TCK speaker, worship leader, and author of two books, Gregory Coles was the featured guest on Interaction’s TCK Live show in October 2020. (Treat yourself to watching that episode if you haven’t already.) Whether talking about his childhood in Indonesia, his choice to remain single, or his insights about belonging, Greg is engaging, funny, honest, and wise. We’re delighted to introduce you to Greg in this issue’s Spotlight!
Greg spent fifteen childhood years as a TCK in Indonesia, on the island of Java. He moved back to the United States for college, where he studied communication, literature, and music, and recently finished a PhD in English. He now works as an author, speaker, and worship leader in central Pennsylvania. His first book, Single, Gay, Christian, tells the story of his own journey through questions of faith and sexual identity. His second book, released in February 2021, draws heavily from his experience as a third culture kid and is called No Longer Strangers: Finding Belonging in a World of Alienation.
"Tell us a bit about your experience as a TCK."
My family moved from upstate New York to Bandung, Indonesia, when I was three years old. We had already spent the better part of my toddler years driving around the contiguous United States in a van, sleeping on the living room floors of my parents’ old college friends. I don’t think I felt particularly uprooted by the overseas move to Indonesia, then, because my toddler feet had never stood still long enough to put down roots in the first place.
I lived in Bandung for the next fifteen years, and in the same house for fourteen of those years—more than enough time for the roots to grow deep. Once every three years, my family returned to the US for a summer and left behind one of my older siblings to start college. In 2008, when I turned eighteen, it was my turn to be left behind in the US, which is where I’ve lived ever since.
"When did you discover that you were a TCK? When did you apply that label to yourself?"
“TCK” is one of those labels that snuck into my psyche pretty early on. By the time I remember having any self-awareness of my hybrid, definitely-not-American-but-not-quite- Indonesian identity, I remember relying on (and being comforted by) the existence of a category like “TCK.” It gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone. A bunch of my parents’ coworkers’ kids and I decided to embrace our TCK weirdness by wearing tee shirts that declared “W.A.C.K.O.: We Are Cool Kids Overseas.”
"What aspects of Indonesian life or culture have stayed with you?"
When I first moved back to the United States for college, the Indonesian influences that felt most obvious were related to etiquette: I pointed with my thumb instead of my index finger. I never gave or received things with my left hand; even driving through toll booths, I reached my right arm all the way across my body. I refused to wear shorts in public, sweltering sweaty calves notwithstanding. I wouldn’t be caught dead blowing my nose in view of someone else. And so on.
The Indonesian part of my cultural identity helps me embrace the value of thinking communally…as a way of honoring those around me.
As I’ve relaxed some of these etiquette habits, I’m coming more and more to appreciate the subtler and longer-lasting impact of my Indonesian cultural formation. The Indonesian people group I lived among, the Sundanese, are known for being highly deferential and conflict-avoidant. Public politeness is among their most celebrated virtues. These instincts are deeply ingrained within me. Though I’ve sometimes needed to battle against my Sundanese impulses (when, for instance, a bit of healthy conflict is necessary for growth), I’m largely grateful that my upbringing taught me to highly prioritize the needs and wants of others. Speaking in a way that avoids unnecessary offense is an art I’ve been practicing since the age of three, and it quite frequently comes in handy.
I’m also grateful for how Indonesian culture predisposed me to think outside the paradigm of Western individualism. While I do believe that it’s healthy for people to develop a sense of individual identity and purpose distinct from their commitments to biological family or local community, Western individualism often frames self-fulfillment and self-actualization as the highest goods, missing the important ways in which communal identity and belonging can and should exceed our own self-understanding. The Indonesian part of my cultural identity helps me embrace the value of thinking communally, not as a way of giving up my own individual agency, but as a way of honoring those around me.
"Have you struggled with or embraced the idea of “settling down” in one location? What does that look like for you?"
When I was in high school, I once told my parents with a happy sigh, “Airports are so homey.” We were in the Jakarta airport at the time, which was not an airport that inspired gladness in the average traveler. My parents gave each other meaningful looks that said, What have we done to this child? Is the damage permanent? Do we have enough in savings to cover his future counseling fees?
Airports, for me, have become a metaphor for life as a whole. None of us is really here to stay. We’re all just passing through. We put “permanent addresses” on our driver’s licenses and tax returns, yes, but we know they’re not necessarily permanent. They might be exchanged for a smaller model, a larger model, something in a different city or state or country. Every home on Planet Earth is a temporary home. Believing this truth has helped me escape from the notion that human beings can be divided among those who “settle down” and those whose lives are transient. We’re all transient, to one degree or another; and we all settle down, to one degree or another. It’s just a matter of where precisely we fall on the spectrum in relation to one another.
I like to say that home is where you keep your toothbrush. My toothbrush has been situated mostly in Pennsylvania for the last eight years, and I’ve savored the feeling of being settled here. But I’ve also found temporary homes in so many other places, among various dear friends old and new. As long as my toothbrush is along for the journey, I plan to find a home in every place I love and am loved by others.
"Your first book—Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity— explored your journey toward better understanding your sexual and faith identity. How was that journey complicated by your life as a TCK in Indonesia?"
Conversations about sexual identity—especially as it overlaps with religious faith identity— tend to be strongly rooted in the language and cultural assumptions of the communities in which they take place. That is, when we’re evaluating the truth of a phrase like “I’m gay” or “I’m a Christian,” we usually weigh our own experience against the way we know those words will be understood by the people around us. This gets much trickier when we try to evaluate our experience as members of multiple communities simultaneously. What happens, for instance, when the words “I’m gay” are understood differently by a religious subcommunity than they are by the broader culture outside of that subcommunity? Or what happens when a religious faith marker like “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Buddhist” is interpreted differently by adherents of that faith than by non-adherents?
