Do you have a friend who grew up overseas in an expat family? Have you ever wondered how you can better connect with them? Often, Third Culture Kids can be difficult to get close to. They’ve had drastically different experiences than people who grew up in their home culture. They get asked the same questions a thousand times and have developed rote answers. They don’t expect most people to understand their perspective and experience, so they avoid the frustration and don’t often try to explain it. Instead of asking the same old questions, try this instead.
- Ask them about their life journey, not where they’re from. And be interested in the answer. Don’t ask where they’re from and expect a single answer. They don’t have an answer to this question! This week, someone asked this question to my husband, Ben, who is a TCK. His answer? “That’s a good question.” Ben will usually answer this question based on the person’s apparent interest level. To casual inquirers, he says “Phoenix,” which is where we lived in the U.S. To people he’ll see again, he usually tells them he grew up in Africa. To people who really seem interested, he will explain that he was born in Burundi, grew up in Tanzania, went to high school in Kenya, and lived in Phoenix for college.
- Ask thoughtful questions. I wonder how many times TCKs have been asked if they rode elephants to school. Or if they speak African. Or if they had a pet lion. Or if they know someone’s cousins friend’s sister, who lives somewhere on the same continent. Nothing will shut down a conversation like a thoughtless question. Instead, ask a meaningful question about the TCKs life abroad: Where did you go for family vacation? What was your favorite sport when you were a kid? What did you do in your free time?
- Accept their life stories. When you’re sharing stories about childhood pets, and your TCK friend starts talking about the pet monkey or monitor lizard, just listen. Don’t make a snide remark about being shown up by your friend’s story. Don’t suggest that they’re bragging. They might be, but probably not. Remember that all they have are stories about cross-cultural life. While your normal was a suburban home, two cats, a dog, and a basketball hoop in the driveway, their normal was a cinder-block one-bedroom, a parrot and a herd of goats, and bilingual soccer games with a plastic-bag ball in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
- Be patient with cultural nuances. TCKs have grown up with a variety of cultural expectations, and although they’ve become adept at being cultural chameleons, they don’t always know exactly what expectation belongs where. That funny pronunciation, the way they use their fork, the avoidance of eye contact with the opposite sex, the different concept of time… all of that can be attributed to culture. Don’t make fun of it or act like it’s stupid. Roll with it. Or, if you feel it should be corrected and you’re in a position to do so, explain it with respect.
- Make them your most trusted news source. TCKs get annoyed by Western media’s botched coverage of issues in their adopted countries. They get even more annoyed by people who trust the media more than their own experiences. Listen to your TCK friend explain the realities of their world, and believe them. You could never understand the issues better than they do simply by watching TV and reading a few articles.
- Let them teach you to think globally. Culture is so pervasive that we often fail to recognize our own cultural tendencies. Be open minded to the global perspective of your TCK friend. At times, he or she will challenge your Western attitudes, philosophies, and perspectives.
- Recognize that they have deeper experiences than you do. Your TCK friend is likely multilingual, has lived in three or more cultures, and has seen things you’ve only ever heard of. Bilingualism means they can communicate with more people, and with a greater framework for thought. Multiculturalism means that they have a more well-rounded view of the world. More varied experiences means they’ve seen much of the world, experienced social studies in real life, and likely have gone through some sort of trauma that you cannot identify with.
- Be the friend that sticks around. TCKs are familiar with good-byes. They’re used to people coming in and out of their lives, and they certainly don’t believe you when you say you’ll stay in touch. People rarely do. Be the friend who follows through. Write letters. Ask how they’re doing. Set up Skype dates.
Third culture kids, did I get it right? What else are you looking for in friendships?