Thoughts On Being A Third Culture Kid

I’m what child psychologists and parents who read too much call a “third-culture kid.” I first came across the term a few years ago in an article, and was drawn in by a description that read something like: “from everywhere and nowhere.” According to, the online “official home of third culture kids,” a third-culture kid, or “TCK,”  is “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.”  Hello—it’s me.

I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, to Danish parents who were living in Amsterdam at the time. My dad was well into his career in finance, and when he was offered a promotion just a ten hour drive away, my parents were quick to take the opportunity. Despite their embrace of adventure, the idea of having her first child in a country where she didn’t speak the language was a little too much for my mom, so she decided to have me back in Denmark, where I lived for a total of nine days before being strapped into a car seat and driven away to what would become fifteen years of living outside of my native country.

When it was time for me to start school, my parents took an immersive approach. They had both learned to speak Dutch—my father for professional reasons; my mother because she was starting to get embarrassed by always having to ask supermarket employees if they spoke English. So they enrolled me in a local preschool, and by age three, I spoke Danish with my parents at home, but Dutch at school and when arguing with my little sister.

When I was five years old, my dad came home with a big world map with little cartoon drawings of landmarks all over it. He laid it down and pointed to the picture of a windmill and clogs (clearly real original thinking on the part of this children’s cartographer) and said that this is where we live now, but we’d be moving to this place across the ocean, with a big red bridge. I was not impressed, until he dragged his finger about an inch and a half down the cartoon coast, and told me that’s where Disneyland is. Not understanding the actual seven-hour drive between the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, I was instantly sold— that’s where Cinderella lives, and if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.

We moved in November of 2000, and I started kindergarten at an elementary school in a San Francisco suburb called Moraga. I showed up on my first day of school, and was immediately confronted by the overwhelming predicament I was in—I did not understand a single word of what was being said to me, because I did not speak English. I couldn’t properly communicate with my classmates or teachers, which made adjusting to my new life a little difficult and a lot traumatic. After a few months, with the help of the English As A Second Language program my school offered, I was able to speak, which, as you can imagine, was pretty useful for my social life.

I liked living in Moraga, but I never truly loved it until I had to leave. I never thought I’d live anywhere else—in my mind, I was a girl with Danish parents who had moved to California as a kid, and that was that. I was mistaken, because when I was eleven years old, my dad was offered a promotion, and before I knew it, I was starting seventh grade at an American international school in a suburb southwest of London. I was not pleased. Middle school is tough anywhere, but I, like most dramatic preteens, felt that my situation was particularly unfortunate. While there were many things I ended up enjoying about living in England, I constantly longed for my life back “home,” in Moraga, where I belonged.

After three years, my wish was granted. My dad had been with the same company for seventeen years, and decided it was time for a change. He quit his job, and because we still owned our house in California, we went back. I was so excited, because I knew everything was finally going to be back to normal. Except that’s not what happened.

I came back to California at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school. I came back to the same friends and the same town. But I wasn’t the same. I had been gone for three years, following different trends, using different phrases and interacting with my peers in different ways. It was harder to adjust than I had thought it would be. The whole time I’d been missing Moraga, I’d also been subconsciously building it up to be this magical place where all my problems would go away. But I came back and found out no place like that exists.

I realized that, yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but absence can also make the heart romanticize and develop unrealistic expectations of people who have every bit as much of a right to change and grow as you do. It was a sad realization for me, but it also began to set me free from my fear of change and new beginnings.

So, after a year back in California, I wasn’t so upset when I learned that my dad had taken a job in Copenhagen, and that we’d be moving over the summer. I started the International Baccalaureate program at a private international school, but quickly found that I wasn’t meeting any Danish people, and could actually go days without speaking Danish to anyone other than my family. I wanted to immerse myself as much as I could, to really make an effort to get to know my native country, so I switched to a Danish public school and finished the IB there.

At this last high school, I befriended people who were more like me than anyone I’d ever met—a lot of Danish kids who had lived abroad at a young age and for most of their lives; also a little bit “root-less.” It was around my senior year there when I came across the article about third-culture kids, and was immediately hooked.

