Tag Archives: TCK

What I Am Is White

“God made me white for a reason.”

She said it as I was sipping chai, as we discussed relationships and cultures and the difficulties of listening to people’s stories instead of fixing them. She’s an old friend who works with university students on a mostly-Latino campus, a blue-eyed white girl who grew up on the Mexican border, who looks, perhaps, German, but feels most comfortable around Hispanics.

It would’ve been easier if God had made her brown instead of white, if she hadn’t been a different colour in a town where whites are the marginalised minority. It would be easier if she matched the students she loves, if her affinity for Latinos were visibly explicable at a glance.

It would’ve been easier if God had made me brown, too.

As a child, with no conception of the difficulties minorities face, with the naïve innocence of a sheltered and privileged middle-class white girl, I knew before I was old enough to read that I wished my skin were something darker.

As a white girl growing up in Panama, I desperately wished to look more like everyone else, to stop the old ladies staring on the streets, the teenagers proudly airing their English in the form of catcalls, the girls at camp pointing to my untanned stomach and expounding on how white I was.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

As a university student, discussing racial reconciliation, minority issues, and social justice, I developed yet a deeper awareness of my skin colour. The more I learned about systematic injustice, the more I longed to be free of the incriminating whiteness that put me in the “privileged” category and removed me from the struggles of those around me.

My desire to be a different colour changed from an adolescent’s wish to fit in to a young adult’s guilt over society’s wrongs.

Being white became an incurable flaw. I felt that by being white I somehow lost my right to an opinion, lost my ability to empathise, lost whatever it is that allows people to be grateful for their blessings without apologising for them.

I did not choose to be white, but I chose to regret it.

And now here sat my friend, sure that God had made her white for a reason.

And there I sat, accepting the idea, yet fighting back against the logic that said if she were white for a reason, so must I be. And the idea would not leave me. A reason—what reason?

Maybe I’m white to give a voice to the voiceless—to speak for the underprivileged in a society where my privilege lets me be heard.

Maybe I’m white to teach my soul humility—to learn to be gracious with myself and others when so much of our identity is involuntary and immutable.

Maybe I’m white to instil empathy in my heart—to help me see the perspectives of those around me and share their causes when I have nothing to gain.

Maybe…

…days later, I have a dozen potential reasons and no solid conclusions, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

There could be a hundred reasons or none, and in the end, perhaps it all boils down to this: That each of us should live a life dedicated to loving, supporting, and serving others, no matter our skin colour—that each of us is in some way privileged and in some way lacking—that we should fight injustice, right wrongs, and embrace differences—that as we face ourselves honestly, we must acknowledge what we are, but never apologise for it.

And for whatever reason, what I am is white.

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Shelter Dogs, Graduation, and Temporary Love

Sometimes, I adopt a shelter dog for a day. The local animal control allows people to borrow dogs and cats for an afternoon at a time to socialise the animals, get them out of their cages, and, hopefully, encourage people to fall in love with and permanently adopt a needy animal.

My roommate and I have done this twice now. Twice we’ve fallen in love with wriggling bundles of unconditional affection. Twice we’ve seen an animal’s joy at romping on grass and in woods rather than on concrete and in cages. Twice we’ve known our hearts would break at the end of the day when we returned the dogs to the shelter.

We’ve been poor college students living in no-pets-allowed dorms with unstable lifestyles. We would be irresponsible pet owners and eventually have to give them up all over again. Still, every time we take them back to their cages, my heart cracks as I hand the leash over to a shelter employee. There’s an urge, every time, to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with an animal I can’t keep. But it’s better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, and abandon myself to the eager eyes and wagging tail.

And yet we continue to go borrow pets for the day, and I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours we take them out and show them affection, we do something worthwhile—that despite my heartbreak both the dog and I are better for our few hours of love.

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I find, now, that this principle applies to more than dogs. As I packed four years of my life into boxes and suitcases, as I turned the tassel on my flat cap, hugged close friends goodbye for perhaps the last time, and watched my university disappear out the back window, I felt a familiar shattering under my ribcage.

