Third Culture Kids Are The Best Chameleons

iz-zy-140216

I’m done pretending I’m on a single side.

Truth is, I’m in-between and I’ve always been. On the surface, it seems like we connect and don’t get me wrong, we do connect on several points. Yet, there are moments where it’s like a cold shower, I realise how far apart we are on some points.

And it’s scary, in a way. It’s scary to feel so disconnected all the sudden. Worrying even. Being in-between, you’ll never fit in. If you’re in between cultures, you’ll never truly escape one or truly follow one.

There will always be this part of you, slowly creeping in when you least expect it. You remember that you’re kind of lying to yourself, all over again. You will never “totally fit in” one culture or escape another.

Multiple cultures are exactly what’s making you, you. And it’s not easy when you’re surrounded by people who might not get it. They speak one language, have a certain way of life they’ve had since the start, a country they’ve been in their whole life and feel truly attached to. Yet, you sometimes feel obligated to duplicate yourself just so a part of you can feel truly apart of whatever culture you’re surrounded with.

That sense of belonging you’re looking for? You will never get it by trying to mould yourself into a certain person. They say TCKs are the real chameleons, and they are. If you’re constantly looking to blend into whatever environment you are in by denying parts of you, you’re simply lying to yourself.

We’re all constantly trying to build our identity but the trouble for third culture kids is that we’re juggling with multiple identities, all with the potential to grow. How do you make the perfect blend of these identities without feeling like you are a total outlier?

Advertisements

From one “ex-TCK” to all TCKs

The powerful message shared below was posted by Debbie Jongkind Dehart on the Facebook group: Third Culture Kids Everywhere.

Debbie .jpg


“I’ve debated a long time before writing and posting this…but here goes.
I believe I am considerably older than many of you who post here, and I have greatly enjoyed reading about your experiences and the questions you’ve asked and comments you’ve made. My TCK years are long behind me and I’ve been settled in one place for a long time. As such, I have some hindsight to offer. So I’d like to encourage you who are still in your TCK years, or perhaps only recently beyond them, in a couple of ways – and please take this in the spirit in which I offer it…to help, not to hinder; to encourage, not to criticize.

I encourage you to assume that non-TCK’s who ask questions might actually be interested in hearing about your experience. Give their ignorance a bit of grace and use the opportunity to gently teach them and widen their world…and cultivate relationships with people like them. They could turn out to be among your best friends.

Also, in a similar vein, be patient with having to tell the same story over and over. It’s new to the person with whom you are sharing it! It’s a GOOD thing that people are interested. I’ve posted here before that when I came to the US in the late 70’s, I didn’t often meet anyone who cared that there was a world beyond the state in which we lived. I think it’s marvelous that the world has shrunk so that now, many folks love to hear about other countries…and as a TCK, you might be one of the few ways that someone can learn about those places from a real person rather than a book.

And I encourage you to look at all the positive aspects of having grown up the way you did. It can be hard, and no doubt there are people for whom it had some huge difficulties that I can’t begin to understand, but try to look beyond the things that were a challenge and see how, perhaps, they made you a stronger, more resilient person, or equipped you in ways that living in one country all your life wouldn’t, or allowed you to understand and help others who are going through something similar. I firmly believe that we should try to use what we’ve learned through our life experiences to help and reach out to others, whenever we can. I will readily admit I didn’t enjoy moving so much when I was young because I found it so hard to make new friends all the time – but looking back, I’m profoundly thankful that I had those experiences. They don’t make me any better than anyone else; just different….but they did play a large role in shaping me into the person I have become.”

Sometimes I Hear Voices

By Rachel

In crowded bars and restaurants, I hear you speak.  Over the local patois of “want another round?”, “yeah, nah” and “she’ll be right” – sometimes a voice rings like a bell between all others.  Maybe your plane just landed and you’re here with friends, happy to be free from the confines of the aircraft cabin on this warm Melbourne evening.  Maybe you’ve been here for awhile and have an apartment up the street.  I don’t know you.  You certainly don’t know me.  One thing is for sure, though.

You sound like home.

