I said before that I hadn’t even heard of the term Third Culture Kid until I was in Hong Kong for my second leg. That put me in 9th grade, making me either 14 or 15. My history of explaining what being a Third Culture Kid means, a history that has been rather sparse, has proven that outside of the Third Culture Kid community, no one has a clue what the difference is between the First, Second, and Third cultures. To be honest, with exception to the people who sat with me that auditorium in Hong Kong, I’m not entirely sure how many Third Culture Kids even realize that they’re Third Culture. So, I’m going to do my best to explain it, for the sake of those of you that have no idea and want to learn, but even more for those of you that are Third Culture and don’t yet know how to describe it.
A Third Culture Kid is someone who born in one country or culture, has grown up in different countries or cultures to that of their birthplace, and has parents who are very much connected to their home culture and country. Their parents, born and raised at home, represent the first culture. The people in the foreign countries that the child has grown up in represent the second culture, one which the Third Culture Kid has constantly interacted with. By taking both those identities and mashing them together in an epic mess of chaos and unity, you have created your third culture.
A third culture can be built at any point in life, but basic psychology teaches us that during our childhood we are the most malleable. We adopt accents easier, we learn languages easier, and we understand how to adapt in our surroundings quicker. We blend, evolve, and become what we see around us. It’s a survival mechanism, one that allows people growing up in one culture to adopt the beliefs and understandings of those around them in order to fit in. Third Culture Kids, however, do not have that grounding of a solid culture.
See, for us there is no normality. We exist in a world of a self-created culture of our youth, the culture that we will forever define ourselves by. In my case, I have the cultures of Hong Kong, England, Texas, and Paris all blended into a unique Third Culture. But it doesn’t stop there. This ability to adopt cultures spreads like a cancer throughout our childhood. It becomes subconsciously addicting, and though we don’t know we’re doing it, in just a few days or hours or even minutes in which we are immersed in a new and unique culture, we begin to adopt qualities and add it to our own. Vacations can add tiny elements to our Third Culture lifestyle. Returning to my life as the example, I have family that lives in Australia. I have been there two or three times in my life, and yet the cultural relaxation that envelopes the areas I reside in have led me to believe that little things should never interfere with our happiness. In fact, whenever something happens and someone says “I’m sorry,” my knee-jerk reaction is to respond with the extremely Australian saying: “No worries mate!”
This differs drastically from people who are First Culture. It’s hard for me to even understand, but I have noticed it time and time again as I have moved from country to country. For many First Culture Kids, there’s this burning desire to resist change. The number of times I have heard people say to me “I hate change” is mind boggling. This complete resistance to the unknown is almost all encompassing, spanning from the desire to move away from their hometown to the simple acceptance of foreign people. Take the American population post 9/11, for example. After the planes hit the twin towers, it wasn’t safe for you to be any person with brown skin in America. It didn’t matter if you were from Iraq, Iran, India, or Pakistan, if your skin wasn’t black or white, you were a terrorist. In a twisted way, it’s not their fault, but rather is just the effects of a First Culture Kid upbringing.
When it comes to Third Culture Kids, though, I have always noticed a much broader level of acceptance and understanding. In my case, this trait has caused me more problems than it has benefits. I can understand almost any point of view, whether I agree with it or not. It has made me a fantastic arguer, because in almost any situation I understand the other side so well that I could argue it for them. This gives me a level of foresight, so to speak, into what they are about to say, and I can counter it almost perfectly when they do. And all of this stems from an ability to understand other people, regardless of where they are from or what they believe. And that ability to understand stems from my youth, from growing up in a world where I adopted culture after culture into my own.
So what is it that makes us Third Culture Kids? It’s important to note that age has nothing to do with it. A Third Culture Kid is simply someone who spent their childhood traveling the world. They have adopted the culture of their parents and the culture of where they have lived into a unique third culture. This person can be 14, 22, 47, or 95 years old, but they will always be a Third Culture Kid. Why? Because it was in their childhood, before the cement of their lives began to set, that they developed their unique cultural background.
So who am I? Well, my passport tells people that I’m English. My accent tells people that I’m American. My political views tell people that I’m French. My pallet tells people that I’m Chinese. But really, I’m all of them, and by being all of them I have lost my ability to say to the world “this is where I belong.” Were I to travel to Hong Kong tomorrow, I would still be a white man in an Asian city viewed as an expat. If I went to Paris, I’d be the stupid American with the broken French language skills. If I moved back to England, I’d be the American guy. If I stayed here in the states, I’d always be everyone’s “British friend.”
The thing is, none of that matters. It’s true, there is nowhere in this world that I can call home, to return to and fit in like everyone else, and though most of the time that thought makes me feel incredibly sad, it also fills me with pride. Because unlike all my friends who I see every day, I have experienced something different. Even now, at the age of 24 when most people set on who they are, I am still changing. I will always be seeking new cultures, new identities, and new understandings to add to my cultural background. It’s a curse and a blessing, crammed into one unforgiving mind. I just can’t help it. I’m a Third Culture Kid.