Tag Archives: identity

A window into a TCK experience

I read a great post on 8Asians over the summer. The author is a TCK, and he talks about his TCK-ness being what defines his identity, rather than passport or country he lives in or accent he speaks with. It is a great window into a TCK experience – one of many different TCK experiences. Read the full article here.

Here are a few quotes from the article…

I don’t feel this sense of being torn between my Asian heritage and my American culture–I belong to both, yet feel connected to neither.

I love this. The author is comparing a difference he perceives between immigrant culture and a TCK perspective. The second-generation immigrant often struggles to find an identity that combines the culture of their parents and the culture they are living in. It seem that for some TCKs there is less of a struggle – that it is okay to be both at once. Perhaps this is because when TCKs grow up in international communities, this both-and identity is normal. Others may try to label them, but within the TCK community it is fine to claim several different cultural/geographical identities.

Here is one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the struggle to answer the seemingly simple “where are you from”:

As a Third Culture Kid, asking us “Where are you from?” usually ends up in either spouting off a mini life story and explanation, followed by an assertion that we’re not weird–or by a confused look and awkward search for words. Does it mean what my ethnicity is? Where was I born? What school did I go to? Where did I grow up? Where do I get my accent?

This is a lovely, whimsical description of a TCK world.

We didn’t know that a visa was a credit card when we came to the U.S. for college, we drunk dial friends internationally, we memorized the different time zone differences so we knew when to contact our friends, we don’t feel the need to be American or any other citizenship, and we talk about traveling to different countries like they aren’t far-off, exotic lands, but just other places that are as easily accessible as a simple bus ride to the other side of town.

When the world is home, nowhere is exotic – but there is always another corner of home to explore.

Related article: Nathaniel compares working with TCKs in Cambodia to working with Chinese-Australians in Sydney.


Posted by on September 8, 2011 in TCKs


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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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TCK self-portrait project: capturing the essence of “home”

Denizen is a magazine for TCKs. It has some great resources and I recommend it to all TCKs. A new project this year is seeking submissions from TCKs everywhere – the challenge is to submit a self-portrait that explains where home is for you. There are some really interesting and creative pictures up already! They are aiming to get 365 submissions – one for every day of the year. Read more here.

You may want to point the TCKs you know to the project, and encourage them to submit a portrait. I think it’s a great way to reflect and express that reflection creatively.


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Posted by on February 9, 2011 in TCKs


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When chameleons grow: TCKs and the Arts

Haikaa Yamamoto is a Japanese woman born in Brazil who also spent significant time in the US. She was interviewed by the examiner in relation to her upcoming music project “Work of Art” which features a song recorded in 19 languages. I found some of her comments about her TCK experience to be poignant and worth sharing/discussing.

During my teens and early adulthood, I really had no idea who I was or where I belonged. I developed a sort of Chameleon like personality that would adapt depending on the setting.

Those of us who work with TCKs have seen this “Chameleon like personality” on numerous occasions. It is a natural mechanism which many TCKs turn to in their search for identity and just trying to make life go more smoothly. Most of the TCKs I’ve met could fit in easily with adult company, many were expressive listeners who put others at ease, and were great at welcoming others with warmth.

This is often interpreted by adults as a sign of maturity and a well-rounded person secure in their own self-image. I disagree. I think that a TCKs ability to relate on a surface level has very little to do with their emotional maturity and the development of their personal sense of identity. TCKs learn to mimic behaviours in order to fit in. It’s a survival skill for those who bounce from place to place, or those who are required in interact in a variety of environments.

It was a tiring form of existance and after some time, I decided I wanted to know who I was regardless of where I was. I wanted to develop characteristics that I could take with me and that would serve me regardless of the environment that surrounded me. I realized that values such as generosity, fairness, honesty and emotions like love, happiness and courage were what really mattered to me.

I love watching TCKs undergoing journeys of self-discovery – what do I believe? who do I want to be? what matters to me? For many, the journey is precipitated by (yet another) move – especially those starting college, or those who move in late high school.

I believe that one role of TCK youth worker is to help spark this journey of self-discovery. I believe that one of the most beneficial things we can do for TCKs is encourage them to explore their unique identity – separate from where they live, what their parents do,  where they are “from”. This can be a difficult journey, with many deep questions arising. I think it helps for teens to explore this when they are in a “safe” place – with family and well-developed friendship and youth leaders (mentors) in place to walk through it with them.

For some, of course, the safe place happens after they leave home and strike out on their own. For others, home is comfortable enough that such a journey seems like a lot of unnecessary effort. In either case, maintaining mentoring relationships from a distance can help. I have spent a LOT of hours talking with TCKs via skype, IM, email and facebook as they process their identity in a new an unfamiliar place, far from the comforts of home and family. I feel so deeply for them as they struggle, and rejoice jubilantly as they begin to come into their own.

I think that being an artist had a lot to do with my search for who I am. During my  “Chameleon” era, I think I grew very numb because the only way I could change so much my personality was by hiding my feelings or by not feeling at all. And when you sing, you can´t not feel. You can learn all the vocal techniques in the world but you can´t be taught to feel. It was a very intense process of acknowledging, accepting and discovering who I really was. I think that being an artist has given me the perfect stage for growth and self-acceptance. It has taken me completely out of my comfort zone and I almost gave up several times but then it would chase me in my dreams and later become songs and lyrics etc.

I found this very interesting. A lot of TCKs I know are devoted and talented artists – painters, photographers, videographers, musicians, dancers and a host of other fields. I wonder if expression of the self through art aids them in the process of self-discovery and personal growth.

My own chosen artforms (music and painting/drawing) certainly helped me through a difficult period of adjustment upon re-entry to Australia at the start of grade 11 following two years abroad. I turn to artistic expression in periods of introspection and emotional growth – and it helps me.

I wonder if the arts should be deliberately encouraged (as a form of expression, not something to excel at) among TCKs both abroad and when returning?


Posted by on February 7, 2011 in Leading Youth, TCKs


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