Sunday, November 1, 2015

A TCK's Struggle With Small Town America

A small world is not a wrong world. 


As a TCK who grew up in Thailand and spent a huge junk of my life in other countries, that's been a hard lesson to learn at times. 


I'm still learning it and there are days where I can't accept it. 


Objectively speaking though, it's the truth. 


For those who don't know, TCK stands for Third Culture Kid and refers to people who grew up or spent their formative years in another country or countries that weren't their country of citizenship. 


TCKs include Military Brats, Embassy Kids, Missionary Children, people of mixed national backgrounds and many others. 


Because we spend so much time moving from place to place and interacting with people from different backgrounds we are very adaptable, insightful people. TCKs pride ourselves as lovers of diversity and being very tolerant of others. 


Yet from personal experience that's not entirely true. There's a certain demographic many TCKs have a very difficult time accepting. It's a portion of the world's people we sometimes poke fun at and complain about when we're surrounded by those like us. 


No matter which passport(s) a TCK holds, it seems like we have a hard time understanding and accepting the people from our countries of origin who have never lived or traveled anywhere outside of their small town or community.


As a citizen of the US, those people for me are small town Americans. 


I've lived through civil unrest and political upheaval in Egypt. I experienced a military coup in Thailand (not very eventful) and I was within earshot of a clash between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. 


Yet honestly the most angst inducing moments of my life have been those times where I knew I would have to spend an extended period of time living in a town in rural Ohio or Kansas where almost everyone I met would have never traveled more than a few hundred miles outside their small town. 




Well, I think like many TCKs, it can be hard to relate to other people in general. Even if someone I meet from my country of origin has traveled before there's usually a huge disconnect between our life experiences. 


This gap can be hard to bridge. When we return to our countries or origin, where we often look like everyone else, we are expected to blend in to the surrounding culture as if we've never left. 


This is an impossible task and inevitably we face the prospect of being labeled strange and different by our peers for our worldviews and experiences. 


If you move to a town where almost everyone is the same race and religion and has gone to the same restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, shooting ranges, sports teams and experiences as everyone else, it's even harder to find common ground.

Not only is it hard to find common ground, often the views of the wider world we encounter from small town people are narrow. Sometimes they're worldviews are downright intolerant or prejudiced. 


In small town America, I've encountered views about Muslims, Latino Immigrants and other demographics that I've found very hard to listen to. 


Yet even though in many situations I believe my worldview is broader and a lot more accurate when it comes to world cultures, I've also coming to realize that always calling someone out for their narrow views isn't always productive or fair. 


I first had this revelation a few years ago when I began thinking about how my reactions to narrow views had been different when I encountered them in other countries. I knew plenty of Egyptians who had very negative and racist views of Africans, Israelis, Jews and even Americans. Yet I was able to still accept them as people and I got a long with them generally well despite disagreeing with them. 


So, I asked myself, why couldn't I do the same with fellow Americans?  


This thought exercise came to light again recently when I watched a very interesting TED Talk delivered by Sally Kohn, an openly Lesbian talking head at Fox News. In it she talks about the importance of being emotionally correct rather than focusing just on being politically correct. In her own words: 


'...we've been focused on political correctness, but what matters more is emotional correctness. Let me give you a small example. I don't care if you call me a dyke. I really don't. I care about two things. One, I care that you spell it right...

'...And second, I don't care about the word, I care about how you use it. Are you being friendly? Are you just being naive? Or do you really want to hurt me personally? Emotional correctness is the tone, the feeling, how we say what we say, the respect and compassion we show one another. And what I've realized is that political persuasion doesn't begin with ideas or facts or data. Political persuasion begins with being emotionally correct.' 


As a TCK, this spoke volumes to me. I was confronted again by the uncomfortable fact that at times I had not been very compassionate to people I knew were more ignorant than I was. I had been very judgmental of some who I knew had worldviews that they really couldn't help but have given the circumstances of their lives.

I thought back to some of the times I encountered narrow views in America. I realized  hadn't tried to put myself in the shoes of the person expressing them. I had focused on how wrong their views were but had forgotten to think of them as people.

How could I expect people who had never left their towns to have the same views of Muslims and Arabs that someone who lived in a Muslim country for two and a half years did? How could I expect older people who's entire life had been built around people of the same skin tone and religion to be as understanding of the differences in the culture of foreigners?

My views on the world were forged by my life circumstances. If I had been born and raised in the same Ohio town I lived in as a child I would probably have similar views to many other people. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a very multicultural environment. Most people in this world just don't get that opportunity and that's not something I can really fault them for.

That doesn't make what they believe right. It doesn't make racist or narrow views any less racist or narrow. However, human beings are human beings in any scenario, and as a TCK that's something that I should always strive to remember. 



  1. I'm a TCK that grew up in rural Eastern Kentucky. I definitely understand :)

  2. Awesome man. I'm glad what I wrote resonated. Thanks for the comment :)