“My TCK experience was a lonely one, full of transitions and travel and impermanence; and my way of dealing with that was to create art. As a child, I wrote songs and poetry and stories because I believed I was the only one who felt the way I did.”
Hannah spent much of her time in Ghana without the company of other TCKs, unaware that other people like her existed.
In an interview with TCK Care, she explains, “I didn’t know anybody else like me. No one had ever told me they felt like me, so a lot of my art in my younger years came out of that sense of ‘I must write because there’s nothing out there that really expresses me.'”
It was only when she returned to the USA for university that she found a community of TCKs online, who shared her experience and emotions.
“That’s why I made [the website] – to be a resource for people to find other TCKs who feel things similar to them. It’s like, ‘hey, you’re not alone in this, we all feel this way.'”
Now, Hannah’s website is a source of comfort, inspiration, and solidarity for TCKs all over the world, with a wide range of contributors. She’s collected a range of poetry, music, videos, and paintings dealing with themes of identity, home, and culture, and she is still open to submissions! If you like to express yourself through art or are interested in other peoples’ TCK experiences, Culture Miks just might be the place for you.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
“Oh, Malawi,” he replies with a genuine smile. “British, huh? You are our colonial masters!”
This is a real conversation that I’ve actually had multiple times, with people from different African countries. Every time it has been said with a smile, and every time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I didn’t even know that Malawi was a British colony. The truth is, I didn’t learn a thing about British colonial history at school. I had to start learning the hard way – from the people who almost exclusively learn about the shadier British/European exploits in history class, because they bore the brunt of it.
What is Colonialism?
The ancients, by their system of colonization, made themselves friends all over the known world; the moderns have sought to make subjects, and therefore have made enemies.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what do we mean by colonialism? National Geographic puts it like this: “One nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”
Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.
Now, building empires and taking over other peoples’ land is not a modern phenomenon – think of the Ancient Romans! But what we think of as modern colonialism kicked off in around the fourteenth century with the Age of Discovery. Basically, a number of European countries (notably Portugal, France, Spain and England) began discovering new trade routes around the coasts of Africa and the Americas. They found that a lot of these countries were rich in materials not found in Europe – so they took what they wanted.
So by the time the twentieth century swung around, the majority of the world’s countries had at some point been colonised by Europeans.
This may all seem a long time ago, but let me put this in perspective: Macau belonged to Portugal for 400 years. It was ‘returned’ to China in 1999 – that’s only 20 years ago! Comoros only gained independence from France in 1975. Seychelles got independence from Britain a year later.
There is a widespread view in many of the former colonies that decolonisation has not brought about significant economic or cultural independence.
Maja Mikula, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies
The fact is that a lot of decolonisation – that is, the ‘conquering’ state withdrawing to let the colony become independent – is not distant, long-forgotten history. It has happened in peoples’ lifetimes, or their parent’s lifetimes. And hundreds of years of history leave their mark.
Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome … It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices.
Facing Today in the Light of History
How can I, as a pale-skinned Brit, respectfully and thoughtfully travel to and befriend people from countries that my ancestors oppressed?
Ignoring or downplaying colonial atrocities is the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.
I don’t go out looking for conversations about how my country went out and built an empire. It makes me so uncomfortable and angry to think that my ancestors ever thought that they were superior to their ‘exotic’ friends, or that they had any right to kill, destroy, and take control in the way that they did. I hate that that’s what history looks like. But I also can’t ignore it.
That said, what I’ve found is that many people would never accuse me of those crimes. I remember walking around the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a Chinese friend:
“It’s so sad that this beautiful place got destroyed,” I said, as we wandered through the marble ruins. “It…it was the British, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, well,” she said. “I think the French helped too.”
“No need to be sorry,” she chuckled. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn’t you.”
So if my friends aren’t too bothered – if my Kenyan friend likes to joke that things went downhill after ‘my grandparents’ left, and my Hong Kong friend cheerfully shows me around the British-built police station – do I still need to think about this? It’s all in the past, forgiven, right?
