THREE WAYS TO COPE WITH THIRD-CULTURE SYNDROME.
A STRANGER IN MY OWN LAND
Before I begin talking about my cross-cultural experience, a little introduction – my name is Leon. And I’m a Malaysian. But it’s not that simple. Malaysia is an extremely ethnically diverse nation made up of the Malays, Indians, Chinese and what we call the dan lain lain, which translates to “the others” – an umbrella term to describe anyone from one of the many indigenous tribes of Malaysia.
My Father is part of the Kelabit tribe that resides in the jungles of Borneo. In fact, the Kelabits are one of the smallest tribes in East Malaysia, so much so that he often quips, “you could put us in a zoo”. Another fun fact, my ancestors were head-hunters. Not recruitment consultants. As in we would literally chop off the heads of rival tribes and use their skulls to furnish our lovely little homes. The good news is, we’re safe to be around these days!
My mother, on the other hand, is a Chinese Malaysian, who grew up in the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital city. In short, before the third culture life began for me, I was essentially born with an identity crisis.
At the wee age of 9 years old, my family was posted to the Netherlands. My dad worked at Shell, so what followed was a series of 3-4-year stints in East Malaysia, West Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the U.K. and finally back to West Malaysia.
I am so grateful to have been brought up in an environment where I was constantly showered by love from my parents. Because of this, for most of these postings, I never had an issue with adapting to each new culture I was immersed in. In fact, it was fun to be able to almost become a new person with every posting. Having that stable base allowed me to be secure in my identity, which translated into me being free to explore each new country’s cultures and all its nuances.
However, this all changed when I came back to Malaysia as a fifteen-year-old. I was now more self-aware. And on top of that, I found myself having to navigate through a whirlpool of irony – on one hand, I was finally back where I belonged. But at the same time, I had never felt so alienated. Strangely, I stuck out more as a local boy with a British accent than when I was the token Asian kid in class at the prep school I went to in the U.K.
Without a new persona to hide behind, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to figure out who I really was. And the fact that this was all happening at the height of adolescence made it even more challenging.
So how did I cope? Just as most Asians abroad would have gravitated to fellow Asians, this ugly duckling gravitated to the small group of British expats at the international school I went to. But this bubble would only last for a short time, because within a year, they had all been posted elsewhere. Now, it was just me and the other Malaysians.
EMBRACE THE CHANGE
If other third culture kids were to compartmentalise our problems into two categories namely, things in our head and actual issues, we will find that most things will fall into the former. Once we acknowledge this, we can start to enjoy the newness of what’s around us without getting bogged down by the imaginary issues that we conjure up.
The encouragement for all of you reading is that even if you are (God-forbid) in a position where you are genuinely discriminated against, all these experiences will amount to a more resilient and well-exposed you. Having lived in so many countries, while at times challenging, has given me an edge in understanding people. Today, working as a communications consultant, this has been a huge help in helping me to help my clients understand the behavior of their audiences and ultimately, how to best communicate with them.
ESTABLISH A STRONG ANCHOR
The flurry of cultures that we third culture kids immerse ourselves in can lead to a confused identity. Being reminded of my value as a human being is key to reminding me of who I really am and what I can offer to society. As a Christian, that anchor has been God as well as family. Regardless of where you find your encouragement, go to it. And go to it often.
ADOPT A MINDSET OF GIVING
I’m sure many of us have tried to quit a bad habit. Chances are, you probably failed at it at least once. This is because our brains are simply wired to do the very thing we tell it not to do. I mentioned earlier how most of our struggles as third culture kids will be internal. So how do you get out of your own head? You literally need to get out and do something for someone else. I’ve found that the more I was doing things and adding value to others, the more I saw myself fitting into the environment I was in, and the more meaningful connections I made with the people around me. Keep doing this and in time, some of these people may even become new anchors in your life.
Despite some of the inherent challenges of being a third culture kid, the exposure and experience we gain is ultimately a privilege – one that will always set us apart from the rest, be it at school or at work. All we need to do is be yourself and enjoy the ride.
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