Sunday, November 6, 2011

Top Ten TCK Quirks

To continue with my series on quirks of different cultures, here is one on TCKs. The first one I did was Top Ten Lhasa Quirks.

If you enjoyed this, head over to part 2: Top Ten TCK Quirks Part 2

Here is a book about us TCKs that I also mentioned on my Me Page:
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
  1. Visas and passports

For the longest time, I didn’t know that there were two meanings to the word "visa". I thought it meant that thing in your passport that allows you to go to different countries. It wasn’t until I got a lot older (I’m embarrassed to say when), that I finally figured out that a visa was also a brand of credit card.

I also thought that all citizens of every country were given passports at birth. I didn’t know until I got a lot older than even when I realized what a visa was before I figured out that you actually had to apply for a passport. I will again decline to say how old due to embarrassment.

Mind blown
  2. Drinking

By the time university rolls around, drinking is old hat, especially if you go to universities in the U.S. TCKs are able to go to clubs and bars at the age of fourteen if not younger. As long as you look foreign, drinking areas in Asia tend to be really lax about age. While counterparts in the U.S. were guzzling PBR in basements, we were dressing up to the nines to go to the latest hip club. It is quite jarring to go from that to college towns where frat parties with their beer that tastes like water gone wrong are a big deal. This is the reason why U.S. university students who go abroad for the first time tend to go crazy. I have seen this firsthand.

"No open bottle laws?!" "We don't need fake IDs that might get rejected?!" "Let's drink and go out ALL the time!"

This doesn't apply to schools in Europe, although expensive drinks and cover charges are no fun. 
Drinking overseas
Drinking crappy beer in someone's basement in the US
  3. How well we know airports and airlines

TCKs can speak of airports and airlines with authority. Something of a necessity, it pays to know which airlines have the comfiest coach seats and which ones are most likely to give upgrades. I have been very lucky with Japanese airlines when it comes to upgrades. They also have amazing food, even in coach. Same goes with airports. If we are picking a flight, then it is always good to go through ones that have the best restaurants and entertainment. I am a big fan of Narita as well as Detroit. I actually had my first legal drink in the U.S. at Detroit's airport.

Flying through Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, or any other fantastic airport
Going through JFK, Chicago, Colombo, and other not-so-great airports
Booking a flight on Ryan Air, United, or any other airline riddled with delays and incompetence
  4.  The world is a tiny, tiny place

Have you heard of the game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”? Basically you try to link any actor with Kevin Bacon using movies that he has acted in and you have to do this with only six intermediary actors. Our lives are like, “Six Degrees of TCKs”. I have been shocked at the random people I have met in my life that either went to the same school I did but at a different time, or knows someone who I know. TCKs are a pretty small community and there are only so many international schools out there. The best example I have is this: one of my best friends from AISC (American International School Chennai) told me her cousin would be going to UVA too and that he graduated from AES (American Embassy School New Delhi, where I used to go when I was in elementary school). I didn’t think anything of it until I found out on moving day first year that he lived right below me. We became good friends all throughout college. 

Finding out one of your best friends from India's cousin is your hall mate in university (true story)

  5. Confused about our roots

TCKs have some of the most privileged lives. We have been able to live around the world and have seen more things than some people ever will. However, most TCKs that I have talked to (including me) have somewhat of an identity crisis. While our passports say one thing, our experiences say quite another. I spent more time celebrating Indian holidays when I was little than American. I literally went to the U.S. once a year, if that. My conception of what it was to be American was having the commissary and being able to buy fruit rollups and gushers. I am also a mix. When I am in Hong Kong, people call me gui mui (ghost girl. Gui is a somewhat derogatory term for Caucasians). When I am in the States, people think I am Chinese. When I am in the Philippines, people think I am Filipino and then get really insulted that I don’t speak Tagalog. I have even passed for North Indian (way north)! As frustrating as it is to have a shifting identify (even though it is handy at times), it is even worse when people assume things of you.

So you're saying you are "American"
  6. Spoiled and bragging rights

I am spoiled. I grew up having a driver, a maid, a cook, etc. I have flown around the world and gone to many exotic locations. To me, traveling is not a big deal and it is something that I cannot live without. Because of this, I have had to work on toning down a superiority complex and belief that travel is this easy for everyone. However, even with how spoiled I am, that is nowhere near as bad as some people I have met. One girl I knew was on a field trip and had Pizza Hut helicoptered to the mountains so she wouldn’t have to eat the food there (although I don't think you could consider her a TCK since, to my knowledge, she never lived in any place other then her home country, even if she did go to the international school). 

