I’ve written about healthy transitions before, but haven’t gotten into the specific areas that can be utterly perplexing to many MKs and TCKs. I am convinced more than ever that Global Nomads need Cultural Mentors to help them with transitioning back to their passport culture.
If you’re in the Global Nomad camp, I encourage you to dig deep for courage to ask “dumb” questions, humility as you assess the differences and the ability to laugh at yourself as you muddle your way through the complexities of this new-to-you place.
If you’re in the Cultural Mentor camp, you may want to start practicing a neutral expression to mask your surprise when some of these questions come up! You may also be interested in becoming an MK Harbor and offering help and hospitality to returning MKs. Click HERE for more info on this exciting project.
With that said—let’s dive in! This post has two parts:
- PART ONE – Ten areas of confusion: A quick overview of each area of confusion.
- PART TWO – Specific questions TCKs might ask: Scroll past the overview for a list of specific questions TCKs may have on each topic.
Please don’t hesitate to add topics and specific questions I’ve missed in the comments section at the end of this post. And check back soon: a national network of Cultural Coaching Volunteers is in the works!
I walk to my chair, and the guy next to me decides to sit in it. So I move to the next chair at the table, and he moves to that one and prepares to sit in it too. By the time we’ve been around the table twice, with me picking a seat and him stealing it from me, he’s showing signs of frustration. “Would you just let me hold the chair out for you?!” he finally asks.
There are social practices that seem obvious to people who have lived in this country their whole lives—for us, they can be just a bit confusing. Beyond ending up playing an embarrassing game of musical chairs with a person who is just trying to be chivalrous, we may also struggle with knowing the context of pop-culture things like “Bazinga” and “Katniss” and the romantic reference point of “Ross and Rachel.” If you can familiarize us with this culture’s etiquette, with its “icons” in music, TV and movies, and if you can gently tell us when we’re doing something wrong, you’d make it less humiliating to navigate a new life in a new place.
Scroll down to Part II for specific culture-related questions!
“You doing okay?”
“Yep—just busy. Gotta get my ducks in a row.”
“We can have ducks in our dorm rooms??”
Idioms can be a problem. But some other gaps in our language mastery could prove to be a lot more damaging. When it comes to offensive words (swearing), sexual vocabulary (especially slang) and racial terminology, we just need someone to tell it like it is. A note to cultural mentors: do not be shy in this area! The more your TCK knows, no matter how embarrassing for both of you, the better. How many of them have already agreed to an invitation to “Netflix and chill,” not realizing what they’ve really consented to?
Part II has specific language-related questions, including the meaning of “Netflix and chill”!
Me speaking to a cashier recently: “Would it help if I gave you a five-center?”
Bemused look from the cashier.
“I mean a dime! Would you like a dime?”
I left the store still not knowing that I should have said a nickel!
Knowing the name of coins is more embarrassment-inducing than life-threatening, but our confusion about financial matters can go much deeper than that. Many TCKs are unversed in basic things like credit cards, tipping, loans, basic banking, cost of living and repaying student loans. Can you help? (Scroll to Part II for specific money-related questions!)
[Please click THIS LINK for an article that clearly outlines how Third Culture Kids do relationships differently.]
A dorm-mate crosses me in the hallway: “Hi! How are you?”
Me, wanting to be personable: “Well, I’m doing okay, I guess. Just a bit sad that my grandma’s gout is flaring up and wishing I could shake my addiction to The Bachelor, but I’m probably feeling about 8 out of 10. How about you?”
Pause for a look around. Dorm-mate is long gone.
Many TCKs will hear “How are you?” as a legitimate question requiring a serious answer, not as a ritualized greeting that gets a ritualized answer. And if they have an MK background, where self-disclosure is highly valued, they might need help learning the importance of small talk, what it actually is and how to engage in it. You can also assist us in understanding the stages of romantic relationships. What does “dating” really mean? What is considered good date-night behavior for each party? At what point is exclusivity expected?
“Uhm…I’d like a fudjita, please.”
Waitress gives me a look and I panic.
“Never mind, I’ll have a kweez-a-dill-uh instead.”
Waitress’s annoyance morphs into pity. “You don’t get out much, do you, honey.”
We actually do “get out much”—it’s just that our getting-out is in places where words like fajita and quesadilla are decidedly foreign! Our food confusion is never more prominently on display than in high-stress ordering situations with very specific terminology like Starbucks and Chipotle…which is known to many TCKs as “tchipotull.” Tipping, asking for the check, ordering our Subway sandwich in an efficient and cogent way—we could use some guidance here. (Part II has specific food-related questions.)
My French friends came over to Canada for a visit and were thrilled to find that their rental van had a cooler built in between the front seats. The first thing they did? Find a store to stock their fridge with Molson and Labatt’s—because what better time to acquaint yourself with a country’s beer than during 10-hour drives! They had no idea that their beverage exploration could have ended in 10-hour incarceration…
A lot of TCKs don’t learn to drive at an early age, either because it’s unnecessary (public transport systems or no need to drive) or because it’s not possible (driving ages vary around the world). Even if they do drive, laws are different here. We may need driving lessons, and getting those might require borrowing a car! Then there are the challenges of pumping gas, learning new laws (you can turn right on red??) and understanding driving courtesies (pulling over for emergency vehicles and funerals, for instance.) And there’s also the scary process of finding and buying a car… (See Part II for specific driving-related questions!)
