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Growing Up Global: Navigating Identity as a Third Culture Kid


"Where are you from?" For the longest time, nothing triggered more anxiety than that simple question. Every time it popped up, I felt a wave of unease. I knew my answer would be met with skepticism, turning a casual conversation into a full-blown interrogation. "How come your accent sounds different?" "Then why do you spend your holidays elsewhere?" "Why don't your parents live in your birth country?" "Show me your passport again." "You're lying." As a kid, I never questioned why my life was a constant rotation of new places and faces. Growing up in a multicultural environment was enriching but brought unique challenges. The term "Third Culture Kid" (TCK) refers to those who spend their formative years in cultures different from their parents, often due to international relocation or work assignments.


Unlike other TCKs who move from their birth country to another, my TCK experience started in my birth country. I attended an international school from a young age, where over 90% of students were not nationals. Most were children of expatriates on short-term contracts, so saying goodbye to friends became a recurring theme. Saying, "Bye!" "I'll miss you so much!" hurt, but we quickly learned it was our constant. Occasionally, a friend's parents would announce a short visit or rarest of all, your parents would let you visit them. Bliss. Suddenly, your world got bigger and goodbyes didn't feel permanent but meant "see you later." Other times, we would lose touch with friends who moved. This taught me the transient nature of life. You move forward, life goes on, and that's okay.


Then, it was my turn to leave. I had to answer, "Where are you from?" An easy question, I thought. I'd say my birth country, and we'd move on. Wrong. Young and unaware of what I absorbed from my surroundings, a new environment bombarded me with questions that made me introspect and question my identity. I asked my parents why people said I didn't sound like them or like the people from my birth country. Until then, I had never analyzed the nuances in people's speech, pronunciation, and cadence or used that as a nationality identifier. My parents explained the best they could and told me I would just have to explain myself more extensively. I thought the questions would eventually stop one day, little did I know, it was a lifetime sentence. However, as the world globalized, the "where are you from" question became less of a burden. Modern-day nomads are better understood, and I now see it as my unique global citizen ID.


As a TCK and third culture adult (TCA), forming a stable sense of identity has been challenging. Exposure to diverse cultural norms and expectations triggered an identity crisis, leaving me grappling with questions like "Where is home?" and "Who am I?" while navigating different cultural contexts. Growing up meant frequent moves, hindering my ability to form bonds with aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were no family barbecues or traditions beyond my immediate family; my friends became my family. Entering adulthood and engaging with people deeply rooted in one singular society was a new experience. I marveled at how staying in one community created a sense of family and patriotism. Sometimes, I craved that stability, thinking that living in one place for more than five years might offer a clearer sense of identity.


Returning to my passport country after many years living abroad proved unexpectedly challenging. Reverse culture shock, the yearning for the places I've lived, and the process of readjusting to a once-familiar yet now unfamiliar environment were surprising. I pondered the causes, considering how adapting to new environments had become my norm. My passport country, my supposed "home," was the place I assumed would provide a sense of solid roots. I expected to feel an inherent connection, a sense of identification, but to my surprise, it left me feeling misplaced, lonely and misunderstood. Even though I had overcome it, the "Where are you from?" question suddenly became my most dreaded pain point, perhaps more so than when I lived abroad. Despite perceiving it as "home," I was seen as an outsider due to trivial differences like cadence, food preferences, and knowledge of national affairs. These differences never bothered me abroad because, I suppose, I could always fall back on "I am not from here." However, in my birth country, it was often seen as lying, snobbery, being fake, or elitism. I felt traumatized. I felt rejected. I was overcome by a lack of control over my identity and, worse, my destiny. Who am I? Where do I belong? Fortunately, a coping strategy was not far away. My multicultural work environment facilitated a smoother transition back to my birth country. Colleagues with similar backgrounds quickly became my community and introduced me to new faces, recognizing and accepting my unique journey.


Meeting other TCKs in adulthood brings an unspoken kinship. We form friendships quickly, sharing the bond of adapting to new environments and bridging cultures. There is a comfort and camaraderie found in connecting with others who understand the intricacies of growing up between cultures. Despite challenges, I've cultivated a strong sense of belonging to a global community. Growing up immersed in different cultures has given me a deep appreciation for diversity. I've mastered cooking various cuisines, celebrating diverse traditional holidays, and gaining a keen understanding of global perspectives. "Adventure" has become my middle name, and I'm always excited to try a unique dish on the menu. Learning to try anything at least once has been a mantra; after all, you often end up loving new things or, at the very least, gaining a new experience under your belt! These experiences have undoubtedly enriched my worldview, fostering empathy, tolerance, and open-mindedness. Now, as a TCA, I've found that I have a home on every continent. Wherever I go, I'm never a stranger. There's always a hint of familiarity, and I consistently have someone to call, meet up with, or recommend a place. Whether it's Norway or New Zealand, St Kitts and Nevis or Singapore, Tristan de Cunha Island, or Papua New Guinea, every corner of the globe feels accessible. With the help of social media, staying connected has solidified the feeling of belonging to a global village.


Growing up as a TCK fostered adaptability and resilience. Navigating unfamiliar situations, embracing change, and thriving in diverse environments have become valuable assets in my adult life, shaping my education, career, and relationships. While childhood as a TCK wasn't always easy with all its complexities, I wouldn't change the experience for anything. The experience has woven a rich tapestry of perspectives and instilled in me a profound sense of belonging to a global community. Embracing my multicultural upbringing, I navigate the world with an open heart and mind. I have a desire to contribute to a more interconnected and understanding society. I consider myself fortunate and privileged to have gained a high level of awareness, impartiality, and agility at an early stage in life. I've fully embraced the idea that I'm happiest in motion and amidst cultural diversity, and the promise of heterogeneity drives me forward. As TCKs and TCAs, we leave all the time; we may have no roots, but we always have motion because everywhere is home. We are the true global citizens.

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