For me, loyalty is the sense of support, devotion or allegiance to something or someone. Your loyalties can lie with a person, a sports team, a favorite artist, a nation or pretty much anything or anyone else. More importantly, though, loyalties can be conflicting, whether they be conflicting loyalties in relationships or conflicting loyalties between different allegiances to  a country or group.

To a Third Culture Kid (TCK), the idea of loyalty can be confusing. You spend most of your life away from where your parents are from, and you become so accustomed to the place you were raised that you call it home.

Home, wherever that might be, is usually where your location-based loyalties lie. I often feel a sense of pride when I think or talk about the town/city/country I’m from. I’ve talked about how my town/city has the best [insert food] joint, compared to any other place. Or maybe the place I come from has the best weather. Or the best people. Or the best traditions. The list goes on.

I was raised in the Middle East, but having Indonesian parents definitely caused me to have conflicting loyalties. I had been raised with the Indonesian values I was taught at home, as well as the Western values I learned at school and through friends. I didn’t realize these shared values I had would be a conflict till I returned to Indonesia. That’s usually the case for TCKs; you don’t realize the incompatibility of your international mix of values and loyalties until you return to the place your parents come from.

Me every single time someone asks me where I’m from. By: Darrell Pinontoan

While I was in the Middle East, I knew my loyalties were truly rooted in Indonesia. I was proud of being Indonesian. I was proud of telling my friends how good Indonesian food was and how it’s so much better than every other food. (Seriously though, Indonesian food is great, if you haven’t already tried it, go do that; or ask me for recipes to experiment with during self-isolation).

Actually moving back to Jakarta, Indonesia, though, changed a lot of things. I started to understand a lot of realities. In Indonesia I would find myself questioning the loyalty I thought I had to the country, the people and the culture.

Bule palsu,” that’s the nickname I got from several people I knew at my school in Jakarta. The phrase roughly translates to “fake foreigner.” That’s exactly what I would later feel like in my own country.

A regular occurrence during my interactions in high school. By: Darrell Pinontoan

I was called arrogant for being unable to speak Indonesian properly and for speaking English with a “bule” accent. I would later be called unpatriotic as well, just because I did not fit what the general Indonesian society deemed “Indonesian.”

Despite growing up valuing the Indonesian traditions and culture my parents passed down to me, I started to really question my Indonesian-ness. I have a reasonably extensive knowledge of Indonesian history. I know the ins and outs of Indonesian family customs and culture. I understand the importance of batik to our culture and love the meaning it had to my family. In Indonesia, specific batik motifs differentiated castes in society, and certain ones were forbidden to be worn by anyone but the royal families, a heritage that runs in my family (more on that another time). I also definitely appreciate Indonesian food and how to make a lot of it. But apparently, all that wasn’t enough to be considered Indonesian.

A batik shirt I have with the Parang motif, one that was historically reserved for the royal family. Photo by Darrell Pinontoan.

When I wasn’t teased for failing to be Indonesian enough, I was treated like a novelty item. Human beings like familiarity, but we’re also curious beings who are intrigued by unfamiliar things. The Indonesian guy who speaks and acts like he’s a foreigner, but is still familiar enough to seem relatable — that’s exactly the image that a lot of people had of me. People would try to introduce me to their friends or family members as some novelty trophy they possessed. Girls would try to date me for that reason.

I learned to truly question where my loyalties lie. It wasn’t just surface-level things, like the way I spoke. It went deeper than that. I soon realized that I just could not come to agree with a lot of Indonesian values. To me, these people who teased me were over-obsessed with their own narrow definition of what it means to be Indonesian. My international upbringing taught me the value of a global worldview, of individuality and of the importance of understanding that we all have our differences.

To this day, I still cannot fully comprehend and tell you where my loyalties lie. I have a sense of pride and patriotism for Indonesia. But I also feel that I owe a lot of my values to my upbringing in the Middle East.

What I’ve learned to accept is that I should not place my loyalties in a singular place. My loyalties lie in the identity I’ve formed for myself and who I’ve grown to become today. I’ve embraced that I may not be able to fully belong to a single place.

If there’s one thing you should take away from all this, it would be: go explore what the world has to offer. Loyalties can be both rewarding and detrimental. I’m not saying you should go and be disloyal to a significant other you’re exclusively committed to. I’m saying if you don’t go out into the world and explore what it has to offer, how can you know if your loyalties really lie in the place they belong?

Go forth, explore the world, question your values, establish your own. Ensure that they aren’t just second-hand values you adopt from your parents or surroundings. Most importantly, be kind to others and to yourself.