I’m not a Third Culture Kid (TCK) in the strictest definition of the term, but nevertheless it is a label I have found useful in exploring who I am, what I am and where I’ve come from. I originally intended this article to have a lilting origin story, a narrative to draw you – the reader – into the history of my family’s movements. But it got too hard. It got messy. How could I describe the intricate workings of my family’s culture, mixed ethnicity and lived experience?
And then I remembered I’m not the only one with a ‘messy and complicated’ family history- a family experience that both defines and differentiates my family from others and individuals within it from each other.
There are many stories out there discussing the TCK experience and no doubt, with trending understanding of this term, many more will come to claim it as their own.
But here are the facts. My mum is Filipino. My dad, a New Zealander. They moved to Rabaul, an island in the New Britain archipelago of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in their teenage years. My mother accompanying her family, and my father striking it out on his own. They met and married at the church there amongst extended family and friends. My older sister, Kelly, was born there. They moved to the Cook Islands. They moved to Australia. Here I was born. And here my mum became an Australian citizen, and according to immigration requirements of the time, renounced her Filipino nationality. We moved back to Papua New Guinea. We migrated (back) to Australia. My sister and dad became naturalised Australians.
I do not speak Tagalog. I have no rich understanding of my Maori or Welsh-New Zealand heritage. I can speak Tok Pisin. I like L&P. I choose Vegemite over Marmite. I have, and on occasion, wear a barong and regularly cook traditional Filipino food (I’m actually pretty great at that – the cooking, not the barong wearing that is). My mother has long been away from family and culture, my father’s family migrated to Australia after he moved to PNG. Both parents have spent most of their adult life in PNG. Their experience in a colonial country (they saw a PNG pre and post-Independence) and fluid shaping of their cultural identity has influenced the way they raised their children. The ways they interact with society and people. But theirs is not my story to tell here, though it has irrevocably shaped my own.
Like many of you reading this digest, the experience of living overseas and the people who became your people whilst there have influenced you. Perhaps in subtle ways you don’t yet realise, perhaps in overt ways you cherish or push back on. For me its left lasting impacts that have influenced not only my personal life, but also my professional career.
Growing up in PNG, despite the manifest violence, was rather idyllic. It fostered in me, an interest in culture, people and history, and how these stories can be told. And while the tyranny of distance limited the immersion of my family in either parents’ mother culture with our extended families, it forged my parents’ strongest friendships, friends which became family, wantok. My closest wantok of them all was my Uncle Brian, a New Zealand expat who married a Tolai woman, my Aunty Fida. Brian was the epitome of adventurer, explorer and he became my mentor and my friend. He encouraged my interest in these areas and supported me through his own excitement (when no one in my family could) when I decided to study archaeology and anthropology at university as a ridiculously naïve 16 year old. I honour his memory and our shared love for archaeology and history and culture every day by working in a museum he was passionate about, that we are both wildly interested in; a museum that ties our respective birth origins and the country that became our home (in my case, home albeit for a temporary period). Despite the beautiful influences like Brian, the wonderful childhood friends and even the scary, violent, turbulent moments we experienced in PNG, for me what has impacted most into my adulthood is the racism that has coloured mine and my family’s life. I bear no small comfort in knowing that many of the people reading this would have or will experience some form of racism as people try to place you into their own one-or-the-other ideological framework of what a person should culturally or racially be. What we should look like, sound like and dress.
While I didn’t want this article to focus on the racism I’ve faced, I would only be telling half a story, presenting half my identity without talking about how it has shaped me, both personally and professionally. “Returning home” to Australia was culture shock to the nth degree. We moved back to a rural far north Queensland town and it was there that I was first confronted with vicious racism. We were a family that didn’t look like any of the others, kids that didn’t sound like any of the other kids (thanks for the British accent International School!). I didn’t know any of the colloquialisms. The lingo. To ease my way into school my teacher provided a primer for me on Australia – colour in the Australian flag, learn the national anthem. Small tokens like this however, could not temper the realities my family was to experience. My sister, beaten and bullied at school, our house constantly prank phone-called. I vividly recall a conversation with another kid at school telling me how perfectly logical it was to “keep Asians out as they’ll take all the jobs”. We were 10 years old. The jokes that my mum must be a mail-order bride or shoots ping pong balls out of her vagina.
