Who Am I? (The Third Culture Kid)

Or even fourth or fifth culture kid…  This is the internationally accepted term for children who have spent a significant portion of their formative years in cultures different from their own, or their parents.  I didn’t know I was one while I was growing up – now I am raising a couple of my own.  Personally, I much prefer the term ‘global nomad’ – has more of a glamorous ring to it, doesn’t it? But what I do have is that feeling of fragmentation: I do not have a solid, whole concrete façade, but  am made up of so many different little pebbles of influence.


I used to think moving on is a blessing,

the moved upon powerless and grieving.

Head down, I’d prepare for exit and re-entry, again, and again,

glad to be the one gathering no moss.

But ultimately revenge is theirs:

for they sprout roots, link up, grow together, form tissue

richly alive with many shared hours and insights and tales.

All the shortcuts roll glib off their tongues,

always creating and leading their own trend,

while the mover is running to catch up, to fuddle,

stuck in the language of past generations,

never quite getting the nuance, the slang.

See that flying line of geese?  There’s one just off,

destroying the symmetry of their formation.

I fear I am something of a disappointment:

not enough of a glamour-bird when you want to preen with me,

yet not sufficiently aligned and meek.

My ducks in a row askew,

so easy to shoot at, and never enough time

to grieve.

I’ve learnt to hide my real thoughts

my own thoughts

my solitude.

I’ve learnt a short answer to the question:

‘Where are you from?’, tinged with just enough humour

and self-deprecation to disarm and charm.

Who am I?

I am all that is half-forgotten,

half-mourned, half-understood.

I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart.

I am all that is buried deep inside and want to excavate no more.

I am all that I dare not show you

for fear that you will drown.

11 thoughts on “Who Am I? (The Third Culture Kid)”

  1. Beautiful. I am floored–have had a piece called “Where are you from?” in draft form for months, expressing some of the sentiment you eloquently captured. I was not a third culture kid–my children are. Since becoming a mother, however, and moving so often, I find myself longing for a “home,” and as you mentioned the proverbial “room of my own,” where I can return to writing. There are advantages, of course, to a wandering life, but it has been tougher to navigate as a parent of young children still absorbing the profound shift of identity that becoming a mother entails. To answer your q on my blog, I am not sure how I found yours. Possibly through a tag on expatriate life? Glad I did anyway.

  2. Thank you for such a lovely comment. Yes, that question ‘Where are you from?’ is the trickiest one ever, and most people don’t have the patience for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Your children will curse and thank you in years to come for their nomadic upbringing. But it is a gift, on the whole. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  3. Beautiful writing here.
    I also rue that question, but for a completely different reason, since the place where I grew up has changed so drastically since my childhood that there’s no longer a simple and accurate answer.
    Maybe the idea that anyone has a short answer to this question is outdated. (Like answering “fine” to “how are you”– does not provide insight.)
    “Global nomad” does sound good. Like I want to hear more. What lucky kids you have.

  4. Lovely poem, full of heartbreak and richness. I’m really intrigued by this topic– I’m not a third culture kid, but as international school teachers, my husband and I have lived on four different continents in our eight years of marriage. Without a real “home base” in my adult life, I’ve also experienced a real (and confusing) shift in identity. Have you ever read the Pollock/Van Reken book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds”? You might find it interesting…

    1. Thank you for reading it and for your comments. Yes, the Ruth Van Reken book was what gave a name to my disease (so to speak). And it sounds like you will be raising TCKs of your own?!

  5. Wow, Marina, exactly what you wrote here is what is very much on my mind at the moment. The word I kept using was “dislocation”. My parents also grew up in the colonies. My father, Dutch, was born and raised in Indonesia; my mother, British/Welsh, born in England, grew up in Tasmania. I was born in The Netherlands, lived for a while in Aruba and then grew up in South Africa, and now I live in Germany and raising my three children here. Sometimes I can’t say I belong to a particular country or nationality and I decided to call myself a member of the human race and a citizen of the world with germanic roots. I shall definitely read Polock/Van Reken’s book. Thank you so much for sharing this so beautifully with us, Marina. 🙂

  6. Marina, If you read this, my daughter-in-law lead me to your beautiful poem. She, my son and their 4 children will be leaving for Indonesia to live and it is a very difficult thing, expressing our emotions properly. Do you have any wisdom how I could keep them in the loop as they are away and the rest of the family makes memories? Thank you. Alicia Smalley

    1. Thank you for reading my poem. It is both a sad and joyous occasion, we all know it is never easy. Luckily, it is much easier to keep in touch nowadays with Skype, instant messaging, email and all that technology. However, one thing that we’ve enjoyed doing and which you might find comforting and interesting is for each of you to keep a diary – which can be a scrapbook of pictures, drawings, small quotes, daily observations, just anything that you discover or feel as you are apart – and then share this with each other every time you meet (or the highlights at least). So that whenever you feel like ‘I absolutely want to share this with my children right now’, you can… indirectly.

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