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