Comments 24

Not “coming home” alone

I had only known Caleb for three months before he died.

We were just getting past the stereotypes. Him: a tall, blonde, cheery kid from Hong Kong. Me: a not-tall, Asian, cheery kid from Singapore. We were both Third Culture Kids, working as dorm resident assistants, attending university far from home.

At Caleb’s memorial, his dad read his suicide note. “I’m sorry,” Caleb wrote. “I’ve been living a lie.”

I collapsed into tears. Until that moment, I refused to believe that it was suicide.

We were so alike! We were international, Third Culture. We joked about how we hated answering “Where are you from?” and the stereotypes put upon us. We were smart, worldly, well-traveled. Why suicide?

That was 2005.

Today I’m still seeking answers to questions that I am afraid to ask. I still don’t know why Caleb decided to leave. But I am sure of one thing. Third Culture Kids need a lot of support when they leave their expatriate communities.

Going away to college is the first time many TCKs emerge from the expat bubble. Suddenly they’re left to fend for themselves, cobbling together an identity that makes sense to their confused peers. Caleb often joked that he was that “blond kid from Hong Kong,” but it couldn’t have been easy, being far away from his family, straddling the worlds of American and Cantonese culture.

I mean, this is what we all get used to: “Wait, you’re from (insert country)? I thought you were American!”

TCKs who go home for college are hidden immigrants: they look and sound like everyone around them, but don’t think the same way. These TCKs watch, bewildered, as their new friends drink themselves into a stupor. They listen, unable to participate, as their peers talk about favorite childhood TV shows. They grocery shop, overwhelmed, when the cereal aisle just doesn’t seem to end.

TCKs often find they have more in common with international students, who may in turn reject them because they just seem “so American.” Repatriation is when they start to figure out that they don’t fit in, and realize that it’s going to be a lifelong struggle to find a sense of identity. According to author Esther Schubert’s Keeping Third-Culture Kids Emotionally Healthy: Depression and Suicide among Missionary Kids, TCK suicide rates go up after their first year “home.”

So where are the support groups? Well, first of all, TCKs are hard to identify. At my alma mater, Northwestern University, the international office only got a list of students who were non-U.S. citizens. Many of the TCKs I knew had American passports. In 2000, Cate Whitcomb, then working for student affairs at Northwestern, decided to seek these students out. She searched for students that had different countries listed as their nationality and their permanent address. In 2006, she started a TCK group.

Whitcomb looked for these students was because she was a TCK herself. From age two to age 18, she lived in Mussoorie, India, and attended boarding school. She knew how hard it was to be a TCK in college. During her college years in the 1960s, whenever she told people where she was from they would say: “Ew! Why are you from there? That’s weird!”

“You just cannot make assumptions by looking at people and saying, ‘I know who you are and where you’re from,'” she said in a 2007 interview at Northwestern. “When we reduce each other to what we see, we have nothing.”

Our TCK group met once a quarter for a brunch. We mingled, shared and commiserated in “culture shock” stories. There were smiles all around. As the number of TCKs increases on college campuses, I expect more of these groups to pop up. However, Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, has us all beat. They started a TCK group in 1992.

The associate dean of students, Greg Caldwell, knew nothing of Third Culture Kids until he visited Yokohama International School in Japan and was asked if his school had any program for TCKs.

“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Caldwell said in an interview this week. “I said, what is a TCK?”

He set out to identify TCKs on his campus. As it turned out, all high schools have a College Entrance Examination Board code used for the SAT and AP exams, and international schools start at a certain number. They found the students who came from international schools and informally marked them with a “K,” for TCK.

Nothing much came out of it until he met Norma McCaig, the founder of Global Nomads International. On her suggestion, he pushed to include a question on Lewis and Clark’s college application form [PDF]: “Have you ever lived in another country for more than one year due to a parents’ work?” They hit jackpot.

Since then, they have started TCK Tuesdays, where TCKs and friends are invited to mingle and hear from TCK speakers. They began inviting TCKs to international student orientation. They have a TCK advisory board, a TCK intern at the international office. They’ve even tried a TCK education group, where they visit different campus staff meetings to teach university officials about the needs of TCKs. For example, they reminded the Registrar’s office that graduation applications need more than just a “city and state” box for addresses. They told the Financial Aid office that their advertised 1-800 number doesn’t work from overseas. Today, there are approximately 130 TCKs on their campus, of which two-thirds are American citizens.

“Some TCKs never come to any [of the programs], and some of them come to everything,” Caldwell said. “The needs of the student vary, so it’s not something we make anyone do. But there are some people who really need it, and really benefit from it.”

For me, hearing about Caldwell’s program was very encouraging. Sometimes, all TCKs need is validation; to know that they are an equal member of society. Not just someone that exists between-the-lines, on forms, on applications, on citizenships, on identity, on what we put down as “home.” A TCK support group doesn’t have to do a whole lot more than that.