 Bragging is also a problem. Even when we are not trying to brag, it comes off as bragging. Listing a ton of places that you have been to or casually tossing out that you will be spending New Years on a beach in the Philippines tends to rub some people the wrong way. What we take for granted can be construed as arrogance and sometimes actually is. To be fair, it is hard not to sound like an @$$ when you rattle of a list of countries or say something like, “When I was in elementary school, one of my best friends owned a camel and we used to ride it.” (that is actually true)

How people view us
  7. Knowing some phrases in a ton of different languages

When you move around a lot, you tend to pick up things in other languages. These tend to be limited to swear words, thank you, and really random phrases that are no help whatsoever except for breaking the ice. For example, I can say, “No effing in my car” in German and “Run for effs sake” in Swedish. I hope I am never in the position where I genuinely need to say either one, especially the Swedish one. 

Other people
  8. Dread the question, “So, where are you from?”

TCKs are not fond of being asked where they are from, especially by unsuspecting people. If you ask this question you will get a laundry list of places. It also gets a little awkward when a TCK doesn’t know how to respond because our drawn out silence and confused expressions make people think we are idiots. If you see this look:

That means we are trying to figure out if you mean ethnicity, nationality, or where we grew up. One issue with this is when people are not familiar with this lifestyle. For example, the Boy got really confused when we first met and thought I was Filipino for awhile, even though the Philippines is one of the places that I lived the shortest amount of time... 

If another TCK asks the question, then we are actively excited since we can then compare whether or not we have friends in common or ever played against each other in a tournament. 

How most people react to our answers
  9. Talk about schools in abbreviations

As you might have noticed in quirk number 4, all international schools can be simplified into abbreviations: AES, AISC, AISD, ASB, ISM, HKIS, etc. These names usually have an international or an American in there somewhere. Sometimes even both. There are a ton of tournaments between different groups of international schools that are usually divided by region. Since it is a pain to have to say, “Yes, I go to the American International School of Dhaka, thank you for asking! Where do you go?” every time, we all speak in abbreviations. 

People overhearing our abbreviations
10. Adaptable

Of course we don't have a monopoly on being adaptable but one of the key traits of the vast majority of TCKs is that we can roll with pretty much any situation you throw at us. We have had to develop this skill out of necessity. Depending on the type of TCK you are, you move every one to six years. My pattern was one, two, two, four, four, three, one. I never had any control over where I would be moving. It was pretty much where my dad bid and where the state department decided to send us. It can be difficult being the new kid over and over again but, especially when you go to international schools, everyone is the new kid or has recently been the new kid. It was the hardest for me when I moved to the U.S. for 4 years since most of the kids I met had known each other since they were toddlers. I seem to be extra adaptable in Southeast Asia due to my mixed heritage (see quirk number 5). Whatever country I am in, people think I am from there and then tend to get really upset when I don't speak the language! This has so far happened in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, China... People have even thought north Indian and Tibetan!

The art of blending in
That rounds out this list! Let me know what you think. If you found some missing, you might want to head over to see part 2: Top Ten TCK Quirks Part 2. What would you add to the list? 


  1. Haha this is so good! I'm (Niamh) only a demi-TCK really, nowhere near as extreme as you! Even so, everything you said strikes a chord. I was about 16 when someone told me they didn't have a passport... "Did you lose it? Surely 'They' can send you a new one." So embarassing.

  2. Nicely written.. I love reading this post! ;)

  3. Ive come to the point where I lie about where I'm from if I don't feel like engaging in conversation with someone...

  4. Thanks Dan!

    Anonymous, I completely know what you mean. If I want to be simple, I just say I am from Virginia and leave it at that. I think we should all be issued a TCK badge that we can just hand to someone whenever we are asked that question!

  5. nice read, very uplifting. Its too easy to feel down. I often find that once people know you are TCK or international some people expect that you know everything about everywhere. Nightmare. A great thing about being international is certainly the couch surfing opportunities!

  6. Sj, yeah, it can be a little difficult when no one knows what to expect of you. If a person really doesn't seem to be getting me or has all sorts of ridiculous assumptions, I tend to lie. I'll make up the fact that I rode on an elephant to school or that we lived in huts. It tends to add humor when I am feeling really frustrated! Yes, that is a great addition! I plan where I go by who I know =)

  7. Not sure if I'm the textbook definition of a TCK, but I completely relate to all of this! Loved it. :)

  8. Jasmine, the definition of a TCK is pretty wide! If you can relate, that's all that matters =) I'll be doing a post on different types of TCKs soon, so feel free to add on there!

