Third Culture Kid: What it’s like to be Thai, but not really

I often catch side glances and eye rolls from Thai locals as I switch between Thai and English during conversations with my friends, who are, like me, “third culture kids.”

For those who have migrated to another country and now call that foreign country your home, you may consider yourself “expats” or “global nomads.” You’ve come to accept that you’re a foreigner in your new home, but that isn’t the case with us.

You see, we look Thai and speak Thai — but only to some extent. We’re Thai nationals yet are called “farang kids” (aka foreign kids) by Thai people. We may be Thai-born, but we’re immersed in Western values and grew up going to international schools or schools outside of Thailand.

Third culture kid (or TCK) is a term that I deeply identify with. TCKs don’t fully fit in with Thai people, while at international schools, or in my case, at school in Canada, we don’t blend in with the “farang kids” either. We’ve adopted deviating cultural norms and suffer an identity crisis, questioning who we are, and where we’re really from.

I (fourth of the right) and my friends from the University of British Columbia pose at a long boat competition on Jericho Beach, Vancouver, Oct. 2, 2016. Photo: Jarek Tan

I grew up in northern Thailand, but moved to Bangkok in fourth grade, then to Canada three years later. On my first day of middle school, carrying a smelly lunch box instead of PB&J in a paper bag, I realized I didn’t fit in so much there. At the same time, I only came “home” — to Thailand — once a year and was an outsider there as well. Thai people found it odd that I spoke two languages at once, and would roll their eyes when I spoke English among other Thais.

“It’s unnatural,” my sister, who also migrated to Canada with me, would say. Friends and family assure me that it’s good to be unique, yet I and fellow third culture kids end up with a blistering sense of alienation and often questioning “Where do we belong?”

Growing up in Canada, the question was inescapable (and dreaded). To answer it, there was so much to consider — including where I was born, where I currently live, and where I have lived between then and now.

And I found that I may belong nowhere — yet everywhere.

Third culture kids spend their formative years in a culture other than that of their parents, and have a grasp of multiple cultures without feeling ownership of any of them. The term, developed in the 1950’s by American sociologists John and Ruth Hill Useem, explains it as an identity influenced by the exposure to different cultures. If you picture it like a venn diagram, the third culture is that small circle in between two cultures — the “culture between cultures.”

“The upside is being able to connect and relate to people more,” said Afindi, a 19-year-old Thai student who lives in Vancouver. “The downside is that you’re conflicted between two cultural values. You don’t really feel at home anywhere.”

Similarly, when asked which culture she identified with, my friend Amy, who had studied at an international school since the sixth grade, replied: “It’s a hard question. Culture isn’t inherent. It’s not the same as nationality, but instead, comes from the places that you’ve been to, or have grown up in.”

Culture shock was expected when I moved overseas at such a young age, but I did not anticipate it coming back to Thailand. I found out later that this was called “reverse culture shock,” the unease one feels when returning home after many years abroad.

“When I came back from exchange, it took me a whole year to readjust to Thai culture,” Amy told me. “I was used to people being very liberal and open-minded.”

“Back in the States, I wasn’t judged by appearance. At school, I didn’t have to look put together for people to approach me, but in Thailand, how I dress and how I hold myself really matters. People judge me more, based on my appearance.”

“And on being open-minded, I am more comfortable to try new things there. I wouldn’t be criticized for wearing something I don’t usually wear, whereas back at Thailand, friends would make fun of me for taking on a new style.”

In the nine years of living abroad, I’ve learned to blend in, at least on the surface. But though I dress and talk like the locals, I still find myself an outsider at times due to values adopted from Thai culture. For example, my American friends talk to professors on a first-name basis, but I feel awkward when I do the same. In Thailand, the idea of “respecting your elders” is a cultural norm, and unlike Western society, there exists a hierarchy between people of different ages.

I am also set apart from friends for being more dependent on my parents. Like many Thais, my parents still have much of a say in my lifestyle choices.

“You still have a curfew?” My friends would say, surprised. “But you’re 20.”

Like I said. I fit in, but not fully. It’s common for Thai parents to set curfews, no matter how old their children are, and many Thais live with their parents until marriage.

