I recently discovered a new term that has brought me some sense of understanding, and relief, about myself. ‘Third culture kid’. I had never heard of it before, but immediately had an idea of what it meant. A third culture kid is someone who spent most of their life growing up in a different culture than their parents’ cultures.
I’ve had a lucky and unconventional upbringing. My father was born and bred in France. My mother’s parents were Bulgarian refugees who came to France in the 50s and became French citizens. As a result, my mother is of Bulgarian descent, but raised in French culture with French citizenship. I was born in Paris, making me a French citizen of French and Bulgarian descent.
My family left France for my dad’s work when I was two years old and my sister was a few months old. We moved to Reunion Island for three years. When I turned six, we moved again, to Madagascar (no, not like in the movie). We spent the next eight years on this island before moving again, to London this time, when I was 14 years old. I finished my schooling at a French high school there. Finally, for the first time, I was able to choose where I was going to move next. I was 18 when I arrived in Australia and it’s been seven years since.
Madagascar was the last place that I previously called home. But after I left, I lost this sense of attachment as my friends slowly stopped contacting me and started taking longer to answer messages. I sometimes wonder if I still hold an irrational grudge against those 14-year-old kids that simply moved on. The experience definitely shaped my views on friendships and the importance of having a second family, especially when your primary family is 10 000 km away.
I have become an expert at travelling: I barely feel jet lag, can easily sleep on planes, and I find it very easy to occupy myself on 24-hour long flights. I am also an expert in packing. Forgetting my passport or missing my expensive flight to see my parents is out of the question. I say, “to see my parents”, who currently live in Canada, because saying “going home” is just inaccurate.
Explaining where I’m from
It often feels wrong and actually quite uncomfortable to tell people that I am ‘from’ France because out of my 25 years of life, I only actually lived in France for two years. I have the citizenship, the language and the ‘education’. I was raised mostly in French schools, surrounded by French family, and French (speaking) friends. Yet, France to me equals holidays, and the ‘French’ way of life that everyone thinks of, or dreams of, along with the stereotypes attached to it, are quite foreign to me.
Facing the question of where I was from only came about when I moved to Australia. Every time I was asked if I was French, two things seemed to occur. First, I felt a need to clarify. Being described as solely French was inaccurate and yet, I would answer that I am French just because it said so on my passport. The answer made life easier for everyone. Second, every time I would clarify where I am from, I started to explain my life story. People’s reactions include genuine interest (but they’re largely unable to understand the ramifications) or hearing them say ‘wow that’s amazing’ (but having the conversation move on because nothing else could be said, effectively dismissing my 20-year of identity journey).
I don’t have any patriotic sense of belonging to France that would make me want to defend French society. Yet, sometimes, I have found myself being proud of French legal or political reforms, and I have also spent time criticising the French education system. Many of my relatives often react strongly to that last one. My critiques were met with “How would you know? You have never been to an ‘onshore’ French school”. Indeed, it’s true. Overseas French schools have different educational and living ‘customs’. It is not really the French education system, but it is still French. So, where do I stand on the French education system? Apparently, I’m not allowed to have a stance on it, because I haven’t experienced it. Am I still French? Can I still participate to French societal and political debates even though I haven’t directly experienced any of it? Or can I do so because my citizenship allows me to? On one hand I’m faced with “How can you know? You haven’t experienced it”, but on the other, “be grateful” and “Respect your citizenship as it is what granted you the life you have today.”
Am I a third culture kid?
My parents and I are French in writing and I have benefitted, through my parents, from the French system. But the reality is, I cannot explain my identity simply through that one word, ‘French’. My identity is defined by 21 years of travel. I cannot even summarise my upbringing in 200 words. I find the classic ‘where are you from?’ question very reductionist and outdated in the world we currently live in. It is now quite common to be between cultures, particularly in Australia. I have no connection to my Bulgarian side. My French side is the holiday experience. This forces me to question where home is.
Being a third culture kid, if I decided to categorise myself as such, is something I am still trying to understand. I currently feel no need to travel because I have not found a sense of belonging attaching myself to a particular place. If I were to travel, I would not feel like I have a ‘home to go back to’. This lack of anchor is very unsettling and hard to explain. I have often felt isolated and rootless, often stemming from an inability to understand cultural references or slang. Deciding to identify as a third culture kid may help to alleviate this lack of belonging. Knowing that this experience of isolation and rootlessness is something that other third culture kids feel is validating.
I have always believed that if I stayed somewhere long enough it would automatically become a home. Now that I am close to finishing my degree, I have realised that I could easily leave tomorrow if I wanted. I have the mental capacity to adapt wherever I land and sever ties where it’s needed. I had friends that I have known since I was toddler and many of them have had this experience of constantly moving around. We never have daily conversations, but whenever I see them, we can talk for days as if we were never separated. None of us have put ourselves in a category together, but we know that we’ve had an amazing experience living in different countries and sometimes, we can relate only to each other. We are really good at adapting to new places and meeting new people, but familiarity is a feeling is we can sometimes only find in each other. Calling ourselves third culture kids is probably not as helpful as the actual bond of shared experiences and feelings between us. But the label can help us, and those who aren’t third culture kids, to understand where those feelings come from.
Tess Roussel is a 3rd Year JD Student