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Ramblings of a third culture kid

Posted by on June 25, 2011

Although for the longest time I didn’t think it was true, I finally realized how much being a third culture kid has shaped my life. What is a third culture kid? it is someone who grows up in another place where their parent’s culture is not their own, and neither is the culture they grew up in, so they have a third culture that is none of the above. It is fascinating to look at the studies and statistics that have been done on third culture kids–see . It has been the hardest thing for me, and yet it has had the most influence on my life and has motivated me to do things that I never might have done.

Village houses

Growing up in Papua New Guinea was a mostly idyllic, fun, adventurous childhood. But it could not last–not at least without forsaking my parents culture–because it was an ancient (some may say primitive) way of life, that was so different! And so then we went to boarding school, an expat culture of its own, a western bubble in the New Guinea highlands. That life was exciting and new–it was “big city life” that was both intimidating and filled with more things to do–high school, sports, shopping, dating, making money for our class outings, and a social life more compatible with my parents culture. It was also filled with good-byes, transient people, coming and going, and brought a lot of pain and upheaval to life. Finally there was leaving, going to live permanently in the United States, a culture that was the most foreign and different and intimidating for me.

I felt like I was being torn in half when the time came to move. I had just graduated high school and all my best friends were in PNG. The people in the village where I grew up had become like family to me, and I loved our house, the simple life, the culture, the familiarity of a childhood home.  I wanted to stay here so badly, but it was part of the expected life–to go back and join your parents culture, the culture of your skin color, your “real” place. Sometimes life just moves you in the way that it you think you have to go, as if there are no other options, like the current of a river, and you flow with it. Looking back now, from the place I am in, I realize I could have made my life there, just in the same way I made it here. But would it have been any better? Who is to say? … In any case, here I am now, between two worlds.

The journey to here was rough. I remember when I first stepped off the plane, my lovely oldest sister had moved to the US and had been here for 2 years now. After the grief and hardships of making it here on her own, she was so excited to see her family again. She greeted us with flowers, cards and bubbling over excitement. I was so excited to see her too; she was the only thing I wanted to see. Everything else was overwhelming–the big glass windows, computer screens everywhere, bustling people, ginormous modern building of the Twin Cities Airport. I dissolved into a pool of tears. Overwhelmed, sad, missing home, my family and friends, terrified by a new land that I knew almost nothing about, not really wanting to move, but feeling like I had to. It was too much.

My first months were of learning and being incredibly homesick. I learned how to drive, how to pump gas, what a credit card was, how to interview to get a job. There was so much!!!! I can relate so well to The Gods Must Be Crazy, when they describe the differences between the Bushman’s lifestyle and the American lifestyle–that we have so many new inventions that we need signs to tell us how to get around and what to do and instructions on all our newfangled inventions and in a concrete jungle! It was confusion, grief, maladaption for a long time. I hated it here. I hated Minnesota and the long winters, the bustling lifestyle of madness, the disconnection of people, the very different culture. My sister helped me see the beauty in the small things, but I was stubborn and chose not to see it with acceptance and love. I missed PNG so much and I just wanted to leave.

I became a silent observer–I didn’t know anything here! My new friends at work would be talking about music, bands, movies, TV shows and I didn’t know what they were referring to. I couldn’t join the conversation and I felt so out of place…they thought I was weird. To most people I looked like I belong here–I could speak American English and I’m the product of 2 Caucasian Minnesotans. I learned later that I was what is called a “hidden immigrant” where there are no cues–such as skin color or accent to let people know that you are a foreigner and to allow them to give you grace to not know what’s going on. I would get laughed at a lot for not knowing things. I would try not to speak up or get called on, because I rarely knew the answer. I didn’t know anything about college–my parents never went, and I had no idea how to even start going to college. My friends at work started to suggest it, telling me that “that’s what everybody does here!” So eventually I decided to try it out. I was terrified of starting–I started at Anoka Ramsey Community College, which the kids there called “13th grade” since most of them finished high school there and went on to the next year together. I had no idea what a credit or a major or a degree meant. I had no idea how to sign up for classes or what anything meant. The advisors were taken aback by me…I’m sure they thought I was a special needs kid. :) But eventually I started figuring it out. I even played volleyball for one semester. But that was another culture shock, and I had no idea how to fit in with the girls on the team. I couldn’t contribute much to conversation about pop culture, TV shows, jewelry, big houses, boyfriends and sex. They thought I was weird, and I suppose I was…

I would spend a lot of my time reading National Geographic, playing guitar, going to the Science Museum, and then I dropped out of college and decided to travel around the world—because why not?! There is so much to see on this great planet! I first went back to PNG, because I was so, so , so homesick!

