Growing up as a Third-Culture Kid

In today’s day and age, our world is becoming more globalised by the second. There are more people travelling, exploring, living and working in foreign countries than ever before and inter-racial families are on the rise. There’s an increase of families taking life on the road and raising their children in cultures different to their own. These kids are more commonly known as Third-Culture Kids (TCK). Some people don’t even realise that they fall into this category (I didn’t, until recently) and in case you don’t know me personally, I’m a TCK too!

I grew up as the child of an expat so life has been interesting to say the least. It definitely becomes harder to answer the question “Where are you from” because to me there isn’t a set answer. I’ve currently resorted to Singaporean born Norwegian raised primarily in Australia. A basic question yet a complicated answer usually gets a conversation going. I’m often asked a series of questions to which I will be answering them to fulfil your curiosities. I’ve also ransacked the family album to include some photos for your viewing pleasure.

My Makers

An Introduction

Let’s start off simple. I was born in Singapore, 1993 to a Singaporean mother and a Norwegian father.
By the time I was a few months old, I was living in Hanoi, Vietnam until I was about 6 years young. After which, Dad landed a job in Lisbon, Portugal where we spent the next two years of our lives. To shake things up even more, the following year we lived in two Chinese cities – Baoding (Hebei provence) and Guangzhou. Unfortunately, during my time in China, I was almost illiterate in English (I’ll explain later on) so it was decided that we should move back to the motherland of Singapore, spending my pre-teen years there. Living 4 years in Singapore with a demanding education system and Dad being presented with another job offer, we move yet again. This time to Perth, Australia where I spent majority of my teenage and young adult years.

TL;DR?
1993:              Singapore
1993 – 1999:  Hanoi, Vietnam
1999 – 2001:  Lisbon, Portugal
2002 – 2003: Baoding & Guangzhou, China
2003 – 2007: Singapore
2007 – 2015:  Perth, Australia
2015 –           :  Stavanger, Norway

Where am I now? If my track history were anything to go by, it wouldn’t surprise you that I’ve moved to the fatherland of Norway. Gosh, let’s all take a breather because that was a decent summary of my entire life!

Can you spot me at my school assembly in my kindergarten? – Hanoi, Vietnam.

The Lifestyle

For me, it was a little harder to fathom that I was moving to entirely different countries as a child. Everything’s in the phase where it’s all still exciting and foreign, regardless of the location. To survive the ever-changing surroundings, going with the flow becomes second nature. This didn’t last long, by the time my teenage years crept up, excitement levels die down and the process became a chore. From already having built friendships, familiarised with the environment, the societal attitudes, routines and school life to now starting back from scratch. It is not the easiest thing to do. I personally struggled to fit in immediately in Singapore or Australia. It took time before I felt comfortable in my surroundings and admittedly until the end of high school to fully embrace the Australian way of life.

Aside from the constant moving, a part of the lifestyle that a lot of people don’t talk about is being away from extended family for prolong periods of time. I come from a sizeable family and whenever I return for a catch up, I return oblivious about the changes that has happened (but this may also contribute to my attribute of disappearing from the grid occasionally), having to reconnect and learning about each other from scratch. It eventually becomes a norm that you don’t get to see anyone as often as you should and that you’re not going to be as close.

It’s not all that bad. Growing up, I’ve been exposed to different cultures, customs, cuisines, people and places. It has sparked a continual curiosity to broaden my horizons and understand different ways of life. I would like to think I’m more open-minded thanks to my upbringing.

Hanoi, Vietnam – In the pool with my then bestfriend (no, I don’t remember her name)

Coping

This brings us to coping – probably the most common question I get asked. How do I cope with uprooting my entire life, repeatedly? In all honestly, it’s become a way of life now. I’ve learnt how to regularly adapt myself to different situations, which is my key to ‘fitting in’ while travelling.

In my opinion, coping as a child is extremely different to coping as an adult. In the early stages, your family is with you so that’s all you really care about. The entire family is in the same boat and you take your parents’ lead. You’re still growing and developing so adaptation becomes significantly easier and using your curiosity to guide your way is key. You fully embrace yourself in your surroundings. I suppose a downside in this is forgetting which social queues should be used in different situations, if you don’t end up mixing them up of course.
I will be honest, I do get a green-eyed of people who are incredibly close to their childhood friends and have inside jokes that run from the time they were in diapers. I’ve unfortunately haven’t got these memories with anyone but family. A silver lining was that no one could share any awkward and embarrassing diaper stories at my 21st. Winning.

Now, as your adult self… have a think what it would be like to move to another country where nobody knows who you are.
The sole idea of removing yourself from the familiar and diving straight in the unknown is frightening. Having to leave behind strong friendship and relationship bonds and put yourself back out there. Well, that’s how I still feel some days. However, with the ever-growing social media presence, it’s easier to keep in contact with friends so you’re never truly alone. I personally feel that I occasionally hold myself back from fully embracing my foreign surroundings but then again, there are times you just need to go for it. Yet, the grand part about being an adult is that you are free to move and you’re not stuck in one place, which is why I don’t mind uprooting my life continuously. I understand that I come from a place of great privilege to be able to do this and not everyone has the same opportunity, which is why I’m forever grateful for it.

