Redefining Home: Third Culture Kids

By Marta Gramatyka (CUHK)
Published on March 6th, 2021

Who are you? How do you identify yourself? Where are you from? These questions seem easy for the majority of the people. But not for the Third Culture Kids who look for the answers their whole life, never being able to find a place they call “home”.

“Sometimes it’s very confusing, not knowing where you belong, or not belonging anywhere but feeling that you should. Other times I feel history’s breath on my back and I wonder about the ways that everything got woven together for me to be where I am now.” – Olga Mecking

One of the most complex questions I encounter in my life is a seemingly simple “where are you from?”. We hear this question all the time-when we need to fill up government documents; when we travel; when we meet someone new. Most people do not think much about the answer. They just say the name of the country they were born in and hold the passport of. This is usually the same country they fully identify themselves with. But sometimes, it is not that simple to determine what one’s cultural identity is. Especially for so-called third culture kids (TCK), a question regarding their nationality may be the beginning of a complex, long-lasting discussion.

Third culture kid (TCK) is a term most often used to describe expatriate children who have been raised in at least two different countries throughout their whole life and relocate frequently, but the definition is very blurred in today’s global world, in which many families live stretched between many places and people travel abroad for studies or work. The number of TCKs is estimated to be around 244 million people globally, and despite not feeling like they belong to any particular culture, they create a stateless community on their own.

In Hong Kong, this question is especially hard to answer due to a complicated political status of the city, which has always been in between multiple cultures and influences, creating a unique perspective on what identity is. From the British colony to waves of emigrants from mainland China in the mid 20th century and to the unique Hong Kong identity which has emerged in the early 21st century, the city holds many narratives on life and allows people to feel “different together”.

Here, the population of TCKs is particularly impressive. Many of the people I know personally were raised overseas by Chinese or Hong Kong-born parents and then they came back to their city of origin for studying or working-yet despite being ethnically and - in a way - culturally Chinese, they struggle with answering the question regarding their nationality and identity. In Hong Kong, there are also many gweilo, a Cantonese word for Westerners, who have been living in the city for many years and call themselves Hong Kongers, or were born here to “Western” parents. Being a TCK is therefore not always inborn - in many cases, after experiencing various cultures, you can realize that big cities are in general places of global citizens, and this is where many TCKs tend to feel the best, as the international environment seems to be the only one they can fully adjust to and understand its ever changing patterns.

According to American Journal of Preventive Medicines, being a third culture kid and moving places very often, comes with a set of both positive and negative consequences. From the increased rate of suicides and mental problems later on in life, to being open-minded and adaptable, a lot depends on the general conditions in which the child was brought up, as well as on how well the transition from one place to another went. From choosing a school to the atmosphere in the city, it all influences the kid’s personality and future adaptability.

Due to inability to fully associate themselves with the birth culture but being unable to completely cut ties with it because of family relations, many TCK develop a love/hate relationship with the country in which they were born or with their ethnicity. All cultural aspects of their identity may seem estranged from their actual personality and identity, but usually, for most of the people, they are the factors which allow a person to identify themselves. “I am an American”, “I am a Chinese”, I am a Hong Konger” seem like simple sentences, but they are just a way of expressing a whole set of unspoken truths, desires and behaviors. In Hong Kong, which is a cosmopolitan city with a multitude of lifestyles and perspectives, it is much easier to belong for those who don’t really feel like belonging anywhere. You don’t need to know the language or be of any particular ethnicity to be able to “be a Hong Konger” and feel like it’s your home - at least for the time span of living there.

Even though TCKs are usually fluent in at least two languages, they see them only as ways of conveying a message, rather than an indication of belonging to a particular community. Other important things are the values, as sometimes the values of multiple cultures may clash, which confuses and breaks a person’s worldview. In international schools, where many of TCK attend, the values are predominantly Western and American, yet the society in which they may live, often appreciates different ways of life, creating a feeling of being a stranger everywhere they go. Moreover, TCKs living abroad often need to struggle with many stereotypes, as the local people often don’t understand their complex stories and fluctuating identities. Especially if they live in countries in which they are an ethnic minority, they may develop depression or a feeling of loneliness.

Pico Iyer, a TCK of Indian descent who has lived in four countries throughout his life and an author who explores topics of culture and belonging, tried to explain feelings related to his own sense of identity, summing them up in a quote: “In some ways, I would never be Indian or English or Californian, and that was quite freeing, though people may always define me by my skin color or accent. But also, because I didn’t have that external way of defining myself, I had to be really rigorous and directed in grounding myself internally, through my values and loyalties and to the people and ideas I hold closest to me.”

The ability to form connections with people based on common interests and values rather than on common cultural background, is one of the best traits of a typical TCK and it puts them ahead in the workplace or school. Usually, they get along with anyone, as their perception of others is not about their appearance or citizenship, but rather their character, morality and personality. Being able to stay international, without having to define oneself, can be very freeing and lead to embracing diversity rather than being scared of it. Since many TCKs need to develop a strong sense of self, in order to not get lost in their chaotic world which changes very frequently, they tend to be much more mature and grounded than their peers who've only lived in a single country. Because of different lifestyles they need to adapt to changes wherever they go, and when facing a problem they often find it easy to come up with out-of-the-box solutions and creative approaches. This individualistic approach is highly influenced by many different cultures which they’ve experienced, so they are able to pick the best aspects of them and connect them together, creating something unique.

As a TCK, I lived in five different countries, having a chance to experience things that my peers usually don’t know about. It has not only allowed me to gain a deep understanding of the world and its patterns, but I was able to get to know people from the most mysterious places. Despite amazing experiences and chances I got due to the “nomadic lifestyle”, there were many moments in which I found it hard to connect with people, especially those without the international mindset. Oftentimes I couldn’t describe myself because I was from everywhere and from nowhere, constantly on the move -but after all, it allows me to be truly myself. Not a nationality, a race, a social class, but a human.

Subscribe to our newsletter

View our latest posts

Subscribe to our newsletter