I remember the first time I was asked, “Where are you from?” at my new school in the town I was now calling home, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada. Without thinking, I answered the same way I have my entire life and was instantly bombarded with questions about what it’s like growing up with such political unrest. My 13-year-old mind was so confused, and in that moment, I experienced what some might call a paradigm shift.
I realised the idea I’ve had my entire life of where I’m from is just one definition of belonging and that this question is actually a lot more loaded than I’ve ever known.
The first 13 years of my life were spent in a country that has one of the highest concentrations of expats in the world. The UAE, only second to Qatar, has an expat population of 77%. “Where are you from?” is one of the most common questions to ask when you first meet someone because almost everyone is from somewhere else. Growing up in an environment like that, when someone asked you where you were from, they were generally referring to ethnicity. At least in my limited understanding of the world as a child, that’s what I thought they were referring to. It never occurred to me that where you live can also be where you are from and vice versa.
This was the first time I realised my story wasn’t quite as clear-cut as others. Up until that point in my life, I had only ever attended international schools, and all my friends were imports to the UAE, only there because of the work opportunities it provided their parents. Everyone spent their summers in their home country with their grandparents and came back in September to exchange stories of summers spent wandering around Levantine suburbs. To move to a country that was the complete opposite of that, where where you’re from is where you live and summer, and your grandparents and cousins live just a couple of streets apart was a reality I had never encountered. It wasn’t until I was a 20-something-year-old exploring an exhibit about identity at MOMA in New York that I discovered that there’s a term for how I grew up - Third Culture Kid.
What is a Third Culture Kid?
The term Third Culture Kids (TCKs) was coined by an American sociologist, Ruth Hill Useem, in the 1950s, to describe children who spent their formative years in places that are not their parent's home country. Third Culture Kids are often the children of expatriates, military personnel, or missionary families. They typically move regularly to different countries and attend international schools with other kids with similar experiences. These kids grow up influenced by three cultures: the first culture is their heritage culture, otherwise known as their parents’ culture, the second culture is their host-country culture, and the third culture is the culture of expatriates and other TCKs. The array of cultures they pick up and integrate, shapes TCKs into cultural hybrids, cultural chameleons, and global nomads.
One of the most notable examples of a Third Culture Kid is 44th US President, Barack Obama, who was born to a Kenyan father and an American mother. He moved to Jakarta after his mother married an Indonesian. Another famous TCK is the late Kobe Bryant, who grew up in Reiti, Italy until he was 14. That’s where he learned the fundamentals of basketball. While he eventually settled down in America, he made frequent trips back to Italy, and the impact of his Italian upbringing can be seen in the Italian names he gave his daughters: Gianna, Natalia, Bianka and Capri.
In summarizing that which we had observed in our cross-cultural encounters, we began to use the term "third culture" as a generic term to cover the styles of life created, shared, and learned by persons who are in the process of relating their societies, or sections thereof, to each other. The term "Third Culture Kids" or TCKs was coined to refer to the children who accompany their parents into another society.
— Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, TCK World: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids
Over time, Third Culture Kids develop their own distinct standards of interpersonal behaviour, lifestyle, perspectives, and communication style, creating a new cultural group that doesn’t quite fall into their home culture or host culture, but rather shares a culture with all other TCKs. They often have a greater sense of belonging with other Third Culture Kids and the international community rather than the host or heritage country.
This was true for me, as well, growing up in St. Catharines, when I made friends with a group of international students from the boarding school in town one spring afternoon in the park. If you were to look at us from a distance, we seemed like the most unlikely group of friends, but each of us had been raised in countries different from our parents' home country. Their experiences were more similar to mine, and some had even lived in the GCC region. In one day, I connected more with this group of TCKs than I had with anyone in my community high school in the three years I was there. That is the power of the shared experience of Third Culture Kids, uniting people beyond their location, ethnicity, or heritage.
The Perks and Pitfalls of Being a Third Culture Kid
The upbringing of a Third Culture Kid is far from the typical upbringing of most children, and with that comes many advantages and disadvantages.
In 1999, David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken published their book, The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and in it, they pioneered the TCK profile, bringing to light the emotional and psychological realities that come with the TCK experience. Their definition of a TCK is widely referenced as, “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background." Through interviews and personal writings, they explored the challenges and benefits that TCKs encounter, including the experiences of cross-cultural kids who may be immigrants, international adoptees, or children of biracial or bicultural parents.
On the positive end of the spectrum, Third Culture Kids are more likely to speak more than one language, with 85% speaking two or more languages.
They have a broader worldview and are more culturally aware. They understand that there is more than one way to look at situations that they are exposed to or experience. Increased exposure to a variety of cultures and lifestyles allows them to register societal cues more skillfully as they are more sensitive to other cultures and ways of life. This, in turn, helps them be more adept at building relationships with other cultures, while not possessing their own sense of cultural identity.
Third Culture Kids also tend to be more adaptable, adjusting faster than others to changes. On the flip side of that, though, TCKs can typically feel a sense of rootlessness and restlessness, not being able to answer the question of “Where is home”. The repeated losses caused by frequent moves can trigger anxiety and stress among TCKs. These feelings can make transitioning to adulthood challenging for Third Culture Kids who have no sense of belonging.
However, it’s all just a matter of perspective. As Renato Beninatto, Chairman and Co-Founder of Nimdzi Insights, said in Episode 007 of The Native Experience podcast, “Where are you from is the hardest question you can ever ask a Third Culture Kid. Even in my home country, people ask me where are you from - one answer is where I was born, the other is where I live, or where I work… You’re always from somewhere else but you’re always home, you’re always comfortable wherever you are because you’re a little bit of a chameleon.”
The Future Role of TCKs
In 2020, there were an estimated 281 million international migrants in the world who lived in a country other than their country of birth. This is approximately 3.6% of the global population. It might not seem like much, but Australia’s entire population, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is approximately 26M, which means that there are almost 10 times as many migrants in the world as there are Australian residents.
With such a large percentage of the population living in countries other than their home countries, it’s only natural to see a rise in Third-Culture Kids. These global nomads are not just a statistical phenomenon, but a living, breathing reflection of our increasingly globalised world. They embody the spirit of diversity, bridging languages, cultures and traditions, and in doing so, they contribute to the tapestry of our intercultural, global community.
The Third Culture Conundrum
Today, my answer to the question “Where are you from?” is a lot more fluid to reflect the experiences I had growing up in multiple countries. I’m the little girl who spent her childhood playing between parks in the UAE and hilltops in Jordan and Palestine. I’m the teenager who became a young adult in the Great White North amongst blizzard-filled winters and leafy-green summers. I’m the grown-up that gets really excited to see another Canadian, and the adult who will proudly tell anyone who listens about the indigenous roots that have been passed on to me from my grandparents and great-grandparents.
I’m the culmination of every place I’ve been and every person I’ve interacted with along the way. After all, aren’t we all just the sum of our experiences? But, it’s what we make of them that matters. As a Third Culture Kid, if all I ever do is bring just a little bit more understanding and compassion for differentiation in the world, then I know I’ve done my part.