A third culture kid as defined in the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken as “a person who has spent part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.”
As a third culture kid (TCK) myself, I feel like I can relate to many cultures, yet none fully feel like my own. Having not grown up in my passport country during my childhood years, I tend to find my sense of belonging in people with similar lives, instead of a place.
Even though I find comfort in having a group and a label (TCK), I still struggle with the rootlessness and restlessness that comes with being a TCK. This school, like many international schools, has people from all over the world with different cultures and experiences. And while this is a great opportunity to learn and grow from one another, it can also make you feel out of place to some degree—especially if you don’t have classmates from your home country or who speak your mother tongue.
Who am I?
Is being a TCK something I should hide, or should I be proud about it? Should I blend in with my passport country when I’m back there, or should I proudly display my multiculturalism, and stand out in the crowd of “normal” people?
According to AISB Counselor Vera den Otter, “Being a TCK is part of who you are, and in a sense, it is not something you should have to hide.”
That being said, she adds that it may sometimes make you feel a bit out of place in non-TCK gatherings as people don’t have the same experiences and possible outlook on life as you do. There are times you will feel the need to reveal this part of yourself or keep it quiet, but not saying something is not the same as hiding it.
Being a TCK is such a unique experience, and one that most people don’t really understand. So, it’s normal to feel weird, different, or even completely alone in your experience.
Ms. Vera says these feelings can lead to thinking a lot about the past; and in my case, this means all of my past moves and the different emotions surrounding that. While I remember the excitement of experiencing new places and creating happy memories, I also remember all the times I had to leave behind friends every few years and start from scratch. Ms.Vera says that this type of nostalgia is normal for people to feel when thinking back to the past, but cautions that this feels different for everyone.
“For some people, nostalgia fills them with warm feelings about good memories in the past, whereas for others the memories make them feel sad, because of what they are missing,” she explains.
She mentions that it is very common for nostalgia and similar feelings to come and go; but if these memories and feelings start to be an everyday occurrence and cause a negative impact on your day-to-day life, it might be a good idea to talk to a school counselor or therapist.
New places, new expectations, and new experiences
Every time you move, the school you go to will be different, the country will have different traditions that you will have to get used to, new languages to learn and new costumes to understand.
I have lived in six different countries, and in all of them, I have learned that you can do one of two things: open yourself up to the whole experience and have fun being a tourist and embrace the new social and cultural norms; or, shy away from all of this and stay in your own bubble—shutting yourself off from the entire experience.
The benefits to immersing yourself in another culture are vast; and for me, it’s meant becoming a more understanding, accepting, and patient person.
But moving to another country is often easier than moving to another school. Every school is different and so is each school system, be that international, private, or public. This means that each time you move you need to get used to not only the new country, but how your new school does things. You can read this article and look here and here if you are interested in learning more about different school traditions.
It can be helpful to research and talk to people where you are moving so you know what to expect and what you can do to make it easier for yourself. Simple things like researching what type of clothing is appropriate, or what the weather is like, or how local people view education can prevent misunderstandings and false expectations.
It’s also important to remember that acclimating to a new environment takes time. You might experience culture shock or reverse culture shock (when moving back “home”). And then, after living somewhere for awhile (and actually assimilating into the culture), you might find that your new culture has become part of your identity.
Mrs. Sommer Blohm, another AISB counselor, explains that identity is tied to our values and beliefs— which can be influenced by both our nationalities and our experiences living in different parts of the world.
“Whether we view our own nationality differently once we have lived abroad also depends on the person,” Mrs. Blohm adds. “Those that are more open and curious to new experiences & cultures may be more likely to adopt some new attitudes and beliefs that may differ from what the norm is in our passport countries.”
The more I travel around the world and learn about different cultures, the more I notice that I pick up the things I enjoy and agree with from different cultures. If I don’t pay attention, I tend to say thank-you in Papiamento (danki), which is spoken in Curaçao. I have also adopted from a young age the “no such things as bad weather only bad clothing” attitude from living in Norway and Scotland. I’m curious what I’ll take with me from Romania.
