Being a TCK: Privilege

It wasn’t until I recently hung out with some fellow TCKs that I realized that this topic, although very uncomfortable to discuss, ought to be brought up. As much as TCKs can relate to the cultures in which they grow up – the ones that aren’t their “home” cultures – that does not make them truly a part of that culture, especially if they carry privilege with them.

For my family, we didn’t live as well as other expats did – particularly those associated with embassies and the military – yet we lived well above most of our African neighbors. Although our first home in Ghana was in a small village with neither power nor running water, we lived quite comfortably in a two-story duplex that we rented from one of the wealthier women in the village. We ran a generator a few hours during the day and a few hours in the evening to keep the refrigerator  cool – we insulated it with foam to aid in this process – and we used a pump to bring collected rainwater up to the roof where it could be gravity fed through the building for “running water.” We did not live in mud huts with thatched roofs, and we were able to access a greater support network in case of emergencies, etc.

Dad on the Radio
My dad making contact with other missionaries via two-way radio because there were no phone lines in Santrokofi-Benua.

This ability to get out of the country for various services marks a glaring difference between my upbringing and how our African friends and colleagues grew up. In case of medical emergency, missionaries, diplomats, and the like can be medevac-ed (medical evacuation) out of the country to a place where they can receive necessary healthcare. For example, when my sister was six years old, we flew back to the United States for her tonsillectomy, a surgery that probably saved her life but that could not be performed locally. No matter how much kinship I felt with my Ghanaian friends, the reality was that this was not a possibility for most, if not all, of them at the time. (Healthcare in Ghana has improved since the late 1980s, however!)

In February 2008, my parents were living in Moundou, Chad, when rebels attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Déby. The situation escalated to the extent that fighting was occurring in N’Djaména and no one really knew what was going to happen. My parents were faced with an option: stay in the country and risk being targeted as Americans or flee the country and weather the storm in the safety of Cameroon. Many people who work in other countries have to face this decision of saving themselves or standing in solidarity with their local colleagues at some point during their work. Regardless of their final decisions, the fact remains that they have an option to flee while the local population does not.

Another part of my upbringing worth mentioning is that in both of the compounds where we lived in Ghana, there were multiple buildings on site. There was the house where we lived and the building (or buildings) called the servants’ quarters. As an adult, my insides recoil even at the name and I feel a sense of shame for participating in something that smacks so heavily of imperialism and all that it entails. Yes, my family had house help. At different times, we hired house girls and house boys. We had a driver. We had day guards and night guards.

In this case, I find myself caught in this bizarre tension. Every expat family that I encountered in Africa hired at least one African to work for them in some capacity. Some hired more than we did, others hired fewer. And yes, this looks and sounds very, very bad. However, we were not the only people who hired others for what sounds like menial labor. Wealthy Africans did the same; in fact, anyone with more wealth was expected to hire others to work for them. Otherwise, a wealthy person without workers was being selfish and miserly, instead of contributing to the community. So yes, I still cringe when I tell people that we had a driver and a house girl, but I also understand that we didn’t have much of a choice in the matter if we wanted to be accepted into the community instead of resented. In this case, the privilege we wore by being “wealthy” Americans necessitated that we hire Ghanaians or Chadians in order to make connections within our new communities.

Albert, our driver, is on the far right in this group photo.

My parents are still very close with Albert (our driver from Ghana) and his wife Vero even though the last time they worked together was in 1995. While we lived in Ghana, Albert was essentially my father’s right-hand man during his extensive work trips. He looked after my sister and me like we were part of his own family, and I thought of him like an uncle instead of as someone who just worked for my dad. We were close enough to our night guard Daoud in Chad that he named one of his sons after my father as well. (There is now a small Chadian boy running around N’Djaména called Mohammed Bill.)

Another way that privilege plays a part in the lives of TCKs is that of education. By the time I graduated from high school, I was more educated than most of the Chadian pastors that worked with my parents, certainly more educated than their wives. (Women in Chad have fewer opportunities for education and work outside of the home than their male counterparts.) My mother homeschooled my sister and I up until high school at which point we had a plethora of options from which to choose on how we wanted to proceed. We opted for an American boarding school in Kenya which would give us all kinds of opportunities to learn and grow as teenagers. There were few to no options for education in Chad. Not everyone had schools within traveling distance, be it by foot or by car, and even those who could physically access a school were not always able to afford a school. If the choice had to be made to feed your family or to give one of your children an education, the choice is obvious.

The final way that privilege shows itself in our lives is that TCKs go “home.” We are able to return to our passport cultures where we can further our education and have work opportunities out the ying yang. (Yes, even in America’s recession, there are better job opportunities here than elsewhere in the world.) As much as I love Africa and everything that I experienced there, I have to say that I am also thankful for the privilege that allowed me to get a college degree and find enough work to make ends meet and to live comfortably here. I do not intend to stay in the United States for the rest of my life, but it is undeniably nice to live in this country for the time being and to have so many options available.

For those of you who are TCKs, how did you experience privilege (if you did)? If you aren’t a TCK, when did you realize that you had privilege (if you did)?

