The third culture kid: Between homelands

Illustration by Maggie Miller Buy this photo

By Rachel Premack, Daily News Editor
Published February 10, 2014

The streets of Ann Arbor are covered in gray, squelching slush. The same picture goes for my hometown, less than an hour away.

Illustration by Maggie Miller

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However, LSA sophomore Ayo Akinokun — who has Nigerian parents, spent time in Norway and France and attended high school in Dubai — recalls the warm traffic-congested streets in his home of Nigeria. The cars often move so slowly you can buy cookies on the highway.

LSA junior Thibaut Dupuy flies back to Istanbul every break since his French parents moved from there Washington, D.C. There, what he sees is a liberal city in a conservative country, where mosques, synagogues and churches can all be on the same street. Fully veiled women tromp down sidewalks next to others in miniskirts.

And in Shanghai, where LSA sophomore Gabriel Meredith calls his home, the environment is increasingly wealthy and glitzy. When he was younger, he visited a hectic market with vendors hawking bootleg DVDs. Now, there’s a flagship Prada store, where that hardscrabble collection of shops once stood.

“I like the Shanghai where you wake up early on a Saturday and go to the park and see old people playing badminton and doing tai chi,” Meredith said. “I guess the Shanghai that’s a lot more quiet, relaxed, leafy streets. And a lot of it’s still there. It’s always gonna be there. It’s just harder for us to see.”

Change and instability is a defining theme in the lives of many “third culture” kids, a small but increasingly more visible subset of the University’s student body.

The term “third culture kid” is new and somewhat unknown. Coined in the 1950s in the book, “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” by American sociologist David C. Pollack, it’s defined as a child who experienced a “significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture” and as a result does not identify completely with any one culture. It's similar in many ways to the term “global nomad,” though this usually refers to a person who typically has loosened their ties to their home country and work abroad.

I talked to seven students who identify as third culture kids. Collectively, these students have at some point called Zambia, France, the United Arab Emirates, China, Norway, Turkey, Nigeria Switzerland and the U.S. their home.

It’s a bit gimmicky too. When I asked LSA juniors Thibaut Dupuy and Leslie Sommer if they had heard of the term, they burst out laughing. LSA sophomore Brendan Wu said the term has been used by Buzzfeed and other Internet hotspots for someone who simply associates with international culture.

But the idea of a childhood spent in a culture different from one’s parents is not new by any stretch. My grandfather was raised by two Russian-Jews who spoke almost exclusively Yiddish in their lilly-white South Dakotan town.

“Now there’s more than just immigrants — like hyphenated Americans — but now there’s like this blurring where like an immigrant can associate with the country of their birth or the country of their parents origin but like third culture kids don’t really associate with any nationality,” Wu said.

That lack of total association manifests itself subtly — mostly by the moments third culture kids mentioned when I asked them about what differs them from their American peers.

“Cultures are very complex and there’s a lot of things you can’t quite understand unless you’ve grown up in that culture,” Akinokun said. “Like in a coffee shop here in the U.S., there might be something about whether you should say hi to someone before sitting down or wait until everyone is seated before saying hi. Things like that differ. It’s just weird having to map out in my mind where I am and what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The culture shock stretches beyond subtle social norms, too.

LSA sophomore Jenny Li, who spent most of her childhood in Zambia, is Chinese but said her family assumed she would get good grades and go to an American college. In her school in Zambia though, her teachers and classmates, who hailed from places like the U.S., Britain and South Africa, accepted B’s and C’s.

These cultural differences, among the students I interviewed, helped develop their familial relationships or hindered them. For Li, it could be seen as a hindrance.

“I feel like she (my mom) never really put in a lot of effort in understanding the difference between the educations, and then I just never put it in the effort of telling her,” Li said.

She spent ages six to nine in China. During this period, she did not see her father and saw her mother twice. She was raised by her grandmother’s sisters, who she called “the best family I could ever ask for.”

Akinokun, who was separated from his parents in high school, said the opposite.

“For someone like me, I guess moving around a lot would make me miss them more. When you’re moving around a lot, friends are changing, people are changing, your entire environment is changing. The only thing that stays constant is your family. You grow more reliant on them. They’re the most constant part of your life.”

Many of the students said their relationships with their parents flourished when they came to college. At the University, there’s a dearth of ways that international students — no matter their background — can bond.

“It’s really invisible,” Meredith said. “It’s really hard to find.”

Dupuy — the French student who grew up in Washington, D.C. — said this was especially shocking considering the diverse nature of the student body. It has the eighth largest international student population out of all U.S. universities and represents 130 countries.

Meredith said he bonds most quickly with third culture kids, even those who are neither Chinese nor American. Half-white and half-Chinese, he doesn’t fit in with international Chinese students, who see him as white. But he’s not American either.

“It’s the experience of living in a ridiculously diverse situation with a school with people from actually all over the world,” he said. “(There’s) the idea that diversity is in a way our life, in a way we kind of crave it.”

Meredith paused, considering his home in Shanghai, his father’s birthplace on a Michigan farm and the American boarding school where he came of age.

“One of the biggest similarities is the idea that all international schools just like Shanghai are subject to change every single year. There’s always a constant flow of everyone coming in and leaving,” he said. “You get kind of used to the system of constant change and meeting new people and being forced to understand different people’s experiences but at the same time joining together to build an experience together.”

Wu, however, said he does not necessarily prefer the company of third culture kids. He said he's often pressured to hang out with Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, but doesn’t deem it as necessary.

“After that we’re still very different sometimes,” Wu said. “Like Gabriel (Meredith) and I are friends partly because we’ve had similar experiences and things we’ve both experienced, like living in China, but there’s a lot more than that.”

It connects to his idea of nationality.

“I always say things like ethnicity or where you’re from and stuff is just a state of mind,” Wu said. “Even if you’ve grown up in America all your life but you really associate with another part of the world or something, there’s nothing wrong with saying part of you is a manifestation of that.”

Finding one country to identify with is often a challenge, and several of the students said even that could be fluid.

Sommer said she rejected her Swiss background while attending a high school in Switzerland, noting the stereotypes of a Swiss person with a smile: being anal, reserved and on-time. She was quicker to name herself Czech, her mother’s nationality. But in the U.S., she said, she’s embraced that she is a Swiss person.

“Now I feel like I’m becoming my own person,” Sommer said. “I feel like every experience I have I learn and I develop and I would say being Swiss is a part of me. I realized that I am a Swiss citizen and I will always be Swiss. However, that’s not how I would define myself. I wouldn’t limit myself as just being Swiss.”

Sommer, who spent her childhood summers in South Carolina, sees the fleeting nature of a national identity as something that goes beyond third culture kids.

“I feel like we’re part of a new generation that’s gonna fully get rid of this nationalism that we used to have. We’re going to be able to move from country to country and culture to culture and live together without identifying first as a nationality.”

Dupuy echoed Sommer, adding the shift could help define a generation.

“I think that identifying with more than one culture makes identifying in today’s world special,” Dupuy said. “In the world that we live in today, we’re going to work with more people that don’t look like us, don’t speak the same languages as us and didn't grow up like us. I dont know if you could necessarily say that in the past.”