“Where do you come from?”
Depending on the situation, third-culture kids have three ways they can respond to this seemingly simple question: the short answer, the long answer, or the whole damn story. While many third-culture kids derive power from their unique identities, sometimes that’s difficult to explain to others. There’s nothing worse than the confused, deep sigh third-culture kids hear when we answer this question — it’s one we know all too well.
“Third-culture kid” (or “TCK”) refers to people who grow up or spend a significant amount of their youth in a different place and/or culture than their parents. For example: I am an American citizen with Belgian and Puerto Rican heritage, but I was born in Paris, raised in Munich, and now study in Amsterdam. TCKs like me combine our birth and adopted cultures to make a third, distinct identity — one about which we’re often unsure and can rarely describe straightforwardly.
At a young age, I didn’t know that my experience was a relatively unique one. I went to an international school where, despite our different backgrounds, everyone ultimately felt the same. The different accents, appearances, religious beliefs — none of these things seemed important, although students hailed from more than 50 different countries. We were taught not to judge one another because we were all different. My friend groups, composed of kids from a mix of backgrounds, would often share our cultures and learn from each other. New students came in every year, and they inevitably taught us something new, too.
Because I went to the same school for 10 years, most people knew my story by the time I was a senior. I didn’t have to explain it anymore. But once I started writing CVs and college applications and going to interviews for work, I found myself stumbling over my words and becoming lost in internal debates about what I actually wanted my answer to be. I often got responses like, “You must’ve gone to an international school, huh?” That’s when I realized that maybe this experience did make me different.
Once I moved to Amsterdam for university, this confusion only amplified. “Where do you come from?” is one of the first things new acquaintances ask, as if the answer will tell them something essential about me. So many people can give a simple, one-word response to this question, and my inability to do so always made me feel like a nomad. The more I thought about the question, though, the less I understood what my answer should be. Where do I belong — everywhere or nowhere? Questioning my culture was liberating in many ways, but after a while, I started feel like I didn’t have a home at all.
Answering this supposedly simple question becomes all the more trying when the asker isn’t satisfied with the answer I give, and somehow comes to their own conclusion.
“So you’re French because you were born there.”
“But you’re not really German, since you only lived there.”
“You certainly don’t look Puerto Rican.”
“You sound American, so you must be American.”
Occasionally TCKs have to accept these (often ignorant and incomplete) assessments just to get through the ordeal. I’m not sure if people respond this way because they are reluctant to accept the whole complicated story, or because they haven’t met many other people who have had experiences like mine. I believe people generally think that the long answer is just too much trouble to make sense of and draw these quick conclusions to save time. Sometimes I’m even grateful that they do — it saves me a lot of trouble, too. But sometimes I feel as if they’re pressing “skip” on an important thing about me.
These days, when people ask, I tell them, “I’m a little bit of everything.“ Which is true. I don’t feel like any one of the places that compose my background are 100 percent my home, but I feel very lucky to have experienced all of them, and I appreciate the international family each place has given me. Ultimately, not knowing where I belong is part of who I am. I’m still learning how to grow through this and choose what each culture means to me. After all is said and done, it’s up to me to decide my own identity — even if it’s a little bit of everything.
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