Anna Walker
March 2017.

How does it feel to be a third culture kid?

3 answers

A third culture kid (TCK) is "an individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents, develops a sense of relationship to both". My life fits pretty well with this description. I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and moved to Vienna at the age of four, with neither me nor my family knowing German. After spending 10 years in Vienna, we embarked on a new adventure and moved to Singapore, where I lived for 5 years before coming to the UK to study at university. 

Throughout my life, the conventional ice-breaker question "Where are you from?" has turned into the most dreaded question for me (that's also true for any other third culture kid). Panic and confusion sets in as I wonder what I should answer. Do they mean the country where I was born, the country from where my parents are from, or maybe where I live now? This question usually results in me explaining my whole life story for about 10 minutes. Truly, a situation I try to avoid as much as possible. 

"10 minutes?!", you might think. But, yes, and even those 10 minutes are not enough. When you move countries as a TCK you take on board aspects of the countries' cultures that you live in and combine these with your heritage. So in my case; I can't wait to receive red envelopes with money for Chinese New Year, I get excited for any occasion when I can wear my Dirndl and every March 1st I celebrate spring by decorating my house with Martenicii (Mартеници). At times my sentences might sound a bit odd (mainly when I'm speaking in Bulgarian), which is due to my thoughts being a mix of German, Bulgarian and English. 

It's a true blessing that I had the privilege of travelling to so many parts of the world and learning so much from it. It has essentially changed me and made me the diverse person I am today. However, I don't know how to explain that I feel local in Bulgaria and Austria and Singapore, but at the same time I don't have a 'home'. I don't have one culture, one mother tongue, one city, or any roots to one country. I feel at home everywhere, because I learned to cut ties with the old and just move wherever and get accustomed to any new country. But I also feel at 'home' nowhere because I never experienced a sense of 'belonging', or knowing with a 100% certainty that this is where I'm from. 

Having this rootless lifestyle gives me a large sense of freedom and desire for adventures. Simultaneously, I can feel very lonely. My close family and I are continents apart, my other relatives are also far away, and my relationships with my childhood friends are difficult to maintain (with differences in time zones and holidays, etc. it can get very hard). Relating to my parents' culture is not easy either, because I have never gone to a Bulgarian school where I would have been taught about our great history, culture and geography. I have several childhood and high school friends from Austria, but since I only end up seeing them once a year, some of these relationships are hard to keep and there's a feeling of distance between us as too many experiences happen while we're apart. At my international school in Singapore most people would move away after two years, again making it hard to form strong friendships and bonds.

Being a TCK is a great experience, however it also entails some difficult aspects (like most things in life). Having only known this 'nomadic' lifestyle, I intend to continue moving from country to country for the rest of my life. The reason why is, I believe, best explained by Miriam Adeney.
"You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place."

Comment answer

A third culture kid is someone who grew up abroad in a culture different from that of their parents. My parents are Russian, but for most of my childhood years, I lived in the United States and in Germany, frequently changing cities and schools. I am bilingual and have both an American and a Russian passport.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to travel so much and I think that constantly moving from one place to another has had a great impact on my personality, making me highly adaptable. I am also fairly good at making new friends, since I had to change so many schools. I sometimes wonder whether I would have been a completely different person if I had lived in one place for my whole life.

I don’t want sound like I’m complaining and I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have travelled so much, but at the same time, being a third culture kid was sometimes very confusing. Particularly when I was a teenager, I felt like I didn’t belong to any country, city or culture. I feel like I get along better with people who have also had international experience, which is why I really enjoy studying at the LSE where many students have a similar history of living in multiple countries. The idea of staying in one place for the rest of my life scares me, so I’d like to continue travelling and working in different cities after I graduate. 

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As Nina shared, a Third Culture Kid (TCK) is someone who grew up or has spent a significant portion of their formative years outside of their parents' passport countries and cultures. For example, I was born in Hong Kong, then lived in Calcutta, Taipei, Beijing, New Delhi, Virginia (USA), Chennai, and then graduated from high school in Manila. While my dad worked at the US Department of State, many of my friends had parents who were in the business and military spheres. No two TCKs are alike with some attending international schools, others being homeschooled, and still others going to local schools. 

TCKs encompass a wide umbrella of individuals and our most common shared trait is displacement. We don't really have a home. We're not locals and because we were raised so differently, we don't really belong in our passport countries. It's often that we'll miss cultural references or lack full fluency in our native tongues. 

"Where are you from?" is a fraught question because it can refer to where we were born, where we lived the longest, where are our parents are from, our ethnicity, or even where we're living now. When most TCKs face this question, we often have to do a mental calculation about how much the asker really wants to know. Do they want the whole sequence? Is this is a superficial question? Will they think I'm being arrogant or pompous if I tell them the whole list? I personally dread answering this question wrong because of how I can seem like I'm bragging when I'm really just sharing my life story. 

Since we have had to move so much or because we have lived in another culture, we learned to be adaptable to any situation. The benefit is that we can pretty much fit in anywhere. The drawback is that it can seem like we have malleable personalities that are fake. I had this issue in university where depending on my company, I would shift how I presented myself. This led to a close friend of mine accusing me of not having a real personality whereas for me it was a survival mechanism. 

TCKs often experience a great deal of grief from moving so much. We are constantly losing friends (if we or they move away), homes, schools, and familiar landmarks. Because of this, we often develop friendships of depth really quickly because you never know when someone is going to leave. Conversely we let go of people really quickly or hold onto them emotionally for an unhealthy amount of time. 

I loved growing up as a TCK in spite of the grief because now I have a foothold in so many different countries and with so many different groups of people. I can't really imagine spending the rest of my life in one place and I chose a flexible career working for a remote company so that I can continue to travel. 

If you want to read a bit more about TCKs, here is a post I wrote a few years ago on the Top 10 TCK Quirks and here is Part 2. Tayo Rockson has a great podcast on TCKs and digital nomads, and had me on his show. So Where's Home? is a film about TCK identity and worth checking out if you would like to learn more.  

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