By Alix Norman
You know you’re a Third Culture Kid (TKC) if filing a ‘permanent address’ fills you with anxiety. If you flew before you could walk. And if you can curse convincingly in at least three languages. But personally, I know I’m a TCK because I dread meeting new people. Not that I’m terribly shy, or even antisocial, but because, sooner or later, I know I’ll be asked that dreaded question throws every TCK into a paroxysm of stumbling inanity: “Where are you from?”
And this is the essence of being a Third Culture Kid: we don’t really know where to call home. We were born in one culture, but grew up in another, forming our own, separate ‘Third’ culture for ourselves. In Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids author Nina Sichel depicts TCKs as children who are “Born into one culture, raised among others,” and whose “identity is most closely aligned with others raised in the same way, moving internationally”. And so I, and others like me, have developed our very own culture. A culture that allows for the fact that when I’m in Cyprus I feel British (“Queue, people, please!”), yet in England I feel foreign (“Last call! What’s that?”).
Third Culture Kids was a term first coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s during a year spent researching expatriates in India. She discovered that those who came from their home (or first) culture and moved to a host (or second) culture formed a lifestyle distinct from either their first or second cultures. She called this the Third Culture and those who grew up in this lifestyle Third Culture Kids. She depicted individuals as an entirely new cultural grouping, distinguished by different standards of interpersonal behaviour, work-related norms, codes of lifestyle and perspectives, and communication. Thus Barack Obama (born in Honolulu, grew up in Indonesia), Uma Thurman (born in Massachusetts, raised in the Himalayan town of Almora Uttarakhan) and five-time NBA Champion Kobe Bryant (who lived in Reiti, Italy until age 14) all qualify as Third Culture Kids.
And so do I. I was born in the UK, but barely have any memories of my first three years other than an over abiding sense of greenness. My family moved to the Middle East – living in both Bahrain and Saudi – until I was 10, and then relocated to Cyprus, where I spent most of my teenage years. Thus ‘home’ to me is nothing more concrete than a jumble of sights and sounds and smells; the call to prayer as likely to bring on a bout of homesickness as the smell of freshly mown grass. And many of my childhood friends – who are now dotted around the world – feel the same way.
With globalisation, transnational migration, numerous job opportunities and accessibility of international education all on the rise, the number of people who are currently living outside the old nation-state categories is increasing rapidly: 64 million just within 12 years, reaching up to 220 million people in 2013. In Cyprus alone, there are thousands of people living outside their home culture. In 1992, 95 per cent of those on the island were locally born and bred. But by the 2011 census, almost a quarter of the population consisted of foreign nationals. And when you consider how many of those are probably families, living and working abroad, that’s a lot of TCKs in the making.
Thus you end up with children who have assimilated the cultural mores of their parents alongside those of an entirely foreign country, and formed their own ‘third’ culture (a dedication to good manners coupled with a more accepting Mediterranean outlook, for example) as a result. And there are many advantages to this: in a world where there are now as many bilingual as monolingual children, being able to speak another language is a useful skill. And itinerant TCKs are renowned for their ability to ‘fit in’ and make friends wherever they go. But, for many of the children brought up this way, there are a lot of questions that go unanswered.
“For TCKs, questions about who they are, what they are, where they are from, what and who they can trust are examples of existential losses with which they must cope. And the way in which they process these losses will change, or may even wait until long after their childhood,” says mental health professional Karen Gilbert. Hence the confused sense of belonging (aromatic spice souks and pirouetting flamingos mean ‘home’ to me just as much as cricket greens and country lanes) experienced by many TCKs, coupled with a lack of connection to their roots, and an inescapable separation anxiety.
But most researchers agree that the benefits of forming a third culture are legion. For example, TCKs are four times as likely their stay-at-home counterparts to earn a degree; while many strongly believe that growing up abroad has vastly improved their interpersonal skills (80 per cent citing that they can ‘get along with anybody’, and 90 per cent report feeling they understand other cultures – and languages – better than their peers). And the knock-on effect of being raised in a different culture rolls over to adulthood: TCKs mature earlier, stay in education longer and, though they may marry later, their divorce rate is far lower.
Personally, I wouldn’t change being a TCK for the world. I may not have a place I can call home, but being a ‘global nomad’ (or a ‘cultural chameleon’ – both terms employed to describe adult TCKs) has taught me a far more than I ever could have imagined. Yes, I may belong to an odd, itinerant grouping, but our numbers are growing. And along the way, we’re forming a culture that, though it may not have set roots, is learning that perhaps what really makes a home isn’t where we live at all, but the people who surround us. Home, for me and – I suspect – many other Third Culture Kids, is friends and family. Regardless of where we’re ‘from’. In fact, I still haven’t filed a permanent address. And somehow, I doubt I ever will.
For more information on Third Culture Kids, visit www.tckworld.com or the Facebook page ‘Third Culture Kids’