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Part 1: TCK goes to college

I was 17 when I started college in Florida; just months away from being able to legally enter, but not drink at, a club or a bar. Because I had been living in Shanghai the last four years, I didn’t have a driver’s license – only a passport, and my American diplomat card. I got away with acting like a dumb freshman girl who “forgot” my ID a few times, but when my friends and I attempted to go out dancing one night, my ego was completely shot.

“Where’s your ID,” the bouncer demanded.

“Well, I have this,” I took out my diplomat ID. “My birthday’s right here.”

He looked at it puzzled, squinting at the Chinese characters.

“What is this? Don’t you have a driver’s license?”

Um, no sir, that requires the ability to drive.

“My birthday’s right there,” I pointed, hoping maybe he’d just let me in.

“No, I can’t take this, I can’t even read this.” He threw it back and me and took the next person in line.

I was furious. I whipped out my cell phone and called my high school friend in California.

“They won’t let me in this stupid place because this stupid idiot can’t read my damn ID!” I screamed into the phone. “I’ve been going out since I was 14 and now all of a sudden I can’t even walk into a place because I’m 17!”

“Well, we’re not in China anymore,” my friend answered.

Welcome (back) to America

“Where you from?”

I hate this question, because it requires more than three seconds of someone’s time. I was born in Florida. But I can’t really say I’m from there, because I moved to Maryland when I was a 1-year-old.

Then to Taiwan on my second birthday.

Burma when I was 5.

Singapore at 7.

Virginia at 9.

South Korea at 11.

China at 14.

Then, back here to Florida for college.

“I was born in Panama City,” I answer.

Nice and simple, with no gawking faces to follow.

The question of identifying one’s roots is a simple one for most people, but for others like me, it’s a series of answers that don’t lead anywhere. Sociologists call people with these experiences Third Culture Kids (TCKs), or members of expatriate families who spend most of their lives overseas. These children grow up in a world different from their American peers, and take on a dichotomous lifestyle that no one else can relate to but other TCKs.

Too bad there weren’t any living in my University of Florida (UF) dorm. I was in the United States for a week before I started college during the summer semester. I didn’t have a cell phone that worked in the country. I was jetlagged. The name tag on my dorm door announced that I was from Punta Gorda – a total lie; I had used my grandparents’ address as an attempt to get in-state tuition. I saw that another girl was from St. Petersburg, and then realized that she didn’t grow up in Russia, rather, a city in Florida. I also discovered that there are cities named Melbourne and Naples, neither of which is in Australia or Italy.

That fall, my friend Josh Cajinarobleto would move into his own dorm at UF. A military brat, he was born and raised in Okinawa, Japan, aside from two three-year stints in the U.S. After his graduation from Kubasaki High School, his grandmother brought him to the U.S. and handed him off to a family friend, who dropped him off at college. As she drove off, Cajinarobleto remembers watching other parents help their kids move into their dorms. Meanwhile, his mom was in Japan and his father was deployed in Iraq, so he lugged all the belongings he could fit into a suitcase into his fourth-floor dorm — no elevators. From then on, if he wanted to call his parents, he had to take into account the 12-hour time difference and make sure he had enough money on his phone card. He didn’t have the luxury of going home as often as his peers, and almost spent Thanksgiving and Spring Break roaming the dorm alone before friends invited him home with them.

“You think about the average student, maybe they’re moving in from a different state or city, but for me, I’m coming from the other side of the world,” Cajinarobleto says. “I’m totally alone, I don’t know anybody, I don’t have that support system nearby.”

Courtesy of Beth Retro on Flickr.

Home? Not really

At my college “preview session,” where older students welcome incoming freshman, a coordinator asked the audience who had traveled the farthest to come to UF. I saw a hand raised off to the side, and he announced that he had come all the way from Texas. I scoffed but kept my hand down. My soon-to-be friend Andy L’Esperance took matters into his own hands, and raised his.

“Germany,” he said.

Bet you no one saw that coming.

L’Esperance had lived on an army base in Heidelberg, Germany since the age of 9. Both parents were teachers at Department of Defense schools, and he grew up in a place where football required fancy footwork and castles were a normal part of the landscape. The two of us started school early in June 2004.