A TCK goes in for a job interview. He greets his prospective employer with his hand out, but his eyes averted. He asks no questions about the position and tries not to smile when the interviewer says something funny. He avoids saying anything that sounds like bragging about himself. A day later, he gets word that he didn’t get the job and doesn’t understand why. After all, he did everything exactly the way you’re supposed to in his other culture!
Not only could we use some mentoring on writing résumés, adapting them to suit specific jobs, interviewing and being a good employee, but we may also need help knowing where to look for job listings and how to apply for them. (See to Part II.)
In France – sitting across the desk from my doctor.
Me: “I have a really sore throat and white spots on my tonsils…”
Doctor: “Why don’t you take your top off and we’ll have a look.”
I sit across from him at the desk and proceed to remove my clothes…for a sore throat. Imagine my surprise when I discovered how fond American doctors are of changing rooms and paper robes!
Medical help is vastly different here than in just about every other country in the world. The bedside manner of practitioners, their examination methods and their prescriptions may feel strange to us. We could use help with making appointments, knowing what to expect during a exam and understanding that we have the right to ask questions during the entire process. (Scroll to Part II for…yeah, you’ve got it.)
Johnny’s out for a jog and quite a distance from campus when he becomes aware of an urgent need. Rather than run two miles home with a straining bladder, he opts to relieve himself right there. It’s a natural bodily function, after all. Imagine his horror when a cop car pulls up, lights flashing, and the officer says words like “public indecency” while pointing at the Elementary School just up the busy road next to which he’s just urinated…
What’s acceptable and not in public places varies from culture to culture. Like peeing beside well-traveled roads. And making any noise between noon and 2 pm (forbidden in Germany). And elderly women gardening in just a skirt and a bra (France). And yelling “Waitress” to get your bill and pay. If you see/hear of TCKs doing things that are a tad shocking here, remember that those behaviors might be absolutely normal in their other worlds. Modesty, civility, courtesy—these are all important areas in which we could use some help.
In Romania – driving to the MK school with my host, we get pulled over by the cops. My host gets out of the car before the cop even gets there.
He pulls out several bills and tries to pacify the officer, who refuses.
He engages the cop in an animated dispute as to whether he really cut off another driver.
He answers the officer’s question about employment and says he works for God to make life better for children.
The cop sends us on our way.
Imagine if he’d done any of the above in this culture!
In some countries, authorities are the enemy and bribes/arguments are the standard way of dealing with them. In some cultures, you never call the cops unless it’s a life-and-death situation. In others, you call anyone but them, because they’re corrupt and won’t get involved. TCKs need to know who to call and when to call them. They need to know that police officers here do “protect and serve” and that it’s okay to ask for their help for big and small things (my sister-in-law once called them because she heard a strange sound in her house late at night while my brother was out…they checked every room and wished her a good night.)
- What songs, TV shows and movies should I be familiar with?
- Who the heck is Katniss? And why should I know who Ross and Rachel are?
- What are the most popular sitcoms, dramas and reality shows in my age group?
- Can you fill me in on the character arcs for The Avengers so the latest release makes sense?
- What do I need to know about certain controversial high-profile figures?
- What is polite in a formal dinner context?
- What is offensive in that context?
- Do I bring a gift to my host/hostess if they invite me to dinner?
- Is it insulting to finish everything on my plate? (In some cultures, it is.)
- Can I refuse seconds and thirds?
Helpful hint: watching the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon can be an easy and entertaining way to acquaint oneself with cultural elements and cues.
- What is the intensity-quotient of certain swear words? ie. Is crap as offensive as shit?
- What are the most common swear words?
- Are there some words so offensive that people might reevaluate associating with me?
- A guy asked me to come over for “Netflix and chill”…that’s a good thing, right? (Honey, if he’s up on the lingo, he’s just asked you to have sex with him.)
- What does ________ mean? (Be bold—fill in that blank!)
- Explain LGBTQ+ to me.
- What do transgendered, cisgender, bicurious, two spirited, bisexual, heteronormative, gender binary, SSA, etc. mean?
- What words are considered racial slurs here?
- We call Asian people “chinks” in my overseas school, but I’m pretty sure there’s a guy on my floor who reported me for saying it… Is it bad?
- African American, black, colored…help??
- How many cents are in a dime, nickel, quarter?
- And seriously, why are nickels bigger than dimes when they’re worth less?
- Do I have to tip?
- How much do I tip a waiter at a sit-down restaurant?
- How about take-out—do I tip for that?
- Can I ever NOT tip?
- Other than waiters, what kind of people get tips? Shuttle drivers? Police officers?
- How do I pay bills in this country?
- Explain ATMs to me.
- Check? What’s a check?
- Do I have to go to the bank to make a deposit?
