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Finding Home: My Presentation at Clark University

I was recently invited to present to a group of high school and college students at Clark University’s annual Third Culture Kid / Global Nomad Conference. The topic I chose to speak about was “Finding Home.”

In this presentation I walk through the question that lead me to creating, how difficult it is for Third Culture Kids to understand that “home” is not a place, and why I think it’s important to define “home” for yourself.

Yes, I kind of stumbled through it, I messed up a bit in the middle, but I can guarantee you that I spoke from the heart. I hope you enjoy it.

Adventures with Dad

It was the middle of the night on Pulau Babi Hujong. The air was humid and still, as you would expect from an island near the equator in the South China Sea.

As a teenager, it was one of the many weekends my dad and I would leave Singapore in favor of scuba diving on the islands off Mersing, Malaysia. We were sleeping on our cots on the beach. The moon was full, and we heard something moving between us

“What son, sleeping outside is bagus!” That means ‘good’ in Bahasa Melayu.

“Yeah, and sleeping while lizard besar (big) is going for a swim at the foot of our cots!”

“Wow son… take a look.”

“I am, and I think he is taking a look at us too.”

It was a 3-foot long monitor lizard that had come down from the jungle brush of the island in the middle of the night.

Adventures such as that were common with my dad. I was born in the United States, but was being raised in Asia as a TCK by a single parent. How did that happen?

My brother and I were living our lives in the American Midwest with mom and dad. Suddenly, my parents split and divorced. I was 7 and my brother was 5; we both have vague memories of them together. Dad had custody of me and mom had custody of my brother. Shortly thereafter my dad, who worked as a businessman and operations manager for a glass company, and I moved to Singapore, which became home.

Dad and Ed

I realize that being raised by dad in Asia is an “out of sync” and unique experience. From scuba diving in Malaysia to eating at the stalls in Singapore, our adventures together defined much of who each of us are, and we both are grateful for it. My dad was very purposeful, always encouraging my self-confidence and his time with me was a priority to him. He knew it was not the ideal situation for me growing up apart from my mom and brother, and it was certainly not the plan.

Now as a single dad myself, I can see life has a way of bringing sunrises and clear skies after typhoons. The best analogy I can draw in becoming a single dad was that it was an unexpected, blindsiding typhoon ocean wave; certainly was not foreseen. I was married for nearly seventeen years, and during the transition, I recalled and reflected on a something my Dad shared with me that was hanging on one of the living room walls in our Singapore home.

It was a scenic painting of large rock surrounded by a rugged coastline being battered by ocean waves. Think of the coastlines of Hawaii, the British Isles, or parts of California along the Pacific Coast Highway. I remember asking dad what it spoke of to him. He said that though the ocean waves keep pounding the rock and coastline, through it all, the rock just stays there and holds it ground. Through the chaos all around, it represented strength and resilience to carry on. That is what I had to do for myself and my kids.

Though I do not look it, Asia runs through my veins. My “Sweet Home Alabama” is “Majulah Singapura.” I go back to Asia in my mind often – it’s hard not to when cultural exposure as a child shapes who you are. Even now, fast food to me is satay, roti, laksa, curry, with a fresh lime. For dessert? Ice kacang.

From being raised by a single dad, to one now, I’ve learned the importance of spending time together. Dad would often say, “can’t have quality time without quantity time.” We both are scuba divers, and were dive buddies often in the South China Sea. During many of those dives we would swim ashore to an island, take off our gear, get out our dive knives out of the sheath and use them to get through coconut husks. That is one of the ways we spent time together, and certainly ate our share.

As I navigated the transition to becoming a single parent, I came to appreciate the traits developed as a TCK. Rather than running in search of who I was, I came to the point of embracing it. As my dad had modeled for me at a young age, I had to be resourceful and adapt to my new environment quickly.

This adaptability helped form a sense of adventure that I could not live without, always up for it anytime, anywhere. I have seen Mt. Everest with my own eyes, gone night diving in the South China Sea, wandered the jungle countryside of Malaysia and Indonesia, seen elephants as a matter of course in Sri Lanka, had a ‘move slow and stare’ contest with a Komodo dragon. Nowadays with my ‘tiga’ (three), it can be our Asian dinner nights, parasailing while looking for miles across the Atlantic Ocean, or going on zip lines over quarries.


Come to think of it, what qualifications did my dad have with me, or me with my three, in becoming parents in the first place? The skills I learned from my dad, and from being a TCK, translates well to being a single parent. My kids have learned that change happens in life and it is important to be adaptable, flexible, and confident with change as it provides a sharpened perspective. Value relationships yet be self-reliant. Understand that transitions can be tough, relate and empathize and know how to put closure to one phase and move on to a new one. Finally, have the tough mindedness and ability to not just survive change, but also thrive from it.

