Across from me sits four UBCO students who, collectively, have lived in more countries than I have fingers and toes. As I’m digging for my notepad and pencil in my bag, Suraj greets Himaini in a language I cannot quite identify. I’m eavesdropping, but all I can pick up on is the odd English phrase sandwiched between a whole slew of inaudible chatter and laughter. I notice the others bonding over a list of counties, many of which I have shamefully never even heard of. This is our first time meeting together as a group, but I cannot help but feel that they have already connected on a level I never will with them.
“So, where are you guys all from?”
I immediately regret the question.
Himaini is a 4th year biochemistry and psychology major whose father is Indian and her mother is half-Mexican, a quarter-Portuguese, and a quarter-Sri Lankan. They met in Sri Lanka, moved to India, then to Stockholm, Sweden where Himaini was born. Himaini has since moved every three years to a new place. Her list of countries includes: Turkmenistan, United States (Texas), Mexico, India, Croatia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Zambia, and now, Canada.
Suraj is a 4th year computer science major who identifies as ethnically Indian. He was born in Prague, moved to Geneva, then spent two years in India. He then moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Ghana, Doha in Qatar, India again, Copenhagen in Denmark, then to where he is now in Kelowna.
Billy is a 4th year biochemistry major who identifies as ethnically Chinese but was born on the Solomon Islands in Fiji. He then moved to China for six years, only to move back to the Solomon Islands for seven years, then to Vancouver and Kelowna.
Geoffrey Kasenbacher is in his first year at UBCO and intends to major in Economics. His father is Austrian/German, born in Austria, and his mother is Dutch with parents from South America. His parents met in the Netherlands, then moved to Austria where Geoffrey was born. He then moved to the Netherlands, Norway, London, back to Austria for his military service, then to Kelowna.
A relatively simple question for most, you would think. The four of them, however, collectively agreed that this question makes them cringe because it involves an elaborate answer consisting of their family history along with explanations for each move in order to ultimately convey how their transient lifestyles came to be. I had the luxury of hearing their full stories, but I began to wonder: how do you convey such an answer to a stranger who comes to expect a brief one-word answer?
But that is the everyday reality for Third Culture Kids like Himaini, Geoffrey, Suraj, and Billy. The term Third Culture Kids, or abbreviated as TCK, is used to describe the experiences of children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their developmental years. It was coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 50‘s after noticing her own children’s existence in a unique “third culture” after moving to India on two different occasions. More recently, the term has also taken other forms such as “global nomads”. What sets Third Culture Kids apart from others such as international students and their experiences is that TCKs are not determined by race, a country of origin, or the places where they have been; rather, it is a term that encompasses the experience as a result of a clash of these factors.
A common characteristic of TCKs, and also what links Himaini, Geoffrey, Suraj, and Billy, is the constant moving between cities, countries, and even continents.
In a Washington Post article published in 2000 about the experience of children of expatriates, TCKs, on average, make eight major moves before graduating from high school.
Most TCKs are pejoratively referred to as “military brats” or have parents involved in non-military government, missionaries, business, or other international organizations. Himaini and Suraj’s parents are diplomats; Geoffrey’s mother is a choreographer and his father is a corporate developer; and, Billy’s father works in a company where he is sent back and forth between head offices.
“We [TCKs] are the minority here. Even just the question, ‘where are you from?’ throws us off so much. You end up getting so tired of explaining yourself -- and it’s not getting tired of actually explaining yourself -- but it’s more people thinking you’re abnormal or making other assumptions like you’re really rich... which is not the case”, Himaini says exasperatedly about the lack of awareness about the TCK experience.
Himaini in particular is vocal about her TCK identity and raising awareness about it. On August 12th, she posted a lengthy Facebook status that finally made public her struggles with being a TCK, which garnered over 75 likes, shares, and numerous outpourings of support and thanks from her TCK friends. Her experiences have also appeared on blogs such as UBC’s The Global Spectrum.