- Who needs to file taxes?
- What papers do I need to hold on to during the year to file more easily?
- What’s the best/easiest way to file?
- Should I be putting some money away for taxes every month and how much?
- I don’t suppose a friendly smile to the IRS would get me off the hook…?
- What are the benefits of having a credit card?
- What are the risks?
- What does that “minimum payment” really mean and is “interest” something I should be concerned about?
- What do I do when a store offers me a discount to open a credit card account?
- Should I pay them off as quickly as possible or is it okay to keep to the payment schedule?
- Saving: What is the advantage of putting even a little bit of money aside every month? (Answer: HUGE. Do it, do it, do it.)
Real cost of living:
- What will the cost of living look like after college?
- I mean, I can pay off my entire $35,000 college debt in a couple of years, right? (Wrong. But you can plan ahead and be efficient about the process!)
- What does dating mean in my college/university/job context?
- Does it mean something else in other contexts?
- Who can ask whom on dates?
- How do I ask someone on a date without freaking him/her out?
- If I’m asked out but don’t want to go, can I say no and how do I do so?
- What kind of behavior and conversation is expected on a first date?
- Do we have to kiss at the end of the first date…or ever?
- Can we practice small talk? (Because I’m more comfortable discussing my grand-parents’ marriage issues than the last episode of New Girl.)
- Here’s the kind of coffee I like, what’s the quickest and clearest way to order that?
- Please help me with the ulcer-inducing process of ordering at Chipotle and Subway!
- How do you pronounce fajita and those other Mexican foods?
- I’m 21 and I’ve never driven… Teach me?
- Oh, and I’ll need to use your car.
- What do leaded, unleaded and premium mean?
- What zip code do I enter, if prompted? (Answer: the one that is connected to the credit card you’re using.)
- Is it okay to sip a beer while I’m driving down the highway? (It isn’t illegal in a lot of countries, but it sure is here!)
- What do I do if a school bus stops in front of me?
- And it’s not a big deal if I go a bit above the limit in a school zone, right? (It really is.)
- What do I do when I see emergency vehicles or a funeral procession?
- Can I just give the cop a $20 if he pulls me over for speeding? (Sure—it’ll give you a chance to learn about courtrooms and legal fees!)
Picking a job:
- What kind of job works well with a full-time or part-time class load?
- What can I do with my skill set?
- Do my first jobs have to be dream jobs?
- What do I do if I don’t get along with my boss/coworkers?
- How much advance notice to I need to give before I quit or do they have to give me before I lose the job?
- Do I have rights and what are they?
- Are résumés important?
- What is a good online guide to writing one?
- What should I avoid in my résumé?
- Could you help me to write it?
- Can a résumé be altered/tailored to suit a specific job? (Answer: yes!)
- I’ve never been to a job interview before—do I shake the interviewer’s hand?
- Am I allowed to ask questions and what questions should I ask before it’s over?
- Do I smile and act friendly or stay serious and professional?
- Is it okay to say good things about myself?
- Can I ask about the salary?
- Can I look him/her in the eye? (In some countries, you wouldn’t.)
Keeping a job:
- What do you consider being a good employee here?
- What should I avoid doing on the job?
- What kind of doctor do I call for ________________. (The difference between GPs and specialists.)
- Are emergency rooms just for life-and-death issues?
- Who do I call if I get really sick? And what if I get really sick on a weekend?
- What’s with these paper robes they keep giving me?
- How does my medical insurance work?
- What does my insurance cover and do I need to check with them before having medical work done?
- What can I expect during a physical?
- Do I have to stick with the first doctor I see?
OUT IN PUBLIC
- Is it okay to urinate in full view on the roadside here?
- Do Americans have to be quiet between 12 and 2 pm every day?
- I only have to pick up my dog’s poop if it’s on a sidewalk, right?
LAW & ORDER
- I like to download my music for free from the internet. It’s only wrong if you get caught, though. (Incorrect assumption.)
- What kind of things should I report to the authorities?
- If I’m not absolutely sure that there’s something bad going down, I shouldn’t call the cops, right? (Wrong—if you suspect something, say something.)
- Is there a non-emergency number for local police? (There usually is—add it to your phone’s contact list!)
- Do I have to call the cops if I’m in a minor accident?
- The bigger the bribe, the better the outcome…right?
Your comments are welcome! Add your questions and areas of challenge in the spaces below. (Log in with Facebook for the first comment box or log in with WordPress for the 2nd box…and if that doesn’t work, email me your thoughts!) Use the “Like” & “Share” buttons at your convenience and don’t forget to add me on Facebook! To subscribe to the blog, email firstname.lastname@example.org and write “Subscribe” in the subject line.
This also gives many ideas if I never needed to go to US! Having only lived in 4 different European countries there are many things on your list that I don’t understand.
Michele Phoenix, that is an amazingly comprehensive list!!! How did any of us maneuver through the obstacle course that is counter/reverse culture shock while going to college, working & making the myriad of daily emotional adjustments necessitated??? I’m so glad you are serving MKs in this important area of re-entry to their passport country!