Third Culture Kids are the living embodiment of globalisation, moulded by an early exposure to multiple cultures and international mobility. While the convenience of having friends and family scattered throughout various time zones makes travelling a breeze, don’t ask us ‘Where are you from?’ unless you have at least an hour to spare. Sociologically speaking, we are defined by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken as having spent a significant part of our developmental years outside our parents’ culture. Relationships are built with all pertaining cultures and are assimilated into our life experiences, yet we don’t make claims to a singular one. Rather, our sense of belonging is in relation to others of a similar background.
While I grew up in suburban Massachusetts, I have never been able to fully identify with American culture. Summers were spent in Australia visiting my mum’s family, while my dad dedicated the rest of the year to Italian Life 101. Yet the Australian government refuses to give me citizenship since I’m not related to my mother by blood and my father never taught me the language, so there’s a constant sense of inadequacy when visiting either country. Being adopted also made me one of the few Chinese bodies growing up in a predominantly white area, and I became subject to a racial discourse that I can only make claims to based purely on others’ perception of my appearance. And now I’m living in London. If that doesn’t scream third culture, I don’t know what will…
It wasn’t until I came to London that I discovered my situation is not that unique, and I’ve since found a motley crew whose cultural identities cover most continents. Our bonds were forged through finding a sense of belonging in our non-belonging. There are quite a few breezy articles going around about our experiences (like 31 Signs You’re A Third Culture Kid and 24 Struggles All Third Culture Kids Understand) so I spoke to some other Third Culture Kids to learn more about their lives growing up, ideas of home and identity, and mental health –
The whole ‘where are you from’ question is kind of complicated and I haven’t found a clear answer to it yet. My parents met in Germany while my dad was in the process of being granted asylum after fleeing Georgia/the Soviet Union. They lived there for around seven years, had my sibling and, after my dad’s job was relocated, moved to Prague, Czech Republic, where I was born shortly thereafter. However, due to not being able to see my extended family very often, I’ve never been as in touch with the cultures of my ‘home’ countries as I would’ve liked. Germans think I talk strangely because I don’t know slang or formal speech. In Georgia, I’m a total outsider since I’m nowhere near fluent in Georgian. Even in Prague, I’m the foreigner. Besides not speaking Czech, we were mainly part of the expat community there which was very sheltering and unlike the ‘real’ world: some families would even get their groceries from US military bases in Germany. Going to an international school, many of us had a similar background and shared an ‘international culture’—a culture which wasn’t really created by nationality, but rather the lack thereof.
I know this sounds incredibly cheesy, but home is where the heart is –the heart is not aware of distances and places, so home is more of an idea or a feeling, rather than a distinct place. If I had to give an answer, would probably say Prague is my home, since I was born and raised there. I always imagine home as something that I will establish as I get older. Or not. That’s the struggle of being a TCK; I will always yearn for home but will probably never have it. After I complete my degree, I will probably move throughout Europe, maybe live in Germany (for the first time), come back to Prague and London for a while… But, hopefully, I’ll eventually find a place that I connect with and am happy to stay in for a while.
Being a Third Culture Kid is one of those oxymorons where you are a citizen of everywhere and nowhere, and I think that can really fuck you up and contribute to mental health problems. For me, it means that I was never close to extended family or family friends (because everyone was always moving away after a few years)—resulting in a very unstable, or barely there, foundation. As I have become more reflective with age I’ve realised that I had kind of an isolated and lonely start to life, which has naturally contributed to my anxieties and emotional reservations. TCKs are always described as chameleon’s—highly adaptable—which is true, however, in my experience, this has also meant that I haven’t figured out who I am underneath that chameleon skin. This has probably been one of my biggest struggles growing up. Who am I?? Forming an identity without a foundation leaves a lot up to the individual, maybe too much, and now I sometimes question whether everything that I consider to be me is actually just a vapid accumulation of opinions and ideas I have collected from others.
I was born in the USA to British and Italian parents. Although I lived in the US for 12 years, my parents’ work meant we travelled a lot and I spent a year in Italy, London and the Czech Republic before I even started primary school. I never felt at home in the US since my parents’ European customs differed enormously from all of my friends. I later moved to Italy and then didn’t feel Italian enough – my blonde hair and lack of Catholic upbringing making me stick out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t until I moved to boarding school for the IB that I realised I wasn’t the only one who felt left out no matter where I was.
My perception of home is very strange. No matter where I am, I refer to somewhere else as ‘home.’ I will go back to Italy for holidays from uni and suddenly London is home, but I also refer to the US as home if I’m travelling there. I think that for me, home isn’t really a place. As cliché as it sounds it’s a feeling – a feeling of comfort. The trouble with being a TCK though is that that comfort is very hard to find and feel, so you often just feel like a nomad. Italy has always been ‘home’ to me, mostly because I spent my teenage years there. Now though, if I go back, it isn’t ‘home-y’ enough. I think the problem with a lot of TCKs is that we want to constantly be moving but we also just can’t be asked to go through that hassle. I know that – for now – I’m staying where I am, hopefully finding a job that allows for travel. But as for the future, I have various citizenships I should take advantage of.