The fact is that there are no ordinary lives, we all have experiences, relationships, lessons, and adventures of their own. I embrace being a TCK and “at home” with who I am, and that certainly holds true now as a single parent. Though my upbringing may seem imperfect and “out of sync” with others, it sure fits perfectly.

In the summer of 2014, I was able to share my TCK heritage with my kids on a journey back to Singapore and Malaysia. It was a journey we will always remember and reminds me that “a man sees in the world what he carries in his heart.”

To Return

This morning, what sounded like traditional German folk music wafted from our upstairs Afrikaans neighbour’s window. It was so faint, it put me in a daze. My memory transported me to southern Germany, where I was cruising along swaying green fields, floating over a winding two-lane road that stretched endlessly into a blue sky.

I’ve just come back to Cape Town, where I grew up, after living abroad for five years. Returning to where you once lived can be an isolating, strange and scary place. Having a foot on two different continents and trying to stay in touch with friends and family in both feels at times like an overly-confident beginner acrobat doing a painful split.

Returning to your home country after years away is like opening your apartment’s front door, and at first glance everything looks the same. But then you notice all the furniture, identical to when you last saw it, has been moved around: the bed is in the kitchen, the sofa is on the balcony, and all the dishcloths, which usually hang right there next to the sink, are pegged and sighing softly on the tree outside. Everything feels real and unreal at the same time.

And now a new phenomenon has reared its head: whenever things go badly here, back in my home town, my instinct urges me to pack up and leave. Head to the nearest airport. And go. Wave goodbye to the intricate problems of the life I have created in Cape Town. And by intricate problems, I am referring to life’s little hardships – the kind of things that make us all want to pull our hair out. Like a bad night out, a friendship that isn’t turning out as expected, a hefty electricity bill or a power-hungry boss. These mundane moments of life that threaten to mute us all: a bad hair day, grey weather, a flat tyre, standing in a queue at Home Affairs for hours, a bad date, or no date at all.

A number of these all at once, or, just one on a bad day, veers me off course. These little hardships didn’t bother me so much before. But now every problem is magnified as the woven rug of established friends and parents, there in person or on the other side of my phone, has been pulled away from underneath me. Friends have moved into a different sphere and are married, in a serious relationship or have kids. I stand on a cold, hard cement floor. It’s not like returning back home after a brief holiday. It feels like in those five years I was gone, saplings have turned into trees, and I am constantly trying to find my space under their shade.

I’ve only been back a few weeks and nothing feels familiar. It’s hard. Everything is new. And although I grew up here, things are different, people are different. Or maybe I’ve just changed. It’s both an exciting and exhausting experience, a mixture of adrenaline and pulling the covers over my eyes.

Because I can’t hop on the next plane to somewhere, anywhere, I catch my mind wandering to familiar spaces. Even when I’m sitting in a restaurant with a group of people I can be so, so far away in my head.

“Where have you been?” someone asks me, breaking into my thoughts.

“Away.” I answer.

On those days I am away. I imagine spending time with my friends overseas. I travel straight for the horizon, longing for moments of idealised photographs, and oh-so-fun times of that other country. I put on my rose-tinted glasses, not remembering that I left it for a reason. I left because I needed to be home. My compass steered me back to the place where I first learnt to drive, where I first fell in love, where I first breathed this heady mixture of charcoal and fynbos air.

But my forever state cannot be running away, or wishing away, or whiling my thoughts away from here. And the “away” is slowly turning into a “here.”

 Photo courtesy of Mareike Pietzsch.

TCK Confessions: I dissociate

Leaving my schools on my last days felt heavy. I knew as I put my indoor shoes in my bag for the last time that I wouldn’t ever come back as a teacher, met by smiling faces and cheerful greetings. Bidding goodbye to a now pristine and empty house, the warm tears stained more than my cheeks. But my imagined final parting with my friends was far from anything I could’ve envisioned.

One canceled flight only began the frustrating process of leaving my most recent home. I’d expected painless, even enjoyable, hours spent in my home airport. Instead, endless waiting in line replaced any hope of mindless chatter with hurried dining and nonstop time-checking. So much for my heartfelt goodbye. After even more frustration in the next airport’s immigration, I felt my only real goodbye to Japan was during takeoff.

