To be patently clear, this does not mean that those of us who are TCKs are able to change our appearances at will to blend with our surroundings. In Africa, I was still a tall, Caucasian girl who could maybe pass for an Algerian—and was frequently mistaken for one too—but I could never look like my immediate neighbors. No, the chameleon effect shows up in how rapidly a person can absorb cultural cues in order to fit in quickly.
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TCKs are able to adapt easily to new cultures, to pick up social cues, body language, and attitudes swiftly, and once we figure out these “ins” to a culture, we zero in on them and blend. I cannot tell you how many times I cringed at the behavior of adult expats around me when I was a child because I realized that they had obliviously committed a cultural faux-pas.
In 1997, this ability aided me when my family lived in Albertville, France, for language school. My parents attended a language school set up to teach adults French, whereas my sister and I attended the local junior high/high school where we were put in the classe non-francophone with other immigrant teens. Our French teacher spoke zero English, and I went home crying every day for about the first week. Then survival mode kicked in, and I began to learn what was necessary to blend in. Within four or five months, my sister and I were comfortably speaking French; after six months in school, we were mistaken for French youth. (I’m still proud of that achievement–I’m not going to lie!)
Upon leaving France, I took with me language skills, continental table etiquette, and a dislike for American tourists. Once we settled into our new home in N’Djaména, Chad, I donned a veil for the first time, as a way to respect our neighbors in the quartier Klémat—a “Muslim” quarter. After living in Chad for a while, I adopted several attitudes that I think went hand in hand with wearing a veil. Most noticeable, I become shy and reserved—someone to be seen and not heard. This was quite opposite my naturally bubbly personality, but as most women I encountered in Chad were demure in public, so was I. Even now, I still am shy and reserved until I know people better.
Overall, this adaptability is a boon in other cultures. TCKs can go to any country and feel comfortable within minutes. Don’t speak the language? No worries, we’ll pick up important phrases on the go. Unsure about polite gestures? We keep our eyes peeled and observe those around us and take heed to follow suit. Presented with a local delicacy that could turn the stomach? We grin, nod politely, and thank the good Lord above for iron-clad stomachs. Who knows, we might even take a shining to those goat entrails and crave them later.
The one culture we seem to struggle with is our “home” culture.
It’s true. I could take a plane nearly anywhere and find food, shelter, and a local contact pretty easily, but in the U.S., I have major culture shock. The one place where I am supposed to fit in, I don’t. I interviewed several TCK friends about this series of articles to get their feedback on the matter, and they were in agreement with this. We blend with others, but not with our own.
The paradox of a TCK’s nature is that s/he can be at home anywhere in the world except where s/he is supposed to feel at home. Sometimes, because we have so many facets to who we are, we really don’t know who we are. Another friend explained that the chameleon effect is really helpful in customer service jobs, but wasn’t “so good in friendships/relationships.” When pressed, she explained that the chameleon tendency can be perceived as hypocrisy. Because we can easily blend, we may seem to have multiple personalities or be eccentric at best.
About the issue of blending with our passport culture, one of my friends pointed to a quote from Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran where the author says, “It was not until I had reached home that I realized the true meaning of exile…when I walked down the streets, I asked myself, ‘Are these my people, is this my hometown, am I who I am?’” This same friend mentioned that being a “chamaeleo sapiens,” as he put it, brings with it a sense of cultural lostness. Yes, we can absorb other cultures, but we are still not part of any one culture.
Culturally, most TCKs relate best to other TCKs, a culture in itself. Our common ground is that we have so many backgrounds. We were born in one place, grew up in another, have friends here, and have family there. My graduating class in high school—a boarding school—represented at least ten nationalities from around the world, and most of us represented different cultures by way of where our parents were living at the time.
For myself, it has taken me nearly a decade to feel at home in the U.S., but my current residence is in the most ethnically diverse zip code in the country–98118, represent!–so perhaps this has helped. I certainly felt out of place in the upper middle class, predominantly Caucasian neighborhoods where I lived prior to this move. Now I am in the minority and blending once more with the cultures around me.
What about you, my dear Persephoneers? Have you ever experienced the chameleon effect—personally or vicariously? I’d love to hear your thoughts!