My own international tattoo story

When I wrote about TCKs and their tattoos last week it was hard to avoid noticing how many of the themes and comforts I was describing for tattooed TCKs also reflected my own tattoo experience. My tattoo doesn’t connect to a Third Culture childhood; it’s all about my young adult years in the Third Culture.

I’d been in living in China for nearly ten years when I started making plans to repatriate and undertake studies in Australia. I hadn’t lived in my passport country since I was 21, a full time student living at home with my parents and sister(s). There was a lot of emotion surrounding the decision, and the swiftly approaching new future. So I decided to really celebrate my ten year Chinaversary – a balance to the sadness of upcoming farewells a few months later.

As I reflected on marking my decade in China and preparing to leave the place that had been my home throughout my adult years, the idea of getting a tattoo starting creeping up on me. I’d never had any interest in getting a tattoo before this, but now the idea was insistent, and wouldn’t leave me alone. It took me a long time to decide what I wanted. I knew I wanted it to be in Chinese characters – connection to a place and a language that are very meaningful to me – but which ones? I felt that, as someone who can actually read and write Chinese, I should be somewhat complicated, to reflect my command of the language. But there was nothing that fit. It had to be something that would always be true, something that reflected the impact living in China had had on me.

The answer, when it came to me, was so simple I dismissed it for ages. My tattoo simply says 十年: “ten years”.

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Alongside those two simple characters was the other element I knew I wanted – a simple representation of red plum blossoms. There are so many reasons this is meaningful to me. China has four national flowers, one for each season, and plum blossoms are for winter. I’ve always had an affinity for winter; there are so many stories from my life attached to that concept. Red is also the classic lucky colour in China – good fortune, blessing, protection.

That’s the basic story, but in this post I want to go through the different elements I wrote about in last week’s post, and connect those general concepts to this specific tattoo. It’s a good way to illustrate how it all comes together in a real life situation. (I’ll be quoting from the original post on TCK tattoos as I go.)

“Some TCKs deliberately choose very obvious places for their tattoos, because when they are noticed, they give a reason to share part of their story. Others put them in less easily visible locations, to serve as a reminder that this part of their lives others don’t see is still real. Tattoos can serve as public identification, and as private consolation.”

I chose the location of my tattoo very carefully – I wanted to see it often, but I wanted the choice over whether anyone else could see it. I chose to place it on my right thigh, high enough that it rarely shows. When it is seen, the simple explanation that it says “ten years” for the ten years I lived in China is a nice thing to be able to share.

Most of the time, however, my tattoo serves as “private consolation”. During the first few months of overwhelming transition to life in Australia I was amazed at how much comfort it gave me to see those two simple characters etched on my skin. This life-changing experience – this whole other LIFE – really happened, even when no one around me knows or understands that.

“A tattoo representing a place a TCK feels a strong connection to gives them a TANGIBLE connection. A permanent mark. The place that is invisibly etched on their heart is now visibly etched on their skin. This can be an incredibly comforting thing. . . A tattoo in a language that is meaningful to a TCK gives them a permanent, tangible connection to that language – even if the place is far away, or their language abilities fade.”

Obviously, my tattoo has connections to both place and language. It’s literally counting the years I spent in a particular place, using the language of that place. A language I can read and write and speak – even though no one looking at me would expect me to be a Chinese speaker. There’s also the added element that I got the tattoo done in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the third place in the world that is very important to me. But underneath all that, my tattoo is much more of a value-based tattoo.

“Value-based tattoos often serve as reminders of values TCKs cherish and want to hold on to, no matter what the life they currently live looks like. They can serve as reminders of experiences they’ve had or lessons they’ve learned at different times in their international journeys.”

My tattoo is a reminder of a time that changed my life. A season of life in a particular place and language, yes, but what is more important to me is how that time (and place, and language) changed me. I am a different person because I spent those ten years in China. When I got the tattoo, I thought it unlikely I’d be living in China again, and certainly not any time soon. But I knew that even if I never went to China again, even if I never used the Chinese language in any meaningful way again, those ten years had marked me forever.

And that’s why it made sense, to me, for that to be a tattoo. The fact of those ten years will never change. My husband once joked that I might need to add an 二 eventually (to make it twenty years) and you know what, if I make it here that long I would consider it! But regardless, this current season of life in China is very different to my first ten years. Those first ten years were my young adult life – age 21 to 32. It’s not accurate to say I “grew up” here, but it feels true. Perhaps it’s better to say that China is where I came into my own. This is where I learned who I am, and who I want to be. This is where I made choices about my life’s direction – and created an utterly different life for myself than anything I’d previously imagined. This is where I began the work that has become my passion; this is where I wrote my book. This is where I met and got to know my husband (though when I got this tattoo I hadn’t expected us to stay in touch, let alone that I’d move back here to marry him only three years later!)

Shortly before I got my tattoo, I had to return a legal document to China. I was taken by surprise by the wave of melancholy that arose in me as I let it go! As I wrote at the time: “It symbolised the life I had lived in China; it was proof that that life really happened.” That’s exactly what my tattoo does – but permanently.

