Tag Archives: global nomads

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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Identity: how living overseas shifts self-perception

I read an article about identity on China Expat recently. It looks at how an expatriate experience, an international relocation, can affect one’s identity. It struck me both as an adult living a longterm expatriate lifestyle, but also really hit home more about the TCK experience.

When we hear the word “identity”, we know what it means but would find it difficult to answer the question who am I? To be sure, we all have an identity and all assume that we know who we are when, in reality, few of us regularly take time out to consider that all-important question.

Identity is a major issue for most TCKs. They struggle with living between worlds, and not fitting in completely in either one. Some TCKs live between three or four worlds. Many live in a sort of holding pattern during adolescence, juggling different identities for their different worlds. They may have a family persona, a home country persona, a host country persona, a school persona… Whatever the case, for many TCKs it is when they return “home” (especially when this is for tertiary studies following a childhood abroad) that identity issues really kick in. They are forced to live in ONE place, usually without the support of family and other TCKs who understand.

“Our identity is construed in and by the contexts in which we live and breathe,” explains Doug Ota, expat psychologist. “Our friends and neighbors know us as a particular personality; we have track records at work and school that make our every move, gesture, and even joke somewhat predictable.  We don’t ‘know our identity’ any more than we are ‘known as’ a certain person. International relocation confronts the individual with the absence of the latter, ripping from us the context that provided witness to who we are, much as a planet would be gasping for air if its atmosphere were removed.”

This really struck me. If identity is the measure of how we are seen by others, how does a person who moves frequently develop an integrated identity? The markers of the identity (the observers of their lives) change constantly. What happens when your “every move, gesture and even joke” is not at all predictable to those around you? Instead of identity growing over time, it restarts with every move.

It’s not that simple, of course, but I hope I’m painting a picture of the difficulty there is for a child who moves frequently to develop identity in an organic way. Family relationships become very important – they are the only observers who are always there. I frequently hear TCKs say that their siblings are the only ones who have been longterm friends, or the only ones who understand. I suspect that strong sibling relationships help a TCK enormously. I also suspect that dysfunction in family relationships (and there is dysfunction in every family) affect TCKs more deeply than the same problems would affect a monocultural child.

It’s that space in between how we see ourselves and how we’re seen that an expatriate lifestyle shines a bright light on. If we’re lucky, we can use international relocation as an opportunity to reflect upon who we are and to ground our identity in terms more meaningful than gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Even for those who have reflected on their identity, international relocation, especially from the West to a country like China, can shake one’s foundations.

I love this quote, but there’s a double-edged sword here. For the adult who leaves their home country searching for identity, the expatriate lifestyle can indeed be illuminating. For the child who leaves their home country without having forged a clear personal identity, international relocation shifts the ground beneath them – metaphorically, not just literally. If relocation shakes the foundation of a grounded adult, imagine what it does for the child who hasn’t yet developed his own foundation.

While it is a great idea to be able to ground one’s identity “in terms more meaningful than gender, race, ethnicity, nationality,” the reality is that these labels are the ones the majority of our world uses to sort people. When you are confused on several of these generic labels, it’s hard to feel like you belong anywhere. Imagine the confusion of someone with gender identity issues – a dramatic subculture, frustration and despair, and the sense that no one understands. Now consider a Third Culture Kid, who is confused about their ethnicity and nationality.

Taking on a label means that you belong with others who share that label. If I am Australian, then I belong with other Australians. If I’m not sure which country I can claim as my own, there is no label for me. This is why the TCK label can be so valuable – it gives confused kids a place to belong, and a safe starting place from which to explore their identity.

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Posted by on April 15, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs


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Factors Important to Successful Intercultural Adjustments – part 2

The list of “10 Factors Important to Successful Intercultural Adjustments” have been around the internet for a long time (if you know the original source, please let me know so I can give credit!) In part 1 we looked at the first five factors and how they apply in a TCK context. Now let’s take a look at the second 5:

Curiosity: Curiosity is the demonstrated desire to know about other people, places, ideas, etc. This skill or personality trait is important for intercultural travelers because they need to learn many things in order to adapt to their new environment.

