(Third Culture Kids or TCKs refer to kids who spend significant part of their
developmental years growing in cultures outside that of their parent’s. I wish we
called them Multi-Cultural Kids-MCKs- instead)
It was Friday evening.
Aiyana had just finished her tennis lessons. We were settling ourselves in the car to head out for some dinner. She had a good day at the court, but I knew she wasn’t in the best of moods. It had been a few days like that. From the corner of my eye, I saw she was wistfully looking at two little girls, hand in hand, walking and skipping along the sides of the green fields. My heart felt heavy, just as hers. And though I tried to brighten the mood in the car by
talking about the ice cream I wanted to have after dinner, Aiyana burst into tears.
“I don’t want to eat anything. I want to play with someone. I want a friend!”
We have recently moved to Johannesburg – our yet another new home.
For Aiyana, this is her second move and her third country of residence at all of
5 and ½ years of age.
Bangkok, New York and now Johannesburg – she is a true TCK in the making. While I have been on the move longer, it is only as a parent I have felt the enormity of the challenge that it can be.
Every move presses the reset button to this real life game of ‘playing house’.
The terrain is unfamiliar. The rules are different. Several of the variables are unknown. Even the players don’t stay the same -we grow, we age, we change.
When we moved from Bangkok, where she was born, to New York, Aiyana had just turned two.
A 22- hour flight to the other side of the world and all our lives were drastically altered including hers, except she wasn’t very conscious of what had happened.
She had to deal with a lot. From being protected and pampered by a retinue of
staff in Bangkok, she was now released into the real world of toddlers in an NYC daycare. The toddler world, as I realized, can be a pretty rough place.
The 'Daycare' is a great lab to observe some of the most primal instincts we humans
have. She had her bad days of being scratched, bullied and told by her friends that they don’t want to play with her. Some of it was heartbreaking. But it was the best training ground she could have had as she entered the social stage of toddlerhood. To help her, I also had to quickly adapt my parenting approaches
relevant to the new cultural context. Some of my natural parenting biases as an
Asian were not going to work anymore.
Over 3 and ½ years, we had built a wholesome life for ourselves. Aiyana was blooming into a confident, don’t -mess -with -me little New Yorker. She had a bunch of friends she knew since age two. I had found a job. We were part of a
diverse community of friends. We had plugged ourselves in the New York way of life.
Only to be unplugged again.
The move to Johannesburg has again been so different. For Aiyana, it is her first
move as a fully conscious social being. To her credit, she has welcomed it with a
generous dose of enthusiasm. She’s settled into her new school and loves it.
The problem was life after school.
In New York, she spent full days with her friends from 9.00 am to 6.00 pm. Often, weekends were spent with them too at the ballet class, a birthday party or while parents met over some wine and food. Here the sudden void in her social life is palpable.
Also, now we live in a house instead of an apartment building. We have our own
backyard, but no common playground to go to, where all the building children play every evening.
From a place where a playdate meant going a couple of floors up or down the elevator, we have to think who to call and visit when we are feeling frisky.
In New York, a visit to the supermarket could get easily derailed because of running into a friend in the playground along the way. Here, her school friends are scattered all over the Joburg suburbs. The chance of bumping into a friend to enjoy some spontaneous play time is
rather slim. Our existential realities have been rewired again, and we have to adapt once more.
I have enrolled her in several classes. No, I don’t want to overload her schedule,
but these are temporary measures to fill her hours for now. We go to the playground close to our house regularly. I encourage her to play with the kids who come there. She understandably feels hesitant and unsure to befriend them. But at times, especially when I am not looking, she finds a way to join them. It isn’t easy for her, but I know she is trying. Making friends is a critical life-skill she will need to be good at to survive this third culture life with aplomb. Also, as she is still in the process of forging her new bonds, some self-doubt is inevitable.
‘Will she want to be my friend? I don’t think she likes me?’
It helps when I remind her of friends in New York and the love and warmth she received from them.
I am trying to get out and meet more people too. As an experienced expat, I realize that when time is always limited, it is important to fast-track your friendships. The friends we make as a family would be key to rebuilding our wholesome lives again.
Its been a few weeks since that Friday evening and things are beginning to look
sunnier. I have finally met some moms of her school friends, and a few playdates
have happened. We’ve made new friends too. Being a TCK isn’t easy for sure. I know there will be some more cloudy days in the future, but it is such an amazingly unique way of growing up that I am not sure I even fully comprehend the impact it is having on her, except that I know for sure, it is.
From summer evenings in the man-made brilliance of Central Park to roaming the
breathtaking wilderness of Africa, she is absorbing it all!
From the living in a highly mixed urban landscape to sharing her space with creatures of all classifications, she is grasping the meaning of diversity in the broadest sense of the word.
For her, it is truly one wonderful world filled with different colors, identities and
nationalities instead of a sum of all the different things. In her mind, there are no
I can see her developing a sense of empathy that is inclusive. She knows how it
can feel to be new and not belong.
One day, on returning from school, she talked
about how she went up to her new classmate from South Korea and played with
him because she saw him playing alone.
She is experiencing the world in the most borderless way possible and learning to
love it, for what it is.
The other day she asked me, “In your school was everyone an Indian?”
”Yes", I replied.
“Really! What! That’s so weird”, she said, looking at me like I came from another planet.
I smiled to myself and wondered how differently must this 5-year-old think about the world. Currently, she calls herself Indian/American/African
(she often omits Thai only by error because it isn’t part of her conscious
memory) probably the only thing she truly identifies with is being human –and
that must be a wonderful thing!!
She may probably feel rootless (there are days I still worry about that), but she is
also so completely free to welcome the whole world into her heart – without
prejudice, bias or hesitation. Isn't that the best kind of prayer a parent could have
for their child!?
Ok, now off to pick my child and her friend from school for a playdate.
This piece is brought to you by Mallika Das, Mom to a TCK, an advertising professional, a global native currently busy settling with her family into their new life in South Africa
Photo credit of Aiyana with her friends by Jennifer Thackray Photography. You can find them on Facebook here.
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