Third Culture Kid Privilege:
A How-To Guide


If you really want to commit to this project, begin in utero. Experience jet-lag via umbilical connection. Growing up is a matter of having a more or less fixed frame of reference; perhaps a country, a sub-culture. Avoid this at all cost. For maximum efficiency, be born into a nation that is not your own. If possible, have multiple passports. Be a mongrel. It’s trendy. Be a shape-shifter — but don’t let your personality erode.

Fly before the age at which air travel is recommended by the medical profession. Experience the joy of pressure-variation on your infant sinus causing you to bleed from the nose and your hysterical mother to be almost detained, for being hysterical. Paradoxically, remain susceptible to air sickness for years, a sea-sick sailor the other shipmates make fun of.

Speak your first word in baby-speak: Mama. Speak your second, a phonetically-accurate four-syllable French word, to express how fucking hot it is in the desert: Ventilateur. Get dysentery (or some other exotic affliction). Have a near-death experience too early for it to be of any psychological value except for this murky, traumatic fear of dirty water which only serves to embarrass you at the beach — however, keep a hyper-dramatized version of the story for later years as a cocktail-party anecdote. When you repatriate, these anecdotes will be hard currency.

Attend international schools where students enroll and roll out like it’s a fast-food drive-through. Make friends with blurry outlines and jarring, bi-cultural names. Love them. Move to another country. Never see them again.

Move to an island with strange vegetation. Adopt a lemur. Adopt a chameleon. It’s more like kidnapping than adoption, but whatever. Kill them accidentally. Adopt an army of workers in the house whom everyone calls “servants.” This is normal. Call them auntie and uncle. Love them.

Notice the local wealth treat their staff like slaves and you like visiting royalty. See starving children with bloodshot eyes in such abject poverty you wonder how they survive, but who nevertheless seem just as blissfully unaware as you are. See children you are told were mutilated by their parents to make for more effective mendacity. Understand that mendacity is an industry; that parenting has many faces in this world; that children are just another, smaller variety of human: not special at all, just extremely vulnerable.

Adjust your frame of reference. When you repatriate, adopt a world-weary, somewhat melancholic discourse about “how it really is out there in the world.” Some will dismiss you as a pretentious twat, but you can’t have everything. No one ever said being well-traveled was easy. Watch a group of street kids stone a dog to death on the beach. Watch right to the end, but do nothing. Think of trauma as a learning experience, because that’s exactly what it is. Adjust your frame of reference.

Develop a dependent, emotionally-charged relationship with your immediate family; after all, they are the only ones who are always there, drinking the same cultural cocktail. Enjoy the tropical sunshine, the upper-class amenities. There are no McDonald's, movie theatres or video game arcades and everyone speaks three dialects which sound like static to you — but there are lizards on the walls, monkeys in the bamboo forest in your backyard, and your circle of prepubescent expat friends are crazy enough to want to throw stones at African wasp nests, just like you. From this bare-bones sense of play, you will take into adulthood the ability to appreciate the simplest of pleasures.

Feel your sense of entitlement growing but without really noticing, like hair or toenails. Become a brat. Play with the powerful slingshot “uncle” made for you from tropical hardwood and bicycle wheel tubing for your birthday. Shoot “uncle” in the head with it. See a grown man cry for the first time but rest assured, he will not be telling your parents about this. When you repatriate, keep this anecdote to yourself.

As your personality begins to crystallize into something you can work to understand objectively, slowly come to terms with the fact that, despite your parents’ best efforts, you are slowly evolving into a prejudiced little bigot. Adjust your frame of reference. You are still young — you can still change.


Now you have established yourself as a well-traveled kid, it’s time to push on. Teenhood beckons. Keep in mind: when things get ugly, you can always move to another country. The great thing about being a teenager is reinventing yourself, and the great thing about being a nomadic teenager is you won’t have the shadow of personal history or long-term friends to remind you of who you used to be. You can be anything you want: a snowflake, an astronaut, even a writer. Be a Goth, be a Rapper, better yet, be a Rebel because that is the absolute best way to make new friends in the teenverse.

