By David Poarch
Originally published in Illustrado January 2009
Top Photo: Galina Barskaya – Dreamstime.com
With the world becoming an increasingly smaller place, where multiracial interaction has become commonplace, the challenges faced by globally nomadic kids has become more relevant than ever. Illustrado contributor David Poarch delves into the complex existence of Filipino Third Culture Kids.
Fresh off a two-year journey of self-discovery and catharsis in provincial Philippines, I found myself returning to the paved tracks of the American Dream and resuming my role as a college student in another school and yet another new state. This brought back memories of my volatile childhood as a son of an American Navy Senior Chief. Fifteen minutes before lecture was scheduled to begin, I entered class and sat at the right-hand corner of the room with at least a chair separating me from the rest of the students.
This social gap was normal for me and even representative of my life as an outsider; plagued with a yearning to coalesce but with an inability to connect with the majority. Such is the plight of the Third Culture Kid — or a TCK — as termed by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960s. It refers to someone who spent their formative years in one or more cultures other than their own. Elements of that culture, plus their own birth culture, integrate to form a third culture, thus the term.
I was born in Subic, Zambales to a Filipino mother and a Caucasian American father. I lived in the Philippines until I was eight years old, which was around the time when the Philippine Senate put an end to the days of the US military bases in the country. Subsequently, we relocated to the States — where I had to deal with small doses of culture shock as our families moved states at least once a year. My life as a TCK, a global nomad, had officially begun.
Where Are You From?
This is a question that troubled many a TCK, and was certainly not uncommon when I was attending grade school. Throughout the part of my childhood spent in the US, I used ‘the Philippines’ as my response, never giving it a second thought. As I continued moving from state to state, I felt my environments gradually molding who I am. I started thinking then — what was it really asking and in what context?
I was born in the Philippines, yes, but does that mean I wasn’t from the state I just moved in from? Does it mean I’m from many different places? Doesn’t my passport country, the United States, officially designate where my home is? Or does the question “where are you from?” really mean “why do you look different from us?”
They say you know you’re a TCK when there’s more than one reasonable answer. This attempt to develop self-identity from a background of diversity and cultural confusion is a major challenge that most TCKs face.
Despite feeling like an outsider, I did make attempts to befriend others. Studies show that TCKs tend to get along with people of any culture, although they also tend to isolate themselves within their own subculture, sometimes excluding the native kids. Stats show that while 90% of TCKs feel as if they understand other cultures better than the average American, 90% also report feeling out-of-sync with their peers. In my case, I am rather accepting of most cultures, but my xenophilic nature did not necessarily mean I would be accepted in my adopted cultures.
I often approached anyone I observed any hint of connection with my culture, Filipinos especially. My attempts would prove futile, however, as many Filipinos I met were no longer or never were the traditional Pinoy, but rather an Americanized version. It has yet to happen that I find someone I really click with because it seems the only one who would understand me is another TCK who shares the same blend of a third culture that I do, which is exceptionally hard to come by.
As a result of this unstable relationship with the outside world, my life for the most part revolves around my direct family. This is typical of the TCK profile that is independent, self-reliant and family-centric. Though this has formed a strong and close-knit family bond, it does not come without disadvantages. Sociologists have discovered that TCK family members are thrown back psychologically on one another in ways that is not typical of geographically stable families. This leads to parental quarrelling (due to cultural differences), detached sibling relations (due to inept social abilities) and other psychological and emotional problems; many of which I continue to face today.
Tracking the Positives
The social isolation and cultural confusion prevalent in TCK life do breed conditions for positive and progressive pursuits. Growing up in a sheltered and out of touch with my peers allowed me devotion to my academic and career endeavors, where the self-imposed pressure and expectations ultimately led to successes.
When the quest for perfection inevitably failed (as it always does), the mental and emotional stress became overwhelming. I felt as if my whole world was falling apart — and thus temporarily veered off course to seek renewed motivation in life only to return a couple of years later with more vigor and maturity.
Similar to my academic path, statistics show that TCKs don’t usually earn their degrees until after the age of 22 and only after attending multiple universities. However, they are eight times more likely to go on and earn an advanced degree as compared to the non-TCK population. Moreover, research also shows that teenage TCKs are more mature than non-TCKs, though they take longer to grow up in their 20s.
