Third Culture Kid For Life

The first time I heard the term “third culture kid” I was in 10th or 11th grade. By that time I was living in my 6th country and attending my 5th school – I had been living as a TCK my whole life without ever knowing there was a special name for us. I remember someone came and spoke to us during an assembly. The funny part is that I don’t remember what he/she talked about specifically but I remember hearing about third culture kids for the first time and realizing that that’s what we were. It wasn’t necessarily an epiphany or and “a-ha” moment; it was more “wow, that’s us. We’re TCKs. Pretty cool.” It probably had more of an impact on me later, but it was still a moment of profound understanding…and also of pride. I thought it was pretty awesome that we were third culture kids and that our lifestyle could be understood by others. It also explained why we could all relate to each other even if we’d lived in completely different countries. It wasn’t the locations or languages that allowed us to have this unspoken understanding; it was the shared experience of growing up across continents and oceans. Each of us knew the goodbyes, the packing and unpacking, the anxiety of a first day at school, the heartbreak of leaving a home, and that ‘home’ is so much more than a fixed location. We know all that and so much more. Those are the invisible bonds that tie us TCKs together, that allow us to connect with each no matter how different our geographical paths may have been. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s a community I’m very proud to be a part of.

As I’ve gotten older, I realized how that community continues to grow every year and how lucky I am to have grown up at a time when people were talking and writing about TCKs. I know that many older TCKs didn’t have a sense of understanding of why they felt the way they did or how their life impacted them so much. Since graduating from high school 10 years ago, I’ve seen just how much my life as a third culture kid shaped me, and how much that experience will always be part of who I am. It’s only when you leave a TCK environment that you really notice the impact of the life you led and how much it sets you apart. I’ve really become aware of that over the past few years and especially since I’ve moved back to the U.S.

It seems that being away from any TCK environment unlocked something in me – I wanted to write about my experiences, and I wanted to read stories of others like me. My Christmas list included David C. Pollack and Ruth E. Van Reken’s book Third Culture Kids – Growing Up Among Worlds, my notebook is filled with stories and memories of my life as a third culture kid, and I started this blog. Suddenly I had so much I wanted to say, so many stories I wanted to share, and such a strong desire to connect with others who understood. I learned early on that writing brought me a special kind of comfort that I didn’t find elsewhere and writing about my experiences, sharing them and communicating about them has been both cathartic and enriching.

It’s only recently that I fully realized just how pivotal that moment of enlightenment was for me, all those years ago. It opened up a world of understanding and led to a lifelong fascination for this community I’m so lucky to be a part of. Those words helped explain my life to those who hadn’t lived it and strengthened the bonds with those who had. I was proud when I found out I was a third culture kid and that pride has only grown with time. You may not choose to be a third culture kid, but you can choose to embrace the experience and the adventure. It may be difficult at times, but what you gain from it and how you grow from it makes every tough moment worth it. Being a third culture kid, and what you learn from that incredible journey, is something that will stay with you for a lifetime.

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13 thoughts on “Third Culture Kid For Life

  1. I don’t know if this applies to you, but for me being a TCK has meant switching between accents depending on who I was talking to. I was at a loss for how to speak when I was in a car with an Indian, Canadian and Brit.

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    1. I can see how that situation may have complicated things a little, from an accent perspective. How did you manage that one? 😉

      I don’t think I consciously switch accents, but I do tend to pick them up without meaning to. When I lived in Australia, I was told that I started talking with an Australian accent, even though I hadn’t realized it! And I’m sure that now that I’m living back in the U.S. my American accent is stronger than it used to be. Same in other languages – my French is often different when I’m around only French people, or when I’m around my family or non-French francophone speakers (make any sense?). I also noticed that it’s not just accents, but also certain expressions specific to the different languages/variances that we pick up. Where have you lived/what accents did you need to use as a TCK?

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, by the way 🙂 Hope to hear from you again!

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      1. LOL it is so true our accents change depending on the situation. I’ve lived in the US for a long time now, and mostly speak like a Californian (at least I think I do), but I sometimes catch myself breaking out in Cockney if someone accosts me in the street and I have to say something off-guard. I once went on a date with someone from Minneapolis, and at the time I had no idea there was a different accent from there. However, halfway through the date, she asked if I was mocking her accent, because apparently I was pulling it off quite well. I had no idea! Needless to day the date didn’t go so well. Sometimes I am even worried about insulting people who’s English is a second language because I catch myself mimicking their tonality and rhythm when I’m in a long conversation.

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        1. It really is amazing how our accents can change depending where we are and who we’re surrounded by! I’m sorry to hear your date didn’t go so well after that, but it’s really not your fault! We don’t do it on purpose…After hearing so many different languages or accents, and years spent in different places, we just automatically mimic what we’re hearing, without even realizing it! But I guess it’s pretty tough to explain that to someone who hasn’t gone through the same experiences… Did you grow up as a TCK or expat as well?

          Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I really appreciate it – no matter the accent you comment in! 😉 Apologies for taking so long to get back to you, but I do hope to hear from you again!

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          1. Oh yeah, grew up as a corporate tck, lived in 7 cities and 6 countries before 14. To mix it up my parents have British/Zimbabwean accents! You know the tricky thing about picking up the local accent quickly? When you talk to people they assume you are a local, then they realize you have no idea what they are talking about or are misunderstanding the local slang, so they think you don’t get out much. 😄

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story. To be honest, I never knew what that meant until I read your blog. I’ve lived in different countries in my adult life, but I am sure it’s so different as a child. I enjoy reading about the insights you have acquired due to your experiences. I admire your strength!

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    1. Thank you for reading and leaving your thoughts. I think when you’re a kid, you’re still building your identity and absorbing all the cultures you live in, in a different way to when you’re an adult. I think they’re both great experiences, and they both have their different challenges. Whether as a child or an adult, it takes strength (and courage) to jump into the unknown 🙂 Which countries have you lived in (if it’s alright to ask)?

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  3. So true, Dounia. I’ve lived in England, Chile and Argentina. All really different with their own unique personalities. There is not a day that goes by where I am not grateful for having had the opportunity to live outside of the country. It has changed completely my outlook. How about you? Where have you lived? Or shall I ask, where have you NOT lived? =)

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    1. Wow – I would love to go to Chile and Argentina! How long were you there? My husband lived in Argentina for a few years when he was still in school, and we both did some university in England… But I’ve never really been to South America; I lived in Mexico for a few years, but never went further south in the Americas than that! I agree about living elsewhere really changing your outlook – it’s such an enriching experience and makes you grow so much as a person. I’ve lived in Cyprus, the USA, Mexico, the Philippines, Australia and France. I was in England briefly for my MA degree, and then moved back to the US with my husband for his job. The longest place I ever lived was France, and I definitely miss it! 🙂

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  4. As I’m sure you know by now, I am as far away from being a TCK as you can get. BUT … what I choose is to learn about this so-foreign way of life (at least to me) as a way of gaining deeper understanding. I cannot even imagine moving to a different country as a child. To me, all of you TCKs must be incredibly strong and resilient and worldly and just the fact that there is a NAME for all of you is a little enviable! You’re like this elite group of kids that the rest of us can’t even fathom … although it probably didn’t feel elite at the time. You should definitely be proud of who you are: if nothing else you have a view of the world that the rest of us do not. And let me just say this again — your writing is wonderful! Thanks again, Dounia!

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    1. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, Paige – I was away for a week and then time just slips by!

      Thanks again for an always thoughtful and wonderful comment. I think we are quite resilient and adaptable, but we’re not really aware of that until we’re older. When you’re a kid and you’re moving around with your parents, you don’t necessarily think about it, you’re just doing what you have to do. But once you’re an adult you realize how much growing up as a TCK has impacted you, your way of thinking and your view of the world. You also realize the struggles with feeling ‘at home’ somewhere and that’s a whole different situation to cope with. I have always loved writing, and it’s helped me many times, so I guess it was only a matter of time before all these thoughts came spilling out once we moved back here and I was really figuring things out as an adult TCK… It’s an extra benefit and pleasure to have someone like you reading what I have to say and sharing your thoughts with me 🙂

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  5. I remember that assembly about TCKs, Dounia; I was a bit actually a bit mlffed since there was a lot of talk about how TCKs could have trouble forming stable, long-lasting relationships! In response to Paige’s comment: as a teacher in an international school I often meet parents who are worried about the effect that moving around will have on their children. I reassure them that it is a wonderful gift they are giving their children, one that I am so grateful to have had and that I’d like to pass on to my own children. When you’ve lived in different countries you have this natural appreciation for the fact that there are ways to do things that are not the same as you might be used to, but not wrong because of that. That’s not to say that people who don’t live abroad won’t have that appreciation, but i think it’s harder to develop that world view from a single geographical location, and am always very impressed by people who have lived their whole life in one place and still have this amazing open mind.

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    1. I have read things like that before, and I deeply disagree with the notion that TCKs may have trouble forming stable, long-lasting relationships. Although I do think that the examples the parents set and the way parents communicate with their children throughout the moves makes a difference in how TCKs handle their way of life. But that’s just my opinion, and I’ve been very lucky that our parents made sure to talk with us about everything and deal with each situation as a family. I am very grateful for the experience growing up as a TCK, but I know I can appreciate it because of the constant support and love that we gave each other through every move. Despite any hardships growing up as a TCK, I wouldn’t change it, and it’s definitely an experience I would like to pass on to our kids once we have them! I agree with you about developing that world view and how amazing a gift that is; and I am also impressed when first culture kids show that kind of open mind – they are often the FCKs that are most interested in learning about the world and are very curious about different cultures, etc. They may not have travelled much, but instead of dismissing other cultures, they strive to learn all they can about them. I find that fantastic, and I’ve met a couple of people like that recently, and we’ve had wonderful conversations!

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