Personal, Society

The Third Culture Kid Diaries: From Rila to the Arabian Desert

Rila-Monstery-Bulgaria-.jpg

A Medley of Colours, Rila Monastery, Bulgaria | Own Photo

 

When I was five years old, my mother gifted me a very special book for my birthday. It was a hard-covered illustrated children’s atlas with maps of continents and rivers that darted through the land like snakes, seamlessly flowing into oceans. As I flipped through the pages, they came to life with stories of the many civilisations scattered across our world.  I became an explorer travelling to distant lands, having pretend adventures with the colourful characters that lived within my atlas. At the time, this book was my window to the many wonders that lay beyond my homeland.  A few years later, I would move to the Middle East and discover for myself the many privileges of living in a multicultural society. Slowly but surely, I became a part of the Third Culture Kid tribe.

The Third Culture Kid: Definition and History

The simplest definition of a Third Culture Kid, courtesy of Merriam Webster, is as follows:

“A child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up.”

The first culture is the one the child’s parents hail from. The second culture refers to that of the host nation(s) where the child finds herself. The third is an amalgamation of the first two, whereby the child adopts some traits of each to create her own unique experience.

The above is a very basic definition, because of course, every child has their own story. To borrow a trendy term, TCKs exist on a spectrum. Some spend barely any time in their home countries, hopping from place to place every year.  Some have parents who themselves were TCKs, whisking them away to wholly different locations in an attempt to satiate their own wanderlust. Others, like me, come from a homogenous culture and are thrust into a multicultural society at a tender age.

The term itself was coined in the 1950s by anthropologists Ruth Hill Useem and her husband John, who were studying cross-cultural encounters of American communities abroad. According to Useem, the late 40s and early 50s was the first time third culture communities started to form due to scientific and technological advances, as well as the decline of colonialism.

Useem published her findings in the 90s, nearly 30 years ago, so although many of her conclusions hold true today, some may not have aged as well.  According to her, TCKs have trouble relating to their own ethnic groups, they experience prolonged adolescence, and maintain global dimensions throughout their lives. I could definitely relate to her points about difficulty relating to one’s own ethnic group and maintaining global dimensions and will explore those further in this article.  However, on the subject of the study being a little out of touch with current times, here’s a quote describing TCKs suffering from prolonged adolescence:

 “Some young adult TCKs strike their close peers, parents, and counselors as being self-centered adolescents, as having champagne tastes on beer incomes (or no incomes), as not being able to make up their minds about what they want to do with their lives, where they want to live, and whether or not they want to “settle down, get married, and have children. They have what some call “prolonged adolescence.”

You know who else is afflicted with the prolonged adolescence condition? Pretty much every millennial I’ve ever come across. Perhaps mono-cultural society is catching up to us TCKs with our insufferable self-centredness.

Growing up in the Arabian Desert

Dubai, (one of) my home(s) | Own Photo

 

My own Third Culture Experience began when my father, a landscape architect, landed a job in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. We lived in Bulgaria at the time, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do landscape wise. Certainly not as much as there was in an oil rich desert state which wanted to transform itself into an oasis at any cost! So off he went, and my mother and I soon followed when we realised this would not be a short term gig like we’d previously thought.

I was ten years old at the time and spoke no English whatsoever. Although we studied a second language in primary school, my mother had helpfully enrolled me in German lessons instead of English, possibly because she thought it sounded cool? Thanks very much, mutti!

As I got to Abu Dhabi the summer before school started, my mother decided to correct her past wrongdoings, and dragged me to the British nursery where she briefly worked as a teachers aide. There, she made me sit in a corner and do English exercises all day long. I may have resented her at the time, but I’m grateful now as it allowed me to start school and sort of understand what people were on about when they talked to (at) me.

The International School Experience: from homogenous societies to multi-cultural expat communities

Abu Dhabi Grammar School Canada, where I became a TCK | EducationZen

I was enrolled in a Canadian school. That was my first experience in an international school and it was mind blowing. Prior to this, all my classmates were either Bulgarian or of the Turkish or Roma minority. That was it. So to walk into a classroom that first day, where the English teacher was Canadian Lebanese, and my new school friends came from India, Australia, South Africa, Oman, the UAE, the US, just to name a few? That was indescribable and I was so overwhelmed at first. I could not fully comprehend the richness of culture that was in front of me.

