“Where are you from?”
This is the question that a third culture kid (TCK) often struggles to answer.
“Should I give the long version or the short version? If I do the short version, should I give the country I last lived in or the one that is on my passport? Wait, which passport?” This is the thought process that rapidly passes through a TCK’s mind before trying to answer a simple question without coming off as pretentious.
You’re right, it shouldn’t be a struggle to answer such a simple question.
However, when cultural values are part of what moulds an identity, and when these cultural values also associate to a specific nationality, it feels bizarre for a TCK to announce that they are from a particular country. Just stating that they are from one country means that they are not conveying their true identity. “When I say I’m from Germany, I almost immediately feel the need to add that I lived in Malaysia for ten years. I don’t feel fully German and if I just say I’m from Germany, it’s not the whole story,” shared first year student Tim Streller. He added, “I would say I’m German but I still see a big difference in outlook when I talk to most Germans who grew up locally their entire life.” To a TCK, it feels unfair to declare that they belong to that particular country when they do not share the same values or experiences of a local who was born and bred in that country. Instead, they end up feeling that their identity is a potpourri of several different cultures that influenced them while growing up.
But before we go any further, what exactly is a TCK?
Ruth E. Van Reken, author of “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” defines TCK as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” So basically, someone who is half Indonesian and half French but grew up in Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic would fall into this category.
It is certainly an enriching experience to be able grow up and learn from different cultures. Personally, traditions like jumping up and down during New Years in the Philippines (to grow taller… still waiting for that growth spurt though) or observing the Ramadan fast in Bangladesh are just few of the many things that somehow added to me as a person today. I am extremely grateful for this experience but there is also this fear that I do not know enough of each culture because I only know a bit of everything. I feel uncomfortable when I speak to other Japanese/Filipinos and realise that I was not aware that a certain tradition existed and I want to know more of my parents’ cultures.
To be fair, there are ways to keep in touch with a certain culture. PhD student Ryo Yanagida’s family celebrated Japanese traditions in Germany by eating ozoni soup during New Years (for long life). For third year student Polen Turkmen, even though she grew up in Romania, she actively connects to her Turkish roots by listening to their music and watches their TV shows. First year student Tim Streller took extra classes on top of his school work for several years to maintain his German language at a high standard.
Regardless, knowing about the culture is different from understanding and adopting its values. Mr Yanagida feels that even though both his parents are Japanese, his time in Germany has resulted in him being more accustomed to western values than Japanese values. In the Japanese culture where there is a strong hierarchy between age groups and criticisms are reluctantly mentioned, Mr Yanagida rejects the “thick Japanese public face” and instead tries to be “more direct.” It does not necessarily mean that the Japanese values are wrong – it just so happens that as a result of growing up in several cultures, he has naturally adopted this part of the Western attitude instead of a Japanese one.
Despite TCKs’ attempt to belong to a certain country by practicing its traditions, discovering its pop culture, or learning its language, it is difficult to be assimilated into a culture when that culture treats you as an outsider. Ms Turkmen expresses, “I always feel like I am looking in through a window. They consider me as Turkish in Romania and Romanian in Turkey. I was a foreigner everywhere I lived and that was difficult to digest. I know this is cliché but airports feel the closest thing to home”. I, and probably a lot of the TCKs, resonate with her statement. Even though I associate myself with multiple countries, since every one of those countries see me as a foreigner, I feel uneasy saying that I am from a certain place.
Even though a TCK’s identity is a mixture of different cultures, the amount of influence a culture would have on them is not quantifiable. Ask Ms Turkmen where she feels like she is more from and she will reply, “it’s more contextual. When I’m around Turkish friends I feel more Turkish but when I’m around Romanian friends I feel more Romanian”. For her, spending time with her Turkish friends means that she gets to directly interact with Turkish culture. It is at these times when she considers herself as more Turkish (and vice versa when she is with her Romanian friends). However, her time associating herself with one culture is “very fleeting”, and as a result, she feels more genuine when she instead identifies herself with a region, i.e. as “European”. So if you ask a TCK “where are you more from?”, they may give you a satisfactory answer but you will probably hear a different response if you ask them again in five years.
The convoluted mush of TCK’s identity might also be stemmed from the fact that identity itself changes depending on their situation. I know it doesn’t make sense but let me try to explain. When moving from one country from another, it is quite often that the lifestyle completely changes. In my personal experience, moving from Asia to St Andrews is a 180-degree change on my lifestyle and outlook. The people, the surroundings, my day-to-day events are all different. It is only fair that even though I am my genuine self, I notice that the new surroundings that comes with new problems have subconsciously and slightly changed my attitude, the way I approach things, and even my posture. To be clear, the TCK is not putting on some fake persona. It is just that only a certain facet of their identity comes out in one context whereas a slightly different side appears under a different lifestyle. For Mr Yanagida, he sees his identity shift when language is involved. “Depending on the language I speak, I feel like I have a different personality”, he voices. Compared to English, a slight change in grammar or vocabulary in Japanese can completely change the formality or politeness of the conversation (in my opinion, the difference in formal and casual language in Japanese is more painfully intricate than German or French). Since he must consider how to use the Japanese language depending on who he is talking to, he notices that he is “more careful” when speaking to other Japanese. On the contrary, when he speaks in English, he finds it easier to express his thoughts “more directly” and as a result, he comes off as having a different personality. The cultural differences bring out slightly different aspects of identity of a TCK but it is important to remember that the identity is still genuine.
This paradox of growing up in several cultures yet not belonging to any one of them is what makes St Andrews inviting for TCKs. “Definitely one of the big reason I came to this school was because it was more international. Since there are a lot of TCKs here and a lot of people here are from other countries, I don’t feel like an outsider. Everyone’s open mindedness and their different experiences makes for a much more diverse and interesting experience here,” a second year TCK shared. This small bubble that is St Andrews has successfully created an extremely international student body that has become a sanctuary for TCKs where they feel like they are not an outlier but one of many.
But what will happen when TCKs leave the bubble? They are used to saying bittersweet goodbyes. St Andrews is their home for now but they have also accepted that it is not permanent. Since there is no concrete “home” for them, they do not know where they are headed nor do they have a place to fall back on when life gets tough. There is an upside to the situation though. The unrooted identity allows TCKs to feel free to go anywhere. As Ms Turkmen explained, “I don’t mind if I go to Subsaharan Africa or Europe. I feel flexible in that regard because I feel like I can adapt and make home anywhere”. When asked about his future, Mr Streller leaves us with the well-known sentiment for third culture kids “feeling uneasy but excited.”