“Where are you from?”
It’s a straightforward question, isn’t it? Not if you’re a Third Culture Kid (TCK, also known as a global nomad).
The term was coined in the 1950s by an American sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem, to describe people who have spent a significant part of their childhood years in two or more different countries. Useem found that, unlike people who move to a foreign country as adults, children incorporate elements of each culture they live in, but don’t fully integrate into any single one. They combine pieces of their home and host cultures to form a “third culture.”
These experiences continue to affect people throughout their lives. Studies over the past decades have identified a number of common characteristics shared by TCKs, irrespective of which countries they lived in. These include good intercultural skills and interpersonal sensitivity, open-mindedness, adaptability, fluency in multiple languages, etc. Which is handy, right? However, growing up in different worlds also poses challenges: e.g. a sense of loss and grief (especially as many children don’t choose to move, it’s decided for them), confused identity, feelings of not belonging anywhere, rootlessness and cultural homelessness.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m a TCK. I was born and spent the first eight years in Russia, the next nine years in Namibia, and then I came to New Zealand, on my own, aged 17, and ended up staying (for more than 15 years so far). I have elements of all these cultures ingrained in me.
The whole rootlessness/confused identity issue did really bother me as a teen and in my early 20s. I felt that I was missing crucial chunks of experience to really belong anywhere and that I’d be a foreigner everywhere I go. The question “Where are you from” used to make me quite uncomfortable, especially if I didn’t want to share my entire life story.
I didn’t learn the term TCK until I was studying towards my second qualification in my mid-twenties, but I had been preoccupied with this topic long before that.
In the first space opera I wrote when I was 16, kids get plucked from different planets to be sent to an intergalactic space school (to become crime fighting space agents, obviously), and the criteria for Earth kids was that they had to have lived in a foreign country, which was meant to make them adaptable enough to cope with living in space amongst the aliens. That book never saw the light of day, but I continued researching this topic for school essays and later for uni — that’s when I discovered the term Third Culture Kids.
There’s a piece of research that suggests making this discovery can be life-changing. It was for me. It helped me understand myself and my experiences, to realise there were many people who felt the same way as me, and to feel seen and validated. It’s similar to realising you have a neurodivergence for the first time, or figuring out your sexuality — your experience in the world suddenly makes a lot more sense.
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, a book by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken is a great resource for anyone who wants to know more about this topic. As the cover says, this book is for “anyone who wants to understand the blessings and curses of growing up multiculturally.” You’ll find it useful if you’re a TCK yourself, or if you’re a parent of one, an educator, an employer, a researcher or a policy-maker.
I’ll also include a link to my old scribblings on this matter because they have handy references to more research and articles: https://midnightmediamusings.wordpress.com/tag/third-culture-kids/