Last month at work I spent 40 minutes talking to a complete stranger on the telephone.  This is what happens when a voice on the other end echoes a time and place dear to one’s heart. The voice belonged to someone from Malaysia, the country of my birth.  It was intelligent, articulate and of course, the English was perfect whilst still sounding like smoky-delicious hawker stalls, my goofy old pals and the enjoyment of breaking fast during Ramadan.

 

And here I am, sounding like a Cheerful Australian Lady Who Grew Up In The Nice Eastern Suburbs Who Probably Has Some Really Lovely Cats.

Oh, the frustration.  

I’m at work, right?  In an open-plan office and I don’t feel like being stared at.  So there’s no chance of me slipping into the Malaysian-accented banter of my college years.  I’m also fighting the urge to ask if the traffic in Kuala Lumpur is still abysmal, what’s the smog situation like, how long have you been here, do you miss home? Where is home for you now?

Instead we talk about the state of our industry, it’s changes and challenges, and what some key stakeholders are up to.  I answer questions helpfully.  I hold back the dam.  

This is my lot now as an older TCK who has made peace with geography and done the unthinkable;  I have settled down.  

Actually, I don’t know if I can lay claim to the ‘Kid’ part of TCK, being 37 and all.  At this point in major life decisions have been made, and my chosen groove is worn in.  

Melbourne is now my town.  She’s a beautiful city which loves her chameleons.  My dear friends and colleagues are used to me and my various accents and I can get a pretty good nasi lemak for breakfast, if the whim should arise.

Sometimes, I’ll hear a voice, just by chance.  And I want to ask, “How did you get here? How did YOU get here?”  Because I know inside each us there are worlds within worlds, pieces of home from far away.

Mi, olgeta

By Victoria

photo-1415874474852-86b5658ac4f8

I’m not a Third Culture Kid (TCK) in the strictest definition of the term, but nevertheless it is a label I have found useful in exploring who I am, what I am and where I’ve come from. I originally intended this article to have a lilting origin story, a narrative to draw you – the reader – into the history of my family’s movements. But it got too hard. It got messy. How could I describe the intricate workings of my family’s culture, mixed ethnicity and lived experience?

And then I remembered I’m not the only one with a ‘messy and complicated’ family history- a family experience that both defines and differentiates my family from others and individuals within it from each other.

There are many stories out there discussing the TCK experience and no doubt, with trending understanding of this term, many more will come to claim it as their own.

But here are the facts. My mum is Filipino. My dad, a New Zealander. They moved to Rabaul, an island in the New Britain archipelago of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in their teenage years. My mother accompanying her family, and my father striking it out on his own. They met and married at the church there amongst extended family and friends. My older sister, Kelly, was born there. They moved to the Cook Islands. They moved to Australia. Here I was born. And here my mum became an Australian citizen, and according to immigration requirements of the time, renounced her Filipino nationality. We moved back to Papua New Guinea. We migrated (back) to Australia. My sister and dad became naturalised Australians.

I do not speak Tagalog. I have no rich understanding of my Maori or Welsh-New Zealand heritage. I can speak Tok Pisin[1]. I like L&P. I choose Vegemite over Marmite. I have, and on occasion, wear a barong[2] and regularly cook traditional Filipino food (I’m actually pretty great at that – the cooking, not the barong wearing that is). My mother has long been away from family and culture, my father’s family migrated to Australia after he moved to PNG. Both parents have spent most of their adult life in PNG. Their experience in a colonial country (they saw a PNG pre and post-Independence) and fluid shaping of their cultural identity has influenced the way they raised their children. The ways they interact with society and people. But theirs is not my story to tell here, though it has irrevocably shaped my own.

Like many of you reading this digest, the experience of living overseas and the people who became your people whilst there have influenced you. Perhaps in subtle ways you don’t yet realise, perhaps in overt ways you cherish or push back on. For me its left lasting impacts that have influenced not only my personal life, but also my professional career.

