Leaving the Elephants In: Life as a TCK

So, for the most part, TCKs tend to be well-adjusted, comfortable with change, confident, and filled with wanderlust. Sure, there’s a part of us that longs to settle down – many of us do! – but there is something deep in us that says, “Are you sure you want to stay here? I mean, really sure?” If we found home, I’m not totally convinced we’d know what to do with it. We are geographic commitmentphobes. But you’ll never see somebody walk so confidently through an airport they’ve never been to, I can guarantee that. I can navigate strange airports more accurately than I can navigate around cities I lived in for years.

But there is loneliness that comes with being a TCK, too. It’s isolating. It’s feeling like everybody around you is marching along, perfectly in sync, and you put your shoes on the wrong feet.

Today I am living a life I am perfectly happy with, a life I chose and worked hard to make happen, and I broke down crying because I’m missing major events in my friends’ lives. My friend Brit got engaged. My friend Dre’s babies turn one next month. People are buying houses and getting promoted and doing the things that make up a life, and I am so far away from them I can’t just pick up the phone to talk to them. I hear their voices in Instagram videos, I see their faces on Snapchat.

But then, yesterday a friend I haven’t seen since I was 14 suggested I be his +1 to a wedding in Thailand this fall. My life is a balance of feeling so far away I could cry and feeling like we all have the potential to be right back together again within 24 hours.

You want to know what being a TCK is really like? That sums in up in a nutshell. It’s lonely, but it’s wonderful. I’m constantly aching to see the people I love, but I’m connected to so many people I can’t think of a continent where I wouldn’t have a friend.

You want to know what it feels like, though? Well, when I’m around non-TCKs (especially in the States), it feels like I am a fuzzy version of myself. I don’t have clearly defined edges, because that would imply that my borders are impermeable, that they even exist, that people understand them when they see them. No, I fade, dissolving bit by bit into the space I’m in. My core is visible, but you’d never be able to exactly trace the transition from shoulder to sky if you were looking at a picture of me. When I’m around TCKs, I’m vivid, boldly outlined, all bright colours and clear memories. I expand and take up all the space in the room because I am so full of stories and laughter and the ease that comes from being allowed to tell a story and “leave the elephants in” as one friend put it.

You see, when I tell stories to non-TCKs, I edit them. I don’t talk about the frustrations, because that looks ungrateful. I don’t talk about the initial weirdness because I neither want to convince people that travel is scary nor exoticize the places I’ve lived. I don’t talk about the luxury, because that makes me a snob. So when I talk about the traffic problems in Bangkok and how construction slows everything to a stop and you sympathize, what you’re not hearing is that I always enjoyed it because I could watch the elephants drag steel beams around. But if you’re German but grew up in Tanzania, Singapore, and Mexico, then you know how bizarre things get and I can relax. I can leave the elephants in, because I know that somewhere in your stories, there’s something you’re used to leaving out, too.

Maybe what it comes down to is I want to be able to live both lives. I want to be able to live all of my lives – to live out every life I’ve left behind, every corner of the globe I’ve been forced to abandon or have abandoned of my own free will. I want to see who I would have been had I stayed in each place. I never feel whole – I always feel like something is missing or that I have more than enough. My heart is hollow or overflowing, and it changes from hour to hour.

That’s what being a TCK is. It’s never, ever being able to be just any one thing. It’s never being able to stop and just be normal, because part of you thinks that normal is boring and the other part of you thinks you’re not strong enough to be normal. It’s being proud of being different and wanting to fit in so badly you think you’ll explode every time you try and fail. It’s feeling like if you have everything, if you are everything, you can be nothing, too. It’s seeing that in claiming every identity you could have, you no longer get to leave any behind, and that in never feeling entitled to claim any identity, you might not even have a self to express.

So, if you want to know what being a TCK is, it’s all of that. I know it might not seem positive if you haven’t lived it, but trust me – I wouldn’t change it for the world.

A Plethora of Homes

At some point, I do plan on writing about being a TCK. I really do. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about those cozy little places or the things you keep that make you feel at home.

Nothing says home to me like being a regular somewhere. I’ve had this really exciting life that has left me completely comfortable jetting off anywhere on my own, ready for adventure, but it has also made it so that I am happiest when I have a routine. When I have a place I can go where they know my name, know my order, know what’s going on in my life. Last semester, it was a pub. I was there a few times a week, I knew the staff, they knew my drink, they knew what was going on in my life. I knew them. I knew where their cousins lived and who was quitting and why. This semester, it’s a coffee shop. I’m getting to know the regular cast of characters, I know which barista is a musician, which is an artist, which one is exploring Scientology. They know what I’m working on, they know my handwriting, they know where I’ve lived. There is nothing quite so cozy as being a regular. I have my favourite spot, and once or twice a week I plunk myself down with my laptop and write.

Being a reader and a writer, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that I also find homes in books. There are a few books that I cart around from city to city and country to country because they’re comfortable. Familiar. They are worlds I understand, which is a pretty critical thing to have when you change cities every few years. I know how they work and when I’m overwhelmed, I retreat into them.

The climbing gym often serves as a home for me, too. So do my favourite CDs. Sports are home, and my favourite movies.

Home is a funny thing. I had to write an essay on it this semester and I really struggled with how to define it. Finally, I realize that home isn’t always a physical place, it’s not four walls and a roof. It’s the place where you’ve internalized the rules, where you can just live without the constant work of remembering how things should be. It’s little things like knowing which is the salt shaker and which is pepper, or how to say hello and goodbye. I just happen to need more portable homes than most people do. But I kind of like it this way. Home is anywhere, home is everywhere.

It can be nowhere, too, but I’m not going to think about that right now.

The peculiarities of TCK friendships

I’m what’s known as a Third Culture Kid. I spent my childhood in the US, Thailand, and Singapore, creating a bizarre cultural blend never seen before or since. If we’re all products of our environments, my environment was a product of my dad’s job, and my dad’s job took us all over the place. As such, I am more than a little culturally confused. When I’m really tired, it’s frighteningly common for me to mix up my languages, so I might respond to “Hablas Español?” with “Nit noy!” or to suddenly lose the word for “chicken” in English but be able to remember it in Danish (despite not speaking Danish).

But one of the oddest things about TCKs compared to our more localized counterparts is how we conduct our friendships. My friend Hannah is getting married in October and I’m a bridesmaid, despite not having seen her in about six years. Maybe seven. Actually, I think it’s seven. Her friends in Oregon think this is completely bizarre. It’s totally normal to us. We’re still close, even when we don’t talk, even when we don’t see each other. Hannah is an important part of my life.

As is my friend, Gregg. Gregg (affectionately known as either “My Gregg” or “Kilt Guy”) and I have known each other for ten years, but I could count on one finger the number of times I’ve seen him since my parents left Singapore. We happened to be in Dublin at the same time a few years ago, so we spent our days with our families and our nights drinking beer all over the city. Gregg knows his beer. We keep in touch, we chat every now and then, and when we’re near each other’s current country, we visit.

So now I find myself planning a trip to Barcelona (a city I love, but have already been to twice) to go hang out on the couch of a guy I’ve seen once in the last ten years. The nice thing is, though, there is no stress. We both have a ton of time to kill, I want to see the sun, and it’ll be good to catch up. I mean, let’s be honest – who knows when I’m going to see him again?