The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part One of a Two-Part Post

Today I am delighted to have Cecily Thew Paterson from Cecily Mostly write a guest post. Cecily is an award-winning author living in New South Wales, Australia. She has written for Communicating Across Boundaries in the past with an excellent essay on poverty and it’s an honor to have her post again today.


Marilyn asked me to write a two-part series on the issue of TCKs and arrogance after we both contributed to a Facebook conversation. The request seemed easy enough at first, but quickly I realized this was bigger, and a bit more personal, than I had thought. I’ve decided to tell my story in the first part and then talk more broadly about TCKs and the perception of arrogance in the second.

When I was 16 my family returned permanently to Australia after living in Pakistan for 13 years.

It was September. I had finished Grade 10 in an international boarding school in June, and after a family holiday and a bit of sorting ourselves out we arrived in our new home – a country town of 10,000 people in rural New South Wales.
Because of the different school year in the southern hemisphere, I began school by going straight into the middle of term 3 of Year 11.

It wasn’t a simple transition.

The school was very reluctant to recognize my previous education. “We don’t know what level British GCSE qualifications are,” they said. “Maybe you’ll be behind in our syllabus,” they said. “After all, you are missing more than six months of Year 11,” they said.

It took me two weeks of maths tuition with a teacher in the term 3 holidays to catch up on calculus, but in every other subject I was ahead or on par. And when I topped the Year 11 exams in most courses, they scratched their heads.
“Oh well, they must do things alright over there in Pak-i-stan,” they said.
My attitude to school was pretty simple. I thought it was mostly a waste of time. I wanted to get in, do the work, do the homework, get my final HSC qualifications and move on.

“I’m really just waiting to go overseas again,” I told the nonplussed careers advisor in my compulsory career interview in term 4. “I certainly don’t plan on staying here in Australia for long.”

I bumped up against the school again and again. First I decided I didn’t want to study their English syllabus. I objected to one of the books and declared that I’d do my own individual study of Jane Eyre in the library during that time, thank you very much. And I certainly wasn’t going to attend the two-day ‘study skills’ camp that came around in early Year 12.

“What’s the point of going to learn how to study, when you’d be much better off using the time to actually study?” I asked. “By the time the HSC is over, I’ll have done 66 exam papers in 18 months. I think I know ‘how’ to study. I won’t go.”
The school insisted I at least go to the library to study if I wasn’t going to attend camp.

I sniffily acquiesced, but only because I had to.

Socially, I couldn’t be bothered. I found one friend on my wavelength and hung out with her group of girls, but the truth is that I thought most of them were stupid/trivial/ignorant/uninteresting/unsympathetic/badly educated. Take your pick of adjectives. And I was scared of the rest of them. Others were interested only in getting me to ‘say something’ in my peculiar mash-up of an international accent or making comments about how ‘posh’ I was because I held the door open for someone once.

I appeared to be, as my thirteen year old daughter might now say, “arrogant, much?”

But as with all stories, there’s more than one way of looking at the same situation. To my English teacher (who exploded at me one day, yelling for a full eight minutes about Jane Eyre and study camp and ‘people who call themselves Christians’ and then storming out of class) I was simply, to use a good old Aussie expression, ‘up myself’. A person who thought I was better than everyone else.

It was partially true. But if she’d known more about me, she might have found out the following:
In the previous two months I’d said goodbye to my friends, to my school, to my home, to my adopted country and to the identity I’d had for sixteen years. I’d sobbed at the airport and on the plane. I’d moved to a new town, to a new home and to a new school and had to start over in what was effectively a foreign culture and educational system. I was struggling to make friends and connect with people.

I felt all of this as an actual pain. It was like my physical heart had a piece ripped out of it.

