Third Culture Kids

third culture kids 06
third culture kids 06

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In a country as multiracial as Singapore, the idea of culturally mixed identities doesn’t seem so jarring. In fact, it could be said to be a point of national pride. Nonetheless, it begs many (sometimes painful) questions for those with mixed identities: where or to whom do I belong? What makes a place home?

Third Culture Kids are people who were raised in a culture different to that of their parents’ country of origin or nationality. The term was coined by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem to describe the unique phenomenon of cultural hybridity in children of nomadic families – expatriates, military families, or missionaries. In an ever increasingly globalised world, being exposed to a wide variety of cultures appears to be an advantageous background for forming an ideal global citizen.

But if one belongs everywhere, one also belongs nowhere.

A common saying posits that home is not a place, but where the family is. However, many Third Culture Kids feel alien even to their own families. As a child of Chinese-Malaysian expatriate parents, Stephanie, a third-year life sciences student, spent most of her formative years away from her extended family in Malaysia. Her parents’ careers required the immediate family to relocate constantly, from the USA, Taiwan, Vietnam, to England. Stephanie and her family were living in the USA when they returned to Malaysia to pay her grandparents a brief visit. It was not, however, the happy reunion Stephanie had envisioned. “It was painfully awkward,” she remarked, cringing a little at the memory. “I’d spent my entire primary education learning only English, so trying to talk to Ah Ma – who only spoke Hokkien – was really hard.” Home, Stephanie realised, is not always where the family is. Many Third Culture Kids like her share her experiences of estrangement, leaving their definitions of ‘home’ nebulous and disorienting. The language barrier also prompted doubt in Stephanie about the validity of her ‘Chinese-ness’: how could she call herself Chinese when she did not even have the language to communicate the respect for her elders that her heritage upholds so reverently? 

Many Third Culture Kids like Stephanie struggle with finding a concrete sense of belonging. Feeling disqualified from both their parents’ culture and that of their immediate society, they develop a cultural identity that is distinct from either one of their influences. Ash is the son of Slovakian parents, born and raised in Malaysia. He claims he is as Malaysian as any other native: he participates in the various major cultural celebrations and even speaks Malay fluently. Yet, his immersion in the local culture did not offset his position as an outsider. “When I went to my friends’ Chinese New Year or Hari Raya parties I always felt like I was invited as the friend from the outermost [social] circle. I always felt an appreciation for the culture, but it would never feel personal.” 

Ash did not experience a strong connection to the local cultures, but he could not experience that with his Slovakian heritage, either. He recounts dressing in a kroj (Slovak traditional attire) every year for his school’s International Day. Bubbling with curiosity, his peers would ask him what the unique garment symbolised, but this only prompted dread for Ash as he struggled to give an immediate answer. “It felt wrong to have to ask my parents for the answers about my own heritage, like – I should already know this, right?” Viewed as a foreigner by both sides, his identity made its home in the ‘in-between’. Ash remarks that this liminal identity was at first isolating, but became empowering as he grew older. He may not be able to identify as purely Slovakian, or purely Malaysian. Nonetheless, he now finds joy in having both sides making up a part of his identity, which he has dubbed “rojak” (a Singaporean dish that also means ‘eclectic mix’ in colloquial Malay). “Who doesn’t love rojak?” Ash added playfully.

Amidst the experiences of rootlessness and displacement, Third Culture Kids have been shown to develop an incredible adaptability. Both Stephanie and Ash claim that their experiences growing up as Third Culture Kids have moulded them into open-minded individuals who are able to apply their diverse cultural knowledge and experience to their life and work. Transitioning into university life is daunting and oftentimes lonely for many people, but Stephanie claims her transnational background has helped her make friends easily in her university’s international community. “I’m glad I’m able to joke with the other international students about growing up in Taiwan or America; it immediately makes us feel bonded though we’ve literally just met each other.” Ash, who now works as a secondary school teacher, has taught in schools across the globe and claims that he rarely experiences culture shock when he relocates every few years. “Any cultural differences feel more interesting than jarring or off-putting,” he claims. His lifestyle reflects researchers’ insights into the lifestyles of adults who grew up as Third Culture Kids: they tend to migrate from place to place as they once did in their formative years. It seems that, perhaps paradoxically, the nomadic lifestyle that once left them feeling alienated has now become a familiar lifestyle pattern.

Embracing their ‘Third Culture’ does not happen overnight. Like any other aspect of personal growth, it is a journey that takes time and self-reflexiveness. It is an upbringing that leaves many issues to be resolved: grief for the life left behind in a previous country, loneliness, a fragmented sense of self. How do the Third Culture Kids deal with it? The internet provides access to a plethora of diverse communities across the globe. Social media has given people and communities the agency to express their unique experiences – experiences that many others may relate to. Being a Third Culture Kid myself, I asked both Stephanie and Ash if they have ever tried to Google-search their specific cultural circumstance (for example, Google-searching “Slovakian living in Malaysia”), like I had before. They both laughed. “Of course. For me, it was the first time I realised there were many people like me,” said Stephanie. Ash added that even though there were not many people that could relate to his specific cultural circumstance, everybody experiences some form of alienation or identity crisis at some point in their lives. “It’s just part of growing up, I guess. But realising that made me feel less alone.”

Third Culture Kids find themselves in a liminal, confusing, and frustrating position in society. As the name itself suggests, it is not as simple as favouring one culture in their life over another; its hybrid nature points to the creation of a totally unique identity. Though this experience can be lonely and isolating, it can also be advantageous. In a world of rapidly changing circumstances, a wide catalogue of interactions with varying cultural contexts prep Third Culture Kids with soft skills like adaptation. Adapting requires them to shed their old self for a new identity more in tune to the relevant cultural norms.

Shapeshifting, as Stephanie called it, is a superpower.

Ultimately, the experiences of Third Culture Kids are just as ambivalent as they are. But, more importantly, they prod at something more universal – the human need for belonging.