Becoming a single dad was an unexpected, blindsiding typhoon ocean wave. As I navigated the transition, I came to appreciate the traits developed as a TCK. Rather than running in search of who I was, I came to the point of embracing it.
My forever state cannot be running away, or wishing away, or whiling my thoughts away from here. Here, which is sitting opposite me smiling, with a big heart and a wink in its eye. Here is real.
I catch myself repeatedly drowning my loneliness online, especially when I realize I have no real interest in watching episode 12 of whatever TV show I started yesterday, but I watch it anyway because I need a distraction. I need something to make me forget, even for a moment, that I have to start over again.
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 …
Have you ever stopped in the middle of a conversation to think consciously about what accent you’re speaking in? To check if you’re pronouncing things ‘correctly’? I have. A lot. Raised by Singaporean parents, I grew up speaking English while living in Japan, causing me to adopt a Singaporean accent. Singaporean English, while based on British English, is also heavily influenced by American, Malay, Chinese and Indian dialects. The result is a creole called colloquial Singlish, which doesn’t comply with traditional language rules, and can be extremely difficult to understand. At age 6, I started attending an American international school in Tokyo called Christian Academy in Japan. I still remember the day when I was called out of my fourth grade class and informed that I needed to receive speech lessons to improve my pronunciation. My mum was furious. Why did her son, who spoke perfectly good English, need speech lessons? I was also stumped: what was wrong with the way I spoke? Every week, I practised my ‘r’, curling my tongue upward, towards the roof and back of my …
As a TCK, whether you like it or not, you end up becoming an ambassador of the places you’ve lived in, the cultures you were a part of. I’ve always believed that one shouldn’t shy away from these frank conversations as it is entirely possible that you could change someone’s perception, probably for the better.
I had told myself I wouldn’t have culture shock in America because I’d spent a lot of time here before. I was ready for air-conditioning and smooth highways, and I couldn’t complain about those. What I hadn’t realized was that I had secretly, unknowingly formed prejudices against people based on a first impression. This had made me quiet and melancholic.