“What do you mean a bath?” boomed my friend’s Dad with disdain. He sounded to me like the news readers I had heard on the BBC. I became aware of the pounding in my chest and heat rising up my neck. Looking down at me again, he countered: “For heavens sake, speak the Queen’s English child – its baarrth, not bath”.
Laughing and shaking his head, he turned his back and continued buffing the paintwork of his Renault car. In all likelihood he was oblivious to the wound he had inflicted upon me.
Back in 1971, I was only eight years old, but was fully aware that the joke was on me. I slunk home feeling I had behaved shamefully. I was struggling to cope with the losses of our recent move from Northern England to London. A smaller house, a smaller garden and a smaller life. Ridiculed for my Geordie, North of England accent, I was finding it hard to make friends at school. No one it seemed wanted to befriend the kid who was difficult to understand.
I had a small success making friends with Paul, but his father’s retort had made me feel an outsider again. If I could not even speak in an acceptable way, how would I ever belong?
Like countless other children, before and after me, I quickly learned the answer to my dilemma, which was to change the way I spoke. As a result, I developed what my French teacher referred to as a “phonetic ear” – the ability to imitate an accent. Aged eight, this was my first experience of finding the chameleon from within. It was not my last.
Thirty years later, as I touched down at Singapore’s Changi Airport, I became what Ruth Van Reken1 refers to in her Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs as a “Foreigner” – the definition being to “look different from the culture and think different from the culture”. A theoretical model which has helped me to understand the challenges of moving to a place where the “surrounding dominant culture” is different.
On moving to South East Asia as an adult I expected cultural diversity. The outer physical differences between myself and the Singaporeans were obvious and to an extent so were their inner – thinking, values and belief systems. Of course, I still experienced significant culture shock, but I was also able to resurrect the skills which sprouted from a need to survive a childhood move.
I could be found lurching around Singapore in the back of a taxi, trying not to stick to the black vinyl seats, I would holler “U turn back please la”. I was copying the Singlish accent and was relieved to be understood.
Having returned to the UK, another move this time to Houston, Texas came along four years later. I imagined that I would be culturally aligned in this new posting, with hindsight (a wonderful thing) I was ill prepared for the move.
On arriving in Houston, I was a “Hidden Immigrant” – look like culture and think different from culture. I was surprised to find that the British, with their deep historic ties to the Americans since the Pilgrim Fathers, thought very differently on many issues even some of the deeps ones – the values and beliefs.
As I learned to negotiate the ribbon of freeways, I was alarmed to see motor bikers without helmets and workers with their dogs, huddled untethered, in the back of open trucks.
As a “Hidden Immigrant” I looked like a local, but was thinking differently. I felt more challenged than in Singapore, where I clearly was different because I looked it. Now isolated, alienated even, I tried to function in my new home. At first, questions such as why is it considered a good thing that “everythin’s bigger in Texas” – including the gargantuan portions of food, flummoxed me and highlighted the contrast in our values.
Winston Churchill, the British wartime Priminister, is famously credited with referring to Britain and America as “two nations divided by a common language”. I could relate to this, my radar was broken as I tried to cope with what I perceived as an over familiarity in communication style, underpinned with little depth in conversation. I was confused about how to begin and where to end. What should I hold back and what should I bring forth?
After many months of tussling with my identity – a period of great adjustment, I found it helped to remind myself, that there does not have to be a right or wrong, just alternative ways of being. With acceptance, came integration and gradually I felt my former life had transitioned to the new one. Now I could enjoy the posting. It also helped to discover that even Americans from other States, have experienced culture shock after arriving in Texas!
Now, more than a year since I arrived, I appreciate the warmth that is offered to me as I move around Houston. “How are you t’day and where ya’ll from?” is a typical greeting. Houstonians often like to make acquaintance, if only for a minute, as you pass through the supermarket till. What I mistook for insincerity was merely people operating from a friendly bubble.
I have learnt how to respond in my new environment and function effectively. I have also traded my cultural way of communicating, but part of my identity is retained – as soon as I speak most people know I am British (or Australian!).
Having three children under the age of 12, I am focused on helping them cope with their cross cultural moves and appreciate the diversity they encounter. As I look back and try to make meaning of my emotional journey as a “Foreigner” and a “Hidden immigrant”, I notice how difficult it was for me as a child, to verbalise my dilemma.
How do you explain to a potential play mate, why you have a strange accent? (which until recently you were not even aware you had). How do you cope with giving up a part of yourself, which you thought was perfectly normal? That is before your world was transformed overnight.
Children are by nature, ill equipped to analyse their experience and cope with the loss of their culture and identity. It can be tough to feel what Linda Bell reports in her book Hidden Immigrants as “coming from outer space”.
I have tried to give my children the words to explain who they are. For example, they might say “I come from Kent – which is near London, but I am living in Houston”. It sounds simple enough but can be complex – my youngest child was born in Singapore, should she mention this? Perhaps not, simplicity is easier.
And I wonder, what of the children who continually move countries, those that have not lived in the place where their parents grew up or their extended family live. How they look and think may be more complex. They will need words too.
There are, as we know many upsides arising from exposure to cultural diversity. One of the potential attributes being a confidence upon meeting new people. Learning to be cautious and observe, before leaping into relationships is another skill. Not a surprise then, that this growth phenomena can spawn the development of sophisticated social skills in TCK’s.
My experiences have taught me to make a judgement regarding how much of myself I will trade off. As an adult, I can choose to give up some of my own culture or at least keep it temporarily hidden in the interests of fitting in or making a friend. To have done otherwise and denied any experience of culture shock, might surely have made me culturally incompetent. These decisions are often made at a subconscious level as we act on our gut instinct. But we can all become aware of what is okay for us – how much of the inner identity we show through our outer self. Which parts we might change in order to be accepted and effective in our environment.
It can be helpful to know we have a choice and support our children in theirs. And with a little curiosity and a sense of adventure, we can usually experience the joy of learning about others and new ways of being in our adopted home.
Copies of Among World magazine are available at:
1 David C Pollock/Ruth E Van Reken (1996) Traditional Cultural Identity Box for TCKs. Pol/Van Cultural Identity Box Copyright 1996
 Linda Bell (1997) Hidden Immigrants. Cross Cultural Publications/Crossroads