Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box

I am a Third Culture Kid: Being “The Foreigner”

I love being the foreigner. There is something very exciting about being outside of your comfort zone and being forced into a position where all you can do is learn and adapt. There is also something very reassuring and even liberating about knowing that you can be exempt from the rules, that your social faux pas or bumbling awkwardness in new situations are excused, because you are the foreigner. Anyone who has ever been a tourist or visitor may understand how this feels.

Having lived in different places, TCKs are used to being the foreigner. Living in a new town or country means having to learn and adopt an entirely new set of social and cultural norms, often much deeper and more nuanced than the more immediate and superficial needs of tourists and visitors. More mobile TCKs undergo this process more frequently, many times developing high adaptability skills, while other times developing a resistance to adapting. Either way, a constant state of foreign-ness contributes to the TCK’s cultural identity. Some of my friends and I have talked about how our love for travel and move to other countries is in part related to our desire to, once again, be the foreigner.

Ticket Office for ForeignerHowever, in this particular area, I think that the biggest challenge for TCKs is figuring out when they are the “foreigner” and when they are the “native”. How does one gauge whether he/she has learned enough of the local culture or lived long enough in one place to say that he/she feels like an insider? Is it even OK for a “foreigner” to say they are “native” to a place, even if they were not born or grew up there, or possess the corresponding passport? This all goes back to the root question, “Where are you from?” Because there are so many assumptions that come with one’s ethnic or national background, it becomes hard for a TCK to answer how one feels about any place he or she has lived in.

The tension between being the foreigner and being the native is just as pronounced whether someone is in “at home” or “away”. As a repatriated TCK, I can safely say that I sometimes struggle with figuring out how I feel in my passport country. I have lived here a total of 11 years (and then some), albeit non-consecutively. Most of my family is here, some of my friends are still here, I speak Tagalog well enough to get by, and I care about what happens here. I don’t have any problem with saying I feel at home here.

I recognize that my experience growing up here is not a “typical” experience shared by the majority of Filipinos. I attended an international school for seven years. My teachers were expats, and my friends included Tagalog-speaking Australians and non Tagalog-speaking Filipinos. We spoke a different form of English that was somewhere between American and Filipino, with a smattering of swear words from every language imaginable. Instead of reading Florante at Laura and Noli Me Tangere, I read The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Instead of taking Filipino, I took French. Instead of going to college at the age of 16 or 17, I graduated high school at 18, after taking two years of IB. While the school was in the Philippines, it existed within its own, very atypical bubble. Even my friends who had grown up attending only that skill and never left the Philippines felt very different from their university classmates. How different is their experience from a TCK who grew up someplace where they were foreigners by citizenship? Since the school was in the Philippines, could we still be natives?

There have been quite a few people who tried to question whether I am truly Filipino or not. I have had Americans ask me why I don’t speak English with my “real accent”, and I have had Filipinos tell me that I must not really be Filipino because of my opinions. One of my most memorable incidents happened in college, after about three years of living in the U.S. One of my jobs was to call alumni to update our campus records and ask for donations. The wife of one of my assigned contacts picked up the phone and struck up a brief conversation with me before handing the phone to her husband (the actual alum).

“So, Erin, where are you from?” she asked.

“Oh, I am from the Philippines,” was my brief answer.

“Oh, really? Where in the Philippines?”

“Oh, my family lives in [city name]. It’s a part of the Greater Manila area, which is the capital.”

” . . . I see. Hold on while I get my husband.”

Thinking she had the phone muffled, she went ahead and called for her husband.

“She says she’s calling from [college name]. And she says she’s from the Philippines, but she doesn’t have an accent. I don’t think she’s really from the Philippines.”

I was very irritated to hear her say that, though I can kind of understand her doubt. As I have said before, the question “Where are you from?” raises expectations and assumptions about your behavior. Since I told her that I was an international student, a foreigner, living in the United States, she expected me to sound foreign, with “an accent”. When the sound of my voice shattered her expectations, thereby making myself unfit for any of the categories in her head, she instead resorted to doubt. Apparently, people seem to think you can only be completely foreign or completely native, leaving no room for fitting anywhere in between.

Ways To Relate

David Pollock and Ruth van Reken, who wrote the book Third Culture Kids, created this chart to illustrate different ways to relate to one’s host culture (credit to Mr. Atkins for the chart). Each framework is characterized by the individual’s mental and physical similarity to the host culture. As we can see, increasing adjustment difficulty increases as there becomes more dissonance between the two characteristics and that of the host culture, particularly with thinking. Perhaps this may explain why my American accent juxtaposed with my Filipino heritage appears to confuse the American on the phone, or why my inability to get outraged about a couple of TV shows brings Filipinos to question the degree with which I belong to my heritage.

