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.

You Know You’re a Third-Culture Kid When…

(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 flew before you could walk.

You have a passport, but no driver’s license.

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…).

You speak with authority on the quality of airline travel.

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.

Someone brings up the name of a team, and you get the sport wrong.

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.

Rain on a tile patio – or a corrugated metal roof – is one of the most wonderful sounds in the world.

You haggle with the checkout clerk for a lower price.

Your wardrobe can only handle two seasons: wet and dry.

Your high school memories include those days that school was cancelled due to tear gas, riots, demonstrations, or bomb threats.

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 have best friends in 5 different countries.

You’re spoilt. You know it. You’re VERY spoilt.

Famous TCKs: Third-Culture Kids in the News and in History

What’s a TCK? Read here.

A much more complete list than mine can be found here (thanks, Sezin!).

Barack Obama: The world’s most famous TCK right now, and maybe that’s a good sign (perhaps it’s fortunate that few American voters recognized the term).

Other Famous TCKs

Santiago Cabreraactor, Hero

Julie Christie, actress – “Julie’s father ran a tea plantation in India, where she grew up.”

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author – born in Kenya

Elizabeth Edwards – late wife of John Edwards, US vice-presidential candidate – “Edwards is the daughter of a Navy pilot and lived in a dozen places by the time she was 18. ‘There is no better experience’ in preparing someone for the madness of a presidential campaign, she says.” New York Times, July 17, 2004. She wrote: Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers

Scott Foley, actor – “Foley relocated often during his childhood due to his father’s career in international banking. He lived all over the world, including Sydney, Australia, and Tokyo, Japan.”

Michel Gondry – film director

Katharine Gun, whistle-blower:

“Her decision to follow her conscience sounds almost unthinking – I didn’t want to step back and think, ‘But, hey, what happens if I do this, and then this happens and then that happens?'” she says. But she has clearly thought in detail about what made her that way… “One of the things the research says is that third-culture kids tend to be extremely empathetic, and because they’ve usually lived in at least one other foreign country, they somehow feel a global alliance… ” Guardian

Mohsin Hamid, novelist:

“So where does Hamid belong? Does he feel a Pakistani Muslim, or an American?

“I’m fully neither,” he said, adding that he believed it was unwarranted to expect individuals to sign up for allegiance to the nation-state.

“What I feel like depends on the context you put me in,” he said. “In the Pakistani context, my attitudes toward religion, to the state, to gender relations are perceptibly American. That makes me American.” Yet when he is in the United States, he can feel quite Pakistani, he said.” International Herald Tribune

Teresa Heinz – John Kerry’s wife, born in Mozambique.

John Kerry, US politician – Attended boarding school in Switzerland while his father was a US diplomat in Germany.

Robin McKinley, author

Viggo Mortensen, actor: “I remember coming to the U.S. and not only having to learn the accent but the slang,” Mortensen says, adding that being forced to adapt quickly helped him later on. “Out of habit you assume that you have something in common with people no matter how different they seem.” Washington Post

Mervyn Peake, author and illustrator

John Rhys-Davies, actor – “Rhys-Davies spent his formative years in Wales and East Africa, returning to the UK when he was nine.”

Alexander McCall Smith – novelist – his books

Cordwainer Smith – A science fiction writer who spent many of his formative years in China and was bilingual in Chinese and English. I suspect that this is the reason for the unusual, even poetic, style of his writing. Cordwainer Smith’s books

W. Richard Stevens, UNIX guru

Kathleen Turner, actor – diplomatic “brat”

Dominique de Villepin, former Prime Minister of France

Mike Volpi, CEO of Joost

Joss Whedon, screenwriter and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – partly schooled in the UK

Hugo Weaving, actor – born in Nigeria, has lived in Australia, South Africa, England.

let me know of any other famous TCKs you are aware of!

Third-Culture Kids: Growing Up Everywhere, and Nowhere

You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself, because the past is just a goodbye.

Graham Nash – Teach Your Children

“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

Third Culture Kids – available from Amazon UK | US – If you are a TCK or have a TCK in your life, read this book!

Do I Qualify? (As a TCK, that is)

See the timeline. Yeah, I guess I qualify.

Stephen Alter, a Woodstock alumnus a few years older than myself, published a book in 1998 called All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas. It’s not an entirely satisfying book; he leaves too many questions unanswered about how he did finally deal with the confusions of identity and culture caused by his unusual upbringing – confusions very familiar to many of us. But there are some beautiful and funny stories and plenty of description, which makes it a good introduction to the place for those who’ve never been to Woodstock (and a great nostalgia trip for those who have).

Resources for TCKs

very comprehensive Wikipedia article
At Home Abroad (regular section of the International Herald Tribune) – e.g., When Expat Runs in the Family
Expats Reunite
Interaction International
Global Nomads International
TCK World
Third Culture Kids: Returning to their Passport Country
US State Department links page

April, 2004: In Memoriam

Dave Pollock, tireless advisor, counselor, and advocate for third-culture kids, died on Easter. I had the privilege of attending his TCK workshop at a Woodstock reunion; these workshops were epiphanies of self-understanding and healing for many of us. TCKs worldwide will miss him, and are grateful for all that he has done for us.