First of all, if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t get to decide when they forgive me. So although in general, my travels to previously colonised countries have been completely pleasant, I know that there may still be people who don’t look kindly on Europeans. It’s hurtful, but it’s understandable.
Secondly, in a horrible, subliminal way, colonialism affects how we view ourselves as a nation. We’ve grown into ugly habits of seeing ourselves as the helpers, the teachers, and just generally doing things the right way. Everyone else is ‘the other‘. Can you see how this kind of deep-rooted false assumption – even if we’re not aware that we’re thinking it – will make us seem arrogant and patronising as soon as we leave our own countries?
Imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.
So…can British people still go to places like India and Egypt and Papua New Guinea? Of course!
Here are a few points I like to remind myself of when I travel to countries like that.
I am not at fault, but I represent a country that is. That means that although I had no part in what happened, I acknowledge that they did, and that they were wrong.
Cultural superiority is a lie. My country is not better than yours, our art/language/food/philosophy is not to superior to yours. We are different, developing and working things out at different rates. I do not go to other countries to educate them on the ‘Western way’.
We are equals. We are humans of equal value, and I will treat you as such. Your story is as important as mine, so I’ll listen.
Visiting previously colonised countries is not necessarily awkward. Be aware that there have been past hurts, but that your friendships can transcend them. We remember history so that it doesn’t happen again – maybe your next friendship can be a symbol of a more united, more loving world.
Can we be a generation that doesn’t shy away from past suffering, but tries to heal relationships, and build a better world learning from past mistakes?
I think so. I hope so.
Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.
T’Challa, Black Panther (don’t judge, it’s a great quote)
These are issues with no easy answers. What’s your take?
How important is it to keep wrestling with these concepts, and addressing the past? How do you do that in a respectful and humble way?
Is there anything as cathartic as processing your experiences, identity, and emotions through writing? If you decide your writing needs a home online, it can be a little daunting! Where do you even start?
This list will point you towards a few of the literary journals and e-mags that excel in promoting voices from a range of cultures. Why not just submit, and see where it takes you?
A Gathering of Tribes – In their words, ‘A Gathering of Tribes is an arts and cultural organization dedicated to excellence in the arts from a diverse perspective.’ They publish poetry, prose, essays, and reviews.
The Acentos Review – Latinos, this one’s for you! Accepting work in Spanish, English, Portuguese, or a combination, this magazine is looking for work from Latinx writers.
aaduna – This journal is particularly interested in providing a platform for writers of colour. In their words, ‘aaduna welcomes all work that addresses multicultural themes, and bolsters human dignity. ‘
Apogee – Their focus is identity politics, so if you have writing or art around the themes of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability or intersectional identities, definitely worth checking these guys out!
Callaloo – ‘A journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters’. A very reputable journal publishing poetry and essays by writers of African descent.
Cha – This journal publishes work with Asian themes, and work by Asian writers. They are an English-language online journal, based in Hong Kong.
Human/Kind – This journal focuses on Japanese short-forms of poetry and art, talking about the human experience, culture, and current events. They describe themselves as a community that ’embraces diversity’, and they accept non-English submissions (providing they come with a translation).
Kweli – In their words, ‘Kweli’s mission is to nurture emerging writers of colour and create opportunities for their voices to be recognized and valued.’
Solstice – Solstice is a literary magazine searching for high quality writing and photography from diverse perspectives. In their words, ‘We publish underserved writers, or writers on the margins. We publish writers of diverse nationalities, races and religions, and also writers from diverse cultures within our culture.’
Sukoon – This magazine works to showcase literature and art with Arab themes, discussing the diversity of Arab identity and experience. They publish work in English.
Whether you’ve moved to a new city or a new country, being the ‘new kid’ can be so lonely. It can be hard to know how to relate to these people, and you might be left feeling very foreign, and out-of-sync with everyone else.
You do need friends, though. You need community. So I promise you, all of the awkwardness and miscommunications are worth it in the end.
