On Being a Third-Culture Kid
When I was 14, after spending 10 years growing up in three vastly different countries, I moved back to the place I was born: Australia. I was making this move from Germany, where racism was taboo due to its traumatic history, yet its people were still a proud nation with high nationalistic ideals. Even teenagers could make you feel unwelcome on the basis of where you were from.
After spending years feeling out of place, I was so excited to be returning home. Australia was where my parents were from, my official “nationality”. That had to mean something.
Starting my first day of school jetlagged, adjusting to the 10-hour time difference, I wasn’t prepared for what was in store. My family had gifted me DVD box sets of iconic Australian TV series, and I had been an avid reader of Total Girl magazine for years. I assumed I would be stepping into an episode of The Sleepover Club or Bluewater High. I thought I knew exactly how to fit in.
But there was still so much I didn’t know; so much to make me feel different. Judgement is natural in a high school environment, yet it felt like everything I said and did (albeit being completely normal to me) was watched and criticised. Kids weren’t used to seeing people be different, and I understood that. But was there anywhere I wouldn’t feel like an outsider?
Another thing that baffled me was the questions. “What kind of music do they listen to where you’re from?” I was asked. I had moved from a progressive, western country, and pop music was quite universally liked. Did people really think I only listened to German folk music and Oompah-Pah? My classmates were surprised when my interests were the same as theirs, yet judgmental when mine were different.
Moving around a lot also gifts you with an accent as confusing as your sense of identity. Although I thought I sounded exactly the same as everyone else, everyone was constantly mimicking me and pointing out the way I said certain words. “Your accent is just so crazy and different!”
The stories you can tell become limited as well. People can go on and on about their family holidays to Paris and ski trips to the Alps, but if I was to bring up attending kindergarten in communist Ukraine, suddenly I’d be the one bragging. Perhaps it was the inherent social anxiety associated with moving from a cohort of 30 kids to 300 kids, but I found it easier to just keep quiet.
American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem uses the term “third-culture” to refer to children who have “spent a significant part of their formative years outside their parents’ culture”.
Useem says that third-culture kids tend to improvise and tell white-lies in order to make themselves seem more normal. When asked where they’re from, they’ll often reinvent their life stories in order to fit in with the situation or people that they are around. This has its benefits: allowing people like me to wear different “masks” and to constantly change themselves. Yet we can often begin to feel a sense of isolation and be confused about who we are and where we belong.
When I started school back in Australia, everyone’s obvious first question was to ask which school I had come from. After explaining that I had moved from the other side of the world, I was automatically labelled as “the German girl” — a label that I couldn’t resonate with was thrust upon me and there was nothing I could do about it. My immediate response was to wish that I had lied and said that I had moved from China. Though I had only spent two years there,but at least it would’ve been clear that I wasn’t Chinese. I was ready to erase an entire three years of my life, just to belong.
National identity might not seem like a big thing to most. While lots of Australians cringe at Southern Cross tattoos and Pauline Hanson, there are other elements to the inherent sense of belonging that many take for granted. Maybe national identity isn’t as defining as sexual or gender identity, and not as differentiating as fashion or lifestyle choices. But when it’s completely stripped away, it’s easy to feel lost.
There are so many people who have experienced what I went through. In an article published by the BBC, a mother who had moved around with her children, having them grow up in four different countries, explained that moving around “does end up marking them as different when they return, but they have to live with that”. She explained that her children were content with a “privileged upbringing and a better understanding of the world,” but that their experiences had still caused issues upon returning to their home country.
Looking back, I’d definitely never change the way I grew up. I don’t think anyone could regret getting to explore the world at such a young age. I guess I’m just looking for a place to call home.
Cover by NeONBRAND