I never liked the expression “third-culture kid.” Maybe it’s just the way it sounds – like there are only three types of cultures in the world, and everyone is, by default, categorized into one. “Oh, your mum is Pakistani but your dad is Australian? You fall into the second category.” Or my favorite: “Oh, you spent your entire life in the States? Ha! First-culture kid. Uncultured swine.”
That was my justification all these years for not buying into the label “TCK.” But after reading an eerily relatable article recently by a young man who also lived the majority of his life overseas, I think my real justification was not understanding what it means until now.
The globally-used expression “third-culture kid” was minted in the 1950s by sociologist Dr. Ruth Useem as a way to describe children raised abroad, or between cultures. Ruth Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, puts it simply:
“They build relationships to cultures all over the world, while never taking full ownership of any. They dive in, but they’re always ready to dive out.”
As it turns out, I am a third-culture kid. By the time I was 18, I had spent time in nearly 40 countries spread across five continents and attended school in four. I was home-schooled through second grade, as it wasn’t feasible to keep pulling me out for extended trips. When I finally enrolled in a real school, I struggled making friends. Thus, I spent the majority of my time with a pencil in hand, writing stories and letting the characters in them speak for me.
When I came home from school one day, my parents told me to pack my bags. The following week, we boarded a plane to the Middle East. I was told six months. Fast forward three years, and we are boarding a plane back to America.
In my mind, I was entering a familiar society; a society I thought I could return easily. But no sooner did I discover it was not my home anymore. I was now the alien. Although my passport said I was American, that wasn’t how I felt. At the time, I didn’t understand what was going on; why it was so difficult to reinsert myself into a place and culture I once was a part.
I didn’t understand how I could feel like both an insider and outsider. I didn’t understand how I could fit in everywhere seamlessly, yet at the same time, nowhere at all.
As an adult, I finally understand why: there is an unidentifiable group of people that grew up all over the world and feel no sense of belonging anywhere except to each other. We don’t have the same accent or skin color. We don’t cheer for the same World Cup team. We don’t have the same countries listed in our passport. But we each know life beyond the confines of our passport country. We tell the same stories and laugh at the same jokes. We experience the same “where are you from?” anxiety. Often, we even know the same people. It isn’t abnormal to run into your 7th grade crush on the streets of London, despite the fact you met him on a swingset in Doha, Qatar nine years ago.
Instead of seasons or age, we bookmark our lives by places and moments. I had my first kiss in Costa Rica. My first cigarette on a Greek isle. My first glass of champagne in Paris. I rode my first school bus in Qatar. I had my first encounter with God on an airplane flying over the Icelandic mountains when I was 17.
When I was living in Chicago, my dad came to visit. He noticed I had nothing on my bedroom walls. Whereas my roommates each had snapshots and Post-It notes with “I’ll miss yous” coating theirs, I had nothing but a napkin on my bedside table with an illegible phone number scribbled on it from a waiter the night before. When my dad asked why, I told him I didn’t see the point; Chicago wasn’t home.
I think many kids who grow up in a similar transience understand that “home” is wherever they are right now, whoever they are with. We know better than anyone that temporality doesn’t make something matter any less, but instead makes the time spent in that place with those people meaningful.
We enjoy intensely, feel deeply, and love fiercely because of the certainty nothing and nobody will last.
C.S. Lewis once wrote:
“If we find in ourselves desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that we were made for another world.”
I believe TCK’s often feel like they were made for another world. One that transcends boundaries and nation perimeters. One where “home” is not defined by a single geographical location, but instead by moments, events, people, memories, and a myriad of places. Somewhere between a diamond and a rubber band; chiseled and unmistakable, yet elastic and versatile.
Each time you watch a place you once called “home” disappear out of an airplane window, unsure if you will ever return, your idea of the world shrinks a little, but your soul deepens and swells beyond measure. You realize how big God is. You realize the solace in holding things, people, and places lightly. You realize it doesn’t matter what language someone speaks, because you still feel the same things.
In the words of Pico Iyer, “a global soul is a person who has grown up in many cultures all at once – and so lived in the cracks between them.”
Growing up between the cracks, I bear witness to the handful of trials and bounty of joys a wandering life can bring. It is why I want to raise my own children between the same cracks. It is why I am proud to be a third-culture kid.