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Why I’m Jealous of “Third Culture Kids”

I guess I’ll start this blog off with a confession: I’m not a third culture kid. Not really anyway. Though I spent the first half of my childhood in Hawaii and the second-half in New York, until college I’d never spent a significant amount of time outside of my home country. But I wish I had. I’ve always been slightly jealous of those kids who could could say they were born in Paris, but grew up in Manila, Istanbul and Jakarta…it just sounds so glamorous.

multi-racial group of children wearing kimonos
Don’t these kids look blissfully happy? Korean kimonos are their normal.

This is a sentiment I share with writer and native-New Yorker Sloane Crosley. Here’s an excerpt from her book I was Told There’d be Cake:

If I ever have kids, this is what I’m going to do with them: I am going to give birth to them on foreign soil—preferably the soil of someplace like Oostende or Antwerp—destinations that have the allure of being obscure, freezing, and impossibly cultured. These are places in which people are casually trilingual and everyone knows how to make good coffee and gourmet dinners at home without having to shop for specific ingredients. Everyone has hip European sneakers that effortlessly look like the exact pair you’ve been searching for your whole life. Everything is sweetened with honey and even the generic-brand Q-tips are aesthetically packaged. People die from old age or crimes of passion or because they fall off glaciers. All the women are either thin, thin and happy, fat and happy, or thin and miserable in a glamorous way. Somehow none of their Italian heels get caught in the fifteenth-century cobblestone. Ever.

This is where I want to raise my children—until the age of, say, ten, when I’ll cruelly rip them out of the stream where they’re fly-fishing with their other lederhosened friends and move them to someplace like Lansdale, Pennsylvania. There, they can be not only the cool new kid, but also the Belgian kid. And none of that Toblerone-eating, Tintin-reading, tulip-growing crap. I want them to be obscurely, freezingly, impossibly Belgian. I want them to be fluent in Flemish and to pronounce “Antwerpen” with a hint of “vh” embedded in the “w.”

Why go through all the trouble of giving a ten-year-old an existential heart attack by applying culture shocks like they were nipple clamps? Because, ten-year-olds of the world, you shouldn’t believe what your teachers tell you about the beauty and specialness and uniqueness of you. Or, believe it, little snowflake, but know it won’t make a bit of difference until after puberty. It’s Newton’s lost law: anything that makes you unique later will get your chocolate milk stolen and your eye blackened as a kid. Won’t it, Sebastian? Oh, yes, it will, my little Mandarin Chinese–learning, Poe-reciting, high-top-wearing friend. God bless you, wherever you are.

Uniqueness is wasted on youth. Like a fine wine or a solid flossing habit, you’ll be grateful for it when you’re older. Naturally, being born in a foreign country is not the only coolness savings bond out there, but it is an automatic vehicle into self-possession if there are no other cars on the road. Maybe you don’t come from the mansion on the hill or the worst shack at the foot of it. Maybe you’re not religious or a spelling bee prodigy. Maybe you’re not the youngest of nine kids or the child of a B-list movie star. Oh, but imagine if you had a South African accent. At least foreign citizenship is something you can point to and say, “This is where I come from. This is who I am.”

Though I’m sure, like anything, it’s only glamorous when you’re not the one experiencing it. These multilingual, multiple-Passport-wielding boys and girls (known as “Third Culture Kids”…seriously. It’s a real term used by social scientists. You can look it up), don’t identify with the culture of their home country nor any of the other countries they’ve lived and instead identify with a third, one-of-a-kind hybrid-culture . And I’m sure that for some, belonging everywhere and yet NOWHERE can be it’s own brand of suckiness. New York Times writer (and former Third Culture Kid who spoke unaccented American English as a child despite having never set foot on American soil) described it well when she wrote:

“To many sons and daughters of business executives, diplomats, military officials and missionaries, a passport is little more than a travel document, for it does not necessarily denote where “home” is.”

Third Culture Kids are “citizens of the world” in the truest sense of the term. And though that may sound tres magnifique, I’d imagine not having any one place to call home has got to feel pretty darn depressing at times.

But still…Wouldn’t it be cool if I had a Danish accent right now? Or a Brazilian one?

What do you think?

For more on this subject (yep, I’ve written about this before!) check out: Travel, Soul Mates and a Book about Mormons.


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5 thoughts on “Why I’m Jealous of “Third Culture Kids”

  1. True (not having a place to call “home”) could no doubt prove sucky. Then again, it teaches you how to internalize your “home” (and thus your self-esteem) so that “home” is wherever on the globe your toes happen to be.

    And you needn’t be born in an exotic land to be a “Third Culture Kid” – I dragged my 2 daughters to Mexico and across Europe when they were little more than 5 yrs. old (they went to school in France and soaked up the language like it was chocolate milk!)

    To me, it was the very BEST education I could hope to give to my children.

  2. Oh gosh, reading all of this makes me cringe and laugh all at once because I am a Third Culture Kid. Born near Los Angeles, but basically spent my entire childhood being taken across China, which with the vastness of the country, leads to a great deal of cultural diversity (there are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups).

    I’m not exactly sure where you’re going with the accents though. I know many TCKS who wouldn’t seem like one when they speak. It usually becomes clear when there are cultural clashes or when they start talking about the places they’ve been.

    Despite my American English and US passport, a lot of my classmates still think I’m an international student. It can be confusing and tiring to explain myself all the time, but I don’t regret my international experience. I know if that I stayed in my LA suburb, I would have never had the chance to travel extensively through Asia and Europe. So while my culture is neither American nor Chinese it’s mine and that’s good enough.

    Thank you for sharing this 🙂

  3. @Victory – That’s great you’ve embraced your Third Culture Kid-ness. I love hanging out with TCKs. Ya’ll have such a unique and interesting perspective on life. It’s awesome. 🙂

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