  9. This is great. I totally agree to all of it. TCK for life

  10. Thanks, Indigo and Anonymous! Really glad you both enjoyed this post =)

  11. your blog helped me in my final paper research about TCKs in a Cultural Positioning graduate Class. Very interesting stories.But still a bit shocked at the fact that a girl had a Pizza Hut delivered to her by Helicopter!! lol.. Very nicely written over all .

  12. Hey Tamara,

    Really glad I could help! I'd love to hear about the paper, feel free to message me privately on the Talk to Me page up at the top. Yeah, I have even crazier stories than that, if you can believe it!

  13. Well written and can relate to all points. When asked the question about where I am from, I often lie and mention my birthplace. But the lie is quickly unraveled as soon as someone asks me more about the city itself "which school? do you know this club? have you been to this place? sure you have its right next to the swimming pool, how can you not know?" then comes the endless list of places I have lived... exluding my birthplace.

  14. Really glad you enjoyed the post! It can be difficult to determine how credulous people will be depending on where you say you come from. I go with ethnicity and hope for the best!

  15. I'm a TCK. Lived between two very different countries (developed and under developed), but I went to government and not international schools. I could get a lot of what you were talking about, but not everything. Nice picture by the way. I pull that face quite a lot ^_^
    Keep writing...

  16. T-i-C, glad you could relate to at least some of it ;) This was just my experience and that of most of my friends. TCKs are a pretty diverse bunch and I would love to hear about your experiences and how they differ from mine!

    DrieCulturen, so happy that you enjoyed this post!

  17. So glad you posted this Cecilia. Certainly we are all mutts of a zillion varities - and all mutts none the less. Muttiness in common?

    Here's something I wrote more about how my experiences have impacted me now, in my life today, now that I've been "home" (presumably) for a while: "Continental Drift"

  18. Thanks Sarah! That's true, there are only illusions of purebredness and so we should all embrace our "muttiness". =)

    LOVED your article! It is always interesting to read about experiences that are so diverse from my own but that I can also relate to.

  19. this was so great, I totally relate.

    Especially the being asked where I am from expression, it's like THE dreaded question.

    Also the bragging thing.. so true... It gets me into SO much trouble! lol

  20. Hey Christina,

    Really glad you enjoyed the post and that you could relate! =)

    I have learned to stop talking about where I have been until I know how well traveled the other person is first...

  21. Hi Cici,
    Sarah just links me to TCK ... as a mother of TCK's ... I really enjoyed your writing ... great .... very interesting and funny too ....

  22. I am really glad you enjoy my writing and you having moved so much can appreciate this!

  23. Cici, just gotta say, I absolutely enjoy reading your blog! The whole thing about the choppered-in Pizza Hut made me laugh out loud by my lonesome.

    And I can totally relate about the six degrees? Remember how I told you I went to EFD (Ecole Française de Delhi) yet we never crossed paths in India until I met you here in Manila?? Haha.

  24. Hey,

    So glad that you enjoy it and can relate to this post! I know, I still remember how blown away I was when I found out we were in Delhi at the same time. It really is such a ridiculously small world! Haha, I hope you're well :)

    I really liked the article you wrote on Filipino TCKs, really great job!

  25. Thanks =)

  26. What a fabulous post! Thank you for directing me to your blog. That's the rest of my afternoon sorted out!

    Although I'm not a TCK, and my daughter isn't really in the same position, we have all travelled a LOT. Even then, it's hard to bring travels up in normal conversation with 'non-travelled' people - as you say, it sounds like bragging when it really isn't intended. Perhaps that's THEIR problem, not ours?

    And a big YES to the school acronyms!

  27. I am so glad you enjoyed this post @ExpatChild:disqus! Always happy to have some new readers stop by and relate. Please keep exploring my blog and commenting!

    Where have you and your daughter been?

  28. As a family we used to live in Tokyo, and now are in Berlin. We visted a few places from the East - Hawaii, Guam, Borneo, Bali etc. She's been to the States a few times too. She's a dab hand at airports!
    As a singleton I visited more places than I could list!

  29. @ExpatChild:disqus, any preferences for places? It is funny when you start to anticipate and get excited about going to certain airports (I love Singapore's) and dread going to others (Chicago O'Hare...).

  30. All our hearts will remain in Japan, I think.
    Personally, my favourite country / continent is South America. So many adventures and great memories of my solo-travelling days.
    But I'm bored with airports nowadays

  31. Most of this is so recognisable. Funny how you mentioned the schoolname-abbreviations. I went to AIS/D in '92-'94. It takes me longer to remember the actual name than the abbreviation....

  32. Glad you enjoyed it! I am the exact same way. Plus those names are so long that it takes forever to express any opinions about them!

