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Letters from the Dragonlands: Confessions of a Third-Culture Kid

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There is a remarkable phenomenon in the new generation of children: in the past decade, with improved technological developments, greater opportunities for travel and rapidly progressing globalization, moving from country to country has gone from unusual to usual. For children of parents whose job moves the whole family, growing up in multiple countries and being exposed to multiple cultures has offered them a different outlook on life and opportunities that were considered scarce in previous generations. These children have now been recognized as different from others in their generation and been given a special name – “Third-Culture Kids.”

The most difficult question for a TCK (Third-Culture Kid) to answer is, “Where are you from?” Should you dare to innocently ask this of a TCK, be prepared for a long-winded, complex answer involving multiple countries, histories and then a simple conclusion: “but I actually consider myself ‘Earthian.’” TCKs will often have multiple passports, be fluent in multiple languages and have lived and studied on multiple continents. TCKs can navigate airports and train stations with their eyes closed and instinctively guess correctly where someone is from based on their accent and their manner of expression.

I am a TCK. Although a Canadian passport permits me to travel around the globe, I cannot with sincerity call Canada my homeland. Canada is my birthplace, but my homeland is across the Pacific Ocean. You cannot change your birthplace; it is one of the most fundamental elements of your identity. It is where you were brought into the world, where you first started to breathe and where you made your first mark upon the world with your first tiny laugh. But your birthplace is not your homeland. The choices you make in life and the different paths you walk lead you to form your own identity. And part of forming that identity is determining to which place in the world your soul is bonded and which voice calls you home. This is one of the many challenges that TCKs have to undertake.

As part of an ethic minority in Singapore (Caucasian) and surrounded by a sea of jet-black hair and almond-shaped dark eyes, I cannot pass as a local. My facial features, my hair color and my skin tone define me as an outsider. But in my mind, my appearance has morphed to blend in with society and make me another Singaporean face in the crowd. So much so that when I now go back to my birthplace, I turn up my collar and shy away from passing strangers, falsely conscious that I must stick out because I look so foreign. When I return to Asia, I am instinctively relieved to be surrounded by “others like me.” In reality, this is a false notion. It’s a trick of mirrors and sunlight.

I am a stranger in my own skin. This is not an unusual experience for TCKs. When they travel around the world, it is inevitable that they will come into contact with different cultures and ethnically different people. The physical differences between a TCK and the rest of the society can create a barrier between the two. For a child growing up in a foreign place, the only way to overcome that barrier and to assimilate into the surrounding society is to believe and pretend your appearance is not so different. And that’s what our wonderful subconscious mind does.

Humans are social creatures. We have the instinctive need to befriend others, form communities and become a part of a society in which we can go about our daily affairs and comfort ourselves with the notion that someone like us is never more than a few minutes away. Studies have shown that we are attracted to people that look like we do and question why this is the case. But the real question should be deeper than the one expounded by scientists: how do I see physically myself and how accurate is that picture?

Other foreigners in Singapore I have spoken to admit that they too subconsciously believe they have taken on an Asian appearance. A blonde friend of mine once told me she was in a shopping mall and walked by a mirror. She turned, wondering who the non-local was and was surprised to find her reflection staring inquisitively back at her. School friends from Russia and England have told me they feel self-conscious returning to their countries, where they are no longer the ethnic minority. On the other hand, an Asian friend explained to me that frequent trips to the U.K. made him believe he had taken on a European appearance.

The way we believe we look is definitely not always the truth. In an amazing psychological reversal, we subconsciously alter our self-image to fit in with our surrounding community. Our surroundings and our desire to fit in trick us into believing we are something other than what we are. We form beliefs about ourselves that have been created on false assumptions and often act on those beliefs. The best part? We often don’t even realize it.

This can be a very good thing for TCKs because it means they have adapted so perfectly to their new homes that their minds believe they are locals. Adapting in such a complete way that even your subconscious believes you are physically different from what you actually are is a skill that takes time to develop. TCKs often experience “reverse culture shock” upon returning to their passport country.

But at the same time, adapting in such a way means that you lose part of your fundamental identity. This leads you to question exactly what your fundamental identity is and what it means. What does it mean to say that you are Canadian and not American? German and not Swiss? Argentinean and not Chilean? How can you feel patriotic toward one and not another? What do these invisible borders between cultures and people mean?

Exactly what you thought: nothing at all. You and I were both born in the same birthplace and share the same homeland – Earth.

Are you a TCK suffering from reverse culture shock? Join the support group and drop Aysha a line at ayshak ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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