By Dormouse

Bilingual (and a half) white girl who spent thirteen of her formative years in Africa. She is a writer, mentor, coffee drinker, wife, cat owner, language lover, photography dabbler, aspiring speaker, and a lifetime student. She keeps her writing going over at

10 replies on “Being a TCK: Privilege”

I know this is kind of an old post, but I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that you should feel bad about having servants. I realize that it comes down to cultural norms, but part of what makes life here in the US so hard is that we now refuse on principle to outsource parts of our personal life like cleaning and cooking. We don’t have time for our families or get enough sleep. We have to work longer hours and take less vacation. Should a small business owner feel wrong about having employees? Then why should we not make use of cleaning services? We tip waiters – what’s so wrong about paying a cook? Obviously, the ability to do so monetarily affects our decision, but I know many working women who refuse to hire a maid service when they can definitely afford it and they don’t have time to do it. They refuse because they are being made to feel like a failure for not doing it all. This is something we should get over, not reinforce, imo.

Interesting read – I do wish you’d explained what TCK meant though, as I had to do some googling to figure it out before learning that I’m semi-one of them!  I spent my formative years in China, in a big house provided by my dad’s job, with a driver, a cook, a nanny, and a bunch of cleaning boys and it was totally normal for all the expats in our compound.  The foreign population was minuscule compared to what it is now and so every event that we had, birthday parties, thanksgiving, etc involved basically all the foreigners in the city coming to our house – partly because my mom didn’t speak Chinese.  My best friend was the daughter of a ditch digger whose name literally meant ‘second daughter’ and she would come play with my barbies all day long before going home to her house that I never saw.

The one really bad habit I picked up from this life was the practice of referring to all non-Chinese people as ‘white people’ because back then, if you weren’t Chinese, you were white.  It is more diverse these days but the expat population is still overwhelmingly American or European and I have to really train myself to say foreigner/expat/non-Chinese before saying ‘white’.

I apologize for not explaining what a TCK was in this article, but as it is part of a series of articles, I had wrongly assumed that people reading this one would have already read the past ones. My mistake. I will rectify this in future posts!

Thank you for sharing your experience in growing up in China! I can definitely relate to knowing a significant portion of the expat community and inviting many of them over for holidays, etc.

This was my biggest problem when I was in the Peace Corps.  Sure, you get the salary as the local population (well, in theory.  In practice, it’s much more), but you can never really be there, because if there is trouble, you leave.  If there isn’t trouble, you still leave.  Yeah, it sucks to have to wash your clothes by hand, but at the end of 2 years, you go back to your Maytag.

It all feels so hypocritical.  I mean, it isn’t.  You do the best you can.  But it is, because nothing is ever going to make you really understand what it is like to not have that privilege.

Yea, but thats the game of privilege. It’s just acknowledging it and not throwing it in folks faces. I really don’t think there is much else you can do. It’s one of those things that you have to decide – well, as the way the world currently is, what can I do?

I thought about this when I heard about one of my BF’s college friends from his Japanese class. She was studying abroad in Japan for the year when the big earthquakes hit, and she was flown out almost immediately. She wanted to go back, but her parents said no, because they were worried about her safety.

I know it’s not exactly the same, because there is a definite difference between living in continual poverty and experiencing a natural disaster. Most definitely, being in poverty would make it all the harder to rebuild after a disaster, especially when the disaster would, say, make you lose all access to clean water.

The similarity I draw is that hearing about the BF’s friend really made me think about all the people who live there who could not leave. The people who were forced to make it work, no matter how much unrest they went through, no matter how dangerous their space became. Some people from Japan might have the privilege to leave, but not all will. But she was someone who was privileged to get the fuck out.

During college, I student taught in an MK school in Malaysia.  I wanted to go to Cote d’ Ivoire but things were a bit unsettled even back then. I love being overseas and totally agree with you, the American privilege is very noticeable outside of the country.

While in Malaysia most of the house keeping tasks, and baking, were done by Indians.  There is a large Indian and Chinese population.  The government is very unfavorable towards the Chinese, even in making laws that place them as second class citizens.  I never looked at it as a bad thing, but as an opportunity to learn more about the people, and culture.  I had a wonderful time learning how to wear a sari, eat Indian food properly, and learn about religious traditions and celebrations.

The last time I stayed in South Africa I stayed with a white Dutch expat family that had a Bantu driver and Xhosa housemaid. I felt incredibly uncomfortable for a while, because I can drive the car and yes I can do my own dishes.
The driver was so completely relaxed about me asking about it which made me feel even more uncomfortable because Hey, yet again another white girl that wants to safe the black people. He explained that working for a rich family pays you best if you haven’t studied and he was lucky that he was treated as a worthwhile colleague. He knew that this wasn’t the best of the best, but he was (as I’ve experienced with more Africans) living in the now. He appreciated this job and his employer and what the future would bring ..we’ll see.

Even with telling this anecdote I’m afraid to come off as ‘Oh she thinks she can understand‘. I love to share, but there’s always the possibility people will think you’re a show-off, like you’re collecting exotica instead of meetings with people.

Hmm.. this seems to bring out a lot of thoughts in me.

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