22 August 2013

On Being a Third Culture Kid

I've thought about this for the longest time. The fact that I have lived in so many places as I was growing up; the fact that I have spent more years outside my passport country than inside; the fact that I get reverse culture shock whenever I am back in Manila; these are all signs that I am a third-culture kid. Third culture kids are basically individuals who have spent a considerable amount of their developmental years outside their parents' culture. They build relationships to all of the cultures they encounter, while not having full ownership of any. Hence, the main issue here is the sense of belonging, or the lack of it.

Sometimes, I think, it's just me having first-world problems. But then I encountered other people who have the same situation as I am, and it was actually refreshing to realize that I am not alone.

See, for me, moving is so natural. I love traveling. And I cannot for the life of me see myself settling in one country. I always expect to move after a few years or so. I remember when I was in Buffalo (where I spent a total of 7 years while I was doing my MA and PhD), when I hit my fourth year, in 2009, I had the urge, the itch, to move. I felt like my time in Buffalo was up, and it was time for my to pack my bags and go somewhere else. In the end, I stayed, and finished my degree, leaving Buffalo in 2012. But in fact, my 7-year stay in Buffalo was actually the longest I have been to in one place, overtaking my 6-year stay in Manila from 1989 to 1995. Cumulatively, I have stayed in the Philippines for a total of 14 years, which means that I have lived outside the Philippines for more years than inside, even though I carry Philippine citizenship.

Actually, I thought I had a bad case of third-culture-ness, until I bumped into a friend of mine back from high school in Japan recently. We haven't seen each other for the last 15 years, and so it was great catching up with him. He has German citizenship, but because both of his parents work for the European Union, he was born in Belgium and lived in Brussels for the first 18 years of his life. He speaks French better than German; his German has an accent. He feels more Belgian than German, and Germany is rather foreign for him. That being said, Belgians treat him as a foreigner, even though he has spent a significant amount of time there growing up.

So I suppose the big question is where is home? I guess people like us would always be foreigners, wherever we are, wherever we find ourselves, blown by the wind. I might be here in Berlin, living and enjoying the city, yet I know in the back of my mind, that this is simply temporary. I hate planting roots, and I used to think that since saying goodbyes suck big time, perhaps it would be better if I didn't make friends at all, as that way, there would be no one to say goodbye to. Needless to say, that plan didn't work out.

My sister and I struggled with these issues for the longest time. We suck at relationships. I never dated when I was in graduate school in Buffalo, because I thought that Buffalo would be a temporary place for me anyway, and so it would suck if I had to say goodbye to the person I love because I have to move somewhere else. I remember when I was a student, I used to think that I could pack my apartment within one day if I have to move immediately. Nowadays, I have a little bit more stuff in my Berlin apartment, but it is still minimalist compared to other people.

Oh well, such is life. I know, it's not a big issue, it is definitely a first world problem. But sometimes, it is fun to hang out with other people who have the same background, and see the world the same way as I do. "Where are you from?" might still be the hardest question to answer, but home isn't a location anyway, it's all about the people, innit?


  1. There is no such thing as a "first world problem" (unless that problem involves drama with social media--that qualifies as "first world problem" in my book!). Being a third-culture kid definitely comes with challenges, ups and downs and yes, it does define your life to a certain extend. But you turned out to be a great person, smart and adaptable! Now go work on these dating skills ;-) You deserve a special someone!

    1. Zhu,

      Hahaha, I find it funny it went on to the topic of dating. But you're correct, sometimes being different in the sense of having a very multicultural background can present difficulties in dating as well. :-)

    2. As a third culture kid as well, I find the American concept of dating to be perplexing as well. Honestly I am much more knowledgable on describing dates (the fruit).

    3. Jemmy,

      Haha, fair enough. That's probably an easier thing to do anyway. :-)

  2. You my friend is a citizen of the world!
    What I see though as the biggest challenge is keeping social connections. Family ties, significant others and friendships help put meaning into our daily lives. Perhaps, until a very important person comes along in your life one day, you might just find yourself anchored in one place for a much longer period of time.

    1. Dennis,

      I suppose that is true. I guess people who have the same background as I do just has a bigger oyster. You're right, it's these ties with family and friends that are hard to maintain, but technology is improving, and recently, I just got WhatsApp!