This was probably the best decision I ever made and it gave me a new perspective on things. While traveling it made me realize that the world is such a bigger place than my bubble in Minnesota and that so much of what I feel stupid about there isn’t necessarily so. After returning to the US, I went again to community college–this time it was Minneapolis Community College, filled with immigrants, older students, interesting people who had done all kinds of things with their lives, I felt that I found my place, and I fit in. I transferred to the University of Minnesota finished my degree, then applied for medical school. I went to Loyola School of Medicine in Chicago. It was during this time that I decided to read the book “Third Culture Kids~ Growing Up Among Worlds”. I felt that I had found my place in the world, I had become successful and was more or less now able to fit in. But when I read the book, I sobbed through chapter after chapter. Realizing how much I had buried, or had felt without ever giving voice to those feelings. The shared experiences, the understanding, the community of people in the same situation was so refreshing! It made me feel alive, it gave validity to my struggles, it made me feel normal (at least in some circles) again. Although I would never have admitted it before, it was so needed. There is so much that I’ve learned from it, and I am glad to be aware.

9 Responses to Ramblings of a third culture kid

  1. RebeccaC

    Thanks so much for sharing these ramblings!!! I’m a mom of several TCKs — only just scratching the surface of what that really “means” to them! Your post is encouraging! It’s always good to know there are others in the boat with us, so to speak. Have a blessed week!

    • globaldoc

      Thank you Rebecca! I LOVE your “beautiful feet” photo on your blog… wow! you have a big family! It’s great to have the interconnectedness of the internet for sharing our adventures and perspectives, isn’t it? Thanks again for your comment… I am amazed you found my blog as soon as I started! How did you do that? Blessings!

  2. Lynne Diligent

    Thank you for sharing all this. My own daughter will go to America next year and will no doubt experience many of the same things (although she did grow up in an urban environment in Africa).

    • Dr. S

      Thanks Lynne… you are so right, we all go through our own journeys with various versions of cultural adaptation –and even with all the technology that makes things on a slightly more level playing field, there are still differences and adaptations that your daughter will have to go through.

      I believe that a “tck” trans-cultural kid will always go through those things… there are some interesting facts from the wikipedia site that resonate with me and I think maybe your daughter as well… “TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their passport country. TCKs are often multilingual and highly accepting of other cultures. Although moving between countries may become an easy thing for some TCKs, after a childhood spent in other cultures, adjusting to their passport country often takes years.”

      …and there are other very interesting facts and statistics there that I would love to reflect more on in future posts… but thought I would mention them, because it seems that you appreciate those kinds of perspectives and insights… based on your blog which is full of very interesting cultural observations, perspectives and insights…. thank you so much for stopping by!

  3. Caroline Ash

    I wanted to thank you for writing this. As a TCK who spent most of my childhood in Asia, Belgium, New Zealand (“Home” so to speak) and the Solomon Islands your story really relates the emotional and cultural roller-coaster that shapes our lives as TCK’s. Tank iu barava tumas foa wanfella nice stori foagud!

    • Dr. S

      Thank you Caroline…
      mi laikim tok pisin blong yu… is that tok pisin from the solomon islands? I know that the tok pisin of Vanuatu is very similar to papua new guineas as well! It is so true… our emotional and cultural roller coaster never really ends… we just learn how to bury and master it better… we learn how to pretend that we are just like everyone around us who has little to no cultural experiences or appreciations.

      On Wikipedia it says, “Many TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries. They often suffer a reverse culture shock upon their return, and are often perpetually homesick for their adopted country. … Compared to their peers who have lived their entire lives in a single culture, TCKs have a globalized culture.”

      It’s great having the internet to be able to stay more interconnected and yet… it doesn’t eliminate the rollercoaster… because we still have to move to different places and live our lives among people who don’t get us… and become “normal” and fit with those around us…
      Do you live in New Zealand now? That is a beautiful place! Maybe one day we will share stories and photos! You never know! :)

  4. Tanya

    “The shared experiences, the understanding, the community of people in the same situation was so refreshing! It made me feel alive, it gave validity to my struggles, it made me feel normal (at least in some circles) again.”

    I spent two years abroad in highschool but don’t consider myself a TCK. I’ve worked with TCKs in China for 6 years. I’m a fan of the “label” TCK. I know no one likes to be labelled, and that not all TCKs are the same, but there is something special about having a group you legitimately, wholly belong to. ALL of you belongs. TCKs live between labels, and there’s always a part that has to be left out in order to belong. In a group of TCKs (whether in person, online, or just in theory) every part is valid and belongs. There’s something special about that :)

  5. Waneta

    Greetings Dr. S I really enjoyed your informative blog post on Ramblings of a third culture kid. Thanks for taking the time to publish.
    Waneta recently posted..Fear of RejectionMy Profile

  6. Agustin

    Great post, really enjoyed it!
    — Agustin

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