I didn’t know how to do my hair, I didn’t know which school shoes to wear, I felt naked in the compulsory thigh high sports skirts we had to wear on Wednesdays, I didn’t know the rules to netball and I didn’t have a team to follow for rugby league. I hadn’t watched the shows the kids at school had watched, or listened to the music they’d listened to, or been around town half my life, or attended the Show every year. I didn’t want to go to parties and get drunk, I didn’t like kissing people on the cheek when I met them, I felt uncomfortable when they asked me questions like, “If you’re from Pak-i-stan, why aren’t you black?” and I didn’t know where building H was for tech or what the rules about late sign-ins were.

I didn’t get Australian small town life. The things that were uniquely Aussie didn’t appeal in any way. I didn’t understand barbeques, I didn’t like salad, I laughed at farmers wearing moleskins, Akubras and striped shirts, and I thought gum trees were ugly and drab in comparison to the green of the Himalayan forest I was used to.

Perhaps hardest of all was that I looked like I should belong. I was Australian, obviously, so people expected that surely I should know how to fit in. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t that simple.

The only thing I really knew how to do was to study, do exams and get good 20130220-090309.jpgresults. I could ‘do’ smart; I understood it. So I decided to focus on the academics and treat the things and the people I didn’t understand as unimportant and unnecessary.

One side of the story is arrogance. The other side is pain and fear. But both sides are true. For me the question is: can you get through pain and fear without arrogance as a young person? And how?

Make sure you come back tomorrow for Part Two.

63 thoughts on “The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part One of a Two-Part Post

  1. “Perhaps hardest of all was that I looked like I should belong. I was Australian, obviously, so people expected that surely I should know how to fit in. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t that simple.”
    YES! To the ‘hidden immigrant’ syndrome. Its utterly frustrating. Doesn’t really get easier even as an Adult third culture kid that “looks” like people around me and then I’d say things that is “weird” or “out of place” and I get weird looks or lectured… Or the one that is frustrating is the assumption of language as well. I just remain aloof, arrogant, or standoffish to a lot of people. Sigh


  2. I relate to a lot of the comments here, Marilyn not wanting to be “from” the small town of Essex, Massachusetts or not “getting” Aussie small town life, not finding the uniquely “Aussie” things appealing. That´s me in my school years, after about 5 moves I ended up for most of school in a small and mostly new town, not in Australia or New England but I had exactly the same feelings, and I didn´t even try to fit in. I used my TCK-ness to show my superiority and looked down on the locals and their ways, their limited experience and overall “backwardness”/conservatism and indeed made a point of not being from there, I was “just passing through” and we were there only because of “my parents new jobs” not because we liked it or wanted to be there. Looking back it simply WAS a bad cultural fit for me, it was nothing like the places I liked or wanted to be, I didn´t connect with anything there and I can honestly say I did not miss it once since I moved out from there. It was not a horrible place by any stretch, I can understand people who like it there, and even more so in the 1970s-80s when it was more of a small town – it has more than doubled in size since – but it just wasn´t for me. And mostly because I had experienced other places and cultures and knew more about my preferences in place than most kids who have only lived in 1 or 2 (similar?) places at that age.


  3. Wow. This is totally my experience! Thank you so much Cecily. It’s like reading my own experience exactly. I still really struggle with sounding arrogant so I just don’t share anything at all and feel as though no one wants to hear what I have to say because it always comes out sounding like I’m superior to them.


  4. “The only thing I really knew how to do was to study, do exams and get good results. I could ‘do’ smart; I understood it.” Oh my goodness, YES. That is me. After growing up in the military, entering civilian life, being socially awkward, and also, at times, being accused of arrogance. Academics was my thing, for so many years. It defined me, and there wasn’t much else.


    1. This is so interesting – I think my husband would say the same thing. I was talking to him about you the other day and he asked me if I’d ever do a series of essays from military kids – a whole different kind of third culture kid. I would love to do this. Would you be interested in writing for a series like that? No pressure. I think it’s a whole subculture that is share some similarities with TCK’s but significant differences, for whether you liked it or not you were a part of the military culture that surrounded you. I’ve seen the ‘smart’ thing in a lot of people — unfortunately I was not one of them!! If I had been I would have made it far farther academically than I did!


