessons, one of them being how much I have to learn about communicating across cultural boundaries. I am not the queen that I once thought I was! One of the arms of the project was designed to have breast cancer survivors from the Asian community share their stories – their stories of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately survival. It was a powerful and compelling piece. Through bearing witness and sharing their stories, these women not only helped others, but healed themselves.

This same approach can be a powerful tool to cross-cultural adjustment – something I have worked through, talked about, lectured on and cried about. Cross-cultural adaptation and adjustment are critical to transitioning between worlds.

I am more and more certain that part of adjusting to a new country, a new world, is being able to tell stories of the old world.  I believe that the more we are able to share our stories, the quicker we come to see our new surroundings as places that we can make work. Just as the women who are living as breast cancer survivors become empowered through their stories, I passionately believe the same can happen with immigrants, refugees and third culture kids.

When we moved to the United States after three years in Pakistan and seven years in Egypt, we came with a lot of stories. We had birthed and raised five kids on three continents. We had swum in the Red Sea and picnicked by the Pyramids; we had traveled to Istanbul, and lunched in the Plaka in Greece; we had cocktails with ambassadors and shared bread with refugees. All of those stories were consolidated into our 26 suitcases as we moved to a house with the quintessentially American address: 2 Main Street.

But behind the Victorian house on Main Street was a family whose stories didn’t go away, they were still there, but the listeners were few. It felt too much to ask of a provincial place where most had known each other for generations. We were the outsiders.

Into that world came friends who intuitively understood our need and listened to our stories. They ate curry with us and challenged my view that no one raised in the west could make a good curry by showing up with one of the best Thai curries I have yet to eat; they loved us and brought us gently into their world. And as we were brought into their world, we began relaxing and realizing that we were accepted with all our stories and all our idiosyncratic quirks picked up from years of living in different cultural contexts.

Cultural brokers they were. They bridged the gaps of understanding and made us welcome. I began to learn that you don’t have to experience everything to be able to empathize and listen. And as I grew in comfort I no longer had to announce to the world before they had asked “I’m not from here you know!”

The more I hear from immigrants, refugees and third culture kids, the more convinced I become that communicating their stories is a critical piece of learning to live effectively in their passport countries. They have a lifetime of experiences that, when boxed up for fear of misunderstanding, will result in depression and deep pain.  For a third culture kid to tell a group of friends that they came down with chicken pox on the plane from Greece to Turkey is not boasting – it’s life. (True.Story)

So what about your world? What role has the telling of stories played? Where have you served as a cultural broker and been willing to both listen and re-tell the stories of those who live between worlds? Or where have you had a cultural broker – someone who entered into your world, allowed you to tell your stories, and helped you move a fraction closer to being able to live in a world that felt foreign?

Would love to hear what role both stories and cultural brokers played so please share in the comment section!

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