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.