Change school systems, fail, go back a year, feel completely outsmarted by kids two years younger than you. Be home-schooled. Watch your siblings excel. Watch your siblings cry from the pressure of academic achievement. Watch your mother cry from the pressure of expat parenthood. Watch your father drink single-malt whiskey that comes in bottles that come in wooden boxes.

Remember there are so many more deserving people than you who have reached stratospheres of suffering you cannot begin to understand. You’ve seen them, live and uncut. Stop complaining.

Hit puberty in an African country so recently post-conflict that there are landmines and buried weapon caches peppering the fields only a few miles from the city limits. Change school systems. Evolve, adapt and adopt the in-language. Make friends with expat brats that hail from the four corners but feel like locals in a small town you all grew up in together. Hunt lizards, wrestle the dog, play Super Nintendo and scream like a banshee when the power cuts and you have to start over. Bike around the city on scorched, yielding tarmac. Be grounded by your furious, un-cool Mom for biking out into the streets downtown at night where “white children are kidnapped all the time.” Bribe the night guard so he lets you sneak out to a house party where you binge on candy and soda and slow dance to Boys 2 Men. Smoke a cigarette. Play Spin the bottle. French kiss a beautiful café-au-lait girl with a birthmark on her face and feel elated when she says, “you’re very good at this” in Portuguese. Watch her little face recede as you leave for the airport a few weeks later, waving stoically. Never see her again.

Keeping a stoic face as you meltdown inside is a skill you will be able to use time and time again. Treasure and cultivate it.

Go to boarding school. Meet the children of industrial tycoons, former-presidents and European gentry. Feel and act filthy rich even though you are not and this school is costing your parents their retirement dreams. Go off the deep end. Start smoking rollies. Start smoking hashish and saying yes to everything. Skip classes chronically. Drink Tequila one night till you fall over and break your tailbone. Start wearing T-shirts with the word “Fuck” on them. Have a damn good time, overspend and learn to motocross. Try to have sex. Try harder. Develop a reputation as the crazy, reckless kid who’ll go for any double-dare. Ask for trouble. Get it. Get beaten up. Get shot with an air rifle, a paintball and a slingshot. Experience the true meaning of the phrase “what goes around, comes around.” Laugh about it hysterically, a real-world learning experience.

Get thrown out of boarding school, still a virgin, but cured of that ridiculous assumption that you somehow deserve to be happy just because you are you. You have to work for it, just like everyone else.

Move into a tiny house in a small Northern European town near a mountain range where everyone is blond. Share bedrooms with your snoring siblings as the money is “tight” right now. Learn that culture shock goes both ways. Hate your passport country. Hate your other passport country which you visit during the holidays. Hate your parents. Hate your siblings. Try to kill yourself, but not really, it’s just a phase. Develop a mean streak and a mocking laugh. See your mother cry as you are arrested for bringing a knife to school — it was just a joke, but the other kids weren't laughing. Have a mental breakdown, you earned it. Vow to change.

Move to a densely-populated Asian megalopolis. Inhale the miasma of sweat, spices and unfiltered diesel fumes and smile. It’s your first day on this continent. You are home. Wipe the slate clean with bleach and acetone.

Watch your parents settle into a contented middle-age relationship and feel like a perfectly normal family unit. Excel at school, even in mathematics, the foreign language that always eluded you. Have a girlfriend you don’t really like, but at least you aren't a virgin anymore. Learn to make the best of what you have. Learn to make Biryani. Learn that your life truly has been a privilege. Feel privileged. Take a graduation trip to a trendy beach resort in Asia with the best friends of your life and have the best time of your life. Feel special. Watch “The Beach” and feel completely unoriginal.

Repatriate to your passport country to begin the grownup life and start to feel like the past 18 years were a vivid fever dream. Your BFFs are now green dots in a Gchat list but your door is forever open to them and there will always be a spare room or sofa-bed for you on the other side of the world. Polish up your global-nomad anecdotes, but don’t brag — it’s a fine line. Make new, long-lasting friends and maybe even fall in love. Begin to unearth the actual person under the shape-shifting surface of your persona. Discover that there are worse things than being unoriginal. For example, thinking yourself too original to connect with the people around you. Come to terms with the fact that, now you are well-traveled, you’ll have to learn to be well-adjusted, and that, my friend, is the tricky part.


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