Saturday, July 6, 2013


I first became aware of the term "Third Culture Kid" back in '75 or '76 from Mr. Roger Welty, a charismatic teacher at the International School Bangkok. More recently I saw an article about us TCK's on an embassy bulletin board in Maurtiania, of all places -S.L.

The worst question you can ask a TCK is "Where are you from?" When I get asked that, I either have to tell my life story in ten seconds or less - and they think I'm lying - or lie, and say something like "San Francisco". Sooner or later, somebody is going to say, "Oh really? I'm from San Francisco. Where'd you go to high school?" and they're back to thinking you're a liar.

This is where it started.

I was born in Melbourne, Australia. When I was six months old, my parents immigrated to the States. My Dad was a mechanical engineer, he came over to work on the gantries for Project Mercury, up in Seattle, Washington. He parked my Mother, big brother & myself up in Vancouver, British Columbia and commuted until he could work something out to get us in legally. I actually have very early memories from when we lived in Berkeley, California, but my first real memories are of Palembang, Sumatra.

In an earlier post about my father I described some memories of Palembang.

. . . my brothers and I grew up overseas and lived the amazing ex-pat lifestyle; an education no school can provide. I still remember when I was six, in Indonesia - my dad built a classic, clinker-hulled dinghy with a mast and lateen-rigged sail and a 1.5 horsepower Seagull outboard. The sail was hand sewn from old rice sacks and the spars were bamboo. I remember Dad taking me up the river, and I remember the banks of that river lined with crocodiles basking in the sun. We stopped and visited a native village; bamboo longhouses up on stilts. It was a scene right out of a Conrad novel (even though I didn't know it at the time). By the time I was a teenager I'd had adventures most kids cannot even imagine.

We lived in Indonesia for about three years and evacuated during the Emergency in 1964.

At that time we went down to Australia and lived in Sydney - which to this day I think is the most beautiful city in the world. I started school at Bondi Elementary. Already nobody could understand me and I couldn't figure that place out - which became a major theme of my academic experience.

After a year, Dad finished up in Sumatra and we went over to the States on a Holland-America line ship, the S.S. Ryndam

S.S. Ryndam

We lived in Alameda, California, in the Bay Area, for about three years. I had to re-do kindergarten because I couldn't hack it in first grade. Then Dad got another overseas contract - overseas is where the real money is for engineers - and so we packed off for Bangladesh, which in those days was East Pakistan. Confused yet?

So Where's Home? A Film About Third Culture Kid Identity from Adrian Bautista on Vimeo.

Life in Bangladesh was hard. As a kid I saw abject poverty, the likes of which you simply cannot imagine unless you have seen it for yourself. The slums and the shanty towns were nothing - they had people living in huge drainage pipes stacked up in open lots because the money for the drainage scheme had been embezzeled away; which meant the place flooded during the monsoon season, and the sewerage from the open sewer ditches on the sides of the road made sure everybody got cholera.

Bangladesh is a giant river delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra Rivers. There is little or no rock there, so there were gangs of sari-clad women squatting all day on piles of bricks, smashing them up with ballpeen hammers, to make aggregate for concrete. These poor wretches wore thick rubber tubes on their fingers to protect themselves, and some of them carried babies in the folds of their ragged, threadbare saris.

Life is good for this fellow. When we lived in Bangladesh, the rickshaw drivers were so poor they wore loincloths and they could have been extras for a film about POW camps - they were practically walking skeletons.

In 1970 the civil war came as Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. We made our move to Bangkok, Thailand and things were so much better there, we kids thought we'd died and gone to heaven.

My alma mater.

ISB is the best high school in the world. We had the best teachers, the best students, the most incredible environment. My favorite teacher was Mrs. Augusta Gatti, my Latin teacher. She was a strict disciplinarian we nicknamed "Mussolini" - but never to her face. Mrs. Gatti taught us the history of the Roman Empire, and made Stoicism real for us.

TCKs pick up languages like most people catch colds, which is understandable, but more intriguing is that we switch between accents, often inadvertantly. Because of all the American exposure I do not speak with an Australian accent, but I do use a lot of Australian slang. My accent is not American, either, although I do have a lot of Southernisms in there from all my military time, which was spent mostly in the South. I speak Thai, of course. I studied Spanish for six years and am halfway decent at it, Latin for three years and can't remember a word. But when I got down to Africa I picked up French and I can speak it like I'm breathing air.

I graduated ISB in 1977 and hung around until 1979, I loved the place so much. When I walked across the stage at ISB and received my HS Diploma, it was the equal of a Bachelor's Degree in any university in the world. The lessons I learned there have followed me my entire life, on six continents.

To this day I consider Bangkok my home town. I went back to Thailand with the Army, multiple tours of duty 1988-1992, but I only went back to Bangkok once; the place had changed, my friends were all gone and it broke my heart to be there. I visited Roger Welty and Mrs. Gatti, and recently learned through Facebook that she is still there, incredibly, retiring in a year or two.

After Bangkok I went back to Melbourne to complete the circle. Spent a year there, and a year in Sydney, then came over to the States to be with my family, who'd rotated back from Thailand. Of course, everywhere I go I fit in like a square peg in a round hole, so the Army was the place for me. When I got to Fort Benning, Day One of Basic Training, I finally found where I belonged.

We are different than all the others . . . only another TCK will ever understand . . .



  1. I cannot understand your experience though to some extent, I envy it. While I am quite cross-cultured in the US (i.e. I have lived everywhere), it isn't even in the same ballpark as the TCK.

    But I do understand from where you came and that it makes you "a square peg in a round hole".

    Thanks for the insight

  2. Pies over the Blues today. Hawks done over by Geelong.


  3. Completely agree... no question annoys me more than this one. My strategy is now to aks "what do you want to know exactly when you ask me where I come from". That way at least the person who asks the question has to examine their assumptions!

  4. Never heard the term third culture, but I understand. My short version is: My dad worked as an agricultural advisor for the US government, I was born in Honduras and lived there 5 years, then Spain for 3 years, Nigeria 1 year, the Philippines for 6 years, then back to Honduras for 2 more. I finally made it back to the states for my senior year of high school. Where are you from - indeed. I then spent 20 years in the Army, 8 of them in Germany. Since I speak Spanish I also did work in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Uruguay, all courtesy of Uncle Sam. My schooling included Torrejon AFB in Madrid, a British school in Lagos, and the American Schools in Manila and Tegucigalpa.


    Worth a look

  6. I just say I was born in New York and grew up overseas. They get the whole story only if they ask for it, but most don't beyond the why.....

  7. I just say I was born in Fort Walton Beach, FL and grew up in Thailand. The other person comes up with military brat. I smile and agree, at this point I do not have to explain anything. I remember enough Thai to get by, do not remember how to speak German or French, but can read it oddly enough. ISB is the best!! Now at least I have a word for what I am!