I see this in a lot of TCKs. They put a high value on unique experiences. They have been to crazy places and done crazy things and this awakes in them an appreciation for learning in a hands-on way. It’s not true for all, but for many – and it certainly helps with the adjustments required for yet another move. One caveat: I don’t see many TCKs have this same curiosity/desire for learning when they repatriate. Many TCKs end up looking down on their passport country for all that it lacks, compared to the experiences of their previous host country/countries. Perhaps this is something to keep in mind when preparing TCKs for repatriation, and after they return – to encourage them to awake this sense of curiosity about their new home.

Positive and Realistic Expectations: It has been shown frequently that there are strong correlations between positive expectations for an intercultural experience and successful adjustment overseas.

I definitely see the correlation between “positive and realistic expectations” and a kid’s adjustment to a new place. MY question is: how do we help TCKs develop these positive and realistic expectations? Especially in regards to an upcoming move, or repatriation? I think it is important not to encourage a rose-coloured glasses view of their home country, to help them accept that the move may be difficult, that adjustment will take time. How do we do this in a way that produces positive expectations, though, and not negative ones? How do we help them see the positives to moving without setting them up for disappointment when the transition isn’t totally smooth?

Tolerance for Differences and Ambiguities: A sympathetic understanding for beliefs or practices differing from one’s own is important to successful intercultural adjustment.

This is a classic TCK attribute. Most TCKs are good at accepting and interacting well with people who have wildly different lives. That said, we have probably all come across TCKs who have chosen cultural isolation. These are generally older kids who resent being forced to move to a different place against their will. While some are softened by the interesting new experiences available to them, others reject these opportunities and stay trapped in their resentment.

While I think it is important to help validate their feelings, and process the emotions that come with an international move, I think youth leaders also have an opening to expose them to positive aspects of their host culture. We can help grow their exposure to and understanding of different beliefs and practices. Modelling this “tolerance for differences and ambiguities” may be the most helpful thing we can do.

Positive Regard for Others: The ability to express warmth, empathy, respect, and positive regard for other persons has been suggested as an important component of effective intercultural relations.

I think this is true for any person in any place. “The ability to express warmth, empathy, respect, and positive regard for other persons” is a human skill, not just something important for those on the move. It will improve your communication in all contexts, not just interculturally! Again, though, I think it is important for TCK workers to model these qualities, especially when we are interacting with the host culture. Especially in countries where there are strong service industries (where kids see us dealing with waitresses, drivers, maids, hotel staff, etc.) the way we treat people will have a strong impact on the kids we work with. They need to see us expressing warmth, empathy and respect to those who serve us. They need to hear us speaking on the host culture with a positive regard.

A Strong Sense of Self: A clear, secure feeling about oneself results in individuals who are neither weak nor overbearing in their relations with others. Persons with a strong sense of themselves stand up for what they believe but do not cling to those beliefs regardless of new information, perspectives, or understandings which they may encounter.

I believe this is the most difficult factor on the list for TCKs. While adult expats have the chance to develop a strong sense of self in their home culture before heading out onto the international stage, TCKs are already out there while they are developing their sense of self. A lot of TCKs struggle with the question “who am I really“. They can be chameleons – not false, but shifting to fit different situations. Their identity can be fluid – they will talk, act, and describe themselves different depending where they are and who they are with. It’s not that they don’t have a personal identity, it’s just a less clear and direct process than for their monocultural peers.

As youth workers, I believe we can help by encouraging TCKs to ask questions – helping them share differing opinions, express doubts, process contradictions. I don’t believe we should be telling them who they are, and how the world is. Rather we should be there to help them to process the world they live in and find their unique place in it.

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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Expat Life, Leading Youth, TCKs


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