The term ‘Third Culture Kid’ (TCK) has been around since the 1950s, but in more recent decades it seems to be particularly en vogue.
Defined as a person whose childhood was spent in a place and culture other than that of their or their parents’ place of origin, the term can encompass anyone from refugees, to children of expatriates to students at international schools. In a world where travelling has become so easy, and in an employment industry that increasingly demands it, the number of TCKs is on the rise. The term is associated with being “travelled”, a “citizen of the world”.
And while TCKs have the privilege of experiencing different cultures and the broad education this engenders, it often comes at the cost of another fundamental part of anyone’s experience – a sense of personal and cultural identity – for, as many have confirmed, someone can easily be from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
I was introduced to the concept of the TCK when I was twelve; my mother had read an article about it after I had complained about feeling like I wasn’t from anywhere. The question “Where are you from?” was always a bit anxiety-inducing, and one of my earliest memories of that was when, after being asked that by a teacher, I gave her a quick but detailed account of mine and my parents’ origins, only to have her narrow her eyes at me and ask me where I was born. I told her. ‘So,’ she said, rolling her eyes, ‘you’re just Italian.’ I wanted to cry.
Because firstly, one is never just Italian – and even then, aged 10, it hadn’t been an isolated incident. As a result, when I was in Italy, I would tell anyone my Italian friends introduced me to that I was born and raised in Milan. It made life simpler, until on further acquaintance I would reveal that I lived in London, and suddenly everyone had known all along that my accent was foreign. It didn’t help that, aside from watching cartoons and spending holidays there, I had left Italy behind, before I can remember, and as I grew older I related less and less to the experience my friends had of growing up there.
Living in London, or any major city, is a blessing to the TCK. With so many different cultures interacting, the identity problem soon fades into the background, at most something to bond over with people from the same place(s) as you. At a British primary school, I knew precious few actual British people. I was moved to an international secondary school to facilitate future transitions – it seemed like my family would have to move again, as we had done five years previously, and the year before that, and the year before that.
As with any international school, people came and went in the blink of an eye, and I ended up graduating with some five people whom I had known my entire time there. But I felt accepted – aside from that one teacher, nobody really asked where I was from, or when they did, they didn’t think I was being pretentious or silly. But I narrowed it down to two nationalities, because I figured that nobody cared, and that’s just life.
To most people “Where are you from?” is a passing question, leading maybe to the banal “Oh, yes, I’ve been to (insert name of capital/largest city)!” or the painful “Oh my goodness, you must know (insert name of one of my hundred million countrymen whom I must know)!” But to me, it became something of a torment – it was always there. It was in my (mostly unfounded) insecurity in speaking my native languages, a struggle I shared with other TCKs, who were teased for it by others to the extent that one of my friends now refuses to speak one of her mother tongues. It was no help to be called a “fake Italian” by people who, despite having similar experiences to me, had lived in Italy longer, whose parents were both Italian, and were fully immersed in the culture the moment they went home.
And then there was the fact that I hadn’t visited America frequently since I was a small child, experienced intense culture shock going there for the first time in eight years, and was told by actual Americans that my “manner” was British. Most of my life I longed for a British accent, so that I could pass myself off for someone “from London”, no questions asked. I went for the next best thing – every time a taxi driver asked me where in America I was from, I’d pick a new state (my knowledge of American geography tenuous at best) and make something up. Luckily, even in the States, they couldn’t tell that my accent wasn’t “from” anywhere. My friends would do it too, seeing as most foreigners in international schools end up speaking English with American-sounding accents. We’d have to cut it short once people started giving us our umpteenth tour of the city.
Going to an international school helped me, for the most part, to forget that I felt I was from nowhere. By the time my family had been in London for over a decade, I was meant to feel settled – and yet nobody would believe I was from there (least of all me), and living in London is miles away from the typical British experience. The fact remained that I was still in a bubble – a very privileged one, with friends from everywhere, who knew what I was talking about when I referred to certain places, who taught each other how to curse in multiple languages, and some of whom felt the same as me.
And yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong anywhere, except in this small group of people who apparently didn’t live in “the real world”. The question of where I was from dominated my life. Sometimes my parents would try to solve it: “You were born there, you have this passport. Done.” But even they didn’t believe that.
People who aren’t TCKs don’t always understand. A lot of times, people can’t get past the fact that TCKs know things, do things, and go to places, that most people can’t. That we have experiences most people wish they had, and live in some fantasy land where we all speak foreign languages to each other and are constantly onboard a plane. Sometimes it’s great, and other times, being up in the air is not what it’s made out to be. While many of us long for things which others take for granted, the reverse is also true. For example, most non-TCKs I speak to tell me that they don’t have a particularly strong sense of “being from somewhere”, either.
And it wasn’t that I wanted some intense, patriotic, borderline nationalistic sentiment to bubble up inside me. Just an answer to that question, and all that it implied: a house where I “grew up”, a street that my friends (still) lived on, a place where milestones happened, for my extended family to live somewhere that wasn’t across the Atlantic, the Alps, or a short drive from Austria, a “local” anything (that wasn’t a Mayfair butcher or Chelsea cheesemonger masquerading as a reasonably priced village shop). Even living in a big city just seemed so infinitely easier if one just knew where on earth one was from, without having to repeat that clichéd saying that “home isn’t a place, it’s people”.
Coming to Oxford really opened my eyes. They say Oxford is a bubble, but it’s worlds away from the one I was used to. And contrary to the teachers who told me I had better stay in the London universities where people were more “like me”, I feel really accepted here.
I was pleasantly surprised by how culturally diverse Oxford is, but also by how many people I have had the privilege to meet whose experience is nothing like mine. From hearing people talk about their small home town and their football club, or pestering actual Americans about cheerleaders and sororities, to picking up British-isms I had formerly missed, my experience here has helped me to see both sides of the story, and also how I was probably just as guilty of romanticising “being from somewhere” as other people are of glamorising being “international”. I only recently plucked up the courage to go to one of the several cultural societies whose mailing lists I am (almost patriotically) proud to still be on.
I realised also that maybe I had been a little rash in insisting that I was from nowhere. Just because my milestones happened in different places doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. I took my first steps in the countryside around Rome; I learned to ride a bike both in Florida and on a particular strip of gravel in Hyde Park, which is also where I go for a walk whenever I’m stressed. I “grew up” somewhere, just like everybody else, and I was actually lucky to be able to stay in one place so long. I have a “local” cinema. I celebrate Thanksgiving, have very Italian grandparents (when you know, you know), am named after my Puerto-Rican grandmother and my last name is that of my Czech grandfather. My family cooks anything from ropa vieja to svičková, and for Christmas we eat Beef Wellington.
Maybe I have been dwelling on this too long, and maybe that tired old refrain is true. My home is with my family, who always understood and will always be there for me, wherever we are. And slowly but surely, people at Oxford are becoming a home to me too.
And as I look out onto a rare blue sky in my first Hilary term, I realise I wouldn’t change a thing.