  33. This is a fantastic post and so easy to relate to! I just felt really bad when I was reading the thing about being spoiled and bragging. I do this a lot now when I'm at university and I'm afraid of people thinking I'm big headed or showing off, when really I'm just exchanging life experiences.

    Ohhh school abbreviations! I went to BBS, UNIS, NMS, BMIS and a school in South Africa that (oddly) wasn't abbreviated.

    The "so where are you from?" question gets worse now that I'm at university because all of my friends are local, or from the country I currently live in. So they're all like "oh yeah, I'm from ______" and I'll be like... *eye twitch* "I'm from _____ but I really haven't lived there in seven years and currently I live in ______ and before that I was in _______ which was fun, I suppose, but yeah. I dunno." And they're just like... okay.

  34. Hey Link (did you choose this because the person below chose Zelda?),

    I am so glad that you enjoyed and related to my post! We're all trying to figure out how to broach our TCK backgrounds and I don't think you should feel bad at all whenever you bring up your past. I used to feel that way until I got really bitter one day and decided that I should be allowed to share my life just like everyone else! Then again, some people just are not bothered and it takes a bit of time to weed out those who will role their eyes at our "bragging".

    Have you started to change how you answer that question?

    Thanks again for reading!

  35. When did you attend BMIS? I was there in the late nineties, primary and secondary school.

  36. @Cecilia Haynes, Changi has the best an airport can offer. The thing I love the most is the transit lounge on the third floor next to the Sunflower Deck. It's the only place I would gladly love to wait hours in transit.

    Kastrup is nice for shopping, it's even designed as a shopping mall. Very ridiculous, but well worth the experience. Although when someone asks you to buy a specific thing there ... *sigh* Let's just put it this way, I finally found the shop after going through Kastrup three times.

  37. It's always fun to identify the airports that feel like a "home" during transit :)

  38. Loved your story....I have the same issue. I actually went to AES for high school and it was the best time of my life. 5.5 years and is the longest place ive ever lived. Sadly I didn't know TCKS existed till I came to college in the US when people thought I was so weird. So then I decided to write my thesis on it. So interesting to know the perks and the challenges behind who we are as people. I love us and sometimes feel like I'm bragging too when I tell people what it means to be who we are but sometimes I think people don't always get it.

  39. The arrogance part really got me thinking, I never really thought about it but whenever I introduce myself to someone I don't always give them the full story cause I feel like I'd be talking about myself too much but maybe, just maybe I'm thinking of what you pointed out lol. SAISA was a legit tournament btw good times

  40. I told this one local girl in Sweden (where I currently live) about the fact that I had cooks maids drivers and a guy who would come and iron the clothes (a dhobi in urdu) for us haha and she went nuts. Talking about how I'm this spoiled brat, but what she didn't get was that she was just as spoiled when her parents would buy her a car and let her travel to exotic places with her boyfriend. Nothing wrong with it we just had different privileges simple as that. I'm glad I've found some common ground I've been looking for

  41. Yay Falcon (although now Tiger) alums! That's great that you're writing your thesis on us, I know there is a wealth of material out there.

    It is always frustrating when people do not get where we are coming from. I have found humor a good way to deal with the blank looks that usually accompany the whole "where are you from" conversation. Good luck with the thesis (or if you are already done, I hope it was a success)!

  42. Haha, SAISA was a blast even though, in my day, AISC was not the greatest... Getting absolutely destroyed by AISD opening day of the tournament in Dhaka was pretty humiliating. I simplify where I come from depending on who I talk to. It's an annoying extra process, but one of our strengths as TCKs has always been greater cultural awareness and that includes people who have maybe not been exposed to an international upbringing. Embrace the arrogance and learn when to use it ;)

  43. So glad that you have found some common ground and good for you for getting what a double standard this Swedish girl was setting for you. I had a dhobi, a driver, a cook, a housekeeper, and a maid in Delhi, so I get you! I got very lucky with my roommate in college and she was willing to walk me through the whole daunting laundry process.

    Keep reaching out!

  44. I read Quirk #8 and yelled "RIGHT??? RIGHT???". My World History teacher in 9th grade asked me this question and made fun of me in front of the whole class because I didn't know how to answer it. I'm so glad that I'm not alone.

  45. Awww, that sucks! I hate it when teachers are @$$holes... You'd like to think they are above that sort of thing. It drives me nuts whenever I have teachers/professors who have said, "Wow, your English is great! Where did you learn to speak?" Humiliating to say the least. I hope you explained to your teacher after class.

