Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Confessions of a Third Culture Kid

Recently I have been asked the question, "Where are you from?" and this is one question that has really stumped me. I don't know how to answer this question. Really, I do not. Which nation do I call home? Till date I have lived in a total of three countries, but emotionally I feel attached to one and do not want to go anywhere near a million mile radius of the other (OK, I admit, I am exaggerating this million mile radius thing big time) and I am yet to fully explore my third and current country to be able to form any feelings for it, negative or positive. I really do not know which place do I call home. Is it the place where I have lived the most? Is it the place where my heart says "this is your home country"? Is it where I am currently living? Is it where I was born? Does it depend on which passport I have? Where I am from is one question that I cannot answer.

The reason why I cannot answer this question is because I happen to be what is called a "third culture kid" and today I am going to share my experiences of being a third culture kid. A third culture kid is basically a global kid who keeps on drifting between one country to another. Well if you Google "third culture kid" the first link you will see is Wikipedia (or at least I did, Google tends to vary from nation to nation) and Wikipedia defines the term "third culture kid" like this - A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

I think this definition applies to me fully. I remember being in school (and having no clue about the TCK phenomenon back then) I would some how feel drawn to fellow TCK's, like for some reason I felt some connection or bond with them, like that international connection gave us something to relate to. I remember when I was in university, the very first friend I made there was a TCK also and I remember being so grateful to have discovered a fellow TCK.

Home to people like myself who have constantly drifted between countries is beautifully summed up in this article: We can not call any place home, nor can we feel at home in any place. I guess it is always better to just ask a third culture kid, "what is your passport country?" because that is the one question they can answer with certainty, except many third culture kids tend to have more than one passport, which again makes the "where are you from" issue to be an icky and tricky one.

In theory it sounds really good to be a TCK. You get to see different countries, explore new worlds, are more accepting and understanding of different cultures and have a strong sense of religious tolerance. We kind of embed in ourselves a culture for ourselves (no person can be without a culture, say sociologists) which kind of incorporates elements from all the cultures. This results in us not fitting in with any culture and unable to relate to any culture. Any culture we see, we can not say, "This is my culture" or "This is the culture I want to be a part of" or "This is the culture I want to relate to".

Being a TCK has its benefits, no doubt. All the new experiences and exploring of new cultures and meeting of new people and all the diversity. But mentally, being a TCK takes its toll on a person. A TCK will be alienated, will be the social reject, will be the one who can never fit in, will be the one who is rejected by the world and rejected by society. Reason? Because, thanks to their diverse experience, they will stick out so much and be unable to fit in so much that society just rejects them. In fact, in extreme cases, TCK people end up facing mental health issues.

You might say, people move abroad all the time for various reasons. They get into relationships which involves one partner to switch countries, people get jobs in different countries, people find more opportunities in other parts of the world, and so on and those people face no issues the way a TCK does. Why? The reason is simple. This all happens to a TCK against their will, while in other cases it only happens to those people who agree to it. A TCK summarized the experience of having to shift from one country to another against their will like this - The issue is that transition always involves loss, no matter how good the next phase will be. Loss always engenders grief and the greater you have loved a situation or place or people, the greater the grief.The layers of loss run deep:  Friends, community, pets.  Family, toys, language.  Weather, food, culture.  Loss of identity.  Loss of a place of comfort, stability, a safe and predictable world.  Home. These children are losing the worlds they love, over and over.  They cycle through the stages of grief each time they move -- or they don’t, and push it down, submerge it, only to have it bubble up later in life, unexplained.The grief of children is often invisible.  They are told they will adapt, they are resilient.  They are told they’ll get over missing that friend, they’ll get another pet, they’ll have a nicer room in the new house. Some mental health professionals call it trauma.(Do not attack me for plagiarism, I got it from this website : )

Imagine this, you are used to a certain environment, a certain culture, a certain routine, a certain climate, a certain type of clothing, a certain type of food and so on. And one day, somebody picks you up and transfers you somewhere worlds apart.You have so say in this. You did not decide to move around. You were forced on it. Being a TCK myself, this has happened to me so many times. The place that I was supposed to call home, I was unable to call home. The food that I am supposed to love to eat, tastes yucky to me. The movies that I am supposed to enjoy do not appeal to me. I was expected to pick up a new language. I could not relate to the people around me. I had my accent picked on by both students and teachers alike when I was studying in the university because being a TCK also gives you a different accent, I have absolutely no clue which country's accent I speak in. I could not relate to the environment around me. In school I started to have trouble, they saw me as the different one, the odd one out, and they made me the victim of bullying. I did not share the same interest in movies or television shows or fashions and all, due to being a TCK it was impossible to be like everyone else and share similar interests, something that I think has strongly contributed to my inability to make friendships. Everything just felt so alien. On top of it I started to experience alot of "issues" (which I am strongly going to say that culture or nation or environment had nothing to do with, it was mainly due to individual people) which made it tougher.

I think I am going a bit off topic here. Back to the original topic. The worst thing to ask a TCK is "Where are you from?" because a TCK is actually a global citizen who belongs nowhere. Belonging nowhere. Wherever I am, I get the feeling of being homesick but I do not know where I am homesick for because I have no place that really feels like "home". I always get nervous tension whenever I am asked where I am from. This gif really summarizes my feelings towards being asked the "Where are you from question" -

I know I have painted a very negative picture regarding being a TCK but that is mainly because I am just feeling a big negative today. Being a TCK has many plus points also. In some future post I hope to go into the plus points and the benefits of being a TCK. You get to see the world through your own unique lens of your own culture, you get to make friends from all over the world. You get to experience so many new things. My own personal experiences as being a TCK is something that I would never want to trade and something I am immensely grateful for.

To answer the original question of "Where are you from?", for me I think that question is best answered with a paragraph - I get called Indian and Iranian all the time but actually I was born in Canada, I grew up in Pakistan and now I live in America.


  1. Ah , you are right !! , nice read , enjoyed reading it , can't wait to read your next writing :D

  2. Well, everything has its plus and minuses, but it's good to get to live different cultures and getting to know about it..Have fun :D and enjoy, no matter where you are :)

  3. I can totally relate. Have you watched xmen? It may sound stupid but I feel like I can relate to xmen, being a minority of this world and seeking social acceptance.

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  6. It is not hard for me to empathise with you. I was born in Thailand and lived there for 3 years. I soon moved to South Korea, my “home country” (simply because that’s where my parents are from and I am South Korean passport holder). I spent my childhood there but soon found myself in Malaysia. It was in Vietnam where my family finally settled in. I still live in Vietnam and I am probably going to graduate here. Entangled by many different Asian cultures, I was Mr. Nobody. I just could not summarise my origin in a single phrase. I am not Thai, nor Malaysian, nor Vietnamese. But I cannot easily conclude that I am a South Korean either.
    Just like you, I do not feel like a citizen of a specific country, rather a citizen of the globe. I couldn’t help myself but to burst out in laughter by your description of the mysterious accents TCKs develop. I have a mixture of Malaysian, Korean, British and American English accents which is quite frankly humorous!