The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Third Culture Kid

Before going on spring break, I didn’t realize how much I traveled. Traveling wasn’t something I thought about, wasn’t something I considered changing, and wasn’t something I thought I controlled. Travel was just something I did.

However, it was sitting on a plane leaving from Amsterdam to London that I really began thinking about why travel always felt like a necessity. I had traveled before so many times – in fact, I had already been to Amsterdam three times in the past year – but it was sitting through Amherst Uprising that allowed me to reflect on how my lifestyle informs my identity.

I had heard the term ‘Third Culture Kid” before. I remember it being a huge Facebook phenomenon among my friends when I was first entering college, everyone reveling in this new acronym to formally describe, as Denizen magazine defines it, people who have spent a significant portion of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. Everyone was sharing Buzzfeed links like “31 Signs You’re A Third Culture Kid” or the hilariously absurd tumblr page whenyoureathirdculturekid.tumblr.com, complete with cute gifs like the one below.

2. To everyone’s confusion, your accent changes depending on who you’re talking to.
2. To everyone’s confusion, your accent changes depending on who you’re talking to

Even though I identified with a lot of each pages’  material, I couldn’t find myself in an acronym associated with silly graphics about how the first words TCKs learn in a foreign language are swear words and “let’s get drunk”. A TCK seemed more like a humorous stereotype than an actual identity, something to make light of rather than view as a dominant part of a personality. I chuckled at the articles, maybe even shared a couple of them, but then I moved on.

But it was sitting on five different planes on this seven-day spring break that I had the time to understand how my tendency to travel is connected to being a TCK. When you’re a third culture kid, travel is a part of your life. To bring in specifics, my mom is from Malaysia, my dad is from Texas, my stepfather from China and I grew up in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Milton and Carmel. And that’s just my story, which is nowhere near as long as the stories of many other TCKs. According to the Washington Post, before graduating high school, TCKs make an average of eight major moves. That’s at least eight major moves through cultures, through continents, through countries, through people, through friend groups, and through lifestyles. Those eight moves in fewer than eighteen years are what make being a TCK so distinct from being travelers. Instead of traveling after developing a fully formed identity and a worldview in one place, TCKs travel during their identity formation, creating people who cannot separate that travel from their notion of self. Before I even learnt to walk – hell even when my mom was still pregnant – I was on a plane. Before I spoke my first words, I had lived in two countries and traveled to six. As TCKs, we have more than one passport, and belong to more than one culture. We know more than one language, not counting the phrases we know in many more. We know many places superficially, but no single place entirely. Being a TCK is a not being a part of any single culture, but instead being a part of a travel culture.

We can never be a lasting part of anyone’s life. It may seem like a glamorous life to eat and drink and sleep and love all over the world before most people have even left their home country and sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s not. We travel through so many places and so many cultures that we simultaneously belong to everywhere and to nowhere. The problem with our constant state of transit is that we not only travel through places, but we travel through lives. We leave behind not only physical landmasses, but also groups of people that continue their own lives without us. We love them, and they love us, but because we have not found the ability to stay in one place, at least not until we complete college, we are only temporary players in everyone else’s permanent existence.

We learn to adapt our personality to every place we go. While this adaptability allows us to connect with all sorts of different people, and to make friends easily almost everywhere we go, we lose a lot of ourselves by adapting. Adapting requires a certain degree of lying, or selectively hiding parts of our personality to fit in. As Steph Yiu, a TCK writing for Denizen, explains, every time she is asked where she is from she performs a “little dance of white lies” depending on the person asking. We don’t lie because we are explicitly trying to hide ourselves, but because it is easier than coming off as arrogant or complicated. In fact, oftentimes we have to lie to avoid coming off as liars. “You’re from Hong Kong? Really? But did you actually live there this whole time because you have perfect English? Why is your accent American?” does more damage to my identity than “Oh so you went to Milton Academy? Cool I grew up around Boston too”, so I usually lie or let my complicated backstory go to avoid being questioned as a fraud. But lying so much is taxing on anyone, and oftentimes leads many TCKs to withdraw from social situations, never really feeling truly comfortable with our peers or even ourselves.

We’re caught in a state of temporary. We are never fully here, and never fully there, always thinking of the people and places we leave behind, and imagining the places we could be and the people we will see next. Even when we do return to places and cultures we think of as “home”, our romanticized idea of what we grew up with has now changed beyond recognition, further separating us from a national identity. A lot of people when they find out I spend at least one month of every year backpacking alone in a new country always call me “brave” or “courageous”. But I’m starting to understand it’s not courage that compels me to travel so much, it’s cowardice. I find it easier to move to a new country and to meet new people rather than return somewhere and face how a place that should feel like “home” and the people I call friends have moved on without me. Even if some of my closest friends are people I haven’t lived close to for the past five, or even the past ten, years, the simple fact that we have had to create our own new lives in our own respective new homes inescapably separates us no matter our efforts to stay connected.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the TCK life. I love who I am and the infinite array of cultures, experiences, and places that make up my identity. I love the fact that at any given hour, I will know someone somewhere in the world I could call who is awake. There are many gifts of being a TCK. We have seen more of the world than many people twice our age have even thought about exploring. We can visit any country and immediately find old and new friends to connect with. We know several languages, own several passports, and cross-racial, national, and social boundaries. But I wish to change our narrative from the idealized “high life” many of our peers believe of us. We can even come across as arrogant without trying to, by stating the simple facts that we have friends who live all over the world or know firsthand about a variety of cultural traditions. I know how lucky I am and know what a privilege this life of travel really is, especially considering the somewhat colonial connotations being a TCK lends itself to. But sometimes, and I promise it is only sometimes, I find myself wishing that this “glamorous” life was something more mediocre if it meant having what I now realize I have unconsciously been searching for this whole time: a place I know I belong.

I have always traveled, and due to the fact that I go to school 7,927 miles from my family, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But now that I know what I’ve really been traveling for, I see that I do indeed have a choice. This fall, instead of going abroad somewhere completely new with entirely new people, as is the norm, I plan to do the opposite: live somewhere I have traveled to before and have close friends. It will be a place I can actually see myself living when I graduate Amherst. Even though to anyone not a TCK this may seem like a cop out or mundane, I am actually terrified of what ending my geographically nomadic existence will entail; I haven’t returned to live in a place I’ve been before since I was 13 years old. So this fall, I want to finally try to build what a lifetime of being globally rootless has evaded me: a real home.

Natalie Jones’17 is a writer and student at Amherst College. She is a half-Malaysian, half-American Third Culture Kid who whole-heartedly loves leopard sharks. Follow her at www.whereisnat.com or on instagram if you enjoy posts with cliché travel hashtags and excessive emojis.