  46. This is so great. Whenever unsuspecting people ask me where I'm from it's hard to gauge whether or not they're interested in listening to my full story. If they don't really seem ALL that interested I just pass myself off as someone from California. I sound 100% American.

    I also told someone that we rode Sumatran Tigers to school once because we lived in Jakarta for 13 years. ... Because that TOTALLY makes sense.

    I used my Singaporean passport to get into a bar the other day - I didn't have any visas or any stamps or anything in it because I usually only use it when I travel to Asia. The bouncer gave me a hard time and was kind of an ass about it! I was like "Well, I have two passports. I'm not going to bring the one with all my visas in it out with me."


  47. The most incredible example of how small the world is:
    After my graduating high school in Bangkok I went on a graduation trip to Koh Samui (an island in the gulf of thailand). One night we were out at a club and I ran into someone I had gone to school with in grade 6 in Azerbaijan. He was on his graduation trip from India!

  48. Hi Ethan!

    I don't know about you, but it definitely comforts me to know that as spread out as our community becomes, the odds are pretty high that we will still randomly run into each other :) By the way, we were rivals: ISM all the way! I was probably rivals with your friend too (AISC or AES!)

    Thanks for sharing your awesome example!

  49. Thanks for commenting Niki!

    I learned the hard way that it's better to pick and choose your background battles... Usually I get the follow up comment of, "Wow, your English is great!"

    Haha, I told people that I used to ride elephants to school and that we had only one community computer in the center of our village. By the way, we were rivals (ISM vs. JIS) ;)

    I used a fake Filipino driver's license. It actually worked a lot of the time, which shocked the hell out of me! At least yours was legit ;)

  50. Cameron Martin CampbellOctober 2, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    This is good one. Any TCKs in in the 25-35 age range in Boston? Let's get together.

  51. Cameron Martin CampbellOctober 2, 2013 at 11:26 PM

    Hey I wanted ask a question. Do you any of you find dating non TCKs difficult? What are your experiences with relationships as a result of being a TCK. Personally I've found it hard to have long term relationships, because I still move frequently. I think I'll need to find a girl/wife thats a TCK. Any thoughts/stories on this?

  52. This is so perfect for my life. I have grown up everywhere and am certainly a TCK and this article couldn't be more true! Thank you for writing this :)

  53. Ima let you finish, but I just want to point out that this post about TCKs uses exclusively US cultural references.

  54. Hello, I love your blog, it explains so much!!!
    I get what you mean about the abbreviations, I used to go to Khartoum International Community School, KICS, so when people ask me about past schools, only 7 so far by the way, I'm 14, so I've got a few years left to rack up the numbers, I say kics and they think its kicks so for a few weeks after joining my lastest class, my classmates were scared of me because they thought I went to a special school for violent children, but now they're my friends so that was okay.
    Oh and the airport thing was brilliant, I have those reactions too, hehehe
    I never quite realised how spoilt I am until I read your post, its really helped me, although pizza hut being helicoptered in is a new one... sheesh

  55. Really glad you enjoy my blog :) Haha, it's a good thing you cleared up that misunderstanding about your school!

  56. Fair point! It was frankly easier trying to find these gifs. Anything you would add using a different cultural reference?

  57. Really glad you enjoyed the article, Sam!

  58. Hey Cameron!

    I am currently dating a non-TCK and it was definitely a struggle at first. A lot that I took for granted with my TCK exes became an issue in this relationship. I got lucky though in that my guy likes to travel and we have now lived abroad together which gave us more of a point of contact.

    Would you consider a mono-culture gal that likes to travel?

  59. Glad you enjoyed this post! I'll put the word out on my Facebook page to see if there are any TCKs in your area. Were you an AES guy?

  60. Cameron Martin CampbellNovember 20, 2013 at 11:36 PM

    I went to kindergarden through 6th grade at AES, then to Jakarta International School, from 7th to 10th grade.

  61. Hello there, I'm glad to see many other TCKs and to find a TCK blog. I'm a TCK myself and a fiction writer. I write fiction portaying TCKs and international experiences. We aren't represented in fiction. I realize that TCK isn't always the same as an immigrant such as my parents who grew up in India and then moved to the USA. They are still living there. So I am dabbling with the idea of TCK fiction

    I'm an Indian-American now living in Singapore and teach in an international school. I grew up in Dubai but never lived in India. It get confusing because there are Singaporean-Indians and Indian expats from India. I should keep a tally of how many times I heard comments like, "You look Indian but your English is different" and one person out of humor asked, "You're confusing me. You have a very Indian face but you sound very Western."

    I enjoy your posts and topics. Keep them posted.