Michael Kek Hin Ong

Brown School: Social Work | MSW


Cohort 2008


Graduated 2010


Career: Founder | Tea Talk and Social Work Consultant | Resource Exchange International | Hanoi, Vietnam

I want to share my recent updates…

In spring 2012, I embarked on an experiment to deliver mental health services through the platform of a cafe called Tea Talk.  In 2013, the social arm of the Tea Talk cafe, incorporated as a Vietnamese NGO called CoRE (Centre for Counseling, Research and Empowering Communities) was established.

Over that past 5 years, Tea Talk had attracted many interests among social workers, businessmen, policymakers coming from different countries like Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Russia, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. It has inspired 2 social work masters thesis. In 2015, I received an award sponsored by the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO) for the contributions Tea Talk made towards the developing of friendships between Singapore and Vietnam.  My lifework in Vietnam was featured in a documentary called “Find Me a Singaporean” (https://video.toggle.sg/en/series/find-me-a-singaporean-s4-4/ep8/317972).

In 2017, a wrote a book entitled “Tea Talk – One Story at a Time”, where I described the journey I experienced in starting up Tea Talk and CoRE, the beauty of collaborations, the joy of giving, as well as the nightmares of working in a cross-cultural context.

As a mental health professional, never did I expect to find myself confronting the dreaded taboo topic of suicidal thoughts.  Through Tea Talk, I conducted workshops on suicide prevention. I find myself counseling many Vietnamese college students struggling with suicidal thoughts. One day, unbeknown to me, I find myself in their shoes, struggling with suicidal thoughts.  Therefore, I in invite you to read the book and get a front row seat to the twists and turns on the sometimes difficult path family and I have chosen.  More than that, you will read stories of the people who have been impacted and inspired by the work at Tea Talk.

Scholar Highlights

Fear Cripples but "TCKs" Take the Lead

What do Keanu Reeves, Pearl Buck, Madeline Albright, John Kerry, Christiane Amanpour and Barack Obama have in common? Yes, they are all famous people, leaders in their own field, but that is only the superficial answer.

What may not be so obvious is that they are all bonded by a unique developmental history; each of them lived a large part of their formative years outside of their parents’ culture. Keanu Reeves spent a significant amount of his early years in Lebanon; Pearl Buck in China; Madeline Albright in the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia and London; John Kerry in Germany; Christiane Amanpour in Iran; and the most famous of all, President Barack Obama spent his childhood years in Indonesia. They are known as Third Culture Kids, or “TCKs.”

Grace, a TCK I happen to know very well, has lived in three countries, speaks four languages, has travelled to more than 30 cities on three different continents, and has flown more than 80 trips on an airplane during her lifetime. She is not in her 50s. No, neither is she in her 40s. She is my daughter, and she is only 11. TCKs like my daughter are here to stay, and they are becoming a significant force the world will come to recognize.

Ted Ward, professor emeritus at Michigan State University, called TCKs “the prototype citizens of the future.” Some estimate that the world today has 240 million international migrants and migrating people, which means a lot of TCKs. Today in the United States, there are 38 million migrants; in Qatar 86.5 percent of the population is made up of migrants; in Singapore the figure is 40.7 percent and — according to the United Nations — international migrants at the global level numbered 191 million in 2005. These statistics do not tell us the number of children involved, but one can safely say that Dr. Ward’s vision of people growing up in more than one culture is becoming a norm rather than the exception.

In the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken elegantly describe the challenges as well as the treasures of growing up as a TCK. Research on TCKs indicates that they are four times as likely as non-TCKs to earn a bachelor’s degree and eight times more likely to earn an advanced degree.

Among a TCK’s challenges is the experience of loss in every move to a new place and the grief and sadness this brings. However, the strengths of TCKs include remarkable opportunities to develop exceptional cross-cultural intelligence. They are sort of cultural chameleons. Their instinctive ability to adapt, change and create new possibilities positions them favorably to make unique contributions in any line of endeavor they choose, be it politics, education, science, technology, social work, culture, the arts or whatever.

The cultural acuity of TCKs, often with the multilingualism that goes with it, makes them highly valued and greatly sought after by MNCs (Multi-National Corporations). With globalization and the increasing dependence on international trade, top executives are required to expand their understanding of an increasingly diverse world. Businesses are no longer local. To survive, leaders need to look beyond their shores and venture into the unknown, including once-exotic and strange places, and this takes them into uncharted territories. For TCKs, though, unknown, exotic and strange places are part of their modus operandi, and walking into uncharted territory is what keeps their adrenaline pumping.

To be sure, this comes at a cost. TCKs’ nontraditional approach to problem solving, their ability to see multiple perspectives as reflecting equally true and correct realities, sometimes make it difficult for them to connect with those who grew up in monocultural, monolinguistic communities. For example, their ability to see multiple realities is sometimes looked upon as confused loyalties, while their unconventional outlook to life and solutions may initially evoke mistrust, suspicion and misunderstanding. TCKs clearly stand on a unique platform that has potential for unparalleled contributions and challenges.

In a discussion of these issues

Mr. John McDonnell, the retired chairman of the board of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, asked: “So then, is the world ready for TCKs to lead?” The fact is that we cannot wait for the world to be ready.

Leadership is not about taking people where they are ready to go. True leadership is about leading people to where they dare not go. Only in hindsight will we know with 20/20 acuity whether these were the right places to go in the first place. But we can’t find out if we do not step into the unknown. The developmental challenges facing TCKs can be daunting, but when fear cripples most of us, they may be the ones who will be able to take the lead.

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