6 years passed after my first publication before another one of my written pieces was published in 2012. And this time, it was a non-fiction piece, an autobiographical testimony about a personal issue close to my heart. I had originally written a rant for my own pleasure called ‘The Thing About TCKs’ and posted it on Facebook more than two years ago. I was surprised to see the amount of positive attention it received, both from peers who applauded my ability to explain succinctly this identity crisis we were all going through, as well as from adults who had similar experiences and thought processes during their youth. This led to Wendy Marshall, a missionary friend of my parents and the editor of Japan Harvest, a magazine published by Japan Evangelical Missionary Association (JEMA), asking me to write an article about this issue specifically directed to parents of TCKs who wanted to help their children through such crises, by presenting a perspective of one who had personally and very recently experienced, wrestled with and overcame. The following article entitled ’TCKs: Children of the World’ was published in the Summer 2012 edition of Japan Harvest (Vol. 64, No. 1, Diaspora Missions: Global and Local).
A quick disclaimer: this article contains a very simplified overview, serving more as an introduction. It isn’t meant to provide the right answer or an indisputable explanation, neither will it be applicable to every TCK. But the views expressed in this article are a truthful representation of my thoughts and emotions two years ago, as well as those of various peers whose opinions I gathered at that time.
My views have developed significantly since writing this, and I’d be more than willing to discuss my current opinions or answer any questions you might have, so feel free to comment or tell me about your own TCK experiences! I have also recently written a much more detailed article containing a deeper examination of my own story that might be included in a book of personal testimonies published by the mission organisation my parents are affiliated with (OMF International) and will inform you if that materialises. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post that article on this blog in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy this introductory article especially if this is your first time hearing about the TCK issue, which has undeniably formed my current identity and will continue to influence my life until the day I die.
TCKs: Children of the World
by Justin Lau
“Do you know who has an identity crisis? As TCKs, all of you do. All of you have a problem.”
No, we don’t. Who are you to tell us we have a problem?
That was my natural reaction to the adults who lectured us regarding ‘the Third Culture Kid (TCK) issue’ during school. Granted, those were not the exact words said to us, but that was certainly what my friends and I perceived. Three years after high school, I have come to realise it is a legitimate issue. I am no expert, but as a full-fledged TCK, I believe I can contribute to a better understanding of the issue.
Descriptions of TCKs include comparisons such as ‘passport country vs. adopted country’ and ‘single culture vs. globalised culture’. Though true and relevant, I dislike such technicalities that attempt to encase our entire identity within a single conflict. In my experience, the difference between TCKs and non-TCKs is this: the common sense of TCKs is not the common sense of other people. It is an enhanced, broader sense that allows us, with our globalised culture, to quickly familiarise and adjust to social norms anywhere in the world.
I am Singaporean by nationality, but I grew up in Japan. Though I owned a Singaporean passport, I sensed my true identity lay in Japan, with its people, language, and culture. Graduating in 2009 from Christian Academy in Japan and moving to Singapore to serve my two years of compulsory national military service confirmed this. I considered myself accustomed to the country since I had visited it every summer, so I was shocked when I felt like a foreigner there. I sought some complex explanation for my confusion but ultimately realised it boiled down to this simple fact: I did not fit.
I had culture shock in what was supposed to be my ‘home’ country. I felt far from at home and struggled through each day. What I took for granted in Japan was nonexistent in Singapore. Topics I previously considered commonplace were met with blank stares. It was then I registered that Japan was my ‘home’ country. As I suspected, I related far stronger to my adopted country than my passport one. But was I truly 100% Japanese? I did not fit in Singapore, but I did not fully fit in a completely Japanese environment either. Ironically, many conversations with Japanese people would also be met with the same blank stares. Anywhere I went, I asked myself, Why are they doing this? Why do they say that? Why don’t they realise they’re mistaken?
As I wrestled with these questions, I began to realise why I thought so differently from both groups of people. Although I was raised in a Singaporean family, and despite having lived in Japan all my life, my experiences had little in common with a purely Singaporean or Japanese child. Instead, I grew up in the company of fellow TCKs, a thriving international community at my school where mutual understanding reigned. There was no identity crisis; we did not know we were supposed to have one, because what was abnormal according to the world’s standards seemed perfectly normal to us.
As soon as my friends stepped outside this community to disperse around the world, they began asking themselves, as I did, Why do I feel like I don’t fit, like I don’t belong, like I’m an outsider even though this is, in a sense, my ‘home’ country? ‘Home’ is a taboo word to a TCK, but we’re often asked, “Where is your home? Where are you from?” which essentially implies, “Where do you belong?” Is it your birthplace, the country of your nationality, the place you grew up, the place your parents grew up, the place you studied, or the place you currently live? For every person, it is different. Yet the universal answer is this: for anyone, home is where the people you love the most are, be it family or friends. With this definition, calling more than one place our home is no longer an absurdity.
As TCKs, our ability to understand various cultural scenarios with our heightened common sense is beneficial. But we cannot fully fit in or assimilate. The keyword is ‘fully’. To an extent, we can involve and enjoy ourselves wherever we are. But usually, there are clashes of viewpoints, conflicts of moral stands, and opposing methods for dealing with problems. We will naturally feel uncomfortable and uneasy. And the ultimate comfort zone will be around other fellow TCKs with whom we can talk and have mutual understanding.
I strongly implore all parents of TCKs to refrain from denying or attempting to change this special, beautiful identity. Instead, embrace it alongside them. Be there as support through the confusion resulting from cultural differences and the frustration that stems from misunderstanding. Walk with them through the broken-heartedness at separations and the loneliness from solitude. Provide assurance through the anxiety regarding finding that special partner of the opposite sex. Remind them that despite all these predicaments, God has a wonderful plan for them and is in complete control. He will provide peace, comfort, and healing in times of pain; as well as strength, wisdom, and determination in times of difficulty. His grace and love will grant protection in all walks of life if they rely and trust in him. He will never abandon and always be with them.
TCKs are children of the world — we transcend culture and language barriers. But we are also children of God, so our citizenship is in heaven. Through precious relationships, we not only create a worldwide network in the body of Christ, but we also will be at home no matter where we are. Being a TCK does not mean we are unfortunate or unlucky, so please do not pity us because of who we are. We go through sufferings just like everybody else — and the more we go through, the more we grow; the more trials God sets before us, the stronger we get; the more we experience we gain, the wiser we are. This life is no curse. Rather, it is such a blessing!
© Justin Lau, 2014
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