Internationals (TCKs, ATCKs, expats, global nomads) are used to transition between cultures. They know about the values, beliefs and know about the rules the “do’s and don’ts”. Some receive “mixed social messages on how others perceive” them and how they are supposed to act, but this only happens during the learning process, when they try to find out how to behave, act, talk, and be silent in a culture that is not familiar (yet).
In her post 5 Mixed Cultural Messages That Mess Up TCK Identity, says that children and young adults can find it challenging to decipher cultural differences. The five mixed messages that she finds “utterly confusing” from her two worlds (the US and Japan) are very common among internationals (TCKs or immigrants, global nomads etc.). Some of them concern inner shifts and adjustment (2, 3, 4), others concern our physical appearance (1 and 5):
#1 The one world tells me I’m tall, the other world tells me I’m small.
#2 One world tells me to listen, the other world tells me to talk.
#3 One world tells me I’m not adequately trained, the other world tells me to take risks.
#4 One world requires submission to group opinion, the other world demands the assertion of my opinion.
#5 One world seems me as novelty, the other world sees me as normal.
We can move back and forth in between worlds where we “look alike” and “look different” and still understand both cultures, blend in by our manners – like Taylor explains she does by lowering her voice for example, when she is in Japan. This doesn’t only happen in cultures that are so different on many levels like the ones she lives in.
I didn’t look like my Italian friends but I talked like the locals. On a linguistic and behavioural level I perfectly blended in. But due to my physical appearance there was always something that would make people realize that I’m not a “real” Italian (i.e. more the adopted kind of person that looks different but thinks alike, cfr. The PolVan Cultural Identity Model here below).
On the other hand, while visiting family and friends in Germany I didn’t talk like my peers – I didn’t know the slang! – not wear the same cloths or have the same hair cuts, listen to the same music etc.. I felt more foreign in my parents’ passport country and surely more like a hidden immigrant (i.e. German, with German features but thinking like an Italian).
Young adults try to find out who they are and instead of having to choose between the two or more worlds they call their own and they’re the most familiar with, they should be given the opportunity to embrace them all in a way that suits them the best. When people ask us to choose between the worlds we grow up in, it’s like they would ask us to choose between our father and mother, or between loosing our legs or our arms. This is simply not possible because we need both, we are both cultures, we are all of them in our very personal and unique way.
I think that many children who grow up in different countries and switch between cultures, values, beliefs, behaviours, feel alienated and “neither here nor there” not because they can’t find “their place” but because people ask them to choose! This can be friends, parents, extended family, teachers… I didn’t realize that moving back and forth between worlds was something unusual until a neighbour asked me which country I prefered: Germany or Italy. I told her that I liked both and couldn’t understand why she would even ask me something like that.
Later I often felt like I had to silence the part that didn’t belong to the place or the group of people. Hide it, because people wouldn’t understand. I became very good at switching behaviour, like I switched language. I would gesticulate while talking Italian or French, and fill the “awkward” silence during meals, raise my voice etc., and talk at a slower pace, gesticulate less and accept silence when talking German. The same way I would choose topics that fit better in the respective group and society. Only those friends who knew me in each setting would really “know” me, and these were (and still are) very few.
Like Taylor I found out all the cultural clues by myself and am very attentive at non-verbal clues. It’s not only because I’m a very empathetic person, I think that this is because I have somehow been trained by international life. In fact, children who grow up in different worlds, have to adapt and not stand out become very sensitive.
They read other people, their gestures, the way they move, behave, talk, and the way they’re silent. I observe this in my children too: they love to find out what is “normal” and “important” in every culture and language they are in touch with and I’m very pleased to see that they don’t consider it unnatural or not-normal to be the way they are.
I’m very glad that they enjoy their way to be different and so perfectly unique.
I would love that all children who are given the opportunity to learn about different cultures would be respected for what they are learning and achieving on a daily basis. They translate, interpret, adapt and adopt, they cultivate, embrace and defend diversity.
Instead of asking them to choose among a colourful variety one should ask them to share their vision and their experiences, to tell their stories, because they are unique and universal at the same time.
Categories: Being expat