Growing Up as a ‘Third Culture Kid’
Published on: November 21, 2018
Nomadic community builder Pixie Cigar tells us what it was like growing up as a ‘third culture kid’ (or TCK)–children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland.
By Pixie Cigar
It’s probably best for us to start at the very beginning! Where were you born?
In the city of Angels, LA (Los Angeles).
And, what is your nationality?
I took on the Hungarian nationality after my mother, as during the 90s an EU citizen had a lot more freedom of movement.
Can you tell us a bit about your ethnic background, where your parents are from?
My mother is Hungarian Romani (Gypsy) and my father is Canadian Chinese.
How many countries have you lived in?
I have lived in the US, Canada, China and now Malaysia, so by now four countries.
How many languages do you speak and what are they?
I know five languages in total. I am fluent in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. I can read and get by in Japanese and lastly, I can order my food in Malay.
How did you come to learn the languages?
Well, we spoke English at home when I was growing up, as that was the only language my parents had in common. I was the first in the family to speak Mandarin when we moved to China when I was three years old, mainly because if I didn’t learn it I would have no way to communicate with people in China.
I never really had close friends for more than three years…
I picked up Cantonese when I was 12, since everyone only really spoke Cantonese at the new school I went to, so if I wanted to get by I had to speak the language. I started learning Japanese when I was 12 because moving and living in Japan was always a dream of mine, so I spent all my English classes at school teaching myself Japanese (the English they were teaching was very basic).
Lastly, I started picking up Malay when I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2014. The fortunate and yet unfortunate thing about KL is that almost everyone can speak English, so my environment didn’t really force me to learn the language like it did with Chinese and Cantonese, but at least I can kind of understand other people and, most importantly, order my food in Malay!
What do you tell people when they ask where you’re from?
There is always that moment when I am like “Hmm, how should I put it this time?” I generally tell them based on that person’s background, so they can find a part of me that they can relate to or feel close to, and the particular quality I want to “show off” in a way.
For example, if I see someone who I think is Chinese, I will say I am from China. If someone is from Europe I will definitely say I am Hungarian.
What was it like growing up in so many different places?
It was fun I guess, I don’t know any other life besides this. It made me very close to my family, yet not feeling like our relationship should be evaluated on our geographical distance, the same feeling I have with the people I meet.
After living in so many places you learn to realize that this world is actually very, very small, but not all of us feel comfortable to take that step out.
What would you say the advantages are of growing up this way?
I learned how to adapt to new places and connect with new people from a very young age. I understand that there is beauty and ugliness anywhere you go. I also understand it is important to see past cultural differences and step back to judge it for what it is.
Were there any significant challenges that you faced?
I wouldn’t call them challenges, as growing up being in new places I had to learn how to adapt in order to “survive.”
One thing to bring up is that I never really had close friends for more than three years, as I would always just suddenly leave to another country or city, cutting almost all contact.
But the great thing about that, is that I learned how to meet and get along with people very fast, and because I don’t know how long our time will be together, I focus more on enjoying our moments that we share in the here and now and not worry if this will ever happen again.
Sometimes when I meet a very interesting person and we have a great conversation, I don’t find the need to exchange contacts and stay in touch because I feel that we already had a great time, let’s leave it to fate to decide if we will ever see each other again.
Has not having a single cultural identity of your own affected you negatively in any way?
Growing up it did because of being in China all those years and believing I was the same as others when in reality everyone still treated me as the foreigner. This was kind of sad as a teenager to realize. But when I got older this went away.
Are there any resources or communities you access/engage with regularly in relation to your identity as a third culture kid?
Not really, I am huge for communities especially since building communities is my passion. But I never went and joined communities for third culture kids as I don’t think it should be a big deal. Plus, the biggest reason I can settle down in any new place I go to is precisely because I connect with the locals.
Is there any advice you’d give other children being raised internationally, or parents for that matter?
Never ever distance yourselves from the locals. I am super grateful that my parents put me in local schools in every country we went to and did not give us the excuse to not learn the local language. I have seen many expats who like to stay in their own little circle and often only have friends who are also expats.
It is important to not think of yourself as an outsider, because the moment you do so others will treat you like one. I treat every country that I live in as my own.
With my heavy volunteering work, people often ask me why am I helping other countries instead of my own, and my answer is always “I believe in nation-building in any country I am in, and it should not have anything to do with the passport I currently hold.”
Photo by Capturing the human heart on Unsplash
About the Author
Pixie is a community builder, passionate about developing people and their ideas. She does that by creating engagement amongst people and building communities to foster growth. Besides her corporate job, Pixie also co-leads a few non-profit communities in Youth & LegalTech and is the Founder of the Community Builders Union. For further information, visit: facebook.com/communitybuildersunion.
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