Being a TCK has definitely affected my sense of melancholy – I definitely feel that TCKs are often more prone to dwell on the past and look back rather that forward. Travelling is strange too because it both causes me extreme anxiety because it is always uprooting yourself, even for a short period of time, but it is strangely comforting as well. I definitely think that being a TCK has affected how I approach things psychologically. Travelling, for example, is always scary because there’s that fear of liking a place so much that you’d want to call it home. It has definitely helped me in terms of social skills and I know that no matter what continent I’m on, I have a place to crash in case I have a mental breakdown.
I don’t think I would necessarily identify as a Third Culture Kid. My parents are simply from different backgrounds and I was fortunate enough be able to travel. My father is American with Irish origins and my mother is half-Slovene, half-Serbian, from ex-Yugoslavia. I was born in Denver, Colorado, although I call Chicago my home as we moved to the Windy City almost immediately after. I lived there until I was five then moved between Austria, Serbia and Slovenia during my parents’ divorce. I finished 10 years of schooling in Ljubljana, Slovenia with my mother, then the last two with my father in Budapest, Hungary before I decided to go to university in London.
For me, the notion of ‘home’ is not fixed; rather it resurfaces and dissipates, sometimes doing both at the same time. There have been moments when I go back ‘home’ (for instance, to Ljubljana) and everything feels out of place, no longer familiar or comforting. Then I go again a few months later and I am surprised with an empowered feeling of ‘this is my home’. I think ‘home’ has a lot to do with memories that were created in the past and bearing a sense of entitlement to them. I’m not sure if I am at a point in my life where I can identity with anything concrete as being home.
I will definitely move again, though. I have to, otherwise, one becomes comfortable and reluctant to make a change. I don’t want to grow old or used to under the backlashes of routine and surveillance only to come to a breaking point where I need to move. I am fortunate to be able to travel and I would like to make the best out of it to pursuit my dreams, but I’m conflicted about the whole ‘Third Culture Kid’ category because while it encapsulates diversity, it is also exclusive and narrow. I’ve come to learn from my schools that being ‘international’ only means being Western. As I don’t call myself a Third Culture Kid, I’m not sure how my mental health has been affected, however that said, travelling and meeting people different than me has made me more critical and reflective of my background. It is important to remember that there are other dimensions to a person than their nationality.
I was born and raised in Prague, Czech Republic, however I grew up with three different cultural environments. At home I was raised Kazakh/Turkmen, school (though international) was distinctly American and, living in Prague, I was surrounded by Czech culture. The three cultures bled into each other, and I ended up with a muddled up cultural background that always takes at least a good five minutes to explain to a stranger. At first I felt weird and would just go for the easy explanation, saying I’m from Kazakhstan. Eventually I decided that I would no longer neglect the other parts of my identity and I will challenge whoever’s asking me until they finally break and say the very predicable: ‘But where are your parents from?’
However, being very unfamiliar with popular culture and fashion in Kazakhstan has made me a bit of an outcast there. As well, since everyone in Kazakhstan speaks Russian, I think people thought of me as the goodie-goodie from Europe who could only speak Kazakh and, with my ‘American’ school, I probably had the reputation of being a posh kid. My identity as half-Turkmen is very complicated because my parents were journalists. Turkmenistan is the second worst country for journalists right after North Korea and, since my mother spoke against the Turkmen government, she’s at risk of imprisonment or even death if she were to ever visit. For that reason, we never visited the country either. For the longest time, I wasn’t even sure how to address my grandmother from her side in my sub-par Russian and non-existent Turkmen.
Though it is true that ‘home’ will always be where my family is, I have found that it is possible to have multiple homes. London is ‘home’ right now, just because that is where I am and where I have gotten comfortable. But home is also in the US, where my family now lives, and in Prague, where I grew up. That being said, I think I’ll definitely move again – it’s just in my nature now to constantly want to move. Being a Third Culture Kid has definitely affected my way of thinking – I was, and occasionally I still am, confused about my identity, but this has also always been my reality. Even with all the complications and confusions, I find being a TCK is just a descriptor. I never thought it as my whole identity. Even though it did affect the person I am today, I have many other facets that make me myself. Where I am from is not the ultimate definition of who I am.
– so my dear Third Culture Kids, whether or not you identify with the label, remember that you are not alone. There are millions of us scattered throughout the globe who are constantly carving out new homes, and integrating those places and cultures into our already fluid identities. While it can be tough and mentally taxing not having strong familial cultural ties, it’s also not the end-all-be-all of your identity. We are more than the national or cultural ties of our parents. We are labelled and label-less, international children of the world – and what a beautiful thing to be.