Third Culture Kids (TCK) is a phenomenon that happens to children when they are brought up in another country other than their country of origin stated in their passport. It isn’t like a child that has been brought up in neighborly Malaysia for his or her whole life and is suddenly brought over to Brunei to live in. It is the total transformation of one’s way of life to another that is totally different; such as the language, culture, people, food, weather, and even the time when the sun rises and sets.
Children primarily from missionary, overseas business and military families experience the same problem of re-entering into their ‘home’ country. The extent to the depth of their problems depends on the period of time and the differences in the way of life from the country they’ve been in to their ‘home’ country.
These problems involve adjusting to a new lifestyle, whether it’s changing your wardrobe from a climate with an average outside temperature of 19 degrees Celsius to an outside temperature of 28 degrees Celsius or the learning of your own mother tongue for the first time just to talk to your relatives.
Being a TCK myself with siblings of different ages, it’s easy to see what the problems are, where the problem comes from, and at what age is re-entry not a problem.
Having been born in New York and then constantly moving on an almost three year period to different countries such as Thailand, Pakistan, Singapore, Taiwan, U.K., and then finally arriving in Brunei after 18 years, you can see why it has been a difficulty in adapting to life in the country of my nationality. To my siblings and me, Brunei feels just like any other foreign country, foreign.
The unique aspect of a TCK is that we have the ability to integrate our birth culture with the culture of other countries we’ve lived in, which in fact becomes the so-called ‘third culture’ that we’ve all grew up in. We feel at home anywhere and nowhere at the same time.
International set of friends that had only one thing in common, being different from one another.
The advantage of being brought up abroad can be greatly beneficial. The exposure to different cultures and people can diminish boundaries between the differences and gradually build an understanding between the different ways of life. This understanding can widen our knowledge on the big world that’s out there, which isn’t really that big really once you get to know people from different places. They not only share their friendship, but also they’re culture and experiences, which are all amazing and interesting.
There is this silent and unknown connection bonding us TCKs together. We share the confusion and have the same sense of traveling, almost like exploring; which most of us love. We seek and cherish the company of other TCKs because they’re people who can understand what we’ve been through. We belong to a third culture – a wandering world where we are connected by the international schools and communities that we’ve been a part of.
An example of this would be when I was attending boarding school in U.K. during my school term holidays I would go up to Brunei Hall in London and stay there for the duration of the holidays. Even though the hall was filled with students just like me, I felt out of place with the scholarship students that were sent from Brunei, because they knew each other from their previous schools in Brunei and got along well. Even though I did socialise with them, I still felt out of place and a close bond never really did take shape except a mere acquaintance. It was until I met other TCKs that I felt really comfortable with, even if I didn’t know they were TCKs at first encounter. This is because the diplomatic community isn’t really that big and diplomatic parents know each other one way or another. So the mention of a parent’s name or another diplomat kid that you met on one of your postings to another fellow diplomat would usually cause a sense of commonality.
It isn’t always a fun and interesting time while globe trekking. TCKs go through a lot of emotional and, of course, physical changes. Moving from one place to another does not really allow TCKs to establish long term relationships with anyone other than your own family. The only person I’ve known the longest and kept a long term friendship with is this Indonesian friend of mine for three years in Singapore, which is the length of time that I stayed there for. I don’t blame my friends for losing touch with me; it’s just how it is.
A long time ago when I was around the age of 14 I went on one of my first dates with a girl during my summer holidays in Brunei. Kids grow up to be teenagers, and when you’re a teenager you would usually tend to start dating with girls. As soon as I got to know her, I suddenly had to fly back to Singapore. Right then and there, I finally realized that relationships like these are not feasible when you’re an active TCK constantly moving around. Huge chunks of experiences and activities, not only referring to dating, had been missed out. Because TCKs miss out on the things that normal kids do, we feel out of place and different and don’t behave like other kids do.
Trying to find a self-identity can be hard, especially when the cultures of each classmate are all different and interesting.
Although, that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part for a TCK is leaving old friends behind. Making new friends is sometimes equally difficult. It’s like moving to a new school with a thousand students and not knowing anyone; just like going through kindergarten again. Normally people would think that moving to a new place would give you a clean slate where you can start afresh and begin a new life that was different than before. But for some that move around a lot, the sadness of losing close friends can prevent TCKs from getting closer to anyone and establish a slow relationship with others so the feeling of letting go wouldn’t be so painful.
When I first arrived in Brunei, I thought I was with people that I belonged to, but as I soon found out, never had I felt more out of place. I knew that I was somehow different, yet nobody would see anything foreign about me because I’m not foreign. The very annoying thing when making new local friends for the first time is that when they start saying “remember when…?” I can’t remember anything because I wasn’t there with them when it happened. “Do you remember the time in MS?” or “Do you remember the time in MD?” are the questions I usually hear when I’m in a group of people from either of those schools. So far I’ve only been to two local schools for around three months during one of my long temporary stays in Brunei. Feeling left out and not knowing what’s going on currently among your new friends just constantly reminds you that you don’t belong here.
Learning my own mother tongue was another huge hurdle that I had to deal with. Communication is a very powerful tool to establish friendly relations between one another. Without the basic knowledge of even the commonest of words, I felt left out not only in class but also at family functions. Getting mixed up with the words ‘penyut’ (bucket) and ‘penyapu’ (broomstick) when your grandmother asks you to pick up a broomstick from the kitchen, but instead bringing a bucket, can be really embarrassing in front of all your family members. Being forced to take classes taught in Malay without understanding what is being taught, as it is part of the curriculum, can be a real drag. Some would say that all I have to do is to take Malay tuition classes and deal with it. But there comes an age when learning and adjusting to a new location, culture and language becomes difficult as you are already used to the way of life at the places you’ve lived at before.
A TCK at a certain age should stay in one place for a reasonable amount of time to establish a self identity. This is good for preventing the TCK from adjusting into a new peer group where he or she does not have anything in common with and ends up adjusting to the group’s liking while losing his or hers identity.
For me, adapting to life in Brunei has been difficult. But for my two younger siblings ages 16 and 12, it’s not so hard for them because they’re going through a development period of their lives where they start defining who they really are and finding out a sense of belonging.
It has been hard, but I wouldn’t trade my life for anything because it has also been fun. Growing up internationally and constantly moving is something only those of us who have done it can understand. It’s like a secret special club that you can’t explain among non-TCKs. No matter where I live, that way of life never leaves me because I’m still living it. Living overseas really influenced how I think and created new experiences that are different from what non-TCKs experience. Most importantly the amount of tolerance I have for people of different backgrounds and nationalities have greatly increased as I move from one place to another.
When I asked my dad how he coped with moving around so much, he replied “I couldn’t imagine my life in any other way,” which is what I would say too.