Welcome to this week’s cross-post with my friend and fellow blogger, the lovely Marghini from The Love Blender. Marghini and I thought it would be fun to tackle a topic that comes up a lot — dating and cultural backgrounds — from opposite points of view, me as a third culture kid, and she as someone from a monocultural background. What’s it like dating a TCK as someone from a monocultural background, and vice versa? Get both sides of the same coin here: Marghini’s is below, and see mine at TLB. While you’re there, be sure to check out TLB’s awesome new look!
Dating a Third Culture Kid is a lot like a roller coaster ride: it is great and so much fun, but right when you least expect it a free fall is going to shake you up. That is why dating a Third Culture Kid requires steady nerves, a strong mind and a whole lot of patience.
A Third Culture Kid is by definition a person hanging in the balance between different cultures, for example someone who was born in one place but grew up somewhere else. As a person who was born, raised and educated in the same small Italian city in a very Italian family, the concept of TCK was totally obscure to me until I had a chance to date one. I just assumed that identity, citizenship and culture were just the same thing and could never diverge from one another. It turned out I was so wrong.
When I first met my boyfriend I guessed he was Chinese; hey, he had Asian eyes and black spiky hair! “He surely must be Chinese” I told myself. Then we talked a bit and I thought he was American because of his thick American accent. I started to get confused by the time he said he grew up in New Zealand, but the real disorientation came along when he mentioned his British passport. I didn’t dare to voice the question that I had in my mind: “Wait a second, so what are you?”
Three years later, I still struggle when I am asked where my boyfriend is from; should I say he is from Hong Kong? Chinese-American? Asian-Kiwi? British? Hong Kong-Kiwi-British but speaks-like-an-American? Don’t get me wrong, I know him inside out and more often than not I can guess what he has in his mind. I just don’t know how to describe his multiform identity to people that are not familiar with him or with the concept of TCK.
Dating a TCK is a very rewarding yet demanding experience that requires a lot of flexibility and patience: Challenging your own concept of culture and identity is just not for the weak of heart. I believe that being involved in a relationship with a TCK presents a specific set of perks and problems that are very unique to this kind of situation.
Thanks to their ability to juggle between cultures, TCKs are usually extremely adaptable and open-minded. They are open to try new things and don’t get stuck in stereotypes or prejudices, because they know that labels are a very relative concept and that things come in shades, rather than absolute colors. This means that as partners they can be more willing to compromise and understand your point of view rather than getting stubborn on their own. Definitely a plus in my book!
Their adaptability lets TCKs feel comfortable very easily, in fact nearly everywhere. When you grew up all over the place, speaking lots of languages and immersed in multiple cultures, you develop a special ability to feel at your ease and fit with the context. As an Italian living in Asia, this is a skill I am especially jealous about. It is so hard for me to fit well with local culture and people and I feel like my Italianity follows me everywhere I go, holding me back at times. Cappuccino after 10am? No way. Wearing flip-flops at work? You gotta be joking. Eating chicken feet? I’d frankly rather die. TCKs don’t have these problems: they don’t mind changing their habits and trying new things, because that is how they grew up with.
As they are open to explore new places and immerse themselves in foreign cultures, TCKs also make great travel companions. It is just great to travel with a TCK. They navigate the local subway network like a pro, while you scratch your head trying to decipher unknown alphabets. They manage to communicate with taxi-drivers even though they don’t speak a word of the local idiom. No matter how weird street food they are offered, they nod in enthusiasm and actually enjoy it while you sit in a corner looking at your sad bowl of white rice. They just seem to be meant to travel.
To top it off, TCKs can be extremely fascinating thanks to their uniqueness: Because of the fact that they are the product of a cultural and sometimes racial mix, they don’t fit in any stereotype. There is something extremely attractive in what you can’t easily understand or label and that is the charm of TCKs: They are just special. They march at a different drum and hang in the balance between different worlds.
Now let me be honest about it: Dating TCK is not always a piece of cake. Sometimes things get confusing and you feel like your partner may very well be an alien from Mars. Sometimes you just don’t get it, because you didn’t go through a TCK’s upbringing.
If you are interested in a TCK and intend to start a courtship with him/her, fasten your safety belt. At the beginning it will be incredibly hard to understand who you have in front of you. As someone in between cultures, often TCKs adopt one mindset in some fields of their life and another one in others. For example: An Indian-American TCK could be completely westernized at work, but have a traditional Indian mindset at home with family and friends. When you interact with a monoculture person you have at least some information to refer to. With TCKs you just don’t know what culture you are dealing with. All the small non-verbal signals and hints that you are used to and take for granted may not work with this person. It is a whole new place you have to explore blindly.
Assuming you managed to go past the confusion of the beginning and you actually started dating a TCK, you should be aware of the fact that TCKs can surprisingly show different cultural sides according to the context. I heard of stories of monoculture people in relationships with TCKs complaining about them changing unexpectedly after a move. For example a Chinese American man with a very Western mindset in the US could turn into a much more traditional Chinese man as soon as he is back in China and surrounded by his family. As a monoculture person, I don’t change very easily: I am Italian in Italy and I stay Italian anywhere else. However, when someone hangs in between two worlds, a geographical or cultural change can have a huge impact. This is something a monoculture person does not take into consideration initially, but it is potentially a source of serious problems in a relationship.
Let’s say you went through the previously listed issues and you successfully dealt with them; you still have to meet mom and dad. That is when things could get really tricky. Your partner may be a very international and open-minded individual, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to his parents: in fact in case his parents are monoculture people, there could be a huge cultural gap between them and their offspring. Let’s assume you are dating a Korean American guy who was raised in the US by Korean parents who emigrated from Korea as adults. Chances are they are still very Korean; they may speak mostly Korean and little English, hang out with Koreans and retain a typical Korean mindset. That means that even though your boyfriend is an open-minded and Westernized TCK, his parents may in fact be very traditional. Usually in monoculture families the gap is not as huge, so monoculture people don’t see this coming. This is definitely a challenge for someone in a relationship with a TCK, because you initially don’t realize what you sign up for and then you have to deal with in-laws that are totally different from the person you fell in love with.
Some TCKs grow up to be extremely balanced and stable people who accept peacefully their mixed identity, but that is not always the case. In other cases TCKs struggle with a sense of rootlessness and lack of identity their whole life, especially when they never received proper psychological support from their family during childhood. It is not easy living with someone that has no idea who he really is. It is a challenge to find a balance with a person that does not know where he belongs. Some TCKs find their center of gravity in their relationship and that becomes a huge responsibility for their partner. Others just keep feeling like outsiders their whole life and go through a relentless wandering around the world in hope to find a place to call home. Thankfully these are borderline cases and many TCKs manage to deal well with their mixed upbringing and are able to turn it into a resource rather than a problem.
TCK is a broad definition that describes many people with different lives, families and stories. So it is hard to identify a comprehensive rule when it comes about TCKs. I am sure my own experience, both with my TCK boyfriend and with many friends who had this kind of cross cultural upbringing, can’t cover all the nuances of such a huge social phenomenon. However, I believe that dating a TCK presents a unique set of challenges and rewards, especially when you are a monoculture.
It is true; it can be tiring, confusing and frustrating. But it is also fun, thrilling and eye-opening. If you ask me, I would definitely do it all over again.
What is your experience? Ave you ever dated a Third Culture Kid? Do you agree with my take on the subject? Join the conversation and let me know your opinion!
Marghini is an Italian Interior Designer based in Taipei, Taiwan. Her interests include Japanese literature, cats, urban gardening and relentlessly moving around the world. She currently blogs about cross cultural relationships and life all over the place at The Love Blender.