Third-culture kids/Goodbye

I wasn’t familiar with the term “third-culture kid” until we moved overseas.  Along with a lot of other terms and concepts and values, it’s something I’ve only had to think about since becoming an expat.  This is from the description of third-culture kids by the sociologist who coined the term in the 1950s:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their passport country. TCKs are often multilingual and highly accepting of other cultures. Although moving between countries may become an easy thing for some TCKs, after a childhood spent in other cultures, adjusting to their passport country often takes years.

All these things are so far very true of our kids.  Rufus has become “accepting of other cultures” to the point where he doesn’t even identify nationality.  When he mentions a new friend at school and we ask him if they’re English, Chinese, Australian, American, Indian, out of curiosity, he says “We’re all English.”

The last point in the description, about having difficulty adjusting to their passport country, concerns me with Zadie.  She was a babe in arms when we moved here, and when we visit Australia, it’s clear she is quite discombobulated and has no memory of places and most people (especially if we haven’t stayed in touch via Skype).  She took her first steps and spoke her first words here.  She is, really, a Hongkonger – and I wonder, if we stay here for years and years, whether she’ll even consider herself Australian.

There is a unique TCK accent here too, known sometimes as the ESF (English Schools Foundation) accent – an amalgam of British, American, Australian and Chinglish, with inclining vowels and rolled Rs.  Both our kids are developing it in earnest.

In the two-ish years we’ve lived here now, we’ve already experienced a distinct downside for the kids of being TKCs: the relative frequency with which their friends move away, according to their parents’ careers.  A lot of expats in Hong Kong work in either finance or engineering, and there’s a well-trodden expat circuit in this region (and those industries) with families spending 2- or 3-year stints in Shanghai or Beijing, then Hong Kong, then Singapore, and then perhaps Dubai, before heading “home”.  We are one of the few expat families I know who came here because we wanted to live in Hong Kong and intend to make a life here for as long as we love it.  This gives us more freedom than most (in the sense of being able to create a home, knowing that we won’t be uprooted in six months or a year); but also leaves us open to having a transient circle of expat friends.  Of course we are making some local friends and trying to assimilate; but, yes, it is obviously important to interact with people who share the same mothertongue and some of the same cultural ideals.

Here’s one more salient point from the TCK description:

“Almost all” TCK families are deployed to foreign countries as a result of the father’s profession, and very few families live in another country primarily due to the mother’s occupation.

Well, we came here for a lot of reasons, family and individual aspirations key among them, but we were able to get our visa because of my job.  This is pretty unusual in the expat population.  An opening gambit in expat conversations is “What does your husband do?” and it’s very rare to meet another woman who isn’t the “trailing spouse” (a term I find a little derogatory, but that’s for another post).  But I did meet such a woman, one day down in the carpark waiting for the school bus with her daughter.   She was an American called Michelle, and after six or so years in London, she and her family had followed her banking career to Hong Kong.  They’d moved into our village, and they were our first close friends here.

Beyond our shared “not trailing spouse” status, our kids went to the same preschool, our husbands liked the same obscure music, we were alike politically and in generally not going in for expat status markers that can abound here.  We attempted, and mostly failed, to coordinate playdates around our really long work days.  We understood what it feels like to have to travel often for work, away from your family…the guilt of being the one who gets to leave the house, and the one who makes the kids cry.  And we were both great cooks.  Oh that’s right, she was a great cook; I remain a shit one.  We went swimming together after the kids fell asleep at night.  She helped me sew the kids’ bedroom curtains.

In Eric and Michelle (or, as Zadie calls him, Ericken, as in “Eric’n’Michelle”), and their girls Ruby and baby Maria, we really found true friends.

We each called our eldest children Ru.

They introduced us to Halloween.

Chalking outside our house while Michelle was in labour with Maria, only three weeks ago!

And today they left the village after a year and a half, heading back for Ohio.

Michelle and I had a great day at the Disneyland Hotel with the four kids, while Eric and Joel packed up the last of the stuff in their house.  After poking Maria for a bit…

..the older kids found the only bit of real green grass in Hong Kong and ran around like maniacs and assaulted each other with Buzz Lightyear swords.

Making friends and letting them go is something the kids have had to get used to already, with a few families we know leaving Hong Kong at the end of their parents’ contracts.  But it’s the first time Joel and I have experienced it.

I’m sad.

And lonely.

We have other friends here, but it’s hard to lose your first.  (Before meeting Eric and Michelle, Joel and I had already pretty much decided we didn’t really need good friends here.  The kids did – but we had each other, we had acquaintances, and we had our friends at home, electronically at least, and we had dad and Penny.  Thanks, Eric and Michelle, for re-teaching us the lesson most people learn about age 2: that everyone really does need somebody to lean on.  And get stuffed, for leaving!)

I have four reasons to want to visit America now (the other three being Paden, The Douglas Sisters, and attending an NCRA conference).  Hopefully it’ll happen in the next few years.

Saying goodbye in Disney Hotel room 5132.  No tears mofos.

Bon chance, you guys.  Take Ohio, climb trees and fall on grass that’s not prickly, rediscover proper bread and seitan, but always remember the ultimate Hong Kong lesson: NEVER THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX.  That shit doesn’t get you anywhere.

Love xx



6 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh boo 😦 Sad for you guys.
    It’s totally sucky, I know exactly what it’s like. When ex-pats meet, no wonder everyone asks “how long are you planning to stay for?” as part of the introductory chatter… We’re really all wanting to know “should I grow close to you and invest in a friendship, or are you going to break our hearts in 6 months?!”

    1. jadeluxe says:

      It’s so sad 😦 I really understand what the kids must have felt like now when it’s happened before with their little buddies. And then the inevitable questions: “When are we moving back to Australia?” “How come YOUR job doesn’t transfer to another country?”

  2. DrieCulturen says:

    Hello, thanks for writing about third culture kids. I am so glad that parents who move internationally with kids know of the term TCKs. I’m an adult TCK and I know all about moving again and again. Saying goodbye is horrible every time again. My greatest challenge was going to university in Holland, after living in Africa for 19 years…
    Hope you keep in contact with the friends in Ohio & make some new friends again?

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hi there…
      Yes, TCK is a bit of a buzzword here – I think a book came out recently about it? I don’t know many adult TCKs. Do you find you have commitment issues in terms of not wanting to stay in one suburb/place? I wonder about that…for myself, I already can’t picture going back to suburban Australia…I know I’ll get itchy feed within months…

  3. Sandy Tremel says:

    This reminds me of being a military wife. My husband spent 24 years in the Marine Corps here in the U.S. We moved about every 2 and a half years. We made friends at every duty station, and it did hurt to move away. But now years later, we have friends all over the States. When we get together it’s like we never left – and sometimes it’s been 20 year since we’ve seen some families! Think of it as a blessing to have met so many people. It makes for so many interesting chapters in your life.

  4. jadeluxe says:

    Hi Sandy. Wow, 24 years of moving…I don’t know if I could handle it! 😉 It’s a great adventure though and you’re right, a blessing to meet so many people. Thanks for commenting.

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