Surprisingly, the lack of awareness even extends into academia, as Danau Tanu from the University of Western Australia addresses in her research titled “Global Nomads: Towards a Study of ‘Asian’ Third Culture Kids”:
“Their transient globe-trotting lifestyle suggests that they are living at the forefront of globalization, and yet not enough research has been done on them,” she states as the primary reason for her research. Her findings suggest the TCK identity is a constant renegotiation in relation to the dominant culture, and when you factor in the general lack of awareness, it leaves many TCKs feeling misunderstood and alone in their experiences. This is especially pertinent for a city like Kelowna where only 7.9% of the 122,000 people population is a visible minority and population growth has been primarily due to intraprovincial migration rather than international migration, according to Kelowna’s 2014 Community Trends Report.
As I asked each of them about the struggles associated with being a TCK, their responses were all so different, yet the feeling of being misunderstood, mislabeled, and alone underpinned every one of their responses.
“People assume ethnic identity is all there is about your identity, and people even stereotype you based on that identity... hence there is that barrier that you need to cross [in explaining the TCK situation to them]” says Suraj who identifies as Indian because of his parents and his passport, even though he has spent more time living in other countries than in India.
For mixed-race TCKs like Himaini and Geoffrey, there is an added dimension of confusion over people like Suraj, who is ethnically Indian, and Billy, who is ethnically Chinese. Unlike Himaini and Geoffrey, Suraj and Billy can refer to one ethnicity that works in temporarily dodging the confusion that comes with the “where are you from?” question.
“I tell people I am from Austria, but then there’s the story about my parents, so then I try telling them I’m European, but that doesn’t really cut it. It’s tough”, says Geoffrey.
A common narrative among all TCKs, and one shared by all four members sitting across from me, is being unable to identify one true home. What may have been home for their parents is not their home, and where they live currently is not home either. I asked hesitantly whether they have ever felt a sense of sadness over not having a “home”, to which Himaini bluntly responded:
“No, because we can’t really miss what we never had.”
They all reassured me that the benefits of being a TCK far outweigh its negatives. Himaini joked that because she had to leave so many places and people behind, she is really good at saying goodbye. The same goes for packing and moving. Billy proudly told me he arrived in Kelowna with just one suitcase.
“I got to live in so many places, meet so many people, and gain so many perspectives,” says Himaini.
Suraj mentions that through his TCK experience, he has learned to adapt no matter where he goes.
“You never get desensitized to leaving, but you learn to adapt. Adapting to a new location is second nature to us.”
When asked whether they intend to follow in their parents’ footsteps, the answers were mixed.
Himaini describes a restlessness that comes with being in a place for too long, and with her degree coming to an end, she describes wanting to move somewhere in East Asia. She cannot imagine any other sort of lifestyle but the one she has lived her whole life, and fully intends to pursue work with the United Nations or Doctors Without Borders.
Suraj, on the other hand, is ready to settle down and intends to stick around in Kelowna for as long as he can. Billy also agreed he would like to settle down in one place for a while.
By the end of our conversation, I realized that I had only really scratched the surface of what it means to be a TCK, and as a person who was born and raised in Canada with no experience moving outside the country, I cannot begin to fathom the TCK experience. However, it did occur to me that -- like with any identity, really -- it operates on a spectrum. For people like Himaini who has lived in almost every continent radically on one end, and people like Billy whose experiences were shaped by three very diverse places on the other, they all share the common ground of questioning the definition of home, their connections to these places, and how it has shaped who they are as people.
As I sat down to write this piece, Himaini sent me a link to a blog post she wrote and told me she thought I might find it helpful. Illustrating the post was a photo of a heart and house drawn into sand with a caption that seemed to nicely summarize my chat with Himaini, Suraj, Geoffrey, and Billy:
“We are caught in a dichotomy of wanting to go back home, yet knowing that we are home. Time – the present – is the first and best home we’ve ever had. The intangibility of home is the price we pay for having known and loved throughout the globe.”