Third Culture Kids: The Trade Off

‘Where are you from?’, is a trivial question for most people. But for some, like Liberal Arts and Sciences student Lior Benador, it can be a perplexing one. She has lived in four different countries, has family and friends on three different continents and has three passports. She tells her story as a ‘third culture kid’,

Lior Benador

I will never forget my first visit to an American post office… I was licking the stamp and desperately trying to stick it to the envelope, when I noticed someone staring at me from the end of the line, as if I had just landed from the moon. ‘It’s a sticker’ he told me; I blushed in a split second, hurrying to send my letter and get out of there…

When moving to a new country, such moments are inevitable; they later turn into funny stories you tell your friends, but while experiencing them you feel puzzled, even embarrassed. For me, culture shock is a familiar feeling.

My friends always tease me “where did you say you were from again?!” Now, I am prepared with an answer: “Do you want the long version or the short version?!” Here’s the short version: I grew up in Israel, Switzerland and the US, and three years ago I landed in the Netherlands. I have lived in four different countries, I have family and friends on three different continents, I speak three languages, I have three passports. Confused? So was I for a long time…

While growing up in different countries sounds to many as a priceless opportunity to explore the world – which it is – there are some complex considerations; with even the simple question ‘where are you from?’ being a challenge! Though I am grateful for the experiences I had, there are still open ended questions which follow me into adult life like – where do I belong, and how do I identify myself?

Imagine my surprise and comfort when I found out I belong to a growing international subculture of people who are like me: Third Culture Kids! Third Culture Kid (TCK), a term coined in the early 50’s by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, refers to someone who grew up, or spent a significant part of their childhood or adolescence, outside of their parents’ culture, and as a result has built up relationships to several different cultures while not identifying completely with any – they ‘belong everywhere and nowhere’.

That has several effects on an adult TCK. To start with, the notion of ‘home’, which for most of us refers to a location, is for TCK’s associated with people – it is an emotional place. This summer I went ‘home’ to visit my parents and brother in the US; I felt right at home on the couch watching TV with them, but the feeling was different when I stepped out to the street. That familiarity was not there, the street might as well have been a different street in a different country.

My classmate, second year Liberal Arts and Sciences student Sander Cortenraad (21), who grew up in the Netherlands, the US, and Switzerland, agrees with me and adds: “I orient myself around my family because of moving so much, but also because, studying in an international school, those around you continually come and go.”

So the intuition of home is different for TCK’s, but is that a problem? Having friends and family in three countries, I have to travel to different countries every time I would like to see them, which goes hand in hand with tiresome journeys and a financial burden. Moreover, this middle-point between being at home and estranged, creates a feeling of being ‘out of sync’ with my surrounding. Sander tries to describe this feeling as follows: “I am Dutch, but there is a connection missing. There are some collective experiences like silly childhood TV shows, that all Dutch people have growing up, which I didn’t have.”

This middle-point also forms a kind of migratory instinct – a constant need for change. My good friend and former classmate Maya Yaacobi, who was born in Israel and lived in Cyprus, France and Germany, recently relocated to Israel. She notices about herself that ‘if something goes wrong, I know I can pack my bags and go somewhere new; I want to stay, but change is addictive!’.

A unique trait TCKs gain growing up – the ability to quickly adapt to a new setting, may be the reason why it is so much easier for adult TCK’s to make the decision to move from one country to another. Observing and learning cultural codes, and behaving accordingly, makes TCK’s ‘cultural chameleons’.

Aside from avoiding an embarrassing scene, Filippo Isgro (19), another classmate who was born in Italy and grew up in Turkey, the Czech Republic and Poland, recognizes the professional advantage of being a cultural chameleon: “the best thing about growing up in so many places is getting used to change; adaptation is a incredible skill – I will definitely use is towards a future international career.”

TCKs’ ability to quickly and easily build relationships with people from different cultures is indeed as asset global organizations can benefit from. But can we really adapt, or is it only superficial? I found that in some cases I do have trouble fitting in, especially when going back to my country of origin after a while abraod: on my last visit to Israel, I didn’t recognize the latest slang words, or get all the jokes, and I was approached more than once in English – not in Hebrew, my mother tongue, mistaken to be a tourist… It was a sort of ‘reversed culture shock’, which made me very uncomfortable – this was supposed to be the place I know the best!

A Tilburg University TCK I recently met, Corporate Communication student Pascal De Kruyff (18), who was born in the Netherlands, lived in China for four years, and is now back in the Netherlands to study, adds: “Living abroad for a long time, you idealize your home country, and the false expectations you have coming back make you feel you landed in a new country.”

How TCKs around the world can benefit from their experiences, is a personal matter, but it might be assisted by an understanding of the different effects a multinational upbringing has.

Taking a second look at my frustration by not being able to define my identity, I have realized that not belonging entirely to one nationality can actually help me build a stronger sense of individuality.

The path I am walking – the combination of countries and cultures that comprise me, belongs to me only, though I share each part of it with many others. What is more, the ‘third culture’ in Third Culture Kids means for me that I created my own culture along this path, which I find to be quite unique. [Lior Benador]


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