For damn near all of my life, I’ve struggled with the idea that I am a “Third Culture Kid.”
Most people usually belong to one of two cultures: the First Culture being the place they are from, were born, or are a citizen of. The Second Culture is where that person spends the rest of their life outside of their First culture. For instance, someone from Minnesota decides to move to Denmark. Once there, they start a career, form bonds, have a family, and fully integrate with the Danish culture. This person’s First culture would be the U.S., their Second culture would be Denmark.
The Third Culture exists among those whose culture has been in constant flux from the time they are born. Military kids and children of diplomats, missionaries, or (in my case) Foreign Service staff spend so much of their time changing environments that they form a Third culture from a combination of all the cultures they’ve experienced during their formative years. Some famous Third Culture Kids include Michael Arndt (the screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3), and Barack Obama.
Up until I was 22, I raged against the idea of being a Third Culture Kid.
The unique perspective I gained and languages I learned while growing up are invaluable, but for me, being a Third Culture Kid was the reason for everything that had ever gone wrong in my short life. I very nearly failed out of 12th grade Math because I never learned long division. I didn’t make friends easily because I just didn’t know how to communicate with others. I was severely depressed for 2 straight years because I had nothing that made me feel attached to the world, a problem that gave rise to many other issues with school, with people, and with myself.
It wasn’t until one night, when a friend said, after a few drinks, “you know, there is something about you that’s different. The way you talk, the way you think, I don’t know what it is, but it’s what I like about you.”
This was the first time anyone had ever said this to me, and it warmed my heart knowing that not only had someone recognized the fact that I was different, but even liked me for it.
It made me realize that so many of the issues I had were not directly tied to my upbringing, but instead the rage I felt towards my upbringing. Whenever I felt frustrated over not being able to connect with others or having to work extra hard to fill the gaps in my knowledge that my peers had learned long ago, whenever anything went wrong in my life, and whenever I found myself feeling alone, depressed, or even suicidal it was always accompanied by the voice in my head saying over and over: “it’s because you’re different.”
When I realized that my rage towards my upbringing was actually a weakness, I concluded that if I wanted to truly change my circumstances, I had to turn that weakness into a strength. I had to accept my past for what it was, and not let my being different be a hindrance to my success or happiness.
I was able to change, I was able to change my thinking and my actions to become more successful. I started taking responsibility for myself when things went wrong, I used my ability to think differently at work and at school to find solutions to problems others wouldn’t have considered, and I embraced my multifaceted skills to make them work for me. It’s allowed me to accomplish my goals, overcome adversity, and gotten me to a point where I am pretty satisfied with where my life has gone.
And it’s a struggle. Some days I don’t understand something or don’t pick up on social queues and that voice comes back into my head. But for the most part I am much more successful since I decided to change.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day and the road to success and happiness doesn’t happen over night. I was able to change, but now I’m learning something about change that is making me struggle more than I’ve ever struggled before.
The funny thing is, change can be a comforting thing for a Third Culture Kid. Change is like a childhood friend, something that we’ve learned to adapt to and can always count on when things go wrong. However, change is, ironically, a crutch for Third Culture Kids. If we get to a point where we have issues with friends or school or our environment, our natural reaction is: “well, once I move it won’t be a problem anymore.”
The difficult thing I’m running into now is accepting when things aren’t going to change.
I am now 24 years old, and although I can say that financially and professionally I’m doing well, I am now struggling with how to make the best of non-changing circumstances. This is the first time in as long as I can remember where my future is, for the most part, permanent. And that scares me more than the idea of being dropped in a new environment.
Recently, several things have happened both financially and personally that are beyond my control, things that I wish with every fiber of my being I could change. It angers me when things I want or need are not available to me, and that nothing I can do will change that. Now the rage isn’t directed towards my constantly changing circumstances, but towards my unchanging ones.
When things go wrong, it is easy to want to change your life to make things better. What I have to accept is that when things won’t change, I need to find the strength to keep moving forward.