Over the past week I’ve been watching the train wreck known as Jason Wordie’s column on expat brats in the South China Morning Post explode and then implode from Brussels, where — perhaps Wordie already knows — I have been dousing myself with bottles of Moët and feeding my drug addiction while judging the world on transient values and daddy-name-dropping on my job applications.
Having decided to take a three-hour break from my drunken rich kid stupor today, I thought I’d add my two cents to the conversation.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, the column appeared on June 14 in Post Magazine. Basically, according to Wordie’s portrayal, we are the “pitiful,” “sad by-products of colonial Hong Kong society” with zero discipline. Having grown up with people constantly leaving, we make little investment in others, caught forever in a trap of “emotional shallowness”. The Post followed up with reactions from adult third culture kids (ATCKs) a few days later, and another reactive column from Wordie today.
The reactions to the initial column ranged from outrage to agreement, apparently.
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If Wordie or the SCMP thinks the column attracted readers because it hit some mysterious kernel of truth, they should stop flattering themselves. What Wordie wrote was blatantly one-sided, and for someone with 30 years of experience in Hong Kong, utterly unfair and blind regarding the third culture kid community.
Yes, it’s true, there are some things that we as “expat brats” observed and did that would shock and appall. You won’t get us to raise an eyebrow with the stuff on the Rich Kids of Instagram. Horses, holidays on the yacht, private villas, the size of the ring, etc. are topics that may sometimes enter the conversation. It was not unusual for our classmates to arrive at school with security personnel in tow or to have a cavalcade of service staff. Many of us do speak Cantonese and Mandarin with an accent and are a little more detached from the local community. And yes, we could probably tell you at the drop of a hat which hotel washroom you could go to on a busy Sunday in Central when you don’t want to line up for the public toilets, because we might have hung out around these places when we were kids.
But the conclusions that Wordie comes to based on these markers is totally off the mark. Is it wealth that he has a problem with? Then welcome to Hong Kong. The structure of our city is geared toward the accumulation of wealth. I won’t defend the excesses in TCKs’ lives, but if you’re going to hate us just for that, you’re going to have to do a whole lot better.
No one likes to hear an expat brat talk about their problems, but these are exactly the things that are skimmed over. Our friends did leave and so did we. When I was five, I left my kindergarten in Hong Kong for a totally new kindergarten in Vancouver. When I was nine, I left all of my childhood friends in Vancouver for completely new set of classmates in Hong Kong. The best friendships I developed in secondary school did not last long enough for us to graduate together. Before I was 18, I had developed a network of people I loved and missed, spread out across three continents, and this kind of dynamic is true of all my TCK friends at international schools, not just in Hong Kong but the world over.
At my parents’ home in Hong Kong there are boxes of letters from my friends, dating back to 1990. The earliest specimens are in five-year-old scrawl with felt-tip pen and crayon and stickers and all colors of the rainbow. Before Facebook, email, the Internet and cheap calling cards, my friends and I were already posting updates and photos to each other on a weekly basis, via snail mail with a big ‘ol stamp and “Par Avion” sticker.
These experiences did not stunt us emotionally or make us utilitarian in our relationships, or if they did, we came out of that eventually. Ultimately, it has made many of us aware of just how little time we have with the people we love, and to treasure them that much more. We dive deep and fast into friendships and relationships, knowing they may not last, but also aware that it’s possible they can be revived when we come together again — because, given our track record, that is always a possibility. The prospect of departure may lead some of us to be more cautious about making an emotional investment, but for others, it’s exactly the reason to do it. Invest heavily, because the window of opportunity will close before you know it.
Expat brats are some of the most generous, open-minded, passionate thinkers I know. They would think nothing of going to the Myanmar border to treat sick patients, personally flying to the Philippines with relief supplies for victims of Typhoon Haiyan, fishing out used taxi seat upholstry from recycling stores to fashion into eco-friendly bags, climbing to base camp on Everest, starting a Hawaiian food truck business in Philly, hiking 100 kilometres for charity, traveling by cargo ship from Sydney to Stockholm. These are people who can talk high-brow wine and private jets, but also know exactly where to get the best streetside oyster pancake in Singapore and how to bus it from Kazakhstan to China. They are also people who would throw themselves into both kinds of lives with equal verve and gusto.
As I’ve been reminded, not all expats or TCKs are brats. All too often the discussion about TCKs gets conflated with wealth and privelege. Certainly we were priveleged for having so many cultural opportunities, but there are many of us who didn’t grow up in an environment where private jets and silver spoons were the norm.
Adult TCKs are also — by dint of now being adults with hindsight — trying to correct the problems in their closed-off upbringing and reintegrate to local society. It is not always easy. By the time we were 18, we had spent our entire childhoods speaking English or French or German, and with the need to get into foreign universities of a ranking that would justify the price tags of our educations, we also spent every spare minute outside of school doing activities in those languages. The fact that international schools sometimes forbade students from speaking Cantonese and placed a low premium on local topics did not make it easier to assimiliate — something that theoretically should have been easy. This is not an excuse, but an explanation. I know very few TCKs who do not regret the opportunities we missed in connecting with Hong Kong and the people around us. It’s a bit too late in our 20s, 30s and 40s to start, but most ATCKs I know are trying.
The standard wisdom on stereotypes is they are true at their core. Another thing about stereotypes is they are for lazy people. I guess if you want to, you can keep believing I’m sitting here with my champagne and and Louboutins and label it “general social-history commentary,” whatever that is. But then I guess that would be a pity for you, because you’re just too close-minded to acknowledge who we TCKs really are. And close-mindedness is exactly what we TCKs have learned to avoid.