In July 1974, my sister and I were dressed in matching blue-and-white shirts and no-fuss haircuts, exploring a ship while it sliced through a Norwegian fjord. We were on “home leave” – returning to the United States for the first time since we’d moved to Jakarta the previous year.
Before this trip, our family vacations had consisted of car trips; my sister and I sitting in the backseat, a suitcase forming the demilitarized zone between us, with stays in motels and dinners of fast food. But now, we were traveling around Scandinavia for a few weeks, eating reindeer meat and dainty, open-faced sandwiches.
As my sister and I raced around the boat, a white haired woman with both loud clothing and voice – an American – smiled and asked where we were from. Since I was ten and therefore much older and wiser than my 8-year-old sister, I replied, “Indonesia.”
The woman turned to her friend and said, “Look at the two little Indonesian boys!”
We giggled but didn’t correct her. With dark blonde hair and blue-gray eyes, it was unlikely I’d ever blend in on Jakarta’s streets, but while I didn’t look Indonesian, I no longer felt totally American. I’d become a “third culture kid,” although it would take me another four decades to discover this.
It was because of Facebook, of course. Not long ago, I was trawling the site when I found a page for those who’d attended my international school in the 1970s. I typed a query, asking if anyone else had had a bumpy reentry to life in their “home” country. I said that for me it wasn’t just a culture shock, it was a culture electrocution.
The responses began pouring in immediately, including one who said there was even a term for us. Though the phrase “third culture kid” has been around since the 1950s, I’d been unaware of it. And when I learned it, I assumed it was for children who’d spent far longer overseas than I had. But, as I read the replies from my fellow alums, I cried. I’d finally met others whose experiences mirrored mine.
Almost without exception, they’d all had a tough time moving back. One friend suggested we shouldn’t only have been given a handbook when we moved to Jakarta – we should’ve also received one when we returned. Another said, “Nobody in the shops wanted to bargain with me, and they looked at me like I was from another planet when I ate fried rice for breakfast.” A third said he’d felt like he’d dropped from the moon when he went back to his country. I smiled through my tears. We’d all felt there was no place like home.
When we returned to the United States, I’d felt so alone, like a freak. Like other third culture kids, I’d spent a chunk of my formative years outside my “home” country, with one foot there and one foot in my new culture. It sometimes felt a bit like I was doing the splits, feet stretching so far I worried I might break in two. I’d left the States as a third grader and returned to a new, small Louisiana town as a seventh grader – one who had been stashed in a cultural time capsule.
I didn’t know much about television shows, pop music or feathered hair and clothing styles. I dressed in a batik wrap-around skirt, a “Property of the Macadamia Nut Factory” t-shirt (we’d stopped in Hawaii on the way back), and shiny white patent leather shoes on the first day of school. It did not go well. Batik was not chic. A teacher asked where I’d moved from and looked at me blankly when I told her. No one knew where Indonesia was. A boy asked if we’d had electricity and tractors.
Back in Indonesia in the seventies, before the homogenizing effects of the internet, we lived in splendid isolation. When my parents’ newsmagazines arrived, many weeks late, random stories had been inked out, compliments of Suharto’s censors. There was no television, so we listened to the Voice of America on our shortwave radio – until it was stolen one night while we slept. Kid culture was as isolated as the Galapagos ecosystem, broken off from mainstream American kid culture, free to mutate and evolve on its own. I learned from my international schools’ classmates: about Pele from a Brazilian boy, Enid Blyton from British Empire girls, and about Jakarta’s first fast food knockoff from everyone, all of us giddy for The American Hamburger, with its murals of fake Ronald McDonalds and real milkshakes.
Although I was clueless about American kid culture – I’d never seen Happy Days and had no idea who Fonzie was – I learned, by osmosis, about other, different things. We had neighbors who lived across the street from our house. We had a neatly manicured yard with papaya and breadfruit trees, ringed by a fence topped with broken glass. Our neighbors didn’t just live across the street – they lived in it. Outside our local market, where we stopped each Sunday after church to buy fancy Dutch chocolate, we often saw a man, leaning against the wall as if waiting for Godot, his leg swollen from elephantiasis. The extremes – the haves and have-nots – sunk into every molecule.
I suspect that kids who grow up overseas today don’t face the cultural embargo we did then. It’s simply harder to be isolated. Recently, I’ve been corresponding via email with a man who lives in the Sumatran jungle. He has electricity only a few hours a day, but he has internet access. For better and for worse, we’re all tethered, electronically, to each other.
As the replies continued to come in, one thing became clear. Though our reentries had been turbulent, none of us would have traded our years in Jakarta for anything. We may have felt like we’d been dropped into our home country from outer space, but we all believed we’d been lucky to spend a little time on the moon.