Please note: This article is about a Third Culture Kids’ relationships with individual Americans (the people), not about our views of America (the geo-political power) and its Washingtonian shenanigans. I address those in this separate post.
If someone had asked me, when I returned to the States for college, what I liked about this country, I would have said, “nothing.”
Not the people, not the places, not the culture, nothing. Even the food felt insulting. (What can I say, I’m an MK from France—if it isn’t buttery or saucy, it’s irrelevant to me!)
While excusing all kinds of wrong behaviors and dubious ethics in the foreign places that were truly Home to me, I let nothing slide with the one place for which my family held passports. I vowed to keep this country safely at arm’s length and believed my multi-cultural credibility depended on pointing out every one of its flaws.
Since moving back to the States again five years ago, I’ve gotten a clearer perspective on what I did wrong on that first transition to my passport culture, and I feel compelled to address it now in the hope that the lessons I’ve learned since then will be useful to others.
To be honest, the “transition prep” sessions I had to sit through before graduating high school didn’t help. Kind-hearted souls pointed out everything I’d find difficult in the “Land of the Brave.” Nobody would ever understand me. I’d find my peers immature, relationships shallow and the mindsets puritanical.
Though the instructors thought they were preparing me, they were actually planting the seeds of judgment and distrust that would eclipse any chance of transitioning well. I believed the dire predictions and transitioned with a chip the size of Gibraltar on my shoulder.
I came “home” to this country—which had never really been home—looking for reasons to dislike it, for traits in its people that confirmed my worst expectations, declaring verbally and non-verbally that I would never become “one of them.”
But we’re MKs, right? We’re tolerant, open and culturally flexible…except when it comes to people “back home.”
We can do better. Just as we’d extend acceptance to a remote tribe whose beliefs and practices are vexingly contrary to ours—using that prized Cultural IQ we’ve acquired in our nomadic years—MKs must find the courage to extend the same grace and flexibility to members of our passport culture.
If we intentionally explore what is good and noble in the people of this culture—their strengths and positive traits—and if we show mindfulness by looking beyond the differences to what we do have in common, we’ll set ourselves up not only for inclusion, but for friendship too. And there is true, meaningful friendship to be found here. I’ve lived it.
Inclusiveness is a huge force for good, one that has the power to connect despite the distance between our worlds. True influence is only possible through mutual relationship, and relationship can only come from genuine respect.
The generalizations still run rampant in MK circles, and there’s nothing pretty or helpful about them. All Americans are narrow-minded. They’re all gluttons and power-mongers. They’re all shallow and materialistic. We hate statements like “All MKs are socially inept,” but hesitate not one second to indict “all” Americans with our petty accusations.
Our greatest gripe seems to be (generalization alert!) the average American’s deficient grasp on foreign issues. We shake our heads at their shortcomings and pat ourselves on the back for all we know.
Here’s a reality check: we are not better than our American counterparts because we’ve seen more of the planet, and they are not inferior because they haven’t.
We’ve got to stop belittling people for what they cannot know.
“But they have books and the Internet—they could learn about what’s happening in the rest of the world!” we bluster. Here’s my question to the average MK-reader of this article: who’s fighting in the the war in Sierra Leone? What is the main industry in the capital of Nepal? You don’t know when the government of Latvia fell? Shame on you. It happened just last year!
The bottom line is this: we know about foreign places because they’ve touched our lives. If they hadn’t figured in some way in our experience or that of people we love , we simply don’t know about them either. The same is true of our American counterparts.
It’s not that anyone is stupid, it’s that the world that is familiar and significant to us hasn’t played a role in their lives.
It’s time to start cutting America some slack.
When we subdue arrogance and elevate acceptance, our personal, relational and cultural potential will expand in ways it never could when bound by self-satisfied disdain.
I’m not sure why I was so committed to disliking this country when I moved here at age 18.
I might have been afraid of getting stuck here if I got to the point where I liked it. Or maybe I resented that I had to be here in the first place. Or maybe it felt safer to consider myself superior than to try to make friends and fail. Or maybe I was sick of trying to explain America and its stances to my friends overseas. (More on these reasons HERE.)
The second time I came back, this time as an adult, I determined to do things differently—to view this country as just another foreign place and to apply the same cross-cultural skills to it as I would to Thailand, Chile or Uganda.
I also decided, on my repeat-reentry, that anger, fear and arrogance (no matter how justified they felt) were damaging traits.
I wanted to display curiosity, intelligence and openness instead. I wanted to explore the differences and engage with the people God brought into my life. I wanted to learn instead of judging. To love instead of dismissing. To understand instead of rejecting. To humble myself instead of posturing.
That doesn’t mean shutting down our judgment and assessment—please don’t hear me saying that. It means initially entering each situation with a willingness (and determination) to give people a chance.
To be honest, it hasn’t always been easy. There have been days when my “transitional energy” was so depleted that I could easily have fallen back into generalizations and making a list of everything that is wrong with “Americans,” then stepping up onto my MK-soapbox to declare it the world.
But that soapbox is a lonely place—I discovered that in college. It’s often an self-defeating place too, one that diminishes me as I condemn others.
What really is “wrong” in those tough reentry moments usually has more to do with my own attitude than with this country’s differences.
We can only control what we bring to the fight—and after five years filled with some frustrations, but also with discovery, delight and true friendships, I can honestly say that changing my mindset has changed everything.
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