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What it means to be a Third-Culture Kid


Illustration of a face with three colours to represent a third culture kid

Submitted by Rhiannon Read

Identity is connected to a sense of belonging – that who you are is coupled with where you call home.


Home suggests a singular place with an ancestral heritage or a strong emotional connection, but I, like many other third-culture kids (TCKs), have connections to more than just one place. Home, for us, rather exists everywhere and anywhere, as does our sense of belonging.


In the 1950s, Dr. Ruth Hill Useem first coined the term "third-culture kid" (TCK) to describe someone who has lived a significant amount of their developmental years outside their parents' culture. A TCK is someone who tries to blend and integrate multiple cultures, while not fully owning any of them, in order to establish their own: a third culture.


The absence of belonging to one place usually brings about a whole set of identity challenges for TCKs, with many of us vulnerable to depression, chronic anxiety, trauma, and low self-esteem, to name a few. Who I am can often feel like this strange mix of where I have lived, the people I have met, and places connected to my family's heritage I have never seen. It can make me feel as if I exist in limbo, never truly belonging anywhere. The mental toll of trying to find one's way through this maze is real, but for me, the greater difficulty rests in attempting to describe who I am to those around me.


The problem isn't always that TCKs have trouble reconciling the multiplicity of their identities but rather that their identities struggle to fit into current social constructions of identity. For instance, like most TCKs, I dread answering the question, "Where are you from?" This might be one of the most anxiety-inducing questions because it usually requires a detailed account of your life's story. Whenever I am asked this question, I feel a need to prove my background and then feel awkward after omitting parts of myself to present a more agreeable identity to others. I feel vulnerable and uncomfortable because I am essentially offering myself up for judgement.


Whether it be a stranger, a friend, or even a family member, if I claim to come from a particular place, I am bound to get the response, “Yeah, but where do you really come from?" Am I supposed to mention where I was born, where I live now, where my parents live, where I grew up, or my nationality (even if I have never lived there myself)? No matter which answer I give, they will keep asking questions until they get an answer that satisfies them, at which point they will say, "Oh, yeah, that makes more sense." Every TCK I know has this struggle and is often left feeling like perpetual foreigners who can’t seem to fit in wholly anywhere.


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But what if we changed the question and instead asked, "Where are you a local?"


In her inspiring Ted Talk, writer Taiye Selasi challenges the way we are taught to define our identities by proposing that people should ask her where she is a local rather than where she is from. Doing so reveals a wealth of information about who we are and our shared experiences. She reasons that the distinction between "Where are you from?" and "Where are you a local?" is not the specificity of the response but the intention of the question being asked. By reimagining the language of nationalism with that of locality, we are compelled to shift our focus to the universality of the human experience. After all, is it not our experiences in life that make us who we are?





The persistent questions about personal identity and origins can put pressure on the mental health of any TCK. Trying to navigate the complex web of cultures, relationships, and conditions that define our identities while striving to express them to the world can be a lonely journey. But by rethinking our intentions behind the question of where someone comes from and instead searching for similarities in our experiences, we may be able to foster a greater sense of connection and redefine ideas of identity.


When I listened to the words of Taiye Selasi, a sense of relief washed over me as I discovered another way of explaining who I am to the world. I realised that what makes somewhere home is not based on one’s passport or accent but on the particular experiences they have and the places they occurred in. Because of the people I've met, the places I've been, and the different cultures I've experienced, I will always be a TCK. A tapestry of my identity is woven from these strands.


Building my identity may be more challenging, but I get to do it over and over again, picking and choosing the finest parts of my experiences to form a whole. To be a TCK does not have to mean that I do not belong anywhere; rather, it means that I am free to belong everywhere.

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