We are a Third Culture Family (and why I hate labels)

by Bea Cińska
Children running

Recently I came upon the term “third culture”. I was reading a blog by someone who had grown up in several countries and they were referring to themselves as a “third culture kid”. That blog described our entire lives in a few paragraphs.

We are a Third Culture Family

I was surprised to find out that this term has been around since the 1950s. It was first introduced by an American sociologist / anthropologist couple Ruth & John Useem. They studied individuals who spent their formative years in cultures other than their own. Mostly, these “third culture kids” were part of military or missionary families. But since then – because of the Internet and the ensuing “global village” and the resulting recent rise of the so called “digital nomad” – there are plenty of “third culture” people out there.

Oh great, I thought. I get to smack another label onto our family. You see, I have a strange pet peeve. I really hate labels. You know, the ones we apply to people. We use labels to either differentiate ourselves from others or to show why we’re part of some group.

So now, I found this other (and yet fitting) label to add to an already long list of labels that had been ascribed to us at one point or another in our lives. Because of our parents’ global choices, our families growing up (my husband’s & mine) were labeled many different things. And most recently, my husband and I made a decision to leave the final country our parents had settled in, to give our son the experience of living in a culture other than his own, just like our parents did for us.

If you were to list all the labels applied to us or our parents during our entire lives, you would come across words like: refugee, defector, immigrant, emigrant, citizen and expat. And now let’s add “third culture” to that. Quite a list, don’t you think?

Third Culture Kids

Funny thing is, when I look at this list, I don’t feel like those labels belong to me, to us. I don’t feel like I belong in them. These labels nitpick, they segregate, they organize, they categorize. We humans love to do that. We love to put everything neatly in its box. Our feathers get ruffled if we don’t segregate something properly. Why must we segregate ourselves so? We already have genders, nationalities, job titles, generations, age groups, personality types, religions, ethnicities, first world, third world, the haves and the have-nots, and the list goes on and on.

Why must we add even more labels when labels divide people? Labels perpetuate stereotypes. I hate labels.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we thought of ourselves as people first? Just people. When you first meet someone, you often ask (at least in North America): “What do you do?” That’s how we assess a human being. Ah, you’re a professor, you must be smart, have some money, you must be well-read. Oh, you’re a construction worker and you like hunting? We pass judgement on people based on superficial traits.

We do this, whether we acknowledge it or not, whenever we meet a new person. Every single one of us. I do it. You do it. Because we’ve been taught to label and over-label and re-label and to measure a person’s worth based on their job, the amount of money they have, the schools they went to, etc. By doing this, we write off a lot of people along the way.

Wouldn’t it be nice, if instead, we asked people when we first meet them: “What is your story?” “What are you passionate about?” “Whom do you admire?” Don’t you think we’d learn so much more about people by finding out who they are underneath all the labels the world has so cruelly slapped on them?

But, coming back again to the term “third culture”, I’ve got to say, I kind of like it. Do you know why? Because, it takes all the labels of refugee, immigrant, expat, emigrant and puts them under one umbrella of “third culture”. Instead of dividing, this label unites. It takes all the people who are no longer living in their own country, no matter the reason and how they got there, and it explains their unique outlook on the world.

So who are these “third culture” people? Well, this is how Ruth & John Useem used the terms in their study. First culture meant the culture you were born into. Second culture was the culture you arrived into. And third culture was the term they used for the melding of the two cultures. Other terms are often used to describe “third culture” individuals and I think they are quite fitting and self-explanatory. These terms are: cultural hybrids, cultural chameleons, and global nomads.

Sometimes, “third culture” individuals don’t have a strong sense of belonging anywhere. Sometimes, they have a strong sense of belonging to all the places they ever lived in. I have lived in four countries. I relate best to my third country, where I spent the majority of my life. My husband, who has lived in three countries, feels more like a citizen of the world. Our 10-year old is torn between his birth country and the country we’re currently living in.

