Global Nomad


    Born in Singapore to globally nomadic parents who were traveling through Singapore when my mother decided it was time to give birth to me. My mother grew up in Jakarta, Hong Kong, and Australia while my father grew up in Jakarta, Singapore, London, and Boston. Both my parents attended non-local schools in Jakarta with my mother attending one of the few English schools in Jakarta during the 60s and my father attended a private Chinese school which ceased to exist after much political unrest and riots broke out in the 60s. My mother was sent to Hong Kong and then Australia to attend boarding schools and University while my father helped my grandparents set up their business before he was sent to Singapore to learn English then London and Boston for Undergraduate and Graduate studies in Optometry. Shortly after I was born, I was whisked away to Jakarta and then attended Jakarta International School until the middle of third grade. Relocating to Singapore at the age of 8 in the middle of third grade was tough for me because I was old enough to know what was going on but not old enough to really understand how to build friendships since all friend circles seemed to change every single year. I attended Overseas Family School (at that time the school was just starting out so it was fairly small) for four years before transferring to Singapore American School until High School graduation in 2001. Attending international schools all my life had taught me that friends were transient but I would later learn that we would all reunite and bond over our uncommon days of attending a school where you were taught not to "judge a person by the color of their skin". I had friends from Nigeria, Hong Kong, Singapore, United States, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Scotland, Ireland, UK, and many more. Most students in international schools do not stay for very long so a year was very long time and enough time to create a bond between friends.

    "Where are you from?" is a question that was asked when I first entered Pitzer College in Claremont, CA (35 miles east of Los Angeles) as a freshmen to which I replied "Singapore". Fast forward a few months later and it was time for winter break, my first time going back "home" to Singapore and I was excited. Walking through Orchard Road and visiting Singapore American School felt very alien to me, then it struck me, Singapore was not my home anymore. The friends I had before I left for college in California were not all returning since their families had moved away already, new establishments were built and old establishments that I used to frequent were gone, like the hawker stall with my favorite local dish had closed down and was replaced by another stall, the weather felt hot and stuffy which made walking around unbearable. When I went to visit Singapore American School, I had my old school ID cut in half because this was post 9/11 and there were extra security measures taken at the school to protect the students and its alumni from being prime targets for terrorist attacks such as the entrance of the school was heavily guarded with Indian gurkas that held machetes and the school buses that once read "Singapore American School" was covered up. It was surreal and the students that were there were concerned about matters that I used to be concerned about were trivial to me. I felt like I did not belong and was saddened by this fact. I felt alien in my own "home". I returned to college and constantly asked myself what the concept of "home" meant for me. Two years later, I transferred schools to UCLA to major in World Arts & Cultures with a dance concentration because to me that major personified what I wanted. Global studies and Dance studies combined in a single major. From when I started dancing ballet at aged four in Indonesia, I was never in any of the western classical ballets. Instead we performed Indonesian mythological characters, I was a rice grain in one show! I did not realize that it was not a very typical show until I moved to the United States. In Singapore, I took on many different dance forms such as tap, jazz, flamenco, modern, lyrical and started dabbling in choreography for the stage in high school which also took me to dance exchanges in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Manila. My love for international studies and dance needed an outlet to be recognized so that solidified my transfer decision to UCLA. I felt that the department of World Arts & Cultures would cultivate my interests in dance and international studies better than just a regular dance major would.

