Friday 7 October 2011

Cultural Identity Confusion and Third Culture Kids

Recently I entered the world called Twitter, it is may be something like the "expat bubble", if you're in it you know exactly what I am talking about but if you have never been part of that world it all seems so foreign. Well that's what I had with the world called Twitter. I seemed to have convinced myself that I could not understand the twitter language. After hearing someone speak about the great advantage of combining a blog with being active on twitter, I was convinced. I was going to dive into this new world and conquer. In the beginning I had some culture shock problems. I had no idea what the hashtags mean. I only just discovered that #ff means #followfriday. So on Friday people twitter that giving suggestions who to follow. Wow, I'm never too old to learn and neither are you! By the way if you want to follow me on twitter find me @DrieCulturen.

So while I was in the twitter world I came across this interesting quote.

It is a quote by Libby Stephens :  

"In the 25+ years of working with third culture kids, I don't find cultural identity confusion to be a big issue until the TCKs return to their passport country"

The quote resonates in my heart because it is exactly my experience. There was no problem in my life until I went to the Netherlands to study when I was 19 years old. So what was the confusion?

Suddenly I discovered that I looked Dutch but did not feels Dutch. No that's not quite right. I did feel Dutch. I mean while I lived in Africa I felt Dutch. It was only when I lived with the Dutch in the Netherlands that I discovered that I looked the same but I felt different. Inside me I longed for Africa and I thought maybe I look Dutch but am African on the inside?

Earth by PSchubert Morgue file
At my secondary school in Zimbabwe I was called the "foreigner". On my identity card in Zimbabwe it said "alien". It really is a great feeling, being 16 years old and being called an "alien". Sorry folks this is not a made up story, this is real life. Are you starting to see where the confusion stepped into my life. Recently I discovered that there is a word that described me. I was a "hidden immigrant". says hidden immigrants look alike but think different. So things only got better: from foreigner, to alien, now a hidden immigrant. Later I discovered that I was a ATCK too...

You can read an important book by Kay Branaman Eakin called "According to my passport I'm coming Home" (free download here). It contains lots of information on third culture kids returning to their passport countries. What are the challenges?

Read my Dutch post about retuning home: terugkeer, re-entry, help!

Did you or your kids experience cultural confusion, and in what way?


  1. My kids are still young, but we talk about the issues with them on their level. I'm so thankful for all the resources available to us as parents and them as TCKs. I'm hoping that when they do re-enter, they can do it with confidence and understanding.
    Thanks for some insightful thoughts!

  2. Thanks @Raisingmytcks for your comment. I do agree that talking to children about these things is important and can prepare them to some degree, but the actual shock comes at the moment of transitioning to their passport country. Books can help too. For TCKs going to university I would advise "A Global Nomad's Guide to university transition" by Tina Quick. Information is important for TCKs, they need to know that they are not "strange" but it is because of their experiences that they feel "different".

  3. This is quite interesting because my 8-year-old, who is not technically a TCK, just asked my husband and me this question. Mind you, it wasn't just the question, but the way she asked it. She said, "What if someone's mother was American and moved to the Netherlands. And her father was Dutch. Then what is she?" Then my daughter asked flat out if she was Dutch or American? My husband and I looked at each other, baffled. I don't know if I'd call this confusion, but she didn't seem to know how to label herself. I caught us telling her she was half Dutch and half American. Then I quickly changed that as the word "half bloedje" flew through my head. I told her she was 100% Dutch and 100% American. Period. She seemed ok with that. I really didn't think this topic would come up with my kids, because for all intents and purposes, they're growing up as Dutch kids! What also struck me is that she never once mentioned the fact that I'm black and that her father is white! It was the nationality. Just wanted to share this with someone who "gets it".

  4. Thanks Carolyn for your comment. Wow children can ask difficult questions sometimes! Kids are amazing. Have you heard of the term cross cultural kids? Third culture kids are included in this group but so are bicultural kids(like your daughter, with parents from a different nationality). Cross cultural kids (CCKs) face many of the same challenges that third culture kids face, though sometimes a little different. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I was first introduced to the term ross cultural kids at the Families in Global Transition conference I presented at this past March as well as two years ago. Do you know of that organization, by the way? If not, check out their website You'll feel right at home!