To L’Esperance, even little things like clothing were strange. At one of his first classes at UF, he remembers scanning the floor and realizing that everyone except him and the teacher wore flip-flops.

“I remember calling my parents and saying, ‘I need to get flip-flops.’”

Though both L’Esperance, in his Adidas sneakers, and me, in my smog-proof black clothes, were passport-carrying American citizens, here at “home,” we were more lost than ever.

“You’re going through culture shock in a bigger way – you are having what I would call a hidden culture shock. You have a loss of a world you can’t even define,” Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, told me last spring.

Van Reken lived in Nigeria from birth to the age of 13 and then moved back to Africa with her children. She says there are a few reasons for culture shock in people who return to their “home country” after living abroad for years. The first is not relating to your peers the way you did with those abroad. When living in Africa, she says, dinner table conversations revolved around an anticipated coup or how the instability in the Middle East affected their Lebanese friends.

“You’ve had different world views, you’ve had different conversations,” she said.

Although I was sad when the twin towers fell in September 2001, I was devastated when the 2004 tsunami ripped apart Southeast Asia and beyond. I spent my senior trip walking the beaches of Phuket, and CNN showed it reduced to rubble. I had friends and teachers who were in Thailand that day, escaping the dreaded China winters. One of my high school classmate’s parents died trying to save her during the floods. I went to a candlelight vigil alone on the UF campus to pay my respects, and then tucked away my grief to move on with the rest of the school, who seemed completely unfazed.

Another reason for culture shock, Van Reken said, is that Third Culture Kids are “hidden immigrants.” They look like everyone else, so everyone else expects them to know what they know. Cajinarobleto remembers not knowing which stores to go to, learning new slang from his dorm mates, catching up with pop culture, downloading AIM to keep in touch with his new friends and figuring out how to use the American bus system. L’Esperance discovered that sitcoms actually had continuing storylines since he could finally watch a show the day it actually aired, instead of waiting months for it to be rebroadcast in Germany.

While on campus my freshman year, ready to cross the street, I came across a dilemma. Was it mandatory to cross the street only when the light told me to? Or was it a friendly suggestion? People jaywalked in China all the time, after all. I called my friend and she told me it wasn’t kosher to jaywalk the way we used to.

“When you come back at 18 you’re supposed to know this stuff, and nobody knows why you don’t know it,” Van Reken says. “Because culture is so deep and so unconscious, by the time you really learn it, other people can’t even imagine because they know it so well.”

The Culture Exchange

In an effort to meet new people, I tagged along with some friends to the fraternity houses and looked for the football players. While on the bus to Frat Row, I remember wondering what the big deal was about being a brother or sister in Sigma Alpha Gamma Rho Zeta.

“So where are you ladies from?” A guy asked, attempting to be smooth.

The girls I was with rattled off their hometowns with ease, and I felt my heart pound as I tried quickly to come up with an acceptable answer.

“Panama City,” I said.

“No way!” he cried out. “I went there for Spring Break, it’s such a crazy party town!”

Awkward pause – I wouldn’t know about the city’s party scene, since I left when I was only 1. If I confessed that I actually went to high school in Shanghai, I was pretty sure there’d be an equally awkward lull in the conversation.

L’Esperence remembers the same sorts of gaps in conversations when he tried to share his high school experiences. As freshmen, our most recent memories were prom, graduation and the SATs. Florida high school students go to Disney World for graduation, didn’t have to pay for their Advanced Placement tests and only had the chance to go to prom as seniors.

“Without thinking about it I’d say: ‘I went to prom in a castle and my graduation was in an old Baroque-style city hall,’ and sometimes I’d get these stares, not because they were rude, but because they couldn’t relate,” L’Esperence said.

The Third Culture Kid phenomenon has been going on for years now, dating back to missionaries taking their children to countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Today, TCK is an umbrella term for children of military personnel, state department officers, teachers, missionaries and corporate employees. The term was first used by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, who recognized the changes her children went through when they lived with her in India. Useem passed in 2003, but others like Van Reken and her colleague David Pollock, who died in 2007, continue the mission to learn about the experiences of expatriate children.

