Challenges faced by a Third Culture Kid returnee

Every now and then, we have missionaries returning home with their families for good, for one reason or another. Is it plain sailing for these children, often known as Third Culture Kids (or TCKs)? One such TCK, JB, shares her story on returning ‘home’ to the Philippines with her parents after living most of her life in Thailand.

*Third culture kids, or TCKs, are those brought up in cultures besides that of their parents’, or of the country named on their passport, for majority of their early life.

I am a Third Culture Kid – a Filipino who spent majority of her life in another country. I was born in the Philippines, but I moved to Thailand when I was only two years old. I spent sixteen years there – basically, my whole life – until I graduated from high school. Then, I came to Ateneo.

Life in Thailand was the only life I knew. My first friends and language were Thai. I went to an international school, which required me to move to a dorm at the age of nine; I lived there with fifteen nationalities. At school, I grew up with people from twenty-six countries. Regardless of what our passport was, we got along perfectly with each other because of our shared feelings as TCKs. Growing up with the international community made saying goodbye very difficult; we would even send each other off in the airport. It is so difficult, because the people that I grew up with are now going to be scattered across the world. Adding to that, we are uncertain of the next time we are going to see each other again. So when I left, it felt like my entire life had been stripped away from me.

My first six months in the Philippines were the hardest. It was really difficult as I had to adapt back into the Philippine culture; even today, I still continue to transition. I cried and complained a lot. As I underwent this, I had to give more thought about myself – who I am. My passport states that I am a Filipino, but I cannot identify myself as one. I can neither identify as a Thai, and perhaps even as an Asian, because my upbringing is very much American. This now poses some problems when it comes to communicating with others here. Coming back to the Philippines, there are two different stories: one inside Ateneo, and one outside. Inside Ateneo, I tried to speak as much Tagalog as possible, though barely anyone here really speaks the language! This came as a shock to me, and I had a difficult time adjusting to it. Outside, however, I’m more comfortable with speaking in Tagalog. People can hear an accent, so they start making fun of me; I just try not to care.

It was difficult finding a Filipino community, especially since everyone here grew up with each other. I didn’t have anyone. How was I going to find a good set of friends when everyone already knew each other since elementary? It still continues to be a struggle today. I can’t say that I have a group to hang out with here, but there are groups that I can just go out with, so that’s what I’m thankful for.

I think a challenge is trying to adapt to the culture here in the Philippines. People like me are known to be able to do this very well, but I’ve experienced major culture shock coming here. One thing here is that we TCKs are put under a spotlight: “Oh, you grew up in Thailand? I love the Pad Thai there. Did you ride elephants to school? Can you say something in Thai?” It’s fun to entertain these questions, but people tend to just take it at face-value.

Growing up with many nationalities around me, I become culturally sensitive with how I’m supposed to act. I already am adapting to the culture here in the Philippines, but somehow I feel this need to adapt even further. Despite this, I don’t want to give in to this pressure because I want to stay true to my identity, as a Filipino raised overseas – as a TCK. Were I to conform, I feel that I would be betraying myself; I cannot be just this when I am a mixture of cultures. It’s difficult for people here to understand that. People in Ateneo give a lot of attention to foreigners. Speaking from experience, I feel that because you look Filipino, you will get treated like a Filipino. Sure, there’s this part of me that would like to be treated this way. But at the same time, personally, I would want to also be distinguished as not a Filipino; it’s very complicated. People like me present a whole other world, a diversity of cultures.

I have a hard time being listened to because I haven’t really been given much opportunity to share my story. It is hard for people like me to share, as we may be perceived as arrogant. That is why I’m trying to bring a group of us together, so that we can share freely without getting judged.

A challenge though that I have overcome is my attitude towards living here. First, I would complain every time I didn’t see the point of being here. If I had a choice, and if I had money, I would’ve gone to America; as an international school kid, that’s the mindset after graduating high school, because of the colonial mentality. Eventually, I had to accept that this was going to be my life.

Initially, I came to Ateneo because my parents wanted me to study in the Philippines – there was no other viable university. Eventually, I saw the purpose of coming here: to embrace the Filipino-ness, what it is like to be a Filipino, and to establish roots, as this is technically my place of origin. Having a Western upbringing, I’m very blunt. I’m also a very passionate person, and I often get misinterpreted as being angry. I was taught and am still being taught the Filipino way of being nice, though I struggle. Through this, I realized that we are meant to be with people, that we need a community; we can’t just sit around isolated. With all these hardships, I am thankful to have people who listen to my story without trying to fix me – they accept my story as it is.

God has a purpose for me – why I’m here, and why He created me this way. I should look at these struggles in the bigger picture: how is God going to be glorified, and how am I going to help other people through the experiences that I’ve had. Thankfully, I’ve found people who resonate with me. I want to bring these TCKs into the light because of my experiences here. In the long run, I plan to work internationally as I know that I could help other TCKs like me, who will also be experiencing the same struggles. I want them to know that they are not alone.

[This article was originally published on the Facebook Page “Humans of Ateneo”.]

Will you pray for the Philippines?  

  • For TCKs like JB as they adjust to life in their passport country.
  • For their parents as they support their children in their adjustment even as they go through transition themselves.
  • For those around them to be supportive too.

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