What is the meaning of "Third Culture Kid?
Third culture kid (TCK) or third culture individual (TCI) are terms used to refer to children raised in a culture other than their parents' (or the culture of the country given on the child's passport, where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years. They are exposed to a greater variety of cultural influences. For adults who have had this experience as children, another term used is adult third culture kid (ATCK).
When asked to describe where they are from, most people would easily find the answer. But to me, it is not that clear. I am the son of a UN Diplomat, born in Malawi, lived in several other African countries, and on three additional continents. By the age of 8 I had lived in 5 countries and moved about 8/9 homes. To date I count 23 moves.
Growing up while globe-hopping is very different experience for each child: some benefit from this variety, change, adventure and perpetuate this trend throughout their lives. Others make a U-turn and settle with deep roots in one location. I am a member of the first club.
When I hear people talking about their upbringing, they often use the expression “after I left home” to describe the time they left their parental home, the town where they were born and grew up, went to kindergarten, school, first love, first hangover, etc… The place where they met childhood friends who are still friends. If I were to use the same expression, it would be followed by: “which home?”
As a “Third Culture Kid” (a child raised in a culture/country that is not his own), you have an upbringing that can be described as unstable by many. Moving around every two or three years, you make a lot of friends, but unfortunately mostly no real lasting friendships. This may sound as a horrible life to some, but to me it is quiet the opposite. No matter where I’m coming from, I probably have more in common with the son of a Congolese ambassador who grew up in Canada, France and Vietnam, than my own cousin who holds the same passport I have. And that is actually really cool. I am not only part of a family by blood, but also feel a member of a larger family, one that spans beyond borders, beyond cultures, beyond preconceived ideas.
For most of my adult life I have had this itchy feeling of “well, what’s next, where to now?” I have compensated by seeking relocation, international assignments, and traveling every time I can. I have gained a lot from being all over the world as a child and as a grownup. This globetrotter's life has gifted me with the ability to speak 7 languages, being exposed to so many cultures, races, traditions, religions, people - and this truly opened my mind.
There is something in common for most Adult Third Culture Kids: it took us a long time to figure out what to do with our lives. And some are still figuring it out. Some chose their parents’ lifestyle, others take a more "normal" approach. Many don't live in their "home" countries, because we really don't have one. I have been living in the same small Swiss town for the past 12 years, and in the same home for 11 of them - an impressive record of “stability” considering my track record. I would have never ever imagined to end up in this part of the world, but it so happened, and I’m happy about it. Going out for a morning run surrounded by majestic mountains and green fields. Experiencing nature at my doorstep, and being in the enviable situation to drive 20 minutes to the next ski resorts. Life is made of many chapters, and this particular one takes place in one location, one home. But don’t be fooled! I have managed to compensate with loads of traveling and experiences. Eventually a new adventure will arise, new horizons will be explored, and new lands will be discovered. This will also open the doors to new professional and personal challenges. I believe that my upbringing makes it a lot easier to be open to all this, and much more. So, where am I from?
I am not from one place, I am from all over the place. I am a citizen of the world, and a proud one too. Home is where I am right now. Home is where I feel safe, happy, surrounded by the people and things that make me happy. I cannot include “surrounded by my friends” because they are scattered across the globe, but they remain great friends, and we enjoy the quality of our relationship over the frequency of our meetings.
My roots are not comparable to the ones of a large and mature tree that grow deep in the earth of one location. My roots are mobile, transportable. Just like those of a plant in a pot - a terracotta pot if I may choose. These roots are flexible, resilient. They have learned to adapt to new climates, settings, surroundings, and people. Yes, home is where my plant is right now. And as long as I water it, take care of it, expose it to sufficient sunlight and warmth, it will continue to shine and flower, season after season, chapter after chapter.
A final note: I once met a wise Brazilian man, who asked me where I was from. I started by saying that I am a citizen of the world, and went on describing my life, the moves, the traveling, the multiculturalism, etc… After I had finished, he told me that in Brazil, they consider the place you are from as where you were born, where your mother fed you a milk enriched by the local earth, food, nutrients, water, air. That sap flowing inside you determines your origin. He then asked me again: “where are you from?”. I looked at him with a big smile, and without hesitation answered: “I’m from Africa”. I’m an African plant that has traveled across lands, cultures, traditions, decades.
Be curious, be open, discover – life is an adventure