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Itchy Feet

For those of us who have moved multiple times, sometimes saying in one place can be the hardest thing of all.

This is especially true for me when times get tough. When I have bad days, when I’m lonely, or frustrated, one thing that always pops into my head is ‘life could be easier if you just moved to (insert city/country that is my flavour of the month)’. It’s not that I actually want to run away from my problems, and in fact I’ve never actually followed though with these thoughts, but they are always there, in the back of my mind – you could just move, leave it all behind, start again – it would be better next time, somewhere else.

I also like to research other countries and cities that I’d like to live in. At the moment for example, I like to read about the thoughts and experiences of people that live in Berlin. I’m sure if I moved there from Stockholm, I’d be looking up what life might be like in another city, and probably missing aspects of life in Sweden. (In an attempt to remedy this desire, I’m going to Berlin to explore/work for a week rather than permanently – to my husband’s great relief, I’m sure).

The same thing goes for language. I used to love the Swedish language when I lived in Australia. I’d watch movies, read books, and look forward to my Swedish lectures at university. Lately – the last 3 or 4 months, I’ve grown tired of learning Swedish. Maybe I’ve hit that point where it’s harder to see progress, where I can do almost everything I need to do in Swedish, and so I stop feeling as motivated – which then leads to me thinking of all the other languages I would like to learn instead. 

It can really be a challenge – this experience of life across so many cultures – you grow to love so many different places, to make friendships with people who scatter across the globe, you become comfortable with the process of being new (an outsider), and almost addicted to it. It becomes hard to settle, to grow roots – or rather, to take pleasure from these roots – they can seem at times stifling, and yet at the same time something you deeply crave.

I sometimes wonder (out of sheer curiosity, and only very very rarely, a hint of envy) how it must feel to have always lived in one place, to be part of a community you have grown up with, to know where you belong and where you want to remain. I have no idea where I will be in five years time, on which continent I will be living, which language I’ll be learning. But the thought of not knowing makes me feel comfortable rather than fearful.

I just hope I can learn to take pleasure from where I am now, this very moment, rather than imagining everywhere else, anywhere but here. 

Everyone should be an immigrant once

I firmly believe that everyone should be an immigrant at least once in their lives. 

People should know how it feels to be new to a country, to know no one, to not even know how to do fairly routine things that at home would not be given a second thought – like how to make a doctors appointment, or how to go food shopping – in Austria for example, you have to weigh your own fruit and vegetables at the supermarket before you pay, and place the price sticker on the bag otherwise you will be yelled at by the woman at the check-out, while the people in line behind you roll their eyes in frustration as she then needs to run back to the machine and weigh them for you (learnt from personal experience).

Anti-immigrant sensationalism in the media (and by far right political parties – and more worryingly by mainstream political parties) is increasing by the second, and sadly there are many people who are adopting these points of view without really looking into the facts and figures. Yes, I get it, ‘evil immigrants taking over our country and causing chaos’, sells newspapers (and conveniently creates a scapegoat for many economic and social issues), and newspapers are a business, and they need people to buy their papers, but I think the media has a lot to answer for in this respect.

One insight that really resonated with me in response to the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe was this:

“If they knew how difficult it is to live abroad, they wouldn’t think that. It’s ten times as hard if you are coming from Africa. It’s hard enough if you are German or a French person… I have to say, it’s nice to move, but sometimes it’s very tiring and very depressing and very challenging” (Eurostars and Eurocities by Adrian Favell)

I am glad that at the age of 28 I have lived in four countries so far, that my grandparents were immigrants, that I can understand the difficulty of moving to a new country, the struggle of learning a new language, of negotiating the minefield that is integrating into a new society. But most of all I am glad that I can put myself into the shoes of those that are new to a country, to empathise and not to judge so harshly, because like it or not, we need immigrants in our ageing societies, as Hein de Haas wrote recently:

“Indeed, the only way to drastically reduce immigration is to wreck the economy.  A prolonged economic recession is therefore the only recipe to reduce immigration.”

“If and when economic growth resumes in the US and the EU, migration is likely to increase again, but with increasing global competition for migrant labour, governments and societies cannot afford the luxury to just take for granted that migrants will keep on coming – with this attitude, they may be shooting themselves in their own feet.

