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How the Explore Power is Imprinted in Every Third-Culture Kids’ DNA

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

This article was first published on LinkedIn

Since Junior High, I was determined to study abroad, but not necessarily living abroad, or being an expat. I wanted to experience a different way to learn other than rote. At sixteen, I managed to convince my parents to let me leave Hong Kong to attend this little boarding school in England. My entire extended family from my Mom’s side and school mates saw me off at Kai Tak Airport as if I were never to come back.

At Kai Tak, a friend, whom I had been in the same class together since I was four—basically my entire life at that point—gave me a necklace of one well-worn sole-flopping hiking boot replica on a leather string as a farewell gift. He said the necklace was to celebrate the beginning of my travels around the world, my dream of exploration, till my shoes were worn out. I’ve worn out a number of shoes traveling and living in many countries since then. My friend and I have lost touch shortly after the Kai Tak farewell. I still have the necklace, with the leather string shredded, in tatters.

That day at Kai Tak, I was excited and then I was not. I was amazed at myself that I made this happen, and that everyone was there to bid me farewell, and I was almost impatient to be on my own to start my journey. As I waved my good-byes, with my Mom tearfully coaxed me into the overcoat that I would not need till I arrived in London, and as I turned the corner into the restricted immigration area to actually leave Hong Kong, my own tears started to flow. I cried all the way to London and more. I intuitively realized that I had demarcated my life then and there. I was mourning my past and was terrified of the future, the uncertainty, the unknown. And that was the beginning of my expat life as a third-culture kid or TCK.

T. S. Eliot Taught Me the Grit of a TCK

I read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for my A Levels and was immediately captivated by the opening of Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

Since I left Hong Kong for England as a teenager, I had not spent more than a month in Hong Kong with my parents. In late 2019, I relocated from Jakarta to Tainan to be close to my Mom. In between, I spent decades in the US and Indonesia, attending college, grad school, entering the work force, and working some more in multiple sectors and different roles.

I came of age in this English boarding school as an outsider speaking English with an American accent acquired by watching American TV shows in Hong Kong. When I was in college in America, people asked why I spoke with a British accent. I shrugged. And they asked about my nationality. I said American. Their curiosity was actually about my Asian tribe. At that time, I felt more like an American than a Hong Konger, though hardly any native-born American agreed with me. Now that I am in Taiwan speaking Mandarin with a Hong Kong accent, and can’t speak any Taiwanese. I’m regarded as a Hong Konger or someone from Indonesia.

My Mom is from Hong Kong, my Dad from Taiwan. They have two cultures and three languages or dialects between them. That is my past. While I continue to be confused and frustrated with my present cultural identity, I somehow feel that I have found my tribe within the expat community. I am a TCK.

And being a TCK, cultural confusion is a given. Living on the periphery is the norm. I feel empowered to move across cultures. It becomes natural to explore.

“And know the place for the first time”

Shirzad Chamine postulates that “we all knew how to explore in a pure way, experiencing great curiosity and fascination in discovery.” And that “Exploring is helpful when understanding a problem or situation more deeply could put you on a better path forward.” The ability to explore therefore opens up the space for discovery, to be in awe, to be fascinated.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Finding my tribe provides me with the context to arrive for the first time. I understand how to be curious a bit longer by shifting to the power of exploring, especially when I am in conflict with someone. Chamine suggests playing the role of a fascinated anthropologist to “become a keen observer and discoverer of what simply is, without trying to judge, change, or control the situation…to discover things exactly as they are.” TCKs are natural observers and discoverers.

What has your expat experience been like?

I’m curious and would love to hear from you on what it’s like to be an expat nowadays.

How do you use the power of exploration to support you as an expat expert, or an expat executive?

Subscribe to Just Be with Lina to receive my next monthly newsletter, to explore how being, rather than doing, can better support us through uncertainty, living on the periphery as expats and TCKs.



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