Lessons from a Third Culture childhood, part 4: No one understands

This series goes a little deeper into two key lessons of a TCK childhood, something I wrote about for China Source. In part 1 I discussed the lesson that “everyone leaves”. I then wrote two follow up posts regarding that lessong. Now, in this post, I am finally tackling the big one: “no one understands”.

Misunderstood

There’s a good reason my book is called Misunderstood. Very soon after starting interviews, I realised that the topic of feeling misunderstood, and the impact of this, was coming up repeatedly. I started asking TCKs I interviewed if they had felt misunderstood in certain ways and the floodgates opened immediately. Stories (and often tears) poured out of young people who desperately wanted to be known and understood but were hurt by misunderstandings, or even feared it would never be possible that another person could truly understand.

So, why is it that TCKs share this feeling of being misunderstood? Why do they fear that no one can understand?

Living in between

I surveyed 750 TCKs for Misunderstood, and (unsurprisingly) I asked several quesitons about the experience of feeling misunderstood. A third felt misunderstood by their parents, over half felt misunderstood by extended family members. 41% felt misunderstood by friends in their host country. 67% felt misunderstood by friends in their passport country. The main reason for this? Most of the people in a TCK’s life know only one side of that life.

As I’ve talked about before, the Third Culture experience is about living in between – with connections to more than one place/culture. One consequence of this for TCKs is that throughout their formative childhood years, most of the people they interact with know only one side of them – only one of the cultures/places they know and are deeply impacted by. TCKs learn to turn on and off languages and behaviours as they move from one setting to another. In the end, however, there are few places in which TCKs can express all their pieces of self at once.

Imagine a German kid attending an English-speaking school in Kenya. Most of his friends in Kenya won’t speak German or understand much of German life and culture. Most of his family and friends in Germany won’t know what life is like in Kenya, and how deeply in impacts him. In each place, a piece of self is quietly suppressed, to focus on the pieces the people around him can share. Then his family moves to Malaysia, and the complications continue.

“TCKs often feel they will never be known completely; at best they are known slightly by people all over the world. Each person only knows tiny snapshots of parts of their lives.” — Gabe, as quoted in Misunderstood

The joy of being understood

When your baseline assumption is that no one will understand, the experience of being understood is powerful. I had two main goals for Misunderstood, one for each of the two key audiences. I wanted to equip parents and other interested adults with tools to better understand their TCKs; and I wanted to show TCKs that there are others out there who get it – that they CAN be understood.

When Misunderstood was nearly finished I sent excerpts of the manscript to TCKs I had quoted, to make sure they were happy with how their words were being used. One of them summarised what I heard from many when he said “I could have said every quote in here! I didn’t know so many people felt the same way!” Another, when reading the book herself, tried to guess which quotes were hers without looking at the name given. Over and over she thought to herself “oh yeah, that’s me” – only to discover that someone she didn’t know had expressed the same sentiment in words she would have used herself.

Some of the pre-publication reviews of Misunderstood I most treasured came from TCKs themselves, who saw themselves in what I had written, and received that most cherished gift: of feeling themselves to be understood:

Misunderstood left me feeling refreshingly… understood! Compassionate and discerning, its blend of gathered narrative and insight left me with a sense of belonging as well as an appreciation for the many varieties of experience similar to mine. This is the guidebook I want to give people to explain my cultural upbringing.”
Christopher O’Shaughnessy, Author of Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures in Between

Misunderstood explains ME. Tanya gives words to internal feelings I could not have previously understood as a TCK. While I read, I found myself nodding with a sense of relief and recognition, ‘Yes! That’s what I felt. I’m not the only one.’”
Taylor Joy Murray, Author of Hidden in My Heart: A TCK’s Journey Through Cultural Transition

After Misunderstood was published and I started to hear from TCKs who had read it and felt the need to reach out and thank me for giving them this: being understood, and finding out they weren’t the only ones to feel this way. The very first letter I got was from a TCK living in Tajikistan. She shared some of her experiences with me and then said that reading my book was the first time since going through all this that she felt someone had understood her. My heart twisted – a combination of compassion for her, and gratitude that my words were able to bring her some comfort. I remember thinking at the time “for this one person, all the years of work are worth it.”

Two years later I had a letter from a young adult TCK who read my book after suffering a breakdown and discovering that they were a TCK. I heard that similar refrain – that it helped so much to know others felt the same way.

Understanding is possible!

The title Misunderstood is not supposed to be static – that TCKs exist in a state of being misunderstood that will never change. Instead, I hoped to do justice to the emotional experiences TCKs shared with me, while also opening a door to hope that it doesn’t have to be this way!

Yes – it’s true. Many people in a TCK’s life won’t instinctively understand their experiences. And unfortunately, it’s also true that some won’t want to try. But for those who are willing, resources like Misunderstood can help close the gap. It’s tiring, if not impossible, to be the one who advocates for yourself constantly, so giving TCKs a book (and other resources) they can put in the hands of people who do want to understand can take some of the load.

But more than that, there is hope in remembering that no one completely understands anyone else. We all have to share our stories, and try to listen to what another is saying about their experiences. What we all have in common are our emotions. We have all experienced loss, fun, joy, grief. It might look different, but the emotions underneath help us empathise. Learning to connect with and express the way we feel about things we’ve been through helps others go there with us.

The truth is, I know that there are many out there who are just like me, or at least can understand how I feel. There is a sense of isolation from others who are not TCKs, but I’ve always felt that in time most other people can at least comprehend the feelings we have. Loneliness is a universal trait among humans, whether it’s because you were always the weird kid at school or because you lived two thousand miles away from anyone who spoke English. While the reasons may be different, it’s the same type of pain we share.” – Eugene, as quoted in Misunderstood

Now what?

If you are a TCK: you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who has felt what you feel. There are others out there. Not only that, but there will be people in your life who want to listen, to learn, to come to understand you.

If you care for a TCK: a great gift you can give TCKs is to read up on different TCK literature, to start to get an idea of what forces have shaped their worldview. Remember that every TCK is an individual – no book will tell you exactly what they are like. BUT these resources can give you a starting place, to show you where your blind spots might be, and give you ideas of questions to ask to open up different conversations.

I’m going to close by borrowing my own words – from the close of the introduction to Misunderstood. This is what my book, and my work advocating for TCKs, is all about:

“There is no one-size-fits-all explanation of how every TCK has felt and who they will become. Rather, this book is a window into how international life can affect the way a child thinks and feels about their world, and how this different perspective may manifest in the way they interact with others.

Reading this will not teach you everything about any individual TCK, but it will give you a head start in understanding their perspective. From there it will be up to you to take time to talk with the TCKs you meet, and allow them to teach you more about their unique life journeys.”

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