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.

Gingerbread Houses and Potbellied Pigs

RosieI am delighted to feature a Guest Post from Rosie Hilton today. Rosie was raised on the island of Tasmania, off the coast of Australia and has lived much of her adult life on another island (Whidbey) in the Pacific Northwest, and many other places in between including three years in Saudi Arabia.  Her two island life is chronicled in “Tales from Two Islands” ( – musings and observations about life, travel, adventure and the human (and pig!) connections that happen in our ever-smaller world. I hope you enjoy this post and wander over to her blog to take a look!


Christmas in Australia is quite different than in the northern Hemisphere.  When I was a kid I loved that it came at the beginning of the summer so when the excitement of the holiday season died down you still had the whole summer vacation to look forward to, plus the summer weather meant you could actually ride the bike you may have received!

With 7 siblings and no extended family, we had to create our own Christmas traditions that included singing carols around the piano, Christmas crackers and party hats, big lunches of fresh green salads and cold ham and special local “pinkeye potatoes“, family photos, and a softball game at the local football oval.  This all happened after going to church to sing and listen to the choir, but then “sneaking” out (as only a family of 9 can do) before the sermon.

The one time we stayed it was about people who only go to church on special occasions!

When I married an American and moved to the USA there were times when my heart ached for a Tasmanian family Christmas.  For several years I yearned for those old traditions, but as my kids got older I came to cherish our little family of five and our quiet, peaceful Christmases at home, with no other family dynamics.   And when we started our annual Christmas carolling party at our home on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, the mild ache of not having my sisters and my brothers’ wives to sing the descant in “O Come all ye Faithful’ was mitigated by having a local musical genius from New Zealand playing the piano just like my father did, as well as knowing the Downunder version of “Away in a Manger’.

One day when the kids were quite young I read about a great gingerbread recipe in the Seattle Times and so began my very favourite tradition that endures to this day.  I make a huge gingerbread house, complete with windows made of Jolly Ranchers (as much I love and prefer Australian “lollies” I’ve yet to find ones that melt perfectly to make beautiful stained glass windows).

The only rule is that everyone gets to do their own thing with their part of the house and no one is allowed to complain.  That includes comments about the gummy bears on the roof with toothpick spears sticking out of them, courtesy of our son.  Last year’s had an “occupy the North Pole” igloo, thanks to our oldest daughter and, from our other daughter, perfectly laid out flowers around the windows of what inevitably (and ironically) is a church every year, since we discovered the stained glass windows.

Isabel - Pot Bellied PigAfter several days or weeks of eating the gingerbread house till it becomes a sad wreck that looks like a survivor of a bomb attack, the part I used to enjoy the most was feeding the remains to my beloved pot-belly pig Isabel. 

She was appreciative in a way that only a 300 lb pig can be, and when we moved back to Australia I wanted her to know that we were carrying on the tradition and hadn’t forgotten her.  So, even though she can’t be with us when we make the house, I now have a new tradition – I pack up a huge doubled bagged heap of the remains and present them to her every summer when we return to our property.  She is always very pleased to see me when I come back, even though she is loved and cared for by the people who rent our house, but she is even more pleased to see the gift that I carry 7,000 miles in my luggage to let her know that I miss her.

“I Stumble and I Fall” – the Poverty Challenge

For a long time I have wanted Cecily Thew Patterson to write a guest post for me. I first met Cecily when I returned to Pakistan with my husband and we were working at the boarding school I attended through high school. At the time Cecily was a pretty, outgoing girl who already had the marks of a strong woman. Cecily is now a beautiful and strong woman.  I hesitated asking her for a post because I know she has several writing projects going on, as well as many other hats to wear. But today I get to introduce you to Cecily and her writing as she takes us into a struggle many of us have – the poverty challenge. She shares personally and poignantly from the perspective of someone raised in Pakistan.


Like Marilyn, I grew up in Pakistan. Like Marilyn, I also went to boarding school in the Himalayan mountains. And I’m guessing that I was like Marilyn in the way that all junior high kids resemble each other. We all have to work out who we are by facing challenges. Some will make us grow and fly and others will make us stumble and fall.

Clothes were the challenge that made me stumble and fall.

While none of us were wealthy, some people in our school did better than others in the clothes department. I felt like I always had trouble trying to look nice. There weren’t any western clothes shops in Pakistan, I didn’t have a lot of things sent out from Australia, so whatever I could get that was a bit fashionable was really precious to me. I couldn’t just replace a ripped shirt or update old shorts. I had to take care of my stuff. I really wanted to look nice and fit in so I tried hard.

The reason I was at boarding school was because my parents lived in the Sindh desert in a tiny village. There were no local schools for me to go to so my brothers and I went away to study. Even though our school was not in a well-to-do area of Pakistan, and there was plenty of poverty around us, it was still always a big shock when we went home to the village for our three-month winter holiday every year.

Pakistani Family (courtesy of Tim Irwin)

The poverty in rural Sindh is confronting. People are extremely poor, many living in traditional mud huts. There’s no power and no piped water and not much transport. Everything is done by hand. Some people my parents knew were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat more than twice a day. They didn’t even have any sugar for their tea.

Most people had two sets of clothes; one for every day and one for weddings. And because the weather was extremely hot for nine months of the year, many people didn’t have any clothes that would keep them warm in the winter.

It was a hard place to live. And I had a soft heart. I really wanted to help. It broke my heart to see people struggling so much when I had everything I needed and wanted. I really wanted to make a difference.

An opportunity came when we went out to a town called Mithi to visit some friends. This family had brought in a big load of second-hand jumpers and jackets and were going to give them out to a few specific villages that were really poor.

I was excited to be invited to join in. This was going to be my first real hands-on experience of helping people in dire need and I was feeling nervous but also a bit righteous at the same time.

Out we went one evening in the landrover to the villages. We gave out all the jumpers and sweaters. But then we realised there weren’t enough for everyone. Some people had to miss out.

And then someone tugged at my sleeve and pointed to my jumper. I didn’t speak her language but I knew what she was saying. “Can I have that jumper?” she asked with her expression and her body language.

I was shocked. I was wearing a turquoise sweatshirt that I loved. It had come from Australia, it was my favourite colour and it went with heaps of things. I only had six sweaters and this was my best one.

But the woman tugging at my sleeve was asking if she could have it. She had no sweatshirts and there were more people in her village who had none as well.

What would you have done? Would you have given her the jumper? Or would you have kept it?

Throughout junior high school I met a lot of challenges and many of them were opportunities for me to grow and fly. This woman, tugging at my sleeve, was the challenge that made me stumble and fall. Flat on my face.

I said no.

I gathered myself up and I moved into the landrover where she couldn’t reach me. I talked to myself and told myself that it was ok, that I couldn’t be expected to give up my own sweater, that if I had given it to her my mother would have been cross because she couldn’t have replaced it, that I needed it for school, and besides, it wouldn’t be good if I didn’t look after my own things. I told myself that the woman would be okay, that she was probably just a ‘taker’ and that she shouldn’t have asked.

I still wish, 25 years later, that I had taken off my turquoise sweatshirt and given it to the hungry, thin woman who asked me for it.

And I’m still struggling to know how to respond when I come face to face with real people who have bigger needs than I do. I wish I was more generous, but I’m scared of what might happen if I am. Pray for me.

How do you respond to poverty? How have you responded? It’s a hard but necessary conversation so join in through the comments.

Author Bio: Cecily Paterson is trying to live an uncluttered life, although she feels like she’s behind the eight-ball to begin with in having four children and a recalcitrant dog to feed and keep happy. Cecily is an author, most recently of Love, Tears & Autism, a memoir of the five years following her son’s diagnosis with autism. She’s a fan of honesty and candour and always tries to tell the truth. While she grew up in Pakistan, she’s very happy now to live in small town Australia and would prefer not to move for a long time. Cecily blogs at Cecily.Mostly. Check it out!