International schools are different from most schools. People come and go all the time, so the kids are welcoming and broadly interested in you. It didn’t matter that I was new and barely spoke English. I was immediately adopted by a group of girls who came from literally every corner of the world and made me feel welcome.

One of the most TCK experiences I had in the Canadian school was when in the 6th grade, our English teacher asked for volunteers to sing the Canadian anthem at a talent show. I volunteered along with some of my friends. So, on the day of the talent show, you had me, my Taiwanese American best friend, and a collection of other girls who’d never set foot in Canada, standing proudly on a stage holding up a massive Canadian flag belting out: “O Canada! Our home and native land!”. Oh, the irony.

Four years later, I would move to Dubai where my dad got a better job. I would attend a bigger and better international school with even more nationalities represented. International day was the best – I would wear white, green, and red and eat Danish liquorice, Pakistani biryani, and Belgian chocolate whilst watching Bollywood dancing and Russian ballet. I was sort of jaded at that point though. I was fully integrated into TCK society and authentic cultural experiences were a fact of life.

The TCK as an Adult

Rila Mountain Range, Bulgaria | Own Photo

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere*. That is if your universe’s reigning deity is Theresa May circa 2016, of course. Her world may be one where nationalism and patriotism are at the forefront of one’s identity, but her world is dying.

Please don’t misunderstand me – one should take pride in their roots, their heritage, their culture. But having a stubborn, almost fanatical attachment to the piece of land where you  (or your parents) happened to pop out into the world is an archaic notion, especially if you’ve spent a large portion of your life abroad. Nowadays, we understand that people are so much more complex than their passport country, their parents’ culture, their skin colour, or religion. We are all, to at least some extent, citizens of the world. Society is becoming more globalised, and TCKs are the most stark example of this trend.

This is why I could relate to Useem’s findings relating to feeling alienated from your ethnic group:

Most do not identify with members of their ethnic group, and nearly half do not feel central to any group. For some, especially the recently returned, such feelings are painful and create a profound sense of isolation;  Others recognizing their feelings as part of broader more global identities, stress feeling at home everywhere.

This passage reminded me of completing an Intercultural Development Inventory as part of my professional development at my former job. It is meant to test your intercultural competence (i.e. how culturally sensitive you are). My results were somewhat inconclusive partly because, as the invigilator said in our briefing, I was suffering from something called cultural dissociation – essentially I had become detached from my home culture and so my answers were all over the place. Only, I really don’t mind, though it was presented like it was a bad thing. I like being a mix of things, and I like getting along with people from all over the world – yes, I feel at home everywhere as arrogant as that might sound to some.

I know how privileged I am to have had this upbringing and I would not give it up for anything. As Useem said, I continue to maintain global dimensions; I’ve lived in the Netherlands, and now I’m moving to the UK. Who knows what’s next? I only know that I can’t imagine a life without an international aspect of some sort.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my life had gone in a different direction and I never had the opportunity to live abroad. Would I be brave enough to overcome cultural and language barriers and explore the world on my own? I like to think that the little girl who first saw the world through an illustrated Atlas would not rest until she went out and saw the real thing for herself.

 

Camels, Arabian Desert | Own Photo

*This is the first, but not last reference to Pride and Prejudice. Get used to it!

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Stela

22 Comments

Barbara

Such a good piece of writing, Stela!
Very interesting for me- a mother of 2 TCKs being the students of this “bigger and better school” you mentioned:) I can identify with your comments and conclusions..Reading about you singing Canadian national anthem made me recall my daughter’s ( very blond Eastern European girl) Bollywood dance performed during the school assembley with her 10 or 12 only Indian and Pakistani friends:)
So many of us living here in UAE have their own stories which, I guess, Mrs. Useem would have found interesting for her research:)
Your post reminded me of what I tend to forget – how privilledged we are having a chance to live in such a multinational environement.
Wishing you a further, fascinating life journey. Also the one to the deeper self:)

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Stela

Thank you so much for the lovely comment!
The Bollywood dance sounds like a familiar situation, I guess it’s one way to immerse ourselves in new cultures 😀
I think you’re right, we do tend to take this lifestyle for granted, and we should appreciate everything it gives to us a little more. Namely, a really authentic view into other cultures 🙂

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Z.Ferdinandova

Dear Stela, thank you so much for sharing this. As a mother of a son of a few words I find it quite informative. I was surprised to find some answers for myself as well.
Don’t stop to surprise us, please 🙂

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Stela

Thank you for your lovely comment! I am so glad you found it informative 🙂 I hope you enjoy my future content as well!