In many ways, in the future, the question will no longer be how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.”

I realise not everyone has the interest or opportunity to immigrate, but studying abroad, taking an expat assignment, and even travel helps to open your mind, to build tolerance and understanding. Nothing bad can come of that.

Exploring Identity: the challenges of going ‘home’

Going home, back to where you were born, or where your parents were born can have one of the biggest impacts on your sense of identity and belonging.

Many immigrants, refugees and expats living abroad do not identify fully with the culture of their adopted country, identifying more strongly with the culture of their country of birth, or that of their parents’.

An extended visit, or permanent return to their country of origin or that of their parents, can shatter any idealised pictures formed during years away. While we are overseas, our home country is changing and will not be the exact same place when we return, just as we are not the same people when we come back after two or three or ten years. It can cause the person to realise that their new ‘home’ or ‘homes’ are becoming a larger part of their identity, sometimes leading to a sense of not belonging fully anywhere.

Yesterday as I was re-reading Geert Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, I came across a paragraph that summed up my thoughts perfectly:

“A common experience for second-generation immigrants is to identify with their country of origin while they live in the adoptive country of their parents but, in contrast, to feel that they belong to their new country when they visit their parents’ country of origin. This is because they are likely to live by a mix of cultural (hidden) rules from both societies while emotionally needing a primary group with which to identify. To no surprise, they often seek comfort with one another.”

Seeking comfort with people who share similar experiences was one of the main traits I mentioned in my discussion of Third Culture Kids – feeling a sense of belonging to those who have a similar experience of life across cultures, even for those who do not share countries in common.

One of the best examples I have read of this experience is that of Lisa, a girl living in Sweden, but originally from Yugoslavia in Paradoxes of Multiculturalism: Essays on Swedish Society:

“One young girl, Lisa, travels to Yugoslavia to find her ‘real’ homeland. Yugoslavia, often referred to as the homeland, is perceived of in terms of challenges associated with the search for belonging and identity, for one’s own home. For immigrant youth, ‘home’ is a multifaceted metaphor. Lisa travels back home every year with her parents … One year, when Lisa spent a prolonged period in the homeland (Yugoslavia). on her own, she found herself only partly at home. She identified homelessness there with similar forms of homelessness in Sweden.

Eventually she found her path crossed by and resembling that of fellow travellers in her multicultural circle of friends in the Stockholm suburbs from where the trip home had begun. This circle of friends consisted of an ethnically mixed group of girls and boys with shared ongoing journeys ‘home’. Among Serbian Lisa’s best friends were a Turkish boy, an Italian-Swedish girl and a wholly Swedish girl. The rest of her circle included about a dozen youth, mostly boys from the Muslim Meditteranean area.

To retain their identities in the multi-ethnic suburban tenements they actively had to create a cultural consciousness that was more comprehensive than that of their parents. Through its ethnic mix, this circle of friends not only represented most of what could be found in the local community, but also constituted a new kind of community, one which questioned and reworked both the traditional values of the new (Swedish) world, and the established attitudes about masculinity/femininity, friendship/ emnity, etc. of the ‘old’ world.”

We can see that it wasn’t until Lisa spent a prolonged period of time in her homeland, or rather the homeland of her parents, that she realized she didn’t belong fully in Sweden or in Serbia. But she found a sense of belonging with her friends who had shared similar experiences, who were third culture kids, like her.

Tesfay, a refugee living in London explored his sense of rootlessness in the book Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees by Caroline Moorehead:

“If I were to play with words, I would say that I was homeless. Even if I go back to Eritraya now, I will not belong there. I will be strange to people, and they will be strange to me. I have acquired new habits and manners. But here, I lack what I need to feel at home. Wherever I am, for the rest of my life, I will never be entirely at home again.”

It is clear that many adults who live outside of their country of birth often feel as though their identity shifts, that they assimilate parts of the new culture into that of their past, some developing a more cosmopolitan outlook, others feeling rootless, and lost.

These issues of identity will only continue to grow, as migration does.

