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On Being a Third Culture Kid

Third culture kid. The hearts represent places family members have lived.

Are you raising your kids in a country that is different from the one you are from? Thinking of moving to a new country? Envious of blog friends living in different countries? Curious about what this life would be like, but thoroughly content with your own? I was raised in five different countries. This is my take on life as a third culture kid.

Living in foreign countries is an opportunity and privilege.

This is the reaction I get from most people who know about my childhood – and they are absolutely right. The person that I am today would not exist without my father taking a career that moved his family from country to country – and continent to continent. I gained perspective and understanding in a way that would not have been possible had we stayed in the small, farm-oriented community I was born into.

Opportunity comes at a cost.

There are books and movies about kids dying to get out of small town life, but as a globe-trotting child the sameness of that lifestyle was very appealing. It was bittersweet to hear my husband’s kindergarten friend roast him at our wedding reception – no one has ever lived in the same country as me for more than a few years at a time. It’s kind of nice to not have people around reminding me of my more awkward years, but sometimes I wish there were friends who had seen both the bad years and the good. The internet has at least made it possible to stay in touch with a few friends, and since moving to Boston I have actually been able to meet up with friends from high school – pretty amazing, considering I went to high school in Austria.

Life gets confusing.

I still don’t know how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” My passport says American, but there are aspects of American culture that I find confusing – and I know this is true for many third culture kids. In my case, the disconnect with my “home” culture was heightened by the fact that my family never had a television and, where possible, my parents sent us to local schools so that I was literally cut off from American culture for much of my childhood.

Kids adapt, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I am always a little bit frustrated when I hear people talk about how flexible and adaptive children are. Yes, kids adapt, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. If you are taking your child to a foreign country, by all means appreciate their flexibility, but also understand that it may not be as straightforward for them as it appears.

Family is important.

For me, moving around brought me closer to my family. They are the ones who have seen the entire trajectory of my life, and I know they will be there for me – even if sometimes “there” means a Google+ hangout or phone call instead of the in-person presence I would love.

Use storytelling and family traditions to give your child roots.

When you move all the time, or even if you aren’t moving but live outside of your family’s original culture, it’s easy to feel confused about your identity. Family traditions and telling family stories helped me gain a strong sense of self, even when my surroundings were constantly changing.

Moving teaches flexibility and tolerance.

Having to move every few years taught me to focus on things that truly matter, and to make the most of where I am at any given moment. Being exposed to different cultures taught me not to throw out an idea or tradition just because it didn’t make sense to me at first glance. These skills have served me well in adulthood!

The benefits carry through to the next generation.

I feel that my kids have really benefited from my global childhood. The world is starting off as a smaller place for them. I can see this in Mike as well – his dad was raised as a third culture kid, and I think this connection helped Mike and I “click” when we first met.

Did you move around as a kid? Are your kids living in a different country from the one their passport is labeled with? Would you raise your kids in several countries, given the opportunity?

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

33 thoughts on “On Being a Third Culture Kid”

  1. Aww, I love this post, thank you so much for sharing it, it came at a perfect time for me, thank you for sharing it, your blog is just beautiful! :) Michelle

  2. I live in a different state and different “culture” from where I was born. Even if the country is the same- people, language, outlook to life … everything is different. I was brought up that way and so was my Hubby. And since Aarya was born we have been to different states already (even though he won’t remember the first part) – I think our present bearing have the most impart on him. I love your post – it really is applicable to our situation too. And thank you for posting.

    1. I think this topic is on my mind because I’m about to move my kids to a new state, on the other side of the country – and the culture there will be very different from where we live now!

  3. Thank you for this great post and for your honesty. It’s so true that kids adapt but it does not mean it’s easy. I have noticed that expat parents and other parents who make international moves seem to think that because their kid is adapting quicker than they are everything must be fine. The child usually learns the new language quicker than the parent does. Yes there is a cost and yes there is more confusion and loneliness at times.
    I am now raising my kids in one spot, after I grew up in several different places in Africa, like you say I do think our kids are learning that the world is more than the town we live in!!
    A new series on third culture kids has just started on this blog http://www.djiboutijones.com/2013/05/third-culture-kids-series-painting-pictures/ It might interest you. Greetings from a TCK mum in Holland, Janneke

  4. Interesting points. I live in a different culture now in comparison to what I grew up in, and it’s sometimes difficult even for adults. We were contemplating the move to Germany, but so far it’s not working out career wise. Considering our own history, I am pretty sure that daughter will grow up to be a traveler anyway :)

  5. Love your post. I grew up in India and London and traveled a lot as a kid and young adult. It wasn’t always easy to pick up and go but I loved it in the end and it has made me who I am. I really want to find a way to live overseas w/my kids – even for a while. Not sure we can take a sabbatical with the toy business!

  6. Elisa | blissfulE

    Yes, yes, and yes, to answer your questions. :) I love all your points!

    This post makes me feel very reflective. I had not thought about giving my kids roots. We plan to stay in our house a long time, but I think you’re right that they need to hear more about how and where Ben and I grew up as well.

    1. I think telling family stories benefits all children, even if you raise them in the same town you grew up in. But it can be even more important in a TCK setting, because you are the only ones there to tell the stories!

