Encouragement and Musings from a Third Culture Kid

“I think that for immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children.” – Jhumpa Lahiri


Arguably, few types of people can claim to know alienation and insecurity better than a third culture kid. Until recently, I did not even know that these three words could so satisfyingly classify my experience and that of millions of other children in the age of globalisation, where living an expat life is increasingly becoming the norm.

At the basic level, Wikipedia defines these children as:

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.

My own take on this is that this definition falls short of a very complex and psychologically fascinating phenomenon. Ironically, it represents children with a lack of definition.

My parents are immigrants; they left their home countries looking for a better life. I’ve only begun to understand what they went through. There are few things that have made a bigger and more moving impression on me than my father and mother’s perseverance to adjust to new cultures, people, accents, places.

But being the first generation of third culture kids, we’re usually a step ahead of our parents and older family. We’re younger, bolder, smarter. We’re the chameleons. In many cases, we’re the benefactors of a ‘better life’, far away from the grime and dirt of what our parents had to see and given the diving board that they never had. What could possibly stop us or haunt us?

There is more than first meets the eye about the identity of a child like me. It began when I moved to an international school for the first time being around eight years old. This was my first taste of what it could be like to be told one day that your left hand was now your right, and your right now your left. I think as a child, the surprising unfamiliarity and confusion of it was a silent shadow in school. New sorts of names to learn, less stressed consonants in my pronunciation, roaming the playground alone, picking up pieces of a puzzle which I had no reference for from the people around me. One of my most emphatic memories to this day is getting a message from one of my peers in Year Six and being told – with whatever barrage of swear words they could concoct at the time –  that I had no right to claim I was good at English because I was, at the end of the day, from India.

Those were the better days. Later, as a child on the verge of becoming a teenager with a growing sense of self-consciousness, I had decided. I had decided that I did not want to be an Indian. I hated the association, the accusation almost. People with divided cultural identities always come with their own unique potpourri of countries they have lived in and “where they belong”. After meeting a number of children like me, regardless, this is what we seem to have, at least once upon a time, shared in common: a resentment for our roots. Most of us don’t know when it started. Somewhere along the way my mind turned into a fishing net and caught those sneers, the looks that my friends exchanged when I mentioned Indian music and that time my peers couldn’t stop laughing because of how I pronounced ‘unhealthy’ as ‘un-hel-thee’. There could be nothing more right and relieving that I should like what ‘they’ liked, make ‘their’ jokes, look the way ‘they’ looked (at least – what I wore. My skin remained obstinately copper brown.) In a perfect world, I would be called Anne or Marissa or something normal that my teachers could actually pronounce – rather than Shreya, which I thought sounded like a mutated version of Shrek.

I was only half the story. There were my parents, on the other hand, who were not quite so fluent or so adept at translating back and forth between two cultures; two worlds. It didn’t matter that they both spoke English, but it was their accents and the slightly off-key understanding of nuances that betrayed them. I knew they depended upon my loyalty and support. Those were the values that knit an Indian family like ours together in times of alienation and cultural displacement. Through the eyes of a teenager, however, our different way of living, talking and thinking struck me as an embarrassment. There would always be a two-way barrier between ‘the others’ and us, like Picasso paintings in a hall full of immaculately realist royal portraits. It’s hard to empathise if you haven’t known yourself what it’s like to grapple with your identity.

I’m finally learning how to overcome this urge of framing my culture as an apology to everyone else. I tend to believe these insecurities come from seeds that were planted insidiously and subtly by society itself. Things have changed; thirteen odd years of living this life has taught me to reconcile myself with the divide, accepting and appreciating both. Maybe I don’t belong in India or where I am now, maybe I still feel ‘lost in translation’ – but I have determined that there is no reason for me, for us, to be ashamed about the uneven terrain of our pasts. No obligation to idolise ‘them’ and demean yourself, or even the other way round. Having friends with an international background helps too, as we’ve all been rudely awakened long ago and told that the world can be different to what we know. Others haven’t; maybe that’s where writing can reach out.

This post is dedicated to those of you who understand what I’m saying or are facing some part of it in your own lives. I hope that sharing my experience wasn’t too depressing, in fact, I hope it’s chicken soup for the displaced person’s soul. Enjoy your multicultural lives!

Keep reading and read-joicing,