Third Culture Kids: Living Life on a Global Stage
They’ve been flying regularly before they could even walk, speak several languages and have close friends in countries all over the world. But when you ask the simple question “Where are you from?” they hesitate with the answer.
“Third culture kids,” also termed global nomads, are citizens of the world, but often feel they lack a real home.
Authors David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, in their book “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds” (1999), defined a third culture kid as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.” As they grow up, such youths combine aspects of their birth culture with the new cultures they experience, in effect creating their unique third culture.
Spending their childhood or youth abroad certainly influences the way these kids think and feel. Most of them see it as a valuable experience, even though it might have been difficult at first.
Florian Augustin, 18, holds a German passport but was born in Madras, India, where he lived until age 4. He and his family were based in Hanoi, Vietnam, from 2005 to 2007, then came to Jakarta, where his father, Franz Xaver Augustin, is director of the Goethe Institute. Florian graduated from Jakarta International School in May of this year.
“I had more trouble adjusting after moving to Jakarta than after moving to Hanoi from Berlin,” he said. “Jakarta is so different from Hanoi. It is a huge city and it takes forever to get from one place to another.”
The Jakarta International School was also much bigger than any Florian had previously attended — with a total of 3,000 students compared to only 700 in Hanoi.
“In the first six months, I actually thought about going back to Berlin,” Florian said. “But then I reconsidered. It’s not that I don’t like Indonesia, I like the culture, and I enjoy learning a new language and meeting new people. But sometimes I feel like I never really settled here. While in Hanoi it took me 10 minutes to get to school, in Jakarta I was on the road for two hours every day.”
He also didn’t have much leisure time while here. Before graduation, he got home in the afternoon and still had to do his homework, and then felt too tired to travel from his house in Menteng, Central Jakarta, to Kemang in South Jakarta, where his schoolmates hung out.
Florian’s father said that he admired his son for adapting so well.
“Even though he might have suffered under the circumstances sometimes, he still saw living here as a great opportunity and made the best out of it,” he said.
“Sometimes, expat kids can be pretty spoiled and materialistic. But Florian is different: in the evenings, he liked to go outside and play chess with the security guards on our street. He likes to get in touch with the local people.”
For some third culture kids, the return to their countries of citizenship can create difficulties, as they feel like strangers in a place they’ve been raised to think of as home.
“I returned to Indonesia when I was 11 years old,” said 35-year-old Santi Dharmaputra, the child of an Indonesian ambassador, who spent her early years in the Netherlands and Syria.
“When I came back, I was well equipped with the Indonesian language because I went to an Indonesian school and my parents always spoke Indonesian with me. But I still had problems when I was trying to assimilate and integrate myself at school.”
It took a year before she became comfortable with speaking the local slang. But after two years, she said, she had made many new friends and felt more at ease.
“But even so, I never felt that I fit in 100 percent,” Santi said. “I never could share my thoughts fully with my friends. And they thought that I was different, too.”
Thomas Mack, 27, had an even more complicated upbringing.
“My father is German, my mother from Shanghai, but I was born in San Francisco where my father was working at the time,” he said. “He worked in shipping, so we moved from port city to port city. About every four years, we would move to a new country.”
Mack grew up in New York, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo and California.
“When somebody asks me where I come from, I usually say New York, because it’s simple, and I don’t want to go through my whole life story with people I just met,” he said.
“I still feel like a German, maybe not a typical one, but we have a home base in Germany, where we spend Christmas every year.
“Of course it was difficult to move to a new city every four years, especially as a teenager,” he said. “Going to a new school at that age is very intimidating, and you’re leaving behind your friends. But looking back, I definitely see it as something positive, because I had the chance to learn a lot about different countries, experienced different cultures and made many friends all over the world. It makes you more open-minded.”
Third culture kids tend to feel most comfortable spending time with “their own kind,” regardless of where in the world they grew up. It’s the experience of living abroad and moving constantly that connects them.
“I am now married to a Frenchman,” Santi said. “Physically and geographically we are very different, but his father is also a diplomat, and he grew up in African countries. Since the beginning, there was already a connection, a chemistry between us, and we always understand each other very well without having to talk much, and I think it’s because we are both TCKs.”
Mack moved to Jakarta two and a half years ago to join two of his high school friends — both third culture kids also, one of whom is Indonesian — in their business.
“My heart somehow has always been in Asia, and I always wanted to return someday,” he said. “The timing was perfect, because at the time I was looking for a change.
“When you are moving around all the time, you realize who your real friends are,” he added.
Connections with immediate family are also important to most third culture kids.
“I am very close to my parents and siblings,” Santi said, “but we were never really close to our extended family, because we didn’t grow up together.”
“I never hated my parents for making me live this kind of life,” Mack said, laughing. “I didn’t know any better, and I never gave a second thought to the question of why we moved so often — it was just a given when I grew up.” He remains very close to his older brother, who lives in London.
Santi, like many such global nomads, can’t imagine ever settling in one place for good.
“Right now I feel I have a fulfilled life, because we still move around every three or four years,” she said. “If we should really settle down in one place one day, I don’t know how I would feel. I actually can’t imagine that we would do that.”
In contrast, Florian is currently on his way “home” to Germany, where he plans to stay at least until he finishes university studies. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility of coming back to Asia some day. He chose to travel by land and sea on his return, instead of just boarding yet another plane.
“For me, it is a good way to bring my time in Asia to a close,” he said. “Normally, I get on a plane in Jakarta and get off in Berlin, in a completely different world, but this time I’d like to see the crossing between those two worlds, Asia and Europe, with my own eyes.”
This article was first published in The Jakarta Globe newspaper on August 13. 2009.