Home is like a ruptured star
By Rachel Kuhn
Written July 2013, revised June 2014
What is a TCK? A Third Culture Kid describes a person whose passport doesn’t match the place or places they’ve grown up. TCKs form a unique cultural clique. Together we don’t represent any single culture or ethnic group but instead we represent all of them. We appear to be entirely different from each other, yet we have everything in common. We are people of the world. We are a product of globalization. We are of a “Third culture”. One of the greatest challenges, I think of being a TCK, is that there is no home community to return to or belong to. The community that once existed in childhood has usually changed as other expats have migrated to other parts of the globe.
The hardest question for a TCK to answer is “Where is home?” To a non-TCK, this question is usually a pleasure to answer, as its answer describes much about the individual—their community or culture of origin. Yet, for a TCK, home remains an ethereal concept. “What is home?” Is a question that a TCK must answer before attempting to answer the question of location. I think to me, home is the place where I have chosen to put down roots and be a part of a community, it is a place that when I leave, I will probably wish to return. But I may vary my answer depending on the way the question is asked or who is asking it… sometimes it’s hard to choose.
Typically, when I am asked the question “Where is home?” I often answer “Asia”. Why? Because it’s the place I lived the longest—17 years—formed meaningful connections in childhood and I feel like I am a product of the community there. But when I’m asked if I’d like to “go back home”, I struggle. Usually my questioner conceptualizes of home as a place that is relatively static… maybe there is even a building called “home” that he/she can return to and people who are fixtures in the environment that make it feel like “home.” But for me, most of what I knew in my community in Asia has changed since I left 10 years ago. My classmates have scattered across the globe to pursue higher education, jobs, and start families. They live in China, Philippines, Norway, New York, Texas and Brazil. Most of my teachers have retired and moved to their countries of nationality like United States, Canada, and New Zealand. My parent’s coworkers have relocated to Colorado, Ontario, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia and the UK. Truly, there is “no place like home”, and for TCKs, once we’ve left, there is no place “like home” to go back to… home has ruptured like an old star which scattered it’s dust and particles across a great expanse of space. It was a beautiful thing, but it was and its former glory is now held in the collective memories of the people who once called it “home” together.
So, my concept of home has had to become dynamic, open to change, in order for me to have a place to call “home”. When I travel away from the place I currently live, and someone asks where I’m from, I often say “Redding, CA” because that’s where I’ve lived for 10 years now and I think that’s the answer my questioner is looking for. But is Redding my home? Yes, in a way it is. While Asia is a past home, Redding is my current home. I’ve had to let go of my old home in order to embrace this new one… but it certainly took time. When I arrived, Redding was a strange place with foreign people. Oddly enough, I looked like most of the people around me in Redding which is a very majority-culture part of the state and yet, I felt so different from them. I think most TCKs experience this “dissonance” when they visit the place of their national or cultural ancestry. Where they may have been in the minority in their old home, now they are surrounded by people who externally seem very much like them, and yet the difference couldn’t be more distinct.
When I first arrived in Redding, I was adamant that people who met me learned that I was not from America, but that I was from Asia. My hope was that if they knew this about me from the beginning, they might have an open mind to accept that I was different from them…that I wouldn’t know all the foods, pop-culture, or traditions of the area. Sometimes people gave me weird nicknames like “Wasian” (white-Asian) in order to give me my own distinct category. For the most part, I appreciated this labeling because it gave me the freedom to be someone different and not be expected to be like the people who looked like me. I often felt envious of international students because they didn’t have to explain that they were different… everyone could tell just by looking at them. I felt like I was an international student in disguise.
Back to the idea of home… Redding started to become my home in my third year of living here…when I accepted it as home. I knew that Asia was not the place for me to continue to grow and learn in this season of my life and in order to accept this new place, I had to release the old. So Redding became home, complete with a smattering of college friends, church friends, and work friends. In this small city of 100,000, it wasn’t long before I couldn’t go out without seeing someone I knew. I have loved many aspects of my new home, the people, the geographical beauty, and the spiritual atmosphere. I have embraced it and I feel like it has embraced me. It has been a good place to be nurtured in my late teens and into my late-twenties. But now, as I’m about to turn 28, I will leave this home for a new one.
When I move to Hawaii a year from now to pursue a season of rest, growth, and continued learning, I don’t know how I’ll answer the question “Where is home?” I struggle because I’m not sure what the inquirer wants to know. Are they asking, “What community do you feel has most significantly formed you as a person?” or “Where have you lived the longest?” or “Where do you feel the greatest sense of belonging right now?” or “Where have you felt the most alive, the most ‘you’?” Depending on their reason, or the question behind the question, I would altar my answer. But in the moment of being asked what the questioner thinks is a simple and basic question, it would make a peculiar first impression to retort “What is the question you’re really asking me?” In the moment, I’d rather just pick a supposed question and try to answer it to the best of my abilities. Or, as I have done while traveling, I might give a complex answer that will identify to me whether my questioner really wants to know me, or make superficial small talk. It could go something like this…
“Hey, welcome to Hawaii! Where are you from?”
“Well, I was raised in Asia as a child but spent the last 10 years of my life in California.” (A casual inquirer might be scared off by this response thinking that we have little in common or not knowing how to steer the conversation and the relationship could end there. Or, it could lead into another question about the nature of growing up in Asia…)
“Oh, why Asia?” or “Where in Asia?”
(And we go a little deeper into my general culture of heritage, and now my inquirer might assume we’re really quite different and wonder if we can be friends.)
“I am from Redding, CA” (The false assumption is then made that I am a typical majority-culture American raised in America which isn’t true about me, but if my inquirer is also a majority-culture American and particularly if they like Bethel Church, this could be a great start to a friendship. The commonality built can be a good platform. Later, when they get to know me better, I might open up about my TCK identity and hopefully they can handle it then.)
“Taiwan!” (Because I lived there for my most significant formative years and it shows that I’m not just your average white girl.)
“Oh, really!? I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand!” (At which point my inquirer exposes their geographical ignorance and I have to decide whether or not to clarify that Taiwan and Thailand are different countries… if I do, I might loose the potential of building trust with this person right from the start.) Or, “You look kind of Asian! But why don’t you have an accent?” (Again, I feel awkward for my inquirer because his ignorance is now so evident and I don’t want to embarrass him, but I also don’t want to leave him in the dark.)
(Added Dec 29, 2015 for the Being a Third Culture Kid Discussion at the International Student Track…)
Or… Home is the place I choose to put down roots… I choose to love even though we will soon say goodbye… I will seek to learn the culture of this place, speak the language, learn the dances, eat the foods. My home is here. I am right where God wants me to be.
One day I will shed this ambiguity of my earthly home to dwell in my eternal home—the presence of God and community of saints from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
But for now, Hawai’i is my home.