Life as a TCK

February 1, 2013
By Anonymous

I will start this article by stating straight out that I am a third culture kid, or TCK. If you are unsure of what this term means, it is simply a child who has the culture other than the one they were born into.

I’m an average person. 15 years old, middle-class (for an American), white, with no physical or mental disabilities whatsoever. I was born in the state of Washington, and after a year we moved down to Oregon, a year later to Virginia, a year later to Florida. It was here that my brother was born, and my dad quit his stable job as a lawyer to join the Foreign Service as a political officer. We moved to Washington D.C for the first time, and what I didn’t know is that we would be visiting this city countless more times to come. My dad learned Korean for 6 months, while being paid as our family of 5, including my newborn sister, crammed into a tiny, 2-bedroom apartment.

I was six years old when we moved to Seoul, Korea. Although I can remember little bits of my life before this, this is where my memories really begin to form. I attended the Seoul American Elementary School on the military base in Seoul.

Some quick background information on the military base- it’s a base exclusively for U.S government workers in Korea. On the base, it’s almost as if you’d never left the United States, as you can find your favourite fast food restaurants, attend U.S curriculum-based schools, and watch American movies in the cinemas.

My dad would often take me to what I called, “Real Korea”, located outside the gates of the U.S military base. I remember the street vendors selling tables or candy, the beggars trying to fool us into buying one of their products, even the smell of everything. I remember my best friend, Sarah (name changed), who was Korean-American and learning English. I practically lived in her house and knew her family well. Her English wasn’t the best, and as a small kid, I didn’t know better to not imitate her accent and the way she said things, though I don’t remember her or her family ever being offended. I can’t remember much else about Korea, as a six year old I was never taught about the hellhole of a place it is to live. To this day, though, I can honestly say that Korean sweets are one of my favourites.

When I was 8 years old, after a heartbreaking move back to Washington D.C’s district of Falls Church, Virginia, I attended Thomas Jefferson Elementary School while my dad learned Lao for yet another 6 months. I hate to give the story of the sad outcast who didn’t fit in, but that was my story. I was in third grade and I spent those 6 months with virtually no friends. My culture was different; I didn’t know how to interact with these kids from a new world.

We landed in Vientiane (pronounce Vee-ehn –chahn, not Vee-ann-tee-ann) Laos, a small, landlocked country with bordering countries Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in February, 2006. Being the fast adjuster that I am, I had adapted myself to the American culture in those short 6 months, and absolutely despised this third-world country I was living in. “I want to go back to America! I hate Laos!” I would rant. The school I was attending, Vientiane International School, was the first international school I had been to in my life. In the American public schools, I found the majority of the students to be Caucasian. Here, the vast majority was Asian, and the Caucasians were either Australian or Northern European. The school had a high Australian influence on it, though the curriculum was based in the United States.

I would like to go into some depth of the qualities of this school, and Vientiane in general, as I think the average American high schooler who has attended American schools for the majority of their lives would find it very interesting.

Laos is a communist country where, no doubt, thousands of people are left in poverty. One thing I realise, now being older and having a higher understand of the world, is that the people in Laos, even the ones in poverty, were extremely happy with their lives. The boys rode their pink bicycles, not giving a damn. The children played in small streams near their homes. The street vendors (I will be referring to the ones right outside our house) blasted their loud local music on cheap stereos; the smell of fried kebabs filled the air and blended with the smell of smoke and gas. The men danced in the street, completely drunk (we were once followed home by one), and almost every road was not a road, but a rocky dirt path. There were two main “malls”, one being the Morning Market, an outdoors/indoors market where people would buy fresh fruits, fabrics, toys, jewelry, and other things they might find. The other one being Itecc, the only mall that might resemble one in the United States, but it was still nowhere near as close.

My school continues to be one of my favourite schools that I have attended. The Vientiane International School’s entrance contained of a nice paved path, covered by straw tops held up by wooden branches. To the right, the main dirty field where the major sports events was held. It was smaller than the average American Football field size, but large enough to fit a game of football (soccer). To the left was the torn-down playground the preschoolers and kindergarteners shared, their classrooms nearby. The hallways were all outside, and they all looked like this, the classrooms were small two-story buildings with colourful doors and a funny smell. Our music room and classroom were actually two old houses that the school had rented, and they were way back, far away from everything else. There was one bathroom for the all the boys and girls in the K-12 school, though some classrooms had individual toilets. The bathrooms were located outside and instead of doors, bead fringes hung. The stalls, of course, had doors. The canteen, or cafeteria, served Lao food during lunch, but during both break and lunch, soda was sold in plastic bags, or really good ice cream. Though the idea of soda in a small, plastic bag sounded crazy at the time to me, it became normal, and I still don’t think it’s weird to this day. My teachers were all from Australia or New Zealand.

