Growing up in an international school was weird. In a good way, don't get me wrong - it's the reason I frequently reminisce on the sleep-deprived memories of my early teenage years. This was a totally unique life experience that I was blessed enough to have, and I'd recommend it to anyone; but man, did it come with a dose of reality bites.
Being thrust into a local Aussie school soon after for my junior and senior years, I quickly realised that the international school setting was this own, rare bubble that remained peculiar to most others. It was the only world I'd ever known, and this was the first time I stepped right out of it.
And it wasn’t long before I began feeling like one of those "foreign exchange student" caricatures I used to watch in cartoons.
However, settling into a completely new context had me reflect on my experience as this third culture, international school kid. And I came to a few meaningful conclusions - some I wish my pre-teen self had known back then:
Friendships go as fast as they come.
Back in my international school years, while there were the odd few who stuck around since the first grade all through to high school (me being one of them) - it was all too common to just see students leave, whether to return to their native country, or their parents found new opportunities in another.
I fell into the latter category, and ended up down under. The rest of my group followed suit soon after, and found themselves in Europe, Asia, or the Americas.
It was exciting for most of us, sure. We grew to live a slightly more nomadic lifestyle than most kids, which meant we got to learn and understand the cultures of others, had the privilege of traveling to different parts of the globe, and the timeline of our life could easily be chunked up into one new experience after the other.
But it also meant that we had to get used to cutting some friendships short. I left before getting to graduate by senior year, which meant I never got to have those cliché’d talks with friends of future college prospects or promising to stay as the same, tight-knit group forever and always and all that mushy good stuff.
While I had a bit of that in Sydney for my last two years in high school – it just wouldn’t have been the same with people you’ve known and grown with for four to six years. Fortunately for many of my Australian peers, they had all of that.
While I wish I did too, the ‘temporary’ friendships I often experienced back then helped me value the close connections I have today, and not take them for granted. People always come and go – it’s a given – but some may leave faster than you think.
It’s like a Benetton ad come to life.
Growing up in an international school meant that your peers, classmates, and entire school population were going to be, well, international. Kids and teachers of all different native backgrounds came together in a melting pot of race and culture, and it was awesome.
Even if you weren’t about to pack your bags and leave for a new country, you still learned about people from all different walks of life. A new kid walking in from the other side of the world wasn’t seen as this strange alien, but as someone with new and interesting things to share. After all, we all were strange aliens clumped together in the same, one environment – there was very little anxiety over being ‘different’.
It was another story stepping into my high school, here in Australia; being one of the only few overseas Asians in a sea of born-and-bred Sydneysiders. You couldn’t help but truly feel like a stranger, at least initially. At least back in my international school years, you being Filipino didn’t mean too much when you walked into a class of four Koreans, five Japanese kids, three Indians and a French dude.
I’m not about to get all smug and say that I “don’t see race” (since, frankly, that’s bullshit) – but it was an incredibly insightful opportunity to interact with all kinds of people with varying cultural beliefs, customs, and perspectives. You learn to be friends with others despite differing backgrounds, and eventually – they come to not matter at all.
You grow up in a ‘third culture’.
I’d only learned this term recently, but I was relieved over finally having the words for perfectly describing those of my upbringing. People who associate with a ‘third culture’ – or ‘third-culture kids’ as people now call them - have grown up in a completely different culture to that of their parents, yet are still influenced by their parents’ cultural beliefs.
Thus, they develop this mixed identity that’s neither here nor there – a mash-up of two cultures. This may sound pretty cool to some since it’s like getting the best of both worlds. You’re familiar with your roots while absorbing the cultural perspectives and behaviour of a new country. You’re a tad more exposed about the world.
But this novelty also comes with a significant confusion over your sense of belonging, particularly the country or culture you’re meant to call ‘home’. I know I’ve given up trying to determine mine – I was brought up in a Filipino household, yet grew up in a totally westernized school environment with people of the same westernized upbringing. At the same time, we were based in Hong Kong.
The weird thing there is that none of us even came from western backgrounds originally – we were all, still, a mosaic of different cultures, yet somehow connected under the school’s western influence.
I spent a few years of my childhood in the Philippines, most of my life in Hong Kong, and my late teens and early adult years in Australia. My international school was Canadian.
I’ve been privileged enough to live in various places around the globe – though I can’t help but feel a slight tinge of jealousy when I see my peers feel such a tight, loyal attachment to a country they can definitively call ‘home’.
But I’ve learned to take a positive spin on this - for me, that concept has ceased to mean a particular place. ‘Home’ isn’t something I link to a country, city, or town anymore – but where the people are that I care about most.
Spending 11 years of my life at an international school was undoubtedly a unique experience.
Sure, there were the people who came and went like the seasons, and the fact that I went through the ‘cultural confusion’ of never truly grasping mine.
But I can’t be grateful enough for all that I’ve learned about others and what it’s like on their native side of the world. I’ve met countless people from around the globe and even picked up on a few foreign phrases along the way (like how to order a hamburger in Mandarin).
Because the novel thing about you (initially, at least) was your nationality, I grew to truly appreciate and feel pride for mine. My identity may have been built around a ‘third culture’, but my native roots were Filipino – and being one of only a mere handful at the school, I learned to own that about me. As did others.
On top of that, I was lucky enough to make friends who left me with memories to look back on for a lifetime. To be honest, none of these experiences would have been as pleasant as they were without them; your ‘core’ group.
So having said all that, between getting used to your expatriate lifestyle and blending in a melting pot of cultural diversity – should I be able to turn back time, I’d do it all over again.