Tag Archives: culture shock

5 Things That Mess With A TCK’s Brain: A guide to helping you relate to TCK youth

This guest post is written by Joyce Teo, a TCK from Singapore, now working with TCKs in Beijing.

A BrainMashed Joyce

A BrainMashed Joyce

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!


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An unexpected culture shock (returning home overseas)


Elizabeth is a US citizen who grew up in China. She spent a gap year between the US, Nepal and China, and just completed her first year of college in the US.

As a TCK, I had always heard of culture shock, but had never truly experienced it. I attribute this lack of experience to the fact that I have been switching cultures since I was less than a year old, so I’ve never had time to learn what culture shock felt like. I knew culture shock was common and difficult, but I had never truly experienced the impact of it. Because China was “home”, I figured that the most culture shock I would ever experience would come in the States or other new countries.

Then I returned to China after almost a year in the States. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I felt different this time back. Suddenly the large crowds were overwhelming, the polluted air was hard to breathe in, the food wasn’t settling well, and the language barriers were exasperating. After a day or so, I realized these troubles came from the fact that I was re-adjusting to China life. Suddenly I was seeing Beijing almost as any average foreigner would have. I realized I was experiencing real culture shock. But in my own country? My culture shock was intensified because I hadn’t expected to experience any readjustment; I expected to blend back into Beijing life like I always had in the past.

So what was making the difference this time around? Why was I having a hard time blending back into the familiar mix of a Chinese and Expat culture? I’ve come up with several theories to explain this
new experience.

Theory 1: Length of time away

It had been a longer amount of time since I had left China last. It had also been a longer time since I had been in any country besides the United States. I had been gone from China for up to 8 months before, but during that time I had visited another Asian country. This time it had been over 10 months since I had been anywhere outside of the States. I have to wonder if the length of time away contributed to my shock in re-entry.

Theory 2: Deeper affinity with my passport country

Since starting college in the States I’ve become more accustomed to the life and culture there. Maybe I’ve even become what TCKs shudder at – “more American.” I know I’ve seen this phenomenon happen in other TCKs. After spending more time in our passport country, some of us begin to identify more with that country. This definitely doesn’t happen for everyone; actually, from what I’ve seen, it probably applies to no more than half of the TCK population. Yet I would say it’s more common for TCKs when they return to their passport country for university. In my opinion, it’s a natural part of growing up and figuring out how your experience as a TCK will or won’t affect your identity. Because of my opinion, I’m fine with becoming “more American” in some areas of my life. I’m never going neglect or forget my TCK-ness, but I don’t want that to be my only identity. But back to my theories on my unexpected culture shock. The fact that I’m “more American” now may be contributing to the culture shock of re-entering China.

Reverse culture shock happens when one returns to one’s home country. Is the culture shock that a TCK experiences when returning to his/her “foreign” country reverse-reverse culture shock? (One of my friends cleverly called it “culture shock squared.”) Or is it merely reverse culture shock, because TCK’s often consider foreign countries their true home? I haven’t decided which one fits best. Yet I know that when I return to China next time, I won’t be as shocked by my own culture shock.

Have you experienced “culture shock squared”? How did you respond?

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Posted by on June 30, 2011 in Expat Life, Guest Posts, TCKs


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Reverse culture shock

Apply Gidley is a self-proclaimed “life-long global nomad [who has] never repatriated”. I recently read a piece she wrote for the UK telegraph on the culture shock experienced by those returning “home”, something we often call “reverse” culture shock. Since I recently posted about culture shock, it seemed appropriate to address the other side of the coin. Also a good follow on from recent posts on helping kids say goodbye.

Expatriates and repatriates experience equal doses of culture shock; the distinction is that the latter often don’t expect it. Forums are provided for the expatriate but not always for the repatriate.