While in Laos, my best friends were all from Bangladesh, Japan, Sweden, Nepal, Canada, Thailand and Laos. Still young, there were many new words I learned from my Australian teachers and multinational friends. For example, my American-raised parents pronounce ‘herb’ without the h, and to me, this sounds very strange. I often don’t know whether to spell color or colour, favorite or favourite, realize or realise. What I decide to spell is what comes out at the time. I often don’t know to call it football or soccer, though I always refer to American Football as such.

I could go on and on about Laos, the country I considered home and where I was happy, but that would be going away from the point I am trying to make.

When I was 10, almost 11, we moved from Laos to Falls Church. This continues to have been the hardest move of my life, I wept for even a year after. Those tween years are awful for any girl, but for me in particular. The move affected me so much, on top of the hormones I was experiencing. As you might recall, I had previous trouble making friends in the school district there, and it was no better at a time when I really needed good friends. I again didn’t fit in with the culture of the school. My friends back in Laos were very open with each other, and this is something I will get into shortly. Here, people were a little more conservative, and this got me into some trouble with the teachers. I got terrible grades, mainly because I just didn’t care and absolutely hated school. The teaching methods were so extremely different than what I was used to, and I recall my teachers not being the most supportive. I remember the first few weeks of my transformation from a private international school to a public American one, and having a quiz on U.S Geography, which, of course, I failed. I did have a group I could call my friends, though there were some things about them that I couldn’t understand or fit in with. There were countless times when I thought they were being mean, and sometimes they were, sometimes it was just me going through this awful phase. When my parents told me when I was 12 that we would be moving to the Philippines, I was absolutely thrilled.

This was for a good reason, too. The Philippines is my current location, where I am now, writing this article. It is my third year, and it’s where I feel home.

Going away from the autobiography writing I was hoping this would not turn into, I am now going to talk about my friends, and the culture of them as a whole.

My friends here in the International School of Manila are from the following places: Australia, Korea, China, Nepal, Norway, U.S, England, Iran, India, Japan, Ukraine, and the Philippines. One of them is a mix of U.S and England, though she is also part Filipino and African. In our group, there are three Caucasians. The Ukrainian, the Norwegian, and myself. There are times when some of my friends hang out where I am the only white person. My friends often tease me about it, because even for a white person I am extremely pale. “Here, you take the white controller.” “Hey, look at our rice! They match our skin!” “Dude, you’re whiter than normal…” are just a few things they’d say. And here’s the thing: I never, ever minded it.

Something I’ve noticed about American culture is that they are so concerned about offending another race that they refrain from using terms that might be considered offensive. Although it’s great that the world is becoming a more accepting place, they are going away from a great opportunity to have a better relationship. The fact that my friends emphasize me being white only puts into my mind more that they still love me, and they’re close enough to me to know that what they say won’t offend me. They tease me for being short and white, I tease them for being Asian and tall (the stereotype being that Americans are tall and Asians are short). Even in class, we sometimes refer to races as just “black” or “white” or “Asian”. We speak the truth about different races. There was one case where we were talking about vulnerability, and it was mentioned that the white people are less vulnerable when it comes to disasters because of their overall wealth, no matter what country they’re from. That’s not to say that all white people have a roof over their heads, but it is a generalization, and a true one.

The reason behind the long story of my life was to give an insight to Americans who don’t have enough understanding of the world an insight of what it’s like. My story sounds long and complex, but there are hundreds more American TCKs in my spot. Not just American, my Australian friend has lived here in the Philippines for most of her life. My Korean friend was born in India. I hear stories of people living in one state, country even, for their entire life, and I can’t help but to think that I’d go crazy in their situation. You’d think that I hate to move, but it’s part of my life, I can’t imagine a life in the same city for more than 4 years. I have been to the U.S, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Ecuador, the Philippines and Singapore. Japan, Thailand, Ecuador and Singapore were countries that we just visited, and not lived.

In a few months we’ll be moving back to the D.C district, and this time I’ll be going back as a mature, caring 10th grader. I’ll be able to live the American high school experience for the first time, and I’m always looking for new experiences. Whether I graduate there or not is unsure of, but either way, I know that I will have hundreds of stories to bring back, and hundreds of things to teach. What I’ve described here in this article isn’t even half of the experience I’m living, I’m leaving out all the snorkeling trips, service trips, Buddha Park trips, zip-lining trips and the never-ending hours spent in airports. What I hope comes out of this is a fascination and a deep interest of getting to know our surroundings in greater depth, not just what’s learned in school.

The author's comments:
I wanted to write so much more, but it would not fit in the written article requirements :)

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This article has 2 comments.

izzy said...
on Feb. 21 2014 at 7:02 am
DAM you went to ISM? ive been there soo many times! i went to the other IASAS school, ISKL, malaysia

Ellie3062 said...
on Feb. 5 2013 at 11:25 pm
This was really captivating to read. You should write more about your experiences. I would love to read them!


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