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Part 2: Un-masking me

Illustration for Denizen by David Habben.

Illustration for Denizen by David Habben

This is the second part in a two-part series about the repatriation process at an American University. While Part 1 dealt with culture shock issues, Part 2  discusses the process of adaptation and adjustment.

Read Part 1: TCK goes to college

For show and tell in the fourth grade, I brought a wooden mask and shells my family got in Bali. I was living in Virginia at the time, but like other people who have lived in Singapore, the island of Bali was an exotic, but a short and affordable trip.

With a smile, I held the mask to my face and grasped two cone-shaped shells in my hands. I explained that poisonous animals used to live in them. Three steps after you’re stung, my dad told me, you’re dead. After the presentation, my friend said my classmates thought I was showing off that my rich daddy could take me around the world.

I felt embarrassed and disappointed.

I didn’t choose to move to these places, I wanted to tell them, my dad’s work made the decision for us. At 9-years-old, being called stuck up and unappreciative was the worst thing anyone could do.

“From now on,” I told myself, “I’m gonna hide it.”

THE BUSINESS OF FITTING IN

Adolescents don’t want to attract attention — they want to be just like everyone else, said Ruth Van Reken, one of the forerunners in Third Culture Kid sociology in a 2008 interview.

I wasn’t ashamed of my culture, but I wanted to blend in with everyone else. I avoided dropped jaws and a burning spotlight by choosing not to share my “deep dark secret” of having lived in five countries. I know I’m not the only one. Hiding is one of the many defensive tactics that people returning to their passport countries use in response to the new cultural environment.

When Van Reken’s daughters returned to the United States after living in Liberia, she witnessed firsthand the adolescent attempts to fit in with their new peers. When she returned home one day, she found that her daughters had removed all the African artifacts they had in the living room and replaced them with new décor from Target.

“We’re from Chicago, mom,” they told her.

Van Reken, too, went through the motions of being a TCK chameleon. She spent most of her youth growing up in Nigeria and moved to the United States when she was 13.

“When I started high school, I decided I wouldn’t tell anybody I was from Africa,” she said. “I thought, I would be normal now.”

To add to the mix is the concept of “invisible minorities,” as discussed in the book “Ferment in the Cultural Field” by William J. Starsota and Guo Ming Chen. Although many military brats, expatriates, corporate kids and other TCKs look just like their peers in their passport country, they are in fact nothing like them. My friend Blaine Hooper, a military brat, spent part of his sophomore and junior year of high school living in Ghana. When he returned to Florida, he felt that he was different from his old friends. When asked where he is from, he resorts to his recent address because “it’s easier that way.”

“I don’t like saying ‘Hey I lived in Africa, I’m so awesome,’” he says.

When Hooper was in college, it was easier for his experience in Ghana to come up in conversation. But having graduated from UF, Hooper is now serving in the Army. His past is starting to get buried.

He keeps it alive by having keepsakes with him. His favorite piece of Ghana that he brought back describes his life: a miniature replica of “The Thinker” carved in the Ghanaian art style.

“It meant a lot to me because you see it’s symbolic of just Ghana is such a mix of worlds down there, old and new ways,” he says. “Ghana was such an incredible part of my development as a person, as a human being, so I’m going to talk about it eventually when you get to know me.”

CREATING A UNIQUE IDENTITY

According to “Ferment in the Cultural Field,” TCKs don’t have a clearly defined identity, and instead their cultural identity is “constructed and reconstructed in multiple contexts.” (44)

Those with the ability to understand and communicate their many different lives have been dubbed “screamers” by Van Reken. They are proud of their cross-cultural experiences and are very open with their new friends about their background. My college friend who grew up in Okinawa, Japan, is one such TCK.

“I definitely wanted to fit in, so I tried to assimilate and blended the two together,” Josh Cajinarobleto said of his solution to the identity issue.

He proudly announces he’s from Japan when people ask the “where are you from” question and has no fears of being set aside as different. Whenever he and his friends go out to eat sushi, he uses chopsticks and teaches the rest how to use them. As a joke, his friends at his University of Florida dorm dubbed him “The Foreign Kid.”

“The kids who can keep a thread of connection going between the pieces of their lives can grow much stronger,” Van Reken says.

For others, it just comes with age. After one of Van Reken’s daughters lived in Kenya, she was proud to wear her African garb back in the USA. Not from Target.

“She’s not afraid of that now because she has a deeper sense of who she is,” Van Reken says.

Like me. Instead of trying to fit a preexisting mold, I’ve discovered that there is no mold made out for people like me. I’ve grown the maturity and confidence to create my own portrait. I picked the city of Miami as my home for a reason. Even though I never had to leave the country, I love that I’ve learned to carry on a miniature conversation in Spanish with the cashier at the convenience store next to my job. Just like everywhere else I’ve moved, I’ve learned to acclimate to the strange spattering of Spanish, Jewish, Haitian and American culture that’s been created here.

As for my own identity, I express it through my home decorations and what I wear. I like that the three piercings in my ears can be filled with earrings from three different countries: the elephant studs were a gift from a friend who visited Vietnam, the funky swirled ones I bought at a market in China and the beaded chandelier ones my friend brought back from India during our winter break in high school. I proudly tell people that the Air China pillow on my couch was attained by breaking international laws and stealing it from an airplane. My answer to the dreaded “where are you from?” question is “I grew up overseas.” If they want to venture further, I explain that I went to American and international schools for 14 years. Most people are interested. The few that become obnoxious don’t usually hold my interest anyway.

The defining feature of a chameleon is its ability to blend into its surroundings and travel undetected. It creeps past everyone without being noticed, keeping a watchful eye on the landscape and figuring out exactly what needs to be done, to remain unseen.  The thing about chameleons is that when someone finally spots it, everyone’s fingers go pointed in its direction, shocked by the hidden treasure that was in front of them all along.

