Growing up as a third culture kid

I step off the plane, and I feel like I’ve come home. It doesn’t matter where the plane has landed. When I walk out of the airport, it could be into the crisp, dry Australian air that goes down like a good Sauvignon Blanc. It could be that cool British air: damp, heavy and weathered like old stone. It could be the thick Indonesian air that smells of cloves, heat and petrol which for some is suffocating but for me feels like surrendering into an embrace.

I’m a Third Culture Kid, and I’m not really sure what home means.

I am two. I’m running down a gilded hallway, lush carpet under my feet. I’m in a hotel. We’ve just moved to Indonesia from Australia and already our leafy townhouse in Richmond is mostly forgotten.

I am five. My school friends are all colours but our uniforms are the same. The girl with the small brown tooth solemnly explains to me that the country she came from has now become two countries. I speak Indonesian with our maids. I rhotacise my Rs and when my older sister visits us from America, she and I sound the same. At another international school, I have a classmate called Ashish whose name I like so much I say it aloud all the time. We have art class and have to make pottery and decorate it with something from our home country. I paint a kangaroo because I don’t really know anything else about Australia. Our house is one of four in a compound behind a white, spiked wall. The pollution is so bad in Jakarta I can stare directly at the sun. The maids take us for bakso down the street and I realise I must look different because people pinch my white cheeks.

I am seven. We get in our brown Toyota Kijang for the last time and drive to the airport. We fly back to Australia and stay at our grandparents’ house in rural Victoria. Our first night there, mum asks me to do the dishes. I stare at her in incredulity. I’ve never done dishes in my life. On my first day of school in Australia everyone follows me around the yard asking “What’s your name again? Are you Indonesian? Are you Australian? Are you American? What’s your name again?” Everyone looks like me but nobody is like me. There are so many kids called Matthew that they are called Matty L, Matty M, Matty T. I make friends with a girl who’s tall and tough and knows all the things about Australia that I don’t know. My accent softens and I try to blend in. A Eurasian boy starts at the school the following year. I’m secretly relieved when the kids start following him around instead of me, but I notice that he sounds more Australian than I do. I spend as much time as I can at my grandparents’ farm and learn to ride horses, check electric fences and shift cattle.

I am 11. I start at an international high school. I make Korean friends, Indonesian friends, Singaporean friends, Malaysian friends, Chinese friends, Japanese friends and even a Bangladeshi friend. I learn Singlish, lah, and how to write my name in Korean. I meet a girl like me with Australia on her passport but something else in her voice. I study Indonesian formally for the first time and it all comes back. My Malaysian friend and I like to play a trick where I’m the one speaking in a foreign language and she’s the one translating. My accent creeps back. I start dreaming of aeroplanes.

I am 18. I go to the USA, to Canada and then to the UK to live for the better part of a year. My accent starts to sound British. I play pool, drink pints and call sex shagging. I go on trips to Wales. I love Wales. Everybody looks like me. When I say “My name is Angharad”, people say “OK”. Nobody ever asks me where I’m from.

I am 19. I go to university in Canberra. People ask me where I’m from, but I’m not sure what to say. I stumble over trying to justify my mixed accent and my unusual name, trying to condense my life story into a single sentence. In my first year I take a class where everyone is asked to write down three aspects of their identity. I listen to person after person say “Australian”, “Australian”, “Australian”. I look down at my list. My nationality isn’t even on there.

I am 20. I do an internship at a law firm in Kuala Lumpur for a month. I make friends with Chinese law graduates who take me shopping and feed me the wildest things they can think of. I eat rice for breakfast, and nobody thinks I’m weird.

I am 21. I move back to Indonesia for a year of study. It’s exactly the same and completely different. I live in a kos with about 20 other girls. I take all my classes in Bahasa Indonesia. I eat street food every day. I play futsal with a group of Indonesian girls. I ride a motorcycle. I change my nickname from Harry to Hari. I dress differently, making sure to cover my shoulders. My Indonesian gets so good I can take law classes. I present my research to Indonesian academics without notecards. People stare at me and take my photo and comment on my skin. Sometimes I hear people whisper that I’m a dirty, slutty, stupid bule and think I don’t understand them. What I do start to understand, to really understand for the first time, is what it means to be judged for the colour of your skin.

I am 25. I go back to Indonesia to do field research for my Masters. I talk to West Papuan university students living in other regions in Indonesia and ask them what it’s like to look different and live away from home. I stay with my friend and her grandparents and they feed me to bursting. It’s like I never left. I dream of getting a job where I can live overseas and be a child of all nations.

I’m 28. I still live in Canberra. I have a partner, two rabbits and a dog. I never quite found that overseas job, but after 18 months of applications I did find a good graduate job. My overseas trips are for weddings and holidays now instead of work and study. I still have my name, my accent, my languages, my backstory. People still ask me where I’m from. Although I still feel a little bit the outsider, I made a new friend this year and he’s a Third Culture Kid too. He just got his Australian citizenship and for the first time in his life his nationality matches his home address. He has that international school accent, he picks up new slang effortlessly and slides into every social situation effectively and with empathy. He reminds me that I do have a community after all, we just don’t all live in one place.

We’re Third Culture Kids and we make everywhere our home.

Image: Christian Baron

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Angharad Lodwick 5Angharad is a Law graduate with a Masters in Asia-Pacific Studies. She started out writing for ANU’s Asia-Pacific Studies faculty publication Monsoon and the Law faculty magazine Peppercorn. She has been web editor and feature writer for Lost Magazine. Angharad is passionate about books, bunnies, South-East Asia and the Pacific, human rights, the environment, modern culture and all things avant garde. She also runs an extremely self-indulgent book review blog at Tinted Edges

One Comment

  • Juliette commented on July 9, 2016 Reply

    Hey! I’m a third culture kid too 🙂 I’m only 18 but I’ve spent most of my life overseas living in China, Malaysia and Qatar. I moved back to Australia a year ago with my family and I’m currently studying year 12. I can completely relate to the feeling of ‘Everyone looks like me but nobody is like me.’ I often feel like my friends here don’t fully understand who I am and that they never will. I think I’ve only really started what it means to be a tck to my identity in the past year. I don’t quite fit in here but I never really fit in properly when I lived in Qatar either. Perhaps this was because I was one of few Australians and my culture was very different to those of my classmates, as many were much more conservative and/ or religious.

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