I was voted Most Individualistic of my 1972 high school graduating class. I could not have hoped for a greater honor. Most Individualitic meant that no one could quite lay claim to me — not the jocks, not the hippies, not the scholars. It also meant that I was a bit of a loner, playing all those spaces inbetween where others were.

Torrejón High School 1972 Yearbook

It made total sense. I was a newcomer to Torrejón High School, an American-accredited institution on the air base outside Madrid which, at that time, was jointly operated by the US and Spain. The majority of my classmates were so-called Military Brats. I was a Dip Kid, a term used by the actress Kathleen Turner in describing her childhood as the daughter of a Foreign Service officer. There were a few other Embassy offspring at Torrejón and some children of American business families living in Spain, what today we’d call ExPat kids. I was there just long enough to graduate and to extend my famiy lifeline by staying on in Spain for my first year of college. I was a freshman doing a Junior-Year-Abroad curriculum at the University of Madrid. Another group I didn’t fit in.

It would take me ten years to complete a four-year college degree. U name it, I went there. Madrid. Hiram College, Ohio. Colorado College. University of Minnesota. Scuola Dante Alighieri, Rome. Hunter College, City University of New York. By the time I graduated, I had accumulated enough non-transferring credits to prop up an entirely other person.

Maybe that’s just the point. I was a lot of different persons. A traveler by someone else’s design. A writer by genetics. A dancer by my mother’s past. A speaker of Castillian Spanish and Colombian Spanish and Italian and French. A foreigner in America. An American abroad. A kid with her family overseas and her roots seeking they not knew what.

I am going through the final edits of WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES: AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR. The book includes my parents’ own words describing those nearly two decades, including this telling statement of my mother’s:

“The girls [my younger sister, Susan, and me] learned early on that each post had a style and that we were the ones to fit in.”

Nancy Robb Amerson, The USIA Years

As I was growing up, an American sociologist studying Americans in India coined the phrase that is now used to describe the identities that growing up here and there can spawn: THIRD CULTURE KID (TCK).

“A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.”

Dr. Ruth Hill Useem

There is a body of research that now helps kids like I was to see that there are ways of anticipating the challenges that lie ahead. Just last week, I spoke with a young German graduate student at the University of Bamberg as part of a study she is conducting about the career paths of Adult TCKs. About 60 of us completed a survey quantifying our overseas living experiences as children and our work history since then, and a dozen or so of us have done a one-hour interview. I have a copy of that exchange and have just begun looking it over. Here’s a bit to chew on for now.

You grow up going into new situations and sticking out your hand and making friends. Every crowd is enticing: ah, future friends. When I was about 10, I introduced a girl I’d just met at a hotel pool in Colombia to my mother. “Mom, this is my new best friend.” I turned to the girl. “What’s your name again?”

Josefina, in Caracas, taught me the Spanish I still speak

The theatrical aspect of assuming new languages/cultures rubbed off on me. I was a pretty awful actress but a decent dancer, and I’d rather speak in public than do a lot of other stuff. Since most people would apparently rather die, I guess this makes me a little odd.

Julia, in Bogotá, made these folklore costumes for my sister and me

I married well. My husband did, too. OK, that said… Ray’s father was Puerto Rican and his mother was Spanish; he was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. Sharing an affinity for the Latin culture turns out to have been one of the most important connections for us both. Spanish was my first language and evolved to be an “within-the-family” code long before it was widely spoken in the United States. To this day, if I need to communicate something really important to a family member, it usually comes out in Spanish. Our daughter learned by osmosis and then did college studies in Spain (shades of her mother), and is now the Spanish-speaking team member of her class of Clinical Psychology doctoral interns at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital. Come June, she will be Doctora López.

Our nextdoor neighbors in Bogotá, 1965

When someone asks where I am from, my answer depends on who’s asking. Last year, as I lay on my single hospital room bed in Amsterdam, I knew I was really from South Florida. On the other hand, just today I thanked someone on Twitter in Minneapolis for being “Minnesota Nice” and self-identified as being born in the Twin Cities. Talk to me in Spanish, and you’ll see me shape shift once again.

Stay tuned …

2 thoughts on “TCK — Third Culture Kid — Chameleon

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