“I’m giving it 10 more minutes. Then these cookies are mine,” I thought to myself.
I leaned back in my chair at the student center, desperately resisting the urge to eat the giant plate of cookies I had ordered. I was hoping that, within the next 10 minutes, someone would show up and have some of them.
During my sophomore year at Reed College, I tried to organize a student group for Third Culture Kids. I thought that building a support network on campus would be great for the few TCKs at my college. We didn’t have to become best friends; I just wanted to see if some sort of community would be helpful. After all, a thriving support system was already in place for the international students.
After the first meeting, I was feeling pretty good about myself. There were roughly 15 freshmen in a room full of free pizza, and we spent over an hour shooting the breeze and sharing our life experiences. Sure enough, half of the room had some obscure connection to the other half. People were clicking, enjoying themselves and experiencing a refreshing lack of awkward silences. We decided to meet once a month to touch base and catch up.
Two months and two badly attended meetings later, I was sitting in an empty conference room trying to restrain myself from eating my way to diabetes.
I was a little disappointed, but mostly puzzled. We had gone from “This is a great idea!” to “Sorry, I can’t make it.” From 15 people laughing in a conference room to one kid twiddling his thumbs.
I wracked my brain for explanations. Undoubtedly the hectic insanity of college life played a part; there are always so many things going on at once that accommodating all of one’s interests is almost impossible. But I also wondered if there was more.
I took a step back and observed my college’s social layout. I noticed that TCKs were scattered all across the student body and rarely occupied the same group of friends – and if they did, it wasn’t because of their common upbringing. But why? Our unique cultural backgrounds play a major part in forming our identities, and yet they seemed to have less of a role in building groups of friends than, say, similar tastes in music or a shared interest in Dungeons and Dragons.
So, I started asking around for answers. Alex Smith, 18, a sophomore who grew up in Belgium, Japan, Switzerland and the U.S., explained that she didn’t show up because of a scheduling conflict – and although she enjoyed meeting other TCKs, she also thought that forming a select group of TCKs on campus wouldn’t make much sense. “We’re used to finding things in common with everybody,” she said.
I extended my inquiry to old friends at other universities. Some agreed with my observation and felt little incentive to go out of their way to spend time with other third culture kids.
“I have no compulsive necessity to go hang out with other TCKs all the time… it would be like hanging out with more of me,” said Rob Burroughs, 19, a junior at Mount Allison University who has lived in Colombo, Manila, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Emily Lai, 21, a senior at Reed who grew up in Taipei, stressed the personal importance of having a different life in college.
“Hanging out with TCKs is such a huge part of my experience in Taiwan,” she said. “I thought that when I went to America for college, I should try to have an experience that is distinct from the international school experience.”
On the flip side, others told me that in college, they identified with other TCKs more easily than they did with their non-TCK counterparts.
“Most of the people in my closest friend group are TCKs, probably because of the shared background that makes it easier for us to relate to one another,” said Yvonne Yu, 19, a junior at Brown University. “One main reason for this, though, was because I went to international orientation, as did a lot of TCKs.”
In hindsight, I think that forming a group comprised of only TCKs at Reed was a little too comfortable, and ultimately not necessary. Of course, it can be a good thing for other campuses – Lewis and Clark College, for example, has an established program for TCKs. If you sense that your school could use a support network for third culture kids, don’t hesitate to start one. And even if your school doesn’t need a formal program, it never hurts to reach out to other TCKs.
When I looked my own set of friends, I also realized that my situation was similar to those of other TCKs at Reed. My friends’ cultural backgrounds didn’t play a significant role in forming our friendships, and as I got to know them better, the fact that I grew up an ocean away didn’t matter. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I liked it that way. TCKs are in a unique position to connect with almost any person of any culture, and college presents a special opportunity to do just that.
Still, it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one with a complicated background. “It was totally awesome to have so many people who were going through problems I didn’t even realize I was having,” my friend Alex told me.
I don’t spend much time with the other TCKs at Reed, but it’s always good to see them around campus. Although I’ve learned that Reed’s TCKs (including myself) prefer to mingle rather than stick together, a little reminder that I’m not alone goes a long way towards making my college experience a good one.