Home for a Third Culture Kid

28 Oct

This term came up frequently in conversation this weekend with various people I met or interacted with during London Decom and the tangential socializing.  More than one person teared up when they realized that I had just articulated something that resonated deeply with their experience, so I thought it worthy of sharing with others as well.

(def) Third Culture Kid:

A term used to refer to children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their development years. The definition is not constrained to describing only children, but can also be used to describe adults who have had this experience of being a TCK. The experience of being a TCK is unique in that these individuals are moving between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity. The first culture of children refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated, the second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, and the third culture refers to the amalgamation of these two cultures. The third culture is further reinforced with the interaction of the third culture individual with the expatriate community that currently resides in the host country.

I was introduced to this term in college, as I had the honor of attending a college which really understood the value of cultural understanding, and requires its undergrad students to study abroad.  I’m finding that it’s not a commonly known term amongst my friends, and I’d like to correct that, considering that many of my new friends in Europe are Burners, wanderers, and expats.

I explain it a bit differently to people than the definition above. I say that it refers to people for whom there is not just one culture that they identify with, but at least two, perhaps more. The result is that this person does not have a single place that feels like home. By “home” I mean being in your home culture where you fully feel like you understand the people around you, and can be understood by them. There are places that have elements of what feel like home, but there is no place that they can truly come home to. Instead, each TCK has their own unique culture. They may find others who share this combination of cultures, but it is rare. I would argue that the “third” in the term Third Culture Kid does not just refer to the amalgamation of the other cultures that the person has grown up in, but is, in and of itself, this ephemeral experience that is shared amongst all Third Culture Kids.

I find that Third Culture Kids make the most interesting and wise friends. They of course have wonderful and interesting stories; they value food and the cultural meanings behind it; they’re often resourceful and know how to make do with very little, and have an easier time finding humor and empathy in difficult situations. They’re often warm and welcoming and are skilled at bridging that divide of understanding that enables you to relate to them and others.

I also feel that using the term “kid” for adults is very appropriate in this context, in that while TCKs have done their best to find a place to live that is compatible with their needs, they tend to wander. And I suspect that this wanderlust, for many, may come from a deeper yearning to find that home where they truly belong. Many don’t realize the source of that yearning, at least not consciously. They don’t realize that what they’re looking for does not exist in the form of a physical place. Instead, it can be found in a community of people, or a combination of things that trigger senses and the memories associated with those senses: the smell of the vanilla candles your mom used to burn during the holidays; an old film or song that was always played at a particular place or time; the taste of a proper Mission Burrito that cannot be found in Europe.

For me, European Burning Man culture (aka the Euroburners), and more specifically Nowhere, has become that home. Here in Europe, Burning Man culture has its own unique flavor, a much more multicultural flavor, which I love and yet struggle to understand at times. Cross-cultural communication is an essential skill in this community, and often times it takes an outsider such as this idiot American to point it out to them. One thing that really aides in this cross-communication is the fact that it has an explicitly articulated set of principles/values that the group truly does their best to adhere to, even recognizing that often those values can conflict with each other, and it’s up to the community to decide how that needs to be resolved. I was initiated to Burner culture by going to Burning Man in 2005 when I lived in California, a 14-hour drive away from Black Rock City, and was mentored by experienced burners who welcomed me into their camp, showed me the ropes, and encouraged me to make the experience my own. It was an amazing experience, but even then, I saw some of my least favorite elements of American culture bleed through to this alternate space that Burning Man was supposed to be. I continued to participate, but American culture felt less and less like home to me. Most Americans just don’t *get* me. Burners generally were more likely to get me, but even then. It wasn’t quite home.

Three months after my partner Rob and I arrived at our new home in Barcelona, we went to our first Nowhere, which we didn’t know a lot about, though we knew a few people going and knew that it is founded in Burning Man culture, and that it was described by some to be a similar festival to what Burning Man was like 20 years ago. If that was true, we knew that this could come to replace making the annual trek to Burning Man as it is only about 3 hours away from Barcelona.

We were greeted at the gate with the Burning Man ritual of greeting of saying “welcome home” and giving the new arrivals a huge, warm hug. And indeed, I found that within a day or two of being there, I felt at home in a way that I hadn’t felt in perhaps a year, before my life in the US started shifting and changing in preparation for my move to Europe. So when people ask me why I participate in the Euroburner community, I tell them it’s because the Euroburner community is my home.

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