Why I am a perpetual observer

My father was a civil engineer,  and, in his early years, a Wyoming cowboy who fought in WWII. He started going overseas, I believe, in the 50s. Certainly before I could walk he had taken his family to Europe on the Queen Mary, and I remember from stories that I was not yet speaking when we moved to Bangladesh (it was East Pakistan then). He worked on numerous projects all over the world, improving roads, dams, bridges, etc. And on average, up until I was 17 or so, we averaged a different country every 2 - 3 years. 

So, I was a TCK (Third Culture Kid) but I had no idea what that meant. What I did know, from a young age (even as young as 6 or 7), from our annual trips back to the U.S., is that I never seemed to fit in with home grown Americans. There was such a total lack of common cultural context. And of course, when one is overseas, you are the minority and the foreigner, so fitting in overseas is not always easy either. I didn't suffer huge amounts of angst over this, but there was always a voice in the back of my mind wondering why I just didn't fit in.

University was hard for me in the states as well. For one, I started when I was 17. And my maturity level was such that I always associated with the students who were in their 30s. No connection at all to the people who had graduated high school and were just starting college. They had no life experience at all. The people I felt the most comfortable with were the Iranian students. And this was during the hostage crisis in the 70s :-).

I remember vividly what happened after I had left the military and moved to Turkey. My first trip back to the states. I had gone to see my old friends from the military. What a gaping chasm had opened between us. Going to Turkey, although I was relatively alone there for about 6 months, I felt like I had come home. I may not have spoken the language well; I may not have had friends outside the Turkish company I worked for ... but it felt so ... right ... for me. And after less than a year, going back to the states, and seeing the old people I knew ... I realized that overseas was my home, not the United States. And once I found the ex-pat community there, that was all she wrote. I was home. And no desire to go back.

I only found out what a TCK was in a conversation that I had with a friend of mine in Hong Kong a few years ago (another TCK), who mentioned the term to me in terms of TCKs being perpetual observers. We were speaking of politics in particular. I certainly have never voted in an American election. I feel no more connected to the States than I do to Eritrea (ok ... ok ... that might be a slight exaggeration :-) ). And as a foreigner (generally) you don't have the right to vote in another country's elections or take part in most of a country’s processes … so … one becomes a perpetual observer.

When he said that to me, I went and looked it up. Wow! So that's what I was! :-) ... No wonder I always felt disconnected.

That was how I learned I was a TCK, at the age of almost 50. Now I realized why I never fit in ... in a lot of places ... I was in the U.S. military for years, and although it was an elite unit, and working in other countries with local troops was our specialty, I was still the only one with my particular background. I had never gone to a high school, a prom, a drive-in (really dating myself here), didn't know anything about football or baseball. To this day I get very few of the cultural references from the U.S. ... And since I haven't been there for about six years now ... I'm sure it [my disconnection] is worse :-)

But to wrap up ... I am not trying to trumpet myself as a TCK or stand on a pedestal about it. However, I am glad I'm a TCK. I think I was extremely fortunate to be raised that way. It is an unparalleled education about the world as a whole. And I'm also happy that I found out about it because it answered very much unvoiced questions I had about myself my whole life. 

I will say one other thing that just occurred to me ... it is true that I never felt like I fit in ... but one thing I did become good at was being a chameleon. Learning to blend in becomes a defense mechanism. So even if you don't relate at all, you can do a really good job at looking like you do :-)

So if you are a TCK ... revel in it :-)