It was so strange and satisfying to finally see the odd way in which I’d been brought up put into words. As I read, it felt like someone was putting their hands on my shoulders and saying, “Hey, you know how you’ve always had that feeling of not really, fully belonging anywhere, and how you often question the authenticity and permanence of relationships you build with people because everything seems fleeting and unstable? Yeah, that has a name now.”

As far as the spectrum of third-culture childhood goes, I’d say I’m a mild case, having only lived in four different countries in Europe and North America, with parents of the same nationality and ethnicity—believe me, that makes a difference. A former classmate of mine had moved a total of twelve times in his life, across four continents, splitting time between his divorced parents of different nationalities. I’m sure my struggles pale in comparison.

One thing all TCKs have in common is that once we’re old enough to reflect, we have the chance to choose how we perceive our upbringing and what we decide to take away from it. We get this unique opportunity to turn something that was completely out of our control into something that can help us immeasurably: a wider perspective of the world and deeper understanding of people and culture at a relatively young age. What other people have to learn over many years through empathy and imagination, we get to learn through sympathy and first-hand experience.

Statistically, there are a lot of benefits to being a TCK—we’re four times as likely as non-TCKs to earn a bachelor’s degree, we’re highly adept to learning languages and we mature quite quickly in comparison to our non-TCK counterparts. There are also statistical drawbacks—we’re more likely to develop depression; we may mature faster, but generally take longer than our non-TCK peers to focus our aims as adults; we’re likely to experience stress or grief during relocation periods. It’s really interesting to read about, and I’m excited that it’s actually something that is being researched and reported on, but at the end of the day, statistics don’t help a kid who feels like she doesn’t have a place she belongs or a real identity, because too much of her is spread out in different places all over the world. Other than giving a name to the way I’d felt throughout my entire adolescence, that article I read really didn’t give me much comfort in terms of what to do from there.

No two TCKs have the same story, which is why it’s hard to generalize which characteristics we share and what our lives will be like as a result of our upbringing. There are so many factors that go into determining whether consistent relocation will have a positive or negative impact on a kid—ages at the time of the relocations, where they move to, pre-existing social tendencies, whether their parents are from the same place, whether they speak the language of their “home” country—the list goes on.

Growing up in a world where the scenery is constantly changing around you for reasons beyond your control can instill a permanent affinity for new experiences and adaptability to different environments, or it can cause you to grow up feeling disoriented, giving you an instinctual tendency to reject change and all that it entails. You might also feel like you’re somewhere in between. It depends on the person, but, more than that, it depends on perspective. I believe that, as an adult, perspective is always something you can consciously choose, albeit not always easily.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and for me, the conclusion I’ve come to is this: pieces of my heart are always somewhere other than where I am, and that’s going to be true no matter where I go. There’s never going to be one place where I feel like everything and everyone I love is within reach. To some people, that might sound kind of sad; like I’m always incomplete, or like a part of me is missing. I think a lot of TCKs might come away from their childhood thinking that way; like they’ve been cheated out of having a place where they feel truly at home. I certainly felt that way for a long time. But the way I’ve taught myself to choose to think about it is that my experiences give me the opportunity to feel more than whole; greater than the sum of the parts that build me. Rather than think of myself as someone with no roots, no place to call home, I can choose to think of myself as someone with roots that reach across oceans; a home wherever a new opportunity presents itself.

I’ve also come to realize that some of the difficult experiences that I previously blamed on my international upbringing aren’t so unique to my situation, after all. Turns out, middle school sucks for pretty much everyone, everywhere, not just for kids who move to a new country in the seventh grade. Your parents are embarrassing when you’re fifteen years old, just like everyone else’s, no matter what language they’re being embarrassing in. Getting your heart broken for the first time is Earth-shatteringly tragic, no matter where in the world you or the other person are when it happens. Those experiences and many others aren’t unique, and knowing that is oddly comforting.



If you’re interested in reading more about third culture kids, check out this incredibly thorough and helpful source.

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