Third Culture Kids: The Return Home (Cue Foreboding Music)

By Tim Brantingham

My kids have no idea they are Third Culture Kids, nor have any interest in discussing the topic. They confidently shout out they are from “Hawaii”, and will root loudly for any USA team on TV… unless they are playing Japan or Hong Kong, in which case a hint of internal struggle might become visible on the brows. They, of course, do not think much about this because they go to school with kids who are Australian and French in the same way. To them that national identity is just a sticker you paste on the “Where Are We From?” poster at the front of the classroom.  I come from that surfing place; I come from that place with a big tower. Kangaroos!

I felt the same when I was in school in Taiwan in the 1980s. My life’s ambition was to be an all-American boy, wearing my jean jacket, hoping to one day suck down chili dogs at the Tastee-Freez with a girl named Diane. We’d take the train and go surfing on weekends; we’d talk about the Indiana-Ohio State game after school while eating jiaozis and fried rice at the corner noodle stand; we’d watch hours of MTV videos on VHS, diligently recorded and sent kindly by someone’s aunt back home. Don’t ask me who the top Taiwanese movie star was in 1987, or which Taiwanese music act was the most popular. We were not paying much attention to Taiwan; we were looking mainly at the US, and I, for one, couldn’t wait to get there.

Taipei American School, Class of 1988.

Then I got there. (Menacing music playing loudly and violently now.)

I’ll spare you the gory details, I’ll just say it was not pretty. Not that there was anything wrong with the US; I just did not fit there. I looked the part but did not really know how to play it. My stories were all Asian context stories, and after several weeks of telling them, I realized my dorm mates were not that interested in hearing them; or better put, could not relate. I came across as exotic, maybe a little elitist; I felt awkward. I found it more comfortable to keep to myself. The US was not as shiny and wonderful as I had imagined, and the real blow came when I discovered the chili dogs at Tastee-Freez were, in fact, quite unappetizing to eat. Then, when Diane asked me if Taiwan was a suburb of Chicago, I packed up my ill-fitting American dream for good.

That’s when TCK consciousness started kicking in for me: when I could not find a secure tether in the US to connect to. I compensated for this by going the other way: I started longing for the sights, smells, tastes, and contours of Taiwan: a home that I felt I had under-loved all my school years, like a wet nurse whose name I never knew. I started looking for ways to get back.

I did make it back to Taiwan, and of course it was not fully the same as I had remembered. I went far more local on round two–I worked locally in Chinese; I had many more local friends–but that didn’t fill the belonging gap either. My Taiwanese friends (and later colleagues in Shanghai) had as much difficulty relating to my experience as did my US friends. It seemed neither side offered a strong connection point.

There were of course other family issues in the background at the time, but I went through a good fifteen years of deep funk, bouncing around the US, China and Taiwan, until finally finding the right combination of factors in Hong Kong to allow settling down, one of them being a TCK wife. As a family, we have become “place and location agnostic” and we search for tethers in people, the third culture way. Today we are lucky to have strong people tethers in all the world’s four corners–but I digress.

Taiwan Wannabe Surficus Americana

Yes, I spent 17 of my first 18 years in Taiwan before moving to the US–I suppose culture shock was inevitable. But friends who only had a year or two in Taiwan had similar experiences. They may have had more home culture in them; they may have had intact and familiar communities to return to, but that intense experience overseas, where the cultural slab rock is levered up even a little bit, means new things flowing under and around, and that changes the feel of everything back home. Length of time overseas may make the homecoming experience more severe or pronounced; but transitions are transitions.

TCK literature is unanimous in saying the greatest challenge TCKs face is the ever-increasing store of grief that accumulates after a life of many transitions and goodbyes. As Ruth Van Reken, a founding TCK researcher, writes, “The issue is that transition always involves loss, no matter how good the next phase will be. Loss always engenders grief and the greater you have loved a situation or place or people, the greater the grief.”  

TCKs, who experience transition on a yearly basis, either from moving themselves or seeing others move, already have a heavier than normal share of slow-drip, unacknowledged grief.  But the so-called return home can be where all that grief really comes gushing out. This “home” is the place you have been looking to for many years; it is where you are supposed to belong to; it was pasted on your class poster for 12 years. But now that you have arrived “home” why does it feel more foreign than the foreign place you just left?

I remember being in college and my sister coming to visit; we had a great few days re-connecting. When she left and I said goodbye to her at the Richmond airport, I suddenly could not control my emotions. I went outside, hid behind an oak tree, and cried uncontrollably for about 90 minutes. She hadn’t died. She just reminded me of what good connections felt like, and that little goodbye was one goodbye too many. I can’t tell you how common this experience is for TCK kids: at some point the grief just can’t be stored any more.

Third Culturus Grumpaloid Maximus

In the hopes of avoiding looking like the above picture for over a decade, here is what I will tell my kids when the day comes:

  1. Don’t ignore your wet nurse. Make sure you have expressed gratitude to the host culture; make sure you know her name; make sure you have made every effort to be, and to remain, deeply connected.
  2. When departure is nigh, recognize the loss that is coming.  Have a memorial/celebration service for the place and people you are leaving. Facebook is nice, but not the same as being face to face. You are losing the physical presence of people and places you love, and you will grieve them, like it or not.
  3. Accept the grief, give yourself permission to express it; force yourself to express it. Big trees are nice; trusted people are better.
  4. Upon arrival, don’t be unfair to those who cannot relate to you; your experience was weird; find other areas/ways to connect. Don’t shut people out. Be gracious. Don’t withdrawl.
  5. Don’t obsess with “getting back to… wherever”; you can’t; it won’t be waiting for you. Embrace your new experiences and start building your new society.
  6. Start finding new third culture tethers ASAP. And today there are many, and they are easier to search out than ever.  

International schools do a better job of preparing kids for “going home” than in my day, and the communities to which TCKs return are far more international and “third culture” than before.  But still, transitions lead to loss; loss leads to grief; grief has to go somewhere.  

Better to get the grief gutters cleaned out now.  

Thanks for the many kind comments on the last post.  Please share your own ‘return home’ story here with us here if you have one.  

Here are some helpful resources. 

6 thoughts on “Third Culture Kids: The Return Home (Cue Foreboding Music)

  1. Tim,
    Your story is so relatable! I remember seeing you t TAS as ‘a totally american guy’ as I’m sure you saw me as a totally dutch girl. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally felt understood. That was when I first heared about TCK. Somehow there is the instant connection and understanding when you meet another TCK.
    I have had the exact same experience you talked about, saying goodbye to my sister at an airport. These are things you can hardly explain to people non-TCK.
    Great tips.
    Bug hug from the Netherlands

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim,

    Loved the article. Reminded me of me growing up all over South America, the Caribbean, and the UK and then doing it all again as an adult.

    I know that Jodi also loved it.


    Derek Flint

    Liked by 1 person

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