Or; What it is like to be a TCK.
...Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
After finishing a writeup on Singaporean society, many people asked many questions about my background – where I was born, where I have lived and how I have been affected by my experiences in Singapore. This node is to answer those questions, and shed some light on an entire group of people who have grown up with similar experiences as my own.
I am part of a group referred to as 'Third Culture Kids,' those who have been exposed to many different societies during their developing years. Whilst I have already written a fairly objective, factual account on what a TCK is, I am going to try and tell you what being a TCK is like. It also contains more commentary on Singaporean society, commentary pertaining to what it is like to be white in Singapore.
Where do you come from?
People often ask me where I am from, unsurprising when you consider I am white in an Asian country. It is a difficult question for any TCK to answer, I was born in Singapore, and I have lived within this country's borders for all of my life, yet my association with this country extends only as far as it being a place I happen to be residing in. It is a difficult question to pose to any TCK, most of us do not associate ourselves with any particular country. My parents moved here before I was born; my mother originally from England, my father from Australia.
Generally people feel some sense of belonging to the country that they were born in. We cannot, most TCKs have lived in many different countries – moving as their parents' company decides that they would be more useful elsewhere. When your race differs from the race of the majority of people in a country, you cannot really identify with them. As much as the Singapore government would like to believe that Singaporean society is based on racial equality, that is not the case. I am what the government likes to refer to as 'foreign talent,' and I am treated as a foreigner wherever I go.
Singapore is not like Bali, or Cambodia or many countries where a few white people exist – white people will not be swamped by a torrent of locals trying to sell them trinkets every time they go out in public. In Singapore the white people are the business-people, Singaporean society seems to be based on foreign talent. Whether it be the Bangladeshis who do the cleaning and building, or the white people who run all the big businesses, Singapore is based upon having expatriates being the higher or lower end of the workforce.
What does that mean? It means that when I was younger, everyone associated my race with my parents being rich and successful – despite the fact that this is not the case. Everyone just assumed I was another corporate brat, following his parents around the world. As I grew older and I no longer appeared to be a child, I was assumed to be a young, successful businessman. That is the way things work in Singapore, I cannot be a part of this society regardless of how hard I might want to be.
So where do you identify with?
My place is placeless, I identify with nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Singapore in itself is a place which has merged a hundred different cultures into one, creating one great big bland non-culture. Singapore is the perfect example of why globalization is bad. The only thing I can compare it to is making a cookie – instead of mixing the dough with the chocolate chunks and marshmallows and nuts and whatever else with a spoon, you throw it in a blender. It doesn't come out as delicious chunks held together by the dough, it is one big creamy mass. And it probably doesn't look good, probably resembling poo in color and texture.
I cannot identify with this country, and generally people expect me to identify with the country where my parents were from - Australia or England. This assumption is often made about all TCKs, but we don't. How can we? We may have lived there a brief while, but certainly not long enough to fit into the society as a whole. We are different; respecting all cultures, understand that any kind of discrimination is bad, knowing that not everyone can be expected to agree with all of our views. We are willing to try anything once, and for the most part we cannot stand having to be constrained to any single place or culture.
We were born outside of any culture, and there we will stay. The stereotypical TCK has been moving all of his life, and is all the better for it - like a well-blended cookie! We are tolerant and understanding of any culture or race, and for the most part we want the world to have such differences between nations. Most TCKs will continue moving all of their life - even if they didn't like it as a child, they will choose it as an adult.
I cannot live in Australia nor England, I find both societies as a whole to be very narrow-minded. However, I think this of all societies – even Singapore. The only thing I can identify with is other TCKs, because we all share these same feelings and cannot be repatriated. You cannot take a person of a multi-cultural background and expect that they will be able to turn into a mono-cultural person, especially if these experiences were during their developing years.
Would you choose this life, for yourself or your children?