“We identify, recognize, and celebrate. We validate the TCK experience,” he said. “Many people on this campus will know what a TCK is.”

I’m not saying a TCK group would’ve made all the difference in Caleb’s life and death. And I don’t think TCKs should only hang out with other Third Culture Kids — quite the opposite. I just think that a little bit of validation, a friendly support network, and advice from older TCKs can make that college transition less overwhelming. Too often TCKs are alone in their repatriation struggle, and in this day and age of globalization, that’s just unacceptable.

Do you have a TCK group on campus, or have you started one? Post a comment and let us know about it.

From Expatica: Helping TCKs avoid the pitfalls of global living


  1. get fucking over it says

    You really need to get over his death.

    It wasn’t the TCK thing. It was the frats. The kid fucked up, and he couldn’t tell his hyper religious parents cause they were so fucking button down.

    You think this is some “TCK” syndrome? Fuck no. He was a preachers kid! Totally unready. Its religions fault. So get the fuck over it.


  2. kenny says

    “get fucking over it”, I applaud your deep sensitivity and cultural awareness, as well as your kindness towards the author of this article. Your lack of bias and rejection of stereotypes must also be noted.


  3. Marlene says

    Hey Steph,

    Thank you for starting this site. I found out about it from my sister, and I’ve been lurking around reading stuff, felt like it was time to comment and thank you. I think it really speaks to a lot of us. I’m sorry that as usual when you are part of a minority and trying to speak up there will be rude and malicious people out there who don’t understand/don’t want to understand. Please keep going anyway. This is important.

    I’m glad to hear about this TCK group. It’s very inspiring. I may try to start one at my school too.

    Take care Steph!


  4. Wow – this article hits the jackpot. Not too many people know (except my college friends and my family) that I went through a hard time in college with depression and anxiety. As a TCK and now an adult TCK its hard to explain to people why I feel a certain way or answer difficult life questions with not too much importance. (even to my own parents who are TCKs nonetheless!)


  5. Hi Steph,
    Thanks for sharing this article. I’m an LC student, TCK, and was for a while the TCK intern at LC. So it’s interesting to read about it. I definitely feel that we could all benefit from feeling like we fit in somewhere, and sometimes a group of other TCKs who know what it’s like is the best place to feel at home.


  6. Beverley says

    Hi Steph, you might remember I was at SAS too (class of 02). Anyway your website is great. I was at LC and was part of the TCK stuff there – I volunteered with international orientation, was on the TCK advisory board, and the TCK education committee, and was part of the group that re-started the TCK Tuesdays tradition. But since I left LC for grad school, I’ve left behind that supportive TCK network and all my TCK friends. In fact, I recently married a 100% American (I used to be Beverley Rabbitts) and I haven’t been overseas for five years (due to visa issues…). I didn’t realize until now how much I miss having my TCK identity validated.


  7. U know what I tell ppl? I’m from MARS!!! Might as well be lol. It all depends on how ya look at it really, you can pretend to be either or neither. Def needs to be strong tho.


  8. Pingback: Not “coming home” alone « Official mkPLANET Blog

  9. Caroline says

    Thanks for your site and your writing, Steph. I was a TCK and am now Director of International Students at a school in Bangalore, India. I am always searching for ways of making transitions less painful for the young people I work with, and apart from as always offering unique insights, you reminded me of Caldwell’s work, which I want to build into our exit strategy for TCK finally going ‘home’. So sorry for the loss of your friend. Best wishes, Caroline


  10. Covert says

    Im a TCK, full blown, but an American born who grew up in 3rd world countries due to my parents job… we all know the rest.

    I am of course bookmarking this site, and reading all of it. Im a senior in College and am dealing with repressed PTSD from early desert storm as a child and other experiences, but also the Anxiety and Depression.

    This website seems that it could help out lots of people, but for me, specifically as a TCK, I can’t attach or let it help me. Part of the issue is the identity and association with people, and not having support groups or people around that I can have face to face talks with, makes the situation worse.

    I just found this site tonight, but I wish you would have a listing for support groups, it seems that we are all a very small proportion of the world, but that all, if not most of us suffer extreme difficulties.

    Typing things out and reading words on a screen dont help heal the wounds though, i guess Im just that kind of person where I need that help. I could also just be being an ass and pessimistic since im severely depressed and anxious and just looking for help.

    I think this is the place when you have healed, but i find it essential that you should have some form of information to locate groups or suicide hotlines, or anything that can help a person out….

    alot of us come looking here to discover our identity and a sense of belonging, but I feel that the magazine hasn’t grasped the neccessity that alot of us when we discover this, can be in severe mental anguish and despair.


  11. Covert says

    I re-read my prior comment.

    I think what you are doing is great, i was just at a loss for words that there were no links for support groups, or health organizations, or anything in the case that the person is in need of help ASAP.

