experiences
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From the moon

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In July 1974, my sister and I were dressed in matching blue-and-white shirts and no-fuss haircuts, exploring a ship while it sliced through a Norwegian fjord. We were on “home leave” – returning to the United States for the first time since we’d moved to Jakarta the previous year.

Before this trip, our family vacations had consisted of car trips; my sister and I sitting in the backseat, a suitcase forming the demilitarized zone between us, with stays in motels and dinners of fast food. But now, we were traveling around Scandinavia for a few weeks, eating reindeer meat and dainty, open-faced sandwiches.

As my sister and I raced around the boat, a white haired woman with both loud clothing and voice – an American – smiled and asked where we were from. Since I was ten and therefore much older and wiser than my 8-year-old sister, I replied, “Indonesia.”

The woman turned to her friend and said, “Look at the two little Indonesian boys!”

We giggled but didn’t correct her. With dark blonde hair and blue-gray eyes, it was unlikely I’d ever blend in on Jakarta’s streets, but while I didn’t look Indonesian, I no longer felt totally American. I’d become a “third culture kid,” although it would take me another four decades to discover this.

It was because of Facebook, of course. Not long ago, I was trawling the site when I found a page for those who’d attended my international school in the 1970s. I typed a query, asking if anyone else had had a bumpy reentry to life in their “home” country. I said that for me it wasn’t just a culture shock, it was a culture electrocution.

The responses began pouring in immediately, including one who said there was even a term for us. Though the phrase “third culture kid” has been around since the 1950s, I’d been unaware of it. And when I learned it, I assumed it was for children who’d spent far longer overseas than I had. But, as I read the replies from my fellow alums, I cried. I’d finally met others whose experiences mirrored mine.

Almost without exception, they’d all had a tough time moving back. One friend suggested we shouldn’t only have been given a handbook when we moved to Jakarta – we should’ve also received one when we returned. Another said, “Nobody in the shops wanted to bargain with me, and they looked at me like I was from another planet when I ate fried rice for breakfast.” A third said he’d felt like he’d dropped from the moon when he went back to his country. I smiled through my tears. We’d all felt there was no place like home.

When we returned to the United States, I’d felt so alone, like a freak. Like other third culture kids, I’d spent a chunk of my formative years outside my “home” country, with one foot there and one foot in my new culture. It sometimes felt a bit like I was doing the splits, feet stretching so far I worried I might break in two. I’d left the States as a third grader and returned to a new, small Louisiana town as a seventh grader – one who had been stashed in a cultural time capsule.

I didn’t know much about television shows, pop music or feathered hair and clothing styles. I dressed in a batik wrap-around skirt, a “Property of the Macadamia Nut Factory” t-shirt (we’d stopped in Hawaii on the way back), and shiny white patent leather shoes on the first day of school. It did not go well. Batik was not chic. A teacher asked where I’d moved from and looked at me blankly when I told her. No one knew where Indonesia was. A boy asked if we’d had electricity and tractors.

Back in Indonesia in the seventies, before the homogenizing effects of the internet, we lived in splendid isolation. When my parents’ newsmagazines arrived, many weeks late, random stories had been inked out, compliments of Suharto’s censors. There was no television, so we listened to the Voice of America on our shortwave radio – until it was stolen one night while we slept. Kid culture was as isolated as the Galapagos ecosystem, broken off from mainstream American kid culture, free to mutate and evolve on its own. I learned from my international schools’ classmates: about Pele from a Brazilian boy, Enid Blyton from British Empire girls, and about Jakarta’s first fast food knockoff from everyone, all of us giddy for The American Hamburger, with its murals of fake Ronald McDonalds and real milkshakes.

Although I was clueless about American kid culture – I’d never seen Happy Days and had no idea who Fonzie was – I learned, by osmosis, about other, different things. We had neighbors who lived across the street from our house. We had a neatly manicured yard with papaya and breadfruit trees, ringed by a fence topped with broken glass. Our neighbors didn’t just live across the street – they lived in it. Outside our local market, where we stopped each Sunday after church to buy fancy Dutch chocolate, we often saw a man, leaning against the wall as if waiting for Godot, his leg swollen from elephantiasis. The extremes – the haves and have-nots – sunk into every molecule.

