When asked, “where are you from,” many people can answer that as being either the land of their birth or that of their parent’s origin. For others, it’s just not that simple and for most of my life, I too struggled with that seemingly innocent question. Except, it’s not so innocent for Third Culture Kids.
Who are Third Culture Kids?
Third Culture Kids (TCK) are people who have spent a great deal of time, especially of their early years in a country other than their parent’s homeland or the land of their birth. Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined this term in the 1950’s to describe expat kids. TCK’s usually either have a parent whose work took them abroad, have parents who married into a different culture or even kids who studied abroad.
The three cultures of a TCK usually break down like this:
1st culture = Parent’s homeland
2nd culture = country/culture where one is living
3rd culture = the blending of both the above (or if you’re like me, the culture which I gravitated/was raised with)
Take me for example. I was born in Tunisia, lived with my Cuban mother (raised with Cuban customs), and raised in the USA. A mix of cultures that has caused a lot of confusion in my life.
And confusion is something that surrounds a TCK’s upbringing, but more on that later. How do you know if you’re a TCK? Well, for starters if you were raised in a country other than your or your parents’ country of birth, you might be a TCK. If you or your parents are immigrants or refugees, you’re a TCK. Did you know two or more languages growing up, you might be a TCK! If you have never been able to easily answer the question of “where is home,” then you are most likely are a TCK!
Benefits to being a TCK
While there are challenges to being a third culture kid, it’s not all that bad when you think about the perks.
Expanded World View
As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Since we were exposed to multiple cultures, we are able to understand there’s more than one way to look at a situation. We have increased tolerance for people that may be different than us, and more open-minded. Due to this expanded view of the world and understanding of multiple cultures, TCK’s are able to adapt better to new cultures than non-TCK’s.
This might be one of the more obvious benefits, but usually growing up multicultural means you can communicate in more than one language. TCK’s can usually speak the language of their parent’s origin or their homeland, as well as the language of the country they now live in (or were raised in). This is obviously beneficial when traveling, or even when trying to find a job. Multi-language skills have always been in high demand (so use this as a sign to use your Dualingo account now).
In my opinion, dual citizenship is one of the best perks of being a TCK! Multiple passports ultimately mean more doors (or borders) are open to you. While my Tunisian passport gets me to 66 countries visa-free, my U.S. passport takes me to 166! That’s 100 more countries I can enter without a second thought. T
Downsides to being a TCK
Of course, nothing is perfect – and neither is being a TCK. While we are pretty awesome people, there are downsides to the cultural overload!
Questionable Cultural Ties & Identity
Third culture kids often have no clear ties to one cultural identity. This means confused loyalties, especially when it comes to politics, societal norms, and even humor that is tied to cultural references and even slang words. So even though I feel Cuban, when I go to the island there are jokes I just don’t get – because I’m not always there to understand the social references behind them.
One huge challenge for TCK’s, and this was especially true for me, is the need to feel attached to a culture. A sense of belonging to somewhere. Where is home, after all? That’s not so easy, and almost impossible to answer for a TCK. However, our sense of home is usually tied to people or feelings instead of a specific country or culture.
Unfamiliarity with Home Culture
With being raised away from your home culture, country, town, and even family, TCK’s can find themselves being disconnected from that part of their lives. Maybe they don’t speak their native language or are simply unfamiliar with the common social norms and customs. That disconnect can discourage a TCK from forming a bond with that side of their culture, and can even lead to more confusion when it comes to how TCK’s identify themselves. That unfamiliarity can also set them apart when they decide to reconnect with that missing piece. This sensation is sometimes known as cultural jet lag.
I remember going home to Tunisia after 27 years. When meeting my family, who were anxious for my return, I was welcomed with stories of me as a child. Except, I could not understand a single word they said. My mom decided it was not important for me to have learned about that side of my culture growing up. As a result, I had many confused uncles and aunts who wondered how could a girl who was born here not be from here. I was completely lost and felt a huge hole in my heart. What was supposed to feel like a homecoming, I felt more like an outsider.
I guarantee you I am probably the first Cuban-Tunisian-American you have come across. While I used to feel like I had to decide on one culture, all three have made me who I am today, and it’s what sets me apart. My different cultures make me unique, and I now embrace each for their similarities and their differences.
Third culture kids are found across all socio-economic levels, across all nations, and genders. While third culture kids may hesitate when deciding where home is, the beauty of being a TCK is that we don’t have to choose. Third culture kids have the unique blessing of being from here and there.
Why should we limit how we connect with the world, choosing one culture when our diversity is what sets us apart.