Category Archives: Travel

10 Things Only A Third Culture Kid Will Understand

“Where are you from?”

Seems like a simple enough question, right? Ironically, it has been and continues to be one of the most difficult questions for me to answer.

My family and I have a running inside joke about this question. For the past few years, my brother, my parents, and myself have lived apart. Whenever we’ve reconvened over the holidays, this question has inevitably popped up. 

During a film tour in New York a few years back, our tour guide asked us this question, hoping to make light conversation. We all paused and looked at each other, amused in anticipation of the complicated response. 

“Well, we live in Azerbaijan,” my Dad gestured to my Mom and I, “But he’s going to school in Seattle”, he gestured to my brother. 

My Dad then proceeded to describe how we’re actually from California, but originally from Iran, and by now, the tour guide was probably feeling sorry he even asked. So much for light conversation…

So it’s a complicated question to say the least. The answer cannot be boiled down to a single word or phrase, and often requires us to go into a spiel about our life story if we really want to do it justice. 

This is just a little preview of what it’s like growing up as a third culture kid. Here are some other typical characteristics of this atypical background:

1. No true sense of “home”

When you grow up living in different places, you start to have a bit of an identity crisis. To some extent, your identity is associated with your home, therefore having had homes in different spots your identity starts to feel fragmented so to speak. My Christmas breaks have seldom ever been spent at a particular “home” year after year. Instead, they were spent wherever my parents happened to be living at the time. 

2. Friends from all over the world

Having to move means leaving behind old friends and making new ones. Repeat this a few times and you start to become a pro at building new friendships. While it may seem like it’s hard to land down any “best” friends if you constantly relocate, the quality of these friendships is not compromised. On the contrary, while short-lived, these friendships are more likely to last a long time. I have friends from all different backgrounds and who live in various parts of the world. Between all of us, we could probably make up our own United Nations.

3. Paradigm shift

One of the most important implications of living overseas has been getting a true understanding of the world. Sure, it’s easy to let the media decide for us what other cultures and peoples are like, but that’s just ignorance and letting someone else do the thinking for you. When you go out and see with your own eyes, your views change, you become more open-minded. After living in the Middle East especially, you come to see just how biased the media is, and how thoroughly it misrepresents people from that region. People from the Middle East are among the warmest, most hospitable, and most adventurous I’ve ever met. 

4. Distance from family becomes the norm

Just because you may stop moving around, it doesn’t mean your parents will, especially if their job is the source of all these relocations. After you go off to college, you get used to this distance from family, and become even more independent as a result. But that’s not to say you don’t miss them terribly!

5. Adaptable to new environments and challenges

Having grown accustomed to changing environments, you feel like you can conquer any other challenge thrown your way. You become quick at learning new ways of life, reading people, and being out of your element.

6. Attuned to foreign languages

Hearing foreign languages doesn’t intimidate you, but rather it excites you. Living in the melting pot that is Washington DC, I feel right at home. Some days, while I walk on the streets, I hear at least 4 different languages in the span of 10 minutes. Having grown up surrounded by a variety of languages, these encounters not only feel familiar, but also make you curious and interested in learning more languages.

7. Never really fit into any niches

Very few people have experienced this sort of lifestyle, so naturally, they don’t understand. When I tell people that my parents live abroad, many initially react with some combination of confusion mixed with concern. “Are you guys not on speaking terms?” is one of the few questions I immediately get. Otherwise, people just don’t care enough to understand more about it. For that reason, I often found myself not really “fitting in” to any niches or cliques at school, mainly in my younger years. It felt like I couldn’t fully be myself without sharing my experiences abroad and explaining why I think the way I do. Fortunately, over time, I started to find more people like myself when starting college. Even if they did not live abroad as much as I did, they are still “cultured”, and that is all I can ask for.

8. When you finally do settle down, it feels weird

Originally, moving around so much felt like a nuisance, especially if you were a child. Yet, once you grow up and actually start settling down in a certain region, it feels unusual. You start to long for the continuous traveling and realize that you don’t want a sedentary lifestyle after all. You then start figuring out how to mold your career to fit that lifestyle, not just from a financial standpoint, but also in terms of geographic mobility. 

9. You become more curious about other people’s backgrounds

Each time you meet someone new, you can’t help but guess at where they’re originally from, what languages they speak, and where they’ve lived. Last names, accents, and pure looks alone become a dead giveaway after all the different types of people you’ve run into.

10. Unique stories that can be told the rest of your life

Ultimately, from all these unique experiences, you rack up a lot of stories that you can share for the rest of your life. Even if I’ve heard my parents tell them over dinner to guests a million times, they still never get old. I would give anything to relive those precious moments, even if for a few minutes.