The term “third culture kid” was first coined by researchers John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s, who used it to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad. It refers to those of us who have birth citizenship in one country, but grow up in a different country. It also applies however to children who have a parent from another country and who have grown up in two different cultures. This upbringing can leave you with the feeling of not belonging in any single culture or place. You may be perceived as a foreigner in the countries you grew up in. Or you may be perceived as a native but have hidden feelings that you don’t belong.
Growing up between two countries I felt I was operating much of the time as a ‘double agent’, passing as native in both places but not really belonging in either. This left me with an interest in identity and belonging and how to find a voice of one’s own. It was a revelation to me when I found the book ‘Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds’ by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reeken. It was a profound relief to see my experience described so accurately and to realise that my feelings were so clearly the result of a particular set of circumstances. It helped me feel so much less alone, and to see my feelings as natural and understandable.
Third culture children – and the adults they become – are often faced with challenges such as:
- Lack of belonging
- Feeling different from others
- Feeling of having no control over your life
- A sense of exile
- Crisis of identity
- Difficulties with commitment
- Grief and loss
Searching for a place in the universe is part of the human condition but if you are a third culture kid this can be a particularly sore process because the forging of an identity is often conflicted.
Talking it through with someone who has also been there can be a healing experience. Taking some time to acknowledge and grieve perhaps hidden losses and giving the inner child some attention is a gift to yourself that you may have been waiting for for a very long time.