Coping Strategies for the Hidden Immigrant

…but first, I had better define “hidden immigrant.” The term comes from David Pollock and Ruth van Reken’s book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. A hidden immigrant is someone who looks and sounds pretty much like everyone else in her “home” country, but, due to a TCK upbringing or other extensive overseas living, isn’t quite as native as the natives.

As I wrote long ago:

My problem in dealing with my fellow Americans is that I look and sound American, but am not, quite. Culturally I’m a mishmash, a Third Culture Kid. I just don’t notice many of the American cultural cues, so I don’t respond the way Americans expect me to. They sense vaguely that something is wrong, but can’t quite put their fingers on what. Of course I miss cues in other cultures as well, but non-Americans make allowances for the obvious fact that I’m foreign; indeed, they would be surprised if I acted exactly as they do. (Americans usually extend the same courtesy to obvious foreigners in America.) For me, though, it’s different: in America I’m actually a foreigner, but camouflaged as a native, so I don’t have the privilege to screw up that someone clearly foreign would have.

When I returned to the US at various earlier points in my life, I had unexpected troubles with my fellow Americans. Some took against me at first meeting for no reason that I could figure out at the time. I was perfectly well disposed towards them, and had no idea what I had done to make them dislike me. (Yes, the fact that I am a geek and lacking in some social sensitivities is also a factor.)

Then I attended one of David Pollock’s workshops at a Woodstock reunion and subsequently read his book. As for so many of us TCKs, those were huge “Aha!” experiences. As one workshop participant said: “Now I know why I’ve been so weird all my life.”

I’ve had a number of years since to think over my TCK status, so I was better prepared to handle myself as a hidden immigrant when I returned to the US to live in 2008.

My coping strategy started with recognizing that, after 17 years in Italy, I had no idea how anything worked in the US. I had visited often enough to observe many changes, but I hadn’t had to deal with the everyday hassles of actually living here. Health care and insurance, for example, are hugely complex and confusing, I suspect on purpose. Having to go through the entire process to get a new driver’s license yet again was irritating (though not as bad as I’d feared). Buying a car was overwhelming. It’s hard not to look or feel like an idiot when you are so entirely ignorant of experiences that your peers take for granted.

My solution was simply to tell everyone I dealt with, at the beginning of each conversation: “I’ve been out of the country for a long time, so practically everything is new to me. Can you please explain?” And they were all happy to do so. I learned plenty by not being afraid to ask “dumb” questions. And perhaps my upfront admission of foreignness diminished the perceived insult on the occasions when, wild with frustration and confusion, I blurted out: “That doesn’t make any sense!” (NB: Usually in reference to health care.)

Paradoxically but perhaps not surprisingly, another coping strategy turns out to be having a support network of people “like me”. Though I know and like a lot of people, the ones I’m closest to and most comfortable with are usually “foreign” in some way themselves: recent or long-time immigrants, or Americans who have lived abroad; we even have a small but growing group of escapees from Italy (American and Italian). With these “foreigners,” I can compare notes and share support on the good, the bad, and the ugly of living in the US, without giving offense.

It hasn’t been easy, and I’m still learning. There are things I’d have done differently if I had known better at the time. Bureaucracy in any form makes me very nervous, which is probably partly a legacy of living in Italy. Sometimes I feel scared and very much alone. But, on the whole and most of the time, re-entry to the US has not been as hard as I might have expected. This time, knowing where I do and don’t fit, and making sure the “normal” Americans know that, has helped.

If you haven’t been reading all about my life for years (no reason why you should!), here’s a bio.

3 thoughts on “Coping Strategies for the Hidden Immigrant

  1. Bren

    I really enjoy your article about coping skills for a TCK. I’m a former military brat and feel sort of European/ American partly from living over there and partly from having an adoptive mom who was German. I’m still confused by the open animosity of some Midwestern people but folks form the South have explained to me that Midwestern people are much less freindly than folks in the other parts of the country. For instance San Francisco is quite liberal and has many immigrants. Washington DC has many diplomats. Areas with military bases are used to different folks passing thru but the Midwest doesn’t have any of these situations. I may move west in the near future and will definitely keep your suggestions in mind! Thanks so much for the great article!

  2. Libby Stephens

    Dear Deirdré,
    I know you wrote this article a little while ago now but I just came across it today after publishing my own article on the Hidden Immigrant stage of the TCK. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and coping strategies during that time. I wonder if you feel you have moved on to the next stage of the Trans-nationalist at this point or if you would agree on the potential pitfalls of the Hidden Immigrant stage I mention here?
    I would love to hear more of your thoughts as you have expressed them so well in this blog!

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