Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Isn’t there something more to us than being ‘different’?-GUEST BLOGGER

We thank our guest blogger for this wonderful and insightful submission. 
My international school provided what they deemed essential ‘life skill’ lessons to tell us what it was to be a ‘Third Culture Kid’. My school was right to have given these lessons; there are plenty of people who ‘feel’ what it is to be a TCK much earlier than I did, and I cannot pretend the lessons didn’t help me when my understanding and appreciation of it all changed. Nevertheless, using all sorts of scientific-looking diagrams and philosophical theories, they told us what we were meant to feel as TCKs ourselves. I didn’t ‘feel’ any of it. It all seemed dramatic and cheesy, and I took no notice; maybe it had value in social academic analysis, but it certainly didn’t fit into every day life. I was comfortable and secure in my surroundings and, superficially perhaps, believed I knew who I was.

It was only a couple of months into my Gap Year when I started feeling unsettled, but I couldn’t work out why. I used to tell my parents that I was ‘walking on clouds’ and I didn’t really see a possible way of stopping and stepping down. I had never dealt with these feelings before and it was a shock – suddenly I was no longer the invincible person I felt I had been at school. At that point, I didn’t attribute any of the feelings to being a ‘TCK’ as such, I was just a ball rolling down a hill and growing as I accumulated question upon question about life and who I was. I kept these feelings to my self on the whole, but two friends of mine picked up on a few things I mentioned during a reunion that year. I then learnt that they had been feeling almost exactly the same things. One of them reminded me of the TCK diagrams we were given in school and, this time, I listened - we were all TCKs and we were all feeling the same way. I wasn’t 100% convinced just yet, but my awareness was growing. I mean, yes, everybody has a shock when they leave school, but there did seem to be something quite unique about our thought processes at the time. It helped enormously to know that I was not the only one, which was half the reason I started feeling myself again. It was also learning to deal with a feeling of instability. I saw it as ‘riding the storm’ – there really wasn’t anything unusual about my feelings and I wasn’t ‘crazy’!

When I went to University, however, I wasn’t particularly lucky with accommodation and the initial friendship groups I was thrown into as a result of my random hall number. The people in that accommodation seemed so different, so inexperienced, and so young, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I had different conversational interests and perspectives which were not always appreciated, had no knowledge of ‘local customs’ or which political views to espouse and which to hide. Yes, I had taken a Gap Year, which always sees people grow up quickly, but there were a fair few students there who had also taken a Gap Year and, in my eyes, they seemed just the same as the others. I kept quiet about my life at ‘home’ in Singapore as I realised it was not appropriate and would not be understood. Soon, though, I started working out what it was that was actually different and why I found myself keeping quiet about my life back at ‘home’. If you are a TCK yourself (if reading this, you are likely to be), I need not elaborate further.

I found myself becoming slightly defensive and strangely superior. When I was meeting people, the first thing I would ask them was whether they’d lived abroad. If they hadn’t, I was uninterested – they weren’t worth talking to. How could my multi-cultural upbringing result in quite so many prejudices? It didn’t seem right even at the time but I was not happy and this had somehow become my attitude.

I had trawled the university website for different societies to see where I could meet interesting people. Having been brought up mainly in Singapore and with my parents still living there, I tried to join the Singapore Society. While I felt at ease with them, they could not understand why I was there. I remember going to their Chinese New Year dinner with a couple of other TCKs, and our table was clearly not everybody’s first choice. When all were seated, our table was sadly divided between the TCKs and the Singaporeans, and we were clearly both at fault. Eventually, one of the Singaporeans leaned across and asked me ‘why do you know how to use your chopstick so well?’ I fully understand why this was asked of me, but it did make me feel slightly lost; I wasn’t and would never be considered one of them. There were a number of societies I tried, but I never felt welcomed by any of them in the way that I wanted. I met lots of people, but I did not belong anywhere.

It all changed when I came across the ‘Third Culture Society’ – its very existence had to be a sign! I went along to the socials but soon discovered the society was new and didn’t really have any members. Nonetheless, I kept going along to their socials because I believed in it, probably more so than I had believed in anything.

At the end of the year, the exec nominated me to become the Social Secretary. I was determined that the exec and I could change the society. The bad year at University had meant I’d spent a lot of time meeting new people– I also found that so many of them could actually be classified as Third Culture, even if they didn’t know what the term meant. The first social I organised was a Summer BBQ – combining a lot of emotional blackmail with a lot of talking about how great the society could be, we had an amazing 40 people turn up. I was so surprised. We spent the whole year dedicated to building the society, and I was elected President for the following year. With a new team who were equally determined to make the society an even greater success, we have since introduced a monthly newsletter, a charitable arm to the society, and have socials every fortnight. We also have an incredible 130 members and counting and our first social this year had about 100 people actually turn up.

The Third Culture society changed my life at university – I was suddenly part of something I really believed in – I belonged somewhere. It made such a difference. The whole ‘dramatic and cheesy’ Third Culture Kid concepts I had once deemed irrelevant, were suddenly more relevant to my every day life than anything ever could be. I was different, and other TCKs had the potential to understand me in ways most can’t. My troubling questions about ‘who I am’ and what my identity was could easily be answered in this way.

Nevertheless, having struggled through a turbulent Gap Year and a very difficult first year at university, I also crucially came to believe that ‘being different’ was only the start of it. ‘Being different’ is just a means to understand where your identity lies, because it certainly lies ‘somewhere’, even if that ‘somewhere’ is essentially intangible. While we need it all to understand ourselves, we are just as different as the Chinese are from the Swedes, whatever our characteristics might be. The Third Culture Society offers people the chance to feel ‘rooted’ and stable with people of a similar background. It makes more sense to us because we can’t always be expected to relate to an intangible ‘home’. But, by attaching oneself to the concept of ‘being different’, I feel we lose our potential; we ironically lose what makes us ‘unique’. As TCKs, we have the potential to take what is good from a culture and adopt it, and a culture that you might identify with slightly, but never fully, still adds to your experiences as a TCK. Whether we return to our passport country for university or set up shop somewhere completely different, we need to embrace that country and people as we have done in every other country we might have moved to. There is a danger of feeling better than your ‘local’ neighbours, and there is also a danger of feeling too different and, therefore, isolated.

As a result of this mentality, a lot of my energy has gone into ensuring the Third Culture Society is open to non-TCKs. The Third Culture Society brings people together who are interested in the world, whatever their background. We talk freely and at ease, we adopt so many opinions we don’t know what to do with them, we appreciate every location for what it is, and we certainly don’t hold prejudices. This is what makes us Third Culture Kids and we should embrace our diversity, not just our differences.


  1. I recently found this blog. I like this post. I'm an (A)TCK, I spent the first 19 years of my life in Africa. At 19 years of age I went to the Netherlands (on my own) to go to university. I had the exact same experience: I felt older than the others students, and I felt so different. It was a tough time. I wish Tina Quick her book had been available then!
    We did not have a third culture society but it sounds interesting.
    I'm glad there are people writing out TCKs, expat teens etc.

    1. Thanks for your message!! Please see www.expatbookshop.com for a great range of expat related books. So many expat teens identify with how you felt. We hope our book, and Tina's will support their journey and remind them that they are not alone. Expat Teens Talk is all about communication, support and creating a much needed platform for Expat Teens to express how they feel and what they experience.
      All the best,
      Diana And Lisa