[Flashback]: The Third Culture Kid Article I Wish I Had Read

This article was originally published in 2016.

In the fall of 2012, I made a mistake. I took what I thought was a required university course only to find out that, in the end, it wasn’t necessary. Interestingly enough, the effects of that course still linger in my life to this day. Four years later, it is a Pandora’s box that has stayed open without any hope of closing.

The culprit was cultural anthropology, the class that completely transformed how I see myself and how I see others. In one of the most memorable lectures I had during my undergraduate career, I was taught about cultural scripts — the collection of values, languages, and customs that a country’s citizens are expected to adhere to and thus perform. These scripts differ depending on where we live and where we are from. Every single one of us becomes inculcated with these scripts when we are born in and/or interact in-depth with a culture.

You can pick up cues on what the local cultural script requires if you pay attention to the way that people speak. In the United States, for example, Americans often ask children what grade they are in. In fact, when talking about children in casual conversations, Americans will call children by their grade level (i.e. 4th grader), subtly demonstrating the value American culture places on education. These narratives tell us how we are supposed to live our lives and are dictated by the dominant culture. The more closely you live by the cultural script, the more you will feel at home in that culture.

As the professor was lecturing about this concept, I noticed that it was through a monocultural lens; one script per person to adhere to in order to feel more at home or deviate from in order to feel alien. But in my hand were three scripts: one from Nigeria, my birthplace; one from Canada, the height of my childhood; one from the United States, the country that has held most of my life. The Canadian and American scripts are very similar on the surface, but can be surprisingly disparate. For example In Canada, I am usually primarily seen as a Nigerian immigrant; my blackness is visible but it is rooted in the Canadian history of immigration. In America, I am primarily perceived to be black before I am an immigrant ( if people see I am an immigrant at all). With the history of transatlantic slavery in the United States and other periods of oppression against people of color, racial identity is a much larger part of the US cultural script. And when they are both compared to the Nigerian script, the chasm widens.  In Nigeria, I am the majority because of my nationality. But I am also a minority because of my American-sounding accent and Westernized values.

After thinking about this clash of cultures, I raised my hand and asked my professor, “What if someone is juggling multiple cultural scripts? Is it at all possible for them to feel at home in different countries and cultures?”

“No, it’s not possible,” he responded with a slight smile that his face often carried, his eyes speaking directly to my personal dilemma. “People who balance multiple cultures at once because they have grown up in different places are called Third Culture Kids.” At this point in my life, I was 19 years old and yet this was the first time I had ever heard the term ‘Third Culture Kid’ (TCK). The rest of the lecture was a blur to me. I was so fixated on this new term that the anticipation of researching more about it consumed me for the rest of the class.

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Image: Mary Bassey

Once I returned to my apartment, I opened my laptop and went down the rabbit hole. Videos were watched. Blog posts were read. One by one, phrases that I thought were only familiar to my tongue took residence in the mouths of others.

‘Where are you from’ is a difficult question to answer.

I hate it when people ask where I am from.

I never truly feel at home.

I feel like a foreigner in my own culture.

It was both bizarre and fulfilling to hear these people, these Third Culture Kids, speak of their difficulties with identity and belonging, yet stating how they would not have it any other way. They, like me, were people who spent a significant amount of their childhood outside of their parent’s culture. Not long afterward, a friend of mine told me that there was a TCK club on my campus and I discovered more TCK networks online. It was lovely to connect with other TCKs and I fully embraced this part of my identity with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm. But over time, even though this label hugged me like a warm sweater, it began to change, reeking of discomfort akin to itchy wool.

I started to notice the specific trends for what a TCK is “supposed” to look like. For one, the majority of  TCKs I had come across had known since childhood that they were TCKs. Many of them were diplomat kids, army brats, missionary kids, and things of that sort. Nearly all of the ones I knew attended international schools, living a lifestyle where interacting daily with TCKs was at least a significant part of their childhood. And the most glaring of all, I noticed that the majority of TCKs were white, often the daughters and sons of people from the United States who spent most of their life in a country mostly populated by people of color. Repatriating back to the United States after spending their life abroad was a normal part of many TCK’s lives.

I only found out that I was a TCK four years ago. I was born to an African professor whose trip abroad was supposed to be temporary and solo.

I was never supposed to leave the continent, much less find myself moving 7 times within Canada and the United States. I never stepped foot in an international school and the amount of stamps in my passports is pathetic compared to many other TCKs. And any time I found my way back to Canada or Nigeria, I knew my stay was temporary; permanent repatriation didn’t even cross my mind. And when I realized these discrepancies, fully cognizant of just how different my TCK experience deviated from the “norm,” I felt even more uncomfortable with having my international experiences affirmed by other TCKs. I realized that there is a cultural script for TCKs and I am certainly not the starring role. But instead of being frustrated, I am happy. There is a diversity of black roles within the TCK narrative that are going unspoken and unacknowledged.

For so much of my life, I was aware of the waves black immigrants were making, especially in North America. In the United States, 3.8 million of us made the move and many of us have working professionals for parents, all of whom are making strides in the world. We enrolled in non-international schools, navigating blackness and what it means to be foreign at the same time while growing up alongside our (mostly) first culture peers.

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Image: Mary Bassey

Then there are other those of us who are the sons and daughters of black diplomats and other public servants. They attend international schools and navigate what it means to be black among their TCK peers. Not only that, but there are black TCKs that are refugees and there are black TCKs that are mixed ethnically. The existence of all these variations do not diminish the TCK label and cultural script, but add to them. We are creating another dimension in which to view what it means to be a Third Culture Kid.

I think back to that moment when I discovered the term. I wonder how it would have felt to see an article written like this, one where an unorthodox nomadic childhood experience like mine was considered just another part of normal. But that was not the case and I only saw one narrow TCK narrative. Perhaps this is the Third Culture Kid article I wish I had read. However, it warms my heart to think that this could be read by a black TCK who sees firsthand that there is room for them at the table of nomadic childhood realities. And, if they want to, they are more than welcome to sit beside me.

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