      1. You make me laugh, Marilyn, about the academics! And yes, I would consider writing about being a military kid. :) We can email about details. . .


  5. I read this, and it reminded me of how I felt at certain specific times moving around as a Third Culture Kid. Overall, I absolutely loved my experience as a Third Culture Kid. I loved the new cities I discovered, the wonderful people I met at international schools, the languages I learned throughout, and the cross-cultural skills I gained through moving. However, I remember moving to a new school in Hamburg when I was 16, and having to put on a strong face, someone confident. I was starting again at a new school for the third time and without that inner strength and the look of what some may have considered arrogance, I don’t think you can manage. I absolutely loved my TCK life, but you needed to put on a brave face and know that the first couple days and weeks may be hard because you would again have to build new friendships. Although of course, international schools made it much easier because people were used to students coming and going, but still it was those first couple days of starting again that were rough! After the friends I made were amawzing, always people from everywhere who often had had a similar life to mine. They had varied life experiences behind them and so many interesting stories to tell. I wouldn’t have wanted to live my childhood years in any other way, but I do agree that some always felt that we were ‘arrogant’ when we were merely trying to go through the motions and stay strong!


    1. I love this comment Olivia and I’m so glad you linked your blog. I think you’re right on – what was mistaken for arrogance was the brave face of “I have to get through this, I have to make this work” – I feel the same about my TCK life as well – it was amazing, but there are still points that are hard, still places of insecurity. I think what I wasn’t prepared for was for them to follow me so far through my life. Now that I realize they do, I can better integrate them into my life as I know it now. Don’t know if that makes sense but there you have it! I look forward to taking a look at your blog!


  6. ah, yes. Arrogant. From my close friends today, they would say “no way!” But to some who are not close, perhaps even still, as I am now in my 50s.

    Fifteen years ago my mother-in-law, who could be very hurtful, in a heated moment said to me “everyone thinks you’re cold!” Cut like a knife. But I knew that she had baggage she didn’t even know she carried; herself, fractured & hurting. Luckily, I was able to just keep my mouth shut & try to actually listen to her pain that swelled from a deeper place in her, than her words drilled into me.

    By that time, I understood why people might perceive me as arrogant, cold – even though the true me is warm-hearted & attentive to the needs of others. As other so eloquently framed it > I wanted to preserve my identity, to hold dear the soil in which my roots are settled, to Never Forget who I Am. After all — my identity has come at such a high cost.

    I understood why. Why she unloaded her pain. Why I chose silence as a response.

    But it still hurt. Like hell (which in itself, is separation…)


    1. Wow – these words really hit home this morning as I read them. Particularly the words on identity coming at such a high cost. This is so much of the foundation in my life and it was years before I realized it. I appreciate your honesty that it still hurt….and hurt like hell. I would love to talk with you in person, preferably over tea – thank you.


      1. that would be lovely! I know we would have some powerful stories to share. …and like I say to all my tck friends, I may never see you again here on earth, but we’ll have all eternity in a grander place, just to catch up!


  7. Grew up as a TCK in India, moved to Australia aged 16- I get joining in on year 11, not knowing the rules to netball, feeling naked in sports shorts and at swim carnivals, etc etc etc. This resonates with me big time. It’s nice to hear some of the things I felt, out loud, from someone else… Also, always felt aware that I came off as arrogant, so tried to suppress myself all the time…. but lucky that I have found people in my life who accept me for who I am… That’s hard to find.


