How to be a good Third Culture Kid

I’m a third culture kid. The basic definition of a TCK (as they are called for short) is someone who grows up in a country different from where their parents grew up.  Of course, there are variations within this broad definition.  I, for example, have parents from two different countries and have spent significant developmental portions of my life in their respective countries (Namibia and the USA, two very different places).

For me, this has resulted in chronic wanderlust, knowing from a young age which airplane food to avoid, and the ability to code-switch, resulting in the ability to make almost anyone feel comfortable even when I’m not.

From as young an age as I can remember, I have been saying goodbye to people.  No matter where I’ve lived, there has always been someone somewhere else for me to miss. Grandparents,  best friends, choirs, fellow students, you name it.

Because of the moving back and forth, I often struggled to identify myself,and had trouble with the question, “Where are you from?”  Unless I gave a long, convoluted answer,  I always felt like I was betraying a part of me by saying just one country or the other.Namerican

(Watching Mean Girls for the first time was really weird because for the whole first part I kept thinking “OH MY GOSH THAT’S ME.”)

Of course there are perks. I’ve had the chance of experiencing multiple rich cultures, and I’ve developed some amazing friendships. I’m also really comfortable traveling and going to new places; moving out of my comfort zone is no longer a big deal.

I have many years before me, and there is still so much wisdom out there for me to learn, but I wanted to share a few things I’ve picked up along the way.  Maybe you can identify, or maybe you can’t. Maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about, or maybe this is completely new.  Either way, I hope you enjoy commiserating or seeing things from a TCK’s perspective!

1. Don’t block people out just because you know you have to say goodbye.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn. I get attached to people really easily, and I have had many a wrenching goodbye with people who I wasn’t really able to stay in contact with.  After realizing this trend, I was very tempted to just stop making deep relationships with people who I knew I’d have to leave eventually.  I’m so glad I didn’t go through with that.  The relationships I’ve made abroad have been some of the deepest and most fulfilling of my life.

If you move to a new place, even if you know it’s going to be temporary, seek out people whom you can really know, and who will challenge you to live as the best possible version of yourself.  Find people you can be open and transparent with, and who make you feel safe.  Then, when you leave that, you’ll have a real reason to miss it and a great reason to come back.  You’ll know that your time was meaningful.

2. Stay in the moment.

Enjoy the time you have with the people that you are getting to know.  I spent time pining for the places I wasn’t during a lot of my teenage years and, as a result, kind of missed out on relationships that I could have been developing.  I’d spend a lot of time chatting online with people across the world and miss out on the people (and places) that were right there.  Of course, keeping up relationships is important (I really like writing letters in case you were wondering), but nothing replaces the face-to-face time.

3. Your country is not your identity.

As I mentioned before, I used to struggle a lot with my identity and figuring out who I was.  I was so happy to hear the term “TCK” and that I fit into it, but that sometimes requires almost as much of a convoluted answer as answering where I’m from.

These days, I’ve become a lot more comfortable with the idea of just being “Lizbet.” That is me. Part of being Lizbet is that I am half and half, but as a unique individual I do not represent either one of those countries.  Now, when people ask where I’m from, I often say “America” since that’s the easiest, and let them discover my background after they get to know me a little more.

4. People are going to stereotype.

Something that goes along with the above statement is that, while I am a unique individual, I will still be stereotyped.  It happens to everyone no matter where they go.  In Namibia, people would see me as the “crazy American” (not so much to do with the fact that I’m in general a little weird, more that Americans are seen as a little crazy). In America, people would ask if I saw lions when I woke up in the morning or if my father is black.  In Japan, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

This is actually real life.

All of that to say, you can take for granted that you will be judged or stereotyped. Heck, we generally make assumptions about a person within the first few seconds after we meet them.  That’s not exactly the same thing, I know. I do know that we, as humans, like to categorize.  I have no good solution for this.  Just expect that it will probably happen, especially if you travel.

5. It’s okay to let go.

This one is the most difficult for me.  Quick science break: Dunbar’s number.

According to this guy, Dunbar, our brains can only hold a particular number of people that we can have stable social relationships with. This number is thought to be around 150.  That means that I can’t be bffs with everyone that I ever become friends with.

There are going to be people with whom you have deep relationships for your whole life.  There will also be people that you get close to, share your life with, and then leave and only see every couple of years or never again.

That’s a really difficult truth to swallow because I really like holding on to people.

College is a great example of this.  I feel like my time in college was very formative. I laughed and cried with my fellow students and we got through some tough times together.  I only consistently talk to a few of them now.  That doesn’t make us terrible people.  It actually relates a lot to number 2.  If you are in a different place in life from your best friend in middle school, that’s okay. That’s normal.  They have people the people that they need to invest in for this time in their life, and so do you.  If your paths end up crossing and you can kick things right back into how they were before, then that’s awesome.

But if you aren’t able to stay close to every person you’ve grown close to, don’t be afraid to let go of that and know that if it was a really good friendship, you will probably naturally drift back together throughout the rest of your life.

This post ended up being a lot longer than I originally planned.  If you made it this far, congratulations, and thanks for reading.  Of course, all of these things are my own perspective, your experience could have been completely different. If it was, I’m really interested in hearing about it! Please shoot me a message or comment below.

I love where I am now, and even though not everything has been easy, all my experiences have been integral to who I am now.  I feel like I’ve grown in ways that would never have been possible without some of the rough experiences that come with moving and changing, and I am forever grateful for them.


2 thoughts on “How to be a good Third Culture Kid

  1. I too am a TCK and finding that out helped me to understand that I wasn’t just weird after all. Unfortunately I was in my 40’s before I read Van Rekens book and saw myself clearly identified. I also feel the need to explain my background when people hear me and say “you’re not from around here.” That is why my blog name and twitter handle incorporate all 3 places I have lived.

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