Like most people, and definitely most TCKs, I hate goodbyes. I hate leaving people I love and places I’ve enshrined in my memories. And when I know an ending is coming, the temptation is always to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with people I can’t keep. I want to close myself off, to hide my soul away, protecting myself from the very beginning against the ending.

And yet it’s always better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, or the semester, or the four years, and abandon myself to the laughter and the tears and the friendships. Somehow, I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours or days or months we share joys and sorrows, we do something worthwhile.

I believe that we build something beautiful through late night hysteria and midafternoon naps, through heart-to-heart talks over coffee and insignificant jokes over cafeteria food. Most importantly, I believe that something does not have to be permanent to be beautiful—that some friendships are precious in their briefness, that the ephemeral can be as needed and as sacred as the eternal. And I believe that, despite my heartbreak at the end, both my friends and I are better for our few years of love.

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Third Culture Patriotism

“Happy Confused National Identity Day!”

I received this text message from a TCK (third-culture kid) friend on the 4th of July a few years ago. As TCKs, our emotions about national holidays range from patriotism to ambivalence to loathing—often simultaneously.

I find that anything about patriotism triggers a foundational uneasiness that turns my stomach to knots and makes my fingers tremble.

us flag

I’m an American citizen. Hurray for Independence Day! Bring on the fireworks and barbecue! But I didn’t celebrate American Independence Day until junior high, when we moved back to the States; instead, I spent much of my childhood in Panama, celebrating basically the entire month of November. ¡Feliz Día de la Independencia! Bring on parades, pollera dancers, food, and fireworks!

I tear up when I hear a particularly moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. I also tear up for the Panamanian Himno IstmeñoI appreciate all the rights and privileges I have as a U.S. citizen and take pride in the struggles and accomplishments of Americans through the years. Although I don’t have Panamanian citizenship, I also feel a deep sense of sharing in the struggles and accomplishments of the Panamanian people.

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And I have it easy; I only have two countries tugging at my heart. I have friends whose identities are a fusion of five or six different countries, and I know there are people out there who claim even more.

Pain rises on this day of patriotism. As I sing the national anthem, I feel that I betray my Panamanian heart. As people around me pledge allegiance to a flag I’ve lived under only half my life, guilt washes over me: I don’t feel national pride. America is nice. So are other countries. Most of the world’s counties celebrate independence; the entire globe is an ever-shifting puzzle of revolutions.

Whereas Americans seem to feel patriotism as a call to support their country, I feel it as a call to disown my identity. Just like the horrifying “Where are you from?”, patriotism asks me to make an impossible choice.

Usually on the 4th of July, I choose to ignore patriotism and focus on the celebration—delicious food and synthetic stars fired into the night sky.

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This 4th of July, I choose something different: to celebrate. Tonight, as I watch fireworks flare above the Manhattan skyline, I will allow myself to celebrate American freedom.

And in November, though I won’t be in the country to see the parades, I will celebrate Panamanian freedom.

Because freedom is worth celebrating wherever it appears.

To the other TCKs out there: Remember that you’re not alone. There a hundreds, thousands of us feeling this juxtaposition of conflicting emotions, this pressure to choose. Remember that celebrating one home does not mean you’ve renounced the others. You have the incredible opportunity to expand your heart and love so many different cultures, people, and traditions. Celebrate them all. If you feel patriotic, wonderful! But remember, too, that it’s okay to feel neutral, even on Independence Day. You’re unique.

Today, I remind you of this freedom: the freedom to feel as much or as little as you need for as many places as your heart can hold.

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On Packing and Hoarding

University is a magical land of unique perspectives and caffeine-induced superpowers. It’s about learning life skills—important ones, like how to scrub mould out of coffee mugs, write term papers in your sleep, and survive the pasta queue without being trampled. It’s about getting to know yourself—your pet peeves and priorities, your dreams and dreads.

It’s also about packing and unpacking four or six times a year.

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Trust me, my stuff does not fit into one suitcase.

