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The Hidden Immigrant

The Hidden Immigrant – My Personal TCK Syndrome

This defines me. It also defines thousands of others out there.  The “Third Culture Kid”.

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.  The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

David C. Pollock & Ruth E. Van Reken

We hear all the time that the world is getting smaller. With modern travel and technology this is true, however as James R. Mitchener put it, “the rate of cultural adaptation hasn’t kept pace with humanity’s abilities to blur the lines within the cultures we inherit.”

This doesn’t apply to the TCK. The test is quite simple, just ask any TCK where they are from.  It is the absolute worst, most complex and yet so simple to answer.  I had to force myself one day to formulate an answer and memorize it so that I wouldn’t stutter and give my whole life story anytime it was asked.  TCK’s are not only from one place/country. 

I’ve always hated that question because no matter how I answered it someone wouldn’t be satisfied with the answer…either me or the person asking it. In Brazil I always stuck out because I’m white, more so than most others where I lived (Salvador, Bahia – Brazil).  I could say in perfect Portuguese, “I’m from here” and it wouldn’t fly.  When I come across Brazilians elsewhere, I answer “Salvador, Bahia”, I usually hear…”yeah, but your name is different” or “but were you actually born there?”  Once, in American high school a girl came up to me and said that she heard I was from Brazil.  I said yes, I am.  “But you don’t look like a Brazilian or have an accent”.  I snapped at her with “do you expect me to run around naked with a spear?  If I showed you a picture of a crowd could you spot the Brazilian?”  She walked away.  That was during my years of identity crisis, a stage many TCK’s go through. 

While growing up in Brazil I stood out, my differences were obvious: white skin, American parents, I spoke English. My similarities were always overlooked: I ate beans and rice, played soccer, spoke like a native, played the same childhood games, etc.

While in the USA I never physically stood out. I looked like any other white American child.  Many may have thought I was just kind of weird or different, but my differences were blatantly obvious to me.  While no one else could see them, it seemed as if they screamed at me every day.  Especially during my last three years in high school in the US.  I couldn’t grasp at first their (Americans) mind set, couldn’t understand their reasoning for certain discriminations, I didn’t understand baseball or American football, I didn’t know who the heck Harley Davidson was even though his name was on a bunch of T-shirts and found out the hard way that it wasn’t cool to shop at Kmart. 

So, herein lies the truth to the definition of TCK for me. My experiences and way of life molded and shaped who I am.  Although today I can cover it up well and appear to blend in, I still don’t identify 100% with Americans and being around a group of Brazilians just annoys me at times.  However, I feel more comfortable around “foreigners”. While in high school in the US, there were a couple of years that my friends would change as the exchange students left and new group came in.  Hearing people speak in a foreign language around me never made me nervous or uncomfortable.  The sounds always fascinated me and I’d try to guess the country of origin.  

Over time I’ve been able to identify the TCK traits and harness the experiences and my skills to apply them to good use, as much as possible. Of course this has been a long process for me; it varies from person to person.  It is a process nevertheless. What is important is that the TCK navigates life having certain positive guidelines because the train can easily derail if the person doesn’t know how to deal with not fitting in anywhere.  Once it’s figured out, the fact of not fitting in anywhere somehow morphs into being able to blend in and adapt anywhere and to anyone.   As a result, we learn to embrace being an immigrant in disguise in our supposed “native” country.

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