What to do when the next move comes
I had my first move when I was nine months old. Since then, I have moved seven times, have lived in different countries, have gone to four different schools, and am only 16. I know all too well that every move is different; some are easy and some still sting years after they took place.
When you are told about a move, everything (the packing, goodbyes…) tend to happen very fast. And a lot of the time, any friends you made will be left behind—either never to be seen or spoken to again, or whose number and contact info will join a long list of others you hoped you’d stay in touch with..
And that’s only the start of the stress. Because when you land, you have a whole new host of things to do, from orientation at your new school, to house hunting and furniture shopping ( because you know IKEA furniture only survives so many moves!), to having to make new friends and figure out what the best grocery store is.
The best thing to do from what I have heard and learned is to keep an open mind and open communication with your parents and with yourself. Accept that the next few months to a year are going to be hard and cut yourself some slack.
“Moving can be exciting and difficult,” says Mrs. Blohm. “It’s important to allow space to feel whatever it is we are feeling without judgment.”
She explains that iIt can be really helpful to process these feelings with another person or writing out your thoughts through journaling. “Oftentimes, when it comes to moving, there are many things that are out of our control; and if that is what you focus on, it can result in you experiencing more persistent difficult emotions or feeling stuck. However, if you can instead try your best to focus on what you are in control of, it might help to ease you through the process.”
What is home?
Even as I’m revising this article, this question is still stumping me. Where is home? Is it the place I have lived the longest (Houston, Texas), or the place I felt most comfortable (Aberdeen, Scotland)? Is it my passport country (The Netherlands), or the place I was born (Bogotá, Colombia)?
For me, it is not any one of these. For me, the feeling of home is not a place, but familiar smells of certain foods or certain classrooms. For others, it is being around family; or where certain objects are. And, of course, for some, it is a particular place.
Answering this question can be especially hard for TCK’s. I asked some of the TCK adults/teachers here if they were ever able to define home (or find it), Both Mrs. Jennifer Lawless and Ms. Alma Hadzic agreed it is less of a place and more a feeling. Home to them is a place where you are accepted as you are, and you feel like you belong, and are seen.
Hadzic says that is why she likes international schools so much because she feels understood and seen/heard. She also explains that to her, international schools feel like home in the same way airports and hotels do. Lawless also commented on the fact that the place you feel at home at can be a place you have never lived in.
Why is it so hard for us TCKs to define, or find, home? It’s because we have had so many homes, experiences, cultures mixed into our identities that we often find it hard to find home in just one place. This is a question that most of us will always ask ourselves and wrestle with, but remember: often, it doesn’t really matter. And you don’t need to know the answer.
“Being a TCK leads to interesting life paths,” says Mrs. Lawless. “You have experiences that most people can only dream of… You know that there is a big wide world, and that there is good and bad anywhere; there is no ‘perfect place.’”
Mrs. Lawless says the key is figuring out what it is that makes you feel comfortable. “Whenever you go somewhere new, remind yourself to stay open to people and experiences. When you have to leave people you love, do your best to stay in touch, but know that some relationships can survive distance and some can not. We are living through an incredibly challenging time in history and caring, thoughtful people are desperately needed… so take all of your amazing experiences and use them to do something good for the world.”
If you want to read more about the range of topics that fall under TCK, take a look at the list below:
- Growing Up As A Third Culture Kid
- How Growing Up as a Third Culture Kid Shaped Me
- InterNations, connecting global minds
- The Triumphs and Tribulations of Being a Third Culture Kid
- How To Raise A Third Culture Kid – Before The Move (part 1)
- Third Culture Kids: Citizens of everywhere and nowhere
- Expat Children: Third Culture Kids of the Future
- Building Identity as a Third Culture Kid
- What is home? Growing up between cultures
Gefeliciteerd Aniek! What a great article about exploring identity as a TCK, I am sure lots of students recognize themselves in what you have written.
Great article. You do a really good job conceptualizing something fundamentally based in experience to people who have not had that experience.