Third culture kids: defining home and self

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When Lydia Sellers was five, she woke up to find out her family would be going on a plane ride. Next thing she knew, she was in the USA.

She was born in Indonesia to an Indonesian mother and an American father. The family lived in Indonesia when Sellers was a young child. Although the US is Sellers’ country of citizenship, it wasn’t where the family settled.

They moved to Abu Dhabi, UAE, two years later. It’s a place she describes as a mosaic of diversity, “full of bling-bling and full of urban culture.”

She lived there for 12 years and met her Canadian boyfriend, Nick Leger. After high school, she followed him to his hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick. But Lydia never felt completely at home anywhere she lived.

“It always made me feel like a stranger because everywhere I went I didn’t belong there,” she said. “In Indonesia I was a bule (Caucasian person), in the States in my two years, I was foreign; I was still learning English. In Abu Dhabi, I was sometimes considered white, sometimes Asian. And here I’m just foreign as well.”

Sellers is an example of a third culture kid. The term was coined by American sociologist and anthropologist, Ruth Useem. In the 1950s, she and her husband John went to India twice to work on a research project. They took their children with them on the quest. Through those experiences, she coined the term “Third Culture,” and later, “Third Culture Kids.”

Third culture kids are those who have spent significant parts of their developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. They combine parts of their birth culture and the new culture, creating a third culture. They then grow older to become “Adult-TCK”s.

Studies show that adult third culture kids often feel out of sync in different aspects of life. Even those who are over 65 still have “mild to severe” difficulties with reverse culture shock or re-entry into their first culture.

Anu Thomas is only 23, but she too has difficulties with the cultures that shaped her.

She was born to Indian parents in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She lived there until Grade 12 and because of that, she says she relates to Ethiopians more. Only about two years of her life was spent in her passport country, India. At age 17, she moved to Canada for university. Here, she said, she can be herself most.

“In Canada I feel like I can still create my own personality, my own character, a merge of the two. But in India and in Ethiopia, I feel like I’m forced to become one more than the other,” she said.

Third culture kids come from different backgrounds. Most of the time they have diplomats, military personnel, missionaries, NGO workers, or international school/university teachers as parents.

Cedric Noel’s parents work for NGOs. He was born in Niamey, Niger, where he was adopted by a Canadian father and a Belgian mother of Indian descent. Since then, he has lived in nine countries, including Canada. He speaks English, French, Dutch and Portuguese. He holds both Belgian and Canadian passport.

He said growing up around the globe has given him a different worldview.

“Your frame of reference is totally different from a person who stays in one place. I see myself in reference to the world,” he said.

Many see third culture kids as privileged. They are after all, adaptable to any culture, often know two or more languages fluently, and have seen many parts of the world before they are even of legal age. But third culture kids also have to constantly change their environment, from language to culture and society, and sometimes economic situation. This leaves some feeling isolated.

Sellers said she noticed her mother’s difficulties when they started moving.

“She felt alone. And I guess I didn’t really understand this feeling of isolation, even when surrounded by so many people, until I started also having to change all the time to different cultures,” she said.

Because of the constant change, a lot of third culture kids also become rootless or over-rooted, creating an identity crisis.

“It’s still difficult to figure out the constituents of who I am that are permanent because I feel like I’m always a chameleon, always changing,” Sellers said. “I guess I just have to accept that there is no way to go back and fully be one thing. I’m already mixed, you can’t just unmix me.”

For Thomas though, it’s not important what the passport says. She picks and chooses things from both cultures that she feels comfortable with. Still, she is sometimes confused about herself.

“It’s just, how do you define your personality, you know? Am I Indian, am I Ethiopian? Although I look Indian, I feel more Ethiopian and I’m able to relate to Ethiopians a bit more.”

So she held on to things that don’t change with national borders. She was born to a Roman Catholic family, and said religion is the one thing that has stayed constant.

“Cultures change when you move from one country to another; traditions, norms, social norms, humor, personal interactions, everything changes except for that one factor of religion. So my religious convictions have grown stronger over the years.”

For Sellers, growing up in a Christian family but surrounded by Muslims made religion confusing.

“At that time, basically everyone just tolerated everyone else’s religion in a way. So I didn’t understand how both of them could be right.”

Noel was not born to a religious family, but he was happy that he had the chance to learn about various religions in his own terms. For him, the lack of identity is not a major issue. He had found himself as he grew older. He said where a person comes from, his nationality, and religion, shouldn’t matter.

“I didn’t understand why there were borders. It doesn’t make sense to me, because the world is…I don’t see it as different countries, and I can go wherever I want,” he said. “I’m not from anywhere. I don’t feel I’m from anywhere. I don’t feel rooted to a country, I just feel rooted in my family.”

While family relations are constant, keeping other kinds of relationship can be difficult because of the constant change.

“I’m used to saying bye to people so I’m sort of immune to that,” Noel said.

But when recently some of his friends from Fredericton moved to another city, he felt the sadness.

Noel considers Fredericton home right now. But he said he doesn’t want to settle down in one place.

“That’s really weird for me. But I’d like to have a home base. That’s something we never really had. That’s something I really need.”

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