Sitting in the window seat, I kept my eyes locked on the illuminated airport. On my left was a Japanese-American kid, no older than 10, with his mother on his left. I felt him staring out the window, although probably with a different mindset. For a very brief instant I tried not to cry as the pilot pulled the plane off the ground. But as Narita Airport dwindled quickly, I couldn’t care less. Goodbye Japan. Goodbye Hokkaido. On and on I bid goodbye to people, places, and events, no longer trying to restrain my tears. Let them be seen, sadness is no shame. Too quickly, my home vanished beneath the cloudy night sky and I closed the shade, locking in feelings and branding memories. I will never forget.

Even though I’d been aching for at least four months to leave rural Japan and the immediate stardom it propelled me into, I hadn’t been ready for a sudden job offer, especially one from France! Needless to say, feelings and emotions tangled into one big, messy blob. But watching Tokyo’s light fade into the engulfing darkness while silently saying a final goodbye was too much.

If you know TCKs at all, you’ll agree we love getting on airplanes, country hopping and exploring any and all things – cities, local joints, touristy and non touristy spots. Our goodbyes are often temporary. But in those parting moments peppered with teary-eyed see you laters sometimes we can’t handle it any better than our non-TCK counterparts. I’m fine when parting with people. It’s only when I’m on the plane, seeing the country disappear beneath the clouds, that the tears come.

Returning to France felt like this: Welcome, foreigner.

Colleagues here praise my French, my mother tongue, like my colleagues praised my Japanese. I find myself comparing everything to Japan. It’s been a month and a half, and I still believe everyone’s driving on the wrong side of the road. I hate having to look where to step because I’m so used to clean streets and walking with my eyes glancing forward, not around. Strangely enough, I have the opposite problem with politeness levels here than in Japan: I’m a little too formal. Tipping in France might be an actual nightmare: apparently, sometimes it’s okay to tip, I just wished they told me when.

France is by far the most stressful when it comes to grocery shopping. Not only do cashiers not swipe the card for you, they generally don’t put the change in your hand, and you have to rush to pack your groceries yourself. Congestions guaranteed.

It’s only been a month and some, and already I miss speaking and hearing Japanese. Long grain rice tastes weird to my palate and the Asian aisle in the supermarket makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It’s been a long and hectic month of apartment hunting, luggage hauling and stressful, hurried lesson planning. I’m really feeling the loneliness of moving to a foreign country, and even though I probably started with only one friend in rural Japan, I surprise myself by already longing to return and half planning trips back.

How much harder can it be to make friends in a country I’m supposed to feel at home in, speaking a language I didn’t have to study?

Apparently, very.

I catch myself repeatedly drowning my loneliness online, especially when I realize I have no real interest in watching episode 12 of whatever TV show I started yesterday, but I watch it anyway because I need a distraction. I need something to make me forget, even for a moment, that I have to start over again.

I discovered a new term a few weeks ago: dissociation.

It describes a “wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience.” This rings a familiar bell. What I previously labeled as procrastination looks like a coping mechanism.

Last night, I dreamed I was packing so last minute there was nothing useful in my suitcase, and especially no clothes. Wet towels, yes. Random junk? Check. Passport? Nope!

I had to change from pajamas into actual clothes in this old Japanese lady’s tiny apartment. After I got on the plane, which was strangely not taking off, a little Japanese girl on her dad’s shoulders stuck her head in through a window and talked to people from my group. She smiled at me and said “Harro Merinda-sensei.”

A dream dictionary says that passports represent “your identity and your ability to traverse through various situations. You may be going through a period of self-discovery.” So, by not having my passport, does that mean I’ve lost my identity and am currently self-discovering my ability, or inability, to travel through “various situations?” It sure feels that way sometimes.

And if a plane taking off “suggests an idea or plan is about to ‘take off’ and be put into action,” does that mean my ideas or plans are taking root rather than taking off? I don’t see either happening yet.

I woke up disoriented with feelings sputtering around, and with more questions than the dream answered. I believe dreams show us bits of ourselves in relation to our current, or past, experiences. It’s a messy and confusing puzzle, but so is life. Maybe I’m just relating this nonsensical dream to my life, but there lies the magic of dreams.

We keep our vulnerable side partially hidden, as if concealing our moments of pain was as harmless as a spout of rain. But rain can carve mountains, and unacknowledged feelings have a way to bubble to the surface when we least expect it. Daydreams can hold us together when we’re browsing for cheap airline tickets or a random summer adventure, aching for past homes. But the dreams we experience at night remind us there’s more to our desires than we acknowledge, and show us no matter how much time goes by, we won’t forget the places we still call home.

I’m a TCK and a Celebrity Hairstylist

Although he was known in celebrity circles beforehand, stylist Ted Gibson really gained notoriety for his skills with scissors and shears when he joined the What Not to Wear team on TLC – a television show that revamps nominated people who deem themselves as folks with no style.

