Currently Browsing: Identity

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:


What is ‘home’?

Sometimes you arrive in a place and you simply know it is home, you feel it somewhere inside, you can’t explain it. For some people it is Paris, the first glimpse of the Eiffel tower, the lights sparkling on a winter evening, for others it is the bustle of India, the vibrant colours, the atmosphere, and for others, the beaches of Spain, the delicious food and the summer nights that never end. That is how I felt arriving in Vienna for the first time. I was 19, and I arrived to study German for three months. I didn’t know a word of German, except perhaps ja and nein, nor did I really know anything about Vienna or even Austria at all, although I think somehow I already knew I would fall in love with the city.

Vienna Schonbrunn

The driver started the car and we slowly drove out from the airport. It was then that I knew this was a place that really resonated with me, even though all I could see was the highway stretching before me, the industrialised surrounding areas, nothing of beauty. I arrived finally at my new apartment above a bakery -I can’t remember which district it was now- where I was to live with six or so other German language students. The landlady opened the door and asked me if I spoke German, which I didn’t, her brief explanation to me about the workings of the house were the only English words she would speak to me for the remained of my time there. The apartment was fine, a perfect student hangout with great housemates from around the world, and with the added bonus of free bread and pastries every evening from the bakery downstairs. There are so many things I love about Austria: the beauty of the cities and of the surrounding nature, the mountains, the delicious wintery food, the fact that the amazing opera singer Anna Netrebko is just as famous as a movie star (or terrible reality TV star), the ball season, the amazing music made accessible to everyone in Vienna, drinking wine in a Heurigen with friends. But it wasen’t these things that connected me to the city. It was something else.

Vienna 2003

With my housemates in Vienna back in 2003

I feel a similar connection to Melbourne (I loved it so much I had my parents send me to boarding school there), and I didn’t feel it when I lived in London, or in the various other cities I have lived in Australia. Somehow I know I will feel at home in the same way when I finally make it to Switzerland. I have lived in both Melbourne and Vienna on and off over the last 10 years, and the sense of happiness I feel in both cities has never dulled, which makes me realise it is not just a feeling of happiness one inevitably experiences during a fun extended holiday or student exchange. The feeling remains somehow, even when life is not going well all of the time.

Recently a friend of mine asked what my link to Sweden was – and I realised, while I really enjoy living in Sweden, I especially love the language, and have some very good Swedish friends, my link is fairly weak. Sweden does not feel like home to me, in the same way Vienna and Melbourne do. I enjoy living in Stockholm, it is a beautiful city, I loved studying in Uppsala, but for me, there is something missing, despite nothing being wrong. And yet I know people who hate Vienna and love London and Stockholm.

The reason I loved Vienna before I even really saw it is really just a personal connection that is impossible to really explain or understand. Of feeling at home somewhere, even if you are not born there. A sense of belonging.