Third Culture Kids: Calvin Widjaja shares what it’s like to grow up in two countries

Calvin grew up in Singapore where he lived for over 10 years. He regards Singapore as much of a home as his birth country Indonesia. He is a member of our SGN family and is the creator of Global CKtizens, a weekly livestream podcast that promotes intercultural studies, awareness and representation of Third Culture and Cross-Cultural Kids.

13 July 2021 / By Calvin Widjaja

Son of two countries, citizen of the world

When I was in secondary school, my history teacher gave us an assignment. We were to write an essay titled, “What is home to you?” Believe it or not, till today, I still don’t have a straight answer to that question. And I’m glad.

Why, you may wonder? I believe that if you, like me, grew up in different countries, you don’t belong anywhere, you belong everywhere. You don’t see people based on colours, citizenship or ethnicity but who they are individually. As idealistic as it sounds, I think it’s a mindset worth emulating during these times where race and nationality have become subjects of contention.

However, since it was still schoolwork, I wrote that I didn’t have a clear idea of home. I feel attached to the people around me and my surroundings. I couldn’t immediately say that either Singapore or Indonesia was my home – both mattered equally to me, with each of them carrying a piece of my heart.

The Indonesian and Singapore flags are both red and white in color

For many years, I was on a quest to understand where I ‘belonged’. I navigated the positive and negatives of growing up between two places I called home and other subcultures that formed who I am. I still have a long way to go but have since come to be at peace with this. I realized that I need not be like everyone from these places but being my own self by adapting the best parts about my environment. 

My surname is Huang(黄)…but it’s not in the birth certificate though

My time in Singapore opened my eyes to a multi-cultural society and was formative in influencing how I think. A specific memory was particularly unforgettable.

It was my first day of school at the former Macpherson Primary School at Mattar Road. My cousin, who had already lived in Singapore for some time, told me that every morning, students gathered at assembly to sing the national anthem; I ought to put my bag outside my class before heading to the hall.

Back then, we were given an attendance sheet to mark ourselves. Along with being the new kid, I was already really insecure on my first day as I was noticeably bigger than most of my classmates, since I had to go down two grades, so I’ll be able to keep up with Mandarin classes. As my name was not yet on the sheet, I was told to write it down.

Calvin learning how to play a flute in primary school

As I was glancing through the paper, I realized that none of them sounded anything remotely like mine.  They were a combination of Chinese, Malay, Indian and other international names, which looked even more alien to me. In a panic, I wrote the name ‘Calvin Huang’, the Chinese name my late grandfather shared with me. However, this Chinese last name was never written in my birth certificate, which confused my teacher when she received the attendance sheet – but thankfully she let it slide!

I vividly remember this as ever since then, keeping in mind kindness goes a long way, and that everyone deserves a lucky break.

For every Singaporean Son – even the second one

I proudly gave myself the nickname of “the second son of Singapore”. I was inspired by a radio announcement which called Singaporean men enlisting for National Service, “the first sons of Singapore”. Since I was not born in the country, but had experienced the big three (PSLE, GCE N/O Levels and National Service) that every Singaporean son went through, I found it a fitting nickname.

Contrary to how the media often portrays a plucky underdog overcoming obstacles and rising through the ranks to become the best recruit, my National Service performance was mixed at best. I’ve always had knee issues before enlistment and it got worse over time with training. It was demoralizing, for as much as I do wish I could perform and excel, I was limited by my circumstances. However, through persevering, I learned that how to work hard, endure and find the silver lining in every situation; your time to shine will come once you find the right outlet. I still carry this mindset with me today.

Universally, challenges and obstacles are everywhere, but your mindset – and finding the right channel to reverse the negative circumstances – is what matters. I became a Diploma holder by using my free time available to pursue a higher education, I have a group of friends that is as close to brothers that I can ever have (I have two biological sisters but no brothers). I came away with a renewed appreciation of my circumstances, recognizing that not everyone is equally privileged, and to be empathetic to everyone.

The blessing of growing up in both the Lion and Eagle cities

Singapore skyscraper with War Memorial Park

In closing, I would like to pay tribute to one of Singapore’s iconic monuments, the Civil War Memorial. The structure was created to represent the shared experiences and unity of the four major races of Singapore – Chinese, Eurasian, Indian and Malay, united in the face of a shared tragedy. I have been blessed to have been able to call Singapore my home for over ten years, growing in an environment where different ethnicities with different culture live and learn together.

As the pandemic continues to alter the geopolitical landscape dramatically, we must draw inspiration from the monument in remembering to stay united, to slow down, listen, learn and understand so we may adapt other’s culture and perspective – a mindset I hope to facilitate as a Third Culture Kid.

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About Calvin

Calvin Karuniawan Widjaja is the host and producer of Global CKtizens, a Facebook Livestream and YouTube channel that advocates Third Culture Kids (TCK) individuals who spent formative years growing up outside of their parents’ culture, or outside of the country in which they were born.

A proud Singaporean Permanent Resident of 15 years, through his experiences with dealing with reverse culture shock from his birth country Indonesia and characteristics that he formed from his second home Singapore and other subcultures he encountered in his time abroad Calvin is passionate about providing others with similar third culture experiences with a platform for promoting intercultural diversity awareness and inclusion.

He has been featured on podcasts made by and for TCK and other multicultural awareness platforms such as A Culture Story, the authority project, Third Culture Talks and the Family Culture Podcast.

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