‘Third culture kids’ share experiences

October 4, 2012

Rodolphe Youmbi’s passport says he is from Cameroon, but he identifies more with Gabonese culture because that is where he grew up. - Photos by Deepanjan Mukhopadyay


Staff Reporter


Due to the sensitive nature of their parents’ jobs, Sarah and Anna’s last name cannot be known for their safety.


Imagine this scenario: your passport says you are from one country, but you have never lived there and have possibly never even stayed there for any length of time.


Third culture kids experience this pull every day.


According to the U.S. Department of State, the term “third culture kid” (TCK) was coined 40 years ago by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem during her research on North American children living in India.


The State Department defines TCKs as “those who have spent some of their growing up years in a foreign country and experience a sense of not belonging to their passport country…feel[ing] most at home in the ‘third-culture’ which they have created.”


Tech has many TCK students, of which three shared their experiences.


“The hardest question for me to answer is ‘Where are you from?’” said Rodolphe Youmbi, a Tech student whose passport says he is from Cameroon, but was born and raised in Gabon. “If I say Gabon, it’s like I’m rejecting my own culture. if I say Cameroon, I don’t really identify myself with this culture, either.”


Youmbi said he feels pulled between his Gabonese friends and Cameroonian extended family. Both groups see him as a foreigner in Gabon, but Youmbi says he feels just as much of a foreigner in Cameroon.


Sarah and Anna said they can relate to this identity stretch too.


As Americans who grew up in Central Asia, the longest period of time they had ever spent in America consecutively before coming to Tech was six months.


Third culture kids place their hands on the world as they identify with multiple places.

For the sisters, their challenge has been adapting to a culture they officially call home, but have never truly experienced firsthand.


“I feel very naïve about some things,” Anna said. “The humor is hard for me to understand sometimes, or when people refer to things from their childhood that I didn’t experience, such as, ‘Oh, you remember those candies? Or that TV show?’”


“It helps me to think about America as just another culture I have to figure out,” Sarah said. “I try not to get frustrated with myself anymore that I don’t always understand or know everything about American pop culture.”


Even though TCKs do not fully identify with their passport culture or place of residence growing up, they are not void of culture.


“The international school I went to was my culture,” Anna said. “Like most international schools, it was a blend of the countries students came from as well as the country it was set in. It was a very unique and community oriented experience. I feel like I fit there best.”


While Sarah, Anna and Youmbi all agree that being a TCK can make life more complicated, they also agree that there are many positive aspects to growing up abroad.


“I think it is cool to be in the middle of two cultures,” Youmbi said. “You understand both at the same time.


When people from one culture don’t understand, you can be a sort-of translator of ideas.”


Sarah and Anna said that they think living abroad made their family much closer because they had to rely on each other. It also made traveling much easier and more accessible to them, opening up a bigger picture of the world.


“I think it’s neat to be in a place where you can always discover a culture that is different from your family culture,” Sarah said. “We were always experiencing something that wasn’t exactly normal to us, but at the same time, it was something we kind of understood.”


In our rapidly shrinking and globalizing world, it can be expected that more and more children will become a part of third culture families in the future.


“I see it as a huge blessing that I am able to have a broad perspective on life and, like a chameleon, I can adapt to wherever I am,” said Anna. “I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything”


Email comments to kec025@latech.edu.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *