TCK_feat image_2018Jan29_feat

Are You a Third Culture Kid?

February 05, 2018 / by / 0 Comment

What is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?

You might not have even heard of the term “third culture kid” before, so I’ve consulted Wikipedia to define it for you:

“Third Culture Kid” or TCK refers to individuals who were raised in a culture different than their parents’ (or the culture of the country stated on their passport) for a substantial portion of their early developmental years.

I learned about this term when my American teacher told my class that we were all third culture ki­ds. Since we were a bunch of Hong Kong students studying at an international school, he was right in a sense. We neither have full ownership of the Hong Kong culture nor to the American culture. So in a way, our upbringing led to the formation of a third culture, a mixture of Hong Kong and America.

Little did I know that this term continued to linger in my mind and I realized that Third Culture Kid was my identity. I know I am not fully local and I am definitely not American.

What distinguishes TCKs?
So what distinguishes TCKs from other kids?

It is quite difficult to come up with all the distinct characteristics of a TCK, so I sought help from the internet. Unsurprisingly, BuzzFeed has already published an article titled “31 Signs You’re A Third Culture Kid”, but only a couple of them resonated with me since my view is limited according to my life only spent in Hong Kong (for now).

So here are some characteristics of a Third Culture Kid with some modifications and a few (more like one) of my own. Maybe you relate to them. If you do, you might just be a TCK.

1.     You have a love-hate relationship with the question “Where are you from?”TCK_dont know how to answer_2018Jan29

Most non-TCKs are probably neutral to this because they can answer this question easily since they have probably only lived in the same place their whole lives or were only exposed to one culture growing up.

On the flip side, Most TCKs are ambivalent about this question. They might love this question because it is a good conversation starter and brings back good memories, but they might hate it because they can’t give short answers. Their terse replies will usually raise more questions or even unexpected reactions about their background, so they have to explain themselves more.

I can answer this question relatively easily since I was born and raised in Hong Kong, but subsequently, I usually have to explain that my English fluency and the American accent in my Cantonese are because I studied at an international school. If you ask me, I would say that I don’t like this question because I am reminded that I do not have accent-less Cantonese.

2.     Your accent changes depending on who you’re talking toTCK_do you  understand me

For many non-TCKs, the accent that they have is probably the only accent that they know how to pull off, so they can’t change actually change their accents on demand when conversing with different people.

However, most TCKs can pull off a couple of accents due to their exposure to different cultures and consequently, different languages. They are generally not afraid to interact with people from different cultures, but in order for their listeners to understand what they are trying to say, they might have to adjust their accent.

For me, I did this more often after coming to university because there are just too many accents for one language. To illustrate the different accents that exist in Hong Kong, I remember that one of my local hallmates said that she could speak English quite well, but “not the kind that Yammy speaks.” I agree that I do use English phrases that many locals do not use, so when I talk to them, I usually avoid using them. On the other hand, it might seem like I’m “dumbing down” my English so my peers could understand me. But in the long run, maybe they’ll learn something new and maybe they can develop a new accent. “To change, or not to change– that is the question: whether tis’ nobler to let your peers suffer from lack of understanding or to take arms against this.

3.     You can easily tell if another person is a fellow TCKTCK_We're the same

“How do you tell?” you may ask. Well, it’s not obvious, but you have to be observant to distinguish the unique characteristics TCKs exhibit.

I think fashion, though superficial, can reflect the TCK-ness of the person. For example, more westernized apparel can usually mean that the person has studied or studies at an international school.

Another observable difference that I’ve noticed is their facial expressions and body language. I can’t tell you the distinct characteristics that associate with TCKs or international school students, but I’m telling you, it’s easy to get a hunch about their background just by looking at their faces or even by how they smile in pictures.

You know, though both my parents are from Hong Kong and they look like they’re from Hong Kong, many people mistakenly think that I’m a mix, with which I don’t agree (at times), but I definitely don’t mind it. I know there’s a thing about nature versus nurture, but did my upbringing in the international school environment change how I look?

Appearances aside, I think you can also tell if another person is a TCK by their sociability, or more so their willingness to interact with people who have a different cultural background than theirs. Another thing is their accent, maybe I’m being a bit biased, being exposed to the American culture, but you can tell by a person’s accent, especially by their English accent, if he or she is a TCK.

As for non-TCKs, I’m not sure if they can easily distinguish a TCK, but maybe not so much because they probably weren’t as exposed to different cultures.

4.     You have circle of friends that are racially and religiously diverseTCK_Diversity_2018Jan29

I think this is so because TCKs, being exposed to different cultures, have more opportunities to meet people from different cultural backgrounds, and hence, have more chances of forming a diverse circle of friends. I also think that it’s easier for these diversified groups of friends because TCKs are more aware and accepting of their cultures.

On the other hand, non-TCKs might not have this diverse group of friends because of their limited exposure. But in making friends, especially in university, their friend circle might still be small because they might be afraid to approach different cultures. This could be a result of language barriers, incomprehension of cultural differences, or incapability of getting along with those who are different than them. I say “might” because I know this is not representative of all non-TCKs.

