“So, where are you from?”
This innocuous question isn’t easy for everyone to answer. My birth country is England, but I’m definitely not British, and only after we moved to Spain did my earliest memories took root. My father, ever the patriot, once told me once that I was just as Spanish as the neighborhood kids who made fun of my brothers and me for speaking English. As we spent our childhood climbing olive trees and taking beach trips to the Alboran Sea, we remained conscious of the vastly different life our cousins led growing up in my mother’s native Washington state.
When our family moved to Cleveland and the four of us started high school, our curious classmates peppered us with that dreaded question. We all answered differently. My older brother, who is autistic and perhaps had the most difficult time adjusting to life in Spain, liked saying we were from Washington, where the rest of our American family members lived. My next younger brother always gave his birthplace of Chicago, though we only lived there a year. My youngest brother said “Spain,” the only home he had ever known in his seven years of life.
I answered the question differently depending on who asked, considering the strange discomfort it sparked in me. I didn’t yet have language for the truth: that I spent my childhood and early adolescence learning to be a bridge between worlds. Years later, I can be thankful for the richness of my cross-cultural life while recognizing an elusive sense of rootlessness and loss. This tension has colored my movements and decisions for as long as I can remember.
Ruth Hill Useem was the American sociologist who first coined the term “third-culture kid” in the 1950s. According to her definition, a third-culture kid is any person whose formative years take place outside of their parents’ first culture. Since then, the emerging research around TCKs has evolved to include children of cross-cultural marriages, children who spend a large amount of their childhood traveling, and other aspects of a mobile and international lifestyle.
David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken wrote of their experiences as TCKs in a number of books, including “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.” Pollock and Van Reken define a third-culture Kid (TCK) as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
According to Pollock and Van Reken’s research, on the outside, TCKs are usually excellent at adapting, making it easy to overlook parts of their development. With busy parents and ever-changing schedules, these children move through cycles of attachment and loss much faster than their peers. These cycles are usually invisible behind the labels affixed to TCKs: resilient, adaptive, experienced, mature. Because their energy and attention are fractured across many dimensions, the trauma from these losses is never addressed. Years later, unrecognized grief can take on new forms such as anxiety or depression. I attended a TCK group during my freshman year of college, where I sat in a room with around 40 other military children, missionary children and children of immigrants as we listened to a therapist specializing in TCK counseling describe our hidden grief. We shared our stories, cried, and laughed as we revisited some of the losses we rushed through.
Whether you’re a longtime expat with adult kids, or you’re facing the decision to move abroad with small children, remember that anxiety experienced by children of trans-cultural backgrounds can mask their unique childhood memories. Take meticulous note of special events or even just day-to-day happenings. Talk to your adult children about the events that took place against the backdrop of their many different homes. As I get older, I find myself asking my parents more and more for any bits of memories or stories they can give me from my childhood. They don’t always remember, but when they do, it’s a priceless addition to the storeroom that informs my identity. Remembering the life we experienced together provides me with a foundation to stand on as I make my own way in the world.
In a world where we almost always do, it’s important that sometimes we don’t feel like the odd one out. Even though most TCKs are familiar with ambiguity and nuance doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a solid routine to stand on. Making sure we have constants in life, such as holiday traditions, regular trips to visit loved ones, or certain seasons where travel is limited can teach kids that no matter how unpredictable life becomes, they always have something to fall back on.
I feel my rootlessness most acutely when I try to look to my past to inform where I should go next. In moments of tragedy, the lack of solid ground under my feet can still be a source of discomfort. After moving more than fifteen times, there are many places that feel familiar and comforting, but that doesn’t translate to a portable sense of belonging. Quite the opposite; though I feel comfortable just about anywhere, there is nowhere I feel entirely at home.
Those familiar with my background usually ask me whether my multicultural upbringing was worth it. The answer is always yes. The stories I have are indispensable, as is my desire to add to them. I know how to make just about anyone comfortable, having been excluded so often the feeling has lost its novelty on me. I have learned to listen and hold space for others across geographical, political, and religious differences. I am still learning to create my own life, to advocate for myself and to revisit my childhood losses. Today, I consider my life’s transience and the fluidity of my identity as my personal brand of freedom. I will never stop paying attention to the unfolding enormity of that gift.
My life as a third-culture kid means I’ll always be searching; for new places that become a part of me, for more people who become like family, and for better questions to ask them than “Where are you from?”
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