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Third Culture Kids — Privileged or Disadvantaged?

Third culture kid is a term which refers to a child who has spent significant part of their formative years outside their parents' culture. The term is relatively new to me. I only discovered it after moving to Munich and starting work at InterNations. After spending my childhood going through seven different schools in four different countries over ten years, suddenly I had a term for who (or what) I am.  This experience seems a little extreme, but for me, and the children around me, it was normal. 

The downsides of being a third culture kid are similar to the drawbacks of an expat lifestyle. However, I think they are exaggerated for children, since it is harder to see the bigger picture for younger people. 

(Not) Making Friends 

The most common problem for a third culture kid is their friends, or lack thereof. Often, it feels pointless to make an effort to find friends when you know you will be leaving in two-, three- or four-years’ time. I still remember, me and my two brothers would wait patiently for my dad to come home from work in the winter months to give us news of whether we were staying or leaving come the summertime. We would go into school the next day and hear who else was leaving and who was staying. Knowing this would happen meant that sometimes we distanced ourselves from people, because we knew, soon the time would come to say goodbye. My older brother got so bored of this that he made the decision to go to boarding school in England, so he did not have to keep leaving friends! 

So, Where Are You From? 

When we moved back to the UK in 2012, I was the new girl — a feeling I was used to. The difference was that this was not an international school where new kids joined every year from all over the world, this was a small all-girls grammar school where new kids were not that common. I was a fascination, a girl who sounded British (with a twang of the international school accent) but had moved here from the Netherlands? It was unheard of!  Third culture kids often have no idea what to say when people ask where they are from. If the country you are born in is not a country that you feel strongly tied to, it can be difficult to find your identity. I still struggle with this to this day. When I started university in Cardiff, I got the same questions and ended up accepting that I would have to say I was from the middle of England, simply because that’s where I lived at the time.

The Upside

On the flip side of the coin, there were many positives of having a childhood like mine

Experiencing Language 

I got to learn Swedish, Dutch, and Irish, as well as countless other languages from my international friends. Many third culture kids speak multiple languages due to their upbringing. I now study German at university and I know that I would not be doing this if I had not lived abroad. I was always the one in my family who picked up language skills faster than the others, and I loved hearing how many languages my classmates spoke and learning about their cultures. It truly is a privilege to have experienced this! 

Family Life 

Third culture kids have a unique relationship with their family. While most children grow up and go through school with all the same friends and have shared memories with them, my life is compartmentalized into where I was living at the time, and only my family shares that with me. We are close as a family and I think living abroad is the main reason for this, as we had to support each other in a new place every few years! 

Third culture kids do have struggles, but the overwhelming privilege of being able to live in different countries and be fully immersed in other cultures is surely a positive. People often ask me whether I wish I had grown up in one place, and sometimes I do. What would it have been like to have grown up in the same house, to have drawn pencil marks on the doorframe showing my childhood growth spurts? What would it be like to have a friend I’ve known my whole life?  

It’s hard not having a distinctive tie to the UK, other than that it’s where I now live. But I get tied to all the countries I have lived in, which is far better! Being a third culture kid has shaped me into an open-minded and accepting person, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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