I’m fairly certain that the only thing people know about third culture kids, is how much we hate to be asked where we’re from. We’ve all heard its unintentionally high-brow answer: “it’s complicated”. And it is complicated. But knowledge of this modern day demographic has regrettably never gone beyond that first question.
I made it to my fifth country of residence by the time I was eight years old. We were in Los Angeles that year, and all I remember is being confused about why I had to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school. I am half German, and my last name ironically means “home”. But Germany doesn’t mean home to me, and neither does L.A. despite the fact that I spent ten years of my life there. So what is? Is it the place where I remember my earliest memory? The place where I stayed put the longest? The place where I best know the language? The place where I have the most friends?
There are many advantages that come with living in several places within a short period of time. We have the notable ability of adapting to a new place in a quick and efficient manner. We know time differences by heart. We’ve gone through the process of creating new social circles multiple times. We see the world as a whole, and we understand our microscopic place in it. We can absorb new languages relatively easily. We think and plan in the long run. We’ve broken out of our comfort zones, because we’ve had to. We’re not scared of venturing into the unknown.
But when it comes down to it, we are outsiders, and we always will be. We could be in the same place for six months or ten years, and still lack a connection to our surroundings or our peers. Our birthplace might have nothing to do with our background or everything to do with it. Our first language might not be our native language. When we are abroad, we speak enthusiastically of our “homeland”, of our celebrated cultural traditions and pride for our heritage. But when we return, we cease to be recognized as natives. We’re almost natives, but there’s something off about us. We spend our lives in an awkward cultural limbo, neither here nor there. And chances are, the only people we will ever foster deep connections with, will be outsiders like us.
Scholars agree that an individual experiences a honeymoon phase of about three to six months upon moving to a new place before falling into “culture shock”. But I continue to wonder if culture shock exists for a third culture kid; if it exists without a language barrier, or most importantly, if it exists without any deeply rooted origin to draw a comparison to. Thus far, the culture shock concept only seems to be a function of those who have an established place in the world.
I’ve been in Berlin for four months now, and I await culture shock. Every day I recognize little things I grew up with: Kinder Schokolade, dinner parties that go into the late hours of the night, the calm of Sunday afternoons. I have German family, with whom I’ve spent multiple summers with. I am fluent in the language—and yet the most common question I’m asked by locals is if I’m German. “Es ist kompliziert”, I tell them.
Despite its solidity, I have not yet found my home. I’m a floater, and after twenty years, I continue to look for home. But like most third culture kids, I know I would never want it any other way.