Third Culture Kids: Misfitting-In // Individualism vs Belonging
Updated: May 3, 2022
Growing up in the UK was a lot of fun. I love the UK and I feel like the people adopted me. I guess part of this is feeling is down to the passport I hold, which is now a British one, but much of it is to do with the friendships I built, the education I had and the life I led.
In 2018, looking at moving back to Singapore, to teach at an International School, led me to the now-well-known-book, Third Culture Kids, by David C Pollock and Ruth E van Reken. On reading it, I found out so much about myself and it revealed one big revelation to me: there is a reason why I have always felt misplaced. I used to consider myself fortunate to have the upbringing that I did: a very loving family; a great education; good healthy food; regular holidays abroad. I say "used to" not because I have lost any gratitude, but because as I have gotten older, I have met many people who have considered their adversities to be contributors to a fantastic life. So I'm reluctant to use that phrase.
Internally, I had always felt a little bit out of place and regularly insecure. I was insecure about my image and how I looked. For example, my school friend Anthony Strong (a fantastic jazz musician - check him out) had a fairly iconic side-smile - a grin that was more dominant on one side. I remember sitting one evening in front of the mirror in my bedroom, trying to smile on one side, except for one problem. The side I could smile on was the side of my smaller eye. (I have one smaller eye and one bigger one) so when I tried this side-smile, it accentuated the lob sided face I had been blessed with. Another example of my insecurities is that I remember catching a glimpse of my walk in an old family video and I became very self conscious about my walk, so I tried walking on the outsides of my feet to "correct" it a little, a habit I only realised I still had a few months ago when a colleague highlighted my unique walk to me!
I understand that all teenagers have some insecurities - it's part of growing up and figuring yourself out, but for me, those feelings never went away. The school I went to would often embrace individualism in a fairly healthy way and so I gained the habit of putting my feelings of mis-placement and insecurity down to that - I was an individual, and everyone probably felt the same as me.
One of the problems I had was that I never really felt a part of anything. I definitely sensed the belonging other friends had and I knew that I didn't have it but I couldn't figure out why. If I was an individual and was supposed to embrace that, why did I always feel like I had to be something else to fit in?
Into my twenties I found myself in a church. It was the first time I felt belonging and like I really was a part of a community. Even with that feeling, I still fought moments of feeling like an outsider - not so much from that community but in life. Whether it was university life, work, or socialising, I remained a bit of a misfit. I think being around more misfitting Christians - a group of similar aged university students who suddenly felt "cool" because of this hip church with loud music and smoke and lights - meant we gelled quite well and we had a common thread in the church.
If we can fast forward through marriage and fatherhood and pause at 2014, I found myself on holiday in Singapore and suddenly realising I felt more like "me" than I ever had done before. It was strange and I struggled to put my finger on it. I hadn't yet learned about what it was to be a Third Culture Kid (TCK), but I knew that Singapore had me feeling different. Better. More. I spent 6 years working out what it was, but now living here in Singapore, I can identify a few things.
1. Blending into the background as an Asian-looking person in Asia feels really good.
I never realised how much I felt like I was always being looked at in the UK. I grew up with it and it was normal to me, but having now spent nearly two years living in Singapore, I realise that I feel like I blend better. Walking down the street, I have black hair and oriental features. But so does everyone - and it feels great!
2. I still don't quite fit in.
I know this is a very common feeling amongst TCKs, but I feel like I am totally at home and chilled until someone hears me speak. This is changing a little, when I arrived, local people used to ask me where I was from - I must have still looked like a foreigner despite my physical features! Now, people ask where I studied - I sound like I'm local but have been away. I quite like the transition and how I seem to be localising over time.
3. The feeling of home surpasses my feeling of not-quite-fitting in.
I'm still not exactly sure what makes me feel at home, but I feel at home. This sense of belonging far outweighs that feeling of not quite fitting in. There's a comfort I have walking the streets of Singapore. In fact, sometimes, working at an International School feels more foreign and I have to go to a local area, wander around and "be" in order for that sense of home to return.
4. I am a TCK.
Without spending too long on this one, us TCKs have complex hearts and minds. But I have found self-understanding and belonging in it. If you are a TCK or an adult TCK reading this and you are unsure what commonalities we share, please reach out! Read a book about us, find out about the huge community of TCKs around the world and realise you are not alone. Actually, weirdly, you may also find out that you are still a bit alone, as I think all TCKs have some shared experiences and some very differing ones too.
Individualism is great. It is wonderful to empower quirks, personalities and YOU-niqueness. There's a flaw in it, though. We are also made to BELONG. We need to understand that we have a place in a community. I think it's important for us to feel at home somewhere, whether geographical, emotional or with certain people. I am super grateful to have found it in many forms, including my new geographical home. It has done wonders for me and I will continue to embrace it.
Individualism is great, but don't forget to belong.