Even expats who know about the reverse culture shock phenomenon can be surprised by the strength of it when they return “home”. One woman I know returned home after 6 years abroad with her husband and children. She had heard about reverse culture shock, but honestly didn’t expect it to affect her. She thought their annual visits to their home city were enough to stave off culture shock upon their permanent return. However, a lot had changed in 6 years – everyday things that weren’t apparent on short term holidays.

Repatriation brings about a lifestyle change that can have many repercussions from unsettled children, to jobless spouses and hugely increased expenses to just not feeling at home, at home.

The sense being “different” is common to both the expatriate and the repatriate. When you first move to a new country, the culture is obviously different to your own – you expect things to be different. Upon the return “home”, however, there are two sets of changes.

Firstly, the home culture has changed. The repatriate has missed shared country-wide events, like a natural disaster or change of leadership. Their emotional resonance with such pivotal events in the history of their country will be very different to that of other nationals. The repatriate is also behind on pop culture – something that can greatly affect TCKs going “home”. They aren’t familiar with the same TV shows, movies and musicians that their home country peers are. These missed events and others make the repatriate feel disconnected.

Sometimes it seems as if “home” has changed, or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe it is just that we have changed, grown to incorporate, often without realising, elements of our life abroad.

The overseas experience has also changed the repatriate. They have seen and experienced things their home culture peers have no understanding of. They may speak another language, be accustomed to different food, or enjoy different social activities. Even a year, or even less, spent abroad can widen a person’s horizons so far that they no longer fit in the same “hole” as before. The Mr Roundhead story is a cute illustration of this concept, especially pertaining to TCKs.

New words, often foreign, have joined the family vocabulary that members of the extended family back home have no notion of; and do not understand the reflective mood and quiet smiles those words might bring. They feel shut out, and indeed they are, though not intentionally. Just as we are not excluded intentionally from conversations revolving around the last family get-together, the one we missed because we were climbing Kilimanjaro or maybe just surviving in an alien environment dealing with new schools, new hospitals and so on.

It’s important to remember that this feeling of being left out can go two ways. I lived in the US for two years as a teenager. Upon my return to Australia I talked about what it was like to live in the US. This was natural, since all my experiences from the previous two years happened overseas. Sharing stories is a great way to build familiarity and grow a friendship, but my none of the people I was talking to could relate to my stories. Instead of building closeness, they alienated people.

The repatriate often feels left out, and wants someone to take the trouble to get to know them and their different perspective. It’s important for the repatriate to understand, however, that part of the burden falls to them. They must also try to understand how their home-culture friends see the world.

It takes time to adapt back, just as it took time to adjust to living in a new country. We might be back in the home country but we are looking at it through different eyes and have to allow the same adjustment period as when we expatriated.

It takes time. Just as culture shock is a process that takes time, so is reverse culture shock. The adjustment period will be different for everyone – factors like daily routine, length of time away, and age will all play a part. Each individual will work through it differently. It takes time, and grace, but it doesn’t last forever.

For those working with TCKs, helping them prepare before their return – warning them of some of the struggles they may face, and equipping them to cope – can go a long way in reducing the impact of their reverse culture shock experience. This is especially true of TCKs who go overseas (especially to their own passport country) to attend college; going away as an individual, without the presence of a family sharing the same experience, can make the readjustment harder.

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Posted by on January 28, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs


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Stages of Culture Shock

I read an article recently about the background of the term “culture shock”. The term was in used as early as the 1920s, but Kalervo Oberg was the one to identify the stages of culture shock often experience. Oberg was born on a commune founded among Finns in Canada at the start of the 20th century. The community disintegrated after a few years, as members experienced disillusionment with their pursuit of eden.

You can read more of Oberg’s background and the commune he was born on in the full article. I just want to highlight this description of how culture shock sometimes manifests itself:

When moving abroad, the expat begins with a naïve fascination for his or her new home. But soon they begin to despise the new country, exclusively befriend fellow foreigners (often to moan about the natives) and irrationally romanticise everything about home. Then, after a while, there’s a breakthrough. You realise that what you’re experiencing is just another way of living. After that, it all makes sense.

