Guys! I got to interview a close family friend, who is also an adult third culture kid (or ATCK). She shared about growing up often feeling like an outsider. This is the first part of a multi-part interview.
Breanne: Welcome, Liz! Well, could you please tell us your TCK story from the beginning?
Liz: Hmm, from the beginning… I was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1978. I’m the fourth child out of five.
My parents had been in Argentina in a year or two before I was born. I grew up in Argentina and had dual citizenship because of that. Growing up, we were homeschooled… I went to a public kindergarten, but from first grade on, I was homeschooled (unless we were doing furlough in the US, we’d go to a Christian school for a year.) So we had friends in the neighborhood and friends at church. That was basically our social life. We were the only ones who were homeschooled. That was a little different for Argentines, especially back then. Right now, there are many homeschool families, but then no one had ever heard of it.
Breanne: How did explaining it go?
Liz: We would just tell people we do school at home. We have a curriculum from the US, we do it at home, and our mom is a teacher. But we discovered later on that there are kids in the military… there is a way in the Argentine public school system to just go and take the tests. It’s called Rendir Libre. Free testing. Then we told people we did that.
That was one of the more significant differences as we grew up there. Neighborhood kids would get out of school, and they’d be done. In Argentina, the school day is made up of two half days. The morning session just goes till noon, and kids go home and eat lunch, and they’d be done. We’d still be doing work. Kids would come around looking for us. They wouldn’t get that we were home, but we weren’t available.
Also, my parents were big on everyone speaking Spanish when someone around couldn’t speak English. I really appreciate that. It’s something I try to practice with my kids – when we lived in Mexico. I think it’s a meaningful way to show respect to other people. We thought it was normal till we got together with other TCKs and found out it wasn’t a typical thing. We only had one expatriate family living near us – and they had a similar mindset. Then we’d meet up with expat families in Buenos Aires or at conferences. And we’d be around TCKs – and they’d just be talking English the whole time, no matter who was around. We had a few Argentines tell us that they really appreciated us doing that – even though it was my parents’ second language.
For my sister and me, I think it was this aspect of… Well, back then, my parents didn’t believe in women wearing pants. We had to wear culottes all the time.
Breanne: Aren’t they like really baggy pants?
Liz: Except they come to the knees.
Breanne: Like basketball shorts for girls?
Liz: Yeah, except they were even bigger, baggier, and longer. My mom always made our clothes. Growing up in Argentina, the fact that we dressed differently was so hard. Moreso for me personally. We were questioned: Why do you wear that? Why don’t you wear pants? It made childhood and especially the teenage years awkward. Because it’s the phase where you want to fit in, and you just didn’t. As far as what we looked like, lots of people in Argentina have paler skin, there are descendants from Germany and Britain. I was taller than the average woman in Argentina. I stood out some there. For the most part, we would have fit in better if we dressed like ordinary people.
Breanne: So was that a constant feeling? Feeling like you had to fit in?
Elizabeth: I don’t know if I needed to fit in. I always knew that I didn’t, for whatever reason. I knew I stood out.
Breanne: But it frustrated you.
Liz: Yes. Yes. Especially as a teenager. There were things that I wished were different. Or rules that my parents had that most Argentines didn’t understand. Yeah. Those two aspects made us stick out: homeschool and dress.
Breanne: Was homeschool a positive or negative experience, other than the fact that you didn’t fit in?
Liz: I wouldn’t say it was negative or positive. I struggled with it because I’m not self-motivated, and for homeschool, you need to be. I would have done better in a regular school setting. I realize that more now because I see that in my daughter, Alex. Because of how I learn, I don’t think I did well with homeschool. It was important for my parents that we were educated in English to better transition to college in the USA. For that, I think it was helpful.
Breanne: I agree that English education is helpful for transitions. I have only ever had two and a half years, spread out, of schooling in English. I do think they were beneficial for exercising my mind in that language.
Liz: Yeah, I know grammar in English, but not in Spanish. My husband knows Spanish grammar, but I am more fluent than him. I think that it was helpful for college, that I had learned English that well.
Breanne: What about… You were talking about TCKs and how you would see them, and they just felt different. Can you elaborate on that? Why did they feel different?
Liz: I think it was because, in Mar del Plata, there was only one other expat family we were close to. We didn’t grow up with other expat kids our age. All our friends were Argentine. Many expat families in Buenos Aires would get together for Thanksgiving or other events. They would just see each other. Some of them were homeschooled together. Their friends were other expat kids. Whenever we saw them, we felt like they knew more about the US culture than us. They had a more up-to-date vocabulary than us. They were more up to speed, so to speak.
This is back in the day before the internet. The only thing we knew about the US culture was… One of my aunts would record on video sets the Buffalo Bills football games for my dad. At first, she was just recording the game and sending it. Then she figured out she had a bit of tape left, and she started to record shows. We would tell her to go in the commercials because she would also not record those.
Breanne: American commercials are so fun.
Liz: I know. That’s how we learned about US culture – watching whatever our aunt sent us on those video cassettes. My dad would watch the football games, and we would watch TV shows. She would put America’s Funniest Home Videos, Home Improvement, and maybe the Cosby Show.
Breanne: That’s awesome.
Liz: We had hundreds of those tapes. Because she would record a couple weeks’ worth of games and then send them to my dad. It was exciting when they came. We’d have something new to watch. That’s what we knew. I don’t know if these other expat families went to the states more frequently than we did. We only went every four years.
Fourth grade was the first time I remember going back to the States.
Breanne: What was that like?
Liz: I remember being scared about going to an actual school. I thought it’d be really hard. I remember the night before my first day. I was crying because I was so nervous. I remember being scared, but once it started, it was fine. I had a good, kind teacher. I think I enjoyed having friends my age.
Breanne: How did making friends go?
Liz: I don’t know. It was a long time ago. But I am now Facebook friends with a lot of them. We actually went back to the same school four years later. So when I was in ninth grade, some of the same people were there.
Breanne: Did that feel weird – going back four years later to the same people?
Liz: Yeah, some people remembered me, some people didn’t. I was the new kid. Going in at ninth grade was hard for other reasons. I had no experience writing reports or doing science projects. I don’t remember doing those in homeschool.
Breanne: You had talked about how you felt different and had trouble relating to the expat kids in Argentina. Did you feel different from the kids at this school? Maybe being exempt from pop culture? Or did you struggle with making friends and then having to leave?
Liz: What I remember from the years we were in the States… the beginning is always hard. I am also an introvert. I just naturally gravitate towards sitting in a corner and watching and listening. I don’t remember specifically the feeling of not fitting in… probably because I wasn’t trying to fit in. I wasn’t trying to make friends. I do know that after a while, you just learn and pick up things.
Amen. You just learn and pick up things. Story of our lives, no? Don’t forget to subscribe to my email list so you don’t miss the next parts of this interview.