Home Sweet Homes: The Adventure Of Third Culture Child

Three women tell us what it’s like growing up globally.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Three women tell us what it’s like growing up globally.

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Third culture kids are children who are raised in a culture different from their parents’ culture for a significant part of their lives. Many have expat parents with short-term contracts, and so don’t have the chance to live in a certain country for an extended period of time. Living life on the move can be nervewracking for adults, and even more so for kids.

The desire to belong and identify combined with having to constantly be the new kid in school can be emotionally draining. However, it also has a range of advantages, including adaptation skills and making you open-minded. Jess, Amber and Madhurya tell us what it’s like being being third culture kids.
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Jess, 27, is American
Has lived in: America, Taiwan, China, Singapore
One of the best things about living in different countries is I’ve got friends all over the world, which makes travelling cheap... kidding! It’s not only fun to have friends that you can visit everywhere, but it’s also really helpful in terms of networking – especially if you intend to work internationally. It also opens up opportunities for serendipitous connections. For example, I was at a bar in Calistoga, a small town in California, and I randomly sat next to an old Scottish man. I found out that he went to a school in Taipei, where I had lived, and we spent two hours chatting all because of that small coincidence that linked us. Little events like that happen all the time for me, and and they’re part of what I appreciate most about having lived in multiple countries.
I think being a third culture kid is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’ve made friends from all over the world and learned about their values, culture, and random facts. It made me realise that anyone and everyone is capable of teaching you something new and that you can always find a way to connect with anyone you meet.
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Amber, 25 is Singaporean
Has lived in: America, Taiwan, China, Singapore
Moving to a different country when you’re young can feel like the worst thing ever. I was already a self-conscious kid, and [having to adapt to] a completely new environment just made me feel horrible. Kids can be very cruel, and I had moved from China, so I had to learn English from scratch and work extra hard to blend in with the other kids.
Growing up in a foreign country and having to adapt to a new environment at a young age builds your resilience. I remember trying to be accepted by everyone and hiding the fact that I was different and didn’t exactly belong. But eventually, I reached a level of maturity and everything changed. I was suddenly proud of where I came from and about the fact that I had an unconventional upbringing.
I’m proud that I’m the product of multiple cultures, and can speak English, Mandarin and French. Being a third culture kid has made me more open-minded and empathetic. Although I hated being an outsider when I was younger, I was always really excited to move to a new country because it felt like it held endless opportunities. Moving away from my friends didn’t upset me too much, because I looked at the positive side of things. Having friends all over the world just means I have more reason to travel and return to the different places that I have called home in the past.
Even so, I always feel like an outsider. For example, I don’t feel like I’m Singaporean because I’m still very much connected to my Chinese roots. And in China, I definitely look and sound very different from my peers who grew up in China, so I also feel like an outsider there. I’m not alone though; feeling like an outsider is a very common trait among my friends who are also third culture kids. At the end of the day, I believe that third culture kids are truly citizens of the world, and I’m quick to adapt to and empathise with other cultures because of my background.
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Madhurya, 24 is Indian

Has lived in: Saudi Arabia, Dubai, America, Singapore, India

I spent the majority of my life in Dubai and completed my degrees in America. I have been fortunate that these places have had a considerable Indian presence, and I was able to stay within my comfort zone while exploring the local culture. While I’m happy that I still got to be around Indians because it kept me connected to home, I would say it prevented me from fully integrating into the local culture.

When I moved to Singapore when I was 21, I really had to start from scratch. Fortunately, I don’t feel like an outsider here today because I had actively made an effort to learn about the culture and have made some really wonderful friends.

When I’m back in India, I don’t feel like a foreigner per se but in some ways, I know I will never be ‘fully’ Indian. For example, I’m the type of person who smiles and talks to strangers. Whenever I’m in India, my cousins have to remind me not to do that because [it’s not part of the culture] – and that’s a very strange concept to me. That’s one of many instances where I’m unable to align the character I have grown into while living abroad with how the culture in India is.

Being a third culture kid has made me more open-minded and curious. It introduced me to the concept of cultural intelligence, and it’s something I’m actively trying to build. Being a third culture kid is a constant work in progress as I’m always trying to grasp all the novelty around me and make the most of it, and that’s exciting.

“I believe that third culture kids are truly citizens of the world, and I’m quick to adapt to and emphatise with other cultures because of my background.”

Images 123RF.com Text Claire Soong.