As promised on last week’s podcast, I’m super excited to write this reflection about my cultural identity. Shout-out to Verrel as this one was inspired by his posts about Indonesia (which you should absolutely check out if you haven’t already).

My Backstory

In 2002, I was born in Hyderabad, India, and would go on to spend the next 10 years of my life in the nation. Then, upon turning 11, my dad’s work moved my family and I to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This is where I completed all my education from the beginning of middle school to the end of high school. It’s also where I made a lot of my closest friends, including Verrel and Khal, both of whom I’ve known for nearly a decade now.

My family and I would visit relatives in India almost every year, so I was still in touch with the country. Naturally, though, with the huge majority of my growing up memories firmly rooted in KL, I came to call Malaysia my home. After all, it was a place where I was familiar with the streets, the people, the words and so on.

That said, my citizenship remained Indian, so for all official purposes, India would be my “home nation”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly lucky to be a citizen of such a fast-growing country with incredible diversity and people. But in my heart, I knew Malaysia was the place I called home and felt more comfortable being in. This dissonance was distressing, and it turns out people in similar situations have a name – third culture kids.

Hands up if you relate. I know y’all are out there.

Third Culture Kids

So the term “Third Culture Kids” (or TCKs) was invented in 1955 by Ruth Hill Useem, describing “children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland”. According to this BBC article, TCKs are mostly children of expat workers, but can also come from transnational marriages, or attending international schools. The article also makes a great point, saying “TCKs often develop an identity that’s rooted in people rather than places”. After all, with no strong affiliation to any particular national identity, it’s our close friends that become our “tribe”.

A great model devised by Ruth E. Van Reken, 1996.

A List Of Uniquely TCK Things

  1. Having friends of multiple different nationalities & ethnicities: Whether it’s through an international school, having lived in multiple countries, or both. For me – off the top of my head – I can name close friends from India, Malaysia, Korea, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and the UK. Very different from my relatives who grew up almost exclusively around people of their race.
  2. Feeling a lack of belonging to any one place: The kind of dark side of point 1, in that I don’t feel strongly connected to any one country, and certainly feel no strong patriotism for any nation. Sometimes it’s nice to know how globally minded that makes me, but sometimes it can get disconcerting knowing there’s no race I’d immediately call “my people”. Cue the existential crisis.
  3. Knowing the slang / street language of multiple places: I know a fair bit of street Hindi thanks to my parents and Indian friends, even though I didn’t learnt it directly in India. I also know a fair bit of Manglish (Malaysian English) slang because, well, that’s what I grew up hearing around me. And I know a bit of British English slang since I went to a British school. This isn’t a flex, I promise. OK I’ll stop.
  4. Craving food across cuisines: I’ll put it out there – Indian food is the best food ever, and 90% of the time if I’m craving something, it’s Indian food. But if you’ve stayed long enough in a different culture, there’s a good chance you’ll get attached to some (or all) of its cuisine. For me, Iced Milo has now become the ultimate comfort drink. And I’ll miss my vegetarian Nasi Lemak from time to time, too.

To be honest, this list could go on and on if I thought about it long enough. But these are the things that jumped to my mind immediately.

Wrapping it up

I know this was a much more free-flowing post than I normally write, but I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you’re a TCK yourself and related to some or all of this, that would put a huge smile on my face so let me know! And if you’re not, now you know how that British friend who has a Japanese mother and grew up in Egypt feels.

Thanks as always! And as our blog continues to grow I’d highly encourage you to sign up for our weekly newsletter and check out our podcast. ‘Till the next time!

– Dvij

Featured Image: Photo by NASA on Unsplash (isn’t that crazy?!)

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