Amanda Bates reminisces the days she spent as an adolescent in the tropical country of Cameroon, Africa. She remembers spending time with her friends from the international school she went to, and she misses the undivided attention that made conversations with her peers so engaging. It was the perfect time for friendships.
This memory is just a sliver of Bates’ culturally rich experience, and she has managed to use her skills to offer guidance to other TCKs and share their stories too.
Bates was born in the U.S. after her parents emigrated from Cameroon, Africa. Later the family returned to Cameroon to live in Yaounde, the capital city. It was a return to home for her parents, but it was a big move for Bates as she was about to enter a new world. The complexity of identity for Bates was already in the works, and it wasn’t until much later in life that she was able to verbalize the particular feelings she felt during the expatriation and repatriation process. Bates lived abroad from age 10 to age 17, and the very experiences during her developmental years have led her to where she is now with more exciting opportunities in the future.
Bates first heard the term, “third-culture kid,” when she was in high school. David Pollock, a co-author of the book “Third Culture Kids,” visited her school while the term was still emerging in the ’90s.
’There was not a way to verbalize what I was going through growing up,” Bates said.
When she first heard Pollock speak, she did not think much of it applying to her life. After taking some time to process, she finally understood that what she was feeling was strikingly similar to the discussion held at her school. She then began her search for more information on the experience of third-culture kids (TCK).
After an invitation to a Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT) in 2014, Bates met the huge pool of people working in global mobility and has been hooked ever since. Before her involvement in FIGT, Bates already had experience providing guidance and academic counseling regarding financial concerns and repatriation for families in transition from abroad, including private counseling for TCKs. After networking with people in FIGT, Bates became a panelist and presenter. She is now on the board of directors for the organization.
Bates’ identity in relationship to her surrounding culture became dynamic as she moved from one culture to another. The chart below exemplifies how a portion of Bates’ identity directly relates to the culture she is immersed in:
When Bates first arrived in Cameroon, she was a hidden immigrant. In this setting, she may have looked like the local population, but she did not think or speak like the local population. The country is predominantly French-speaking. Bates’ life in the United States represents the adopted element: she looks different from the general population, but, because she was raised speaking English, she thinks and speaks like the general population. During the time Bates lived in Qatar, she was considered a foreigner. She looked different, thought differently and speaks differently than the general population.
This is not an uncommon feeling to TCKs, especially as the process repeats itself as they move from one culture to another. The terms listed in the chart above are highlighted in the book,’Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” and the ideas surrounding these terms delve deeper into how a TCK may feel and react when they become foreigners or hidden immigrants. Here is a list the book provides for some common reactions among TCKs:
- Chameleons: those who attempt to hide their mobility and conform to their new environment.
- Screamers: those who intentionally show they are different from their surrounding culture.
- Wallflowers: those who choose a non-identity to avoid the risk of not being accepted.
- Adapters: those who are comfortable with who they are and don’t feel the need to fit in perfectly or stand out in their new environment.
What kind of TCK are you?
Bates comments on the numerous layers contributing to her TCK experience. Her mother worked for the U.S. Embassy, meaning a higher salary to provide for the entire family. Bates recognized her privilege and how that led to the cultural mobility commonly experienced by a TCK.
“I’m glad to say I did not have a negative experience. It is a different story for every TCK, but to be able to see another culture in an intimate way is a pretty big deal and widens your perspective on life,” she reflected.
Friends and family describe Bates as passionate, a great listener, well-adjusted and adventurous. Her communication skills and confident personality make her approachable no matter what culture she is immersed in.
The racial and ethnic complexity Bates experienced moving from the U.S. to Africa and back was a continual battle of representation and the labels placed on her by other people. She began to ask herself what it means to be African-American, what black identity means to her and how that might change depending on where she is in the world.
This curiosity led Bates to stir the discussion on social media: #TCKchat on Twitter created a digital space for the TCK community, and Bates later found that there were certain experiences within the black community that were not part of the greater conversation. In 2016, Bates founded The Black Expat, which serves as an online platform to share and tell stories about the black expat experience. Follow its twitter account to keep up with upcoming video stories.
Bates offers a piece of advice that speaks directly to TCKs, but sends a message everyone ought to take into account:
“As a TCK, you have to be present. People are leaving all the time. Your environment is changing all the time. There is so much change happening, you have to be present.”