“People you weren’t close with in high school become your best friend just because you all went through the same thing,” Cajinarobleto says. “We all went to the other side of the world, we all went to America for college and now we’re back.”

Our new American cohorts become close to us by learning more about us strange folk. Cajinarobleto was playfully dubbed “The Foreign Kid” at his dorm, introducing his new friends to good quality sushi and the art of using chopsticks. L’Esperence found himself gravitating towards people who found travel to be exciting, not scary and impossible.

While people had plenty of questions for me (Have you seen the Great Wall? Is it super communist there?), I started to make my friends feel exotic by asking all sorts of questions about them.

“So, do high schoolers really make out in cars like in the movies?”

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


  1. D Long says

    Very nice. I would, however, disagree that “it’s a series of answers that don’t lead anywhere.” I think it leads deeper and deeper into who you are and it makes TCKs more complicated than the rest of Americans. However, at a younger age, TCKs are looking to fit in, not to be more complicated.


  2. Christiana says

    I agree with you about how your views of being a TCK changes with age. At the time I started college I definitely was confused about my identity and felt the need for a simple answer. If you read the next piece I discus how one’s views of identity change. Thanks for the comment and stay tuned!


  3. Gregg says

    Herman Hesse believed we are born homesick. This can be easily see in an early poem. “Ich Weiss, Du Gehst” (I Know You Walk). When you have lived all over you understand that right away. So all of these people with their common experiences feel connected. It is not cultural experience that connects us; that is a superficiality. Its our value system and our capacity to love. Complexity never saved a life or wiped the tear from a child but I think you already know that. I enjoyed the article.


  4. D Long says

    I personally have never been homesick for the location where I was born. As Brat I have been back several times – it’s always interesting – but I have no desire to live there. It is no problem to me that others have no concept of my experiences – thier loss. The complexity I mentioned, based on different cultural experiences, makes us more comlpicated, which makes us unique. But do not discount your culture (or your experiences which help make you who you are), because your morality and values are a part of it, but there is much more to your culture than that. TCKs have, I think a better understanding of the world and therefore a better capacity understand, love and wipe away that tear.


  5. Very interesting. My children experienced just a very small piece of what you did. You will likely transition from viewing your experiences as disadvantaging you to viewing them as an asset (if you don’t already). You have a much broader understanding of the orient than do most and in today’s globally connected world that may come in handy. Well done!


  6. Thanks for the article,

    I am a TCK in my freshman year of college and I am going through a lot of the things described in this article. Looking forward to more!


  7. Expat 21 says

    Well, my familiy was in the military in the United States. I was born in Kansas, moved to California, then Japan, then California, then Washington, D.C., then Minnesota, then Colorado. So when people would ask me, “Where are you from?” I’d just answer, “I’m not really from anywhere.” When they asked, “How is that?” I just said my parents were in the military, and we moved around a lot.

    I neer thought about this bothering me, and I never thought about it bothering TCK’s. Very interesting article and discussion.

    Expat 21 (in the Middle East)


  8. Miguel says

    Well I lived in Southeast Asia for 12 years before finishing high school in Malaysia & moving to Calif. at age 17 to live in the US for the first time; I’ve been in the US for 25 years now. College was easier to deal w/ since mine was very large & there were a lot of international students there. It became more difficult to deal w/ people when I moved to a small-town in the Midwest for work, the people were just so different & I never got used to them; I ended up keeping to myself most of the time. I now live in an area of North Carolina that has a much more diverse set of people because of the many high-tech businesses here. It’s been my experience that you must find a place that gives one the opportunity to meet people w/ somewhat similar experiences. I absolutely dread going back to the Midwest. I don’t think you ever completely assimilate into the “local” culture in the US, especially if you were born in a foreign country & are now a non-American American as written about in the other article.


  9. Pingback: Third Culture Kids: Fitting in at an American college | Denizen

  10. Susie says

    Love the blog and comments. Curious to know how many TCKs out there did NOT attend international (english taught) schools for junior high/high school. In other words, they attended schools taught in the language of the country where they lived. If so, how did that make a difference when applying to and studying at US universities? We have two TCKS, studying in French schools.


  11. Pingback: Third Culture Kid | A Third Culture Kid’s Guide to College | Denizen

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