I find it a slightly confronting, but accurate picture. It doesn’t reflect my personal experience with culture shock exactly, but I went through a similar progression. I also have several friends who went through similar stages.

I like the phrase “after a while”. It’s not a specific timeframe. It’s different for everyone. The important thing is that at some point the realisation dawns – this place is different. It’s supposed to be different. Accepting that different-ness, without trying to assign labels of “wrong” or “right”, “better” or “worse”, is an important step toward being happy in a new culture.

So, how does this relate to youth work, and TCKs?

Firstly, we as youth workers are also living in a different culture. Processing our own experiences of culture shock is essential if we are to be effective in our ministry. Secondly, we see a lot of kids arriving overseas for the first time (or yet another new place) who are struggling to cope with culture shock. Understanding some of the stages they are going through (or will go through) can help us to walk through it with them.

I’ve looked at the stages mentioned in the short quote above, and come up with some ideas for how to help our kids (and new youth workers who come in) to move through toward a breakthrough.

Despising the new country
I think most long-term expats have heard newcomers talk about how they “hate” the new country, the local people, or aspects of life there (traffic, food, or whatever). It can rile a longterm person who has made the new culture their home, but sometimes we need to simply allow grace for someone who is feeling out of their depth and struggling to keep up with so many changes. This is especially true for spouses or children who did not have much of a say in the move. The sense of powerlessness and resentment can be quite strong, and can lead to a burden of guilt, especially among Christians who believe the move was a step of faith.

Spending time exclusively with other expatriates
Many kids are in international schools, or are homeschooled, and therefore naturally spend a lot of time with other foreign kids. I think the problem is when a person actively avoids interaction with the local population where possible. Some people try to avoid interactions which require them to speak in the new language. I think it helps in this stage to talk about positive experiences you have had, and encourage positive interactions.

Complaining about the host culture/natives
This comes naturally to someone in the throes of culture shock. Unfortunately, it can be easy for even a seasoned and content expat to fall into a bout of host-country-bashing. As youth leaders I think it is important for us to do our best to limit this sort of negativity. It’s fine to acknowledge certain limitations or inconveniences of living in the host culture, and we should aim to create a safe space for kids to express their frustrations. I think we should look for places to offer positive opinion, and strive to avoid the downward spiral effect that can occur in a group setting. A line sometimes needs to be drawn, especially when complaints start to turn into stereotyping and racism.

Irrationally romanticising their home culture
The key word here is “irrationally”. We all have a fondness for home (or homes, as the case may be!) Certain sights, smells and sounds will always carry a deep resonance.  A symptom of cultural shock is seeing our home culture with rose tinted glasses, at the expense of our opinion of the new host culture. Reality will never measure up to fantasy, and when we compare the best things of “home” with the worst parts of our new culture, things look bleak. We can encourage kids to remember that life is a mix of ups and downs; that there are benefits to the new culture that were not available to us at home, and drawbacks from our home culture we do not experience in the new culture. Sometimes it is not helpful to say it directly, which can be confrontational, or sound patronising. Rather, we can contrast their observations with our own experiences: “I’m really thankful for the help of my housekeeper, I could never afford to have house help in Australia” or “I really miss jiaozi when I’m visiting home”

Breakthrough! Different, not wrong
It is always wonderful to see a friend reach the place of breakthrough! Every situation is different, and wishing they would “just wake up and get it!” doesn’t help. Recognising that they are struggling with something difficult, and patiently (prayerfully) walking through it with them, is sometimes all we can do. Give your new-to-town friends and youth some extra grace in that first year. Gently encourage them that it will get better, but try not to put a burden on them to “snap out of it”. These things take time, but when they make it to that place of breakthrough, you’ll be able to share the sweet joy of it with them!

That’s some of my thoughts – I’m really interested to hear what experiences others of you have had!
What helped you process your own culture shock?
What did friends say/do that was very helpful (or unhelpful)?
What suggestions would you give to those who are new in town?


Posted by on January 19, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs


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