Superficial on the outset, it winds up being a moment of growth for the person, typically a mother who has neglected to do something nice for herself, or a woman who met her weight loss goal but still hasn’t gained the confidence to show off her new body.

As a hairdresser, Gibson is one of the last stops on the show and gives the person’s hair a makeover, completing the process.

“A lot of women don’t know how incredible they can be and how incredible they can feel,” Gibson said of the ladies who sit in his chair.

The show ended in October 2013, but he’s still busy as ever. With two namesake salons open the W Hotels in New York City and Fort Lauderdale, he travels the country with his husband, Jason Backe, to promote their brand and to beautify the tresses of movie stars, models and celebrities.

And all that airplane and passport action is nothing new for Gibson – the son of a U.S. Army soldier, Gibson moved “five or six times” (let’s be real, all of us TCKs forget) as a kid. In that time, he lived in Japan, Germany, Hawaii, and always returned to Killeen, TX, the home of Fort Hood.

How old were you the first time you went on a plane?

I would say I was about 5 years old.

How has being a military brat impacted you as an adult?

It helped me to adapt to different situations very easily and rapidly. I don’t think that I would necessarily have the same experience – especially the field that i’m in – and really understanding different forms of beauty. Our tagline is “Beauty is Individual,” so for me it’s about individual beauty, how that translates. Most people think of beauty, they think of one aspect of beauty. You could be 5’2″, a size 6 or 12, 18 or 24 – to me, it doesn’t matter. There’s something that I can find within you to help bring that out. I would say that having that experience of moving around so much really helped me in that.

And you still travel.

I love to travel. I’ve been able to do a lot of traveling, like going to Barcelona with Cameron Diaz and the Cannes Film Festival with Lupita Nyong’o. So I think that being able to move that often helped me to understand about travel.

Did you pick up the language in Japan or Germany?

Not really. We lived on post [on the military base] so I didn’t really have that opportunity.

Your husband grew up in Minnesota, not moving around like you. How do you two differ, how are you the same?

Jason is still friends with people that he knew when he was a kid, and I don’t know anybody from when I was kid because my dad was in the military and we traveled every two or three years. But our parents were together. Our parents are strict in the way that they want respect, and that they were mom and dad and they want that respect. Both of our backgrounds are similar in that respect.

What was the hardest thing about moving around?

I’m an only child; I actually have a half sister that is 18 years older than I am. I would say the hardest is not necessarily knowing where we were going to be in two or three years. But at the same time, it helped me to, again, adapt to different situations. I didn’t have that stability or that constant situation, because I didn’t know what was going to be constant. The only thing I knew that was constant were my mom and dad.

With the pros and cons of being a TCK, would you do it again?

I would do it all over again.

From the moon

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.

What accent are you?

Have you ever stopped in the middle of a conversation to think consciously about what accent you’re speaking in? To check if you’re pronouncing things ‘correctly’?

I have. A lot.

Raised by Singaporean parents, I grew up speaking English while living in Japan, causing me to adopt a Singaporean accent. Singaporean English, while based on British English, is also heavily influenced by American, Malay, Chinese and Indian dialects. The result is a creole called colloquial Singlish, which doesn’t comply with traditional language rules, and can be extremely difficult to understand.

At age 6, I started attending an American international school in Tokyo called Christian Academy in Japan. I still remember the day when I was called out of my fourth grade class and informed that I needed to receive speech lessons to improve my pronunciation.

My mum was furious. Why did her son, who spoke perfectly good English, need speech lessons? I was also stumped: what was wrong with the way I spoke?

Every week, I practised my ‘r’, curling my tongue upward, towards the roof and back of my mouth. I also worked on my ‘th’—many Singaporeans don’t enunciate this properly, pronouncing words like ‘three’ as ‘tree’. Understandably, I felt stupid at the time. But looking back in hindsight, I’m now extremely thankful for this coaching.

Over time, I acquired a strong American accent in high school. After graduation, I returned to Singapore to serve my two years of military service. Coming back, I realised just how unpleasant the Singaporean accent and Singlish were to my ears. I decided that I absolutely could not switch back to this ‘disagreeable’ English, and consciously and emphatically spoke in an American accent.

This was a rather unfortunate attitude of superiority I adopted. I looked down on everyone who didn’t speak ‘proper English.’  However, there were plenty of other Singaporeans who had also adopted this mindset. As a lowly recruit who didn’t even have a military rank, I found it wholly amusing how sergeants or officers who talked to me would switch to grammatically correct English.

