Last week at work a colleague and I started talking. It turned out that he also was a so-called Third Culture Kid (TCK). Meeting TCKs, especially in places where you at least expect to meet them, is awesome.
We talked for hours about what it was like growing up in a country, with a culture, that is different from the one you were born in. It was especially nice, as weird as it might sound, to hear that he had been struggling with the same things as I had when first moving overseas, but especially when moving back to Sweden.
I took comfort in that we could talk about the struggles we had experienced. I am half Swedish, half Norwegian, lived in Sweden except for one year in New York when I was three years old (almost don’t remember anything from the time there).
I have however always identified myself as both Swedish and Norwegian as I spent 22 summers of my 23 year- old life in Norway, I have a Norwegian passport and a mother who would never let me forget I am partly Norwegian.
My journey began when I was 10 years old and in a changing room in an H&M store in a suburb to Stockholm.
My mom got a call from dad, and she was super excited.
She hung up the phone and told me – “we’re going to China!” The 10-year old me got really enthusiastic as I loved going to Chinese restaurants and immediately felt excited about going there for a trip. But no, we were not just going on a trip, we were moving, moving to Beijing.
I was furious and I ran out of the store. Once my mom caught up with me, it was time to go get my brothers at school. When my two younger brothers got in the car, they asked why I was so upset. I said “vi ska flytta till Kina era jävla puckon”, translated: “we’re moving to China you f*#ing morons”.
I was so scared when we left for Beijing 14th august 2004. The first two years in Beijing were a bit of a struggle. Me and my brothers went to the Swedish School of Beijing (SSB) the first year.
The girls my age gave me a warm welcome, but for the shy 11-year old me, it didn’t help and it took a while to accept the situation. After a year in SSB it was time for me to move to an international school, Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), where I was from 6th grade till I graduated in 2012.
The first semester was a real challenge as I did not even know how to say “shoe laces”. Although the bumpy start and culture clashes/shocks, my 8 years in Beijing were amazing. I met so many amazing and inspiring people, had so many different experiences, and I also learned English.
In Beijing you didn’t really think about that I was becoming a TCK. I first started to reflect upon it once I left Beijing. After graduating in 2012 I decided to move back to Sweden.
The first couple of months, and really the first year I was struggling. I may have looked Swedish, but I did not feel like I was Swedish at all. I experienced some kind of identity crises, that I’m sure some TCKs are familiar with.
I didn’t feel like I had a home and didn’t feel like I fully connected with the culture (which is kind of ironic since I felt very connected to it when I lived in Beijing). I talked to my aunt about this one day, and she said, “you don’t have a home? You have like three homes”. And she was right.
From that day on I have realized that home is not a physical place, but a feeling that is created by not only people and the atmosphere of a place, but it’s also about how you interact with it; most importantly it’s about if you are open to it or not.
When people ask where I am from, I can easily say Stockholm, even though my mother is Norwegian and I’ve spent a good chunk of my childhood in Beijing; it’s the easiest thing to do as we to a quite large extent in many different social contexts identify ourselves with the nationality/citizenship(s) we were given when we were born.
However, when people ask what program I did in high school (people usually ask that in Sweden, where there are different programs focused on for instance science or the social sciences) and I tell them I did IB (International Baccalaureate).
I always get “where did you study that?” and “why?” That’s when I start telling people about Beijing. The most common question is: “oh so you know Chinese?” and they try to imitate Chinese like “ching chong chang”. I hate that question, cause I always have to answer that I don’t know it as well as I should.
I blame it on the fact that I have been living in Sweden for more than four years now and because living in the international bubble of Beijing meant communicating mostly in English.
Nevertheless, I have been known as “the Chinese girl” in the four different places I have lived in since I moved back to Sweden.
Something I have reflected upon is the fact that TCKs commonly say that we have the ability to adapt to different cultural and social contexts easily, perhaps because we are in some way forced to when living in an international bubble in which people constantly come and go.
That is however in a setting in which everyone is in the same boat. My colleague is not the only TCK I have met that has had a difficult time adapting to a new life in the so-called “home country” or a new social context, which doesn’t match the prior life as a TCK.
But what I know is that we all should be very lucky that we got the chance to experience it. I will forever be grateful for the experiences I had in China and for the people I met there.
The same goes for the experiences I have had since moving back to Sweden. Identity has become a very interesting aspect to reflect upon and how big of a role culture plays in creating it.
I now feel at home in Sweden but do not want to loose the “Chinese” aspect of my identity hence just like I wanted to celebrate Swedish holidays and embrace Swedish traditions when living in Beijing, I now do the exact same thing but reversed with Chinese traditions in Sweden.