Written by: Alejandra Miled Martínez Tamayo
“Where are you from?” – My body freezes, my heart starts beating faster and the words struggle to come out of my mouth… Ok, maybe not this dramatic but oh boy is it a difficult question to answer! This is a standard question to ask when you’re getting to know a person, but for third culture kids (TCKs) it can turn into a 5-minute-long monologue. Coined by US Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, he defines the term Third Culture Kid as “children that have spent their formative years in a country that isn’t theirs or their parents’ homeland”. The common perception of this reality is positive, how could being rich in culture ever be negative? Although it certainly comes with many perks, the struggle to find a set identity is huge, you are from everywhere and nowhere at once.
I never considered myself a third culture kid, I always thought the term referred to way more international people who lived in 20+ countries. In my mind, it wasn’t reasonable for me to struggle with my identity in that way when there were people that “had it much worse”. But the truth is, I encountered the same problems when identifying myself; I was born in Cuba and so was the rest of my family but at only 4 years old my parents and I moved to Spain. I found myself in a new country at such a young age that it was easy for me to assimilate into the culture, especially because kids can be really mean about funny accents.
So, in no time, by the age of 6 or so, I had completely lost my Cuban accent and I had found a new home in Spain. However, I was never perceived as a local, I was always the “Cuban girl”. The gag is that when I came back to Cuba to visit my family, I was the “Spanish girl”. It was such a confusing experience because on one hand I was very prideful and connected to my Cuban origin but as a child/young teenager, all you want to do is fit in. I was torn between two cultures that weren’t choosing me, or just partly. As I grew older though, I started to reconcile the two parts of me, I felt equally Cuban and Spanish and even though people always have opinions on it and try to discredit this feeling, I make it a point to show the validity of this identity and how having two cultures will always be something to be prideful of.
← Me in my first school in Spain
Growing in popularity
When I was younger, I had no one around that related to this feeling, my parents and relatives felt fully Cuban despite living abroad and some of my friends in school hadn’t even left Spain once in their lives. However, now in uni I am surrounded by people who have more than one nationality or national identity and it has really helped me feel understood. But the truth is, the world is increasingly globalized, and more and more people are studying and working abroad and more and more children are going to be born into this reality. According to Finaccord, the total number of expatriates worldwide was around 66.2 million in 2017. This figure has grown at a rate of 5.8% since 2013. By 2021, the number of worldwide ex-pats was around 87.5 million. With this ever-growing reality, we have to make it an active duty to celebrate the richness in culture, not only amongst children but also within them so they can feel close and connected to all parts of their identity.
Yes, having different cultures to turn to is amazing and allows you to be open-minded and blah blah blah. There are definitely things that are great, but many others are very difficult to deal with. Farewells are a part of it, to change countries you have to leave one and leave all the people you love there behind. Leaving is always a challenge and missing the people and your life/routine is something that will take up to months and months to get over, it’s like a little piece of you is torn and you have to build it all over again. Adapting to the transition is also very challenging, you are coming new into a community where everyone knows each other but no one knows you. Trying to fit in is always difficult and when you do it during your developmental stages in life (early teenage years) it can be very determinant of the way you are.
But what I really came here to say is that identities are a complex part of being, they are multifaceted and although it is normal to struggle in defining oneself we should remember that multiculturalism is always something to be prideful of and reducing our identities to single things is not only lame but restricting and when we embrace our full being people around us are more likely to do so too!