As a TCK, I should possess superhuman packing skills, but the truth is, I’m terrible. I blame apathy and packrat tendencies. So this year, struck by ambition, I began packing early. The first step of packing is throwing everything on the floor so I can see it all and, hopefully, pack in an organised manner. But when I saw my jumbled wannabe-Mount Everest, I realised that I should probably get rid of stuff. So I embarked on the terrifying task of sorting through my belongings.

And I discovered that picking through every item I own is far less frightening than getting rid of anything. A very pretty song begins with the lines,

Did you ever want to be overrun by bandits
To hand over all of your things and start over new?

And, holding up a shirt I forgot I owned, I thought, “Yes!” After several days of sorting, I’ve hollered, “Where did I get so much useless stuff?!” enough times that my suitemates have begun shushing me.

But when I tried actually giving things away, I found that I couldn’t. Never mind that I haven’t worn this shirt ever, or that I hate these shoes, or that nothing in my entire wardrobe matches that skirt. With each item, I thought, But what if I need this someday? What if it comes back into style and I can’t afford to buy a new one? Won’t I wish I had kept it?

No.

That’s the simple answer.

So I began a pile of things to get rid of and, taking advice from a friend, forbade second guessing. Once something landed in the pile, it stayed there. And although I still have more useless stuff than I know what to do with, I’ve begun to free myself from extraneous things and, more importantly, from this fear of getting rid of stuff that, really, I don’t want anyway.

Annie Dillard wrote, “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it all, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Something more will arise for later, something better.”
writingAnd now, as the year draws to an end and I struggle with suitcase zippers and my dislike for goodbyes, I begin to understand that she wrote about writing—but also about life. This becomes more than a matter of hoarding clothes and knickknacks. It isn’t about those torn jeans I never wear; it’s about engaging in conversations with friends. It’s about embracing even dead week and finals as a rare opportunity to learn. It’s about refusing to hoard my time, emotions, and efforts—because if I don’t give everything I have right now, I never will.

And, paradoxically, I find that I can give everything and not run out. Always, I find a greater capacity to care. To engage. To learn. To be.

So yeah, I’m packing. Cramming stuff in boxes, finding forgotten treasures, asking, “Why do I have so much useless stuff?!”

I’m also giving. Clothes. Jewellery. Bits and bobs.

But also more important things. Time. Energy. Affection.

Because Annie Dillard is right: “Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
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Dear Third Culture Kid

This week, being finals week, my internal clock is off, and I missed Tuesday. Deepest apologies. As everything else is a little different this week, my blog post is a bit outside my norm. A meeting this week brought me face to face with a fear that I hadn’t even realised I had. This letter is my response.

Dear Third Culture Kid,

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, stretched and pulled, going in and out of style over and over again, distinctive in a subtle way that makes you look like every other pair of jeans and like none of them at the same time, a size that fits some people decently and others not at all but that fits nobody perfectly. I know you feel like you’ve seen every rack in the store. You’ve hung with other jeans, you’ve been tossed onto a stack of shirts, you’ve fallen under the shoe rack; there was that time the sales girl put you back in storage and the time they displayed you on a mannequin. You’ve been in the sales window and on the clearance rack; you’ve been tried on and taken off, selected and rejected, admired and ridiculed, purchased and then returned. I know your price tag has changed a hundred times with the fashions and the economy.

My dear Third Culture Kid, you are not a commodity.

There is a difference—a subtle but a vast and vital difference—between price and value. Value is what you’re worth; price changes with the season. Your value is intrinsic and stable, no matter how the people around you try to write your label.

I know that you’ve been told over and over about how valuable your experiences are, how grateful you should be for the life you’ve lived, how much you have to contribute. I know you’ve been set on a pedestal in your passport country and asked to share the deepest parts of you with strangers; they’ve told you it’s your responsibility to share your most vulnerable feelings with those who will never understand. I know you’ve gotten scholarships for being you and then been asked to justify the money by putting your life on display. I know the guilt of wanting to keep your secrets, the frustration of being misunderstood—again—asked stupid questions—again—and stereotyped—again. You would give anything to understand that slippery word, “home,” and you would sell your soul to never again answer the barbed questions, “Where are you from?” and, “Do you miss it?”

