Updated: Nov 13, 2021
The first time I heard the term “third-culture kid” I was in a high school Literature class and I had no idea what it meant and honestly, I really didn’t think twice about it. I never imagined how over the years, this term has come to define the way I view myself and my experiences. A third-culture kid, or TCK, is when a child grows up in a culture that is different from that of their parents. That child is also exposed to a variety of different cultures and usually they find it difficult to find their own cultural identity. I was that child.
I was fortunate enough to grow up being exposed to a myriad of cultures. I come from a single ethnic background: both my parents are Hyderabadi Pakistanis. But I was raised in the Middle East and went to international schools my entire life. Living and learning in such a diverse environment gave me access to new perspectives and made me a more open-minded person.
While I am grateful for my upbringing, I realised it caused a lot of conflict between my family and myself. My way of thinking contrasted with theirs and they always blamed it on the “western” environment I was raised in. This clash made me feel alienated from my Pakistani culture. Since I had never lived in Pakistan, to me, my parents represented what the country stood for. That representation was not positive, to say the least.
There came a point where I was actively embarrassed of my culture. I genuinely dreaded the International Days at school where my mother would force me to dress in shalwar kameez. I vividly remember the walk of shame from my car to the classroom, feeling ashamed and never feeling bad about it.
I always felt some kind of pull towards this “western” culture that I was a part of in school and all I wanted to do was distance myself from my “Pakistaniness”. The situation at home exascerbate this: all I would hear at home would be “don’t wear this”, “don’t think that- it is too western”, “she’s argumentative because we sent her to a British school.” This increased the alienation I already felt. I was convinced that my culture was unaccommodating and I was clearly not a good fit for it. It was easier to just publicly reject it. I was blissfully unaware of my resentment. Or maybe I was aware of it and took pride in actively being prejudiced.
In high school, I studied a book called “The Namesake” for my English Literature class. The main character, Gogol Ganguli, was a second generation Indian American, whose parents were born and raised in India, so I quickly saw parallels between us. Naturally, there were many points of conflict between Gogol and his parents, not just due to the cultural differences, but also the generational differences. That was all normal.
Then, there were periods in the book where Gogol entirely rejected his heritage and tried to become a whitewashed version of himself. Upon reading that, I was horrified. I remember thinking, how could he possibly do that? Then I realised, Am I not doing the same thing? And I was- albeit to a lesser degree. I had the same flaws that Gogol had. I had become the same whitewashed person that I reprimanded Gogol for becoming, and it was terrifying. There and then, I thought to myself that I will not end up like Gogol and I left it at that.
When I began my freshman year at Georgetown. I hadn’t really dwelled too much on my identity or whatnot since I last read “The Namesake”. I wasn’t as removed from my cultural identity as I once was and I didn’t express many prejudices like I did in high school. I had reconciled with the idea that I am a mixture of all the cultures that I have been exposed to.
In Georgetown, I met so many “desi” people and experienced the reserve of what I had felt before. I suddenly felt not brown enough and I felt self-conscious about being a whitewashed third culture kid. This was obviously really frustrating. I couldn’t get anything right. Either I felt like my Pakistani was too pervasive or I didn’t feel “desi” enough. It was a never-ending cycle that I couldn’t seem to get out of.
It took a while, but I have reached this conclusion that did not seem as obvious before: identities are not homogeneous. They are fluid and change as time passes and as you experience different things. It is about accepting the fact that you are an amalgamation of your different experiences. Sometimes, defining yourself as one specific thing may not be an answer.
Identities are no longer little boxes that everyone has to fit into, and I think that is the crux of what it means to be a third culture kid. That is what I learnt. I have learnt to balance all the cultures I have been exposed to and that has led me to form my own unique identity, as someone different from my parents and different from everyone else. That is ultimately the beauty of intersectionalities.