Third culture kids (TCKs) are children who spend a significant period of their developmental years in a culture outside of their parents’ passport culture(s).(1)
Somewhere in the to and fro between the sunny suburbs of Sydney and the icy steppes of Mongolia, I lost my identity, but the difficult move to this ancient land would lead me to question and reshape who I am and challenge my ideas about home.
At the age of nine, I moved from my home in Sydney, Australia, to rural outer Mongolia, to a town 9 hours drive from a decent cafe or supermarket. Everything about Mongolia unsettled me, beginning with the foreign eyes that bore into me one step into the airport and the harsh, unfamiliar language that offered no greetings upon arrival. The thick pollution of the city, countless drunk men wandering the streets and piles of dead animals gathered at the side of the road, accompanying our harsh -40 degree temperatures was unnerving. This feeling continued as we caught a bus, crammed with more people than it could seat, across the desolate steppe, through dust storms and over patches of icy shredded road, and finally to our new home, on the fourth floor of an old, derelict-looking Russian apartment block, 76 uneven steps to a small apartment, where my three siblings and I would share one room for the next several years.
We were the second foreign family living in our town, and the only one with kids. As you can imagine, we drew quite a lot of attention. We were stared at, pointed at, occasionally yelled at and talked about constantly.
For the first few months, I considered our move an adventure; I was constantly discovering new things, starting homeschool, meeting new people, trying new foods. However, this quickly became old as I was longing for friends my own age with whom I was able to speak, who were not my three siblings.
At the time, there were only two English speaking Mongolians in our town, both adults. My siblings and I were quickly thrown into language lessons, and eventually picked up the language enough to have basic conversations. Each of us adapted to the change differently and at different speeds, but at the end of three years, I had only one Mongolian friend and minimal conversation skills, while my two brothers had many friends and were excelling in the language.
Three years after our arrival, we returned to Australia for our first furlough (home assignment) for six months. I was thrilled; I would finally be able to see my friends with whom I had lost contact three years ago; I could go back to school and communicate in English! I would be normal again. There would be no stares, I would be talked to rather than talked about, I would be able to understand conversations and instructions, but most importantly... I would be home!
They were different now, went to a new school and had new friends. And we no longer owned a house or car in Australia. It felt like I did not belong. Australia was different ... I was different. My views, norms, habits, even accent, had all changed, and this place was no longer familiar to me. That is when I realised two things: I was still different, and Australia was no longer home. I had thought that for those few months, I would not be living in a fishbowl and I could blend in, but it was quite the contrary. The first Sunday and every following Sunday in Australia my family and I were up on the stage in church speaking. A new church, a new stage, a new community.
What did remain the same were the questions people asked. Everybody wanted to know the same thing. “Which country is your favourite?” “How’s Mongolia?” “Are you glad to be home?” Then, as now, an assumption was made that Australia was still home, despite my 3 year absence, and yet that I had totally assimilated into Mongolian culture. What they did not know was that, depending on my mood, I had multiple homes or no home. I had become a nomad.
I retreated back to Mongolia never wanting to return to Australia. However, the questions still hovered, “Where is home?” “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” Feeling rootless became a norm, until I discovered and adopted the identity “TCK,” and later met others in similar circumstances whose experiences matched my own.
Things improved. I learned to communicate with minimal language, and my one Mongolian friend became my best friend, improving my language even more.
I met our second furlough with dread and anxiety, but with more realistic expectations. With new-found social skills and a new attitude, I entered yet another new school. The six months passed quickly, and waiting in line at the airport with my passport and suitcase stocked full of gifts from new friends, I realised that I did not mind Australia. The thought of returning in two years for university was no longer unpleasant.
When people ask me today, “Where is home?” I jokingly respond, “The airport.” I am a nomad, an adaptor, a chameleon. My identity is not based on location, possessions nor ethnicity. My multicultural upbringing and exposure to the world have given me a unique perspective, a cultural sensitivity and awareness, a confidence and creativity that I am sure I would not have attained in Australia. Far from losing my identity, my move to Mongolia has redefined, reshaped and strengthened who I am.
1: David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Bradley PublishingView other winners