Moving to Australia, looking and (mostly) sounding like a normal Aussie, was a strange experience. In China, my dual connection was obvious. No one looking at me would mistake me as Chinese. But many people listening to me speak Chinese assumed I was – until they saw me! In Australia I don’t stand out. Don’t get me wrong, I really like being able to blend in! But it means that no one understands there’s this whole other side of me and my life, unless I specifically tell them. Coming home after a long day of transition and engaging with people, it was a big comfort to see those ten years branded on my skin.

In some ways I felt like Dorothy, finally home in Kansas after her adventures in Oz, no one knowing this other place existed, let alone how deeply it had marked her. But when I had those moments, I also had the comfort of a literal and physical mark on my body. Often I would stroke my tattoo, remembering that all of it was real. The 十年 on my skin reflects the ten years in my heart.

TCKs and their tattoos

A couple of times in the past two weeks I’ve stumbled into discussions on one particular topic: tattoos, and TCKs who get them. Over the years I’ve heard lots of tattoo stories from TCKs around the world. I’ve come across a lot of shared tattoo trends, and thought it was time to write a blog post to share what I’ve learned about TCK tattoos.

The TCK tattoo trends I’ve observed fall into three general categories, representing different connections: to places, to languages, and to values. Often these sorts of tattoos combine elements of all three.

Some TCKs deliberately choose very obvious places for their tattoos, because when they are noticed, they give a reason to share part of their story. Others put them in less easily visible locations, to serve as a reminder that this part of their lives others don’t see is still real. Tattoos can serve as public identification, and as private consolation.

“I have a sleeve involving all the flags of the countries I have lived in. It’s helped me have a better understanding of moving around and trying to find my place in everything.” – Noah

Connection to places

Part of the TCK experience is connecting to places – usually more than one place, usually at least one place where you are not legally connected (no passport), perhaps a place where you are visibly foreign, perhaps a place you haven’t been to in many years. Whatever the reason, it’s very common for TCKs to have at least one place they feel a strong connection to which is not seen as a legitimate connection by others. A place that feels like home, but which they don’t feel completely justified calling home.

A tattoo representing a place a TCK feels a strong connection to gives them a TANGIBLE connection. A permanent mark. The place that is invisibly etched on their heart is now visibly etched on their skin. This can be an incredibly comforting thing.

Examples of place tattoos I’ve come across include:

  • longtitude/lattitude or GPS coordinates
  • maps (a country/region outline, subway diagram, stylised road map, etc.)
  • a list of countries/cities
  • passport stamps
  • flags
  • symbols of place (a local flower, native animal, etc.)
  • location/s in which tattoos were inked (rather than the content of the tattoo)

“My tattoo is a Chile flag wraparound a heart. The meaning was my heart will always be for Chile. It’s a constant reminder that while I have left the country and the culture my heart still wants to be in Chile.” – Alicia

“The outline of your spirit is etched on my skin. The grid that runs through my blood.” – Lara

Connection to languages

Language is a huge part of how we communicate with each other, and therefore it’s unsurprising that we often have strong emotional ties to languages. A language-based tattoo highlights a TCK’s connection to a particular language. It can also bring multiple languages together.

Not all TCKs are multi-lingual. Some carry guilt, sadness, or regret over languages they don’t speak (or don’t speak as well as they think they “should”). Even those who do speak more than one language spend much of their lives compartmentalising each language to certain people and places.

A tattoo in a language that is meaningful to a TCK gives them a permanent, tangible connection to that language – even if the place is far away, or their language abilities fade.

Examples of langauge tattoos I’ve come across include:

  • a word/phrase from a language the TCK feels a connection to
  • a single word written in several langauges/scripts
  • their own name, in one or more different scripts
  • names of places in the language of that place
  • a quote from one culture written in the language of another culture

I have one that that means “to have found the place you call home” in Gaelic – very meaningful to carry a bit of home around with me on my arm!” – Iona

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“After growing up in the city of 长春 in Northeast China from when I was 1-18 years old I decided to get this tattoo before I left as I did not know when or if I would ever be back.” – Daniel

Connection to values

Tattoos can also show the importance of certain values a TCK holds, values which may set them apart in certain settings. This is a category of tattoos that may not be location or language specific, but still connect closely to childhood experiences and emotional connections developed through international life. Those experiences create connections to certain concepts and values.

Value-based tattoos often serve as reminders of values TCKs cherish and want to hold on to, no matter what the life they currently live looks like. They can serve as reminders of experiences they’ve had or lessons they’ve learned at different times in their international journeys.

Examples of values tattoos I’ve come across include:

  • the value of having roots (shown with trees, or plants)
  • the value of travel (plane, airports, world map, compass)
  • cultural values
  • relationships (especially family)
  • “group” tattoos (where several closely connected people choose to get the same tattoo, expressing shared locations or values, as well as the importance of their relationships with each other)

“My tattoos are focused on what has impacted my life: my family, my Chinese origins, and Texas. I particularly love my Chinese Hanzi, which roughly translates to ‘loyalty to family’ with extremely strong character meanings. The placement was also carefully picked along the symbolic weakness of my Achilles tendon.” – Abigail

I had heard these sorts of stories and seen these sorts of tattoos for years before it became way more personal – because I got a tattoo of my own, combining all of the elements I’ve described here! It’s not something I talk about much, especially not publicly (mine definitely falls more in the private consolation category). But writing about this now – yep, it’s definitely time to tell my own tattoo story. So stay tuned for that next week!