I suspect that kids who grow up overseas today don’t face the cultural embargo we did then. It’s simply harder to be isolated. Recently, I’ve been corresponding via email with a man who lives in the Sumatran jungle. He has electricity only a few hours a day, but he has internet access. For better and for worse, we’re all tethered, electronically, to each other.

As the replies continued to come in, one thing became clear. Though our reentries had been turbulent, none of us would have traded our years in Jakarta for anything. We may have felt like we’d been dropped into our home country from outer space, but we all believed we’d been lucky to spend a little time on the moon.

5 Comments

  1. Baik sekali–very good, if you remember your Indonesian. As both an earlier generation TCK and a parent of four more or less your age who were in Jakarta just before you, you have caught a lot of it. The advantage you had over the current generation of TCKs, perhaps is that while you lived in an ‘international school’ bubble you were also immersed in Indonesian culture by the fact that life was lived in the street. The internet, FB and twitter and so on, may make the links with ‘home’ stronger now but they may also serve as a greater barrier to immersing in the other culture. Certainly, my observation of the TCKs’ parents is that many more of them live in greater isolation from Indonesia than we parents did, or could, when you were there as a child. I would be curious about how others are seeing that since I no longer ‘live’ abroad, only come and go for short term work. But we do eat nasi goring for breakfast regularly and with relish.

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  2. sue sanders says

    Terima kasih banyak. (My Bahasa Indonesia is pretty nonexistent these days.) The 1970s were a wonderful time to be a TCK in Jakarta. I’m fascinated by how the internet has changed “isolation.” This summer, I traveled to Sumatra and was able to FaceTime my husband from the rain forest.

    And now I must go prepare some nasi goreng….

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  3. Ingrid Geenen says

    This sounds so familiar! Only, going to “an American” school (JES! :-))as well, besides living in a totally foreign country like Indonesia, coming from tiny Belgium, I believe we had a double culture shock to overcome. We arrived late the first day of school and having had only one year of English, my brother and me did not know what “the Jim” was (the gym, that is) and we got totally lost between the unfamiliar school buildings. The principal said “Don’t worry, Mr Geurtsen (geography teacher) is Dutch, so he can translate some. But I soon learned that dear Mr Geurtsen’s Dutch did not reach further than “Hallo, hoe gaat het?” (How are you?) My brother came home crying and said he was not going to science class anymore because he could not even PRONOUNCE “the earth’s crust”, let alone study it. We European kids really felt “inferior” to the big American group, I think. All our knowledge of German, French, Dutch and even bahasa Indonesia got us nowhere; we had to follow “special English” class. How Indonesia intrigued me. Driving back to our house in Jalan Kemang I in Jakarta after a day at Anyer beach and not minding the traffic jams at all because there was so much to see alongside the road…The heavenly lumpia our cook made when we came home from school…the smell of our gardener’s kretek cigarettes…the beggars at Block M…the dead (??) woman lying at the bus stop for several days…the beautiful sunset when we drove to the Dutch church in the evening…the guy we hired for parties who made sate ayam above a small fire in our garden… the becak rides…people touching our skin when we walked to the swimming pool at Kemang hotel and saying “nice putih”, while we wanted to be suntanned and “nice coklat” like them. I don’t think that kind of Indonesia still exists . It vanished together with our youth… But, oh, the memories…

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  4. Stan Heginbotham says

    Your reflections have, I believe, more universal relevance than you might think. My experiences parallel yours, but they took place 20 years earlier and reflected the shocks of reentry from New Caledonia, France, and Israel. My reunion, 45 years later, with classmates from a small and rather wierd Scotch Presbyterian Mission School, made clear that the challenges of reentry were intense and intensely personal. The internet and Skype change aspects of such shocks, but my experience with many 20-somethings suggest that the essential challenges remain pretty much the same. It is very helpful to be reminded that we are not alone in coping with those experiences.

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  5. Friedel says

    A gold mine of information ist the book titled “Third Culture Kids” written by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken

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