For the first few weeks or months, your friendship-building might just look like forced friendliness and slightly stilted interactions. And you know what? That’s ok! Persevere through the awkwardness. Take the time to get to know the people around you: what their interests are, how they spend free time, what their lives are like. And give them a chance to get used to you, too!
Making friends looks a little different from culture to culture, but I wanted to share my tips for finding people to connect with when you’re new to a place. I moved to Scotland just last month, and forcing myself to do these things not only helped me meet more people, but feel settled much faster!
Smile at your neighbours. Chat, be friendly, ask for and offer practical help. Don’t become known as the person in your building/on your street who doesn’t interact with anyone! In some communities, neighbours are practically family. Don’t forget that in some cultures it’s polite to give your neighbour a small gift when you first move in, or at least knock on their door and introduce yourself. Try and find out what might be expected of you in that culture. If in doubt, do what you would do in your culture (don’t forget to explain that to your neighbour!), and let that be a talking point to break the ice. Your neighbours will be invaluable sources of information, too – they know the area, the landlord, and the language, so they might be willing to help you out if you have any problems!
Find a hobby. It doesn’t matter what it is – rock climbing, choir, calligraphy…do something that will both help you relax, and let you meet people with similar interests! It will not only make you a more interesting person to talk with, but having some ‘scheduled fun’ will do wonders for your mental health, and help you feel much more settled.
Be a good colleague/coursemate. When I’m the new person, I get nervous and tend to withdraw from people. Because I know that that is my first reaction, I try to catch myself in that habit, and reject those negative actions. These people are often very willing for you to join in their community, they just need to figure out who you are and what you’re like! The sooner you can build good relationships with the people who are naturally around you on a day to day basis, the better an experience your work/school will be.
‘Take me to church’. Are you religious? Get stuck into a mosque/church/synagogue etc as soon as you possibly can! Visiting your place of worship in a new place might just be the key to discovering these people aren’t so different from you after all. These places can also be incredibly welcoming, so get stuck into that community and enjoy your family away from home.
Volunteer. In my opinion, the best way to integrate into a community is to serve it. So, what’s going on in yours? Is there a soup kitchen for the homeless, or an after-school club for disadvantaged kids? Is there a litter-picking group, or English classes for refugees? Find something you can help with. You’ll not only feel the sense of community, but you’ll know you’ve used your time in a really worthwhile way!
Making friends cross-culturally is hard, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if things start off slowly. Persevere, be patient, and keep smiling! It will happen.
“If you want a friend, be a friend.”
What has your experience of building cross-cultural friendships been?
What other tips would you give to people who feel lonely in their new home?
I grew up in a globally mobile family. Now I’m in Scotland, I have a job and a community…but even the idea of being here for the rest of my life makes my heart beat faster, and the panic sets in. It’s not that I’m not happy here, or that I don’t like my life here. I just can’t stop moving.
I love meeting international friends, and trying new foods, and exploring new places. And in a strange way, I think I like being foreign. I like that people can look at me without expecting me to immediately understand the culture, or the idioms, or the unspoken traditions. There’s more leeway to be different, because I am different.
On the other hand, I love the feeling of being settled – of having a favourite restaurant, a circle of close friends that you’d trust with your life, and a steady income. So why, when I find those things, can’t I stay?
My brain is set to rhythms of change. My body is on a timer; every couple of years I want to wipe the slate clean, pack my earthly belongings into suitcases, and start over. I’m not a criminal, I don’t think I’m emotionally detached, I’m just…a mover.
Would I like to break the cycle, to settle down and accumulate life souvenirs, maybe start a family, maybe buy a house?
I don’t know. Maybe I just haven’t found the right place yet.
Either way, all I know for now is that I can’t stop moving.
“Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world. The possibilities for the future are endless. The sense of being at home anywhere, yet feeling that home is nowhere, is part of who I am.” – Ndela Faye, writing for The Guardian
So you’ve just moved, or are about to move, to a different country? Great – what a wonderful, enriching experience for you! Also, it’s going to be super hard.