Growing up as a TCK gave me yet another layer of cultural and linguistic differences to weigh my experience against as I grappled with my own experience of sexual attraction and my faith commitments. In particular, the conversation about sexual identity and the prevalence of certain kinds of LGBTQ experiences was importantly different in the United States (where much of the media I consumed was produced) than in Indonesia (where most of the people I knew lived). Some actions that would have been seen as stereotypically “gay” in the US (such as affectionate physical touch between men) were much more common in Indonesia. If I evaluated my observations of Indonesia according to US cultural categories, every pair of Indonesian male friends holding hands might have seemed “gay.” Making sense of my own experience within both of these cultures, and then figuring out how to describe that experience, required some patient disentangling.
"Can you share with us one or two experiences when you have code-switched as a way of either connecting with others or of keeping your identity hidden?"
There’s a lot of debate right now in my own Christian circles about what terms are helpful or unhelpful to use when describing non-normative experiences of sexuality. If, for example, a person is exclusively attracted to the same sex, should that person describe themselves as “gay”? Would it be better to use a term like “same-sex attracted,” which doesn’t have as many cultural associations but carries a historic connection to the ex-gay movement and sexual orientation change efforts? What about “queer”—is that an empowering term, or is it offensive? For some listeners, the terms you choose to use mark you as part of a particular camp; and if you use the wrong language, you’re probably not worth listening to.
Since I’m the author of a book called Single, Gay, Christian, both my choice to remain single and my preference for the term “gay” are clearly on display. But when I talk with people who I know might react negatively to the word “gay,” I often make a point of telling my own story in descriptive terms at first (“then I realized I was attracted to other guys…”), waiting to use the word “gay” until the people I’m talking with know me well enough to understand what I mean by the term. If they still object to my use of the word “gay” at that point, so be it; I have no misapprehension that I can (or should) try to please everyone. But if a bit of patient code-switching at first can help create room for others to be understood in the future without needing to code-switch, I count that shift as a linguistic success story.
"What is the premise of your most recent book, No Longer Strangers: Finding Belonging in a World of Alienation?"
At every stage of my life, I’ve had quite a few reasons to feel like an outsider. I used to assume that this feeling of alienation, this struggle to belong, was unique to me. Everyone else had found the secret to being understood and included, and I alone had missed that day of second grade. (Because I was homeschooled, probably.) But the more I study people and get to know them, the more I’ve come to realize that we’re all still trying to figure out how to belong. (Or if not ALL of us, at least way more of us than I used to believe.) None of us is immune to loneliness, to misunderstanding, to the creeping suspicion that perhaps we don’t fit.
I propose that the best way to respond to our alienness isn’t by trying to make it go away, but by learning to embrace its beauty.
In No Longer Strangers, I propose that the best way to respond to our alienness isn’t by trying to make it go away, but by learning to embrace its beauty. We belong best once we lean into the reality that we’re not made to “belong” in some archetypal Hallmark-card kind of way. Toward this end, I tell lots of TCK-related stories from my own life. I also draw heavily from the example of Jesus, who found his place in the world not by carving out a place for himself but by opening up space for those who had been overlooked. The path into this kind of belonging lies on the other side of radical selflessness: we are best poised to receive the gift of belonging as we turn ourselves outward and give that gift to others.
"Identity and belonging are closely related concepts. Can you share what you’ve experienced or learned with regard to living out the interplay of those ideas?"
When I first moved back to the United States, I made a point of trying not to talk about my Indonesian upbringing. Occasionally I displayed my TCK identity openly, hanging it like a college orientation nametag around my neck. But more often than not, I kept it (along with the orientation nametag) hidden in my pocket, in an attempt to blend in with the rest of the crowd. People assumed I had always lived in the US—and most of the time, I was happy to let them assume. It seemed to me at the time that the best way to belong with other people must be to make sure that my identity matched theirs in as many ways as possible. I figured that similarity would be the key to fitting somewhere, and difference would inevitably become a source of division. I figured I needed to manipulate my own identity in order to become more identical to others.
(Fun fact: Our English words identity and identical both come from the Latin word idem, which means “the same.” In its etymological sense, identity is about “sameness,” about the components of our experience that are similar to someone else’s experience and give us common ground with them. After all, if you found a person who shared every possible identity marker with you, you and that person would be identical.)
As it happened, my theory of belonging was all wrong. The people from whom I successfully hid my Indonesian-ness were pleasant acquaintances, but we never developed deep friendships. And the people to whom I “outed” myself as a TCK became my dearest friends, even despite the significant differences in our experiences and identities. The secret to belonging, as it turned out, was that belonging couldn’t be found by living in secret. The people who knew me best were the ones with whom I belonged most deeply, no matter how different we turned out to be. Go figure.
"What are you working on these days? What is next for you?"
I’ve got a few possible future book projects in mind. The one I’m most excited about right now is a piece of speculative fiction loosely inspired by the Tower of Babel narrative: a thriller-style meditation on the power of language to shape the thoughts we’re capable of thinking. But I’d like to think there are still some more works of memoir left within me as well. Maybe I’ll come up with an excuse someday to write more stories about my years in Indonesia. Or maybe it’s time (once COVID eases up) to get a few more stamps in my passport and collect some new stories!
Greg curates most of his creative activities at gregorycoles.com, but you can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.