Being a TCK: the Chameleon Effect

In my last article, I discussed the concept of saudade and how it applies to TCKs (third culture kids). In this article, I’m going to discuss the chameleon effect and the ways that it plays out in our lives. The chameleon effect is a simpler concept to describe than saudade as it is merely a term for blending in, much like the lizard of the same name.

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.


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.

On the left, here I am on my third birthday at a guest house in Lome, Togo. On the right, I'm sitting on the roof rack of my parents' work vehicle in N'Djamena, Chad.

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.

Rift Valley Academy graduation
My "cousin" and friend at our high school graduation in Kijabe, Kenya. Together, we represent the US, Ghana, Chad, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, and you could probably make an argument for Russia, France, Ukraine, and Kenya.

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!

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Bilingual (and a half) white girl who spent thirteen of her formative years in Africa. She is a writer, mentor, coffee drinker, wife, cat owner, language lover, photography dabbler, aspiring speaker, and a lifetime student. She keeps her writing going over at

8 thoughts on “Being a TCK: the Chameleon Effect”

  1. For me it’s the fact that I don’t have very much of a bond with the place I live in. Am I Dutch? Government says so. Does my heart burst when I hear the national anthem, do I protect the country in word and image? Nope. Partly this is because the Dutch are very much about ‘Don’t bother, don’t be so loud’, but on the other hand I have felt more at home in the place where I’ve been for two years than this place where I’ve been twenty. I live here because it’s good to live here and my loved ones live here, but if I could transport them wherever I’d go around the world ..right away.

    Home is where ‘my people’ are.

  2. I didn’t know there was a term for us, but I’m a TCK! I’m American but I grew up in Italy, South Africa, Argentina and India. I was a diplomat kid, and lucky I only lived in like four countries. When I moved back to the US, I treated it just like moving to a new country. Fortunately for me, the place I moved to (Pasadena, CA- for college) is quite diverse. Loads of international students, and professors also tend to come from every part of the world in general.

    1. That’s great! My own college experience was rather monocultural, and since it was very different from how I was raised, it was hard to fit in there. I ended up sticking out instead. :S Do you still miss things from the former countries where you lived? Where did you go to school? I’m always curious to hear how differently people live. :)

      1. I was quite young when in South Africa and Italy, and I went to the American schools with children of other expats, so I don’t remember much of those cultures. But I lived for about 5 years in Argentina, and went to a local school, and even acquired an accent. (My “original” accent is Scottish, since my grandma is from there and I lived with her when I was a “wee bairn”, as she would say). I could easily pass as an Argentine. I lived for about 7-ish years in India (in Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata) and went to local schools, and I was therefore forced to pick up Indian languages (Hindi and Bengali) because it’s compulsory in Indian schools to learn a second language. Since I’m dark haired, I could easily pass off as Indian too. I got used to eating loads of genuine Indian food, since my friends’ mums’ would always be inviting me over for dinner.

        I miss Argentina and India, but since at least I can speak Spanish here in CA, I guess I miss India a tiny bit more. Indian food is both harder to make and more expensive over here :/

        AAAH, this turned into a total essay.

  3. I’m not a TCK, but I’ve been living the ex-pat lifestyle for a couple of years now. Ex-pat communities are probably very similar to communities of TCKers, but I think ex-pat communities are more insular and some don’t make the effort to blend into the culture their living in, like you mentioned adult ex-pats committing cultural faux pas. I see that all the time. So we don’t blend into the culture we’re living in and we don’t feel at home back in our home countries (US for me).

    But I have learned a lot while I’ve been in South Korea (Americans are REALLY loud, if you are American and say you’re Irish, it really pisses off the actual Irish, getting really adept at using chopsticks, etc). I am dreading the culture shock once I get back to the States though.

    1. Every time we came back to the US after living overseas, my whole family experienced culture shock. The first time we went into a Super Walmart, my dad started physically shaking from being so overwhelmed and we had to leave! A lot of expat communities can be very insular, even some of the TCK ones, but it’s all about stepping outside of your comfort zone at first and learning. It’s hard, which is why a lot of adult expats don’t put in the effort. It comes more easily to children who are raised in multiple cultures because learning naturally dovetails into growing up.

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