“Where are you from?” a girl, who is also in Cambridge over the vacation, asked me the other day. And once again, I wished the answer was as simple as naming one country. Having lived in India until I was nine, in Belgium up to age eighteen, and in the United Kingdom since, I can no longer tie my home to one physical space. As lengthy as my answers tend to be, they do make great conversation starters!
With migration and globalization on the rise, the Third Culture Kid (TCK) phenomenon is becoming increasingly common. A TCK is someone who has lived a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. Cambridge provides a great example, as students from all sorts of countries come to study here. We have the largest number of student societies in the UK and a surprising number of these are nation- or culture-based. TCKs, no less than other cultural groups, are often drawn to people from similar cultural backgrounds; but in this case, that background is fundamentally mixed and diverse.
Besides being able to think in at least three different languages and mastering the art of calculating time differences and currency conversions, we have also spent an unhealthy amount of time at airports. Our multi-cultural background also means that we have diverse social groups, scattered all over the globe. But life as a TCK is not always so thrilling and adventure-filled. Oftentimes, we find ourselves questioning where we really belong or who we truly are.
The search for our own identity becomes tough, amongst the cluster of languages, cultures and beliefs that spin around in our heads. We are not able to accept or be accepted by any one culture entirely. Sometimes, I go back to my hometown and realize how much has changed since I left the place. The culture that we took along with us is probably better preserved with us than it is back ‘home’. That is when I feel grateful for moving away.
I used to do things in Belgium which would have been normal in India, but which were looked upon as absurd in the new country. People who have lived in one country all their lives tend to find it more difficult to understand TCKs, and social dynamics become rather complicated. It’s at times like this when I realize just how much can be lost on those long one-way flights.
In the end, it was by joining societies of my culture in Cambridge and meeting other TCKs that I came to terms with all these different parts of my personality. It is here that I began to appreciate the power of TCKs. We are a group which is (sometimes) alienated but also, I’d like to believe, privileged, since we have had a hands-on experience with the changing global world. If given the chance and the moral encouragement today, TCKs have the potential to be the driving forces of the society of tomorrow. It only takes one look at the most famous TCK of our time, President Barack Obama, to prove this.