  8. Ohhh yesss… Canadian born, raised abroad mainly in the British school system (Iran/Singapore/Jeddah/Boarding School in England/back to Jeddah) until the summer I turned 15, then back to Canada for high school? I relate SO fully. I skated through high school paying minimal attention, just fine thank you. Certainly out of touch in many social settings, but so what if I didn’t want to dress like Madonna? :D


  9. I could identify with some of this! In reading it I suddenly had a moment where it made sense to me why I decided to homeschool my kids! Partly my child was miserable and partly I recognise now that arrogance wherein I knew I could do a better and more consistent job than the school and that my kids wouldn’t have big gaps like I did from traveling so much. Sadly for my kids, they didn’t end up traveling as much a I did. (See, that’s another bit of arrogance I’m trying to get past now.)

    I remember feeling like school was a huge waste of my time. I didn’t have a lot of connections or a sense of unity about belonging to any school. My senior year, my folks made me finish the last half of my senior year before we moved overseas and I was mad and would have preferred to move over to a new school than finish my senior year where I was. I felt like I was more mature and open minded than the kids I graduated with. A few years ago I reconnected with a childhood friend who also grew up moving like I did and we both felt like unless others had traveled like us while growing up over seas , they just weren’t as easy to connect with and they didn’t really understand us and our quirks.


      1. Always the outsider – it’s like the story of Mr. Hexhead: we can never ‘come home’ again. And as we cut off a few more edges from our figure to try and fit in with the world around us, we may or may not realize the pain we are putting ourselves through. But would there be any way to avoid the pain? Or would there be any way that we can take out our pain in a healthy manner?


      2. Love this comment. I just read another comment about ‘holy pain’ — perhaps to your question there is a way to make this holy pain. Pain that still hurts but works to be used in redemptive ways. Does that make sense?


      3. That makes a lot of sense. I guess you can’t really avoid the pain, but knowing that there is a greater purpose, that God can use the pain for good, will help. I think a lot of it also has to do with thankfulness – pain comes from something that is in the present, such as missing home, family, or friends; in short, it is very self-centered with ourselves as the focal point of life and ‘the universe’. But thankfulness and realizing God’s awesomeness, that He knows what He’s doing and why you are where you are, entails giving up the pain and letting God take care of us wherever we are. ‘Holy pain’, yeah I think it makes sense =)


  10. Wow! Not much I can add to this except to say thanks for sharing. Every now and then I need a reminder that how I feel and have experienced the world is not unique, even if I am alone in it most of the time.

    Arrogance – that is something I am still struggling to combat when I meet people who make judgements that reflect a complete lack of TCK understanding and instead reason my behaviour or words to someother reason!


    1. I didn’t see where to post, just reply! Wow, the fear and pain part brought tears to my eyes~I grew up in Taiwan, moving back to the US when I was 15 and can SO relate! I was outta fashion and most everything else, but good at academics and swimming and had always wanted to learn how to dive…so poured myself into those. The pain and feeling of rejection/not belonging are still with me in my late 50’s! We’ve moved so much in our married life (going on 30 yrs) that I’ve never been able to really put down roots anywhere…Seems I will NEVER feel @ home until I get HOME, where I belong. Makes life so hard to tolerate, along with the chronic illness…


  11. Thanks all for such thoughtful comments and wise responses. This was hard and confronting to write. I hope you like part two.


  12. We are what they call “hidden immigrants” when we return to our passport country. I had similar experiences. I’ve been called “aloof” rather than arrogant, but it really comes down to the same thing. When we grow up as global nomads, we learn to observe and be alert for the cultural cues that tell us how to act before we speak. I think that is a big part of why people misconstrue the way we watch and are reserved as arrogance or aloofness.

    I am in my 50s now, and I still struggle with these issues. It’s great if you can find a multicultural workplace, because then everyone is in the same boat and you don’t have people judging you as harshly.


  13. Good story. I experienced the same things as Cecily Thew did. I moved around a lot while I was in school. In fact, I moved in between several family members and several states. I attended 10 different schools and before I got comfortable with the other students and teachers, we moved again!

    Sometimes you would like to stay in the one place you are comfortable in. I kind of wished I had that chance while I was in school.


    1. I’m glad you shared this. It’s a reminder to me that some of the core things Third culture kids experience are core experiences of those who move a lot within the country as there is so much diversity from shore to shore.