My sister, Sabrina and I.

Other bits and pieces

As a child, I didn’t know many kids who were in the same shoes as I was. A lot of the time while sharing my story, their doubts in the form of disbelief and skepticism about my upbringing usually surfaces. Most of the time it was perceived as boosting or trying to one up everyone, which in all honesty, wasn’t my intention. People ask, I share. Growing up it got to me that nobody believed me. Regardless, these days I’m was always proud of sharing my history and not bother about what everyone else says.

With a complex history, you wouldn’t be able to guess where I’m from by listening to my accent. Over the years, I’ve developed a neutral and ambiguous accent, giving me a lot of assumptions that I’m North American. For the majority of my life, I was educated in International Schools with North American teachers – which is where I probably picked up the accent. I went to a public school in Singapore and I was heavily exposed to Singlish. So you can imagine after 4 years my Singlish was on point but after moving to Australia, I became the butt of jokes thanks to my “weird” accent. As a result, it changed… again. Needless to say, my accent alters slightly to whom I’m conversing with, which annoys the hell out of my sister.

Speaking of education, what can be challenging growing up in countries that have a different native language to yours is that you put too much focus into learning the language and don’t utilise your native tongue as much. This unfortunately happened to me while living in Baoding, China. We were the only western family in the area and the school nearest to Dad’s work and home was a Mandarin-speaking boarding school (I went home every day). I was 9 and after a few months of schooling, I became fluent in Mandarin but was almost illiterate in English, much to my parents’ shock. What did you expect though? All my subjects were in Mandarin and I had a translator sitting next to me for the longest time that I was forced to focus on learning the language and forgetting English. Whoops. The next few years, picking up English was a bit of challenge and regrettably, I no longer speak Mandarin.

For the most part, it’s easier for me to adapt to different situations and cultures. I’m consistently learning. You could think of me as a sponge (not quite like SpongeBob). I’m absorbing my surroundings and noting down different mannerisms – occasionally adapting them to my daily life. It’s all an adventure. The more I travel, the more I feel the ability to cope comes naturally. My peers perceive me as an extrovert so putting myself out there is a little easier, although there are definitely days I wouldn’t mind being alone and binging on Netflix.

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I see myself as a person always ready for an adventure. The idea of staying in one place forever is almost foreign concept to me. I’m 23 yrs old now and have been lucky enough to already have lived in 6 countries. I just don’t see myself slowing down. While I do love having the familiar around me, I prefer to embrace change and a new environment, which is why I had moved to Norway last year, alone. There’s so much of the world I want to see and experience. A list of places I imagine I’ll live in before I ever think about ‘settling down’. I’ll probably selfishly be living the same way even with a family. I’m always looking for different places to live and ways I can make that dream sustainable.

So there you have it! A little sneak peek into what life was like as a child moving around the world and a little background so that you can learn a bit more about me.

Did you have a similar upbringing? Let me know in the comments below!

Peace, love and good vibes.

8 Replies to “Growing up as a Third-Culture Kid”

  1. What an amazing life story! You should write a book!

    1. Hahah thank you Alexis! Although I don’t think I’m at that stage just yet! 😛

  2. Your mom looks so pretty! It’s always interesting to read other peoples life stories and yours is indeed very interesting. Moving around so much, gosh! I would have thought that after that you want to settle down somewhere as I am the opposite. Always been in the one place and can’t wait to see the world. Visited 20 countries and lived in 5 in the last 6 years. 😀 In Australia at the moment!

    1. Mom is definitely a stunner!
      Hahah it was definitely an interesting experience. I think I’m so accustomed to life on the move that I can’t imagine a lifestyle where I’m just living in one place. Maybe it’ll change in the future – who knows right? 🙂
      That’s awesome, which part of Australia are you currently in? And where have you lived?

  3. I love love this. I relate to this so much, my dad was military so I grew up around the world too. Totally don’t know what to say when people say “what are you” or “where are you from”, because I identify with so many cultures 🙂 GREAT article girl.

  4. Found this fascinating. Although I grew up in one place, it was really interesting to read about your childhood. Do you feel like you’d want the same for your kids (JUST CURIOUS)?

  5. Great story! My boyfriend is a bit in the same spot as you. He was Indian heritage, born in Singapore, raised in Australia, lived in SE Asia. I was born in Alaska and lived there until I was 26. Our lives are so different. Reading your story helped me related to his life a bit thanks for sharing.

  6. I had never heard the term Third Culture Kid before. I think this life is fascinating – we moved a lot as a kid, but mostly within the same town, so not nearly as exotic as new countries! The children I’ve met whose parents were expats seem to be so well-rounded and well-adjusted. Meanwhile, I have friends who won’t even move 1 school district over for fear of the impact on their kids. I don’t get that.

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