 

Growing up in PNG, despite the manifest violence, was rather idyllic. It fostered in me, an interest in culture, people and history, and how these stories can be told. And while the tyranny of distance limited the immersion of my family in either parents’ mother culture with our extended families, it forged my parents’ strongest friendships, friends which became family, wantok[3]. My closest wantok of them all was my Uncle Brian, a New Zealand expat who married a Tolai woman, my Aunty Fida. Brian was the epitome of adventurer, explorer and he became my mentor and my friend. He encouraged my interest in these areas and supported me through his own excitement (when no one in my family could) when I decided to study archaeology and anthropology at university as a ridiculously naïve 16 year old. I honour his memory and our shared love for archaeology and history and culture every day by working in a museum he was passionate about, that we are both wildly interested in; a museum that ties our respective birth origins and the country that became our home (in my case, home albeit for a temporary period). Despite the beautiful influences like Brian, the wonderful childhood friends and even the scary, violent, turbulent moments we experienced in PNG, for me what has impacted most into my adulthood is the racism that has coloured mine and my family’s life. I bear no small comfort in knowing that many of the people reading this would have or will experience some form of racism as people try to place you into their own one-or-the-other ideological framework of what a person should culturally or racially be. What we should look like, sound like and dress.

While I didn’t want this article to focus on the racism I’ve faced, I would only be telling half a story, presenting half my identity without talking about how it has shaped me, both personally and professionally. “Returning home” to Australia was culture shock to the nth degree. We moved back to a rural far north Queensland town and it was there that I was first confronted with vicious racism. We were a family that didn’t look like any of the others, kids that didn’t sound like any of the other kids (thanks for the British accent International School!). I didn’t know any of the colloquialisms. The lingo. To ease my way into school my teacher provided a primer for me on Australia – colour in the Australian flag, learn the national anthem. Small tokens like this however, could not temper the realities my family was to experience. My sister, beaten and bullied at school, our house constantly prank phone-called. I vividly recall a conversation with another kid at school telling me how perfectly logical it was to “keep Asians out as they’ll take all the jobs”. We were 10 years old. The jokes that my mum must be a mail-order bride or shoots ping pong balls out of her vagina.

Chinks.

Go back to where you came from.

Self-preservation dictated my sister and I lose our accents fast. We did. The racism faded, but didn’t abate – it presented in different ways. At uni (ironically enough in an anthropology class) an older student asked me what my background was. I started the usual “well, I grew up in PNG, but my father is from New – “ to get cut off with a “well that explains your curly hair”.

More comically, a Chinese pathologist asked me if I was Korean and then proceeded to work through each East Asian country in a rather hilarious ‘guess who’. My waxer, who while making small talk (and if you’ve ever had a Brazilian wax, you know the distraction of small talk is very much required) asked me what my background is and interjected when I said my dad was a Kiwi with a: “I knew it! I thought you were Polynesian! You have a very Polynesian….laugh”. My local Chinese-Malay restaurateur who every time I pick up my take-away Char Kway Teow and tofu hot pot insists I am Chinese because of my physical appearance and appreciation of Chinese cuisine despite my clarifications. It was so persistent one night that I just said I was Chinese. She was very happy. And the Char Kway Teow made me happy.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

For western men with a bent towards Asian fetishisation, I am generically Asian, as one tinder encounter explained “we all look the same” and another mentioned I was “Asian enough to fuck” yet have enough western qualities as a gateway for the yellow fever afflicted. The out-of-the-blue casually racist jokes from the guy I dated for a couple of months. The confusion and sometimes exoticisation when dates realise I sometimes speak with an accent (usually after a few drinks and nervousness sets in). I’ve experienced this enough that I am deeply wary and prone to question motivations.

The casual racism at work from well-meaning colleagues who ask me “where are you from? No, but where are you really from?” when countered with my Australian nationality. The colleague who sniggered when they heard me mention I have Maori heritage and am interested in learning more about it.

These things frustrate and infuriate me. But for them I am also grateful. All the overt and casual racisms, all the fears of what will someone’s response be when I tell them my heritage, by 25 years (I am now 27), had built and coalesced into a death by a thousand cuts. A thousand racist cuts, a thousand ignorant cuts. But those thousands of cuts didn’t kill me. They killed my fear of being different, embracing my difference, my cultures, my heritage. They make me more aware of the work I do every day as a curator– whose stories are we missing? I am Australian, but would I see someone like me represented in my museum? Why not? How can I change this? Through my work, can I help others acknowledge their own identity? How have their personal experiences shaped their choices? Can I help educate against ignorance?