Once, when our cohort was being punished, our sergeant began screaming at us in Singlish: “Kan ni nah, dun listen, later you kena punish!” When I went to speak to him afterwards, his tone changed entirely as he reiterated: “Make sure you follow orders and stay out of trouble, all right?” Needless to say, I felt slightly privileged.

Completing National Service in Singapore


After completing national service, I began life as a student at Durham University in the UK. This time, I desperately wanted to acquire a British accent. As immersed as I had been in American English for years, I subsequently espoused the idiotic viewpoint that it was not the ‘original and pure’ English. Again, the regrettable issue of superiority manifested itself through my sudden dislike of American English and my immediate embrace of all things British. So being the wise guy, I decided to fake a British accent.

It was atrocious. I was hyper aware of my pseudo-British accent during my first year, trying eagerly to blend in. I had heaped an unnecessary burden upon myself by choosing to fake an accent (oh, the shame!)—overly concerned with pronunciation differences, commonly-used words and phrases, rising and falling tones and pitches—all in my desperate attempt to fit in.

Let’s see. So ‘controversy’ is pronounced ‘conTROversy’ and not ‘CONtroversy’… but ‘controversial’ stays the same. Also, ‘ground floor’ rather than ‘first floor’. And it’s ‘GArage’ instead of ‘gaRAGE’… but it sounds weird when you say ‘GArageBand’! Hmm, the ‘t’ is sometimes pronounced as ‘ch’—’iTunes’ becomes ‘iCHunes’. Wait, the books of the Bible aren’t ‘FIRST John’ or ‘FIRST Peter’ but ‘ONE John’ and ‘ONE Peter’?!

Thankfully, I was spared the ridicule simply because I looked Asian—to many Caucasians, any Asian speaking fluent English is utterly astonishing and impressive.

It wasn’t long before I realised I had a serious dilemma: I didn’t know what accent I was speaking in, and neither did anyone else. When I returned to Japan and spoke to my American-speaking friends, I switched back to my American accent; yet they told me that I sounded British. On the other hand, when I returned to the UK and spoke in what I thought was a British accent, they said I sounded American. Which was it?

By this point, I understood that I would never fully speak English in a Singaporean accent, nor an American accent, nor a British accent. I could get close, but never fully, never native. So what did I speak?

Church outreach in Durham, UK


After a bit of research, I found this: Mid-Atlantic English, aka Transatlantic accent, a cultivated English blending American and British. I was overjoyed. Finally, a name for my accent! My most ‘natural’ accent currently is a Transatlantic accent, heavily influenced by both Americanisms and Britishisms, and their inflections. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll forever be situated between different accents.

Some have accused me of not staying true to my accent. But the fact of the matter is, I never had a single native accent to begin with. My Singaporean accent just happened to become more American because of my school environment, and has now become more British since I live in the UK.

I’m now extra cautious about creating and maintaining long-lasting, elaborate façades—it’s exhausting and frustrating, as I realised not long after first switching to British English. Speech became a highly cognizant activity. More concerned with the delivery than content, I couldn’t express myself adequately, making me sound slow-witted whenever I spoke up in class to the bemusement of other students.

Me: “Works such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus embodied an anthropocentric view. This is a characteristic theme of—” [The emphasis is on the second syllable—‘reNAIssance’—and not the first: ‘REnaissance’. Ok, I’ve got this.] “—the renaiSSANCE period.”

I’ve learnt my lesson.

My initial desire to adopt a fully American or British accent was a result of wanting to fit fully with specific groups of people. My experimentation of accents might even have stemmed from my subconscious search for an identity. Ultimately and understandably, the English I now speak is way more complex than I (or my parents) had ever dreamed it would be.

I still have the tendency to change accents according to the environment and people, but I now do it less out of an anxiety about my identity and more for the sake of communication. If I meet Americans, I’ll adopt an American accent. When I’m in the UK, British inflections abound. By doing this, I can communicate most effectively with others. I take pride in my ability to switch freely between accents to match the appropriate circumstances, viewing it as just another part of my complex international persona.

I’m never going to have just one accent, one language, one way of speaking. If I limit myself to just one accent, I would be limiting my identity and who I am. I’m already wavering between countries, cultures and languages—why not accents too?


Picking Teams: World Cup Woes

I was at work the other day when the U.S. played Germany in the World Cup. I work in a hotel and bar, and we’ve been showing all of the matches on a big screen about twenty feet behind where I sit. It’s on silent and we don’t get enough football fans to make a lot of noise when somebody scores, so for the most part I’m in the dark about scores until my shift is over. But I was curious about how the game went and I managed to pull one of the managers aside and ask how the game went.

