Growing up in an international organization like the United Nations is an incredibly unique but challenging experience.
As you go from suitcase to suitcase, airport to airport, it becomes difficult to discover who you really are.
Personally, as I grew into myself as a Filipino high school student in Taiwan, I came at a crossroads. I knew I was Filipino and desperately wanted to be Taiwanese, but knew that it wasn’t who I was.
In my part 1 of Growing up in the United Nations, my mother recounted some of the most beautiful memories of her upbringing in the Middle East while studying in international schools.
Here, I ask her about the painful challenges of becoming a Third-Culture Kid (TCK), a person who has spent a significant amount of years growing up outside his/her passport country.
Here’s what she had to say.
1. Describe your TCK experience in one paragraph.
“My TCK experience was challenging, yet pleasantly enriching.
I went to three international schools; two American, and one British, and each one had different standards academic and facility wise, which made the transitions more difficult, not to mention the multiple nationalities in the school communities that I needed to slowly adjust to and get to know, both teachers and students alike.
After a few months, while making new friends, I would develop a sense of belonging and commitment, and eventually, after a few years, an attachment to both host countries and schools. Add all these factors together and the equation is a mix of confused identity and belonging, rooted in time spent in a place with its cultural influences, and developed relationships.
Although I consciously knew my passport country was the Philippines, somehow, I felt like a citizen of everywhere and nowhere.
Home was everywhere and nowhere.
But at the end of the day, I was content in knowing that home was wherever family was.”
2. What are the pros and cons of being a TCK?
“You become very adaptable to change whether it’s moving to a whole new continent, school, or applying for new jobs.”
2. Social Skills
“You develop social skills and a deep cultural understanding and sensitivity that cannot be taught in standard classrooms.”
“You become resilient from all the adjustments you’ve had to tackle during early developmental years.”
4. Multilingual abilities
“You become multilingual from all the cultural exposures. You can shift from one language to another with ease.”
5. Adept to building relationships
“You become adept to building relationships with other cultures which allows you to function more effectively in International Organizations as a college student or a working adult.”
“You have a better understanding, tolerance, and respect for all kinds of religions.”
“Although making new friends and saying goodbye can be difficult and heartbreaking, the end result is having a network of friends all over the world. And when you reconnect after many years of losing contact, the special bond stands firm.”
1. Identity Crisis
“Overtime, you develop an identity crisis on a cultural level – not growing up in your home country has made you unable to feel a sense of “oneness” with your own nationality and culture.”
2. Lack of knowledge of your home country
“You have a unique difficulty upon returning to your passport country because of your inability to answer questions of origin, your lack of knowledge about your home nation’s history, culture, politics, humor, local news, etc.
For me, this was the most difficult relocation. On my first year back home in college, being a Music student majoring in piano, I was voted to represent the Conservatory of Music Department for the college’s annual pageant.
I had an idea about the Philippines’ great love for pageants, but I never thought I’d be thrown into one.
I had trouble making sense of its importance.
During the question and answer portion, of all the contestants, I was the one asked a historical question about our National Heroes, Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio. My jaw dropped.
I had no clue whatsoever.
I was ignorant of my own nation’s history.
I wanted to sink from humiliation for myself, and embarrassment for letting down my fellow Music students who were rooting for me.”
3. Struggles in fitting in
“The struggle to fit in and belong with your own people is surprisingly a challenge. Despite speaking the local language, you are marked as different from everyone else who grew up there because you have a different accent, different perspectives, different fashion sense, and overall, different upbringing.
I couldn’t talk about my experiences and speak in my natural language of English without being perceived as boastful.
Even in Vocal recitals where I sang Filipino love songs, I was teased for having an American accent.”
4. Layers of loss
“The multiple transitions result with layers of loss – friends, community, pets, food, culture, a place of comfort, identity.
Most of the time, the cycle of grief goes unspoken with family.
Parents think you’re young, you can adjust easily.
For some TCKs, these layers of loss run deep and linger long after their childhood because it wasn’t dealt with sooner.”
3. What advice would you give to young TCKs who are struggling with their identity?
1. Talk to your parents
“Talking to your parents is a very important step, also to friends who are aligned with your experiences because they will understand your struggle with identity more than anyone else, and knowing you’re not alone helps as it gives you a sense of security. This unique situation is not as rare as it appears.”
2. Embrace who you are
“Learning to accept and embrace who you are – a collection of every culture you breathed that makes you whole. A citizen of the world!”