Monday, January 24, 2011

I'm a Third Culture Kid

Jan 23, 2011

By Niki Bruce

I almost missed my deadline for this column since I just got back from holiday. No, I didn't 'go home', that is, back to Australia for Christmas as many people had assumed; rather I took off for Tokyo for shopping and the cold weather.

On arriving at Changi - the new Terminal 3 is a breeze to use by the way, and being the holder of a trusty 'green card', I didn't even have to fill out an arrival form - I was relieved to finally be home.

Yes, strange as it may sound to some, I do consider Singapore my actual home.

I may have been here for only two years and I may not be a PR (permanent resident), but my mailing address is here, my worldly goods are here, my friends are here, my work is here and I can find my way around most places blind-folded. To me, that means 'I'm home'.

Sure, it may seem like I've given my allegiance willy-nilly and without much thought, but in fact this adopting of a new home as quickly as possible is something of a 'Third Culture Kid' trait.

What's a 'Third Culture Kid'? Well, it's the new definition for a large part of our mobile global population, of which I'm one. Basically, we hold a passport for one country, but we've been brought up in one, or many, others.

According to that paragon of information, Wikipedia, a 'third culture kid (TCK/3CK) or trans-culture kid is someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture'.

It goes on to say that TCKs also tend to have stronger connections with other TCKs, regardless of nationality, than they do with extended family members or friends from their passport country, that they are often multilingual and 'highly accepting of other cultures'.

Take me, for example. I have an Australian passport but find it hard to identify with typically Australian cultural practices; I don't generally get on with other Australians; and I speak about three languages - that's not counting the languages I can swear, order beer or buy cigarettes in.

One of the reasons I moved to Singapore was so I'd never have to do another story on Rugby League, swimming as entertainment or the importance of beer as a national icon. Heresy for all Aussie journos!

Even my family, which looks terribly Australian from the outside - right down to our Caucasian features, Irish ancestry and my father's love of cricket - are in fact rather more Asian than Australian.

No one wears shoes at home, we eat rice at every meal, my mother strongly believes in fengshui, traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, and we have a lovely shrine to my deceased grandparents in an appropriate place in the living room.

Sure, there are lots of multi-cultural families living in Australia these days - despite the racism of Pauline Hanson and the Cronulla Riots, the population does consist of people from many different cultures - but in our case, there's no genetic reason for us to be the way we are.

Rather, our adoption of Asian attributes has been made through personal choice and a genuine feeling of belonging. We choose to be more Asian than other Australian families because we like and identify with certain cultural practices.

I'm the first to abhor the wholesale adoption of a culture without consideration, like the American students I came across in Beijing who wanted to 'live like the locals' so they could then expound on why the People's Republic of China should become an American democracy.

But if you have a genuine connection to a place, a people and a culture, I don't see why you can't celebrate its strong points and adopt them as your own, integrating them into your own way of living.

This is actually the core trait of the TCK. According to the research of sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, who reportedly coined the phrase, 'TCKs integrate aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique 'third culture',' which is where the term comes from.

Hmmm ... actually the description of a TCK sounds awfully similar to that of a Singaporean. In fact, modern Singaporean culture could be described as the quintessential Third Culture, the mix of a birth culture with a new culture, creating a third culture.

No wonder I feel so at home here!

The writer, an Australian, is the online editor of and and has lived in Singapore for two years.

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