This is probably the best question that has ever been posed to me when people learnt what I was like for having such a varied background. It is probably one of the trickiest to answer. Unlike many of the questions I am not sure whether my answer would be the same as other TCKs. The answer is similar to the one that I would give if someone asked me whether I would have chosen this life if I had the choice - I will try and expand.
I do not want my children to grow up immersed in only a single culture - despite how much one travels to different countries the tourist experience is not the same one that you would get from living there. Tourists only catch a glimpse, they see the culture only on the most superficial level. Having such a multi-cultural background has made me a better person; more tolerant, more open-minded. We are friendly people, skilled in making friendships after having a lot of practice.
However, there are many benefits to stability in childhood – deep friendships are forged and I suppose I myself long for some sense of belonging. Knowing where you want to spend your life is something that a lot of people take for granted - most never really consider living in a place other than where you have stayed for the majority of your life. Even if you did move, you would associate the country you have citizenship – you may have issues with it, but for the most part you are somewhat proud of your country.
It is hard to say what I would do, as I was growing up I lost a great many of my friends. Some people may consider it a terrible thing to have to leave all your friends behind, but the TCKs have to do it several times in their life. In Singapore I spent most of my childhood attending a school where the average stay for a single student was usually around 2-3 years. During the course of my schooling I lost my closest friends around 6 times – I may have been here all along, but they all had to leave.
Having to lose your friends so quickly and often is not good for a person, especially when you know that you are going to lose the ones you have. We find it hard to trust people, and find it difficult to hold on to those who we may want to. When a close friend of yours leaves the country, or you leave behind your friends, you would imagine that the friendship would live on despite the fact that you are in different countries. So many times I have seen people lose their closest friends and seem so indifferent – your closest friend may not be so close after all. One way or another, four months down the track and we will not even think of them anymore.
How have your experiences affected you as a person?
Aside from not being able to identify with any place which many people feel that I should identify with, my experiences as a TCK have impacted on me in a variety of ways. As always, it is hard to analyze oneself in an objective manner - especially when the outcome of this analysis may not be particularly complimentary. I will try to explain what type of person I am now and how this is a result of my experiences.
I feel lost and confused. This is a time when I have to start making decisions regarding my future and I feel I simply cannot. I have delayed going to university because I could not choose a course I wanted to do - there is nothing that interests me, yet so many things interest me at the same time. As a Singapore Permanent Resident I am required to serve National Service for 2 years upon turning 18 - it was a tough decision for me to make to abandon the place which I could sort-of call home, but I do not identify with this place enough to want to be trained to fight for it for 2 years.
I have been described as friendly and charismatic; something that I, like so many like me, have learnt through necessity. It is a trade-off in a sense; do you have more loss in your life or do you make a more friendly person? I hate the way that people in similar situations as mine can abandon their closest friends, it seems so despicable to just abandon them. Yet even having said that, I fear that I myself am guilty of it. I do not like it, but as much as I may want to remember them and keep in contact with them, one side will always end up forgetting - they themselves are TCKs after all.
I find it hard to maintain the same group of friends - even when stability exists I seem to want to be rid of it. I find myself hating the friends who have been around for more than two or three years, for no apparent reason. It is as if losing my friends so often has made me expect to lose them so much that either they go or I push them away. As hard as it may be to lose your friends once, by the fourth or fifth time you just become numb to it.
You can recognize a TCK because they, like me, will probably have a kind-of nonaccent. My accent has been described as American, British, Australian, German, Scottish, Irish, Italian, and French - although usually only one or two at a time. We all tend to be very clear in the way that we speak, and as has been mentioned we are good at languages. I myself do not speak any language other than this one, but I am a lot better than most at it. My attempts to learn Chinese while at school were crippled by the fact that every two years it was an entirely different class - we started from the beginning of the course a lot.
At the end of the day; I may be able to use chopsticks as easily as a knife and fork, but to have to lose my friends so often and not really care seems too terrible a thing.