  14. I’m looking forward to reading Part 2 about the PERCEPTION of arrogance. What I hear in this is holding (perhaps too) tightly to the known in an understandable attempt to gain a sense of control of one’s world during an unwanted and difficult cultural transition. I’m sure making the transition during the high school years added to the challenge.


  15. This was really touching. I have moved a bit in my life but when we moved back to India for my elder daughter’s studies a few years back, it was my younger one who went through the pain. Those days she used to write poetry, she was just 13 and she wrote this which really helped us understand the trauma she underwent. I am posting it here as the site where she used to post is not open to non members.

    moving my heart .. from there to here

    Changing houses is not fine with me,
    But changing countries was in my destiny.

    And then they loaded the pick up truck,
    From there to here forever stuck.

    I miss everything about the place,
    Feel lost here like in outer space.

    The long walks on the beach,
    The sea gulls special screech.

    The view of the beach from my window gone,
    Replaced with an ugly city and some green lawn.

    No more skate-boarding,roller-blading and basket-ball,
    When I run here I just trip and fall.

    Left our home and friends for family,
    Everything’s gone, we left so easily.

    I left my life and home behind,
    A friend like her I will never find.

    We even left my father over there,
    So fast,like some scary nightmare.

    Thinking about all those times makes me feel terrible,
    Having my family here makes most of the torture bearable.

    I miss my friends and childhood years,
    All the memories, fill my eyes with tears.

    Although the road seems much longer,
    All the love makes me feel a lot more stronger…….


  16. Yes, as a tck, this resonates with me very much. I found that, after returning to the USA as an 18 year old, my skill set was so vastly different than that of my peers. I felt like I could do so many things that they couldn’t, yet basics like pumping gas, leaving a message on an answering machine, or using an ATM completely eluded me– and I felt so small and invisible. And I know I came across as arrogant, instead!! Thanks for sharing your story.


  17. I think the ‘arrogance’ is simply part of our safety mechanism. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s better than consciously rejecting your identity and assimilating for the sake of others because when other children realize you’re vulnerable, they won’t stop exploiting you. I’ve seen this happen in the lives of some very close TCK’s too, and that’s even more regrettable. I think the ‘arrogance’ is sometimes necessary to ‘white knuckle it’ until you get to the proverbial surface of the water and can breathe again as an independent adult. I also think this ‘arrogance’ need not be ‘in your face’ but rather one that surfaces when challenged. It depends a lot on on your personality how this manifests itself.

    I think I was perceived as ‘arrogant’ even though I moved back for university. I was not able to see that then, but now in retrospect I think that would be fair to say. I had a hard time just maintaining ‘my own culture’ and not assimilating lest I lose myself. I survived, and I am thankful to some of this ‘arrogance’ for it when I insisted on making rice and dhaal, playing Bollywood music, showing Bollywood films for my friends, when I insisted on not drinking alcohold and going to parties, when I insisted on leading Bible studies and Christian groups – it was all a part of my ‘defiance’ or you might say ‘arrogance’ in not wanting to lose my own cultural identity I had constructed and adopted over my 18 years in Asia.

    It’s still something I hold onto, but I also have been able to shake off some of the ‘arrogance’ and instead repent and apologize for it. Nevertheless, I will fiercely defend my own cultural identity and I really get upset if someone challenges or undermines it – it’s still a very touch subject for me because it’s largely what keeps me going – what keeps me as myself!

    Thank you for the beautifully written post!


    1. Very good blog. Thanks Cecily. To the Adult TCK: Very well said. Thank you. Is there a fine line between “arrogance” and self-assured? Smarty-pants arrogance is detestable in any culture. I’ve met more puffed up arrogant people outside the TCK than inside!


