Are you an expat or a foreign student doing an overseas stint? A globile (globally mobile) entrepreneur on a start-up quest? Or did you meet your significant other abroad and follow them back? Those are some very practical reasons to live in a foreign land like Taiwan. But there’s another kind of traveler, a global nomad, someone for whom travel itself is a natural condition of their life. Some are born into it, while others are stricken with the wanderlust, and roam the Earth at will. I am one of them, dear reader. How about you? Where do you fit into the growing tribe of global migrants?
It’s a huge group, actually! Currently, there are almost 250,000,000 people living in a country they weren’t born in. That’s a 40% increase since the year 2000, and more than a 300% increase since the year 1960, a growth rate higher than the world’s population. Every year around another 4 million become migrants. If we were a nation, we’d be the fourth most populous in the world. If we all held hands we could circle the Earth once, a 40,000 km human chain.
And it would be a diverse group too! Blue-collar guest workers, white-collar tech workers, conventional immigrants, twenty million refugees. But one less well-known category is of children who were dragged around the world by their parents during their developmental years, the kids of soldiers, diplomats, missionaries, international school teachers, expat business-people, etc. It’s not so much that these kids exist that is not well known, but rather how it affects their long-term development.
Third Culture Kids – TCKs – are kids who grow up outside their native culture. Their native (or parental) culture is the first culture, the culture(s) they grow up in is the second culture, and their own hybridization is the third culture. They tend to have a few distinctive characteristics: higher levels of education and creativity, multilingual proficiency, and better social and cultural intelligence. But there are also some distinctive challenges: TCK’s tend to have confused national loyalties and a hard time fitting in back home. In fact, the question, “Where is home?” is often a hard one to answer, sometimes for the rest of their life. One summary of these cultural chameleons says, “TCK’s are particularly adept at building relationships with other cultures while not possessing a cultural identity of their own.” This can lead to angst and delayed development.
One TCK told me: "Well, I was born in Hong Kong, stayed there for the first 18 months of my life, then my parents returned to the UK. We later also lived in Kuwait. My father was in the British military, so even back in the UK I did not have one 'home town' - moving house with each redeployment, every three years or so." After that he said, the pattern was set and he just kept moving around: India, Germany, and now back in Asia. He tried living in the UK, but he just didn’t like it.
Jenny, another TCK told me “My grandparents were from China, and they moved to the Philippines. I went to the local schools there. My family always identified as Chinese….But my father doesn’t like to use chopsticks! ….They wanted me to live in Taiwan: ‘Chinese countries are safe’, my dad said.” When Jenny got here, she worked really hard on her Mandarin in an effort to fit in. “But I found there were some things about Taiwanese culture I couldn’t agree with. Like the “face” culture, where people do or don’t do things for face. I also couldn’t get into the superstitions.” Jenny says she mainly identifies with American culture now, because it is global, and many of her friends are from the USA.
Some TCKs eventually settle down and adapt to either their native culture or an adopted one. Some stay in a slightly blue limbo. But others embrace their situation.
Where are you local to? Afropolitan Taiye Selasi
One example of this is TED-talker Taiye Selasi, a novelist of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, born in the UK, who grew up in Massachusetts and studied International Relations at Oxford. Where is she from? Selasi talks about being ‘multilocal’: “History is real,” she says, “Culture is real. But the sovereign state is only 400 years old. How can a person come from an idea?” She says people come from the places they are local to. It’s an idea that might be of solace and utility to identity-crisis prone TCKs.
Another TED-talker, global author Pico Iyer says: “The typical person I meet today will be, let's say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.”
Pico Iyer: Chronicler of far-flung places
Multilocal works for me! I’m a first generation Anglo-Canadian. That makes me technically a TCK, but I think Brits in Canada are not really going to a different culture; it’s more like going to live with your cousins! Later, ‘traveler dad’ took us to Lesotho for a few years. It was my first real cross-cultural experience, very intense and eye-opening. When we came back, we lived in Ottawa. I could have reattached to Canadian-ness and become normal, but the wanderlust in our family erupted again. I moved to Montreal, which is a cross-cultural experience for an Anglo. Then my sister moved to Venezuela, and my parents to India. And after visiting each place, I got reinfected with the travel virus, what the Germans call “farsickness”.
So here I am in Taiwan. I am local to Taipei, especially Tamsui, but many other places as well on this island that is more than just an idea. I’m still Canadian, but one part – something else. I live in a cross-cultural interzone made up of my fellow locals. And it suits me just fine!