Duchess, a Dog

From 1967 to 1972 my family lived in Bangkok. My dad worked for the US Agency for International Development, so we were officially part of the diplomatic community, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

One of which was to live in a sort of expatriates’ ghetto, an apartment compound called Red Rose Court – eight or ten rows of three-story townhouses, all rented by falang (foreign) families. This little village was administered by Orapa, a Thai woman so fierce that her title – “landlady” – was synonymous with fear (for me, at least – I was a timid child).

Red Rose Court had a large driveway running its length, on one side bordered with a tall hedge of red – not roses! – hibiscus. The main gate opened onto the large, heavily-trafficked avenue that was Red Rose Court’s official address. Out the front gate and half a block to the right were a few shops that I was allowed to visit to buy candy.

The back gate gave onto a smaller, dirtier street where I was forbidden to go at all. Both gates were usually open during the day, but by some unwritten rule (I don’t remember whether there were guards) no one came in except people who were supposed to be there. And some of Bangkok’s teeming population of mangy, underfed, abused stray animals.

I was a timid child, but not stupid, and I loved animals. I learned early the trick of: “Mom, it followed me home, can I keep it?” My mother loves cats, so it wasn’t difficult to persuade her, and we acquired two cats that way. Dogs, too, realized that we foreigners were a soft touch, especially compared to Thais, who were often cruel with strays – I had seen Thai kids throwing rocks at dogs, and hitting them with sticks.

It didn’t take much street smarts for any animal to realize that Red Rose Court was a gold mine: 40 families with kids, many of them nostalgic for pets they had left behind in America, and most far more disposed than the locals to be kind to animals. When a small, skinny street dog made overtures, the kids in the compound responded gladly (in spite of our parents’ dire warnings about animals carrying rabies), and showered her with love and treats. She was grateful and affectionate, if not terribly clean. But the dirt didn’t show much against her coat. She was a color that would be called tortoiseshell on a cat; being a dog, she was brindled.

Street dogs all over Asia are much the same (I believe someone has written a thesis explaining why): medium height and light build, very short fur in various colors, lopped-over ears, stringy tails, and, usually, a head-down, furtive demeanour. They are also treated much the same all over Asia: badly.

We kids kept the dog for several weeks, hiding her when grownups were around because we were pretty sure they wouldn’t approve. But Orapa knew everything that went on in Red Rose Court, and she definitely didn’t approve of filthy animals sullying her property. She called in the dog catchers.

Had they arrived during school hours, the dog would have simply and quietly disappeared. But the dog catchers showed up with their big nets – just like in Warner Brothers cartoons – at a time we were all around, and we knew immediately what was up.

Instead of a quiet roundup of one insignificant dog, the catchers and Orapa found themselves confronted with a howling, weeping mob of kids of all ages. Though Orapa tried to calm us by claiming that the dog wouldn’t be hurt, we knew she was lying: in Thailand at that time there was no question of holding an animal at a shelter for adoption: she would simply be killed, immediately (and probably not “humanely”).

We led them a merry chase, always getting between the dog catchers and the dog, with Orapa screaming behind, until they finally cornered us. Then there was a standoff, the dog catchers not quite daring to physically wrest the dog from us.

My mother swooped in like an avenging angel and offered to officially adopt her. I’m not sure Orapa appreciated this – if this lowly street dog was elevated to the status of official pet, she would have to continue to tolerate its presence, and the defeat grated on her.

Duchess, as my mother named her, was one smart dog. Though she hadn’t had any contact with my mother before, she recognized her savior, and adopted our family in turn. She behaved well through being vetted and bathed, and stuck close to home ever after.

The following year my dad was posted back to Bangkok (after two years in Vietnam), and Duchess moved with us to a big house the next street over, a property also managed by Orapa. In a house like this, a watchdog was essential – housebreaking was so common, and the thieves so skilled, that we knew foreign families who lost one stereo after another, and never even heard anyone in the house.

Nothing of the sort ever happened to us. Perhaps because she had been so cruelly treated on the streets, Duchess hated Thais (though she accepted our servants as part of the family), and would attack strangers on sight, no questions asked. Workmen, gardeners, and other legitimate visitors had to be escorted through the property, and no one else got in at all. In our three years in that house, we only ever had one thing stolen: a table cloth that was drying on the clothesline near the back fence. My dad was roused by Duchess’ barking just in time to see someone scrambling over the wall – and leaving a bloody trail behind.

My parents separated in 1972 and I left Thailand with my father to return to the US, while my mother stayed behind in Bangkok and remarried. Duchess stayed with her and Gary til they, too, moved; then she stayed with Wandee, who had been our maid. Most expatriates didn’t try to carry pets from country to country – too expensive, risky for the animals, and in some places simply impossible. A constant theme of the roaming expatriate life is the repeated loss of dear, familiar fixtures in your life such as pets.

I remember another dog that got left behind by a Red Rose Court family. It stayed in Red Rose Court, adopted by another family, but every time a car came down the driveway, it would race out to see if its own, original family had finally come back. It was heartbreaking to see this dog running out, time after time, car after car, ears pricked and tail up with happy expectation. Then it would see that the car was the wrong one, and just collapse in on itself, drooping with disappointment.

I wonder if Duchess acted that way when we left.

Note: I confess that I actually wrote this several years ago, for my friend Claudia who was thinking of putting together an anthology, but apparently never found a buyer. I’ve been thinking about stories lately, so decided to dig out this one and share it.