The life of a Third Culture Kid
For Danau Tanu, Alien Citizen a movie by Elizabeth Liang is a must see for international teachers wanting to understand the ‘TCK’ experience.
An anthem for TCKs
Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey is like an anthem for those who grow up internationally but its genius has thus far escaped the attention of the international school community. For international educators looking for creative ways to address the complex issues of identity, racism and sexism in the classroom, the film is invaluable.
Written and performed by the brilliant Elizabeth Liang, Alien Citizen opens with a booming voice taunting her on stage to answer the unanswerable questions that Third Culture Kids (Pollock et. al., 2017) and mixed-race children often hear:
‘Where are you from? . . . What are you?’
It then follows Liang’s childhood as she moved internationally with her ‘Guate’-Chinese-Irish-European-hodgepodge-American family, partly to escape the civil war in Guatemala in the 1970s and then later as a ‘business brat’ when Xerox posted her father up and down and across the Atlantic Ocean.
Nobody looks like me
Liang—the sole actor in Alien Citizen—seamlessly switches from one character to another as she humorously unearths the pain that many children experience but are unable to articulate. After moving to Fairfield County in Connecticut, USA, the young Liang notices that ‘nobody on TV looks like me, except maybe Spock on the Star Trek reruns!’ Be prepared to laugh (hard) and cry at the same time.
Just as Liang is feeling culturally displaced in her mother’s country and in need for a sense of belonging, she begins losing her Spanish, the language that connected her to her father’s large and loving extended family in Guatemala. In a poignant scene, five-year-old Liang takes out her frustration on their housekeeper, Filomena. It is not lost on the adult Liang that ‘Filomena left her home in the highlands of Guatemala’ out of poverty to take care of her privileged family in ‘the coldest, unfriendliest town in New England’.
Identity, inequality and skin colour
But she does not stop there. Liang deftly places her identity issues squarely in the middle of a world riddled with social inequalities that spans across centuries, including skin colour prejudice rooted in colonialism. Later, Liang alludes back to Filomena as she makes fun of her beloved Chinese Guatemalan family elders who were horrified by the dark tan she had picked up from playing in the sun at her next home in Panama because they were ‘obsessed’ by anti-indigenous colourism (see Knight, 2015).
Liang spares no one from critique, not even herself. While many with similar international childhoods like hers struggle to go beyond addressing identity or transition issues in generic terms, it is not so for Liang who is far too talented and fiercely honest for such a myopic focus.
The ‘stayer’ dilemma
In high school, Liang becomes ‘excellent friends’ with the goofy Hamed, my favourite character. Hamed is a local student who does not ‘speak any language without a foreign accent’—not even Arabic, thanks to his international schooling—and seems out of place in Egypt despite having never lived anywhere else. According to the psychologist Drs. Doug Ota (2014), ‘stayers’ are often forgotten by school transition programs even though they are repeatedly left behind by ‘expat’ classmates who come and go as though through a revolving door.
In all this, Liang never loses sight of the child bewildered by the constantly changing world around her. As she takes the audience with her from Guatemala to Costa Rica, the US, Panama, Morocco and Egypt, we see a child gradually shut down from ‘transition fatigue’ as she turns into a teenager in her sixth country. All the while, her adolescent body is subjected to regular sexual harassment that she could neither fend off nor comprehend at that age.
The insight of drama
Covering everything from mobility, identity confusion, racism, class prejudice and sexism to eating disorders, Liang is able to distill the essence of these difficult and deeply personal experiences and present them in a manner no scholar possibly could. And she does it with superb comic timing.
The film is a dynamic viewing experience thanks to director Sofie Calderon and editor Daniel Lawrence. Shot at different angles in front of a live audience, the energy of the performance and the editorial pacing are top notch. Audio effects enhance the atmospheric storytelling while visual effects add welcome texture.
What’s more, international school students would be able to instinctively pick up on the complex issues more than you might anticipate. Alien Citizen gives voice to what your students already know but are rarely invited to talk about. It is a film that you ‘feel’ as much as you see.
Alien Citizen – the stage show
It was a crisp evening in March 2014 near Washington D.C. in the US when I reluctantly dragged my jet-lagged body to the hotel ballroom of the Families in Global Transition (www.figt.org) conference to watch a live performance of Alien Citizen.
I had initially thought, ‘What can one woman in a black T-shirt and jeans possibly do on a near empty stage?’
But by the time the stage lights faded on Liang to signal the end, I was a dripping wreck of snot. I glanced around. Of the 142 attendees, the ones sobbing seemed mostly to be those who identified as ‘Third Culture Kids’.
It was the first time we had heard our stories told with such compassion and brutal honesty.
Dr Danau Tanu is the author of Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School and a Japan Foundation Research Fellow at Waseda University.
About the Film
Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey is available on DVD and digital streaming in Individual (home use) and Institutional versions: www.aliencitizensoloshow.com. The DVD includes a Q&A with Elizabeth Liang and director Sofie Calderon, and interviews with Liang’s brother and parents. The Institutional DVD and Streaming License both include a digital toolkit with over 35 clips from the film, each followed by questions to promote learning and discussion.
Hardcover – October 1, 2017
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All images kindly provided by Danau.
Knight, D. (2015). What is colorism? Teaching Tolerance, Fall(51), 45-48. Retrieved from www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/fall-2015/whats-colorism
Ota, D.W. (2014). Safe Passage: How Mobility Affects People and What International Schools Can Do About It. Stamford, Lincolnshire: Summertime Publishing. www.safepassage.nl/the-book
Pollock, D., Van Reken, R.E. & Pollock, M. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd ed.). Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. (See also www.crossculturalkid.org)
This film review was first published in the EARCOS Triannual Journal (Fall 2022) and has been edited for length: https://issuu.com/earcosorg/docs/et-september-2022/74