“Germany won 1-nil, but the U.S. is still advancing.”

“Oh, cool.” I started to turn back to my computer.

“Don’t sound so excited, there. I mean, you only knocked out Portugal. The best player in the world plays for Portugal.”

“Yeah, but I’m a Spain fan, so…” I trailed off. They looked at me as if I’d just said I sacrificed gerbils on my altar to the moon god Zestra in my spare time.

“Why? You’re American, aren’t you?”

“Only technically. They give me a passport every ten years, that’s about it.”

“Oh, so you’ve defected,” another coworker chimed in.

“Pretty much.”

We laughed and the conversation changed quickly the Suarez’s sanctions for biting another player, and to be honest, it was kind of a relief. Normally when I say I don’t cheer for the U.S. in most sports, I get met with responses that range from prolonged, almost deliberate confusion to outright hostility.

The truth is, when you have no set loyalty to a country, or even one you consider “home”, picking a team to support becomes a bizarre logical exercise. I have a complex matrix of reasons for choosing a team to support that involves where I was when I became a fan, who my friends were at the time, if I’ve lived there, if I would want to live there, if I would ever live there again, and so on. Who I support in one competition or even one event has no bearing on who I support when the next event rolls around.

For instance: I support New Zealand in rugby, Spain in men’s football, the U.S. in women’s football, Canada for hockey, and the Red Sox in baseball. Curling and cricket are still up for grabs if anybody has suggestions for a team I should follow.

Most of the year, this isn’t a problem. People laugh and shrug their shoulders and add it to the list of weird things about me, and I’m cool with that. Being a TCK isn’t the easiest thing in the world to explain, and I’m pretty content when people will just leave things be. But when a major competition rolls around? All bets are off.

When international events begin, it is expected that I will somehow get over my complex national identity and put on my red, white, and blue face paint like a “real American.” My friends and I become frustrated with each other, and even the people who know me best get annoyed that I’ll cheer for another team, especially if I cheer them on against the U.S.

And as for people that don’t know me that well? The word “traitor” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s rarely a joke.

“Of course they get annoyed,” my friend told me one day at the gym. “Sports are our psychological stand-in for war.”

What he said clicked for me. Sports fans are passionate, superstitious, and obsessive. We talk about our teams’ performance as if we were on the pitch with them, and we accept congratulations over their wins against rival teams and condolences on a loss. When Spain lost to the Netherlands in their first World Cup match, I had a forty-five minute FaceTime conversation with a friend that was a mix of stunned silence and furious post-game analysis. It was a personal loss.

But when it comes down to it, sports fans are like this because we’re like a tribe. A clan. A nation. Instead of having to fight our neighbours for land and food supplies, we fight opposing teams. We send our warriors to the battlefield and we cheer them on from the stands. Their wins are our wins and their losses are our losses.

So of course when a competition comes around that combines tribe mentality with ardent nationalism, emotions run high. And that makes it more difficult for other people to understand our lack of national pride, our seemingly callous disregard for the country that birthed us, whatever that country may be. There is no TCK team in the Olympics, no Global Nomad team on the football pitch. We don’t fit into any neat geographical categorization at a time when we’re told most strongly that we should. Believe me, if we were represented at the World Cup, I’d happily change loyalties and support “our own.”

As it stands, though, I love cheering for Barcelona or Boston or Canada. I love putting on my All Blacks gear and going to a friend’s house or a pub or a match and cheering them on. But I love it because these are teams I’ve chosen, these are tribes I want to join. Being a TCK means seeing past the boundaries, so that I can decide who to support and why. I can even shrug my shoulders and pick one out of a hat, cheering for that team just as passionately as any of my own. I mean, in the end… why not?

As for today… Vamos Argentina!

Third Culture Kid Styles Of Keeping In Touch

The first thing you learn as a TCK who lives a nomadic lifestyle is that everyone has different styles of keeping in touch. Some are great at it, others you know better than to expect to hear from them. We went through our own friend list to cull this list of “Third Culture Kid Styles of Keeping in Touch.” Of the methods described below, we’re sure you know of at least one person who fits the stereotype. Which one are you? Or, are there others we forgot to list? Let us know in the comments.

The Scheduler
Experts at navigating time zones, these Type-A TCKs are great at nagging you until you both set an official date and time for a Google hangout or Skype date. Organization and efficiency is their forte and you won’t be surprised to find a Google Calendar invite for your virtual meeting. Don’t expect them to stay for long though, these are busy souls with lots planned in one day, so get as much packed into that hour long scheduled session as possible.