As Van Reken said to me, “My [third culture kid] life has become my tool. What I used to think was in my way is now my richest gift.”

I’ve thrown away the pressures, probably ones that I’ve put on myself, to fit into a racial and cultural mold. Look at me guys, I’m a biracial woman that grew up in Asia, I learned to speak English when I was 2, I’ve dabbled in French, Chinese and Spanish, I’ve moved nine times and I plan on doing it again soon!

8 Comments

  1. suzanne says

    wow, great article, christiana. really inspiring, and a powerful reminder of how special our tck experiences are. love it.

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  2. terence woo says

    I just read both parts 1 and 2 together so maybe my comment will be more relevant to the 1st. Perhaps TCK’s should find those who are not fully TCK’s and have already immersed themselves back into their home culture for easier and quicker integration? Some may have spent maybe 4-5 years overseas and moved away when they were 15 while others like yourself moved when you were like 5? For example, Julz moved away from Singapore when he was 11 but I only moved when I was 16 and hence I don’t feel as “alienated” as he did.

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  3. hannah says

    i’m 15 just moved back from malaysia. i’m 100% american but i lived there for so long it’s home. coming back to the u.s. which some people would refer to as “my home” i now don’t know where home really is. i’ve always been familiar with that term and almost hated it because i don’t want to be labeled. but i went to a “tck” camp this summer, and meeting 20+ kids that were “just like me” was 1) completely lame and cheesy and 2) amazingly identifying hmm thats not the right word, well it was amazing and i truly FOUND myself in those people. ever since then i have been chatting and texting whenever i can with the ones that are still here but i just started at a public school. i hate it, i feel invisible there, more than i ever have in my life. i know so much about all the “transition” phases, what people will say to me, how they’ll react when they hear tck, or their lack of reaction. but analyzing it more and more isn’t helping me not feel like i don’t matter. i’m so sad and i feel like i’m living this lie. i’m looking on the internet for more tcks, writing this comment, how will this even help me?

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  4. Wazha says

    The part about the Chameleon is so true it’s scary… I was always called the social chameleon in school because i was always able to hop in between different groups of kids but always made sure that they knew that i wasn’t a “normie” but rather a TCK… don’t get it twisted…. hahaha

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  5. Jon Charnas says

    Ok, now I’m gonna comment about the chameleon part myself.

    I’ve always been able to “fit in” without necessarily being at the center of attention, and except in the case of a major rumor mill going through high school, kept my “secret identity” to myself. But I did learn how to blend in to other places without attracting attention, and paying attention to little details. And one day, after watching yet another James Bond movie, I realized “I AM a spy!”, at least in the senses of blending in and capturing unseen and ungiven information. Admittedly I doubt we’ll see denizen members sneaking in through windows or being a successful womanizer anytime soon. But it does raise the question: would a spy agency benefit from hiring “naturals” for their agents? Or could they? I digress on the topic, but I find the fact that we can “disappear” into almost any crowd without too much conscious effort (for some of us at least) quite thrilling.

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  6. Cynthia says

    I just read the 2-part article in its entirety and as a TCK that went to college in the States, your article explained exactly what I had felt except I didn’t know it then.

    I found out about this whole TCK thing soon after I graduated from college. While in college, I never figured out why I just can’t seem to fit in in the States when everyone else around me spoke the same language.

    I went to high school in Shanghai as well and it was somewhat “international” but when I returned to Shanghai to work 5 years later it was a major culture shock. At first I tell people I’m from Taiwan, but that meant nothing to me. People here treated me as a Taiwanese. I speak Chinese with a Taiwanese accent so that doesn’t help the fact that I wish people will treat me less of a Taiwanese. And then I start telling people I’m from the US and the reaction is different. As much as I don’t have a “root” in the States it made people react to me differently – like a foreigner who can speak fluent Mandarin and I liked that. A friend of mine will say I am from Thailand (since I’ve lived there for 8 years prior to China).

    4 years after graduation I have learned to embrace my “culture” and learned to react differently with different people. At work my boss likes to introduce me to other people as “coming from Taiwan” before I have a chance to say anything or after I have confuse the person I just met. Outside of work depending on who I’m talking to sometimes I tell them I’m from a certain town in Connecticut or I’m from Illinois (which is where I went to college). Other times, people will see my driver’s license (which I got for the first time when I was 23 lol) and ask me if I am from the town listed on the license and I just smile and nod.

    And just like in your article, if people are interested I go a little deeper with my story, and if they aren’t they aren’t worth my time either.

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  7. Sennia E. says

    ” I avoided dropped jaws and a burning spotlight by choosing not to share my “deep dark secret” of having lived in five countries.”

    I think one of the biggest problems with this statement is that is very essentializing and ‘local’ in it’s perspective (something, that I incidentally did not expect to encounter from a fellow TCK).

    I’ve lived in China, Thailand, The United Arab Emirates, Canada, the US and Sri Lanka–and it was only in the U.S that I encountered hostility about my TCK background. I guess it’s because Americans (other than army brats and missionaries)seem to move around a lot less than people from other countries.

    North America is also incredibly self-centres in it’s political, social and cultural outlook, as well as limited in it’s knowledge of other countries (which is not surprising given its hegemonic position in the world today).

    Most of this website –as well as TCK scholarly information in general–seems based on American TCK experiences abroad. This is inherently problematic becausethere are probably greater numbers of TCKs from other countries (Indians or the British for example)

    Unfortunately, unless we fix our skewed data, we will get only a marginal, Eurocentric understanding of the TCK experience.

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