By Samantha Florent, Guest Blogger and Expat Parent
At age 15, I became a Third Culture Kid (TCK). Even before my family moved from New York City to Singapore, however, people had been telling me for years that I seemed more like someone who had been a TCK from a young age. I had a lot of people ask me why that was, but I did not figure the reason out for myself until I was in my thirties. Like many, I believed culture to be a product of nationality, skin colour, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation; what I missed is that culture requires inclusion. From a young age my disability put me on the outside looking in on the culture I was born into.
Far before I became an expat kid, I remember having a familiar TCK experience: a difficulty to communicate with those around me. In my earliest memories, I am unable to talk. I did not start speaking until shortly after turning four, so I can clearly remember being non-verbal. When I was 4,5, I was diagnosed with a language disability, which is currently known as ‘Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder’ or MERLD. In the beginning, there were multiple sounds in my native language that I should have naturally learned from my environment, which I could not reproduce. I could think in clear sentences with the words in the right order, but when I spoke, they would come out in the wrong order. When I was given a set of instructions, I could understand each word, but the order would get scrambled up in my head.
I started an intense regime of speech and language therapy. When I started, I had three, forty-five-minute sessions a week. I would walk out of therapy exhausted; the muscles in my face and tongue felt stretched out and strange. I remember feeling as if my brain had melted into liquid and could drip out my ears at any moment. I could see my own improvements and understood the value of the work I was doing, but at times the progress was painfully slow. It took me a month to learn to make the ‘sh’ sound. By the time I was 7, I had made so much progress that I only checked in with my therapist occasionally. Today, people are surprised when I tell them that I once had such a profound language disability. Apparently, I sound just like anyone else.
One might think that someone whose disability had disappeared the way mine had would easily assimilate into non-disabled culture, but this was not the case. I had known from an early age that there was something wrong with the ‘pipe’ that connected my brain to my mouth. Because I was so concerned about my own differences at such a young age, I had not had the same experience my non-disabled peers had had. I went to nursery school with children whose day could be ruined by getting sand in their eyes at the sandbox, whilst to me that would have been a mere annoyance. I worked incredibly hard over an extremely long duration at a time when my friends got to be relatively careless and silly. In my post-language disability childhood, felt like a veteran of a conflict my classmates could never fathom.
I was never a good fit for any of the American cultural archetypes. I was academically smart, but I never fit in with the brains. I was a good athlete, but I was never a jock. I loved creating art, but I was not one of the artists. I was fascinated by other people and I enjoyed talking to them and asking questions, but I was never a social butterfly.
It came with its own difficulties, but becoming a TCK was the best thing that ever happened to me. The expectation that I would have a similar background and outlook on the world vanished. The teenagers around me interacted with me as I was, instead of comparing me to an arbitrary standard. Instead of feeling like a stone around my neck, my previous experiences became a benefit. Non-native English-speaking students would ask me why it was so much easier for them to understand me than other native speaking students. I would tell them that most native English speakers learn how to speak from their families, but I had learned from a therapist who had a higher standard of English pronunciation than a parent would. During my non-verbal years, I had learned to express complex thoughts with facial expressions and body gestures. As a TCK traveling in Asia, this made conversations possible with people I had no common language with. At seventeen I was thrilled when I had a five-minute discussion in Tokyo without saying a single word. For the first time, I felt completely understood and validated in my native language. As a TCK, my struggle had become my strength.
Samantha Florent is a an adult TCK parent of two TCKs who works to develop legislation to protect expat kids during their transitions to living abroad. In the process of relocating her family to the United States, she was confronted with her school-age children’s challenges in adapting to their passport culture. Rather than concede defeat, she has worked with a team of education experts to champion the use of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act to gain unparalleled support for returning expats whose children suffer an emotional disturbance as a result of their relocation. When describing herself, Samantha states: “Living life everywhere and anywhere, learning new things, making new friends, and making a Plan C when plans A and B have not panned out.”