    My senior thesis project was on Third Culture Kids and I interviewed my friends what it felt like growing up the way we did. The people I interviewed were a mixture of friends from Singapore and friends I had met in Claremont and UCLA that I found out were Third Culture Kids as well. The friends that I met in college with similar background as mine was interesting because mostly it was by chance that we met. In my words, I would call it fate, Third Culture Kids have a way to find each other because the world is our playground and we are separated by six degrees of separation. I would ask them generic questions like "Where do you consider home?", "What is your definition of home?", to more specific questions like "Do you think your upbringing as a Third Culture Kid help choose your major and intended career?", "Do you think that your constant relocation caused you problems with maintaining contact with friends?". Their answers were varied; some considered the place where family was as home even if they have not lived there, while others called home as the place where they spent their formative years. They did decide that home is where the heart is. Many of them answered that their upbringing helped shape what kind of major and profession they aspired to or at least go into a profession that would allow them to travel and have clients in different countries. Two of the people I interviewed had problems keeping in contact with friends that they made because of the constant relocation. All of these interviews were videotaped and I created a documentary film from the interviews and a separate dance piece depicting what Third Culture Kids felt and go through on the emotional level. In the dance piece, I separated it into five different sections titled "Changing of seasons", "In Transit", "Am I home?", "Memories revisited", "Time of your life" with the finale being a slideshow of pictures of me, my fellow Third Culture Kid friends, my travels, and pictures that Third Culture Kids sent to me via email. Each section focused on the specific timeline of what a Third Culture Kid goes through from the moment we leave a country to questioning our roots to remembering the loss of friendships from moving away and finally acknowledging the fact that we had good moments and memories we shared through looking at old pictures. I felt very strongly about creating that show because it spoke to me on a personal level and to other Third Culture Kids, one of my friends whom I interviewed was actually tearing up by the end of the performance! By this time, when someone asked "Where are you from?" I would reply "Orange County" because my parents had purchased a house in Newport Beach (50 miles south of Los Angeles) and my mother and sister were living there. I felt like that was the default answer that would not spark too many questions. By the time I graduated from UCLA, I had mastered the art of figuring out which were the people who were truly interested in where I was from and those that were not.

    Since my graduation from UCLA in the summer of 2005, I have relocated to New York City. My parents sold the house in Orange County and moved back to Singapore. New York City, the heart of the financial hub, fashion hub, and arts (both visual and performing) hub of the world, in my opinion. It is also the place where Third Culture Kids seem to latch onto each other more and keep in good terms with because who wants to live in New York City without any friends? This by no means that Third Culture Kids can only be friends with others from the same type of global upbringing. My closest friends that I have made the past few years in college and here in New York grew up in the same state with interests in traveling to many countries or are "well travelled". The term "well travelled" is coined as a term to define a person who has travelled to a decent amount of countries. I feel like these are the types of people that I can connect with the best because I can relate better to them. I have met so many Third Culture Kids here from my schools in Singapore and Jakarta that are gathered here in New York for work or school. I am now a working expat mainly as a dancer/choreographer. There are so many young people living in the city that have relocated from around the world and it is amazing to meet people who have come from similar backgrounds. Third Culture Kids reach out to each other more than ever in this city. Perhaps it is because we find a "home" within ourselves and people like us. I have only been here for a short time but I have run into old classmates on the streets. One particular encounter happened just recently; I was at a dance audition and there was a young woman that was at the audition whom looked familiar to me. I went up to her and asked her what her name was and if she went to Taipei American School. The schools in the Southeast Asian region had these exchanges every few months in dance, sports, visual arts, drama, forensics, and music. I had recognized her from one of these exchanges in Manila, it was exciting to connect with another individual that I had not seen in years and was happy that she had kept up with the dancing.

    As a working expat, we always face the issue with gaining the right documents for legally residing in a country that is not your passport country. However, what do we do when you do not regard your passport country as "home" and what happens when you have to return to that country and your career goals and dreams lie elsewhere? Mixing media and live dance is something that I have become more interested in because it can convey my ideas a lot more than just dance alone. My dream is that someday people would see past the superficial physical attributes of a person such as race and realize the beauty behind the person through their character, my goal is to bridge the gap between people because we do live in a small world after all. I intend to share this dream through creating dance pieces that are related to this dream. I think that most Third Culture Kids tend to look past the superficial physical attributes especially race because we have grown up not to "judge a book by its cover".

Third Culture Kids upbringing, graduated from college, now what?

by Alaine Handa

Photography by Albert Gumilang