In Third Culture Kids, Pollock and van Reken predict that “growing up among cultural differences is already, or soon will be, the rule rather than the exception – even for those who never physically leave their home country”. The Schengen Agreement is making it easier for Europeans to relocate and find work in countries not previously as open to them in the past, for work, study, and love. Asylum seekers will continue to arrive in Europe in search of protection and family reunification and immigrants will come to build a better life for their families. This human movement is encouraging a cosmopolitan ethos of interconnectedness and multiculturalism within the European Union, on a scale never seen before.


Are you a Third Culture Kid?

Did you live in more than one country during your childhood?

Do you have trouble answering the seemingly innocent question ‘Where are you from’? (well… my passport says I am from Brazil, but actually I grew up in Italy and China, before moving to London for university and now I live in the US…)

Then you can consider yourself to be a Third Culture Kid (TCK).

I’ll never forget the moment I first found out that I was a Third Culture Kid. I was on Facebook 7 years ago and saw that a friend of mine had joined a group called Third Culture Kids. The name sounded interesting so I clicked on the link and began to read:

A TCK is defined as:

“a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background”

Reading this definition taken from the brilliant book Third Culture Kids written by David Pollock and Ruth van Reken was one of the most important moments of my life. Suddenly I understood why I didn’t really feel at home 100% in any culture, but most importantly, I realized I was not alone in feeling the way that I did, and that many many others felt the same.

TCKs have many other names: global nomads, expat kids, global citizens, cosmopolitans … the list goes on. Traditional TCK’s are children whose parents are diplomats or those working for the army, missionaries, international businesses or international organisations, thus moving to different countries around the world due to their parents careers.

Pollock and Van Reken go on to explain that TCKs are “raised in an neither/nor world. It is neither fully the world of their parents’ culture (or cultures) nor fully the world of the other culture (cultures) in which they were raised”, nor even a collection of all of the cultures they have experienced. Rather, these children “develop their own life patterns different from those who are basically born and bred in one place”. Many of these children struggle to answer the question where are you from? They form an identity that is “associated with feelings of closeness to people beyond the nation-state”, or as the philosopher Diogenes stated, true cosmopolitan ‘citizens of the world’.

Personally, I think the term Third Culture Kid is an excellent beginning in an almost impossible task of describing the experiences of individuals who have lived between different cultures, be it different countries, or even different cultures within one country (although this is less emphasised in the book). I have also noticed similar descriptions from individuals who have been forced to move to another country as a refugee, but had thought they still only identified with their home country, until they were able to return back to their home country some years later, and realised that they had actually adopted some of the norms of their adoptive country and now did not feel as though they fully belonged anywhere.

The great news is, you are not alone! TCKs have always existed, and today more than ever. In our increasingly globalised world more and more people are choosing to live overseas for work opportunities, adventure or for other personal reasons, and they are bringing their families with them, be it for a year or two or permanently. This is especially common now that the EU makes mobility between countries so simple with an estimated 2-3% (around 14 million) of EU citizens living in another EU country. US citizens are also highly mobile, and over 4 million are estimated to live overseas, as well as a million Australians and the same number of Japanese.

As adults, TCK’s are more likely to maintain the highly mobile lifestyle of their parents, than to remain in one country or city for the rest of their lives. Many are drawn to cosmopolitain cities such as London, New York, Munich and so on, where there is an increased possibility of interacting with other like minded people.

Being a TCK is a wonderful thing, it allows you to view the entire world as a potential home, to understand how it feels to be an outsider and to make others more welcome as a result. You might not be able to easily answer the question “so where are you from”, but that is a small price to pay for an amazing experience.

I’ll be posting up plenty more about Third Culture Kids and Cross-Culture Kids, but I can highly recommend the following books for those who want an in-depth look at this topic:

And some online resources:


Stockholm Third Culture Kids presentation Thursday 6th of September at 10am

For Adult Third Culture Kids, parents of TCKs and anyone who is interested!

You are invited to come along to the Stockholm Global Expat Centre onThursday the 6th of September at 10am for the international coffee morning where I will be giving a presentation on Third Culture Kids.

Just register here.

I hope to see you there!