Go back to where you came from.
Self-preservation dictated my sister and I lose our accents fast. We did. The racism faded, but didn’t abate – it presented in different ways. At uni (ironically enough in an anthropology class) an older student asked me what my background was. I started the usual “well, I grew up in PNG, but my father is from New – “ to get cut off with a “well that explains your curly hair”.
More comically, a Chinese pathologist asked me if I was Korean and then proceeded to work through each East Asian country in a rather hilarious ‘guess who’. My waxer, who while making small talk (and if you’ve ever had a Brazilian wax, you know the distraction of small talk is very much required) asked me what my background is and interjected when I said my dad was a Kiwi with a: “I knew it! I thought you were Polynesian! You have a very Polynesian….laugh”. My local Chinese-Malay restaurateur who every time I pick up my take-away Char Kway Teow and tofu hot pot insists I am Chinese because of my physical appearance and appreciation of Chinese cuisine despite my clarifications. It was so persistent one night that I just said I was Chinese. She was very happy. And the Char Kway Teow made me happy.
For western men with a bent towards Asian fetishisation, I am generically Asian, as one tinder encounter explained “we all look the same” and another mentioned I was “Asian enough to fuck” yet have enough western qualities as a gateway for the yellow fever afflicted. The out-of-the-blue casually racist jokes from the guy I dated for a couple of months. The confusion and sometimes exoticisation when dates realise I sometimes speak with an accent (usually after a few drinks and nervousness sets in). I’ve experienced this enough that I am deeply wary and prone to question motivations.
The casual racism at work from well-meaning colleagues who ask me “where are you from? No, but where are you really from?” when countered with my Australian nationality. The colleague who sniggered when they heard me mention I have Maori heritage and am interested in learning more about it.
These things frustrate and infuriate me. But for them I am also grateful. All the overt and casual racisms, all the fears of what will someone’s response be when I tell them my heritage, by 25 years (I am now 27), had built and coalesced into a death by a thousand cuts. A thousand racist cuts, a thousand ignorant cuts. But those thousands of cuts didn’t kill me. They killed my fear of being different, embracing my difference, my cultures, my heritage. They make me more aware of the work I do every day as a curator– whose stories are we missing? I am Australian, but would I see someone like me represented in my museum? Why not? How can I change this? Through my work, can I help others acknowledge their own identity? How have their personal experiences shaped their choices? Can I help educate against ignorance?
I can offer no tangible help, or real advice that many of you have already not told yourselves. If you want to label yourself, label yourself. If that helps you understand who you are and where you have come from and are going, let it help. But don’t let other people impose their ideas of who or what you should be based on the accent you speak with, your appearance, where you were born or where you have ended up. These are their convenient constructs and not your reality.
I know now, that my identity as it is at this very moment, won’t always be this. That is what I value most about my multiculturalism, my TCK experience, my hodge-podge of family, my wantoks – its given me the maturity to know I will keep growing and changing. My identity, my sense of self and culture will expand and contract and maybe someday, settle. I’m not always going to know where I will end up or who exactly I am at any one moment, but I have the confidence that my experience has been real, that it is my own, and I don’t need to ‘legitimise’ my cultural identity to anyone, least of all myself.
I’m a TCK of TCKs. I’m multicultural (yes, I’m using that as a noun). I’m biracial/mixed-race/etc. I’m all of these labels and sometimes that helps me come to grips with who I am and who I could be. Some days, I reject these labels. That is my prerogative and noone else’s. My heart is in PNG. But it’s also in Australia. And there are parts of it in the Philippines. And parts of it in New Zealand. Maybe I can’t be a whole of any of these specifically, but I can be a whole of the sum.
 Tok Pisin, or Pidgin, is the official language of PNG; it is a creole language and one of the most-spoken in PNG.
 A barong is a traditional, formal Filipino shirt
 Pidgin for family/friend, literally translated it means “one talk”