I was reading an article on tckworld.com* the other week. It was written by the late Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, whose research led to the term ‘Third Culture Kid’. The article was the result of a study of adult TCKs and how their experiences abroad shaped their adult lives. It was, to say the least a rather revealing article! The third part dealt with the phenomenon of ‘Prolonged Adolescence’, and (like it or not), it described my experience with a scary degree of accuracy. Two things really popped out. Firstly, it turns out over 80% of us go on to get Bachelor’s degrees. Secondly, it can take us an utterly ridiculous amount of time to make up our minds about what we want to do with our lives, when it comes to work and careers. Take me for example. I’m 37 and still not exactly sure what I’m doing…
In case you are new to this blog, let me back up a little. My name is Wout Wynants, and I am a Third Culture Kid. This means that I spent most of my youth in foreign countries, blending my home culture with foreign cultures to form a type of ‘third’ culture. We are also known as ‘Global Nomads’. I was born in Belgium, lived in the Netherlands until I was 12, moved to Singapore at 13, and the USA at 18. This is where I lived continuously (except for my ‘Nokia year’ when I lived in the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK) until moving back to Belgium two years ago… you get my point ;-). I’m writing a book about my adventures growing up in South East Asia. I started blogging as a way to keep motivated, and to elaborate on my more recent experiences as a Belgian who is living in his ‘passport’ country for the first time!
I first started thinking about the concept of ‘work’ when I was in high school. I was getting reports from friends back home, who in fits of amazing teenage responsibility were getting their first summer jobs. It sounded like fun, earning your own money and getting to buy things with it. Hearing them talk about it, I started to feel slightly inferior. I was after all, still relying on my parents for an allowance. Why couldn’t I get a job over the summer? The answer was very simple: There was a law against it. When you live in a foreign country (this was in the early 90s and rules may have changed since then), and your parents are under a contract it is rare that your host country will allow dependents to work, and Singapore was no exception. Not even my mom could work if she wanted to, and this is a frustration still shared by many expat spouses. The advice I got across the board, was to focus on my studies. There’d be plenty of time for work when I got older…
So over the summers, I filled my time with reading and hanging out with other expat kids. I also volunteered at the reptile house of the Singapore Zoo, which is probably THE coolest thing I have ever done in my life, period. I didn’t watch a whole lot of TV as Singapore in the early 1990s only had two television channels that were in English. The few shows that were relatively bearable were on in the evening. After watching yet another episode of Who’s the Boss, and seeing Macho Man Randy Savage (rest his soul) get bit by a king cobra for the tenth time, I’d inevitably pick up a biology or chemistry book, or do something else that was educational. During weekends it was much of the same. Perhaps this helps explain why so many of us go on to get Bachelor’s degrees… We’re not necessarily smarter than any other demographic group (not by a long shot), but for lack of something better to do, we sure got used to doing a lot of studying. It is what we do best.
After graduating high school, I moved to the USA, where my ‘F1’ Student visa allowed me a certain amount of paid work on campus. For the first year however, it was still a no-go. Virtually all of the on-campus jobs were (and quite rightfully so, I should add) reserved for students who were on a work-study program. They needed the work to help pay for their education. I’ll be the first one to admit I’ve had a supremely privileged upbringing, and have no right to complain. Still, there were practical matters to consider. At some point, I would have to learn to make my own money.
The opportunity finally came over summer break, when I got my first ever part-time job, taking care of a professor’s lab rats in the psychology department. This involved feeding and general husbandry, but mostly cleaning up vast amounts of poop, extra poop, and then yet more poop. But it was good fun (reminiscent of volunteering at the zoo) and the hours were very flexible. Extra fun was to be had cleaning the cages, which was done using a walk-in dishwasher that looked like it came straight out of Back to the Future. It didn’t matter when during the day it got done, as long as it got done. I was issued my own key to the building for after-hours access. I loved that flexibility.
During my junior year, after getting top grades in a photography course, I was invited to become a lab teaching assistant. This was one of the few jobs I could do as a non-financial-aid student because professors usually picked their assistants purely on merit. This was, as far as working for somebody else goes, the most enjoyable job I have ever had. Mr. Yong, the photography professor, was a transplanted Malaysian and I got along with him very well.
It was 1995, and rather than mouse clicks and megapixels, photography still involved working with nasty chemicals. And my name wouldn’t be Wout Wynants, if I didn't cause the occasional ‘minor mishap’. One evening when I was tired and not paying attention, I accidentally slipped a photograph straight from the ‘stop bath’ into selenium toner without rinsing it in water first. Mixing these two goodies produces extremely toxic hydrogen selenide gas. Fortunately, the ‘adrenaline fix’ that followed when I realized my mistake meant I was able to open all the doors and windows before the coroner would have been needed. It was great fun working with beginning photography students on their printing techniques. I did this work for the rest of my time as a student during my ‘first’ degree.
In May of 1996 graduation time came. I had earned a Bachelor’s degree in music by way of the Liberal Arts, and was supposed to be ready for the big wide World that lay beyond the campus of my ‘Alma Mater’. That was the theory at least. Academically, my last year was intense. We did a big concert with trumpet player Marvin Stamm, improvised in front of Wynton Marsalis (just a tiny bit of pressure there!), and to top it off, my mentor and saxophone teacher Al Goelz died of heart failure that past Christmas. I was completely burnt out on music, and in any case did not think my saxophone playing was good enough to be making a living with it. I had work experience as a rat poop scooper (not much opportunity for career advancement), and as a photo-lab assistant (which qualified me to be a starving artist). The hard reality was, that even with a degree in hand, I was now qualified for little more than an entry level position in the fast food industry. So I re-enrolled at Denison, and pursued another degree, this time in physics. It will be the subject of next week’s article:
TCKs and Employment Part 2.) ‘Destiny in Space’.
(*Article referred to: http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art1.html)