 5.     You’re the token exotic friend in your non-TCK crewTCK_Exotic Friend_2018Jan29

Let me speak for myself first. Most of the non-TCK friends that I’ve made after entering university, whether at school or at church, have either directly, or subtly informed me that I’m different, more specifically, unconventional. This could be true maybe because of my accent or the stories that I’ve shared before, but I think it’s more because of what I say and how I act. Let me do my best to recount some of my friends’ responses to my exotic eccentricity.

Response 1: My (in)famous reputation on social media.

My roommate has been my faithful audience, or you could also say, an unfortunate victim of my weirdness. So much to the point that she has posted my late-night quirkiness and creatively crafted jokes on her social media page, which is, gratefully, only appreciated by her friends and family in Mainland China and not by anybody in HKU.

Response 2: I say weird things

My local HKU friend was telling me that her friend does not know how to read comics. “I think it’s just so weird,” she said, “usually the weird things I hear are from you.” I wasn’t surprised at her response. I even responded, “Yeah, I do say some pretty weird things,” but it didn’t hit me until then that I’m probably the weirdest friend she has. But I don’t mind it at all. It was just a sudden realization.

These two responses and many others have led me to recognize my eccentricity, how I’m not a well-rounded regular individual, especially to my non-TCK friends. I embrace it, though. At this point, you might be thinking, “Well, maybe you’re just weird, Yammy. That doesn’t mean TCKs are usually exotic in their non-TCK crew.” And I would agree with you, somewhat.

However, I do beg to differ that non-TCKs probably do appreciate having TCKs around just to have someone different. What’s so appealing about befriending TCKs, though?

Well, TCKs will probably share any fascinating experiences they have just to relive the memories of having a multicultural background and what-not. Also, that they might just know how to cook different types of cuisines.
Good on those non-TCKs who recognize the value of befriending TCKs.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that non-TCKs can be equally exotic. And I commend them for expressing their idiosyncratic self.

6.     Your friends are scattered all across the globeTCK_call with friends

This is highly related to having racially and religiously diverse friends as TCKs may now be studying in different countries than their friends. Thus, they have friends all across the globe.

There are other numerous reasons. For instance, many TCKs have probably made friends in the different countries they have lived in before. Or they’ve lived in environments that attract people from all over the world, but these people, sadly, might have moved away to other places, too.

As for me, I can say I have friends scattered all across the globe because many of my high school compadres study overseas now. Also, I had some opportunities to go on overseas service trips with my school, giving me the chance to befriend the locals.

This situation might not be as evident for non-TCKs for obvious reasons, but this does happen for non-TCKs nonetheless. Some non-TCKs might even have more initiative to get to know people from different countries in wanting to expand their friend circles.

Right now, you’re probably tired of my yammering about my TCK experiences. Well, enough from me. Take a look at what some of your fellow HKU TCKs have to say about being TCKs.

What do TCKs think about being TCKs?

Knowing that I was a third culture kid and that there are other people like me made me feel comfortable in my cultural identity, and it is nice to share the experience especially with kids from international schools who grew up surrounded by cultures other than their own.

Studied at an Australian international school in Vietnam

“Your accent changes depending on who you are talking to” is so true. I even adjust my English to write in or speak with wrong grammar to some people.

Studied at a local school in Hong Kong

I guess the advantage is that being exposed to more than one culture has encouraged me to be more open-minded. The disadvantage would be my inability to read and write Cantonese despite the fact that I live in HK due to how I never had the need to learn it. However, whilst I am exposed to more than one culture, I do not really consider myself to be a third culture kid. This is because I’ve never lived and experienced the culture of another country. Hence, from the BuzzFeed article, the only points that I can really relate to are “You have a love-hate relationship with the question ‘Where are you from?’” and “ have a strong and well-informed opinion on the I.B. system.”

–Ho Nga
Hong Kong
Studied at an international school in Hong Kong

To everyone’s confusion, your accent changes depending on who you’re talking to!! – seriously!! It does!

Studied at an international school in Malaysia

One perk of being a third culture kid is that I can experience different cultures. For example, I can celebrate more than one culture’s holiday, New Years and also Chinese New Year. One difficulty of being a third culture kid is that I always have to explain where I am from, which at times gives me the sense of not belonging to either culture.

Raised in the USA

“ To everyone’s confusion, your accent changes depending on who you’re talking to” and “You have a love-hate relationship with the question ‘Where are you from?’” literally define my life.

Studied and born in Hong Kong

Maybe you’ve identified yourself as a TCK, or you know some of these TCKs, or recognize that your circle of friends might include a couple of TCKs, too. Good on you!

After all the talk about TCKs, I just want to let you know that I don’t really consider these differences when I’m trying to make new friends or just socializing in general. And you shouldn’t, too. These distinctions are meant for you because “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

If you are really interested in learning more about Third Culture Kids, you can check out this website, watch the short film, “In Between,” by Wong Fu Productions, or read up about it in Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds by David V. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I probably will, after I skype my friends who study in America.

Hope that you enjoyed learning more about us, Third Culture Kids!


I'm a mood- and time-dependent poet and musician Love to be around green trees, blue skies, and just the ocean No longer bound, but free to be, like this writing position Guess I wrote this 'cause I's urged by some poetic motion