The Accidental Chameleon

My favorite Chameleon
My favorite Chameleon

I think people easily forget that when TCKs return to their “Home Culture” (or their passport culture), they often experience culture shock.  I think I mentioned before that I was 8 when we returned to the US, but I had never lived in the US for more than a month (that I remember).
When a person looks like they belong, people assume they belong.  I didn’t look any different from my classmates and my accent was not much different from my classmates, so people did not have any reason to suspect that I might have a different background: an accidental chameleon.  But for me, my American experience was different.  In 3rd grade, I knew the Thai National Anthem better than the American National Anthem.  I could hardly name any of the United States, but I could tell you the general layout of Southeast Asia.  People seemed to greatly disapprove of my lack of knowledge on the Presidents, but I will still trying to understand what a President was (Thailand has a monarchy).
Most of my classmates had never even left the region, much less the country.  Kids seemed genuinely interested when I said that I had lived in Thailand, but they didn’t know what else to say or ask.  Even when I would share an experience I had in Thailand, people would seem interested but clueless how to respond.  Not that I blame them… how can someone understand the joys of living in a town with wild monkeys when all they have experienced is the safety of a small US town where even a stray dog is a strange sight?  I think some kids even thought I was lying about my past.
The problem was, it made me feel that my 7 years in Thailand were meaningless to this American culture, and therefore meaningless while I lived in this American culture: another reason I wanted to return to Thailand.   I have read in the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds that TCKs often experience the same thing… the feeling that their experience abroad is meaningless when the host culture doesn’t recognize it.  What’s worse, the TCK gets scolded for not meeting the expectations that the culture has for their age.

The question is, what is the right response when someone says they were living in a different country?  Because I’m not sure even I know.  For me, I think I would have liked it if people would ask me about it… even the questions that show complete ignorance of the culture.  But I don’t know… what response do you think is best?  What would you prefer?  Or what’s your instinctual response to someone when they say they are from out of the country?

6 thoughts on “The Accidental Chameleon”

  1. because i lived in another culture my questions to someone who said they grew up in a different culture would be things like, Did you speak and write the language? what did you do for school? Did you live in a city or village? How did they accept you as a fair haired,, fair skinned western looking person? was there a church there? Do you miss it? What do you miss? What is strange to you coming to north america? Do you need help with anything? Would you like to come over for a meal? etc…..

    1. See, I feel totally fine with someone asking me those questions. In fact, I would love to see people so interested! but I wonder if everyone feels the same way

  2. I really relate to what you said about your experience feeling meaningless. I still feel like I struggle with that sometimes. I don’t know. I like it when people ask about Thailand because it shows that they care, but I sometimes find it awkward when people make a huge deal out of it.

    1. Yeah, my TCK book agrees that TCKs often feel that sense of meaninglessness when people don’t acknowledge where they came from. What do you consider making a huge deal out of it?

  3. I wonder if you would have this same experience outside the US…I sometimes think we are a country of people can’t fathom life outside the US….

    1. Eric, that is a REALLY good point. I’m going to look into that. I have read that it can actually be harder in some stricter Asian countries, like Japan and Korea because they are more monocultural. But I definitely wonder about countries like Australia, where young people are almost expected to travel outside the country.

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