“They listened with interest to what I told – or tried to tell – them, but it was for my sake, not for the sake of the tale. I could not say if this was my fault or theirs, or the fault of the worlds we lived in. The only thing they had understood was that I would be leaving them again, to return to a fantastic destiny.”
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
…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.
(This exists in various versions on various sites; this one was sent to me by a friend.)
You can’t answer the question: “Where are you from?”
You speak two (or more) languages but can’t spell in any of them.
You watch National Geographic specials and recognize someone. (ALONG THE SAME LINES: YOU RUN INTO SOMEONE YOU KNOW AT EVERY AIRPORT)
You have a time zone map next to your telephone.
Your life story uses the phrase “Then we went to…” five times (or six, or seven times…).
National Geographic (OR THE TRAVEL CHANNEL) makes you homesick.
You read the international section before the comics.
You live at school, work in the tropics, and go home for vacation.
You don’t know where home is.
You sort your friends by continent.
You know there is no such thing as an international language.
Your second major is in a foreign language you already speak.
You realize it really is a small world, after all.
You feel that multiple passports would be appropriate.
You watch a movie set in a foreign country, and you know what the nationals are really saying into the camera.
You haggle with the checkout clerk for a lower price.
Your wardrobe can only handle two seasons: wet and dry.
You go to Taco Bell and have to put five packets of hot sauce on your taco.
You have a name in at least two different languages, and it’s not the same one.
You think VISA is a document stamped in your passport, and not a plastic card you carry in your wallet.
You automatically take off your shoes as soon as you get home.
Your dorm room/apartment/living room looks a little like a museum with all the “exotic” things you have around.
You won’t eat Uncle Ben’s rice because it doesn’t stick together.
Half of your phone calls are unintelligible to those around you.
You go to Pizza Hut or Wendy’s and you wonder why there’s no chili sauce.
You know the geography of the rest of the world, but you don’t know the geography of your own country.
You’re spoilt. You know it. You’re VERY spoilt.