Living in the wide world of third culture kids

Vanessa Wanqiao Zhang
Being exposed to multiple cultures from a young age gives TCKs a completely different view of the world.
Vanessa Wanqiao Zhang

For Third Culture Kids like me, “where are you from” is a forever dreaded question, because sometimes it’s just not that simple.

A Third Culture Kid (henceforward referred to as TCK) is someone who is raised in a culture other than that of their parents or the country stated on their passport. Many TCKs move multiple times during their childhood and growing up, a TCK basically feels like a foreigner to all lands, or a native to more than one.

It can be confusing yet exciting, an amalgamation of traditions, families, countries and nationalities. This is what my life is like to be a TCK.

I was born in China with Chinese parents, surrounded by a completely traditional Chinese family. However, less than a year after being born I was whisked away to Australia, where I spent my first birthday, then went with my parents to the US. We spent 5 years in California, then another two in Wisconsin. Growing up there, I felt completely normal. Though we maintained strong ties with family back in China, my home was there in the States. When people asked me where I was from, however, I would reply that I was Chinese.

Right before the end of fifth grade, we were once again packing up and moving, this time to Ireland. The initial adjustment was difficult, but soon I felt like I fit in just fine, even my American twang was slowly fading, gradually shifting into a Dublin brogue.

Born in China with a Chinese passport, raised in the States, and now living in Ireland, I am the emblem of a TCK.

What makes TCKs different from regular kids, besides the fact that they have moved a couple of times? Being exposed to multiple cultures from a young age gives TCKs a completely different view of the world. Diverse perspectives become the norm and “normal” doesn’t really seem to exist anymore.

In my experience, this kind of open-mindedness is a positive trait and can be very beneficial. It can make it easier to accept difference and adapt to new circumstances. As I grew accustomed to experiencing constant change, adapting became a skill. For many people going to a new country, they are faced with intense culture shock. Different traditions may seem abnormal and one can feel uncomfortable or “not at home.” However, as a TCK, it’s more of a case of “oh, this is different… cool.”

When you are a TCK, the world feels so open, there are no roots that hold you to one place. I guess this is how my sense of independence came about. I wasn’t scared to do things by myself and go places on my own. It was as if the world was my oyster. At 8 years old, I was flying from the States to China on my own.

Fluid concept

As a TCK, “home” was always a fluid concept, so when I went away, be it on a school trip, or studying abroad, homesickness never affected me in the same way as it did the other kids in my class. It’s not that I’ve never experienced homesickness, I did when I was very young. However by the time I was 11, the feeling simply wouldn’t occur anymore.

Of course being a TCK isn’t always good. Not all TCKs enjoy moving around. Though you may feel connected to more parts of the world, you might still feel empty inside. “Home” and “identity” can be very difficult to define. This comes hand in hand with the fact that one’s idea of home might not be a physical place.

With family scattered around the globe, “home is where family is” isn’t necessarily applicable either. This becomes especially salient for me when I visit my relatives in China. I have become accustomed to Western culture and upon coming back, I seem somewhat foreign.

Many TCKs experience a sense of “not belonging” because what we are used to is a mixture of different cultural norms. Yet when we visit new places, we bring along the norms of other cultures, and that makes us stand out.

However, being different isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I believe that it is a privilege to be able to experience so many different cultures. We all should appreciate cultures for their differences and diversity—especially for us TCKs, who are so easily given the opportunity to explore more than one.

So what does it mean to be a TCK? In a survey on TCKs conducted by Denizen Magazine, a magazine dedicated purely to TCKs, I think the answer was put best:

What do (Third Culture Kids) most frequently say when asked “Where are you from?” The response: “It’s complicated.”

The author is an intern at Shanghai Daily.

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