The Life of a TCK

What with everything that was going around me at that time, I never fully adjusted back to Singapore. Which was not surprising. It was not the most accepting of societies, and I was not the most stable of people. Besides which, even in perfectly normal, healthy families (do those even exist?) adjusting back to one culture after spending a significant amount of time in another is…difficult, to say the least.

What is a TCK? TCK is an acronym for Third Culture Kid. That is to say, children who do not grow up specifically in one culture or another, but somewhere in-between. Hence the “third culture” aspect.

There is a book which is considered more or less the definitive text on TCKsThird Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by Ruth E. Van Reken. Somehow (destiny, chance, luck?) I found myself with a copy of the book. I read it avidly. It explained things – so many things! What I was feeling, what I felt, why people did what they did and for what reasons. It shed light on so many things that I never thought even existed before.

I’m going to just say at this point that if you have ever lived in a foreign country for at least six months before the age of sixteen, go and get a copy of it. NOW. It’s not perfect (it was written a while ago and I believe some of the research is dated) but then, what is? It will help, trust me.

I myself could not believe that two years and nine months in America could have produced such profound, life-changing results. What I didn’t know until reading the book was that it takes as little as six months. Everyone comes out of the experience differently. There are army brats, diplomats’ children, and kids like me.

I talked to Meimei about this (much like I talked to her about everything!) but for some reason it did not resonate as deeply with her. She certainly fit the criteria. But there was also the fact that she came back to a school that was far more international than mine. They had kids from Sweden, from Egypt, Japan, Brazil – you name it.

I tried to make my Mum understand that I was still connected to America, even as I was “stuck in Singapore”. That failed, as most endeavors with my mother did. She used to repeat the length of time we were in the US – “two years, only two years!” – as a kind of mantra that would keep George Washington and the hordes of white men away. But it did clear things up a lot for me. You don’t need to live in a country to have a relationship with it.

How I hoped and dreamed that I could go back! I never admitted it to myself, but it was as clear as day. I used to dream about the California sunshine, the places and people. The hotdogs near the beach, the crash and bang of that open-air video arcade in Santa Monica beach. The girls in bikinis which I could never have appreciated back then but that I longed for now. I even once dreamt that I graduated from high school there. (in Japanese, no less)

Looking back from where I am now, my hatred of Singapore was totally understandable. In one place, scorn, censure, and disapproval from society. In the other place, people offered help and encouragement and understanding, both on and offline. Do the math.

There was also Japan, to make it more confusing. I often refer to Japan as my “adopted country.” In terms of actual time, I have only spent three weeks there. But in other ways it has been a lifetime. Especially online, where it’s hard to tell where people are from (or even what gender they are) I have been mistaken for a Japanese person more than once. Sure, there are tons of anime and game fans around the world, but not that many who go to the extent of learning the language (which was FAR harder then than now) and being so immersed in the culture that they actually start dreaming in it.

I was confused. Really confused. I couldn’t speak Chinese that well so I didn’t really feel at home here, but most anime fans in Singapore were Chinese-educated. I liked the US but I didn’t really like media from the US. I liked Japan but I couldn’t stand its insularity and xenophobia (far worse than Singapore in many MANY regards) Over there I was too yellow, and back “home” I was too white. Who was I? I was firm in my belief that all human beings were of equal value and importance in the eyes of Man and the Universe…but what culture did that leave me in?

There I was, stuck between three worlds. My 20+ self would have denied up and down that he was in any part, shape or form a Singaporean…and he would have been right! But I was still living there, and the outside environment does have an effect on you. People speak a different language, both literally and figuratively. No one “gets you” – and although that is definitely just a part of teenage and young adulthood, it does become a lot more complicated when you add abuse, trauma, family dysfunction and transculturalism to the mix.
It was not an issue that could be “resolved” as such. Part of the problem, of course, was that these issues of place, nation, identity and belonging were displaced by the PhD and mental illnesses (as was much of the rest of my life) They were a Scylla and Charbydis that every life event had to be navigated through, most unsuccessfully.

I think that I was given the chance to grieve the coming back from the USA fully and cleanly that I would not have been in such confusion. It would still have been an issue, of course. The injustices I saw and that were visited upon me were not to be so easily dismissed. But then, that goes for everything else, TCK or not. Just that life is generally more complex for the latter.