      1. Hi Bettie, yes, I think there is a fine line with ‘arrogance’ and ‘self-assuredness’ – or perhaps it could be confidence in who you are, a seemingly simple identity-issue. The difference between us and ‘others’ is that their ‘arrogance’ is validated by the people they are with because they exist in a paradigm which makes sense to them all – whereas TCKs who have a lot of experiences and opinions about some far and distant lands and ‘high and lofty’ issues, ‘others’ have no point of reference so they just deal with it contemptuously and label it ‘arrogance.’

        For example, some young boy in England might be incredibly knowledgeable about association football; the players, the clubs, the statistics, backgrounds, stories – everything. And because the world of English football is familiar to the other boys around him, he gets his status and arrogance validated by them.

        However, consider another young English male TCK, aged 16 or something, moves from California to England and he all he knows about is American basketball. Because basketball means nothing to young boys in England, he would be seen labeled as ‘arrogant’ if he exhibits his knowledge of American basketball because the English boys have no way of accommodating his experiences and validating his knowledge. Therefore the TCK has to ‘fend for himself’ and either be labeled ‘arrogant’ or assimilate and lose his identity.

        The practical issue then is how does the TCK deal with the label of ‘arrogance’ – do they actually live up to the label or do they get on with their lives and not bother those who don’t want to be bothered? if they live amicably with others then their ‘arrogance’ is like you say, more like being ‘self-assured’ and those who label them are misguided and probably jealous because someone actually ‘seems’ to know who they are at a young age. (We don’t really know, but we have to pretend to know and we do a good job since we’re so used to surviving and fitting in.)

        I’ve actually met many more really arrogant people who are non-TCK and when I see a TCK who’s trying to assert themselves and find their place, I understand and empathize with them.

        Sorry this was long, just needed to give an example of what I mean, rather than just talk vaguely. Thanks for your comment; appreciate it! – Sam


    2. I so relate to this comment. These words “I had a hard time just maintaining ‘my own culture’ and not assimilating lest I lose myself.’ that was me…I remember even in my late 30’s going to a conference. We had moved to the U.S. from Egypt and when I got to the conference, they had name tags that said where we were from. Mine said “Essex” which was the small town in Massachusetts where we lived. I sank inside. I wasn’t from Essex….but that’s where my address was – that’s where I was living. It was a low point for me. And it was about losing myself and not having anything to take the place of that which I lost. Thanks for your insight in both these comments Sam. Can I solicit a blog post from you?!


    1. “Fending for oneself” YES! That’s it isn’t it? It’s that base survival mechanism that we need when uprooted. Thanks Sandra. So glad to connect with you.


      1. Hmm that’s exactly what I was thinking too: survival mechanism. I am not a TCK but I did have a rough upbringing that made me have to resort many times.

        As for connections, my pleasure too!


  18. This tallies so closely with my own experience as well. Looking back now, I don’t think I was an easy person to like in my first few years after moving from Pakistan to Scotland, and I’m so grateful that some people made the effort.

    Thanks for posting!


  19. Oh Cecily….. I’m writing this with tears running down my face. I understand that deep, tangibly real, emotional pain that is physical and all-encompassing. Like you I could “do” smart and I excelled in my grades (initially….until I realized there was little point in that!). But I also realized that I could “do” food and I gained 60+ pounds that first year back.
    I too was perceived as arrogant, snobbish, proud….I felt so misunderstood and so very sad.
    Thanks for writing this up. It’s very poignant. I’m not sure I could have written it but I connect with it.


  20. I think it is very difficult to not appear to be arrogant. Because you are different and don’t fit in the box most people think it is because you just don’t want to. Little do they know the huge learning curve you are challenged with. I still bump up against it.


  21. Reblogged this on tckrambling and commented:
    I really identify with most of the valuable thoughts in this blog post. The inner life of a TCK can be really confusing at times – just give us the benefit of the doubt as we try and navigate “your” world and not upset you too much by our inability to adapt and acculturate – we really do try, but we have a life somewhere else too. Please read this excellent post by another MCS alumnus!


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