Where are you from?” and “where is home?” are easy conversation starters. Yet a portion of Duke’s student body dreads having to answer them—because they do not have the answers themselves.
Three and a half years ago, I sat anxiously next to my parents and younger sister in a stuffy gym filled with families and students from all over the world. It was the start of international orientation and the first order of the day was to convey how truly diverse Duke’s student body was.
Country names were called out, and students stood up to wave, making sure to remember the faces of people who hailed from their part of the world, or taking mental notes of students who may have spoken the same language as them.
They called out Bahrain and, instinctively, I was on my feet. It came as no great surprise that I was the only person who stood up. It also came as no great surprise that this triggered a familiar sense of panic. I knew I would have to explain to people I met where Bahrain was or, even more frustratingly, why I felt it was my responsibility to represent a country from which I held no passport and had no family ties.
With all that in mind, I waved and took my seat again—but not for long. A few short minutes later, they called out “France!” and once again I stood up, puzzled that the crowd had no reaction to seeing my reappearance under a different nationality.
When I stood for the last time as they called out Kenya, my former feeling of shyness and awkwardness had been replaced with relief. I had seen other students stand up time and again, so I knew I was not alone—I was part of a community I had yet to discover.
Coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, the term Third Culture Kids initially referred to the process of assimilating to a new culture. In recent years, however, the meaning of TCK has broadened to describe children who come from multicultural backgrounds, or who spend their developmental years in a foreign culture. Traditionally, a culture describes the shared attitudes and behaviors characteristic of a particular social group. Yet as TCKs, our sense of culture derives from so many different places that the chances of finding another TCK with the same background is next to impossible. Given the array of variables, including nationality, language, race and religion, the TCK label applies to people who share nothing in common besides their differences.
Growing up in multicultural households or in foreign countries, we have had to build our sense of identity on a constantly changing cultural foundation. I have observed in myself and other TCKs a natural tendency to draw on certain parts of our identity to match the group of people we’re with at a given time. When talking on the phone to their parents, TCKs’ accents might slip from the tones they became accustomed to in high school or college, to the familiar vocal habits they grew up with. It’s hard to classify this multifaceted nature as a good or bad thing: you feel like you belong everywhere, yet do not truly belong anywhere. Unlike people who have grown up in the same neighborhood their entire lives or who have always lived close to their childhood friends, our friends are scattered across the world and our “homes,” at least in the physical sense, are where our families live at one specific moment in time.
In the words of junior Maxime Fischer-Zernin, who grew up in New York and Switzerland and has family roots in France and Germany, “For a regular Duke kid, it seems like they’ve got their friends at school and their friends at home. Right now, I just have my friends at Duke, and my other friends are everywhere. Friendships are really about tracking people down when you are across the world.”
Often, TCKs speak multiple languages and are knowledgeable of the customs and mores of more than one culture. They feel comfortable traveling and meeting new people, and in fact, could probably pass for locals in a handful of countries. Essentially, they could belong anywhere. Despite this, it is difficult to feel a strong link to one single place. If you choose one culture over another, does that mean you are any less of the other? Your country of birth may differ from your passport country, or your parents may come from opposite sides of the world and you may feel more of a connection to your host country than your homeland.
If experience has taught me anything, it’s that I can easily blend in, pick up languages and mannerisms and embrace a culture. But it has also taught me that I don’t quite fit in anywhere. I grew up with a notion of home that differs from that of most people, with a sense of identity spread thin across cultures. I thought that coming to Duke would only add to the confusion, and I was prepared to tell half-truths—unwilling to embark on long monologues about my background. I dreaded but knew what would be asked countless times throughout orientation week: “So, where are you from?”
“One of my friends has a blog about being a TCK and it’s pretty clear she is torn between her cultures,” junior Elizabeth Onstwedder said.
Although Onstwedder settles with partial belonging, she does think it is sometimes difficult because other people make TCKs feel like they do not belong. People often assume that Onstwedder, who was born and lived in London, is English because of her appearance and accent. Yet, her mother is American and her father is Dutch.
“People ask qualifying questions and judge,” she noted.
Self-described TCK Alex Graham James depicts the difficulties that accompany adolescence and adulthood as a TCK in his 2008 poem “Uniquely Me.” He writes that someone rooted in one space cannot feel the homesickness that hits him. “I am/ an island/ and/ a United Nations/ Who can recognize either in me/ but God?”
The homesickness experienced by TCKs is unique in that simply returning to a particular place is not enough to solve it. Having lived in various places or between cultures, and built relationships with different cultures, it is challenging to be fully engaged with one specific home without feeling a longing for the past. Although James’ poem attempts to convey his personal challenges with homesickness, he—along with most TCKs— is experiencing what the Welsh call “hiraeth” or the Portuguese “saudade,” a concept of longing that does not have an equivalent in the English language. The terms can be translated as “homesickness” but take on an additional, more complex meaning—the idea of something that may never have existed. For TCKs, this missing piece could be the feeling of fully belonging to a culture—essentially feeling complete.
In a sense, TCKs are global nomads because they are hard to define. Generally, we are the children who spend countless hours of our lives in airports—in transit between cultures and between homes. We are the children—and later adults—who feel most at home when traveling, the ones who experience nostalgia before even leaving our designated “home.”
Given our complicated backgrounds and breadth of experiences, we take on the form of a cultural chameleon, balancing the benefits and challenges of being a TCK—for example, blending in versus being different. But our need to travel, explore the world and experience what it has to offer is never satisfied. For many of us, myself included, Duke is just another pit stop in our lives.
“I don’t view college as this crazy step where you are away from home, this is just another phase,” Fischer-Zernin explained.