Third Culture Kid

The First Culture: The culture of your parents.

The Second Culture: The culture of the environment in which you live in.

The Third Culture: A combination of the two.

Sounds exhausting? It sure is.

In my last post about the ‘Other People,’ I shared my frustration with the many surveys and questionnaires that ask us to categorize ourselves. I rejoiced at the idea of being someone who is incredibly proud not to fit in. Immigrants and children of immigrants have the benefit of experiencing more than one culture in the comfort of their own homes.

My first day of school in New York, I learned that I needed to fit in as quickly as possible. As my teacher introduced me, and I began talking to my classmates, I noticed one stark difference between the rest of the kids and myself; my accent. I had a very thick Trinidadian accent, and although I was speaking English, it was a very broken English that many Americans find hard to understand. My eight-year-old self went home on a mission to change my accent. I sat myself in front of the TV for hours, not because I was enthralled by any show in particular: I was studying. I began practicing my new accent, but was met with responses like “she’s becoming too Americanized,” or “she doesn’t even sound like she’s Trinidadian” from my family. My family, who thought I was losing my culture, ridiculed my mission of Americanization.

Recently, I was teaching a lesson on Immigrants in the late 19th century, and how Americanization affected children more than adults. I turned to my students and asked if they have ever felt a disconnect between their parents in terms of culture. I also asked if they were ever told they were too “American.”

I looked at my students, who were from many different backgrounds, and many were eager to share their stories. I called on each volunteer and they all told me a story of how their parents kept their home country’s culture even after they were established in the US, and they were expected to live by that culture.

Like myself, many of my students have found a balance between their home culture and the culture of the environment in which they live in.

According to psychologist David C. Pollock,

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parent’s culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

For a TCK, the hardest question you can ask is “Where are you from?” They can tell you where they were born, or where their parents are from, but they’re not really from there, since they don’t identify with that culture.

We have the advantage as QC students to be on one of the most diverse campuses in the country. There are students from all corners of the world, and we’re all inherently third culture kids. Being exposed to so many cultures sets us up for a great advantage; our friend groups are probably as diverse as a panel on the UN! We are able to code-switch, or alternate between two or more languages or dialects. Some of us may think in one language and speak in another, or even have completely different personalities depending on the culture they are identifying with at the moment.

Yes, this all sounds exhausting and discouraging because sometimes you just can’t fit in, and for some TCK’s this idea might trigger an “identity crisis,” but being strange or an outsider has its advantages too. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, being able to identify with many different cultures allows us to be more open-minded and receptive to different ideas. Learning about each other’s cultures–especially in a time where tensions are high between so many political, social and racial groups–can hopefully allow us to  get along better.

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