Please Don't Tell Me I'm Not a Third Culture Kid

When identity is hard to define, you find yourself creating your own. That’s all the third culture is and claims to be. It’s a form of community, one that we often have to build ourselves.
Publish date:
December 29, 2015
travel, identity, Immigrants, Third Culture Kids

Since I was a teenager, I have pretty much lived out of a suitcase, or at least with the knowledge that I would be somewhere else in six months, or a year. I loved it, to an extent, the idea of exploring and gaining new experiences.

During college, due to a flexible quarter system, I spent some time studying, doing research, or working in India and Latin and South America. After graduation, I lived in New York City for two years, six months of which I spent abroad. And then recently, I moved a little bit below the Mason-Dixon line to start medical school.

My home has always been where my parents are, which right now happens to be the US.

I am a "third culture kid." In what feels like a laundry list of trying to depict how much of a global citizen I am, I'm probably not making my point. I was born and raised in India for a couple of years before my family moved to the US, and my experiences do not align with those of my birth country or the current country I live in. I find it easy to build community where I am and adjust to my current environment quickly. It comes from having to do those things growing up and navigating new surroundings at critical stages of childhood.

As much as I attempted to make my experiences fit in with what it means to be “American,” my experiences, culture, identity, and language say otherwise. The same goes for not truly being Indian. I’m not - no matter how well I speak the language and can “pass” in many cultural ways. When I try to speak on some issue regarding health or access to care in India, my family in India is quick to say: “You don’t live here. All your research and writing doesn’t mean you know what it means to be in India.”

As annoying as that is to hear at times, they are absolutely right.

And as heartbreaking as it was sometimes, especially in middle school, to not feel like you belonged in your small, white Virginia town, I didn’t.

I hold a passport that tells me I am a naturalized U.S. citizen and also a person of Indian origin. Both identities afford me different but almost equivalent rights in both countries. I have also built relationships and community in pockets of Latin & South America. I hold all of these places to be big part in shaping my worldview.

My definition of "third culture kid" has never been Western-centric and only inclusive of military kids, expats, or diplomats’ kids growing up overseas. My “overseas” once used to be America, and sometimes it still is. And this last time, after having lived in India for some time, I’m not sure I can’t now call a part of that country home. Yes, anyone who grows up switching international time zones faces many of the same identity issues, but that doesn’t make one experience more in line with a constructed definition than the other.

American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Useem first coined the term “third culture” and “third culture kids” in the 1960s. She is also commonly regarded as the founder of third culture research. Her field observations were focused on expatriate communities, international schools and third culture children in over 76 countries.

It’s important to point out that a white, female, American anthropologist coined the term that is used to define all of us who identify with a third culture. By nature, the term often encompasses a more Western, ethnocentric definition that still may be taught in many sociology and anthropology classes. However, that’s not how I learned it as an anthropology student at Dartmouth College, nor in the fieldwork I conducted on social suffering as a facet of identity in a third culture setting in Mumbai.

And my lived experiences, and those of others who identify the same way, are much more salient than a 1960s definition, which I may add says: "A third culture kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture."

That applies to me. It applies to Aziz Ansari and to a lot of other immigrant kids. And many immigrant kids, regardless of ethnicity, identify much more with one another because we do mesh in this interesting third culture of similar experiences and viewpoints. My best friends in college were what I would call third culture kids. They weren’t international students. I didn’t really identify with Indian international students, nor did identify with people who would call themselves simply American. I did, however, find true common ground with immigrant kids or those who were a part of this amalgamated third culture that meshed together many identities.

When identity is hard to define, you find yourself creating your own, in an effort to find belonging. That’s all the third culture is and claims to be. It’s a form of community, one that we often have to build ourselves.

Ansari’s Netflix show, Master of None, is essentially an autobiography, and for once it depicts those of us who fluidly move every single moment between the tug and pull of various homelands, languages, and ethnic identities, sometimes whether we want to or not. I love that there is even a show like Master of None that I can discuss with all of my friends regardless of background.

But who can you have the in-depth conversation about a particular plot point or why you felt certain emotions watching a scene? Third culture kids. Not necessarily just first generation Indian people, but all of us who understand what it means to constantly code-switch between places and people.

One of the reasons I write is because I wish I had the kind of pieces I can now read — and occasionally get the privilege to compose — when I was growing up. Not all pieces are for you, just as not all pieces are for me. I can read them, appreciate them, and even comprehend them – but not truly understand or feel them. Some conversations are for a certain group of people who are seeing themselves portrayed on TV without blatant stereotype or as punch lines. It’s a happy moment.

Do I meet the textbook definition of "third culture kid"? Maybe not. But arguing over the semantics of a definition that is dynamic and fluid takes away from the actual lived experiences of the people that self-identify with the term. Much like "immigrant," "expatriate," and "citizen," "third culture" has political and societal connotations. I’m the last to say that words don’t matter. They do. Labels matter a lot, but this is a label I have used to make meaning of my identity and personhood. And right now at least, it fits pretty well.