  6. Thanks for the tip! I do know the website and have links to it on this blog. I would love to go to one of their conferences. I'm sure I will fit in there.

  7. This is exactly how I felt. I knew I was American, I look it and speak English, but I didn't feel so out of place until I came back to the United States where I was expected to act and have similar life experiences to my peers and others of the same culture. My life was fine and dandy until I came back to the my passport country and all of a sudden, things are muddled and just don't make sense anymore. I'm still working through a lot and figuring things out. Perhaps that's why I don't feel as old as I am...still feel like a teenager trying to figure things out, but I'm on the cusp of 30! Just glad to know I'm not alone!!!

  8. Hello Megzy. Thanks for sharing and it's so true you're not the only one!! I am glad you can identify with this post. Returning to your passport country can be such a lonely experience, it was for me. Just wondering: did anyone prepare for your return? Any debriefing? Explanation of the term third culture kid?

  9. I've had the same experience!. I am Polish everywhere else (although because of my German husband and my bilingualism I am often mistaken for a German here in the Netherlands) but I don't feel so Polish when I am in Poland or talk to other Polish people. It doesn't bother me, though. I feel at home everywhere.

  10. Third attempt to leave a comment - now switched from phone to laptop!
    Just wanted to say that what makes it harder is that you are expected to fit in. After all it is "your" country; hence a lack of understanding and help offerings prevails. Also YOU might not anticipate the impact of the re-entry - it is therefore so important what you do here, running this website!!

    I have posted a link to your wonderful website in the comments of my website (blogpost Comin/going home ..."home"?) under News. Is that ok with you?

  11. @TheEuropeanMama Thanks for your comment. Strange isn't it that you feel Polish everywhere else but that when your are in Poland you don't feel Polish. It's like the Dutch that emigrated to Canada and Australia they are really attached to certain traditions and maybe even more so than the Dutch living in the Netherlands. Funny how these things work. I'm glad you feel at home everywhere, it sounds like a real "global nomad". Did you grow up outside of Poland?

  12. Thanks Charlotta for your persistence: it gets us somewhere in life! Sorry about the trouble you had posting a comment, I have something strange that my gadgets are not showing, I'm not sure if these problems are commented. If anyone has advice, let me know.
    Thanks for adding the link to your website, I appreciate that. I did not anticipate the impact of re-entry and nobody prepared me for it. Please prepare teenagers that are returning "home", please tell them what challenges they might face. It can save them so many sleepless nights, stress, confusion, depression and more.

  13. Coming to this a bit late, but I have to share my own story.
    My father was born in England but grew up wherever the British army was (mainly India) and only lived in England while he was at boarding school. I was born in Malaysia, but was raised in Australia from the age of 6. My whole childhood in Australia I thought I was English, was told I looked and sounded English ... until I went to England and found I really knew nothing about living in England - and they all told me I was Australian. I now happily say I am from everywhere and nowhere but live here now.
    ... and so it starts again in the next generation: I live near Amsterdam with my Polish wife and two children, 5 & 8 years old. They speak three languages. In order of proficiency: Dutch from school, Polish from their mother and every summer in Poland, and English from TV and me. We found that getting them to speak their parents' languages went a lot easier when they met kids their own age speaking them. In answer to the question 'where are you from?', they usually answer 'Poland' although that's the one that they have never lived in, but otherwise they look, sound and behave completely Dutch.
    People assume that because my Dutch is heavily accented and full of mistakes, that my kids speak better English than Dutch, and insist on speaking to them in English, although people who know them but don't know their parents are foreign are always surprised to find we are. I think being a TCK myself, I can keep it clear for them - they are Dutch, with foreign parents.

  14. Thank you for writing this! I felt the same and still feel "lost" here in my passport country. I was born and raised an American in eastern Europe, for 13yrs. Moving to the USA was the worst thing to ever happen to me. I looked like everyone but inside I was not the same at all. I understand all your aching hearts.

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It's true we are or were "hidden immigrants" we look just like all the people around us but we feel so different. Sorry to hear that you still feel "lost"in your passport country. I feel very multicultural and I feel very at "home"in an international environment. What age were you when you moved back to your "passport culture"? Just wondering if age matters (probably does....). Have you found "like-minded people"? Other TCKs? There is now online mentoring for TCKs by Sea Change Mentoring. They use TCKs to mentor other TCKs.