Most TCKs feel a sense of ‘rootlessness’ throughout their lives, as they generally have trouble defining where home is. In terms of nature versus nurture, the living environment and upbringing has an indelible impact on the formation of the unique third culture that stands as the person’s identity.
Genetics, though, play a major role in the TCK’s life. Genetic lineage hands down permanent physical features that lead to a TCK’s racial categorization, which may or may not match the racial majority of their adopted culture. I had attempted to fit into both of my parents’ birth countries. However, I was neither white nor black or even Hispanic ‘brown’ so my appearance made it difficult for others to understand me.
Perhaps due to my formative years in the Philippines, I never did quite connect with my American peers socially either. It was a connection I sought to recover when, upon dropping out of college, I returned to the Philippines. I did feel much more at home in my motherland, but my foreign features was something many locals could not help but take advantage of.
I liken myself to a cultural chameleon, trying to change colors to keep up with my constantly varying environment, but am inevitably discovered by the residents of both cultures. I never quite fit perfectly in either the Philippines or the US.
Meeting the Challenge
It seems that the greatest challenge for maturing TCKs is forming a sense of personal identity through the varying environments to which they’ve been exposed. Though the identity struggle of the TCK can be difficult, meeting the challenge can be their greatest strength. Adapting to third-culture life by reaping the fruits from a range of cultural experiences and developing a sense of who they are give a TCK a certain steadiness amidst the instability of the world around them: this is a classic feature of the TCK — seeming above it all.
This trait is probably best epitomized by 2008 Time Magazine Person of the Year Barack Obama. He was a TCK born to American and Kenyan parents, spent many of his formative years in Indonesia and Hawaii before settling in Illinois, becoming a US Senator and eventually, the current President of the country.
Being linguistically adept and holding an international understanding from their exposure to different societies, TCKs have a globalized culture and a sense that all countries of the world are connected. I, personally, view myself as a global citizen with Filipino social values and American moral ideals. I harbour a passion for seeking common good not only for both my kadugo [blood] and kababayans [countrymen], but also for our kapwa tao sa buong mundo [fellow people around the world]. With the necessary tools for diplomacy, international relations and global leadership, the Third Culture Kids just might hold the answer to tackling the major international crises facing the world today.
Read more – Two Filipino TCKs speak of their experiences growing up …
On being a TCK
Dubai-resident, Art Director Dan Villanueva has lived in at least five different countries outside the Philippines, while Joan Tuano, whose family resides in Abu Dhabi is now attending college in Manila. The two share with Illustrado the nuances of life as a third culture kid.
How did you become a TCK?
DAN: When I was seven, my family relocated to Hong Kong due to my dad’s posting with the Philip Morris Asia Pacific HQ. Then at 16, once again my family had to move to Melbourne, Australia where I had the best times in high school. At 19, I moved to Los Angeles California without my family for College and started my career in advertising there. I was also heavily in and out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And now I’m in Dubai.
JOAN: Both my parents are CPAs and wanted international experience. After researching, living for awhile and sort of ‘scouting’ Abu Dhabi, my parents were able to land good jobs in Abu Dhabi and before we knew it, the family moved to the UAE. I was five years old then and my younger brother was two.
How was it like to grow up as a TCK?
DAN: It’s strange, but in my younger years I best identified with groups comprised of very dissimilar people. I liked the challenge of getting along with people who don’t look like me, talk like me and who grew up in different environments. I never really liked cliques. In almost all the places I’ve lived in, there were Filipino cliques and Asian cliques but I never felt the need to belong to them. In Australia, I never preferred hanging out with Asians versus Australians and vice versa. My best friends in Australia were Italian, Sri Lankan and Greek actually. In Los Angeles my best friends were Polish and Puerto Rican. Although I did have really close Filipino friends in Hong Kong we were all hanging out with the rest of the other different nationalities. It’s just more fun that way. Lunch time was most especially fun because it always felt like an international pot luck party. It was fun and educational trading my lunch for kimchi, samosas, carbonara, tempura, souvlaki or gazpacho etc. Why on earth would I want to trade my chicken adobo for pork adobo? Although I must admit after years of doing this, I do miss a bit of Filipino companionship – which is why I’ve been trying to get back in touch with my roots recently.