My dear Third Culture Kid, I feel your worn-out, aching longings and the guilt that surfaces when they tell you that you should be grateful instead of anguished.

But you are not a commodity.

In a way, they’re right—your experiences are valuable. Your perspective is unique. The things you have seen, done, and lived give you maturity and ideas that other people cannot imagine. But those experiences are not a commodity. Your perspective cannot be labelled, and your life does not wear a price tag.

You are no more or less valuable than that girl on your wing who’s never left the state, whose whole life is measured in pencilled height marks on the kitchen doorframe—no more or less valuable than the elderly lady who bagged your groceries at the same store she shopped at with her children twenty years ago—no more or less valuable than your international friends whose passports match their language and who you’ve secretly envied your whole life.

Life is valuable. Experience is valuable. Perspective and understanding and secrets and feelings—these are all valuable, whether they span entire continents or a few city blocks. They are valuable beyond the limits of price.

Your perspective—the perspective they hang a price tag from and set in the display window—your perspective is a shadow they can never own, a tiny, precious glimpse into a life they cannot have, because they have different lives, different experiences. Experiences, perspectives—they cannot be collected, purchased and displayed at home in a case; they can only be lived. Everyone thinks someone else’s experience is more exciting, more meaningful, more valuable. It is not.

Yours is not.

You are valuable because you are you. Not because you can teach your roommate a few words in a language that’s foreign to her and home to you. Not because you’ve seen the inside of a national monument that your extended family has to look up in the encyclopaedia. Not because you can make ethnic food or share an unusual opinion on other countries’ foreign policies.

If you never tell your story, you are valuable.

If you never share your homesick longings and your cultural curiosities, you are valuable.

If your perspective stays hidden and your multicultural heart learns to assimilate, you are valuable.

That glass box they put you in, that means nothing. That display window you live in, that is their mistake, not your prison. The pedestals, the sales racks, the stages, the hot seats—they do not bind you and they cannot contain you.

They cannot buy you. They cannot sell you.

You are not a commodity.

My dear Third Culture Kid, if you see a price tag on your life, be sure that you don’t put it there yourself.

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, tried and rejected, stretched and discarded. I know because I, too, have hung in the display window, languished in the storeroom, and lain time and time again on the returns table. Our cuts are different, but our labels are the same.

And just like you, I am not a commodity.

Sincerely,

A Fellow TCK


Broken Things

When my brother’s wrist broke, he looked perfectly fine.

None of us knew it was broken. He played like normal. But he reacted to the slightest jostle. A bump against the counter or an unintentional shove while roughhousing brought an abrupt flood of tears and disproportionate anger. Two weeks later, an x-ray showed the fracture.

When my heart breaks, I look perfectly fine.

Nobody knows I’m broken. I live like normal—I smile, I laugh, I sing. But I react to the slightest jostle. My tears flood on the inside, and my manners ice over to hide the disproportionate rage at whoever inadvertently bumped my wound.

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The sign-in sheet is clearly marked: Name. Class designation. Hometown. Major.

Wait. Go back.

Hometown.

My heart skids to a thudding, trembling stop. I freeze, pencil wavering above the page, forcing slow breaths as black spots swirl before my eyes.

Hometown.

I was born in Michigan’s golden autumn. I lived in four states by the time I was two and spent most of elementary school drenched by Panama’s tropical rainstorms. In junior high, we moved to wide deserts beneath Arizona’s vivid sunsets. After I left for university, my parents moved again.

Hometown.

A word that evokes warm memories and loyalty in others stirs in me only agonised confusion. Usually context gives me the answer. Like a clever student with an unexpected exam, I gauge the circumstances, read between the lines, and choose a response:

“My parents live in Arizona.”

“I was raised in Panama.”

“I was born in Michigan.”

 Hometown.

I can’t guess this one. Panic tastes like acid in my throat.

The girl behind me offers some help: “Where do you live?”

Wherever my pillow is. Right now—my dorm.

My face burns as I scribble the first address that comes to mind and rush away, that break inside me throbbing.

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“Time heals all wounds.”

No. Time acclimates us to pain. Time buries scars under layers of new memories. But deep wounds never really close up.

