flying home

third culture kid
Anybody who grows up under the influence of more than one culture. Usually refers to international-scale culture difference.
Seem pretentious? Too bad. They actually teach the term at some international schools.

Third culture kid is a term I only became aware of a couple years ago, likely in one of my younger brother’s Facebook posts. He embraces the identity; it’s a bit more complex for me. I spent my childhood moving around East and Southeast Asia, but my family moved back to the US when I was 10 and stayed until after I left for college, seven years later. So while I fondly remember my childhood years in the sweltering Singapore sun, I’m not sure I really count as a TCK.

Among the TCK traits people list, though, one definitely resonates: I don’t have a stable place to call home. People ask me where I’m from, and I have a one-word answer (California, these days), a seven-word answer (“I grew up all over the place.”), and a seven-minute answer (“Let me start from the beginning…”). We were always moving. Before we moved back to the US, I had lived in eight different homes in ten years. I got used to moving so often, and I always treated it like an adventure.

Growing up, we would spend large parts of our summers at my grandpa’s house in Orange County. It was the perfect launchpad for beach excursions, days at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, and quiet suburban pleasures — exotic to us at the time — like shopping at enormous grocery stores and walking around the malls in awe at unbridled consumer culture. The strange and magical delights of gummy sharks, Capri Sun, and Lunchables, however, were sadly tempered by the lack of Yakult, Ribena, and White Rabbit.

The days and weeks and months spent over the years at my grandpa’s house, along with the certainty that it would always be there to return to, gave it qualities missing from the places my family lived: nostalgia, familiar smells and sights and sounds, a freeway exit and main street and side street and house and yard that belonged to me. I never actually lived there, but it was home.

In 2012, while I was in law school, my parents and younger siblings were living in Singapore again, for just a year. Over winter break, I headed there to join them — flew to Beijing for a few days to see friends and then made my way south. My PEK-SIN leg happened to be on Singapore Airlines, which I hadn’t flown in probably 15 years but had flown all the time as a kid.

As I boarded the plane, something completely unexpected happened: powerful waves of emotion hit me, one after another. I found my seat, sat down, and realized what I was feeling. I was home. That strange, warm, fuzzy, joyous feeling was a result of all the countless hours of trans-Pacific flights, spending 14 hours at a stretch trying to beat Super Mario World before landing at LAX, pestering and playing with my siblings and learning new card games from my parents, realizing one year that I would have two birthdays, since we left Singapore the afternoon of my birthday and arrived in Los Angeles the morning of.

I looked around and smiled to see the flight attendants (stewardesses, as they were called back in 1994) in their smart-fitting sarong kebayas, politely and uberefficiently handing out warm towels for face and hands, answering questions and preparing the cabin for takeoff. I half expected one to come up and offer me a coloring book with airplane models and some crayons (four, in a plastic pouch, red yellow green blue). But of course I wasn’t eight anymore.

On that flight, I had a glimpse of what other people feel when they’re home. I was reassured to find out that my sense of belonging is just as visceral and real as anyone else’s — my home just happens to be an airline, not a house. Absurd? Maybe, but part of me all the same.