As I sat down to attempt to write about this complex subject of TCK relationships, I turned on my Disney Pandora station to set the mood. To many, that might seem odd – Disney, if anything, would typically evoke childhood memories of sitting in front of an old TV on Saturday mornings with siblings. However, when Shang belts out his determination to make a man out of Mulan, my mind travels to watching the Disney classic with TCK friends who grew up in Asia, listening to them talk about the cultural accuracy of the movie. And when Simba is presented to the circle of life, I think of last summer, snuggled between TCK friends on an African safari.
These movies – and their soundtracks – are now explicitly connected with TCKs for me. I have watched Disney movies with non-TCKs too, but my experiences with TCKs are markedly different. What is it about TCKs that bonds us together? And what does that teach us about bonding with non-TCKs?
Bonding with TCKs
First, we’re willing to jump into relationships quickly. TCKs are well accustomed to the fact that with every hello comes a goodbye and, often, they are not far apart. Because of this, we establish deep connections more quickly than many of our peers.
I’ve found that after living in Texas for two years, there are still so many people that I only kind of know. I’ve noticed that non-TCKs use activities to slowly form relationships while TCKs, used to a transient pace of life, dive right into the intimate conversations.
Jerry Benson, 18, a TCK who lived in Canada for three years, noticed that after living in a new country, making friends became a “simpler concept.”
“I had realized how pointless and time consuming it was to nervously wait for others to approach me,” he explained. “I almost feel like I had developed a sort of maturity, that allowed me to overpass the trivial roadblocks of friend making.”
Though we seem to connect with others well, it’s important to be aware of what one article referred to as “pseudo-intimacy.”
In a TCK Academy post, “Ask a TCK Counselor: ‘How do I settle in relationships?”, counselor Carmen Vaughan notes that, “In the short time [TCKs] have to develop the relationship, they may establish a pseudo-intimacy, based more on the looming reality that they will soon be separated than on actual intimate knowledge of each other.”
This does not always have to be the case, however. Our willingness to connect and relate with others is the foundation to a sturdy relationship. But if it stops there, false affinity can strip away any genuine joy. Instead, we must continue to build on this foundation. This explains the second reason why TCKs bond so well: we share common experiences.
I think this aspect of “TCKness” is both crazy and totally understandable. I was recently Skyping with my friend, Elizabeth Goddard, 18, who grew up in East Asia. We have both traveled to our respective continents, but not each other’s adopted countries. I asked her: Why do we get each other so well? And why did we become such good friends?
Her answer is what most TCKs find true: though we have not experienced the exact same cultures, we share the process of learning a new culture; though we have not experienced the exact same layovers, we share a lot of time spent in airports around the world; though we have not made all of the same moves, we share the challenges of transition. TCKs share common, not identical, experiences allowing us to understand each other so well. We are all accustomed to change.
Joel Winget, 25, grew up as a missionary kid in Hungary. He described that longing for change as still something he struggles with as an adult.
“I don’t like change, but I need it,” he explained. “I lived in the same house for 3 years here in Florida and that is the longest I had ever gone without moving. Even living in Hungary for 15 years, we would move houses or travel back to the U.S. for several weeks at a time… I just grew accustomed to the change. It is something I am battling now as an adult: Being content where I am.”
It is exactly these daily battles that bond us together. Though spread across the globe, we face the same challenges. This gives us the freedom to share our experiences with each other, which is the third connecting factor of TCK relationships.
Isabella Bryant, 20, who grew up in England, Japan, Singapore, and the US, said it’s easier to share her overseas experiences with other TCKs than with non-TCKs.
“I feel like people can get the impression you’re stuck up for talking about places you’ve lived or traveled to but that’s not the case… someone who has lived overseas will understand that you’re just sharing your experiences, not bragging,” she explained.
Joel agreed, saying that when he shared about his life in Hungary many of his coworkers thought he was just “gloating about [his] ‘fancy’ life.”