  7. I love this post, MaryAnne! And I agree- living with feet planted (and they are, in spite of how uprooted they also are, at the same time) in two or more worlds is rich with learning opportunities and fraught with sacrifices. I’m still answering the question of who my children are and who I am on the inside. What’s especially interesting to me is the disconnect between how a person looks and what people expect that person to be. Example: I look Asian (and I am, having been born there to Asian parents) but I open my mouth and a British-tinged accent comes out, in (what I’ve been told) is perfect English. People immediately either assume I’ve lived in the US for a long time i.e. not a first-generation or recent immigrant or else if they know I come from Asia, they ask what language is spoken in my home country. Then I meet other Asian immigrants in Minnesota and they ask me why I’m not speaking Chinese and if I’d given up on my roots. I tell them we spoke English in my home country and couldn’t carry out a decent conversation in Chinese if I had a gun to my head and they stare at me as if I’d committed high treason. Switch back to me meeting other Asian-looking folks about town but who’ve lived here all their life (adopted as babies from Korea, for instance) and they speak in 100% American-accented English, have American parents and, apart from their outward appearance, seem to have nothing at all in common with a person like me. I love encountering all these “disconnects” , no matter how discombobulating they might be initially, because it blows apart my preconceptions about what straddling cultures looks like. We come from so many places and have our roots in different combinations of those places. Some are physical places and some aren’t. My current approach to making sense of it is this: at the end of the day, the concept of home (where and who it is, what it looks, feels, sounds, smells, tastes like) is a far more defining concept for who we are than the combination of cultures that’s supposed to shape us. So that Tshirt photo you posted? Exactly. Yes.

  8. So interesting to learn about your background MaryAnne! I am fascinated by Third Culture Kids as my older daughter started off as one in Germany (with an American mom-me and Moroccan dad) and will likely be one again as we have a perpetual travel itch, which somehow doesn’t lead me to wanting to settle down in one country (even though part of me likes the idea of settling down). I find I am always happiest in expat settings, when I am in a new country and learning a new language, but I also think a lot about this lifestyle for my kids as I don’t necessarily want to move them every 3-4 years.

    I also loved LiEr’s comment about the disconnect between who a person truly is and what they look like. I experience that a lot with myself as I was raised in the US and look/sound typically American, but don’t identify with so many things about US culture that come so easily for most Americans (hence why I have spent so much time living abroad!)

    1. I find that different kids experience this lifestyle very differently – and then there are so many different ways to be a Third Culture Kid! Good luck finding the path that suits your family!

  9. Olga @The EuropeanMama

    What a wonderful post, MaryAnne!I totally agree with you! I am a ATCK myself and couldn’t agree more, except that for me, the price to pay for lving abroad is a very small one compared to the benefits. I also consider myself Polish, but I know that for many Poles I’m not “Polish enough”, and I don’t care. I feel that my being a TCK has become a culture on in itself, and for me, being an expat is a family tradition. Thank you for this post.

      1. Olga @The EuropeanMama

        Yes, as children of dimplomats, both of my parents were TCKs. They’re also multilingual… so I tend to say that being multicultural is my nationality, and multilingualism is my language :) maybe being a TCK is a family thing? I have somewhere read about the expat gene, causing children of expats to become expats, too- that’s exciting. And the cool thing is that we can incorporate all these cultures into our every day lives!

  10. You bring up things I never thought about. That must be little weird for you but you are right too it has broadened your perspective. We had one big move when I was a kid from NY to Cape Cod, from city to town, from Catholic school to public. It was strange. Stranger for my sister who was a little older.

  11. Oh MA, I agree with you so very much on these points you have named. I am glad we rae still in touch and btw, I didn’t find you awkward. :)

  12. I love this post – especially with our upcoming move. I often wonder how our location(s) and lack of extended family nearby will impact our kids and I really appreciate hearing your perspective. I’ve been trying to start our own family traditions but I need to be more mindful of that – thank you for the reminder.

  13. Thank you for this perspective. I always wonder what’s going on in my kids minds and hearts. I’ve been surprised what memory comes to mind a year or more after the fact, when I had no idea they even knew what was going on. I’m especially encouraged to hear that being a third culture kid can be a positive experience. My kids have spent one year in a foreign country and had “permanent addresses” six states. They’re three and four.

  14. What a wonderfully reflective post. I remember how hard it was for me to move when I was in fifth grade, and it was a big change in culture from California to Texas. Because of course in Texas everyone had horses and rode them to school, or so I thought.

    I think how well you adapt to change and the differences really is dependent on the strength of your family. You had a strong family, and one that helped shape you. I had a strong Mom, but an absent Dad, and while she did her best, she was also coping with a husband who had his foot halfway out the door, and that makes it harder to keep your family strong. I always wonder what would our family be like if Dad had a different personality.

  15. Mary Anne, you mentioned very important points about this topic. Carole from expatchild.com did publish an article about expat-stresses that experience also TCK’s (and ATCK’s). Thanks for posting this. About the traditions, I think we do much more than my parents did when I grew up abroad. Today, parents (or ATCK’s?) are more sensitive about giving their children some roots or a sense of belonging. But what would be important for a FCK (First Culture Kid) is not (always) important for the TCK, so it’s really a challenge to find the things the whole family agrees with. I wrote a post about this (http://expatsincebirth.com/2013/01/14/what-kind-of-memories-will-our-tcks-share-with-us/).

  16. Thanks for this post. I am an American married to a Norwegian who is adopting a South African daughter and planning to eventually move to Spain…so it is helpful to hear about your life! I LOVE traditions and it was good to hear about that being really meaningful to you. I will certainly make a point of finding traditions that we can continue no matter where we live.

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