Third culture kids: defining home

Monday, February 25, 2019 - 6:45pm

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Courtesy of Al Soot via Unsplash

Where are you from? A simple, straightforward question for the majority of people, but not for me. I belong to a small – but growing – group of individuals known as Third Culture Kids (TCKs). This label has garnered popularity in recent years because of greater international employment opportunities and increased personal overseas travel fostering intercultural relationships.

TCKs are individuals whose upbringing takes place in a culture outside of their parents’ culture(s) or the culture of the country of which they possess a passport. They’ve had to move between cultures and countries before developing their own set of ideals. These children are often exposed to greater variety of customs, religious practices and political views. As a result they develop a wide spectrum of views.

More often than not, compared to their peers who did not grow up in such an environment, TCKs place a higher value on, and are more appreciative, of diversity and inclusion, though many also battle fitting in during their formative years. They are proficient at cultivating relationships with people from other cultures but don’t necessarily occupy a singular cultural identity of their own.

How does one answer the question: Where are you from? Is it my country of birth? Or where I grew up? Or the country I hold a passport of? For many people the answer to these questions will be the same. But not for me. Similar to the confusion regarding how to answer where I’m from, I used to be conflicted about which country to hold allegiance to, which culture to call mine and which language to claim as my first.

I was born and raised in Singapore, a thriving and diverse city-state that encourages inclusion and diversity, and also nurtures a high level of multiculturalism. It was overwhelming at times but it taught me to accept and adapt to people from different countries and varied cultural practices. Later, I found it fascinating realizing how my attitude and behavior altered depending on the people I was interacting with. My mannerisms differed when I was hanging out with my British friends compared with my Indian friends. It wasn’t that there was a difference in how I valued the friendships. It was simply that the culture in each group was different and I had to adapt my behavior accordingly.

For many TCKs, including myself, there isn’t one particular place we can call home, but multiple places that we are closely connected to and identify with. We typically are more accepting of different cultures, and customs and typically speak more than one language. Furthermore TCKs often thrive in work settings in which diversity and multicultural awareness are important and emphasized.

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Courtesy of Artem Bali via Unsplash

At the age of sixteen, I moved to the U.S. to attend boarding school for my junior and senior years before attending Michigan. I have lived in America for around three years now in two contrasting states (Michigan and Georgia), and believe I have adapted to – even adopted – American culture.

In the US, I’m considered an outsider because I’m not a citizen, was not born in the US and perhaps because I don’t fully understand everything American. I was born in Singapore but I’m considered an expatriate resident as opposed to a local. This is because I attended an international school (Singaporeans cannot attend international schools) and don’t have a Singaporean accent, even though life in Singapore is everything I’ve known throughout my childhood and most of my life. In India, I’m considered an outsider even though I am an Indian citizen. I can speak, write and read Hindi, but I speak with a slight foreign accent, prompting residents to consider me as an outsider. I have never lived in India despite being a citizen. I’m a U.S. Permanent Resident but have so far lived here for only three years. In Singapore I only have a temporary residency status, as Singapore, unlike the United States, does not offer citizenship by birth.

It’s interesting to think about this situation. For many years I struggled to figure out and decide which country I belong to. Often times, I never really felt completely at home in any of these three countries as I always knew that I was not fully considered an official resident or citizen of any of these countries. However, I soon realized that this predicament was perhaps more of a blessing than a burden. Rather than having one place as home, I had three, and I also had the choice as to which country I wanted to identify with most.

The bottom line is that TCKs identify more with experiences and emotions rather than places and location. For this reason, I consider my home to be Singapore. Although I hold the weakest legal status in Singapore, it was where I was raised and each defining moment in my life can be linked back to my life growing up and living in Singapore. The foundations of my life and personality were all developed in Singapore and even though I’ve had wonderful experiences living in the United States and being immersed in Indian culture, life in Singapore is really what has made me who I am today. The experiences and emotions I have related to Singapore as opposed to the U.S. or India are rooted more deeply in me. Even if my family moves from Singapore, it will always be home due to the fact that I was nurtured and developed there. For these reasons, I consider Singapore to be my home. As the saying goes, “home is where the heart is,” and I could not be more sure now that Singapore is where my heart is.