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Zlatka Gineva

Стеленце, прекланям се пред умението ти да “въртиш перото”. Невероятна си моето момиче. Толкова увлекателно и информативно четиво. Налегна ме лека носталгия попивайки думите с всяка фибра на съзнанието си. Щеше ми се да продължавам да чета до безкрай този разказ на живота. Интересна си , защото си различна! Върви смело по пътя който си избрала ! Това е твоят път.
Мама

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Stela

Блаодаря мамо 🙂 толкова хубави думи – явно има откъде да съм наследила как да “въртя перото”!

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Rodi

Stela,as a mother of 2 I always ask people who were born and lived their whole life here:how do u feel?do u feel happy?Are u ok the way u grew up or would u change something if u could…ur article answered my questions and I feel less worried now.i m more positive now to continue raising my 2 treasures in this country!thank u so much and continue sharing with us ur information and love of being a TCK💗

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Stela

Thank you for your lovely comment! I am so glad you found something of value in my article 🙂

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Marin Ginev

A very well thought out article which is close to many of us. It’s really heart warming to see the path we walked again.
However I would like to see the article translated by you in Bulgarian, not just to challenge your skills (I am sure you have them) but to spread your thoughts to all of those friends and relatives, who are not so familiar with English.
Then more and more people will be able to understand TCK and particularly your point of view.
It’s not a bad idea, is it?

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Stela

That’s a good idea, maybe something I can work on this summer for some of these articles!

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Penka Yanakieva

Като постоянно живееща на едно място, правилото „битието определя съзнанието” винаги много ме е дразнило, защото осъзнавам, че от него сякаш няма „измъкване”. Това, което ни различава от животните обаче е свободната воля и възможността да мотивираме своите мисли и действия. В комплект с буден дух тези заложби в човека могат да са единствените позволяващи му да прогледне отвъд битието си и да „попътува” разлиствайки атлас…;) Едно малко момиченце може би точно това е прошепнало на съдбата – да му се случи!!!
Скъпо момиче, това което знам, че носиш в себе си е много ценно и се радвам да го виждаме всички как се реализира!
Penka Yanakieva

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Stela

Много хубави думи, благодаря! Може би е съдба наистина 🙂

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Maria Iankova

A very insightful article, Stela! Those of us, who really care about the topic, will certainly find in it something new to learn and aspects they never thought about. I couldn’t help sharing it with other mums of TCKs. Keep exploring!

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Stela

I am so glad you liked the topic and you learned something new! And thank you so much for sharing with your friends 🙂

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Damyan Misirdzhiev

Well said Stela, beautiful article! We have a new generation, which you belong to, where many young people have a chance to international exposure and experience. Good food for thought for families with small children moving abroad. Well done and keep going!

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Stela

Thank you for the lovely comment! It’s true, the world is becoming more and more globalised and we have so many more opportunities to live abroad now 🙂

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Cathy S

What an article! As a French/Mexican living in the Netherlands I can relate to many on the thing you say. Just as you, I love my international background and would not give it up for anything. Thanks for sharing your experience. This piece is full of humour and intresting points! Keep it up ♡

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Stela

Thank you Cathy! I think we are just so lucky to have had these international experiences and now we can connect over them 🙂

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elena chilingirova

Добро начало,приятно съм изненадана!Поздравление! Твърдо бих казала,че ако нямаше този житейски опит на емигрант,нямаше да имаш толкова много впечатления в международен план,за което както подчертаваш има голям принос прекрасното ти семейство ! За човек на света обаче се изисква доста повече и за това няма много да те лаская,защото ти предстои дълъг път,но началото е поставено и е доста обнадеждаващо! Успех и нови публикации ще чакаме!

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Stela

Благодаря за коментара 🙂 скоро ще има нови публикации!

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BustinOutBeauty

Love this. I felt so much of myself in your writing, despite living in entirely different countries and what not. I miss traveling and having authentic cultural experiences more than anything. I wish I could do it more, an I am truly thankful for an upbringing that allowed me to travel as much as I did. Looking forward to reading more of your pieces! So well written! 🙂

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Stela

Thanks so much! Glad you found it relatable – it’s about the lifestyle rather than the countries where we lived, I guess!

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