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TCKS: The Most Heartless Things

I am traveling this weekend, so my friend Nard Choi has agreed to allow me to share with you her recent piece on “third culture kids” from the postcalvin blog ( Nard graduated from Calvin College in 2011, and is now finishing an M.Phil. in children’s literature at the University of Cambridge in the UK. She grew up in Tanzania, where her parents are missionaries, and she is especially perceptive about the experiences of a growing number of young people for whom “home” is a complicated, global issue. –DR

Children are ever so ready, when novelty knocks, to desert their dearest ones. Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive.
-J.M. Barrie

“Naaaaard!” slurred Michael. “Hey, Nard, hey Nard, hey Nard!” My name smelled like whiskey. He slapped an arm over my shoulder. “You—you’re a TCK aren’t you?”

I laughed. “Wow, I haven’t heard that in a while.”

“But you are, right? Third! Culture! Kid!”

“Yes, I guess I am.” I looked around for an escape route.

“Well, I—” Michael pointed at himself. “I am almost a TCK.”

I don’t even bother trying not to roll my eyes. And just because he’s drunk and I already kind of not like this guy who is a little too enamored with Asian females, I say, “No, not really. You’re not. A TCK isn’t something you become. It’s not some status to achieve.”

“Why, yes, I am. I read somewhere that if you live more than ten years outside your home country, you’re a TCK. Now I’m at eight years now—Korea, China, Paraguay, Costa Rica—I’m almost there!”

“And that is precisely why you are not a TCK, Michael. It’s not about wanting to become one or counting down the years until it’s official. Just the fact that you talk about it this way proves that you’re not and probably never will be a TCK.” No use. He keeps going on and on about his almost-TCK status until he decides he wants a Jagerbomb. “I’m getting one for you, Nard! Stay right there! We need to keep talking!” I slip away.

I haven’t even thought of myself as a TCK in a while. The whole concept comes with a lot of angsty adolescent baggage. But just because Michael brought it up the other night, this post from the perspective of those angsty times is dedicated to him.


I don’t mean to generalize or anything, but TCKs can be some of the most masochistic people ever—always anticipating leaving their current location then detesting for no reason wherever they go next.

To those TCKs who embrace the places and people they must leave with affectionate hugs, shedding wholesome tears, and then look to their next destination—their hearts bright, although appropriately saddened—hoisting their well-traveled backpacks over their shoulders to step bravely with open arms to whatever and whoever lies ahead—to these abnormally well-adjusted TCKs, I apologize for generalizing about you. By the way, you guys are the ones with the most problems, but we let you get away with pretending. Because we all, to some extent, act like we’re used to it. And strangely enough, we find the most comfort in knowing that we’re all letting each other pretend like we’re okay. As one of my best TCK friends said to me once,

“We live for the pain-joy of those awful last two weeks, three weeks, whatever.” The time when we finally realize how incredibly happy we are here with these people and we can finally let it all go for these last few weeks before we all scatter again, after all these years of wishing we weren’t here, wishing we were grown up, wishing we were with someone else. We live for this feeling of being insanely full of happiness and full of deepest sorrow at the same time.

Oh! But don’t forget—we don’t let each other know too often that we have stepped over into this zone. So what do we do as we pretend that our insides aren’t falling apart?

When we’re not with fellow TCKs, we are paradigms of wit and sarcasm in ways that amuse yet perplex everyone else: Wait, are they being serious? Can I laugh? Hahah—no? Every once in a while, we will smile winningly when we sense they are getting really uncomfortable, and the tension eases for a little bit. It’s a heartless game and we’re sorry and we’re always winning.

But when it’s a party of TCKs, we eat inordinately huge slices of hummingbird cakes late at night, viciously spearing with forks the decadent plumage whose flavor we cannot label—banana? pineapple? blackberry? coconut? We blow clouds of soap bubbles in each other’s faces, prancing about with splayed arms and legs, sometimes spitting at each other by accident. We make racist jokes about Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Americans, Nigerians, and Kenyans, all of us ridiculous children of God. We tell stories about people we love who are in heaven now, but only the funny stories, the stories that make us laugh and laugh at how he, as a young boy, contorted his lips into every shape possible trying to learn the cork-popping noise his father used to make when he was alive.

The laughter—that’s the most important part. The cackles and snorts and delighted shrieks that swell and rise out of our throats and fill the apartment and overflow down the hallway. We bang our hands emphatically on the table, clutch at the walls as our knees buckle and our sides are throbbing with all the joy and we eventually give up and collapse on the floor and we can’t breathe.

The can’t breathe is when it gets dangerous. Because in that moment of sheer white oxygen-deprived hilarity, everything goes quiet in your mind and all of a sudden it is incredibly clear what will happen too soon. It happens in a split second: the heaving in your chest is no longer from breathless laughter but a flood of tears rushing up your windpipe, a tingling gush sweeping through your sinuses, and you tilt your head back as fast as you can to balance the emotions on your eyeballs. But no matter! Mr. TCK-from-Japan-but-is-German-with-an-American-accent to the rescue with more bubbles in my face and open mouth, and I sputter and blink away tears and roar in indignation, and the tribal dance starts up again. Moment of danger safely behind, only slightly bruised.

All of this was easier when we were children when our walled hearts were still big child-hearts, falling in and out of love too easily.

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