    Ive done the research so I wasn’t super excited that I found a community to belong in… When I first did discover a word for who I was, I was super excited, I cried tears of joy and felt that I actually belonged somewhere, even if that place was a group of words. That was 4 or 5 years ago though, and now all the walls that we build up over the years, well, in my case. Have broken, I am breaking them to heal myself.

    I think that it could only benefit your site to have links to help out those in mental health need.

    I should of just written this in an email rather then posting a comment.

    You’re doing great Steph, but I wish there were more for those of us in need


  12. Hi Covert,

    Man, I wish I had that list to share with you. We’re just a group of 20-somethings who started this website because we noticed a lack of discussion for modern TCKs. We don’t pretend to have backgrounds in research, counseling or support.

    Support groups for TCKs are few and far between — that’s why this website exists for all of us — to help each other out.

    I’ve discovered that at many big colleges and universities, their counseling services are starting to have individuals who “specialize” in TCKs and can help. If you are not at a big school — this can be difficult. I’m going to email out the Denizen listserv and see if there are any support groups that they know of. If they do, they’ll post it here.


  13. Jon Charnas says

    Hey Covert,

    Thanks for your comment–I really appreciate your taking the time to write to us. I understand you’re looking for counseling, but while Denizen’s goal is to create a community for TCKs, we’re not equipped to help people through depressions, anxieties or other similar things. As you can imagine, we’re not experts by a long shot, and we’re not necessarily qualified to patch people to the right ones on top of that.

    And yes, TCKs do have fears about the unknown, and sometimes facing a specific part of the world can be overwhelmingly difficult, emotionally speaking. The role that Denizen is trying to accomplish is to tell TCKs in their own little corner of the planet that they’re not alone. There are others, many others, some close, some far. And Denizen is trying to give them a place to share ideas, stories that taught them something, so that they may share those ideas and lessons with others.

    Denizen is a place where we’re happy to take on your worries or questions about being a TCK. TCKs are set apart from most sedentary populations, certainly. But we are by no means completely isolated from “normal” folks, we do integrate and mesh with them a fair amount. We certainly do have similar disorders affecting us, and as far as I know, they are treated the same way, even if TCKs have an extra cultural barrier to break through.


  14. Covert says

    I think most TCKs are also well versed and intelligent.

    So Thank You both.

    the road we walk is similar to those, though we may have a few more rocks to climb.

    Its just a climb though =]


  15. Sennia E. says

    Covert, your use of the term “Third-World” countries, quite frankly, shocked me.

    I can’t believe people still use that antiquated term. What’s next? Calling African-Americans “Negros”?


  16. Pingback: Faces at FIGT - Josh: “Both an outsider and an insider.” | Denizen

  17. Jo says

    SO happy to find this website and to have these complicated feelings validated. Hope to connect more in the future!


  18. Jo says

    So glad to find this community and have complicated feelings validated!


  19. Kahini says

    Great article… my condolences for the death of your friend. =(
    I think it’s so important for TCKs to understand that their differences are beneficial. We’ve grown up absorbing so many unique things from various cultures and people. As a result, TCKs are generally smarter, more open-minded, better communicators, and more liberal. We’re well-informed about global issues and we know how to pronounce “Iraq”. We need to have confidence in these positive aspects that we share – which is why I think the idea of a TCK group is a good one, congratulations on that, Steph. =)
    Also, in terms of not having a “home”… there is a bright side! You can look at it as not belonging anywhere, but I prefer to see it as belonging everywhere. I love to travel, I’m trilingual, and I enjoy meeting new people. In other words, I’m a typical TCK. Our homes can be wherever we make them; they don’t have to be in our country of nationality or our birthplace, they don’t even have to be permanent. As long as we love a place, we can call it “home”. =)


  20. Pingback: – Site under construction – » A love affair with Hong Kong

  21. What perfect timing! I am teaching an online class now called “American College Counseling for the International Student” and this week we are talking about cultural considerations. I am spending a lot of time talking about TCKs and their adjustment issues. I will use this for my class to read, too. Thank you for such a perfect posting for us!


  22. Thanks for sharing your story, it must have been really hard to loose a friend, especially someone, who was so similar to yourself. Gives me chills when I even think about it.
    I can only too well understand that whole first-year-in-college-depression. Was a really bad in my case and lasted for a few years. There was just no-one to tell me that it was ok that I was different and I was blaming myself for not getting anything…
    I think there isn’t nearly enough support for TCKs, especially in Europe it’s a phenomenon almost not talked about…
    I wish there was a tck support group at my university, but then, when I was a freshman I didn’t know I was a tck…
    keep up the great work at DENIZENMAG.


  23. Thank you Steph for your honesty in writing. Could you direct me to a source for:
    Esther Schubert’s Keeping Third-Culture Kids Emotionally Healthy: Depression and Suicide among Missionary Kids? I tried googling it several ways and haven’t turned it up. Article? Book? Thanks!
    This is appreciated.


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