JOAN: When I was in Grade Eight, I became homesick. Not really for Jollibee or my relatives back in the Philippines, but for the company of fellow Filipinos. I was tired of being with my non-Filipino friends at school because I somehow knew, deep inside, that they’d never see me at the same ‘level of friendship’ they saw their own compatriots. And so my parents sent me back to my former school – Miriam College, but this time of course, high school.
Honestly, that was the worst year of my life. Everyone had their own barkada and new people from different countries just didn’t have a place in those groups. So I made friends with fellow transferees from abroad. I did not feel welcome. Even if we were told to speak English in the school, whenever I did, my classmates would think I was being ‘mayabang’, and they labeled me ‘conyo’ just because my accent was different. I definitely felt at extreme odds with my roots. I’m actually really sad because all I wanted was to be around my own ‘kababayans.’ That was a point in my life when I actually felt alone. So after a very difficult year, I returned to continue my high school studies in the UAE.
Here in the UAE, I did gravitate towards people especially those with a certain mindset. I have identified (and I still do) with Africans – I love them! They are people who actually look at the person inside, not the material physical appearance. My best friends are Somalian and South African.
What’s the worst or most difficult thing about being a TCK?
DAN: Filipinos here in Dubai are very cliquey. I’ve never heard this term ‘kabayan’ used so much before till I moved out here. Not once did I ever hear it in California. Filipinos here are probably more comfortable when they see someone like themselves. This is troublesome for me because when they see a very Filipino face like mine and a name like Danilo Vicente Villanueva on my credit card, but I can’t speak a word of Tagalog, smiles turn into frowns. Suddenly, the moment I speak a word of English, I’m an outsider to them. Suddenly I’ve been labeled as one of those arrogant ‘Amboys’ trying to impress all the cute Filipina girls around with his superior green card and his fake accent. This gets old and tiring especially when all you want is a Chicken McNuggets meal at McDonald’s. Now this is just in Dubai. My mom always tells me not to open my mouth whenever I visit her in Manila or I might get beaten up. To me this is the toughest part about being a Filipino TCK. And yes I do feel at odds with my roots at times because of the language barrier even though, like I mentioned before, I’ve been trying to get closely back in touch with it: I know almost all the Filipino food joints in town, I go out with my Filipino colleagues often, I’m a fan of Eraserheads (a late fan, but still a fan), I also watch cheesy Filipino movies from time to time. But no matter what, it’s still difficult not to feel like an outsider.
JOAN: If you’ve lived abroad through mostly the first part of your life, you can feel awkward when you’re back living with your ‘kababayans.’ For me the most difficult thing about being a TCK was trying to adjust that year in Miriam, because I finally realized that I was different from my countrymen. It was the hardest but most rewarding part because I learned to get up and be proud of myself through that challenge.
Another drawback to being a TCK is that you can lose touch not only with your language, but with your heritage – some of my half-Filipino friends don’t even call themselves Filipino. You can hate your own culture, because you don’t know it. And because you don’t understand it, you will never love it.
What’s the best thing about being a TCK?
DAN: The best part about being a Filipino TCK or any TCK for that matter is that you get to experience, learn other cultures and also gain a better understanding of others who aren’t exactly like yourself whilst retaining your identity – or maybe just a slightly altered identity.
JOAN: As a TCK you get free social studies and geography lessons – without you knowing. You have the opportunity of learning different languages and cultures. You have friends who come from all over the world who can teach you about their countries and who could even be useful contacts in the future. You also get the benefit of international education. But the best thing of all is that I have learned to love my country so much more now than I think I would have if I was not a TCK. Having spent so much time living and learning with people from so many different places, has taught me how to appreciate my country better.
What tips would you give to other TCKs?
DAN: As usual, like in all self-help books: be yourself. Always keep it simple and low key. Just because, to some, it’s a privilege to have grown up and be educated elsewhere outside the Philippines, don’t let it corrupt you.
JOAN: Keep going back to the Philippines! Or keep in touch with our country – read news, keep ties with your family back home, buy a history book and do your projects as much as possible on happenings in the Philippines. Cook Filipino food at home and speak Filipino at home. Share the Philippines with your friends from elsewhere. You’re already abroad! Help the Philippines in your own ways, regardless how small. The Philippines is amazing, and everyone should know!
If you feel like the culture back at home is not at terms with your way of life, don’t be ashamed of it or shy away from it. It is part of how your culture came to be your culture. Hence it is a part of you. Be proud of it. I am. You aren’t alone.