They put a cast on my brother’s wrist. It healed. Now you’d never know it was broken.

There is no cast for my heart.

But maybe, in a tiny, infinitely significant way, those golden autumn leaves balance out the bleeding inside me. The thundering tropical rains and sunset lightning storms over desert mountains—maybe, inexplicably, impossibly, they soothe the ache.


Beyond My World of Petty Failure

This, my intrepid fear-facers, has been a week of terror. See, sometime last spring semester I suffered a momentary lapse of sanity and agreed to take the position of International Orientation Staff Coordinator.

That’s a fancy way of saying that during International Orientation (a week of phenomenal mayhem and madness during which all my university’s international and third culture freshmen flood campus), I’m paid to be the one hanged if the staff don’t know their jobs. This is fair punishment, because I also teach them their jobs in the first place.

As part of my job, I was required to be creative. This is the resulting logo.

As part of my job, I was also required to be creative. Which was terrifying. This is the resulting logo, born of desperation.

Let’s get a few things straight: I love International Orientation. As a third-culture kid myself, I know the benefits of a week spent with other international people who understand the culture shock of moving to an American university. My own orientation was hugely influential, and I love the opportunity to pay it forward a little by helping create a similar experience for other students.

Here's a simple explanation of TCK-ness. I'm in the middle. Preferably in a room by myself with a blanket and a good book.

Here’s a simple explanation of TCK-ness. I’m in the middle. Preferably in a room by myself with a blanket and a good book.

That said, I’m an introvert.

I’m terrified of new people, small talk, and other people’s disapproval.

Guess what happens when you’re Staff Coordinator of International Orientation? You have to make small talk with new people and hope they don’t disapprove of you. Also, you have to tell a lot of people what to do and hope that A: it’s the right thing to do and B: they’ll listen and do it and not hate you forever for making them do it.

So far I’ve forgotten to call about the ice machine, forgotten to print lists for my staff, forgotten to tell my staff about a meeting… I’ve also managed to be late every single morning (I keep trying to tell them I grew up in Latin America, but that apparently isn’t a good excuse). So far I feel like a disaster.

This morning, one of the other coordinators came to our meeting with some parent feedback.

According to her, they find us friendly, welcoming, reassuring. They’re comforted by the support system we provide. They’re enjoying themselves.

Comforting. Also convicting. All I see is a list of my personal failures. All they see is a great staff.  Someone’s perspective is off, and I’m inclined to think it’s mine. Those parents don’t care if I forgot to print a paper or call for ice. They care that someone took the time to welcome their children. Someone is explaining cultural differences, learning their names, and promising that when they’re overwhelmed with the changes and the homesickness, there will be people here who know their perspectives and their unique challenges, people who know the heartache and the fear and survived the culture shock.

It’s not about me.

I like to think that as a TCK, I have a bigger perspective. My view extends beyond my own backyard, because I’ve seen backyards across the world. I like to think I’m good at seeing beyond my own world. This week I’m learning that in some areas, I still see only myself.

But it’s not about me.

I have to look beyond my little world of petty failures.

It’s not about me. It’s about them.

Somehow, it’s harder to be scared when I stop counting the mistakes I made and start counting the people I served. Better yet, I can stop counting at all.

I’m still an introvert. I’m still cringing right now at the thought of the hundred people I’ll face at the orientation banquet in half an hour. But there’s less to fear when it’s not about me. I’m starting to think that’s a trick fear likes to play to stay in control.

Fear is like Batman with a stapler. Remember that moment when Commissioner Gordon thought the stapler was a gun?

Speaking of tricks to stay in control…fear is like Batman with a stapler. Remember that moment when Commissioner Gordon thought the stapler was a gun? And it wasn’t? Fear says “Look! This is a big deal!” But if I stop worrying and look, it’s actually not.

Fear tells me that I’m the centre of attention. When you’re the centre of attention, everyone knows all your failures. But the truth is, fear lies. I’m not the centre of attention. And I’m the only one who sees most of those failures.

Really, I think, sometimes fear is just overgrown egotism. And it’s time to move past that.


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