I’m a third culture kid.This term had never held so much weight and truth until I moved to the States for university, where the international life I had lived thus far became my defining characteristic.
Have you ever lived a life you thought was completely normal only to find out that you’re actually the weirdo nomad without a permanent home that struggles to explain where you’re from? Well that’s me… and probably all other third culture kids. So here’s what it’s like.
We were raised in a country / culture different to our parents and to the one stated on our passports. More than likely, it’s two or three or four countries. We feel like we could fit everywhere and nowhere at the same time – it’s a tricky feeling to explain. We’re innate travelers with restless feet, global nomads, and citizens of the world.
“Where are you from?”
This is literally THE most nerve-wracking, panic and anxiety inducing question someone could ask you. What should be a relatively simple and comfortable question has you panicking at any classroom introduction or ice breaker. You’ve got a long and short answer prepared depending on your mood or for the likely chance that your friend realizes that your accent doesn’t match the country you just said. You just don’t know and you feel like a tourist in your own country.
Explaining it to a person is one story, filling it out on official documents is something entirely different. Do they want the country you was born in? Or your nationality? Or where you currently have a residence permit? I don’t know – I wish they’d be more clear!
[FYI, I was born in Malaysia, grew up in Qatar, now live in the U.S. with a short stint in Ireland, but have an Indian passport – for context]
“…but your accent”
You say you’re from country A to make it easy. But you you have an American accent. British person comes along, and suddenly you’ve got a British accent. People think you’re now faking accents to fit in…… no.
Forget trying to decipher where a third culture kid is from based on their accent – you’ll lose. Let’s just call it the “international accent”. It’s most likely a mix of American and British and along with a messy amalgam of the countries you’ve lived in, the accents of the friends you’ve made, and the TV shows you’ve watched. You’ve picked up the resume worthy skill of accent switching depending on the nationality of the person you’re talking to.
You were born into a culture of travel.
You most likely flew before you could walk and having a passport was almost the equivalent of a birth certificate [well you sort of have to when you’re born in a country outside of your passport country]. Air travel is second nature to you and you’ve been fortunate to have seen more places than most adults have in your lifetime. You’re so used to being on the move that the idea of settling down in one place permanently makes you anxious.
You went to an international school.
You’ve lived and learned in the radically diverse environment that is an international school. Your group of friends was as diverse as the United Nations. You have friends from every corner of the globe with many different accents. The one day you didn’t have to wear uniform was international day – you got to wear your country’s national dress instead.
You know how to adapt.
Friends came and went… fast. You learn how to adapt, say goodbye, and welcome new friends. But now you have friends all over the world and you will always be connected to them – even 15 years down the line. You will meet them in the most random places because someone’s always somewhere. [I recently met up with 4 friends from Malaysia from over 10 years ago in London]
You probably had to move and start from scratch in a completely new country with a foreign culture and language more than once. The moves never got easier but the experiences, the memories, and the friends outweigh it every time. It prepares you a little bit for the first time you move half way across the world without the comfort of your family by your side.
You have that international school bond.
Whether you went to a school 15 years ago, 10 years ago, or 2 years ago, there’s a weird connection that will always remain between international students. My school in Malaysia [I was there from 5 – 13] set up a Facebook group and added every single person in our class [whether you stayed till the end or you left in 5th grade] and it’s probably one of the best things ever about going to an international school. With all of us now spread out all over the globe, somebody is always somewhere and there’s constantly meet ups in the most random cities.
You’re constantly in a long distance relationship with family and friends.
You’ve left friends behind in different countries, they’ve left you, you’ve left your parents to go off to college, and your grandparents are still back in your passport country. Keeping in touch becomes a mammoth task and you’re constantly working out time differences and trying to be the best friend, daughter, and grand daughter you can be. Planning reunions is both fun and hell.
Your passport [s] looks like it’s been through hell and back.
Visas, visas, visas – the ugly side of traveling. As an Indian passport holder, I need a visa for basically everywhere. Either you’re on your third passport by your 20s or your passport looks like its from a war zone. Your passport is the most vital document you hold – if you lose it, you’re screwed.
You don’t have a “favorite” place
You’re constantly asked which country you lived in was your favorite. You don’t have a favorite place. Each place holds a special place in your heart and has morphed you into the person you are today. Each place is associated with a different stage in your life. You are an amalgam of the places you’ve lived, the people you’ve met, the countries you’ve visited, the cultures you’ve accustomed to, everything.
You might not be able to explain your life story in one sentence but you know you wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are days you feel lost, rootless, and wishing for a sense of permanence but realize how fortunate you are to have lived the life you have. You don’t like to talk about your childhood because people think you’re showing off, but when you do, people have a ton of questions. So, embrace it. You have knowledge to share and stories to tell of your upbringing.
You’re part of an ever expanding group of global citizens and you will find them everywhere you go. You will always feel a sense of belonging to the culture of geographically rootless people like you.
The life of a TCK [third culture kid] has its pros and cons but at the end of the day, but you’re lucky. You are lucky to have seen so much, experienced so much, and learned so much so young from your international life. You can only hope that your children get to experience the same multicultural and international life you did, and you’re forever grateful to your parents for allowing you this unique upbringing.
Making this post made me very nostalgic. Here’s some photos of my childhood that I dug out for this post…