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.