I found the TCK forums online and joined then, but when I came to the forums I was kind of disappointed. There was definitely some helpful material there, but none with really dealt with mental illness and abuse, which were far more prominent in my life at that time. I felt rejected once again, even by those who in turn felt rejected! There were barely five lines or so in the book that dealt with cases like mine. Usually (but not always) TCKs tend to have money to cushion the blows. They also generally have functioning parents. Being sidelined by the sidelined is not a pleasant experience.

Still, it was good to know I was not alone. Looking at it on a global level, TCKs are actually just ahead of the curve. Globalization is here to stay, and in a way this just makes us global citizens before everyone else is one too. It doesn’t make my experience any less painful, though.
It was the little things that stung and rankled, not so much the big ones. I didn’t really like Chinese food and still don’t. You couldn’t find any decent burgers in Singapore without paying through your nose, because they were generally expat fare. A lot of cultural references just sped past me and people would laugh while I just stood there standing blankly.

No one got my jokes. They were, as I often lamented, either too far West or too far East. I love puns (still do! one of the nice things about Japanese is that it puns easily, much more so than English) but my efforts to make them in either language fell on deaf ears. I tried to be witty but all I got were empty stares. God I used to be so upset about this!

Thinking back on it I think what would have helped was to make friends and contacts with the American and Japanese expatriate community in Singapore, but how would I do that? Besides which I was still not in the best of places mentally and emotionally.

I had no home at home, and I had no home outside the home either. I felt like I didn’t really fit in. This is probably why I studied what I did in the previous chapter – I felt a sense of kinship with them, the oppressed and disenfranchised.

I gave the book to my Dad to read, but the response was not encouraging. All he said was something along the lines of “I didn’t know there were so many mistakes we made.” As usual, he saw nothing but his own guilt, and nothing that he could possibly do to atone or assist. Oh well, I tried.

Another book that is definitely related to my transculturalism is Liza Dalby’s Geisha. Man, I must have read that book at least 6 times. It was very, very healing and helpful to me. I think she was kind of a “proto-TCK” (Geisha was written before the TCK book) and her experiences were quite unique.

Her story is very different than mine, but nonetheless it bridged the gap between those 2 countries that I loved so much, America and Japan. I learned many things but perhaps the most important one was that of communication. I was particularly struck by the opening to a particular chapter – why does the West value an honest response more than a coded one?

It blew the lid off everything. I’ve always been more expressive and touch-based (due to my time in the West no doubt) and suddenly I realized that maybe people weren’t being stand-offish and stuck up. Maybe they were trying to show me respect and courtesy. Over the years as I matured and learnt more I would look back on different things and try to see what was where and who was why from differing perspectives. It helped a lot. As Shakespeare said “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

There are just so many differences between the East and the West. They think of everything differently – money, time, people, relationships. Once again it’s the little things. I remember walking around the arcades one day and noticing that while in the US all the highscore names were BOB and TOM and RAR and AAA (the most common name in the world!) the ones here in Asia were all dudes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms like Lu Bu and Guan Yu. The past is relevant to Asia far longer than it is to the West, where the Next Big Thing is given much more attention.

So yeah, I was a TCK. Still am – it doesn’t go away with age! It did indeed help to know that. Being one is both a blessing and a curse (the book makes that quite clear) and if you ask me…in the final equation it IS indeed more of a blessing. Although the curse parts have to be dealt with too.

If you were to ask me today what kind of cultural composition I have I would say something like 45% American, 40% Japanese, 5% Chinese and the rest Other. (though that is probably changing even as I speak) I do still find it easier to talk to Westerners, though that may be more due to my forthright and open nature than anything else. But due to my experiences on both sides of the Pacific I find it easy to “switch modes” which is definitely a great asset in any almost any social situation.

Cultures change even as the world is changing. Half the world is bilingual and people are learning languages really fast. One day everyone will be a TCK and we won’t even need the term anymore. Maybe TCKs are the terrestrial equivalent of the Newtypes that they keep on yammering about in Gundam – people who can understand each other on a level deeper than just personal interaction. (except that maybe we don’t have psychic powers or extrasensory perception…yet) All of us TCKs just caught the wave early – so we should go out there and be a good example.

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