Bea, Pete & Kas from PackYourBags.org

There are both benefits and drawbacks to being “third culture”. I will list the biggest ones we have experienced.

Benefits of being “Third Culture”:

You become bilingual or multilingual

My son has lived in two countries. He is fluent in two languages. My husband is trilingual. As am I. And we speak other languages, but not fluently. The three of us overlap on one common language when it comes to fluency. My husband and son overlap on another that I am not fluent in but they are. And my husband and I have another language in common that my son is not fluent in. Confused yet?

You become more accepting & tolerant of others

Once you’ve lived in different cultures, you don’t get what the big deal is if someone wants to wear a headscarf for religious reasons or be in a same-sex relationship. Your attitude is live and let live.

You get many sides of one argument at once

You get a unique perspective on the world, almost a three-dimensional one. Because you grew up in two (maybe more) different worlds, you kind of understand all the sides of an argument. It is a very strange thing to explain but while people might be at each other’s throats about something, you can kind of see their points very clearly, no matter how different they might be from each other. I guess this would be a great skill to have if you want to work in diplomacy.

PackYourBags in Morocco

Drawbacks of being “Third Culture”:

Sometimes you “forget” who you are

I have lived in a total of four countries. Even though, as a child, I strongly identified with the nationality of the country of my birth, I have not felt any strong ties to that place for a very long time now. Whenever I read news of what’s happening in my birth country, I might as well be reading about the Moon. Apparently, what I am “suffering” from is “cultural jet lag”. It’s the feeling that you are an outsider looking into a culture, but you’re not part of it. That’s how I feel about three of the four countries I’ve lived in.

Children running

You might always feel like an outsider

An adult moving to a new country might never feel 100% integrated into the host country’s culture. The formative years are over and you will never fully understand when a local shares a childhood memory that you were not a part of. It might be as simple as a schoolyard game, or a cartoon you’ve never heard of.

On the flip side, when a child moves to a new country and attends a local school, shares experiences with his or her peers, that child truly integrates. However, that same child might very well feel like an outsider upon returning to their birth country. They would have missed the common experiences growing up and this may give them a feeling of not belonging in their birth country.

Third Culture Kid

Perpetual wanderlust

This may be a benefit or a drawback, depending on how you look at it. As difficult and world changing as moving to a brand new country can be, it does kind of get addictive. And if it doesn’t feel like it is addictive, it’s just because it lays there dormant waiting for the right moment to jolt you into a frenzy of change.

This was the case for my husband and I. Our wanderlust lay dormant for many years. It wasn’t until we had our son, that we felt an immediate pull to show him a global life, much like we had experienced ourselves. We felt like we couldn’t raise a “mono cultural kid”, we needed to show him the world. This feeling was very strong. And here we are today, traveling the world with our son.

Traveling with Kids

In the end, no matter how your life pans out, your experiences are always your own and they shape you into a unique individual. My two siblings and I, each live in a different country, each with a different language and a very different culture. We get each other perfectly.

And until I came across the term “third culture”, I never even gave a second thought to being different. I guess you really get used to being you. As I was reading through what the study entailed, I was “self-diagnosing” and realizing how truly all this had applied to our family.

And as I said earlier, I kind of do like this label of “third culture”. I like it because it encapsulates the other labels like refugee, expat, immigrant, which I find very divisive. If “third-culture” ever becomes overused, it will lose its meaning for me. Like Oscar Wilde said: “Everything popular is wrong”. Until that day, I will relish in the shadow of my newfound label.

P.S. Want to learn more about what it’s like to live in a different culture? Read what others living all over the world had to say about the experience.

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Third Culture Kids

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Tracy Collins November 6, 2021 - 9:21 pm

As a third culture kid I found the label really helpful when I came across it a few years ago. The knowledge that my own inability to feel 100% at home in my own culture is not unique was kind of a relief for me. After living in 7 countries so far I recognise an innate curiosity and possibly addiction to exploring countries, learning from and immersing myself as much as possible in different cultures and an insatiable desire to learn how other people experience our world. When I was 7 I told my Grandmother I wanted to see the world and that is the life I have chosen – nearly 50 years later I have loved every step of it!

Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska November 7, 2021 - 5:43 am

Being third culture sure gives us a unique perspective. Love that you have lived in seven countries!

Liebster Award 2019 - Fernweh February 3, 2019 - 11:20 am

[…] with her family. We 100% agree on the reasons we love Barcelona. I loved the post about the ¨third culture family¨ because I think many of us expats can identify with the wish for fewer labels and more humanity. […]

BPK February 3, 2019 - 5:51 pm

Thank you, Christin! You said it right – more humanity.

Ariana September 30, 2018 - 8:26 am

Wow! This really resonates with me. I’ve lived in New York my entire life but I was raised by Jamaican immigrants and it’s definitely shaped how I view things, eat, and even talk (to an extent). It’s a shame how much we use labels to divide each other though. It’s actually an underlying theme in my novel. They’re tolerable until people use them as a means to divide others when in reality we’re all human anyways.

BPK October 7, 2018 - 4:25 pm

Thank you, Ariana! I cannot wait to read your novel.

Jennifer September 24, 2018 - 9:56 am

I can relate to this. I have lived all over the world since childhood. My father was a diplomat and every few years we were thrown around the world. I mostly went to English speaking international schools and I never really felt at home in any country.

BPK October 7, 2018 - 4:26 pm

I am sorry to hear that, Jennifer. It is definitely different for everyone. There are so many factors at play. Hope you have found a place now where you feel like you belong.

Moi, Steele/Moi, David June 20, 2018 - 8:42 pm

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise…..our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places”…..Ralph Waldo Emmerson.
This is so true…..places are indifferent…..It is we who give life to the places that we travel to because places (and people) reflect our own philosophy and personality (no doubt we can be surprised by that reflection!!! It may well be quite different to the image that we have of ourselves, for better, or worse).
Places are indifferent and this is the reason they are different things to different people, different things to different people depending on the mood people are in (e.g. happy/sad/depressed/exhilarated, etc.).
Our Perception (conditioned by our culture(s), experience(s), age, personality, education, to mention a few conditioning factors) of places and people is paramount.
The plurality of peoples, the plurality of cultures, allows us to be not just Third Culture Families but Multi-Culture Families, and we do not need to travel to be so.
What we perceive is in our senses.
Can we perceive experiences with our imagination only (I can, my daughter could, and I think that most children under 10 years-old can) if so, do we need to travel? Moreover, in today’s world we can experience Multi-Culturalism in our own cities and towns should we choose to do so.
This should, indeed, using the label metaphor, draw us closer together, not separate us.
However, removing your rose-tinted spectacles, this is the real world and idealism is a dream (politics/religions/power)
Also, was Ralph Waldo Emmerson, “Travelling is a fool’s paradise”, talking about the preparation & physical fizz/excitement of travel, or, was it just the indifference of places, etc. etc. above, or both?
I want a 3000 word essay in response to the above, with Ref. bibliography, by next Wednesday 27th June 2018.

BPK June 21, 2018 - 5:46 am

Haha! Thank you, David, for your very wise and thoughtful response. You are indeed right. Today, more than ever, we can experience multi-culturalism and third-culture in many of the world’s cities. We can do so, because of the people from other places who have settled there by making the journey from their own country/culture. We are, each and every one of us, a culmination of all of our ancestors’ and our own experiences. And the quote “Travelling is a fool’s paradise” might be onto something. You can think you can escape your problems by relocating, but if your issues are just your perceptions, and not reality, those problems may follow you wherever you go. Can’t discard personality at the border of a new country. And what can I say, I am a dreamer, always hoping for a better world. And proudly wearing my rose-tinted spectacles!


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