Life as a ‘Third Culture Kid’
Does your accent change depending on who you’re talking to? Do you randomly slip foreign slang into your sentences? Have you spent absurd amounts of time on airplanes? If the answer to those questions is mostly a yes, you belong to the puzzling yet intriguing category of the Third Culture Kid (TCK). “But where are you really from?” comes as a dreaded question in the life of any TCK. Having spent a significant part of their lives outside of their parents’ culture, TCKs are fighting a constant battle to define where ‘home’ is and where they belong. Is it where you were born, where you live now, where your parents are based, or where you’ve grown up? Surprisingly, the answers to all those questions don’t have to be the same. ‘Home’, then, becomes more of a feeling than any particular place or country. The Gryphon explores what life as a Third Culture Kid means and the challenges it brings along.
“Each culture has shaped me in an indescribable way, making it impossible for me to define myself as one nationality”
My parents are both from the Netherlands; I was born in Belgium but grew up in Thailand, Indonesia, Kenya, and am now studying in the UK. If someone were to ask me where I am from, without hesitation I would say I am from the Netherlands – but I could not call it my home. Even now, when I visit friends and family in the Netherlands, I feel like I am different.
Some days I sit down and think how I would have wanted stability growing up, but now I have come to realise that this instability has allowed me to grow. It has given me the ability to adapt to alien situations. Through the exposure of relocating to foreign countries, I have been able to discover countless unique cultures. Each culture has shaped me in an indescribable way, making it impossible for me to define myself as one nationality.
Each time my family left a country to relocate, I felt a mix of emotions; the sadness of missing how it used to be and knowing that it will never be the same again. Each time, it became a little more difficult to say goodbye. On the other hand, there was also this unexplainable excitement and curiosity of not knowing what was coming my way.
The beauty of being a Third Culture Kid is that in exchange of going through an emotional roller-coaster every now and then, you have an international community of people who are just like you. Seeing friends come and go is undoubtedly difficult, but they remain in your global network forever. Not having one home can be a beautiful thing. Growing up this way has made me realise that we are more connected than we think. The world isn’t that big after all!
“Without having grown up in an international environment, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today”
The hardest bit about being a Third Culture Kid is when you have to introduce yourself. I am physically very evidently Finnish. I have blonde hair, blue eyes, and very pale skin. So, when I say that I am from Hong Kong, the confusion on people’s faces is only natural. I never really thought being from one country and growing up in another was strange, until I moved
to the UK for university. I only really started to identify as a TCK, after I realised I didn’t fit the normal ‘international’ student label. I don’t look ‘foreign’, but on the inside, I am.
For many, ‘Foreign’ sadly equates to ‘non-western’ (which is a debate for another time). People are often taken aback when I say that I am not from Europe. It is a strange situation to be in, to say the least, and it can even be quite lonely at times, because you don’t fully identify to one culture or country. You’re a mix of many. And because of that, you have a mix of ideals, traditions, expectations and so on. Even if I hang out with other Finns, I’m still an outsider because I am quite Hong Kongese in many aspects and vice versa.
To add to my complex internationality, I am the only person that I know of in Leeds that is Finnish and grew up in Hong Kong. Even back in Hong Kong, my family is the first and only (so far) fully Finnish family to have attended my high school. They even had to add an extra dot on the map of where students are from when I arrived!
But I would not change a thing. Without having grown up in an international environment, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. Growing up in Hong Kong meant that all my friends had different ethnicities, religions, traditions, languages etc., but none of that affected our friendships. We all automatically accepted our differences and tried to embrace each other’s quirks as wholly as possible. Nothing was ever weird; simply different. As a result, I’ve learned to be open-minded. Not just at a surface level, but actually open to accepting people with vastly different lives and to really understand them, regardless of their appearance.
“Home is not one place, but whichever place my family is at”
On an airplane window seat flying over Holland, or France, or somewhere in between, I look down at the dots of light forming splatters where the cities are, and sigh. It’s the start of a new academic year and I, like many others, am leaving home. But home is a little bit different for me.
I am what many call nowadays a Third Culture Kid. My dad moved across continents every four years and behind him, we followed: my mum, my sister, and I. We have proudly called six different countries home. My Spanish passport and my extended family living in Madrid have led me to nominate Spain as the main home, the real home, the OG. And yet, while I feel proud of my Spanish roots, I cannot help but feel out of place when I am there – perhaps even more so than I do when I am anywhere else. Maybe it’s because of the expectation for me to be ‘Spanish’, to be like everyone else there, and my inability to fulfil that expectation. But Spain only feels like home when I am not there. What a paradox.
When I first meet someone and they ask me where I’m from, that feeling emerges: uneasiness, doubt. When a friend talks about their own home, that feeling pops up again. Sometimes it appears out of nowhere, in those quiet moments at the library between reading and taking notes. I do not miss a specific place. When I think of home, I do not have nostalgia for concrete smells, a certain park I always went to, or even a certain group of friends from school.
I have nostalgia for plane rides with my sister and walking through the Amsterdam airport in the winter. I have nostalgia for the pack of Oreos we would buy after school in Beijing, for the Saturday lunches at the Thai place in Manila, for the endless Sunday nights watching movies, everywhere. Those are the moments that I miss; those are the moments I call home. The common denominator is always my family.
Home is not one place, but whichever place my family is at. It’s where the people I love are. And travelling and meeting new people every four years has ironically made that group of people smaller, not bigger. It has made me realise that the only ones who truly matter are the ones that will still text you after four years of living apart, the ones who will hop on planes to see you, the ones who will call you from a different continent when you need them to.
And the world can feel quite lonely when that handful of people are scattered all over it. I am and will forever be grateful for the privileges I’ve had, for the people I’ve met, for the places I’ve known. But I will always be a foreigner, wherever I am.
“Being a TCK has taught me how to open up to a variety of individuals. It’s like having a small United Nations community as your friends”
I grew up in Kenya, whilst both my parents are Belgian nationals. My mother, who’s Italian, was born and bred in Belgium and is a third culture kid, just like me. And then there’s my dad, who could not get any more Belgian; waffles, beer, chocolate- you name it!
As far as I’m concerned, I feel obliged to identify as a Belgian, given my nationality. However, having just lived in Belgium for a year and a half, I don’t feel that’s completely accurate. And well, I wouldn’t identify as a Kenyan either. I was born and brought up there till the age of 10, but having left so early I could no longer identify to the place I once called home. And then there’s the UK. Despite having lived here for 8 Years, the concept of North, South, Midlands banter is still an abstract concept. As a TCK I question my identity in all spheres, yet try to identify to another culture every time I’m given the opportunity.
Forgetting your words mid-sentence and having to say it in a foreign language is a concept well known to any TCK. Its fresher’s week; you meet new people, make new friends. After a hectic morning, the walk and small talk between classes is relaxing. Well, it seems so, until talking about halls, the bathroom and the shower. And then, the much-awaited question of “So, where is home?” comes up. I freeze, mid-sentence, looking at my new friends, the pressure increases, seconds pass, silence awaits and my brain feels numb. All that’s coming out of my mouth is an “ummmm…”, and I am only left with one choice: “La douche!”. After bursts of laughter, I’m red and have to explain my long-winded background… again.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being a TCK has taught me how to open up to a wide variety of individuals from all places. It’s like having a small United Nations community as your friends. As a TCK, you’re always willing to learn about different cultures and develop genuine respect towards diversity.
Interestingly, learning about someone else’s culture nurtures your own and makes you feel more grounded.
Being a TCK is all about a mishmash of cultural confusion and finding that comfortable safe space.