IT’s always a challenge explaining to people where I come from. For my whole life I have never lived in my hometown, and being half British and half Chinese has made me feel like I don’t belong anywhere. I was brought up in Vietnam, where the native language sounded like gibberish, and having attended three different schools – moving from a school with a French curriculum to an American one and then to a British one – I spent my childhood and adolescence in places like Hanoi and Bangkok. This raised a lot of questions: Where do I fit in? Where do I belong? Where is my home? Who am I?
Shifting between multiple cultures, norms and homes sees Third Culture Kids develop a “cultural homelessness.” They are displaced and feel a strong lack of belonging.
My definition of home has always been different to the standard meaning of home. To most, home is considered a permanent place that people return to. I’ve never had that. Home for me can be so many things, like the old apartment my parents rented out, my iTunes rock playlist, my favourite cup of Vietnamese coffee or an old photo album. Growing up without a clear perception of home can be confusing, because most people form identities based on where they come from. Because TCKs constantly move homes, building a concrete identity is extremely difficult.
It’s the same with school. Constantly moving between various bastions of international education, as is the case with many TCKs, may offer some valuable life lessons, but it only adds to the identity crisis. In my case, I went to three different schools, each with a different system, and due to this I became a ‘cultural chameleon,’ changing my behaviour to suit the culture of each new school. By the end of my school life, I was a blend of French, Vietnamese, American and British cultures. Talk about confusing.
That said, TCKs do make friends and we tend to get attached easily. I remember feeling quite emotional when it comes to leaving close friends – and I’ve had to say countless goodbyes – but because we are forced to break multiple attachments with people every time we move to a new place, this gives TCKs tougher skin – we feel loss deeply, but we have rich experience at dealing with it.
Although you may think that TCKs have it rough, the number of advantages we have is unimaginable. We adapt seamlessly into our new environments and are open-minded about new things. We have an unrelenting passion to learn and our multi-dimensional view of the world can help to set us up for successful careers. When we travel, we are alert to our environment and what is around us. The French author Marcel Proust said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes,” and this perfectly sums up the day to day life of a TCK.
TCKs have a strong network of friends who we can meet up with from anywhere in the world. Our cross-cultural identity and experiences help to build long-lasting relationships with people from any kind of background.
Many TCKs are multilingual. Statistics show that 80 percent of TCKs use a language other than English at least occasionally, and 20 percent use another language regularly and work daily in one or more foreign languages. Out of all the places I’ve lived, I have retained several languages like Vietnamese, Spanish and French. Researchers also find that nearly 90 percent of TCKs have some academic post-secondary education and over 40 percent have completed a graduate degree.
Although my life has been filled with ups and downs, I still wouldn’t trade being a Third Culture Kid for anything. Our desire to learn, our interest in helping and our risk-taking have always made us resilient and strong-minded, which help us survive this restless world. As sociologist Ted Ward says, “TCKs are the prototypes of the future.”