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A Third Culture Kid in the 21st century: a mixed blessing

by Niko Berghmans

I have always disliked the question ‘What is your mother tongue?’, as I never know what to answer. If I were to answer according to the definition of a mother tongue - the first language learned from birth - I would have to say Flemish Dutch (Vlaams-Nederlands or Zuid-Nederlands), which my parents spoke to me, as well as Bahasa Indonesian, a dialect of Malay, which my nanny spoke. However, I no longer speak Bahasa Indonesian as I left East Timor at a young age. A mother tongue can also refer to one’s dominant language which in my case alternates between French and English depending on my environment. But I dream in three languages. So, my ‘native’ tongue differs depending on the criteria used to identify it. That is why I often tell people that I do not know what my mother tongue is. To most people this is a strange answer to a very simple question, but to other Third Culture Kids like me, it is an honest and understandable answer.

The term Third Culture Kid’ (TCK) was coined by the American sociologist Ruth Useem. It refers either to individuals who were brought up in a culture other than their parents’, or who are away from their country of their passport during their developmental years. TCKs are mainly children whose parents moved abroad for career purposes, or children of refugee families, or children of transnational marriages. The most famous example of a TCK would be former U.S. President Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother, who was born in Hawaii, and spent most of his childhood in Indonesia. As a result of globalization, the number of TCKs has increased considerably.

I am a teenage lady born early in the 21st century in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. My parents are both Belgian but owing to their work, I spent my whole life abroad. My early years were in East Timor and then New Zealand. At the age of two, my family moved to Ivory Coast in francophone West Africa, where I lived until I was sixteen before moving to Kenya where I finished high school. When living in the Ivory Coast, both my parents were always working, so I was predominantly raised by my nanny, who was Ivorian. As a result, I spoke French with a strong Ivorian accent. I went to both Ivorian and French schools. I knew close to nothing about the history and culture of the country of my passport. On paper I was Belgian, but in my mind, I was Ivorian. Belgium was a holiday destination which my family and I visited during the summer, and that was it. When my sister and I went to horse-riding camps in Belgium, we felt like aliens among the other Belgian children: we had nothing in common apart from speaking a Dutch dialect. We were unable to relate to them and thus we were rejected by them. We felt Ivorian but we were “white”, and we were not like them. Once again, we did not belong.

This was very hard, especially during puberty when one tries to develop an identity. I felt Ivorian but was not seen by native Ivoirians as one by them. I had Belgian nationality but had nothing in common with the other Belgian children of my age. What am I then? This is when my mother introduced me to the term ‘Third Culture Kid’. It was a great relief to know that there were lots of other people like me, and that there was nothing wrong with me. I was just a TCK. However, when my family moved to Kenya after living in Ivory Coast for thirteen years, once again I felt completely lost. New languages, a new culture. I felt I no longer had a home. I had no roots. This is a very common reaction amongst TCKs, the feeling of not belonging. The endless moving to new countries leads to anxiety and stress. Where was home if we were always on the move?

Last year I was enrolled in a university in France. I had never lived in Europe. For me it was merely a holiday destination. In my parents’ friends’ circle, it was well-known that it was difficult for TCKs to return “home” to university. There is no support for the transition. At the international schools I attended, it was quite easy to adapt as most of the students are TCKs themselves and we could all relate to the challenges. However, when starting university in Europe, very few people can appreciate the massive change involved in the move. When explaining my upbringing, I always felt that others perceived me to be showing off. Going to university in France was more than just a transition from high school to university. I had always lived with my parents and suddenly I was on my own in a new country. I had been brought up speaking West African French and now I had to lose my accent. I was thrown in the deep end, forced to get used to an alien life in Europe. This meant learning how to use a bus or knowing how to buy a train ticket. It also meant getting used to the cold, or wondering what to wear during the winter, or adapting to different customs. For example, in Ivory Coast it is common to greet people on the streets even when you do not know them: it is just basic good manners. But in Europe it is seen as very odd behaviour.

I am not writing this as a statement to discourage parents from raising their children as TCKs. Being a TCK has lots of advantages such as speaking more than one language, having a broader perspective on the world through our childhood. From the challenges we face, we are shaped into a multi-cultural person. We are very privileged to have grown up like that. The internet tells us that TCKs are ’open-minded, possess exceptional skills in different languages and are often very sensitive to other people and to other cultures. They develop a mindset which is exceptionally tolerant and understanding”. We may be real ‘world citizens’ but the difficulties in forming an identity are often overlooked and forgotten.

Niko Berghmans is currently studying at Strasbourg University.


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