Two languages in one speech

To the confusion of those around us, my TCK friends and I constantly switch between Thai and English when we speak, both abroad and at home.

Strangely, I find that many Thai locals are still under the misconception that third culture kids think we are “better than our own kind,” mostly because we don’t speak Thai alone, but often substitute words with English. To the locals, alternating between English and Thai in a conversation could come off as “cocky,” as a form of showing off.

The habit of shifting between languages, which some Thai locals don’t find particularly endearing, is called “code switching.”

While having dinner at a restaurant, my TCK friend Jaeng wanted to tell the waiter that his fork was dirty, but couldn’t, because for a moment, he’d forgotten how to say “dirty” in Thai. He ended up saying the whole sentence in Thai, except for that one word, resulting in an awkward moment between the whole table and the waiter.

Code-switching is not intentional. To Jaeng and other TCKs, it is the unconscious act of saying the first word that comes to mind. The purpose is not to leave others out of the conversation — it’s just more convenient.

“Languages are patterned, to a certain extent,” said Claudia Strauss, a professor from Pitzer College. “Let’s say you’re in a situation where one language exemplifies solidarity and closeness, while the other is more formal or governmental. When you’re using the solitary language, you emphasize what you have in common, and when you’re using the other, you emphasize knowledge. Languages highlight what you want to share, and also what you don’t.”

“Code switching can also be habitual,” She added. “Maybe you’re just used to it, and there’s no deeper explanation… It comes from a fluency in both, or many languages.”

However, Claudia explains that in countries like Thailand, where “the norm is not bilingualism or multilingualism,” other languages are expected to be spoken in private.

Jonathan Wright, a PhD linguistics student at the University of Oregon and former teacher at Payap University, said that “Language choices show which community you’re in.” He added that they are used to connect with people and to have a shared cultural experience, while the point of switching is to share cultural backgrounds.

To bring Thailand into context, Jonathan explained that locals here also “switch (languages) between royalty and religion, as well as formal and informal situations.”

“It comes down to being appropriate in different situations.”

The last stage of reverse culture shock, which I’ve left out earlier, is this: the readjustment stage. In dealing with post-life abroad blues, I now realize that having a third culture is not a loss of identity, but instead, an expansion of it.

So rather than feeling threatened or left out by cultural differences, I began to see myself as a “bridge between two cultures,” not a barrier, and it hasn’t been so bad.

Related:

OPINION: Why international kids who grew up in Thailand don’t speak Thai

2 thoughts on “Third Culture Kid: What it’s like to be Thai, but not really

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. The biggest issue I have with this piece is that it sounds like you’re coming from a position of privilege and looking down on Thai culture and people, as you align yourself with Western values. I would have preferred a conversation between the two. I also question the assumptions made here. The other main issue I have is that you generalize the experiences of all TCKs in Thailand or Thais who went to international school. While your experiences and feelings are valid and I respect them, you say “we” very frequently, and it gives off the impression that you speak for all of the TCKs, when in fact, experiences are singular and shouldn’t be generalized.
    Again, I appreciate you sharing your experiences as I think it opens up space for conversation, which is important, but I caution generalizations and speaking from privilege (this may not have been the case at all, but it just comes off that way).

  2. As a third culture kid and a bilingual, I understand the term “farang kids” perfectly. Unsurprisingly, I don’t find code switching quite difficult as much as I’m aware of Thai culture. English has never been an official language in Thai history. Even the world has changed, it will still take some time for the majority of Thai locals to accept code switching between Thai and other languages in conversations.

    Contrary to your belief, English has, in fact, become more common in Thai locals’ conversation, private or public. If you live in the capital where most locals have become bilingual and (exceedingly) multicultural nowadays, I’m sure that you will barely get judgy eyes Thai locals. Thai locals have grown more and more interests in learning English to become fluent speakers as a result of western influences and social media. This can be observed in not only the way they speak, but also the fashions they wear, the music they listen to, the films they watch. Thai locals have become more westernized than how you view.

    Anyway, thanks for this interesting article and various aspects!

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