Roar Writer Charmaine Tan on the impact of Covid-19 on third culture kids.

Passports are an instrument of mobility. They grant us the ability to transcend borders and allow us to travel internationally. Above all, they give us the right to return home during a pandemic.

Or at least, they do for most of us.

Things weren’t so straightforward for King’s College London student, Sayali, who was in the UK when Covid-19 first struck. Despite having an American passport, India was home for Sayali. She grew up in India where her family remains to this day. Hence, when borders first started closing last March, her first instinct was to join her family back in India, but her Indian visa was cancelled. While the US was always an option, why go when it’s basically foreign land? This is why, until today, Sayali is still in the UK, hoping that the pandemic will blow over someday.

For Third Culture Kids, TCKs, like her – the products of globalisation, the self-proclaimed global nomads – home is not always an easy concept to explain. Home could be the country that they spent their adolescent years in, the city where their immediate family lives, or the place where they first learnt how to walk. Home could also be all of them. Or none of them.

Therefore, when England announced its pre-Christmas travel window last year, many made plans to return home. For most, the plan was simple: return to their passport country until the storm blows over. Yet, for the TCKs who want to return home but cannot, the incessant lockdowns have done nothing but exacerbate their identity crises. Now more than ever, they are forced to confront their sense of not belonging anywhere, as countries they previously thought were their “homes” refuse to take them in.

Home a foreign construct

For Pei Yan, the saying “home is where your family is” rings true. Having only spent her childhood years in Malaysia, her adolescence in China, before then moving to the UK for university, Pei Yan identifies with neither country. When Covid-19 hit, she tried to return to Singapore where her immediate family had relocated recently. However, due to her Malaysian passport, she was barred from entry at immigration.  In addition, she turned 21 before the entry ban, resulting in the expiration of her dependent visa.

Given that Covid-19 had escalated within days, she was unable to apply for an approval letter before her flight. Thus, she could only rely on her expired visa to prove her connection with her family in Singapore. She was denied entry. A few hours later, Pei Yan found herself on a flight to Malaysia, en route to her “home”, where she didn’t even have a house. Since March 2020, Pei Yan has been living alone in Malaysia.

“While Malaysia could have felt like home [again], it’s so difficult to form connections when lockdowns are in place.”

Rejected by home

Sarah* is an Indian national who spent her childhood moving around Asia. Before moving to the UK for university, she had resided in Singapore for 6 years. When Covid-19 hit Europe in March, her first instinct was to join her family in Singapore. She did her 14-day mandatory quarantine on arrival and thought that she could hunker down there till the end of the pandemic. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

After her 21st birthday passed two months later, her dependent visa expired. She was allowed to extend her stay for another two months under a tourist visa but was eventually told to leave the country. Seeing that things were taking a turn for the worse in India and that her only other option was the UK due to her student visa, Sarah* decided to return to the UK. Thankfully, her flatmate was there too and she was able to seek solace in her home away from home.

For TCKs who often pride themselves on having different homes to return to each summer, the pandemic has sparked some serious introspection within them. Passports and visas, which previously gave them a right to access all their homes, have now denied them even the basic right to family and shelter. What is the point of having homes everywhere, when none of them welcome you in times of trouble?

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