In a previous Ask a… blog, Noah shared about being a TCK (third culture kid). You can read about his experience here. Today, we will be learning about what it is like to be a TCA… third culture adult! That is, someone who left their country in their adult years and now lives in a different country.

Now it can get a bit confusing discussing matters of home and culture with TCAs so let me define a few terms. I will use the term “passport country/culture” to refer to the country where our passport is from. I will use the term “host country/culture” to refer to the country where we find ourselves living as foreigners.

I am so excited to be interviewing Kathy as she has lived in China for quite a while and can definitely offer some practical wisdom for newer TCAs like myself.

First of all, Kathy, let’s start with some basic questions. How long have you been in Beijing? What brought you here and what do you do now?

My husband and I came originally as language students and eventually stayed for his job. We have been in Asia for more than 25 years, and in Beijing for about 15 years. Over the years, much of my time was spent taking care of my kids and the home. As we have entered the “empty nest” season of life, I am still primarily considered a homemaker. I am also involved in several volunteer activities and enjoy spending time helping people.

Twenty-five years! I bet your family has seen many changes here in that time. What was your original plan when you first moved to China?

The original plan was to learn Chinese and to stay in China for the long-term. We felt the twenty-first century would be Asiana and we wanted to be a part of it. The current plans are still to stay as long as we have the opportunity to live and work here.

Let’s think back to the start of your China adventure. What were some of your first experiences with culture shock?

Like most people, our first experiences with culture shock were the squatty potties, the outdoor markets, the crowds, and no one waiting their turn in lines. We had to get used to not having our own car and using public transportation instead. Living without an elevator and shopping for a family of five… and having to carry it all the way home! Shopping took a full day as we had to go store to store to buy each different item on our list. Produce here, meat there, paper goods somewhere else. Also, people were amazed that we had three children!

That sounds like a much different city than what Beijing is today. I know that reverse-culture shock tends to be much more difficult than culture shock though. What were some of your first experiences with reverse culture shock in your passport country? Do you remember how you felt?

Walking into a supermarket, only looking for Tylenol, and seeing so many choices. It was overwhelming and confusing. There was an abundance of convenience food, so I did not have to think about making everything from scratch. People waiting their turn, cars allowing me to cross the street, and the ability to buy everything from groceries and clothes in one place. I could buy clothes in size small instead of triple-extra large… that was great for my ego! Also, going to a Panda Express for Chinese food and thinking “Where is the real food?”.

I can definitely relate. Especially with the feeling of being overwhelmed by supermarkets! How about people visiting you here? Has any family or friend ever visited you in China? What was it like inviting them into your life here?

Yes, we have had visitors. Sometimes we would worry that they would see something that would give them fear about us living here as they learned to deal with riding in a busy subway or dealing with pollution. When they talk about crowds or traffic in our passport country, I can find myself thinking that they would never understand how different China is. It is one thing to describe to people back home what a crowd really is or what traffic is like here, but for them to come be a part of it is eye-opening. However, they have generally left with a good feeling about us being in China because life here is about the people and not about the surroundings.

While we live overseas, we often miss out on major moments and milestones in the lives of people back in our passport countries. What kinds of moments have you missed since moving to China? What is it like to miss them?

We have missed graduations, engagements, weddings, and funerals. Children being born and watching them grow up. Being there to offer hugs when someone is suffering or to celebrate the victories together. As our children have now moved away, we miss out on those daily conversations with them about life in general. The advance of media like email, Skype and Facebook, has made it easier to keep up with people, but it is still not the same as being there.

It is definitely not the same as being there. Does missing these moments get easier as time goes on?

It never gets easier because now our children are in the U.S., so we miss more things.

In no way do our experiences in China replace what we miss in the lives of those back in our passport countries. However, life with our communities here in China definitely provides new memories of its own. What are some of the significant experiences and milestones you have enjoyed here?

We have friendships with both Chinese people and expatriates and are often invited to be part of those significant events in their lives. Some memories are spending Chinese New Year making jiaozi, watching the Mid-Autumn moon with friends, and watching our kids grow up with friends from around the world. Here, they all began as outsiders and they have learned to accept and befriend people of all kinds. They have learned that different cultures are just different, and not better or worse than their own.

Let’s think about culture shock more deeply. It is easy to see the physical aspects of a culture like food and transportation. However, something that also sets a culture apart is its values. We have the tendency to internalize these values and take them wherever we go. Living in a different country with its own set of values really challenges that. Which of your own personal values would you say are related to your passport culture and which are related to your host culture? Which values have changed as you have lived in China? Or have they caused you conflict?

It is hard to say how my values may be connected to my passport or host culture. Many of my personal values are more related to my faith than to either country. Like our kids, we have learned that many things are not necessarily good or bad, they are just different. If someone feels like they are stuck here, discontent, and complaining how things are not like where they come from, then they will never find contentment anywhere.

Some basic values are the same in different countries. We just express things differently across cultures. Some of these values include:

  • Parents want the best for their children. However, cultural values may reflect if wanting the best for children is about money, status, or the child’s character.
  • Striving for excellence. Cultural values may conflict on whether excellence is more about position in life or integrity.

There are cultural things I can adjust to such as perception of personal space, queuing up, food, traffic patterns, etc. My personal values are the essentials of how I choose to live: honoring my marriage, loving my children, treating people with respect, and my faith.

Maybe we need to learn how to separate values from culture. Our personal values can remain consistent as long as we learn how to express them well across cultures.

Well said! I will definitely reflect more on the depth of my own values. One thing many TCAs struggle with is friends and family asking when they will return. How do you handle it when people from your passport country ask when and if you will ever move “back home”?

We just say, “not yet, but someday”. After living in Asia for so long, we often miss China when we are in the U.S. and find ourselves anxious to return “home”.

That leads me to my next question. Living abroad, a lot of us grapple with the concept of “home”. How has the idea of “home” changed for you?

I grew up moving every two years or so because of my father’s job, so for me, there is no attachment to any single place. There is no “home” that I go back to. I think home is really more a matter of the heart and the people we love.

Amen! Well, you definitely have given me a lot to think about on life as a TCA as I near my third China-versary and will continue to encounter many of these realities myself. I bet a lot of our readers were blessed as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to share about your experiences!