Residing and Abiding

Finding Ourselves at Home in a Vibrant Vietnam

Third Culture Kids

by Grace Ong |

Image: Third Culture Kids
Grace ONG, TCK at large in the World

TCK’s come from many different backgrounds. Basically, they are kids that spend a significant period of time living overseas during their developmental years. A child 18 and under would be considered in their developmental years, because their brain is still developing. Children are classified as third culture kids for many reasons. TCKs many times are the children of parents who work in the military and business world which also can involve lots of travelling. Other TCK's follow their parents as they invest their heart, mind and soul into the people other countries. Third culture kids are often multilingual and adapt to other cultures very easily. For example, I went to Vietnamese preschool when I lived in Vietnam. At first it was hard to understand what was going on, but because I was so young, I was soon able to pick up the language without having to take actual lessons. I also speak Chinese, as that is one of the languages spoken in Singapore.

Because of the many customs that TCK's can be exposed to, they see the world very differently from just regular children living in their parents’ culture. This is why they are called third culture kids.

TCK's are unique because of their special culture, their third culture. Their parents’ culture creates a part in their life. The host country’s culture creates another part, and together, the two cultures combine, creating the third culture, the child’s own unique culture. Because of the many customs that TCK's can be exposed to, they see the world very differently from just regular children living in their parents’ culture. This is why they are called third culture kids. Regular children do not face the same problems that TCK's do. So when TCK's return to their parent’s heritage, they can feel alone and misunderstood, because others there don’t understand what TCK's are going through. When I lived in America, I told my friends I was from Singapore, and their reactions were either, “Which part of China is that?” or “So you speak Singaporean?” It was kind of funny to hear these responses, but it also made me realize that some people have no idea about the world outside their own country. There are so few people that have been exposed to the whole world that they live in.

Although TCK's can come from all over the world, they share the same similarities, the same struggles, and the same challenges. Some challenges would be friends, culture shock, and moving. After years of being overseas and moving, TCK's get used to these challenges and they will start to develop the skills in making new friends, and easily saying goodbye. However, TCK's find it difficult to have a long term friendship, and sometimes afraid to become too connected to a friend because of fear of separation. When I lived in Vietnam, I had many friends. However, most of them were expats. So when I left, they left too, and when I returned, they were no longer in Vietnam. I had to find new friends, again. The worse time for a TCK to leave is when the child is in his/her teen years, because during that stage of their life, he/she gets very attached to their friends, and it is a huge difficulty for them to leave. However, once they leave TCK's will soon get over culture shock, become more comfortable, make new friends, and as time goes by, the new way of life that they are exposed to becomes part of their culture. In case you haven’t noticed, in previous paragraphs, I mentioned parents’ culture or heritage instead of their home country’s culture. This is because when these children have lived overseas for a very long time, they start to lack sense of where home is, they feel like they don’t have full ownership of any country. They often can feel confused, and wonder what it would be like for them in the future. For me, after living in Singapore, Vietnam and America, I honestly feel like I don’t belong to any of those countries, and as I think about it, I don’t feel like I have a home at all.

Many leaders of the world are TCK’s. With their chance of living overseas, they are able to understand the world better, and become good leaders. They get to see places, people, and things that others don’t really get to see. They get to experience the life of other places, and experience the situations. They become great, but different leaders, as they understand, and see the world differently from those that aren’t TCK's. Because of their different worldview, sometimes people don’t agree with these leaders. Today, one of the most famous TCK leader is President Barack Obama. He was born in Hawaii and grew up in Chicago and Indonesia. He once was a kid trying to survive in another culture, and look where he is now. He has become one of the most powerful man in the United States.

Being a TCK myself, I personally experience all these struggles, all these challenges. I have a rather confusing history of where I have been. I was born in Singapore, and moved to Hanoi, Vietnam when I was two and a half because of my dad’s job. After three years there, I moved back to Singapore for two years, then I moved back to Hanoi for another two years. Then my father had a scholarship to study his masters degree in America. After two years in America, I returned to Singapore for seven months, and finally back to Vietnam where I am now. Every time I move, I say goodbye to friends, and make new ones, and when I get back to the previous country, some of my friends have left. I can tell you, that my journey isn’t really quite over yet. Well actually, far from over, because I am still thirteen years old, and I’m sure I have a long road ahead. I encourage TCK's out there to be strong even when times are rough, and remember that you are uniquely you, uniquely a TCK.

About the author: Michael & Jacqueline Ong Michael & Jacqueline Ong

Michael Ong serves in the University of Labour and Social Affairs in Hanoi as a social work consultant. He assists with the development of social work curriculum, enrichment workshops, and training for both the faculty and students. Michael graduated from Washington University, St Louis, Mo. with a Masters Degree in Social Work. Jacqueline taught for six years after receiving a teaching degree from the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Currently Jacqueline devotes her energy to homeschooling their daughter Grace. Michael and Jacqueline have served with REI-VN since 2001.


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