I can offer no tangible help, or real advice that many of you have already not told yourselves. If you want to label yourself, label yourself. If that helps you understand who you are and where you have come from and are going, let it help. But don’t let other people impose their ideas of who or what you should be based on the accent you speak with, your appearance, where you were born or where you have ended up. These are their convenient constructs and not your reality.

I know now, that my identity as it is at this very moment, won’t always be this. That is what I value most about my multiculturalism, my TCK experience, my hodge-podge of family, my wantoks – its given me the maturity to know I will keep growing and changing. My identity, my sense of self and culture will expand and contract and maybe someday, settle. I’m not always going to know where I will end up or who exactly I am at any one moment, but I have the confidence that my experience has been real, that it is my own, and I don’t need to ‘legitimise’ my cultural identity to anyone, least of all myself.

I’m a TCK of TCKs. I’m multicultural (yes, I’m using that as a noun). I’m biracial/mixed-race/etc. I’m all of these labels and sometimes that helps me come to grips with who I am and who I could be. Some days, I reject these labels. That is my prerogative and noone else’s. My heart is in PNG. But it’s also in Australia. And there are parts of it in the Philippines. And parts of it in New Zealand. Maybe I can’t be a whole of any of these specifically, but I can be a whole of the sum.


[1] Tok Pisin, or Pidgin, is the official language of PNG; it is a creole language and one of the most-spoken in PNG.

[2] A barong is a traditional, formal Filipino shirt

[3] Pidgin for family/friend, literally translated it means “one talk”

TCK Project #1 – Hang

Originally from Vietnam, Hang was born in Belgium. She has also lived in Canada and Singapore.

To me, a third culture kid is growing up in different cultures, not just one. You’re exposed to many kinds of culture. I’ve always been a TCK but, I don’t know… It’s always been a part of my life, I never really questioned that. I love traveling and I always knew that I wanted a job that would take me to different countries. I guess being a TCK has led me to develop an international mindset. When I moved to Asia at the age of 26, a lot of people asked me:

“Why did you move so far away? It takes courage!”

For me it was normal, even natural to do so. I think a lot of people make excuses not to leave their country because they are too comfortable even though they say they want to travel more and discover other cultures. I think they just don’t want to, that’s my opinion.

hang-3

You actually have cultural clashes all the time but it becomes your reality, it’s a part of your daily life. I just got used to it. For me, maybe the biggest clash was when I went back to Vietnam. I lived in Vietnam for 1 year, 3 years ago. My parents are Vietnamese so I guess I’m supposed to be Vietnamese but I don’t know the culture. I was anxious, I didn’t know if I could integrate. They still consider me as a foreigner, but the way I dress, I walk or talk. I’m not really part of the culture, I’m an outsider. Home is not Vietnam or Belgium, I can live everywhere. I’m a global citizen.

I find it’s difficult to keep a friendship when you don’t live in the same place. I kept in touch by email or Facebook but now, we exchange messages once a year. It’s tough to keep in touch when you don’t interact daily. I used to have best friends as a kid but when I grew up, it didn’t get easy. Also when you move to another place, very often, the people you meet already have their circle of friends so it’s actually difficult to get into their circle because you don’t have the same kind of connections that they have developed with their friends.

When I go back to the country I lived in, I would definitely contact them and meet them again. If I don’t head back, we don’t have much to talk about. A written message is not the same. It’s easier now to communicate but not being in the same location, is still tough. I don’t have a strong base of friends because I changed location a few times, you can’t be deeply connected with someone when you move so often.

hang-1

You get used to saying goodbye after a while. Maybe the connections were not so strong, so it is sad but you kind of get used to it. Even though we say goodbye, the world is a small place. I know I can connect with them when I say goodbye. I’m not cynical in regards to friendships but I don’t have a best friend. You just have a good time with them and yeah, there are actually friends I have met before. A friend I met 7 years ago, during my university years, that I’m still in contact with. I know some day, if they come to Asia or I go back to Europe, we can see each other again. There’s no need to talk or see them everyday.

For my final advice, I feel we all have our issues, but it’s part of us. I never actually see it as an issue (being a TCK), you get so used to it after a while and being a TCK actually has many advantages in the way you think (open minded), you learn to accept things more easily rather than someone who has lived in the same country their whole life.