What it was like growing up abroad, becoming third-culture.
I wasn’t fully sure how to start this article. There is a lot I wish I could say about growing up as a third-culture kid but a few words I want to start with are how lucky I feel to have had these experiences. I was not only raised with parents from countries outside the U.S. but I also had the opportunity to grow up in multiple countries abroad. That upbringing meant that I was able to travel and learn a lot about the world about me. I witnessed caste systems and traveled across principalities. I reeled in fishing nets with fishermen in Goa and I had the thickest hot chocolate in Machu Picchu. It’s hard to complain without feeling like I’m being ungrateful. Because that is the opposite of how I feel.
But moving around every two to three years wasn’t without challenges. As part of a State Department family, I moved to Peru at the age of four. After two years we moved to Colombia, then back to the US, a year later we were in India, then Belgium, and back to the US again. And as I headed off to University in New York my family moved to Chile. Outside of where I lived, I was also raised by my Dutch mother and Cuban-American father. You can imagine the question “Where are you from?” was a challenge to answer. And because I spent hours watching cliche American high school TV shows and movies I couldn’t help but wish I had childhood friends to lean on and funny hijinks to get up to. I am often asked whether it was difficult to grow up moving around every few years. My answer is usually ‘no’, because no matter where I moved I had my family, I had people I could count on. But because of that I was bad at keeping in contact with friends when I moved somewhere else. And it wasn’t easy to start all over making friends when I moved, knowing that I was soon going to leave again.
Eventually, I got better about meeting new people and allowed myself to enter into friendships. Knowing that I was inevitably going to move made me that much more careful and certain about the friends I did make. I made an effort to make friends that I knew I would have for life, which made leaving easier. It is easy to dwell on the hardships of my strange childhood and the challenges I faced but it was truly nothing compared to what I gained. I learned Dutch, Spanish, and French and traveled (by car most of the time) all across every country I lived in, and its neighboring countries. I got to see different lives led in different places. I became especially interested in individual human experiences and what about people’s lives makes them who they are. I became a storyteller, an observer who wanted to understand all the inner workings of every person and society. I wanted to understand every success and every failure and share what I got to see with those who didn’t. It shaped me into who I am today.
My years abroad were spent attending private schools, which can act like a ‘privilege bubble’, in which you forget about where you are. But I was raised to look beyond the bubble. My family placed emphasis on seeking what lay outside those institutions, this took form by going on road trips, walking around new places, and seeking information from those who knew far more. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Growing up I always tried to find ways to define myself. I wanted to be put into a category to make myself easier for others to understand. That’s where being a ‘third-culture kid’ came from. But I am not even sure if that’s the correct definition since I wasn’t just brought up in the culture of a place different from what I know. Because what do I know?
If anything, I learned that I don’t need to define who I am for others. Call me a State Department kid, third-culture kid, international kid, or whatever. All I call myself is grateful. It’s cliche but I wouldn’t change anything about how I grew up. It’s confusing and I have a constant fear of seeming ‘show offy’ when I talk about how I grew up but at the end of the day, I just feel lucky. I’m a lucky kid who can’t wait to figure out where she is going to live next. Yes, a side effect of moving every two to three years is that it’s hard to stop.