The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats and TCKs, when choosing tools for adjusting to a brand new culture, study the safety instructions

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a fellow Adult Third Culture Kid for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

My guest this month is fellow Adult Third Culture Kid Amanda Bate, who co-founded the awesome #TCKchat, a bi-weekly event on Twitter that fosters conversation and provides insights and information for Third Culture Kids, in the spirit of mutual support.

(Some of you may remember Lisa Liang’s recent interview with Dounia Bertuccelli? She is one of Amanda’s co-hosts.)

Amanda was raised both in the United States and in Cameroon, a country in Central Africa. Her interest in navigating multicultural environments started young—and now it has become part of her career. A product of international schools in Africa and of American universities, she currently works in higher education from a base in Richmond, Virginia. She has her own consultancy offering counseling for college admissions to Third Culture Kids. In addition, she directs a college access program, helping disadvantaged students understand their options for college. She is excited about all things related to higher education, travel, and cross-cultural experiences.

Amanda recently founded TheBlackExpat.com, which has been featured on the Wall Street Journal Expat, to address global mobility and black identity. As she told freelance writer Debra Bruno:

We highlight the rich, international experiences of the Black Diaspora with firsthand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross cultural living. (…) With the black perspective so limited in visibility, we want provide a stage for the voices of the growing number of black travelers to be heard.

What else is important to know about Amanda? Well, she has an endless love for mangoes, airport terminals and makossa. Hm…what’s that?! Read on to find out…

Also read on to see what she has to say about the tango, manners (or the lack), and methods of bonding over shared interests (without necessarily sharing a language!).

* * *

Hi, Amanda, and a warm welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I have lived in the United States and Cameroon. As you mentioned in your kind introduction, I grew up a Third Culture Kid, or TCK—so split my time from age 10 to 20 between both countries. I’ve been in the United States full time since 2000. I’ve also done some traveling in South America and Europe—and am currently navigating a possible move abroad.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever end up with your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

It’s probably the Third Culture Kid in me, but I actually worry about making a misstep in a new locale. I spend a lot of time observing before making any comments that could be misinterpreted. I’m careful not to embrace stereotypes about cultural practices or customs. On the occasions where I’m feeling unsure, I’ll consult with a trusted acquaintance privately. I’ve been in enough situations where other people have made borderline rude comments based on limited information—and desperately don’t want to follow in their footsteps, to extend your foot metaphor.

Can you give us an example?

I’m thinking of a time when I was in Buenos Aires watching an Argentinean tango performance. I thought it was absolutely beautiful and enthralling, but the man next to me, another American, didn’t agree. He leaned in to me while stating loudly: “Oh, they’re not doing it well enough. It’s not sexy. It’s not like how they do it in Dancing With the Stars!” Dancing with the Stars? Was he really comparing an indigenous dance form to something he had seen on an American reality show? I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything—but was embarrassed just the same!

tango and dancing with the stars

Yes, that example really argues for reading the instruction manual for the tools in one’s Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

You are right about studying the instruction manual! I tend to do research about a place before I travel. It helps to get at least basic information about the culture—especially food, music and sports—which can help me connect with folks. Once, while still in Argentina, a really friendly taxi driver, who happened to be from neighboring Uruguay, took me to the airport. His English was about as good as my Spanish. However, we were able to fully communicate over a common interest—football. I mentioned some of the Uruguayan footballers I knew, and his face lit up. I am pretty sure he wasn’t expecting that by his facial expression—but then he started mentioning the Cameroonian players he knew…and the conversation (helped by lots of hand gestures) took off from there.

Shared passion for football

Ah, yes, football, or soccer as the Americans call it! Always a good topic and at this moment rather timely, for those of us who are following Euro 2016… If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Whenever you’re in a new place, you’re struggling to take it in. Your previous experiences inform how you organize your world. You have a set of rules and routines that worked for you in those spaces. A new place has the potential to uproot that—more so if it’s very different from other places you’ve been. My advice would be to embrace your new location as it is, without condition. I think it’s easier. Otherwise, you’ll end up playing a game of comparison—and your new location will have the hardest time competing with your past home, of which you’ll have only the fondest memories. Besides, it keeps you from making new friends and having new experiences—which some day will become your fondest memories.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: What was it like for you? Do any experiences stand out?

Moving back to the United States after years of living in Cameroon was a rough transition, truthfully. My mind had fragmented memories of what life was like in America—most of which proved to be inaccurate. I was missing significant cultural references, the weather was colder than I preferred, and my family was far away, on another continent. Because my move correlated with starting university, I had a hard time adjusting. I was terribly homesick. I was calling my family every day. My phone bill was atrocious!

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Honestly, what helped me was connecting to my old friends, many of whom were going, or had already been, through the same or similar transitions. They provided much-needed support through it all. Talking about what you’re feeling is a good first step. No one can know what exactly you’re going through, especially if you’re good at hiding your struggles. Finding people who have been there helps—not just to vent but also to figure out some coping mechanisms.

Thank you so much, Amanda, for sharing your experiences with us! Research, consultations with trusted acquaintances, an unconditional embrace of your new place, and efforts to connect with empathetic friends…it’s all such great advice! Connecting with those who’ve been through similar experiences is, if I’m to be honest, one of the tools that has helped me the most. It might not change my situation but it gives me some much-needed context. Simply finding out that someone else has felt the same way makes me feel less isolated.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, have you ever plunged into a cultural situation without adequate preparation? Do tell!

To keep in touch with Amanda, I suggest you follow the monthly #TCKchat. #TCKchat is held twice at 15:00 GMT and 3:00 +1 GMT on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month. (Amanada’s own twitter handle is @bateconsult.) And don’t forget to check out her new site, The Black Expat.

Wait, I almost forgot! Anyone still wondering what makossa is? Amanda has suggested the following for your listening enjoyment:

 

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Top visual: (top row) Toolbox and globe via Pixabay; Sobriety Test, by Eli Christman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Amanda Bate (supplied); (bottom row) images of Cameroon and instructions via Pixabay; The Black Expat logo. Second visual: Tango, by Gisele Pereira via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); 4.21.08 Dancing With The Stars, by Robbie Wagner via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Last visual: Luis Suarez celebrates his Gol to put Uruguay 1 – Netherlands 0, by Jimmy Baikovicius via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Dorge Kouemaha playing for Foolad, by Morteza Jaberian via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

One response to “CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats and TCKs, when choosing tools for adjusting to a brand new culture, study the safety instructions

  1. cindamackinnon July 1, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    I could have used your consultant skill back when I was a TCK looking for a college. I didn’t know a good college from a mediocre ( I got in everywhere I applied, which might mean I should have aimed higher!). At the time all the (US) states were the same to me, never having lived in any of them!

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