The Opportunist
These are friends who only remember you exist when they are visiting your city. They are likely to send a long message talking about how they are visiting and they are so excited and might slip in that they need a place to crash. You bond the few days they are in town and then they vanish into the abyss that is the abroad. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Self Paparazzi
These communicators are often the definition of TMI. They send constant updates from wherever they are, definitely on Instagram and probably via Whatsapp or Snapchat, too. Their updates can come in the form of quotes, a funny or not so funny story, or a picture of their latest locally-sourced, beautifully plated meal. Depending on how you know this person, you might find this endearing and love the idea of sharing each moment with them, or you might find it extremely annoying, because no, I don’t really need another picture of your dog sleeping on your couch.

The Old School
An endangered species that still keeps in touch via good old snail mail and beautiful postcards. They love investing in beautiful and exquisite stationery for their special correspondence. Sometimes little gifts will come bundled in the package, and the address is always carefully handwritten. They will send you a letter and then will email you to tell you that it’s on the way.

The Good Intentioner
These communicators remember you when they read about your country (or countries) in the news, meet someone else from your country, or eat food from your country. You will most probably receive an email or FB message with a link to an article that they read. The message will often end with a ‘I miss you,’ but following up is not their forte. An unfortunate sub-breed includes those whose geography is not the strongest. They send you articles about Egypt when you are from Iran, because you know – they’re all the same.

The Intruder
The middle or high school friend you added back when MySpace was cool. Or, the person you added freshman year of college in the zest of friend-making that only freshmen have. The funny thing is, you just haven’t gotten around to deleting them yet. Nowadays, this long-forgotten friend pokes you on Facebook, comments on something you posted (usually political) or randomly goes on a liking rampage on your profile pictures. Basically, they interact with you via social media, but you haven’t actually talked in six years.

The Time Traveler
Time travelers were probably your ‘best friend’ at some point in time. No matter how many months or years have gone by, it seems like you can pick up from wherever you left off last time. You are eight again, playing tag or playground games. Or you are sixteen again, recalling your first crushes. You don’t need to find things to do together, as recounting memories is the most entertaining thing you can do, and which you can do for hours.

The Introvert
They are not the best at keeping in touch, but if you call them or message them, they burst open with stories and anecdotes. They need a little nudge to remind them that you too want to hear what they’ve been up to. Once in a blue moon, you might be fortunate enough to hear from them first. Take a moment to bask in the honour of being one of the few lucky people.

The ‘What’s Up’
Most likely to communicate by phone or a chat messenger, these connectors start every conversation with “What’s up?” Conversations with them are never really about anything important but you somehow are able to spend hours talking to them, usually at work. When you try to think back to what you talked about, nothing comes to mind. After every wave of stories they are most likely to say “Sooo, What Else?” Once they realize that they have exhausted the amount of silly stories and anecdotes they can get from you and they are done telling you theirs, they will hang up and move onto the next person.

The Storyteller
Great at remembering details and conveying them with patience, this style of TCK communicator prefers writing long emails which can most probably be published (in a blog, at the very least). When you receive one, you know you’ll have to put aside time in the calendar to take it all in, and when you write back there’s pressure to make sure your email is just as long and just as intense (a thesaurus comes in handy). This friend may take a while to respond amongst all the other long emails they receive. By the time they get to yours it might take a month or two, but the reply is usually worth it.

Illustrations for Denizen by Natali Voorthuis.

“What is wrong with you people?”

“What is wrong with you people?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” I said.

I had just met this 40-something woman dressed in a red sweater and jeans at a quasi-museum. New York was having its annual ‘Open House,’ where many historic buildings open their doors, giving curious New Yorkers an exclusive peek into normally private spaces. After hopping from church to church, I found myself in what used to be a day hotel in the 1800s.

Standing in the kitchen waiting to hear from docents on how the house help would heat up the oven, I secretly re-enacted a scene in my head using the actors from ‘Downton Abbey.’ But instead of hearing a docent share historical facts, I was greeted with a “Where are you from?”

Not wanting to embark on my 3-minute-long speech about where I grew up I said, “Oh, I’m from New York.”

She smiled and said, “No, but where are you really from?”

With a sigh and a smile of defeat I answered, “Well, I was born in India, but I grew up in the Middle East and Turkey.”

She nodded while scanning me from top to bottom and asked, “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes,” I said.

And then she leaned in and asked “What is wrong with you people?”

I couldn’t help but laugh and I thought she would join and we could just leave that there as an absurd joke, but she was serious.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Why are you bombing us?” she asked in all seriousness. “No really, tell me.”

