For those of you who don’t know, TCK refers to a group of people called third culture kids. The official definition of a TCK is someone “raised in a culture other than their parents’ (or the culture of the country given on the child’s passport) for a significant part of their early development years.”
I love this label because it defines who we are without putting us in a straight jacket. Two TCKs may grow up in completely different countries and still understand each other based on the experience of living in a country that’s “not your own.”
We also go through the same struggles of trying to explain our experiences to non-TCKs. Here’s a list of questions to avoid, to makes us laugh and to win us over.
Questions to avoid
Where are you from?
I envy people who can answer this question without hesitation. “I’m from Michigan” or “I’m from Paris.” For me, there is always a half second of awkward silence as I consider how to respond this time around (because the answer always changes).
I used to tell people that I’m from Austria because that’s the nationality of my passport. But now that I’m living in Austria, I feel like a complete foreigner and the need to justify my shoddy German, so I’ve started telling people that I’m from Indonesia (where I was born).
Which country did you like best?
Oh, man… what a loaded question. The answer is I cannot give you an answer. Each place has its merits and its flaws, but each place feels like it came at exactly the right time. Most people don’t want to hear this; it feels like a cop-out. But seriously, I couldn’t imagine not living in the countries I did at those exact periods.
Can you speak X number of languages? (But maybe this is just me.)
No, I cannot, and yes, I know, it’s a shame. Some TCKs are really talented and learn six plus languages, but people forget that not everyone is great at learning. I can understand most Indonesian and German conversations, and I know enough Mandarin to survive in the city, but I’m only fluent in English – period.
People are usually disappointed when I tell them this. They think growing up in different countries means you’re fluent in everything. I used to be fluent in Indonesian but you’ll be amazed how easily you forget a language when you stop using it as an adult.
I’m almost tempted to say sorry, but oh well. I blame it on my father’s genes – he lived in Indonesia for 15 years and never learned Bahasa. I must have gotten it from him ;-)
Questions to make us laugh
What is your favourite airport?
You might think this question is a joke but I kid you not, I love this question. I never really thought about it until I saw it on a TCK website, and I was surprised to find that I could immediately give an answer.
The Changi Airport in Singapore. It is the best airport I have ever been to so far and puts the Shanghai Pudong Airport, the Sydney Kingsford Airport, the Munich Airport and so many others to shame. It even has a BUTTERFLY GARDEN. I mean, really…
Runner-up would be the Hong Kong International Airport, although Shanghai Pudong Airport has the fastest immigration.
What country has the best-looking money?
This is difficult but fun to think about. From the get-go, I can tell you that American money is hideous in comparison to other countries. How can you quickly tell apart a $5 bill from a $100 bill if all of them are green?!
I think Australian bills are the most colourful and fun that I’ve seen so far. But coins are an entirely different story. I don’t even remember where they’re from, but one of my favourites has a hole in the middle like a doughnut.
What are your favourite culture clash stories?
A fun question. So many answers. Having grown up and experienced so many cultures, TCKs can tell you endless stories about funny culture clashes. That’s why I love the television series, Fresh Off the Boat. I understand the struggle of trying to fit into western culture and western friends being perplexed by my Asian culture. (Success perm, anyone?)
Questions to win us over
What’s your story? How has growing up TCK shaped your life? (Followed by: I have time to listen.)
Now we get into the deep questions. I think most TCKs will appreciate this because there are so many facets to our identities, and most people are only interested in our stories for five minutes before they move on.
For instance, when people ask me where I’m from, I secretly wish they would probe further. Then I could tell them that I’m part Indonesian, that I was born there, that I moved to Shanghai when I was a teenager, that I studied in Sydney, and that I moved again to Vienna for my Masters degree. I could tell them that my mom is Indonesian but Chinese by blood and that I have Jewish heritage on my dad’s side.
I could tell them about the struggles of growing up TCK, that although I have loved it and wouldn’t change it for the world, I also wish I had roots and a place I could always return to and call home.
If you take the time to ask these questions, a TCK will love you forever.