The thing is, we all have different personalities, and we’ll all deal with country moves in a slightly different way. So although I’m planning to give some pointers today, you can take everything with a pinch of salt. You’ll have your own, unique needs. I hope this helps anyway.
I moved to China in 2018, and I heard all sorts of methods to integrate with the culture. “Open-door policy” was one – the idea was that your apartment would always be open and available to your friends and neighbours, at any time. That idea stressed me out so much that I didn’t even try, but I know it really worked for the family who suggested it.
“Avoid having too many ex-pat friends” was another philosophy. I do understand the thought behind this one: if you want to really get involved in and learn about China, of course you need to invest in some Chinese friends! But I also learned a lot from my ex-pat friends, because they were also looking at Chinese culture from the outside, and they could see and articulate mannerisms, values, and habits within the culture that someone who had never left China probably couldn’t. Also…my Chinese isn’t very fluent. I really appreciated being able to relax and speak English occasionally!
So that’s what didn’t work for me. Here’s what really did:
Take naps. Seriously, take naps. Be kind to your brain. Moving to a new place can be so emotional and overstimulating that your energy levels will be a little lower than usual. For the first month (or three), make sure you have times in the day to let your brain rest. You were never going to feel comfortable in that culture straight away, so why get worked up about it?
Indulge in home comforts. To clarify, I’m not suggesting you become one of those ex-pats that won’t touch local food. I’m just saying you don’t need to deny yourself things that bring that little sense of home. For me, I ate Chinese food every day, but brought a little stash of Galaxy chocolate and Yorkshire Tea from the UK. Find your own balance.
Don’t call home too much. Your parents might not be thrilled about this, but hear me out! You need to be fully present in your new country. Your home and your family are incredibly important, of course, but they don’t need you to call them every day – not in the first couple of weeks, at least. You need space to build up your new life and let yourself start cultivating new routines and relationships. Call your parents more once you’re settled, maybe.
Learn to laugh at yourself. You will make language mistakes. You might get confused in the supermarket, or get on the wrong bus, or have a misunderstanding with a stranger. No new ex-patriate ever has a completely smooth run, so learn to laugh it off! The challenges are all part of the experience, and you’ll probably learn a lot more about the country because of them!
Look after other people. Does your neighbour need a hand with those heavy bags? Could you hold the door for that older lady? Does your ex-pat friend need a friend to moan about homesickness with? When you keep an eye out for other peoples’ needs, not only do you become a more integrated and appreciated part of the community, but you forget about your own problems! Moving countries is hard, there’s no doubt about it, but remember that everyone has struggles. Make friends, be helpful, be hospitable, and you’ll find that sense of community much faster.
What would your tips for moving to a new country be?
Do you have any stories about your mistakes in a new place?
Piroska was born in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and a Hungarian father, with whom she moved to Canada as a child. She was a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and now as an ’empty-nester’ is exploring her creative side.
Being an immigrant to Canada changed my life, even though I was young when we moved. My dad’s perception of “us vs. them” came up often – in his eyes, European was often ‘better’. He looked down on his neighbours. Maybe it was his way of compensating for what he thought he lacked.
First Days in Vancouver
I could feel my mother’s sadness– it filled the room like a thick fog.
I stared out the hotel window and saw nothing but gloom and grey; the rain ran in rivulets down the pane, like the tears on my mother’s face.
Vancouver was an ugly city, to my five-year old eyes. The buildings were huge concrete monsters, and the constant sounds terrified me.
Horns beeped incessantly; police sirens shrieked. The sound of people rushing about– the buzzing of busy-ness.
My parents would take us for walks, but it was hard not to get soaked, dodging huge puddles, and I couldn’t get the stench of worms out of my head.
I wanted to hear the pealing of church bells, feel the rounded cobblestones beneath my feet.
I missed the green meadows, alpen wildflowers, and going for walks with my granny.
We’re all people, we all have (pretty much) the same survival needs, internal organs, emotions…when we have so much in common, why is it so hard to fit into a different country or community?