As TCKs, we have a global outlook and can appreciate the stories of our fellow world travelers.
Jerry commented on this, noting, “[After returning to my passport country], I felt like I was in a whole different world than some of my classmates. I understood things on a very grand scale, and could adapt to different niches easily because of my experiences.”
Through our desire to relate, our shared experiences, and our freedom to express our unique stories, we share a special bond. Without explanation, TCKs understand the depth of experience behind a simple encouraging smile, cultural faux pas, or airline horror story.
But just like in physics, for every TCK relationship there is an equal and opposite non-TCK relationship. Relationships with non-TCKs are equally present and important, yet incredibly different from a TCK relationship.
So how are we to translate the positive qualities of TCK relationships into our non-TCK relationships?
Learning to Connect with Non-TCKs
First, we have to respect the stories of non-TCKs. When I was Skyping with Elizabeth, I also discussed this with her. We’ve both been living in the U.S. for the past two years after previously living overseas. I asked her what she thought about ever being able to truly connect and be understood by a non-TCK.
She paused. Then, slowly, she said this gem, “Never underestimate the impact an American peer can have on you.”
As I let that sink in, I realized how often we don’t respect people from our passport country. When I moved back to the United States for my junior year of high school, I did not expect to relate well with my peers. I didn’t believe they would understand me, or that we would ever be able to connect well. However, after living in the U.S. for two years now, I realized I was wrong. I can still enjoy and benefit from the company of old friends and new friends even without being fully understood.
It’s also not a one-way street – just as non-TCKs might never be able to fully understand our world, we will never be able to understand theirs. We somehow don’t believe their lives and stories truly matter and have value because they all take place in one location, but nothing could be further from the truth. Before we hope to share our experiences, we must learn to respect theirs.
Second, we have to let go of our pride. In the blog post “Exploring TCK Bigotry,” Marilyn Gardner perfectly sums up our struggle with this issue when she writes, “We are prone to prejudice and bigotry in our passport countries. This is ironic. That which makes its mark on us with indelible ink and shouts flexibility, adaptability, maturity and fun is suddenly hidden under disdain and inability to relate to those around us.”
As much as I’d like to disagree with Marilyn, I unfortunately have to admit that I do struggle with prejudice. From the world’s perspective, I am far more cultured, well-rounded, and traveled than my peers; I have been to multiple continents, countless countries, and numerous cultures. And yet I struggle with loneliness. I don’t know what it’s like to have a close group of friends and I can’t appreciate how special it is to walk through every stage of life with the same friends because I’ve never experienced that.
What I may have gained from scattering my life throughout cultures, I equally may have lost. And what someone may have lost from living in a sleepy, small town their entire life, they may have equally gained. We can learn from non-TCKs and they can learn from us – but not as long as we stubbornly cling to the belief that travel equals success, that living overseas trumps staying in one location, that being a TCK is better than being a non-TCK.
Third, we have to search for common ground. As different as we might feel from non-TCKs, we can always find something we have in common, whether it be a love for the same music, a shared appreciation for traveling, or a common religious faith.
In another article from TCK Academy, “Ask a TCK Counselor: ‘TCK and Non-TCK Relationships: Will They Work Out?‘” Judith Hansen wisely addresses this topic.
She writes, “My basic premise is that if we, as TCKs, approach the world looking at how much we have in common rather than how much we differ, would go a long way in resolving some of our relational difficulties. We would see that everyone longs to be heard, understood, be in relationship, have friendships and feel valued. With that in mind then, as we look for opportunities to establish common ground, we will find the world to be a richer place.”
As you move forward in your TCK journey, let me encourage you that you will find lasting and genuine relationships with both TCKs and non-TCKs. Don’t let your unique upbringing hinder you from relating to and enjoying the company of peers from your passport country – learn to appreciate the beautiful friendships that do result from shared overseas experiences. As Judith writes, continue to appreciate and respect others and you will find the world to be a richer place. And you might even find some new Disney-watching friends.