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Being The Only One: In the Mind of a Third Culture Kid

“What are you?”

“You look good for a ….”

“Why don’t you have an accent?”

“Your parents talk funny!”

“What are you eating, gross!’

“You are really nice for a …”

“Don’t forget who you are and where you came from!”

“Just be like us and get over it.”

These are only some of the things that you have to hear as a Third Culture Kid growing up in middle school in high school. It also continues well into adulthood, but working with young people reminded me just how confusing and isolating that time can be. This increases 10 folds when you are the only person that looks like you or comes from the cultural background you do in that entire space. I should know because I am a Third Culture Kid myself. Being a REP educator with Safe Harbor we work with a lot schools, and when you are in school you naturally can identify with those kid who are going through the same struggles that you did at that age. I think it is important for us all to educate ourselves about the unique situation that students have that we may not relate to, from someone who has lived it.

A third culture kid, or TCK, is simply someone who is raised in 2 or more cultures simultaneously and constantly have to work to find a balance between them. This can include children of immigrant parents, adoptees from of countries, and even military kids. My parents are immigrants from the Middle East and I was raised in the South of the United States. Talk about standing out as the only one. We often traveled during the summer to visit my family in Israel and West Bank, or “back home” as we called it, but most of the time I was in America. By the way, the term “back home” was used interchangeably. When I was visiting my family overseas I said “back home” in reference to America. Here is a classic example of the push and pull mindset that we can have. For many this might seem to be an advantage, but in all reality it is exhausting. We have to develop a dual consciousness for a young age just to “fit in” where ever you are but internally we know that we don’t belong anywhere. Nick Voci, of The Vancover Sun explains this feeling beautifully.

“Third culture kids have a unique place in any society to which they belong. Theirs is a confusing and quite often debilitative condition. They are confronted with cultural walls or pitfalls at every turn. Unable to completely relate to their parent’s culture and yet at the same time labeled as “different” from the mainstream culture they are encouraged to belong to, they are basically cut adrift and left to float in a sort of “twilight zone” state. They form a cultural hybrid, a blend of cultures that can be interesting, but also confusing and frustrating to them.”
— Nick Voci, The Vancouver Sun, 22 Apr. 1994

 Many people might argue that all young adults have this feeling of isolation or being different or alone. That may be true to an extent. However most don’t have that feeling, as well as the added pressure from others to fit in based on the multitude of cultures that they are raised to exist in. Most people are raised with a singular cultural identity, and the issues that those teenagers face are directly related to that cultural experience. Now imagine if you have the pressure and expectations of multiple cultures compounded on top of each other and the weight that brings with it.

Constantly straddling the line of this place or that place comes with a number of challenges. You are never “this” enough or “that” enough. You want to respect your parents and are proud of your heritage, but you have people around you that say that something is wrong with that heritage and want you to “be like us.” You simply can’t relate to certain issues that your friends might be facing, or your perspective is not theirs because your parents culture looks at that the issue entirely different. A normal tone of voice for you can come off as threatening and aggressive to others. You are held to unachievable standards that you have to achieve, because “you did your best” does not exist for you, especially for “people like us.” You get a litany of annoying question, which make you somehow the global spokesperson for an entire cultural group. You have identities given to you based on stereotypes or media portrayals that you have no relation to at all. Then when you think that you may start to belong, a global event can happen that involves people from one of your cultural backgrounds, that has nothing to do with you, and people who you have known your whole life and who your grew up with, look at you like a complete stranger or worse the enemy.

It is a strange thing to be completely isolated but with all eyes on you. Everything you do is scrutinized or questioned. It is almost like you are a living case study, and school is your Petri dish. You can start to almost resent both cultures that you are a part of, with each side asking you to renounce certain parts of the cultures you are a part of. It comes to a point where you just don’t know what to feel or think or do, and you shut down. Like I said it is exhausting.

You might be asking at this point, “Don’t you work with a domestic violence non-profit?” “What does any of this have to do with that?” “Also people are just curious; they are not doing it to be offensive.” One thing that we discuss with our students is empathy. We do an activity called “If you really knew me” where we have our students write down something about themselves that no one else knows about them. It is a powerful exercise because it is anonymous so no one knows who wrote what. When all the assumptions and identities fall away, all you see is a fellow human and it is easy to become empathetic in that moment. That is hard to do when you exist in a space where you are the only one like you. Being a Third Culture Kid is almost an emotionally abusive relationship in itself. You are berated, made fun of, told you are not good enough, you are gas lit to believe that you are being over dramatic of over sensitive about blatant ignorance, you get to a place where you have to please everybody, and you feel completely alone with no one to turn to, just to name a few. On top of that, this is not just coming from one place, it is coming from several at once.

As an adult, I can be proud of both of my cultures. I understand that they are not mutually exclusive, and that the issues that come with being a TCK, are not my issue. I can like cheeseburgers and chicken shawarma, and I am completely unapologetic about it. However it takes a long time to get there. When I was young, this was not the case. I think as educators and people who work with young adults, the word empathy can go a long way. If I had just one person say, “I can’t say I can relate to what you are going through, but I can recognize how that can be difficult,” it would have gone a long way. In reality what you hear most of the time is “Just get over it already!” “They will never accept you fully!” or “You are making a big deal out of nothing!” Create a safe place for all of your students, and be an ally to them even when you can’t relate to what they are going through. That can help them get to a place where they realize that there is nothing wrong with them, there is something wrong with those around them. They will get to a place of self respect and acceptance faster. We know that when those components are intact your other relationships can start to flourish in a positive and healthy way. See, it is all intersectional. Now, I am not saying that this will solve everything, they will have an epiphany, and they will completely change. However, that little bit of acknowledgment that we are in a unique position as a TCK, can let us take a breath in a world where we constantly have to have our guard up.

Omar Jalil, Prevention Coordinator at Safe Harbor

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