In one of my Anthropology seminars in college, we read an article called, When Anthropology is Home: The Different Contexts of a Single Discipline, by Mariza Peirano. In her article, Peirano discusses the recontextualizing of how we look at people by blurring the lines between traditional dichotomies, such as home vs. abroad, insider vs. outsider, and native vs. foreigner. By doing so, we avoid using a framework of Other-ness, or seeing people as fitting neatly into either native or foreigner categories. Furthermore, she argues that each person must assume multiple roles or identities — both insider and outsider, both native and foreigner — to garner as close a representation of a place as possible, for “‘others’ are both ourselves and those relatively different from us, whom we see as part of the same collectivity.” Basically, to have a better understanding of a place, you must study it from all perspectives.

I completely agree. I have been around and heard from too many people who have preconceived notions or stereotypes about a place they have never been to or only experienced briefly. I have also had enough of people who have hyper-inflated opinions about where they live and do not have experience with seeing it from an outsider’s point of view. It is because of people like this that there continue to be rigid notions of who is a native and who is a foreigner (“either you are with us or against us”). Because TCKs have lived in different places, often away from and moving between “hometowns” or passport countries, they have experienced being the foreigner and the native. As a result, while there is tension and personal difficulties with adjustment and fitting in, there is also the potential for a unique and expanded worldview that may offer unconventional insights into many different issues.

I hope this will encourage TCKs to speak out and be involved in activities or organizations that can make a difference. Your experience and personal insight may be what is needed to help create change.

(to be continued)

Read I am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction

10 responses

  1. barbieslife

    This is an awesome blog. Although I am not from a foriegn country (out of the US) I have moved around alot within the states. I never know where to call home, and love the feeling of bouncing around. As a child I traveled all over the world with my father, and just loved being able to mobile. Like you said everything is new and exciting in each new place. This is a really nice piece, I really enjoyed it.

    October 10, 2007 at 6:54 pm

  2. nogalco

    I am a TCK. I am the foreigner wherever I go and I totally agree with you that we have a “unique and experienced world view that may offer unconventional insights into many different issues”. Your blog is perfect, I really enjoyed it and it makes me feel good to know that someone is writing about us, the TCK.

    October 10, 2007 at 8:18 pm

  3. Erin

    Thank you both for visiting and leaving comments!

    barbieslife, I can definitely relate. Additionally, there has been a new area of study focusing on domestic TCKs, who are mobile within their passport countries and tend to be influenced by its many different cultures. That would definitely make sense in a multicultural country like the U.S.

    nogalco, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I definitely intend to keep writing about it, hopefully as a weekly installment.

    October 11, 2007 at 2:47 am

  4. Santiago

    Great Job this blog, I can feel totally indentified. As also a TCK it is relieving to know that there are other persons who understand my sensation of ‘not-belonging’.
    Question for other TCK, I’m about to graduate and feel uneasy with the idea of settling down for good(or a long period of time). How does it feel to be fixed in a place?, do you get used to it?, or do you get the urge to move after a while?

    February 16, 2008 at 8:55 am

  5. Maja

    Nice blog!!
    I am a TCK, who has moved back to my home country..Its very weird to be back again and I am struggling more than I would have thought. I left my country when i was 8 to live abroad for 14 years and have now returned. While abroad I was in an international school, which according to me, makes it even more difficult to really settle down.
    As great as it is to have experienced many other cultures, which gives a completely different outlook on the world, I was wondering if there were others who also struggle and who are quite restless, not just about being in one place for a long time, but also just feel uncomfy in their ‘original’ or ‘native’ culture?

    February 26, 2008 at 6:14 pm

  6. Pingback: I am a Third Culture Kid: My Top 10 Pet Peeves (Part 1) « Where’s the money in that?

  7. Hi there friends!, find your filipino or filipina friends at and send them free sms

    April 30, 2008 at 10:27 am

  8. Joaquin

    It’s reassuring to hear all your enthusiasm for being foreign wherever you go. In a way, I’m the opposite. I’m Argentine by heritage and birth, and moved over to england at the start of my teenage years, and I’ve been here for 7 years, so my cultural identity is split in half. Here I’m perceived as an outsider, even though I’ve adopted the culture well, and when I go back to Argentina I’m seen as “the English kid”. I love the advantages I have, but sometimes I feel I have no real home, because I don’t fully identify with Argentines or Brits. Like Diogenes said, “I am a citizen of the World”. Anyone else have similar thoughts?

    May 28, 2008 at 5:36 pm

  9. I LOVE your blog. I can totally relate… I was born and lived in the Philippines (and spent a lot of time going back and forth from Manila to Pampanga) until my pre-teens, moved to the Deep South (in a city in Florida which was really near the Florida/Georgia border) and then moved to where I live now — the Pacific Northwest. I never really know which of these places to call home. They are all like home to me… I’m also a highly adaptive individual because of my experiences and it’s kind of funny because talking to someone with a British accent for 10 minutes makes me slightly adapt to that accent immediately. I can’t seem to help it! 😛

    I did Pre-IB but had to move before the actual IB years started. I didn’t know they had IB in the Philippines! That’s awesome 🙂

    December 15, 2008 at 9:49 pm

  10. Pingback: I am a Third Culture Kid and Advocate « Where’s the money in that?

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