It’s nearly bedtime and my kids are brushing their teeth. I overhear this discussion from the bathroom:
“My friend Amelia went to another guojia (country) and she’s never coming back ever, ever.”
“Oh! Last year, my friend Fuluolong went to Faguo [France] and he said, ‘Uhm, il ne va pas revenir non plus (he’s not coming back either).”
“Maybe one day we will go away to Canada, Mommy said.”
“Hey, don’t tu (spit) on my side!…”
I’m listening to this from the kitchen, and since the conversation has deteriorated into an argument, I know I’ll have to intervene any second. But as I dry my hands, my thoughts are on the uniqueness of my children’s “third culture” lives.
They are speaking in their particular combination of three languages. English is their “mother tongue,” or the language I reinforce as the Anglo Canadian, but Chinese is their surroundings and the exclusive language of their grandparents and father. They’re attending the French international school, so they sometimes bounce into a partial French sentence, which I find amusing because of their France-French lilt against my (preferred) Quebecois accent. Nevertheless, with each other, they’re in a perpetual linguistic dance.
But their lives aren’t just unique because of language. They’re living here in Beijing and, like me, they deal with the regularity of friend disappearances. They’re so used to it, it’s just a casual conversation while brushing their teeth, and I wonder at how this will impact their abilities to bond with people throughout their lives. It’s shifted my own instincts around friendship after only a decade of expat living—and not in a very positive way—so I can only hope that my children are more resilient than I’ve been.
According to TCK (third culture kid) literature, children who experience a life surrounded by the transience of ex-patriotism learn to make friends more quickly but at a lesser depth so that the inevitable disappearance of these friends hurts less. This knowledge makes me sad for them. I hope I can always model close friendship even across distance.
But as I sort out their spitting argument and hustle them into PJs and eventually bed, I’m also still thinking about how lucky they are. They’re living a life geared up to be fully proficient in the world’s two most important languages: English and Mandarin. They’re also learning French, which makes them fully proficient in the country for which they hold a passport, not to mention fairly versatile globally, as well. What’s not to champion about knowing a romance language?
But, maybe more important is the consistent exposure to multiple cultures and societies. Our frequent returns to Canada (specifically Toronto: now deemed the world’s most diverse city by BBC radio) and their daily school life in Beijing at an international school that proudly states that in 2019 they “welcome 50 nationalities,” my kids are living a life incredibly rich in humanity.
The unique upbringing of any TCKs will bring challenges, such as a difficulty finding people to relate to, perhaps, or a tendency to think from a non-conventional angle thanks to these different lenses through which they have perceived the world at these young, impressionable ages; but, these skills and sensitivities—things that are second nature to them rather than accomplishments—will certainly provide more lift than burden to their respective futures.
As I tuck my two TCKs into bed, I feel a familiar comfort: they’ll always have each other. Beijing is home now, but ultimately, “home” is where your teeth get brushed, your spitting fights happen, where your loved ones are. No specific geography required.
About the Writer
Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who has been living in Beijing since late 2008. She has a daughter called Echo (国如一) and a son called Topaz or “Paz” (国世龙).