The answer, my friends, is culture. (Usually.)
Culture is more than creative expression: maybe when you think of culture, you think of paintings, or traditional crafts, or national music. And you’re not wrong: the arts are a big part of culture, but culture is not the arts. Are you following?
If you’re picturing ancient Chinese paintings, or African tribal masks, or ancient Greek statues, then again, you’re not wrong. Those belong under the ‘culture’ umbrella. But don’t let a colonial superiority complex make you think you or your country are “above culture”, just because you don’t see it manifested in the way you might expect. You have it, because you are human and you are surrounded by humans.
In fact, some would argue that culture is not what we make, but what makes us.
“Society or culture or whatever you might want to call it, has created us all solely and wholly for the purpose of maintaining its continuity and status quo.” – U.G. Krishnamurti
Our cultures shape our language, our manners, our humour, our relationships, our values, our beliefs… In a weird, brain-twisting paradox, we are forming culture as culture forms us.
The uncomfortable part is that a lot of cultural indicators are subliminal: you might not even realise that you think or behave in a certain way, because it is so deeply ingrained in your experience of life.
Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of. – Ellen Goodman
So it’s no wonder moving to a new country, or working in an international company, or marrying into another culture is so hard! We are all human, we are all valuable, and we all function more or less the same way, but we are all wired a little differently. Out cultures have gifted us with different perspectives and traditions and ways of being, and sometimes those cultures contradict.
Maybe your Brazilian coworker wants to hug everyone, but that makes your Japanese office buddy uncomfortable. Maybe your female Muslim neighbour won’t shake your hand, or your Jewish uncle won’t eat the bacon sandwich you made him. (These are all quite black and white examples, I’m sure you’ll come across much more confusing and subversive ones!)
But here’s the key. Your culture is not right. It’s not wrong, by any means, but it is human and that means it’s complex. It means it’s changing, evolving, and adapting to the circumstances around it. The same goes for other peoples’ cultures.
Your culture(s) almost definitely played a big role in defining who you are today, even if you were fighting against it! But what’s a culture without a people to subscribe to it? You are still free to question the things you have always been taught. The more you travel, and the more people you meet who are different to you, the more you will realise what you are like. You’ll notice quirks about your own country: things you love, and things you wish were better.
So…what do we do with this knowledge? We have all this terminology to think about people groups and how humans function socially, but what, practically, needs to happen now?
You tell me. Would thinking about culture explain that conflict with your foreign neighbour? Would a deeper awareness of your own culture help you settle as an ex-patriate in a new country? Or, would an understanding of different cultures give you a more balanced view of your country’s place in the world?
Again, you tell me.
What do you think are some defining features of your culture?
If you have lived abroad, what did that experience teach you about yourself?
Do you have an awkward culture-clash story to share? (Please do. It makes us all feel better.)
I’m Dani. I’m biracial – Scottish-Latina, to be specific, although I never lived in either of my parent’s countries as a child.
I spent most of my teenage years (and a little of my adult life) wrestling with insecurities: I was never Scottish enough to be Scottish, and never Latina enough to be Latina. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, like I’d been made wrong, and that I would never be able to fit in.
I remember one day at university broaching that subject with a British-born Korean friend. She looked at me wide-eyed for a second, then said, “Wait, you too?”
Living between cultures is a huge blessing – think of all the food, language, and travel people like us get to experience thanks to our multiple heritages! But it’s also a confusing place to be in. Having a friend to talk about these things with was a huge help for me, even just to recognise that those feelings and insecurities are actually pretty normal.
So maybe you’re a TCK, maybe you started travelling as an adult, or maybe you’ve grown up in an international home. Whatever your situation, my hope is that this blog might be your ‘Wait, you too?’ friend – a place where you read stories that you can relate with, and that will help you work through all the challenges, tragedies, and joys of living a globally mobile life.
I hope you’ll stick around. And I hope this content will be as helpful to you as it has been to me.