I had been asked questions about Islam before, which I am extremely open to, but I had never been asked point blank to explain an extremist point of view while representing all Muslims. Seeing that she wanted an answer, I went on a rant about the history of the U.S. and Taliban and how this was really just a war between them and didn’t have much to do with Islam or Muslims as a whole. But she didn’t want to listen. In fact, I wasn’t sure what she wanted out of the conversation.

She went on to justify the War on Terror and explained to me that everyone in the Middle East was poor and uneducated, not to say, it was one of the most dangerous places on earth. I was more amused than offended. I had always heard of this type of ignorance, but living in New York City, I saw very little of it, or at least it’s not as blatant as this. Seeing that I was not going to be enlightened on the secrets of running a day hotel kitchen in the 1800s, I politely bid her a good day, thanked her and left.

As a TCK, whether you like it or not, you end up becoming an ambassador of the places you’ve lived in, the cultures you were a part of. I’ve always believed that one shouldn’t shy away from these frank conversations as it is entirely possible that you could change someone’s perception, probably for the better.

I wasn’t sure whether I did the right thing in leaving when I realized that nothing was going to change her point of view. Should I have stayed and convinced her that her belief that a visit to Turkey would leave her kidnapped and held hostage in a cave was far from the truth?

Fast forward to a few days ago, I am settling into my seat for the long bus ride from Boston to New York City. I found myself next to a guy in military uniform who looked up at me and said, “Wrong choice, you don’t want to sit next to me, I smell!” We both laughed and thus our conversations began.

He was a young man still in college getting his degree in information systems and had spent 18 months in Afghanistan. My first instinct was to ask “Ooo… how was that?”, but I had to bite my tongue, reminding myself he was at war and not on vacation. But I wanted to hear stories about how it is to live there and I wasn’t disappointed.

Over the course of the five and a half hour bus ride, his stories ranged from the time he woke up at 3 a.m. to watch the Super Bowl, to how he tried to learn to play cricket (“I still don’t understand it, it’s so confusing!”). He spoke about the burqa but not in the usual Afghani-women-are-oppressed way but in a casual that’s how they live way.

He even threw in the age old joke, “They are all wearing the same thing, how do the guys know which one to take home? Imagine they get home and…” the rest of it trailed off in laughter.

One story stayed with me the most. It was about giving candy to children, and how he realized that whenever he gave candy to girls, if they didn’t eat them right away the boys would come and snatch the candy away from them.

“So,” he said, “I wouldn’t let them leave until they ate their candy.”

The triumph in his voice made it seem as though he thought he had a superpower and wanted me to commend him on his bravery in protecting young girl’s right to eat candy. Apart from the obvious adorableness to the story, what I thought was amazing was that this didn’t become a big discussion about how women are so oppressed in Afghanistan that even the little girls were oppressed by the little boys over candy.

He told me about how in some villages the kids would throw rocks at them but he said it without resentment. Here is someone who has seen hostility against Americans, someone who has full reason to believe all the stereotypes about people from Afghanistan. I’m sure the woman from the museum would have been appalled by his stories, using them as confirmation bias, but his experience in combat allowed him to see them as human.

I wonder what it will take for that woman to also see that. Does she need to be deployed in Afghanistan to get a bit of perspective, to see that there are good and bad people everywhere, to see that not all Muslims are out to get all Americans? How do you convince someone of the universality of something without making them actually go through the experience that brings them to that epiphany?

Just as I was trying to represent a tolerant Islam to the woman in the museum, the soldier was illuminating a side of the American army much different than the violent images and anecdotes that shaped my understanding and perhaps prejudice against the US military force. In a way, the soldier was an accidental TCK. He spent time in a foreign land and created a third culture, or a third understanding of the way the world works that does not completely align with the prevailing mindset in America or in Afghanistan.

As TCKs, we hold a piece of the puzzle that is missing in mass media. We add context and real human stories to the headlines and photographs that seem so distant. With an acute understanding of both sides, all we have to do is pick the right stories to fill in the gaps. One can think of it as a responsibility or a burden but I think of it as a gift. You won’t get through to everyone but even if you add a layer of perspective for every few people that you talk to, that is still a success.

A few days after the bus ride, I was out buying lunch and the man making my wrap looked at me and said “You want hummus?”

“Yes, please,” I said.

“Yeah, I thought you would like hummus,” he said. “You look Middle Eastern.”

I smiled and went back to checking email on my phone.

“You’re from the Middle East right?” he continued.

“No, I’m actually from India,” I replied.

“Same thing,” he said.

Here we go again!

Featured image courtesy of onesevenone on Flickr.