This guest post is written by Joyce Teo, a TCK from Singapore, now working with TCKs in Beijing.
5 Things That Mess With A TCK’s Brain
A guide to helping you relate to TCK youth
by an ex TCK-youth
I’d consider myself a TCK thrice removed – born in Singapore, left for Hong Kong at age six, moved back to Singapore for two years, then uprooted again and replanted in Beijing for the next seven years, then back to Singapore for three long years in university, and now back in Beijing for the past year and counting. (You think that sounds confusing, wait till you meet my friend who has lived in 9 different countries over 12 years).
Over the years I have found myself transitioning from TCK youth to TCK youth leader, currently dealing with a group of wacky high schoolers out in my old suburban home of Shunyi, Beijing. As one who has moved into, out of, and back into the TC community, I’ve come to both observe and experience the 5 main things that really mess with a TCK’s brain – or Brain-Mashers, as I like to call them. Now before I continue, let me first clarify that this list is drawn from my knowledge of living in China, and may or may not apply to TCKs elsewhere. Yet regardless of where your ministry is, understanding the phases and challenges your TCK youth go through is extremely important before any sort of real communication and rapport can occur.
1. Answering the question, “So where are you from?”
While this seems like a no-brainer to most people, throw this question at any TCK and watch his/her face go blank as his/her brain scrambles to come up with the most reasonable-sounding answer. “Well uh… I was born in Hong Kong, but I have a Canadian passport and lived there when I was three, and then I moved to China in second grade and then moved to Singapore for Middle School and then back to China for High School so uh… I guess I’m Canadian?” Now the person who asked the question draws a blank, and the TCK moves on to Brain-Masher 2.
2. Figuring out just exactly where you are from.
This probably tops the list of things that TCKs struggle with. Though many TCKs pride themselves on being skilled at adapting to any new environment or situation thrown their way, juggling multiple cultures at once – especially as a growing adolescent – inevitably leads to a case of identity crisis. This uncertainty shadows a TCK like a serial stalker, intensified with each new city or yet another year away. Where do I belong? As I start identifying with my host culture, what happens to my “home” culture?
This is particularly true when a TCK returns to his/her parent country, and realizes he/she has little to nothing in common with the culture there. Just like the culture shock experienced when they first moved into a new country, reverse culture shock kicks in upon returning home after several years away. Realizing that you’re a foreigner in your own so-called “home” country proves to be a daunting reality for many TCKs.
There are a million things one could build their identity on, but these things eventually change – best friends move, parents relocate, teachers’ contracts expire, mentors leave… What happens when all the things you’ve framed your identity and purpose around suddenly disappear? A ginormous Brain-Masher that may result in you backpacking to Tibet to “find yourself” (true story). That is why I strongly believe that a primary life lesson TCK youth should learn is to base their identity on the One that never changes.
3. Having to explain that China is, in fact, not in Japan.
For people who have grown up in one place their entire lives, the perceptions (or rather, misperceptions) of other countries can range from Pretty-Close to You-Really-Need-To-Get-Out-More. TCKs often have to deal with stereotypes and misguided conceptions of their host countries when explaining “So where are you from?” (see Brain-Masher 1) to non-TCKs. “No, I do not ride a panda to school.” “Yes, we do have toilet paper in China.” “No, it’s not mandatory to learn kung fu.” “Yes, my English is indeed, ‘very good’.”
Growing up in multicultural communities endow TCKs with a broad worldview, and frustrations often arise when it comes to explaining their differences to others who may not share the same open-mindedness. This again leads to communication barriers and a sense of isolation, especially when TCKs leave and trade their TCK bubble for a community in which the majority shares a single hegemonic culture.
4. Having to explain that yes, we have a driver and three ayis, but that’s only because we live in China.
Many are quick to label international-schooled TCKs as spoiled, rich brats with personal butlers who never worked a day job because their parents spoon-fed them their whole lives. But if you ever plan to work with these TCKs, you’re going to have to understand that even among TCKs within one country, there will be TCK subcultures and sub-subcultures (e.g. international-schooled TCKs vs home-schooled TCKs vs MK TCKs etc). Granted there will be some TCKs born and bred to become expat pricks, but that does not mean that being in a big obnoxious international school will invariably churn out a big obnoxious TCK.
For many international school TCKs, their “luxuries” stem from company expatriate packages which aim to compensate for respective inconveniences the families have to face as part of living overseas (e.g. living in a third-world country, being away from family, security etc.). For them, the lifestyles they’ve grown accustomed to in their host countries vary significantly from that of their parent country. Sure, every other family may have an ayi (domestic helper) or a masseuse who comes to your house twice a week, but that’s only because you’re living in China where labor costs are next to nothing. For my family at least, we would never be able to afford this same expat lifestyle back in Singapore (see Brain-Masher 5).
Understanding your TCK youths’ backgrounds (why they moved, parents’ jobs, previous places they’ve lived etc.) lends a better understanding of the various issues they face and, hopefully, eliminates some of the pre-conceived negative biases of TCKs.
5. Adjusting to life outside of the TCK world.
No one stays a TCK forever. When a TCK hits that imminent age of 18, all bets are off. That great expat family package? No longer covers your medical insurance (though your younger siblings still count). Your flamboyant en suite bedroom with a Jacuzzi and heated floors? Shrunk to a dorm room you now share with your eccentric college roommate. Goodbye ayi and private driver, hello public transport.
I dub this the Shunyi Bubble Effect – a phenomenon many of my own friends are all too familiar with (Shunyi is the name for an area north of Beijing dominated by the expat package set). Lifestyles aside, TCKs who leave are faced with yet another enigma – social support. Sure, high school kids leave home for college all the time, but most of them do so with an entourage of the same high school friends who may very well end up in the same college. Transitioning to the next chapter of your life isn’t so bad when you have familiar faces for support right? Not so much for a TCK. A third of your social group ends up in the US. Your best friend is now in London. Your other best friend is now in Australia. Another friend has decided to take a gap year and help breed baby turtles in Indonesia.
Just like Brain-Masher 2, the drastic changes that accompany a TCK’s transition out of the TCK bubble can have significant impact on TCK youth. And scrambling to get back in or recreate the bubble may not be as straightforward either. Like trying to join a Chinese society only to be reminded that, despite living 9 years in China, you are in fact not Chinese (as did one Sri Lankan friend). Or to “show up for International Students Orientation but get barred from entering because you have a US passport”, as did another friend.
Working with mashed brains
Culture shock, reverse culture shock, identity crises, confronting misconceptions, and dealing with ever-changing environments are just a few of many things that mess with a TCK’s brain. The thing is, most TCK youth probably won’t admit that these are the things that bug them till they’ve been away for long enough and come back as ex-TCKs. Or they aren’t aware that these are the things that WILL bug them once they leave the TCK bubble, be it as a high school senior or a college freshman or a returning TCK.
This is where TCK youth workers come in, to better equip these TCK youth for a life away from the comfort of a world so unique to the TCK community. Hopefully this article helps you better understand the areas in which your youth are struggling. Better yet, talk to them and ask them what their Brain-Mashers are!