It was only recently that I have come across the term, “third culture kid.” In a snippet, Wikipedia defines Third Culture Kids (or TCKs) as:
… children raised in a culture other than their parents’ (or the culture of the country given on the child’s passport, where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years. They are exposed to a greater variety of cultural influences.
After finishing third grade here in the Philippines, I spent two and a half months for my fourth grade in Nairobi, Kenya in a British school (where I experienced being sorted into a house, and said house won that year’s house cup 😛 ). The following five years were spent in France in three different schools: an international school, a bilingual school (that merges American and French academic systems), and a French public school.
After spending a total of five years immersed not just in a different country, but highly exposed to different cultures, we returned to the Philippines feeling like total strangers. My brothers and I have experienced being marginalized, maligned, and estranged from our batch mates in school who have had a tight-knit relationships since preschool. We are, of course, endlessly thankful for the few close friends we have made since then.
Now speaking for myself: Due in part to that immersive experience during my formative years, I have always found myself in a state of voluntary detachment. It was not that I resisted integrating myself into a group (school, work, organization), but it just took time for me to warm up. I tend to shy away from a group of people that I observe to have already formed a bond, wondering if I would be welcome or outright ignored. There were times when I would prefer to be alone because being forced to adjust to a new group of people over and over again became exhausting.
It also posed a linguistic challenge. I have often felt like a traydor sa sariling lahi (traitor to my own ancestry) only because I cannot express myself as well as I could in Filipino than I can in English. I have been mistaken as arrogant, maarte, or conyo just because the standardized English language comes easier to me, while French comes second.
There was a point in time when I cursed my past, and I wished that I was just left behind in the Philippines just so I have the sense of belonging that my classmates had. I envied my friends who talked about how close they are with their high school batch mates, and how they keep in touch after all these years. It was something that I could never simulate, and something I could never fully experience.
But I have become aware of my unique experience and how it plays a significant role in how I deal with people, and how being a TCK sets me apart. Knowing that I’m not alone, and that I have a lot in common with teenagers and young adults who have undergone homeschooling helps a lot. Being aware of why I feel the way I do, which leads to how I behave around new groups of people (kind of awkward, slow to warm up or to open up), help me to adjust. I allow myself to be introspective and to recover after social interactions, or to process my thoughts and feelings by talking to family or close friends.
If there is anything that being a TCK has taught me is to be more understanding, more flexible, and to be more sympathetic. I have to understand that those who have not had the privilege of growing up like I have would also have a though time understanding me and seeing from my perspective. I also have to realize that from the point of view of my fellow Filipinos, I come across as intimidating and even unapproachable because those who have traveled and lived abroad are generally looked up to. It’s up to me to bring my privilege into play — not through haughtiness or a disproportionate sense of self-importance, but through broader understanding, tolerance, and openness brought about by being exposed to a larger world. I can only hope I can enrich a friend’s life, but I know for one I come out more knowledgeable and appreciative of my home culture.