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I’m a TCK, and I’m an autism researcher and advocate

A recent college graduate, Cordelia Ross spent part of last year volunteering at the Stars & Rain Education Institute for Autism in Beijing. Half-Taiwanese and half-American, Ross was raised in Singapore and attended Middlebury College. After graduation, she was aching to work for a cause she believed in, and travel to China.

Ross’s passion for autism research and advocacy started by counseling special needs children at a summer camp. “Living with the kids, I really got to know some of them really well,” she said. “It opened a window for me.”

After that summer, she returned to college and focused her studies on autism. Eventually she worked as a personal care attendant for families with special needs children. It gave her the experience and confidence to think outside of the box when working with autistic kids.

“It taught me a lot about me,” she said. “My patience was pushed tremendously.”

Having returned from China, Ross now works at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment as a research associate.

What did working with autistic teenagers in China teach you?

Not to get discouraged. It’s so easy to get discouraged. They learn very slowly, especially since teens don’t learn as quickly as kids. The teens I worked with were completely non-verbal. Basic skills were still a problem. And once in a while I’d feel like a kid was improving — and I’d get all excited. Then the next day it would be back to square one. But, you just have to keep going. You can’t give up.

Was there a language barrier for you?
I can get by, but I wouldn’t say I am fluent. I was really self-conscious about it, and I would just say the bare minimum. For example, I had dinner at the house of Tian (Huiping), the founder of Stars and Rain. She is such a superstar and I had so much respect for her, it was such an honor to meet her. I had so much to say to her, and I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say — I just sat there and listened, and said thank you a lot. I learned — you just have to put yourself out there and do it, even if you make mistakes, even if you’re not 100 percent fluent and accurate in the language.

Does being a Third Culture Kid help you relate to others?
I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and being open to their experiences or opinions just helps me do that with even more people.

Did being a TCK make going to China easier?
Absolutely. Living in Singapore, everyone traveled all the time, so I wasn’t nervous or scared. I was a little nervous to go on my own, because I wasn’t going with friends or a program. But just because I’ve been able to travel so much, I’m not as naive about traveling and meeting people. …[If I weren’t a TCK] I don’t know if I even would’ve had the confidence to do this. I don’t know if I would even consider it.

You’ve lived in Singapore and the United States. Was China a culture shock?
I was in a village an hour and a half from Beijing. And to be honest, that was a culture shock for me. I had only been in touristy places before, where all the signs had English. When I was living in China alone, I noticed a lot of things that really frustrated me.

Littering, spitting, people do that like it’s no big deal. There’s trash everywhere, and people just spit. … During rush hour, people would push and shove like no one’s business. No one lines up and no one respects anybody else… That was a huge culture shock for me.

What does being a TCK mean to you?
Up until the last few years, I associated it with a negative connotation. Because “TCK” means you’re not really from here or there, your friends come and go, and you’re not really in one place. I was just kind of sick of it…. why can’t I settle down and be in one place? I hated meeting people and having to say goodbye, which I’ve had to do my whole life.

But now it’s such a positive thing because it gives me a solid foundation to be able to go out there and push my limits. It helped me grow in a way that I can’t really explain — it’s the experiences. It helps you be a little more open minded and a little more confident.

What advice would you give to TCKs who want to go out and change the world?
This sounds really cheesy, but my biggest word of advice is to believe in yourself. If you have doubts about being lonely, or living in another country… just believe in yourself. Because you can do it, especially with the background you’ve had growing up abroad.


  1. Stacy says

    Wow, it really is a small world! I went to primary school with Cordelia at SAS. It is so awesome how she’s doing great things now!


  2. This is a helluva story. Speaking as somebody living in China now, I know it can be quite challenging — even more so when living outside the major expat-friendly cities.

    Big props to Cordelia for sticking it out and doing such amazing work.


  3. Rachel Aguiar says

    Corde, you amaze me. This is such a great endeavor to be involved with. (and to echo Stacy, it really is a small world!)


  4. Betty Chen says

    So inspiring and love your advice 🙂 .. it’s true, some people get so stuck in what they CAN’T do, that they completely short change themselves in the process (including myself).


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